The earliest Americans lived in simple, one- or two-room structures where space was meager and life was rough. By the 18th century, prosperity brought towns and great cities and more comfortable homes, rivaling those in Europe. Yet, for country-dwellers, who were decades behind the trends in the cities, farming provided the basic provisions and farmers made the furniture. Benches, tables, chairs, boxes and chests were fashioned from local woods into versions of city furniture.
Well into the 1800s, as houses grew to be a bit more ample, rooms were few, still relatively small and set up to multitask. Consequently, each piece of furniture was made to serve multiple functions as well. People got as much out of a room as possible, since heating smaller rooms was more efficient and furniture scarce. It was common for beds to be set up in the parlor and for dining tables to be placed in the center of a room on sawhorse-like trestles, then tucked into a corner when not in use.
Chairs were a luxury, since they were a bit more complicated to make; most people made do with benches. If the family owned any carpets, they used them on tables, as fine rugs were – too valuable to be thrown on the floors. Storage space was at a tremendous premium and a variety of specialized chests were made to store everything from food to textiles and documents.
One of the oldest forms of furniture, the chest was relatively straightforward to make and could serve many functions for early Americans, storing food, clothing and valuables. Plus, a well-made chest was a safe place to keep critters from munching, or nesting in, precious items.
There was a blanket chest for holding clothes or linens and a sugar chest for storing that very precious commodity. The pie chest, typically called a pie safe (though neither a padlocked safe nor a true chest), is another important piece of early storage furniture.
The blanket chest, in its simplest form, was a large wooden box with a hinged lid that was popular from the 17th to the 19th century, since neither attics nor closets were typical in homes of this period. It served as a receptacle for linens and sundry storage, and also provided extra seating (since chairs were a luxury). In colonial America, blanket chests were commonly constructed of pine, walnut, pecan or cherry. Some had short bracket or bun feet. Wealthy folk used imported mahogany for more elaborate chests.
Painting furniture was a way to retard rodent or insect damage, so many early pieces show remnants of old paint washes. The Pennsylvania Dutch painted their chests with traditional decorative motifs.
Over the years, drawers were added and the height was increased. Many period chests will have a “till,” or candle storage drawer. Often, these chests took on the names of the items they safeguarded. They were many times known as dowry chests, or hope chests – since brides often brought their worldly goods with them to their husbands. They were also called mule chests, since they were the repositories of slippers – “mules,” as the early settlers called them. Since few homes had a source of heat in the bedroom, it was the blanket chest, generally found at the foot of the bed, that held the extra bedcovers for frosty winter nights.
In the early days of the rural south, supply shipments were scarce. In some places, people waited up to a year between deliveries. Sugar was a prized and valuable commodity that had to be shipped up river from New Orleans, usually in a loaf or cone form, then carted over land. During a time when a pound of sugar could cost more than an acre of land, families had to have a way to store large quantities of sugar for long periods of time and to guard it against humidity, insects and rodents. Hence, the sugar chest – a southern form found mostly in Kentucky or Tennessee –was a locked chest, often plain in decor, yet a symbol of the family’s social and economic standing. In their heyday, sugar chests were not relegated to a hidden pantry, but proudly displayed, along with their costly contents, right out there in the parlor.
Four boards of virgin timber, glued together to make all four sides, ensured that there were few gaps for insects and humidity to penetrate. Only virgin timber produced boards wide enough for an entire side or top to be made from one log. The chests were usually built on legs to further insulate the sugar from the moist floor. Sometimes different grades of sugar were separated into compartments. There could also be one for the ledger used to record when small bits of sugar were added or removed. Often there was a small drawer at the bottom or an inside compartment where the knife (or nipper) for cutting the sugar would be kept.
Sugar chests are not found as often as blanket chests. As a predominately southern form and a unique one, they command higher prices. Since both sugar chests and blanket chests are long and narrow, it is relatively easy for blanket chests to be reworked to look like original sugar chests. Both chests open from the top, but blanket chests were often constructed from a series of connected boards, not four-board constructed. Would-be buyers should be aware of this distinction to be sure they are buying a legitimate sugar chest.
The pie safe, also called a pie chest, meat chest or kitchen safe, was the predecessor of the icebox and an important piece of furniture in American households starting in the early 1700s. It was used to protect pies, of course, but also meat, bread and other perishables, from vermin.
The Pennsylvania Dutch probably introduced the concept of the pie safe to the U.S. It was typically tall and narrow. The interior would have shelves to hold food items. Kept as far from the stove as practical, on the farm it might be kept on the back porch to catch as much cool air as possible. Southern pieces were often made of pine with poplar interiors. Many times the interior wooden shelves would be perforated to aid in ventilation.
A pie safe normally would have two hinged doors on the front. Screening or pierced-tin panels on the doors and the sides also provided ventilation. The holes in the tin sides were often punched to produce an image such as a church scene, eagles or stars or a simple shape. The image often determines the value of a particular piece.
Although some old country pie safes made do with plain, screened panels, some have elaborate hand-punched designs. An early piece with unusual or elaborately designed tins could fetch thousands. Pie safes made after 1900 most often have machine–punched tins, and are less valuable. Unusual height, finely turned legs and original paint and hardware also add value for collectors.
Last August, a 19th-century Shenandoah Valley pie safe that had been commissioned in 1824 – not only to keep pies safe, but also to promote Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign – sold for $102,500 at auction. Its date of origin was early for a pie safe, it had old blue paint (a color favored by collectors) and it featured a punched-tin portrait of Jackson and a panel that declared him Hero of Orleans. Whether Jackson ever saw it is anybody’s guess, but since the equivalent in 1824 dollars would have been around $2.5 million, he no doubt would have been flummoxed by the price.
An antiques dealer for more than 25 years, Michelle Galler owns Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, based in Georgetown and in Washington, Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com to suggest a topic for a future column.