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 that rivaled those in Europe. Yet, for country-dwellers, who were decades behind trends found 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 and then tucked into a corner when not in use. Chairs were a luxury, since they were a bit more complicated to make and, so, 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. The chest, one of the oldest forms of furniture, was relatively straightforward to make and could serve many functions for early Americans — food, clothing and valuables storage. 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. And, the pie chest, typically called a pie safe, is neither a padlocked safe nor a true chest. But since it is an important piece of early storage furniture, it is worthy of discussion here.
The blanket chest, in its simplest form, was a large wooden box with a hinged lid that was popular in the 17th to 19th centuries, 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, they were commonly constructed of pine, walnut, pecan or cherry and 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 – or “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 bed covers for those frosty winter nights.
In the early days of the rural south, supply shipments were scarce and in some places people waited up to a year between deliveries. Sugar was a prized and valuable commodity that had to be shipped upriver from New Orleans, usually in a loaf or cone form, and then carted over land. So, 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 were 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 that were wide enough so that an entire side or top could 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 and there could one for the ledger that was used to record when small bits of sugar would be 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, since they are a predominantly southern form and unique and, hence command higher prices. Since both sugar and blanket chests are long and narrow, it is relatively easy for blankets chests to be reworked to look like original sugar chests. Both chests open from the top, but blanket chests were often constructed of a series of connected boards, not four-board constructed, so buyers should be aware of this distinction to be sure that they are buying a legitimate sugar chest.
The pie safe, also called a pie chest, meat chest or kitchen safe, was the predecessor to the ice box and was an important piece of furniture in the American household 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 and the interior would have shelves to hold food items. It was kept as far from the stove as possible. 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.
It 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 like a church scene, eagles or stars or a simple shape and often determine the value of a particular piece.
Although some old country pie safes made do with plain, screened panels, some have elaborately designed hand-punched designs. An early piece with unusual or elaborately designed tins could fetch thousands. Those pie safes made after 1900 most probably had machine-punched tins, and are less valuable. Unusual height, finely turned legs, 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 milion, he no doubt would have been flummoxed by the price!
Michelle Galler (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Georgetown and in Washington, Va. Contact her with any questions or about great finds you would like to discuss in future columns.