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Concerning Chests



The celebrated Mayflower Compact, by which the Pilgrim Fathers combined themselves in "a civil body politick," was signed, according to tradition, on the lid of Elder Brewster's chest in the cabin of the Mayflower, while that vessel rode at anchor in Provincetown Harbor in November, 1620. This chest has for many years been in the possession of the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. It is a large, plain chest of yellow Norway pine stained brown, measuring four feet two inches long, one foot eight inches wide, and two feet six inches high. The key is so large that it has more the appearance of one belonging to an old-time prison than to a clothing receptacle. When new the chest must have been an inexpensive one, though now, of course, by reason of its associations, it is a priceless historical relic.

In the days when it was fashionable in Europe for people to keep dwarfs as we would keep a dog or a cat, the persons engaged in the trade of supplying fashionable people with these diminutive creatures sometimes resorted to the cruel practice of confining children in chests to stunt their growth. Collecting dwarfs was never a fad in this country, but it may be noted that one of Elder Brewster's descendants was a dwarf who might have occupied the ancestral chest with room to spare. This was the pretty, charming little creature Anna Brewster, whose height in womanhood was three feet. She was perfectly formed and had a sweet and intelligent face and an active mind. "Too little to be wooed, too wise to be won," says one historian, "she was loved and admired by everybody." As a girl she lived for a while at New Windsor, near Plattsburg, New York. When Washington had his headquarters there, Mrs. Washington was so taken with the sprightly little maiden that she invited her to visit her at the house where she and the general were quartered; but the invitation was declined, as it was felt that it had been extended out of curiosity rather than respect. This was a mistake, of course, but Anna Brewster was sensitive to inquisitiveness. She died in 1844, aged seventy-five. Fifty years before a rustic poet inspired by her charms during an evening passed in her company portrayed her character in the following verse:

ACROSTIC
A pretty, charming little creature,
N eat and complete in every feature,
N ow at New Windsor may be seen,
A 11 beauteous in her air and mien.
B irth and power, wealth and fame,
R ise not to view when her we name:
E very virtue in her shine,
W isely nice, but not o'er fine.
S he has a soul that's great, 'tis said,
T hough small's the body of this maid:
E 'en though the casket is but small,
R eason proclaims the jewel's all.

The early settlers used chests as trunks in which to transport their personal belongings to the New World. It has frequently been stated that every Pilgrim who came over on the Mayflower probably had one. It may be so, but that overburdened craft measured only eightytwo feet over all, with a beam of twenty-two feet and a depth of fourteen feet. Crowded into this small ship were one hundred and two passengers and the crew. These, with the necessary provisions for the voyage, and the supplies and equipment indispensable to planting a new colony, must have taken up a large part of the space, leaving little room for a lot of chests the size of Elder Brewster's.

Yet during the first years thousands of chests were brought to this country from England and Holland. About 1640 the causes which inspired the early migrations no longer existed, and there was a sharp decline in the numbers who came to New England. But in the period between 162o and 1640 some two hundred and ninety-eight ships brought z 1,200 people, or about four thousand families. It is safe to say that every family had at least one chest, to say nothing of those belonging to the many single men seeking their fortunes in the New World.

A curious use to which one chest was put was for a coffin. A woman passenger on one of the ships that followed the Mayflower died at sea, just as the landfall of Cape Cod was made. They laid her in her chest and brought her ashore for burial. The funeral party was astonished when at the grave the lid of the improvised coffin suddenly flew open and the lady sat up in the box. The chest is cherished today by her descendants.

Chests were important pieces of furniture in colonial times. There were no closets in the first homes, and a chest was one of the few places a housewife had to keep linen, bedding, and clothing. As there were not many chairs, low chests were used for seats, while the higher ones served as tables. People also used to lie on them. The probate records for the middle decades of the seventeenth century show far more chests than tables and chairs.

Many colonial dames owned several chests. Alice Morse Earle cites the case of Jane Humphrey, who died in 1668 and in her will mentioned my little chest, my great old chest, my great new chest, my lesser small box, my biggest small box. And the men had them as well as the women. Thomas Wells of Ipswich, Massachusetts, by his will made in 1666, left his best chest to his wife. He likewise gave one to his son, and the planks to make another. Also my will is, that every o f these my Daughters, shall have each o f them a Bible, & every o f them a good chist.

Although the early voyagers brought over many chests, it was not long before they were being made here by local joiners. Many fine examples produced during the last half of the seventeenth century have been found, particularly in the Connecticut Valley, especially in and around Hartford and Hadley. Dr. Irving W. Lyon, the great pioneer collector and early writer on antiques, lists the following types of New England chests: joined chests, wainscot chests, board chests, spruce chests, oak chests, ship chests, carved chests, chests with one and two drawers, and cypress chests.

