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The term cupboard was originally used to describe an open-shelved side table for displaying dishware, more specifically plates, cups and saucers. These open cupboards typically had between one and three display tiers, and at the time, a drawer or multiple drawers fitted to them. The word cupboard gradually came to mean furniture for enclosing dishware or grocery items that are stored in a home.

An airing cupboard (or hot press) is a built-in storage space, sometimes of walk-in dimensions, containing a water heater, either an immersion heater for hot running water or a boiler for central heating water (hence, also "boiler cupboard"), or a hot water storage tank. Shelves, usually slatted to allow for circulation of heat, are positioned above or around the heater to provide room for clothing. The purpose is to allow air to circulate around the stored fabrics to prevent damp forming.

Some variants of airing cupboards also serve as the linen cupboard, the storing area of the household's clean sheets and towels.

In another version, the airing cupboard serves as a temporary drying space, either for laundry or for wet outdoor clothes and shoes. Its shelves can be used to fully remove traces of damp from dried clothing before the items are put away elsewhere in drawers and wardrobes. A moveable electrical version of this is a drying cabinet.

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