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Stories Of Old Chests
Under the eaves, up in my grandmother's attic, were three old chests. They were wedged in between a barrel of butternuts, the hooded cradle in which were rocked the children of the family, and another barrel, crammed with the musty leaves of illustrated journals. Two were blanket-chests, containing cast-off clothing in which we "dressed-up" on rainy days. Later on I learned the other chest was of the type known as "Queen Anne." I glowed with the romance of the past as I pulled from one of its drawers a sandalwood fan. The flat lid served, too, as a fine house upon which I could arrange the dolls' feather furniture made by my aunt from the barred feathers of the Plymouth Rock hens fastened with pins.
Similar chests were common in every old New England family. In them were stored the extra supplies of bedding. In describing the ancient attic in "The Oldest House in One of the Oldest Towns" of New Hampshire, Helen A. Parker says, "There is also a cunning cool bedroom off the `long room' that I have not mentioned, several chambers upstairs besides the `Daniel Webster room,' and a large attic full of spinning wheels and reels, more furniture, old chests filled with bedquilts and blankets of home manufacture, candlesticks, moulds and snuffers, and the cradle that seven generations of the family have had the honor to be rocked in."
When the Puritan housewife first collected her cherished possessions to follow her lord and master on the exodus terminating on the bleak seaboard of a new world, the chest was essential to her own comfort and that of her family. In its depths she stored the extra clothing, the "fleishen" sheets, and the prized bits of glowing damasks and rich brocades that furnished the meagre spots of color and beauty in her busy life. Almost every emigrant to America brought at least one. Alice Morse Earle refers to a certain Jane Humphreys who named in her will "my little chest, my smaller small box, my biggest smallbox. . . . And she needed them all to hold her finery."* In the inventory of Rev. Phineas Stevens, the first minister in the town of Boscawen, New Hampshire, two chests, valued at one pound, are listed with the swivel gun, the pewter, warming-pans, a pair of hand-bellows, the iron chaffingdish, the mortar pestel, and other outfittings of the home of the period.
The authors of "The American Renaissance" say that the chest, without doubt, was the most important article of furniture in colonial homes. They continue, "The early colonists, especially those living far back from the Atlantic seaboard, were, of necessity, always on the alert for possible attacks by hostile Indian tribes, and in a hurried abandonment of their homes, the chest was pressed into use to carry the most valuable belongings where other pieces of furniture could not be moved."
Let me tell you the story of a chest which played a part in a community mystery. A certain Massachusetts town was once greatly bothered over the loss of some of its records. It was at a period when papers were not carefully preserved, and so no one was actually blamed for their being missed. Yet the townspeople were much troubled, for, unless the papers were discovered, a considerable amount of money must be paid, and the older men said that the bill was already settled. But there was no way of proving it. The final accounting was delayed as long as possible by all kinds of legal technicalities, and a special town-meeting, with a warrant for raising the necessary sum, was about to be held. Just at this time, a young farmer decided to change over the arrangement of his barn. During the reconstruction, he moved a large old chest which he was then using for holding grain. One end loosened and he saw that there had been a secret section the heighth and width of the chest with a panel movable only when the chest was empty. Then the fingers could be slipped under the panel to raise it. And here the missing documents were found! The explanation was simple-the farmer's father had for years been selectman, treasurer, and who knows what not of the town! He preserved the papers, although it was not the town custom, but never mentioned where he kept them since he feared his neighbors might call him an old "fussbudget" for doing so.
But the stories of old chests reach farther back-into those years which we are in habit of calling the Dark Ages. The lonely castle of the times was perched high on rocks which helped in its fortification. When the lord departed on a raid, he dared not be separated from articles whose loss he could replace only with great difficulty. So, for many years, a noble never made a journey without carrying his household treasures in huge chests which, in England, were called standards, and, in France, bahuts. As life became more settled and permanent homes were established, chests grew to mammoth sizes and held the plate and the mighty hangings.
This story related by Larousse concerning Fredegonde the rival of Brunhilda, gives some idea of the size and the weight of mediaeval chests. Fredegonde's daughter, Regonthe taunted her mother with the fact that she kept for herself all the jewels of the girl's father, King Chilperic. Thereupon Fredegonde threw up the lid of the coffer and began dragging out the great necklaces, the collars of pearls, the chains, and the girdles. "It tires me," she said. "Put in your hand and take what you will!" But no sooner did Regonthe lean far within than her mother threw down the lid pressing on it with all her might, so that the girl would presently have lost her head but for the attendants, who ran, at her screams, and rescued her.
In his pictures of life in France in the thirteenth century, William Stearns Davis tells us that bureaus and chests of drawers do not exist in this age. "Indeed, no bedroom is fitted properly unless it has a solid chest at the foot of the bed for a prompt reception of any guest's belongings." He says, "When a castle is taken, the cry, `Break open the chests' is equivalent to calling to the victors, `Scatter and pillage!
Oak was the wood frequently used for the carved standards and balauts. The sturdy oak was especially dear to the hearts of all Englishmen. Shakespeare called it, "the unwedgeable and gnarled oak," and llryden sang,
"The monarch oak, the patriarch of the trees, Shoots rising up, and spreads by slow degrees; Three centuries he grows, and three he stays Supreme in state, and in three more decays."
The decorations on these old oaken chests were beautiful and characteristic of the period when they were made. Some were carved with panels of tracery, and the designs followed the architecture of the Gothic period and centered about the art of the cathedrals. Semicircular chests, ornamented with elaborate locks and iron hinges, were frequently used for storing church vestments.
