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Household And Treasure Chests
Chests have been important household furniture since the cave woman hollowed out a log for her treasures or threaded her bone needle with sinews and sewed up a leather coffer. The Egyptians used acacia, a kind of poplar called sycamore, and cedar imported from Syria, inlaying or veneering their chests with ebony and ivory, gold and silver, and painting them in rich colors.
Homer told of Greek chests filled by the loom and needle. His Helen "lifted an embroidered garment as a gift for the bride" from an opened chest, and Thetis, mother of Achilles, gave "a coffer wrought most rich and curiously . . full of warm robes."
The historian Pausanias wrote of a Greek chest of cedar decorated with figures and inscriptions in gold and ivory at Olympia. The Romans stood their great chests of wood, reinforced with metal bands or decorated with inlay work or panels of ivory and silver, in the atrium or hall of their houses.
Throughout history, chests have been made of whatever came to hand. The early Chinese used leather heavy enough to need no backing. Later they lacquered the leather or wood. Sometimes they carved both. Japanese used much matting to surface their chests and lacquered the wood inside.
Hides, Bark or Felted Fibers Made Primitive Chests
Hides, bark, and woven rushes, twigs, grasses and felted fibers were put over frames to make primitive chests. Sheepraising people made wool felt or sheepskin into chests, decorated and waterproofed. American Indians wove basketry chests or laced up hide or bark with rawhide or sinews, or hollowed a log.
Early chests of wood had leather or home-made metal hinges. Someone extended the end pieces or stiles and lifted the chest from the damp ground, or in aristocratic homes, from the flagstone or tile floors.
Medieval European chests of heavy planks were held together with iron straps. Rediscovered "joining" lessened 'the need of iron straps and they became ornamental bandings. The planks turned to frames holding panels which were carved, inlaid, or painted. Early Gothic chests show old chip carving in simple patterns. Later trefoil, quatrefoil, and linen fold carving were used extensively.
Italy's cassoni or marriage chests were large enough to take the bridal dress full length and hold the dower linens. They were strong enough to make the wedding journey on the backs of mules, and ornamental enough to all but furnish the new home. Intarsia, paintings by the masters, and elaborate carving decorated them.
French Chests Hid People or Garments
French chests often had pierced metal bandings and locks set over red velvet. Some were "big enough a person could live in them for weeks" to escape jealous husbands or irate tax collectors. The early chests were of "oak from the North." But elegant Renaissance chests of carved and polished chestnut or walnut vied with Boulle chests on handsome stands with their mountings of ivory, rare woods, and wrought metals.
The peasants' simple chests were painted in plain red and were carved through so wood color and red blended, or they were decorated with painted allover flower sprays. Favorite dower chests were of richly dyed leather over wood, with brass riails marking drawers, doors and corners to save wear and tear. Cuir bouilli leather, molded, painted, gilded and embossed, was also used.
The British, after the Jacobean and Elizabethan styles of strong carved oak, adopted the fine polished woods of Chippendale, Adams, and their ilk. Pear wood, with its lovely color and grain, was a favorite of English ladies.
Spanish chests too evolved from the homegrown and carved woods, and home-cured leathers. But the coming of the Moors brought elaborate dyed, carved and embossed leather coffers and fancy inlaid and metal-mounted woods. Red velvet often underlaid the wrought iron mountings. Nailhead studdings protected the leathers.
The great vargueno cabinets were of fine woods, ivory, ebony and wrought metals. They had secret compartments and fancy drawer spacing, and a lid which let down to form desk or table. Handsome they were, yet sturdy enough to take the wrack of the road strapped behind nobilities' carriages.
Dutch Chests and the East India Trade
Fine Dutch chests of camphor wood, with large incised and pierced brass mountings could have and probably did come right out of the Orient in the East India trade. They lacked the deep, allover carving characteristic of Chinese camphor wood chests today. Simpler Dutch chests of plainer woods on ball or bracket feet carried painted tulips on their panels.
Surely the Mayflower must have been crowded if it brought all the things attributed to it. But chests it certainly brought. For the chest was the pioneer trunk, seat, storage box and table. Homesick colonists clung as close to the styles of their homelands as local joiners would let them.
French Huguenots favored chests painted with naturalistic flower sprays, or carved red surfaces. The Dutch held to their tulips and their sturdy ball feet. The Swedes liked their gay painted flowers and humans. The English carved oak and polished mahogany chests which served the richer homes.
New England chests, now collected, are named for the locale in which they were built. The Hadley, which local history says was a dower chest, is known for its allover carved front, its one or two drawers at bottom, and three panels across the top. The center panel held the initials. The two side panels were carved with tulips.
Egg-shaped Ornaments and Sunflower Faces
Connecticut chests had one or two drawers at bottom, topped by 'three panels. They carried sunflower faces in the center panel and tulips on leafy stems on the side panels. Turned spindles and drops marked the sides of panels and drawers. Eggshaped wood ornaments crossed the front.
So-called New England blanket chests were box chests to store blankets above the single drawer which saved the family woolens. Cedar was a favorite wood. Pine was common. Black walnut, butternut, hickory and maple all were used.
First a drawer, then two, were tried below the box. Added drawers reached to the top and the chest became a "chest of drawers." To save floor space, one chest was set on another, and became a "chest on chest." Chests with many drawers rose to a "high or tall boy," first on six legs, later on four, with a fine apron. The trim, apron, handles, and number of legs tell the age of the highboy.
Today these box, drawer, and highboy chests of our forebears hold high honors for their utility, their value as collectors' pieces, and the aura of romance and sentiment which age and personal history have wrapped about them.