To a Spice Box

lot 24

Tomorrow Freeman’s will be selling the Estate of Andre and Nancy Brewster of Maryland, a small collection of 33 lots. Lot 24 is a rare spice box made in Philadelphia that can be attributed to an anonymous joiner’s shop that produced some of the most opulent furniture made in Philadelphia during the 1720s. The appearance of an object heretofore unknown that we can be reasonably sure was made in Philadelphia in the first three decades of the eighteenth century is a rare occurrence and I was happy to be able to examine and photograph the spice box before it disappears again.


With the drawers removed.

bottom case

The deep base moulding with shaped lower edges was cut to fit around the top element of the turned feet.


A big surprise was the single piece backboard of yellow poplar, an early use of this wood species in Philadelphia County although it is used sparingly on another object from this shop.

bottom drawer

The front of the bottom drawer, probably with the original escutcheon.

Although it is not noted in the catalogue, the original door that swung on pintle hinges is missing. The brass pulls are modern but the escutcheon on the bottom drawer is likely original. Otherwise the spice box is in good condition for an object that is almost three hundred years old.


One side of the middle drawer. Riven oak drawer sides and backs are seen on a number of the other objects made in this shop.


Rear dovetails on the middle drawer. This shop consistently saws steep angled dovetail joints and wedges the pins.


Another construction practice of this shop seen on both large and small drawers is fitting the Atlantic white cedar drawer bottoms to rabbets on all four sides.


Sides of the small drawers. Steep, wedged dovetails and rabbeted bottoms.


There is little to no kerfing of the lap dovetails at the front corners.


Another refinement seen on all drawers attributed to this shop are mitered rear drawer corners.

A note taped to the bottom of a drawer, probably written by the Brewster’s, describes it as a “Diminutive size Georgian Burl Walnut spice chest, England circa late 18th century, Gift of N. B. White 1974″. But we know better, although it is unclear if Freeman’s does as the spice box is catalogued as a “William and Mary Spice Chest 18th century with no location of manufacture.



Base moulding and feet.


The bottom and cleats supporting the base moulding to which the feet are attached to are made of sawn oak.

Two other objects that can be attributed to this shop are the large oval table made for James and Elizabeth Bartram inlaid with the date of their marriage, 1725, and a dressing table in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art made for Elizabeth Maris Bartram before her marriage to James inlaid with her initials EM and the date 1724.


The James and Elizabeth Bartram Oval table, inlaid with the date 1725.


Elizabeth Maris Bartram’s dressing table, inlaid with the date 1724. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1940-16-28. The stretchers along with the center foot and finial are replaced.


The dressing table’s inlaid top. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1940-16-28


Comparison of a foot from the dressing table, left, and the spice box, right.


The green cast of the un-oxidized yellow poplar backboard.

The auction begins tomorrow at 10 am. I am not bidding and have not been contacted by anyone with an interest in the box. It remains to be seen how collectors and dealers will react to the loss of the door, certainly there will be those will can’t abide it. But it is a rare thing. Plain, but I like it. If the spirit of N. B. White moves any of you, I’d be happy to receive it as a gift in this holiday season. I’d even paste a note with your name on it inside.

You can’t say you never got a scoop here.


Waiting for a new home after 42 years in the Brewster’s collection.

11 thoughts on “To a Spice Box

  1. Great stuff.
    I make Chester County spice boxes and find this to have some unusual features (from what I have seen). I’m not sure that oak was used very much in these boxes, but perhaps I am wrong. Also, the wedged dovetails were interesting. Gives me some ideas….
    Thanks for sharing.

    –Wm. Brown

    • Oak was not as commonly used as hard pine for drawer sides and backs and structural members in Delaware River Valley furniture made in the eighteenth century but it does occur and the shop that made this spice box used it on all but one object attributed to the shop. Yellow poplar, and sometimes chestnut, were the predominate woods used for drawer linings in Chester County though Atlantic white cedar was used for drawer bottoms when available and cedar turns up in the inventories of several mid-eighteenth centuries joiners.

    • Jackie,
      You may still have a chance to see it, unless it’s headed west. It’s great fun. Love the ogee shaped base moulding and those wonderful feet from one of the most inventive turners working at the time. So few of these really early spice boxes. I have plenty of photos if you ever need them.

  2. Great write up Chris. It is a fantastic box. This turner’s work is also present on an pillar and claw tea table, which appears to be the earliest American example of that form. It’s shown in Alan Miller’s article in AF 2014. Keep up the good work buddy.

    • Yes, Luke, I’m familiar with that table and quite the same distinct turning and iron blacksmith-made catch. I remember spending several hours cutting and shaping cherry astragal moulding in 1982 or ’83 to fill the missing sections that fit in a channel in the rim of the top wondering why the original maker would have done that to himself! Much extra work when other makers turned that astragal out of the solid.

    • Some have speculated that James Bartram, the brother of the botanist John Bartram made the oval table with his and his wife Elizabeth’s initials inlaid in the top and hence, by attribution, the other related objects. I have not seen documentary evidence that James Bartram, who was born in October, 1701 and would then have made the Elizabeth Maris dressing table when he was 22 or 23 years old, was a “genius” joiner. He ran a large farm and had some woodworking tools in his inventory at death and may have billed for a coffin but all farmers at the time had to be competent in basic woodworking to build, maintain, and repair their equipment. So for me, no, I don’t see that we have specific information of who the maker was, which is not unusual in furniture history as so little furniture is signed or survives with original invoices that allow for attribution.

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