Cypress was another wood popular for making chests. Those of southern Europe were exceedingly elaborate, and were adorned with Gothic fretwork, richly gilded and painted in vivid hues of green, vermilion, and chocolate brown. Methods of carrying off smoke in mediaeval houses were not adequate, and, since all articles became exceedingly dirty, painting was a practical method of renovation.
The characteristic art of the Renaissance was expressed in the decorations of the furniture, so the outlines of palaces and temples appeared on chest panelings. Carved ivory and giltwoods, marquetry, and veneering with thin wood, ornaments of brass and tortoise-shell, and inlays of agate, lapis lazuli and pebbles embellished them. Walnut had come into use for cabinet work and from it massive and magnificent coffers were made. Chests had now acquired short legs, and the carvings represented fanciful human figures, grotesque masques, and intricate scrolls.
The chests of England, of course, served as the models for our own colonial chests. In the Jacobean, or, to be exact, the period of the early Stuarts, furniture was stout and simple in line, but somewhat over-ornamented. Chests were paneled with pieces of wood, carved in heavy relief. Designs were made to stand out by "gouging out" the background, or by the sharply cut "scratch carving." Many of the chests carried to America were plain or paneled, though carved chests were seen, too.
Chests bore a variety of names. In the days of Queen Elizabeth, we hear of a housekeeper who bequeathed "her best spruce chest, her coffer in the old chamber, her curiously carven chest of wainscot, and her cypress coffer for keeping linen clothing." A press held bedding and heavy articles of clothing. The coffer was a strongly made chest for the safe-guarding of valuables, while the smaller caskets of ivory or ebony, with carvings in relief, were to hold the personal ornaments of the owner. Hutches usually had doors opening in front: one ancient document refers to "my little hutch, one broad hutch that standeth in my chamber, and the great hutch in the hall."
In the colonies the oaken chest was copied in pine. Alice Morse Earle names many varieties. She speaks of "joined chests, wainscot chests, board chests, spruce chests, oak chests, carved chests, chests with one or two drawers and cypress chests."
"Joined and wainscot chests were framed with panels distinguished clearly from the board chests made of plain boards. The latter were often called plain chests, the former panel chests. Carved chests were much rarer," she explains. Then she adds, "Chests were also painted, usually on the parts in relief on the carving, the colors being generally black and red."
As time passed, the chest changed its form still more. A drawer or two was added to the bottom, but the hinged lid still remained. One by one, drawers were added, and eventually the hinged lid disappeared. By the eighteenth century, the chest of drawers had appeared.
In the reign of William and Mary, the chest of drawers, often beautifully ornamented with marquetry, had become an important piece of furniture in my lady's dressing-room. Now appeared the chest of drawers, fashioned from walnut or lesser woods, placed upon a frame with four legs in the front and two in the back, and known by the descriptive name of "tall-boy." Both of the monarchs were interested in the craft of furniture making, and, as they were permeated with the Dutch traditions, the favored styles of the Flemish artisans influenced the crafts of the period. At the very end of the reign the cabriole leg appeared, and, in Queen Anne's time, four of them superseded the six turned legs of the tall-boy.
The highboy, as it was called in the colonies, was an imposing piece of furniture, and was one of the important articles in well-to-do families. Not only one, but several, were found in many homes, and they were considered handsome enough to be used as drawingroom furniture. The American cabinet-makers, especially those of Philadelphia, copied and elaborated the English models. Hooded tops followed the flat ones of the earlier highboys. At first they were finished with simple mouldings, but toward the latter part of the eighteenth century, mouldings grew heavier and rose into curves. The famous "broken arch" came into being and was used on all the finest pieces. At the ends of the cornice were placed the brass "finials" which, if they are still in place today, add value to the highboy. One unusually beautiful highboy, made in Philadelphia, stands eight feet high, has a straight top, and four curved legs of the claw-foot variety. Walnut was abundant in Pennsylvania, so this highboy, like many pieces of furniture produced by Philadelphia craftsmen, was constructed from it. Maple was well liked by the New England cabinet-makers, and a certain highboy which came from an old house in New Hampshire is made of this wood. It has a hooded top, carved fans on the pediment and lower drawer, and four legs of the Queen Anne Period. Shells were frequently carved on highboys and were applied to the knees of cabriole legs and to the drawers.
The "Queen Anne Chest" is frequently found in old homesteads. It has a lid and one or two drawers and may be supported by either bracket-shaped or bun feet.
High and low chests of drawers with both shaped and straight fronts were made in the days when the great Thomas Chippendale was the master-craftsman of England, and Hepplewhite designed single chests of drawers having either straight or serpentine fronts for dressing-stands. Chests of drawers were made by Sheraton and were, in a way, the ancestors of the modern bureau. The bureau, however, really originated in the Empire Period, and the name first meant a writingdesk. Its new application came from the fact that in a chest of drawers, combined with a mirror and used as a dressing-table, was placed a drawer serving the purposes of a desk.
I must not forget to mention the large painted boxes and bride-chests made by the Pennsylvania Germans from ideas brought by their fathers from Germany. Like those used on the sgraffito pottery, the decorations were flowers, featuring- the characteristic tulip and fuschia, set fruit designs, and paintings of birds.
"The other day I was taking a walk," a woman wrote me recently, "and on the sidewalk in front of a junk shop was one of the Pennsylvania German painted chests made in 1781. It was a real find, and of course I bought it. It was lovely!"