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Hunt Boards And Sugar Chests
Pursuit of the fox with horse and hound was indirectly responsible for a long-legged piece of furniture known as a hunt board. Fox hunting as a sport became popular in England about the middle of the eighteenth century; in America there was the usual lag in time, further increased by the unsettled conditions during the Revolutionary War. By the late 1780's the former colonies south of Pennsylvania were beginning to take an interest in the sport.
Country gentlemen of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia took pride in the quality of their hunters and packs of hounds. The area was ideally suited to fox hunting and the sport was taken seriously until well into the third quarter of the nineteenth century. As these fox hunts began at dawn and sometimes lasted until sunset, the horsemen naturally returned tired, hungry, and saddlesore to the house where food and drink waited.
These were informal occasions when the mud-spattered horsemen who came direct from the chase stood around and ate, buffet-style, while they talked over the day's sport. A tall sideboard on which the weary huntsman could lean an elbow while he ate was the ideal piece of furniture and so the hunt board evolved. It was placed either in the back hall or in one of the detached buildings that served as the plantation office.
Hunt boards were made of native woods such as pine, walnut, butternut, cherry, or maple, either alone or combined. The first crude ones may have been made by slaves on the various plantations. As the idea gained popularity, local cabinetmakers produced them and added their own individual touches that made them good, bad or indifferent, according to the skill, or lack of it, of the maker. In essence, the piece is a tall sideboard, forty to forty-eight inches high, with a central cupboard surrounded by drawers. Arrangement of the drawers varies. Most hunt boards have deep ones on either side of the central "cabin." Sometimes there are two or more shallow drawers above, sometimes none. Occasionally a cabinetmaker of more than average skill produced a piece that followed so closely the design and arrangement of the conventional sideboard that only its height marks it as designed for the back hall instead of the dining room.
Hunt boards still extant date from about 1800 to 1850. Their designs, always along simple lines, are in the manner of Hepplewhite and Sheraton.
Among the heirlooms reflecting a definite social and economic custom of the past is the sugar chest. A southern piece, made during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was primarily a chest on legs, fitted with a bin for sugar, another for coffee, and quite often small drawers for spices.
Since these were all luxuries, the chest was therefore fitted with a lock. In the agricultural South, especially Kentucky and Tennessee, each plantation was self-sufficient as far as food products went; except for sugar, tea, coffee, and spices. Quite aside from the money value of these items, which was considerable, poor transportation made delivery possible only once or twice a year. Therefore, stern rationing was necessary on a plantation with numerous dependents. Sorghum, honey, and molasses were sweetening substitutes for everyday use.
Except for a limited amount of cane sugar grown in Louisiana, all brown and white sugar used in colonial America and later in the United States was imported and remained costly until nearly 1870. The less refined brown type was doled out by the housewife each day for cooking and ordinary use, white sugar which came in a cone, wrapped in a deep violet-colored paper, was for company. Cutting it into pieces for serving was not entrusted to servants, as precious grains of it might be wasted. There were special cutters or shears for the process which were wielded by the mistress of the house or her daughters.
Most of the sugar chests were plantation-made and vary considerably in quality and workmanship. Some are merely crude boxes on legs; others are expertly fashioned and even decorated with inlay. Other furniture forms besides the plain chest were used. Quite a few are found in the form of a desk or even a secretary; still others resemble primitive highboys. All had the bin arrangement and, with few exceptions, were well-equipped with locks to guard the luxury items stored within.
Native woods were used, with walnut and cherry especially favored. Nicely finished and decorated sugar chests were probably kept in the dining room, quite near the sideboard, and may have doubled as mixing stands for the juleps and toddies that were part of southern hospitality. The sugar chest is typical of most of these pieces which, like the hunt board, are a southern invention. Here the chest has the general outline of the late seventeenth-century blanket chest which continued to be made for close to two hundred years. The well where blankets would normally be stored is fitted with bins and spice drawers and there is a lock on the front as well as on the drawer beneath. This in turn has a smaller drawer within for silver. The rest of the drawer space accommodates a fair quantity of linen. A Kentucky piece, made of cherry, its opalescent glass drawer knobs and short turned legs date it as of the American Empire period, but the valanced outline of the apron is Hepplewhite.