« All News

Chester County spice chest: A history of savory seasonings & secret compartments

January 27, 2015

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life

Tagged , , ,

Spice chests like this one were most often found in wealthier well-furnished homes and may have held spices such as nutmeg, cloves, ginger, or allspice. Some chests even featured drawers with false backs or bottoms that concealed secret compartments.

Spice chests like this one were most often found in well-furnished homes and may have held  nutmeg, cloves, ginger, or allspice. Some chests featured drawers with false backs or bottoms that concealed secret compartments.

The finish on this small spice chest is worn. Its edges are chipped and cracked, and its feet have been replaced. But, the chest’s beauty and fine craftsmanship still shine through.

This cabinet, selected as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure by CAP Curator Jenifer Gleim, is made from cherry, chestnut and poplar woods. Standing 22 inches tall, it features an inlaid “line and berry” design on the door. Fitted with locking hardware, the door swings open to reveal 10 small drawers arranged symmetrically around a center compartment.

Spice chests like this one were most often found in well-furnished homes owned by wealthy residents. The chest likely stood atop a table, cabinet or desk in the home’s parlor room and may have held precious spices such as nutmeg, cloves, ginger, or allspice. The small drawers may have housed treasured items such as silver shoe buckles, fine jewelry, spectacles, or ivory hair combs. Some chests even featured drawers with false backs or bottoms that concealed secret compartments.

The delicate “line and berry” inlay design on the door of this chest reveals that it was probably built in Chester County, Pennsylvania, sometime between 1700 and 1725. Craftsmen laid out the patterns of intersecting arcs (lines) with a compass. The lines often terminate in small circular patches of inlay, creating the “berries”. The style originated with Welsh craftsmen and became widespread throughout Chester County, home to a considerable number of Quaker families of Welsh descent.

It’s interesting to imagine what sort of precious objects this Pennsylvania treasure’s drawers concealed 300 years ago.

 

About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.