The joined chests and the wainscot chests were much better made than the plain board chests. They were paneled framed chests, with the rails mortised into the corner posts, which also formed the legs. The uprights between the paneling were securely fastened into the rails, and the panels were fitted into the chest by means of grooved edges forming a rabbet joint. White oak was used throughout, except for the lid, the back, and the bottoms of the drawers, which were made of yellow pine. Red cedar was often employed for the decorative moldings of the front and ends. The knobs of the drawers were maple.

The two outstanding types of colonial oaken chests are the so-called Connecticut chest and the Hadley chest. Since about seventy-five of the former have been found in and around Hartford, they are sometimes called "Hartford chests." No two are exactly alike. Some have one long drawer underneath, others two, and some are without any. As a rule there are three carved panels across the front, though two-panel and even one-panel chests have been found. Most of them are of the two-drawer type, with three panels of quartered oak. All are approximately the same size, namely, forty inches high, forty-five inches long, and twenty-two inches wide. The local chest makers had a great advantage in being able to obtain large planks. There were giant trees in the New England forests then.

In the typical Connecticut chest, the three front panels are embellished with flat carving. The center panel is generally octagonal, the flanking panels square. The latter usually have a graceful tulip design, while the middle panels shows three sunflowers. This last feature has caused some people to refer to these chests as "sunflower chests." Each drawer front has two narrow panels with triangular corner pieces which give them an octagonal form. All the panels on the front and ends are framed in moldings of a contrasting wood, either stained cedar or pine painted red. A still wider molding between the drawers and also above and below them is painted black, as are the two oval bosses on each drawer panel. The shadow molding along the front top rail is similarly treated. On the corner posts of the upper part of the chest and on the stiles dividing the panels are flat-backed turned spindles or split balusters, with smaller ones on the posts at the ends of the drawers and in the middle between the drawer panels. They are also painted black. The idea behind this red-and-black decoration was to give the effect of rosewood and ebony, which were used at that time in the ornamentation of English and Dutch chests.

An interesting discovery was made a number of years ago by Dr. Luke Vincent Lockwood, the authority on colonial furniture. This was the finding of a fine example of a two-drawer Connecticut chest with the maker's name written on the back of one of the drawers. The inscription read Mary Allyns Chistt Cutte and Joyned by Nich Disbrowe.

With this as a clue, research revealed that Mary Allyn was the daughter of Colonel John Allyn, Colonial Secretary of Connecticut. Born in Hartford in 1657, she married William Whitney in 1686. Nicholas Disbrowe, who was born in Essex, England, came to this country at an early age. He served in the Hartford company of Captain John Mason in the expedition against the Pequots in 1637. In 1639 he was a property owner in Hartford, living in the north part of the town, where later he built a small joiner's shop. He died in 1683, leaving an estate of 210 pounds, a substantial sum for those days.

Apparently the chest was not signed by Disbrowe himself. On this point the late Henry W. Erving, the Hartford banker and antique collector, who owned several beautiful specimens of these chests, said:

A very careful examination and comparison of the handwriting would indicate that this inscription was by the hand of John Allyn. The piece was probably a "dower chest" ordered and constructed for an adored baby girl-a common custom-and because of its beauty and excellence the father desired that the future owner should be informed as to its origin and share his admiration for the valuable article.

This Connecticut chest is believed to be the oldest piece of American furniture made by a workman whose name is known.

The Hadley chests were of the same order as the Hartford chests, which is not surprising, as Hadley, Massachusetts, was settled by Hartford people about 1 660, following a religious dispute, which was often the cause of new towns being established. It is even possible that some of the joiners who made the Hadley chests may have served their apprenticeships in Hartford and learned to make chests there. John Allis, the leading chest maker of Hadley, was a relative of Nicholas Disbrowe. The Hadley chests are believed to have been produced during the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth. A delightful feature of these pieces comes from the custom of carving the initials of the owner in the center panel, thus making each chest unique.

No nails were used in framing the joined chests. The drawbore method was used in making the joints. A hole was bored through the sides of the mortises and through the tenons. These holes did not exactly correspond, so that when the square oaken pin was driven through them the tenons were drawn snugly into the mortises. Nails, however, were used to make the drawers and also to attach the oak cleats at the ends of the overhanging lid. Small brads and glue were employed in affixing the moldings and ornaments. All the hardware, nails and brads, hinges and locks, were made at the village smithy. If the upper part of the chest locked, the drawers were secured by boring a hole down through them and inserting a long pin. That the chests were used for valuables, as well as for linen, bedding, and clothing, is shown by the presence in most of them of a covered till at one end.

