The Missing Door

The Brewster Collection spice box. Freeman’s, 15 December 2016, lot 24.

I noted the spice box that sold at Freeman’s last December was missing its door. The contents of most spice boxes were protected by doors having iron locks that could only be opened by someone in possession of the key. (Two surviving spice boxes are made in the form of a chest of drawers on stand but with the drawers arranged in typical spice box fashion. Though lacking doors, metal locks in the central drawers, spring locks on the drawers above, and hidden drawers, protect the contents of five of the eleven drawers of these boxes.)

There is no way to know exactly what the lost door looked like. Witness marks from the missing hinges show that the door was hung on the right (proper left) side and was flush to the outside of the case – the door closed on top of both sides, it did not fit into rabbets created on the front edges of either side.  But the construction and design of the spice box offers several clues that support a theory that the original door was something out of the ordinary.

First, the single arch drawer dividers are flush with the double arch moulding worked on the front edges of the sides. The drawer fronts sit just slightly behind the plane of the front of the single arch moulding. As a result, there is a clearance problem for the brass pulls and their cotter pin attachment on the drawer fronts.

The Brewster Collection spice box with the drawers removed. The drawer dividers are flush with front edges of the sides.

Next, a spring lock secures the central square drawer, accessed through the long drawer below. The long drawer has a large, stamped brass escutcheon but there is not now, nor ever has been, an iron lock present. Once the door was opened, the spring lock would be superfluous. It would not protect the contents of the drawer as the long drawer would be easily accessible. Additionally, the expensive stamped brass escutcheon is pointless, especially if hidden from view much of the time.

Bottom board of the central square drawer with the cavity that contained the wood spring lock. The thin, wood lock is missing.

Finally, the boring for the pulls on the bottom drawer appears inexplicably high.

Two extant spice boxes suggest what the missing door may have looked like. The doors of both these boxes lack panels in their mortise and tenoned frames. The drawers of the boxes are secured by the stiles and rails of the frames and cannot be accessed without first unlocking the door.

Lee Ellen Griffith. The Pennsylvania Spice Box, Paneled Doors and Secret Drawers, Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1986, p. 63, no. 15.

Sotheby’s. New York, New York, The Highly Important Americana Collection of George S. Parker II from the Caxambas Foundation, 19 January 2017, lot 2019.

A panel-less door for the Brewster collection spice box clarifies all the construction and design features described above. The box would not need to be designed with clearance for the brass pulls when there is no panel to get in their way. The central drawer would not be secured by a frame without a panel, so a spring lock would be necessary on that drawer. Access from the drawer below was prohibited by the door frame and its showy brass escutcheon would be permanently on display, never hidden behind the panel of a door. The high boring placement for the pulls on the bottom drawer would be necessary for the frame to clear the drops.

With liberties taken in Photoshop, perhaps this composite image shows how the Brewster Collection spice box may have appeared originally.

A composite image of the Brewster Collection spice box with a panel-less door frame and brass pulls manipulated in Photoshop.

Humor can be hard to detect in furniture from this time and place. It is not the first characteristic attributed to members of the Religious Society of Friends – Quakers – during the early decades of the eighteenth century. But it’s not hard to imagine the original owners of the spice box enjoying watching and waiting for others to discover all may not be what it seems.

4 thoughts on “The Missing Door

  1. Chris-

    “Thinking outside the box” literally, you have provided a convincing argument for why the central drawer has a spring lock without the bottom drawer having a lock. Indeed, given all of your points, it is difficult to conceive of the original door having a central panel.

    Even if the interior surface of such a panel had been configured to accommodate the protruding drops (as I have sometimes seen), that would still not explain the spring lock and the high borings on the bottom drawer. Good work!


  2. Jay,

    Thanks. I think the explanation does satisfy the various construction details, though we can never be certain without the original door turning up. If the door was not close to this configuration, its design would be something out of my experience.

    Knob pulls on spice box drawers are often accommodated by shallow holes bored on the interior surface of the door. Much more complicated to accommodate drop pulls with cotter pins.

    Now, on to another question – how did the door lock? It’s a knottier question than the design of the door.

  3. This is interesting, Chris. It certainly seems to have had a door, but is there any evidence of hinges? I can’t see anything in the photos.


    • The box had scissor hinges, sometimes called pintle hinges in Britain. One arm of the hinge is attached to the door and the other to the door frame. These were commonly used on the upper doors of desk and bookcases from the first quarter of the eighteenth century and occasionally on spice box doors. The mortises for the hinges have been patched on the spice box. You can just make out the patch in the upper rail in one of the photos in the earlier post.
      Good idea for a future post.

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