Popular Woodworking 2009-12 № 180, страница 11

Popular Woodworking 2009-12 № 180, страница 11

Arts & Mysteries


Hidden in Plain Sight

Lessons learned from examining a Pennsylvania Spice Chest.

On a recent tour of Pennsbury M anor, the reconstructed home of William Penn in Bucks County, Pa., where I volunteer some weekends each year, I noticed a small "spice chest" atop a larger case piece in a dark corner. The Pennsylvania black walnut, though lightened after nearly 300 years, did nothing to proclaim the presence of the tiny box. Roughly 17" square and possessing restrained mouldings and bun feet, even its silhouette was uninteresting. Its flat door revealed only upon closer examination a touch of figured grain and a fancy keyhole escutcheon. The door was closed, concealing the only interesting part of the chest - the woodwork inside.

These chests were typically fitted out with myriad drawers to store precious items. It's true that spices were expensive then, but few of these boxes were actually used to store spices. Rather, they were used to store valuables such as coins, jewels, important papers, possibly keys and other expensive household items.

Pennsbury Manor's museum curator, Kim McCarty, probably positioned the box purposely to keep it out of the sun's damaging rays. But she may have also suspected that a "hidden in plain sight" location would have been chosen for boxes like this one 300 years ago.

Imagine yourself living in that time. What would you do with earnings from the sale of a prized hog, for example? Would you hide your money under your mattress? For most of us, our mattresses and our bedrooms are private. But Colonial homes had few or no private spaces. Folks wealthy enough to have something to hide invariably had household servants. Even when one's own servants could be trusted, homes were often awash with relatives, neighbors, custom-

20 ■ Popular Woodworking December 2009

Hidden treasure. A rare look inside Pennsbury Manor's early 18th-century Pennsylvania spice chest reveals its array of tiny drawers. Originally designed to hide precious objects, it still contains many hidden treasures for those of us interested in history and woodworking.

ers or merchants, and very possibly their servants. A coin hidden in a secret place could be discovered and pilfered without detection. A spice chest filled with valuables, "hidden in plain sight," would be difficult to shoplift. And that's the sense I get from objects such as these. Colonial homes might seem to us more like stores at the mall than quaint private residences. The spice box furniture form is yet one more reminder that our ancestors lived in a world we probably wouldn't recognize.

But there's more hidden in this little chest than a history lesson. The original was made of three different species of wood. This is a common characteristic of Colonial-era furniture. The door, sides, top, mouldings and feet are all black walnut. The bottom, drawer bottoms, back and drawer dividers are all yellow pine (which grew in the Delaware Valley at that time). The thin drawer sides are all white oak. It could have been the case that these woods were chosen for

their mechanical properties: Walnut for its color and stability, oak for its strength and wear characteristics, and pine for its low cost, perhaps? Could be. But a closer examination revealed interesting similarities in the grain orientation of the different species.

Mixed materials. This chest's drawers are constructed of V2" walnut drawer fronts, V4" riven white oak sides and V4" sawn yellow pine bottoms. Was this choice of materials based on utility, availability, or ease of stock preparation?


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