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These pieces of joinery were, perhaps, the first bits of household furnishings our primitive ancestors, some thousands of years ago, developed. Even as late as Renaissance times the chest in humble homes served as chair, table and bed as well as strong box and wardrobe. Today, besides being useful as seats, helped out, perhaps, with a gay colored cushion, there is nothing more handy than a chest in which to keep table linen, a collection of old fabrics and costumes, or golf, tennis and other sport things.
Because chests were so universally employed by peopie of the past, the examples that have come down to us and those from which designers today draw inspiration for re productions range from simple pine boxes of early Colonial days to the elaborately carved walnut cassone of the Italian Renaissance. There is a sentimental and romantic interest attached to the chest that we feel for few other pieces of furniture. That may partly account for the fact that we still seek for old examples or buy new ones, although their original utilitarian value has greatly decreased. An oak chest in an entrance hall, a painted pine chest in a bedroom, or a carved Spanish chest, heavy with wrought iron, in the living room, gives an added decorative touch to a room ensemble.
The tendency toward color in all our furnishings today has created some interesting reproductions of the early carved and painted chests of New England and Pennsylvania. Some of these were originally old examples of simple box-like forms with wrought iron lock-plates and with handles on the ends. Originally undecorated, under a modern craftsman's hands, the outside of the piece has been ornamented with incised designs brought out with yellows, vermilions, greens and purples. One may have the decoration in all its vividness or an antique finish can be given to it that will make the chest look a couple of centuries old.
The earliest Colonial chest, like those of the so-called Hadley type, had their entire surface covered with shallow carved designs which often included the date and the owner's initials. Paneling and ornamentation with turned pieces of wood were other forms of decoration. In many cases such chests were painted in several colors. Examples of this type of woodwork, especially those decorated with painted designs and shallow carvings, are serving anew as inspiration to designers for most interesting forms of furniture, essentially American in simplicity of lines and decoration.
One of the most interesting types of colorful chests is the old Spanish with the red velvet under the decorative iron tracery Spanish covers the outside. These, when new, in all their glory of bright red velvet and gilded iron, must have been gorgeous accessories to any room. Today if one is lucky enough to find an old one-even though time has dimmed its decorative hues-there will be enough color left to make it a prized piece for the decorator as well as the antiquarian.
Picturesque also are the carved, unpainted Spanish chests. These are often huge things of oak with panels on which, in low relief, religious processions or conven tionalized ornaments are depicted. Heavy and curiously shaped locks and hinges often with other metal work of clasps and handles, aid in making the chest a thing of both strength and artistry. Old chests of this type are still to be found, for every Spanish home possessed them for storing everything from silver and silks to food and grain. From the standpoint of sheer artistry the Italian chests of the Renaissance have, perhaps, never been surpassed. We do not often see the painted specimens on this side of the water, but examples of fine carving and simple, picturesque chests from country districts are to be found now and then. Two of the elaborately carved chests in walnut used to be given to a bride on her wedding day by her father. If rich he had the best carver available to decorate the chest; if poor he might do it himself in the years of preparation for the day when his daughter would leave her home.
On the finer chests the coat of arms of the husband and wife are often found. The ownership and date of the chest may be determined on some from this insignia. Cupids and elaborate scrolls or allegorical figures symbolizing the seasons of the year are other characteristic decorations.