A “Dear Little Chest”

Margaret Berwyn Schiffer’s collection of furniture and decorative art was auctioned at Pook & Pook, Ltd. on January, 18, 2023. Of particular interest was this spice box made of red cedar with light-wood line inlay on the door, sides, top, and interior drawer fronts. Schiffer owned the spice box when she first illustrated it in “Furniture and Its Makers of Chester County, Pennsylvania,” 1966, University of Pennsylvania Press. Her book was republished in 1978 by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd, Exton, Pa. The inlay on the top of the box was not at all visible in the photos in the book and that on the side was barely readable. I examined and photographed the spice box during the preview prior to the auction.

The sides and top were indeed inlaid with light-wood stringing.

In her book, Schiffer recorded the primary wood species as cedar and the secondary woods species as oak and pine. The primary wood species of the spice box is red cedar, the drawer sides and backs, the wood strips on the bottom of the case, and the interior dividers are riven white oak, the drawer bottoms are riven Atlantic white cedar, and the backboard and bottom of the case are hard pine. (All wood ID by eye.) From the beginning of the eighteenth century to roughly 1740, this was a classic combination of secondary woods used in furniture making in Philadelphia and the Delaware River Valley. It was also common during this period for hard pine to be used for drawer sides and backs of case furniture. Surviving eighteenth-century Philadelphia furniture made of red cedar is exceedingly rare. At this time I don’t know of any furniture attributed to Chester County that uses red cedar as a primary wood.

Last year at this time I was writing about furniture in Bill DuPont’s Rocky Hill collection at auction at Sotheby’s with the idea that a number of early eighteenth-century objects in his collection would have been attributed to Philadelphia had they not been inlaid. Though it has been written that “It is probable that line-and-berry ornament was first used on early Philadelphia furniture; however, to date no such examples can be firmly documented” there has long been evidence for “line-and-dot” work being done in Philadelphia. While this spice box has no inlaid “dots”, its secondary wood species and use red cedar as a primary wood suggest it was more likely made in the Delaware River Valley rather than Chester County.

I found this detail fascinating. Where the bottom of the drawer pulls hit, a small brass-headed spike or sprig with a decorative-filed edge is nailed in place preventing the pull from marring the drawer front and inlaid stringing. It worked.

There is a hidden drawer at the back of the center square drawer. Not all spice boxes have hidden drawers, but several boxes attributed to Philadelphia have hidden drawers similar to this, you must pull the center square drawer out to access it. Little has been written about the possibility there were regional preferences in drawer arrangements or hidden drawer design of spice boxes, but perhaps this is something to consider.

The most surprising line in the Pook & Pook catalogue description of the spice box for me was: “An early note accompanying this lot discusses the history of the chest and its descent in the Leech family, written by Caroline Ash …” Schiffer made no mention of this in her book. Why this was so we can only speculate, but this is invaluable information to have about the spice box. This might be one of the very few spice boxes that can be documented to have been owned by generations of Philadelphians. Caroline Ash may have been mistaken about the age and origin of her spice box but it is clear she took exceptional care of it based on its condition today, and lovingly passed it on to her great – or grand – niece, Eleanor. If Caroline was using the term “Great Aunt” as we do today, she would be the sister of one of Eleanor’s grandparents. The catalogue calls Caroline the daughter of John Ash, but it is actually Margaret Ash, to whom Eleanor bequeathed the box, that is the daughter of John Ash of Philadelphia. There are five family names on this note and one date – Christmas Day 1876 – the day Eleanor received the spice box.

I only saw the note that came with the spice box this past week, there is still a tremendous amount of research into the Leech and Ash families to be done. Any volunteers? I wonder if this Margaret Ash will turn out to be an owner of the spice box or is this just one of the rabbit holes we have to go down? Would that Margaret Schiffer would also have left us a note telling us how she came into possession of the box. She owned the box for almost 60 years, there is a good chance this is longer than anyone previously had owned it.

16 thoughts on “A “Dear Little Chest”

  1. The brass drop pulls remind me of miniature door knockers with a strike plate. The drop pulls with their round rosettes were obviously made in England. I am wondering if the “strike plates” could have been made in the same area as the spice chest? They do not have the same level of craftsmanship as the drop pulls.