The English oaken chests of this period are distinguished by their all-oak construction and the fact that the wood used was darker than the white oak of New England.

Another type of early New England chest was the so-called Taunton chest, which was made during the first half of the eighteenth century at Taunton, Massachusetts. It was a painted chest. As in the case of the carved Connecticut chest, the tulip was a favorite decorative motif. One usually associates this flower with the folk art of the Pennsylvania Germans, who made effective use of it on their dower chests and many other things besides, but it was used in New England long before there were any of these people in Pennsylvania.

Sea chests are dealt with elsewhere in this book, but it may be mentioned here that they were sold along the water fronts and were generally called "slop chests." "Slops" were cheap ready-made clothing. Among seamen the term was also applied to bedding, etc. Most sea chests are distinguished by rope handles through which the lines passed by which they were lashed to the deck.

Popular as they were at first, chests were actually rather inconvenient, because, as everybody knows who has ever used one, the thing wanted has a habit of always being at the bottom where it has to be dug out. It was to avoid this that a long drawer was added underneath, but as one was not enough a second drawer soon appeared. Further drawers were added, until by the beginning of the eighteenth century the hinged top had vanished altogether and the old chest with drawers became a chest of drawers. Then there was the chest-onchest, which was actually two chests of drawers, one placed on top of the other. To add to its usefulness, one of the drawer fronts was sometimes made to let down to provide a place to write. But all this did not put an end to the making of chests. An old pine chest picked up by the writer looks as if it were a chest of drawers, but the two upper drawers are cleverly made fakes and the lid lifts up to reveal the true nature of the piece-a blanket chest.

About this same time, to save bending over, the chest of drawers was placed on a frame with six legs, four in front and two in the rear, connected and strengthened all around by stretchers just above the feet. Thus the highboy was evolved from the chest. The early ones had flat tops, but presently the hooded top appeared, followed by the famous broken arch. Two of the front legs were eliminated, only pendants showing where they had been. Cherry and maple were favored by the New England cabinetmakers for highboys.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth a good deal of furniture was made in the various Shaker communities scattered through New England. These religionists sought perfection in everything. Honesty of craftsmanship they considered a moral duty, and the integrity of their work may be seen in the simple chests and other pieces of furniture which they made. They did not try to conceal the dovetailing at the corners of their chests, because that would have been deceitful. Nor did they, being a plain sect like the Quakers, believe in decorating or ornamenting their furniture in any way. Apart from ornamentation being a worldly vanity, they feared it might interfere with the purity of the design, perhaps even hide defects in it. No Shaker craftsman would have dreamed of carving or painting a chest after the fashion of the Hartford, Hadley, or Taunton chests. Everything was kept as plain and severe and functional as possible and for this reason the Shaker chests and other furniture possess a modern look which has a special attraction for people today.

Iron chests, forerunners of the modern safe, with great keys to turn the heavy locks, were not altogether unknown in colonial New England. Doubtless they provided a certain measure of protection against fire and theft. When one of the large old chest keys turns up in a curiosity shop, it has been known to be labeled KEY TO THE BASTILLE arid sold as a historical relic.

"I won't guarantee its genuineness," says the dealer, "but that's the story as I got it."

These French Revolutionary keys bring to mind the bathtub in which Charlotte Corday murdered Marat. Not so long ago five were sold in this country in one year, each complete with the authentic bloodstains.

Another kind of chest that figured in a famous historical episode was the tea chest. In the Old South Meeting House in Boston there is a glass phial containing some of the original tea thrown into the harbor at the time of the Boston Tea Party. It was in this same church that the meeting of the patriots took place just before a party of them disguised as Indians went down to Griffin's Wharf and boarded the tea ships. In less than two hours this strange band of Indians staved in and emptied two hundred and forty chests of tea and one hundred half chests. Although a sample of the tea was saved, apparently none of the chests escaped being used for kindling wood.

Although a fair number of old chests have survived, many more have perished. The very places where some have been found is an indication of the fate that has overtaken great numbers of them. Relegated to barns, cellars, and sheds when they had outlived their usefulness in the house and put to rough uses they were never intended to serve, or simply left to decay in some damp or unprotected place, many stout old chests have gone to pieces. For a while, when the demand for them was greater than it is today, the New England dealers sold many chests that were brought down from Canada. Not so many are sold now, though a good chest which has withstood the ravages of time is always worth owning.