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The Mid-Western Food Safe

An early nineteenth-century piece of kitchen furniture which has been adapted for use in the modern home is a wooden cupboard with perforated tin panels in doors and sides. Known as a safe throughout the Middle West and parts of the South, where it was popular from the early 1800's to as late as 1870, it was originally used for storing food.In its simple outline, the stile and rail construction of the seventeenth century can be seen, but in place of carved or plain wooden panels, those of pierced tin in ornate design served the double purpose of letting in air and keeping out mice and flies. Like the present day refrigerator, it was a repository for leftovers as well as cured and cooked meats, pastries, milk, and other foods. Sometimes these safes were devoted entirely to pans of milk and were placed in the cellar or some other cool place: sometimes they held the weekly baking of bread, cake, and pies; still another use was for the keeping of vegetables and fruit which also benefited by the moderate circulation of air. The perforated tin panels were the forerunners of screening since the only thing resembling it at the time was a netting composed of horse hair and cotton thread which was used in sieves.

Native woods, both soft and hard, were used for the framework and the three or more shelves of the interior. Most of the safes were simply cupboards resting on four turned legs. A few were made with two long drawers with wooden fronts placed above the cupboard. I have also seen an occasional safe built on the chest-on-chest idea. Cherry, walnut, poplar, pine, and other woods used were either left natural or painted in dark shades of red, green, blue, or brown.

The perforated tin panels were not only decorative but the idea of them went back to the fourteenth century when pierced metal lanterns first appeared in Europe. The earliest of these were of brass or copper; then came those of sheet iron or tin. The Thirteen Colonies were well established before much tin was used in America, but when, in the early nineteenth century, there was work for the tinsmith, one of his jobs was designing and stamping tin sheets in intricate patterns for use in lanterns and foot stoves.

He began by cutting the tin sheets to the proper size. These he laid on a bed of lead, sand, soft wood, or other suitable substance. Then he traced his pattern, put his dies in position and struck them with a hammer, piercing the tin along the lines of the design. The latter was elaborate and varied, with half moon, rising sun, cathedral, and sunburst among the most favored themes.

Pierced designs in old food safes showed even greater variety. Some had the rising sun motif, others had an urn and floral pattern. Both the heart motif and that of the six-pointed star indicated Pennsylvania Dutch inspiration. In fact, it is generally believed that these ingenious food safes originated in the area occupied by those emigrants from the Counties Palatine where the pierced tinwork was undoubtedly well known.

Today it is the beauty of the pierced tinwork that makes them so desirable. The earliest and best were made according to old cabinetmaking ways, with uprights and horizontal members of the framework fitted together with mortice-and-tenon joints. Now the food safes no longer stand in the kitchen but, cleaned and refinished, have other uses. Collectors of such primitive items as wooden cooking utensils and implements, powder horns, or early slipware dishes find them excellent cabinets for their treasures. Some people like them as cupboards for bed linen. They also fit well in a game room. I once saw one so used in Iowa. The cupboard made a convenient wine cellar and, as the safe was only four feet high, the owner used the top as a bar.

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