California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned on Monday and pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and accepting millions of dollars in bribes. Included in his haul of illegal gifts was an 1850 Louis-Philippe commode purchased from an antique store—along with another 19th-century commode—for $7,200. What’s a Louis-Philippe commode?
A pretty nice chest of drawers. In English, a “commode” can refer either to a toilet—more precisely, one with a removable chamber pot—or a kind of bureau. The word comes from French, where the adjective “commode” means “convenient” or “agreeable,” and the noun refers to a piece of furniture with drawers. (A few hundred years ago, the English also used the word to describe loose women—who were, of course, quite agreeable.) For antique collectors, a commode is almost always a chest of drawers.
French furniture styles are categorized by political epoch. The “Louis-Philippe” period extends over the dates of King Louis-Philippe’s reign, which lasted from 1830-48. Styles often change more gradually than governments—a style can’t abdicate and move to England, for one thing—so Cunningham’s Louis-Philippe commode from 1850 could be a late example of the style. Furniture styles also tended to linger in the provinces, where the latest Parisian fashions had less influence.
Louis-Philippe ruled France with the support of the bourgeoisie. His middle-class manners earned him the moniker “Citizen King” and may have influenced the unglamorous decorative style that bears his name. Characterized by simple lines and beautiful wood (often with a ridged marble top), Louis-Philippe furniture is a far cry from the upper-crusty, rounded opulence of, say, Louis XV (1715-1774).
The plain design and relative ubiquity of Louis-Philippe commodes make them far less valuable than those of earlier periods. Cunningham, who bought two commodes for a total of $7,200, got a pretty good deal. Antique dealers say a single chest of drawers from that era typically goes for between $6,000 and $8,000.
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Explainer thanks Dan Garfink of French Accents and reader Matt Teper for asking the question.