    • The “strike plates” could have been made where the box was. I’ve not seen anything like them before. I never noticed them when looking at the image of the box in Schiffer’s book over the years.

  2. Chris,

    Thanks for posting this. The object is one of the rarest early forms I have seen from the Delaware Valley.

    The brass sprigs puzzled me, too, having never seen anything like them on other early pieces made here or in Great Britain. (I checked with a friend in Great Britain who had also never seen any on British pieces.)

    I saw no witness marks on the sprigs where the drops struck them. Instead, each had crude file marks, reminiscent of the sort seen on quickly dressed modern brass goods from India and the Middle East. Perhaps the sprigs were a later addition.

    I did not pry off any of the sprigs, as I did not want to disturb the surface of the drawer front.

    I further question whether they are original as, even if they may protect the drawer front where the drops strike it immediately below, they would not have protected adjacent surfaces struck by the drops. So why have them?

    (Cf., lot 44 in the same sale, a miniature walnut tall chest of drawers, which had drops that struck the drawer front not just beneath but also adjacent, leaving circular witness marks.)

    I welcome your response and the comments of others, Chris.



    • Yes, hidden away as a Chester County box for many years, but we were patient and now we can tell its real story.

      Hard to know just what to make of the brass sprigs. They been there at least since photography was done for the 1966 book. I checked them all and none were loose. I have no idea what the “nail” material is. The next step in an examination would be an x-ray but I very much doubt that is not going to happen now. If they had not been there until relatively recently there might have been some scraping on the drawer fronts, but there is none. But then interior spice box drawers not always show great markings from swinging brass drops. Though I will add that the one I made in 1993 has more scrapes and marks from the drops than I would care for!

      Ultimately it’s a minor, though puzzling issue. It was wonderful to finally examine it and find Caroline Ash’s note. I only hope it stayed with the box. I had to hunt for it at Pook’s.

  3. I photographed Caroline Ash’s note as well and pursued some research. I could not find a connection between the Leech and Ash families in Philadelphia. Perhaps it came from the Leech family down through her mother’s family. Given the inaccuracy of her note as to where the chest was made, her assumptions as to provenance may also be incorrect.

    I was hoping to find inscriptions on the box itself, but only found chalked numbers on the drawers to indicate their arrangement within the case. One of those numbers, a “3,” was partly covered up by the construction of the large middle drawer. That indicated to me that it and the other drawer numbers in a similar hand were face marks applied by the maker, and not by someone later.

    • We can be sure of some of the names on the letter and and I’m imagining “Christmas 1876” is accurate, which is a great help.

      The maker marked the drawer parts in an atypical manner that should be noted for evaluating other objects that might come to be attributed to this shop. The lower corners of the interior of the drawer parts are marked in pencil. Most often makers marked adjoining corners with the same numeral, so around the interior of the drawer you would have corners marked 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, and 4-4, with never a numeral higher than 4. In this case, each element of a drawer had the same numeral on it, all 1s or all 2s and so on up through 9 for the nine drawers. I hadn’t seen this marking system before.

      • Great points about the unique marking system, Chris. Also, thanks for the correction. The markings were indeed in pencil, not chalk.

  4. Thanks for sharing all the fascinating details. I’m just a student here – happy to learn.
    There are numerous ‘spots’ on the door and the top which, to my eye, are the centers of the curves ( the arcs of circles) for the inlay of tendrils and flowers. They do not seem to appear on the back of the door.
    Are they holes that have accumulated dirt over the years? Or ?

    • The “spots” are marks from a point on the tool that cuts the grooves for the stringing inlay. They are at the centers of the curves!

      We don’t have any surviving tools from the time this box was made, but it would have looked like a small beam compass with a fixed narrow steel cutter at one end and a adjustable block of wood with a compass center that could slide along the beam and be locked at the desired radius. If you’re familiar with the woodworking marking gauge, it likely looked very similar. The compass point would be located on one edge of the marking gauges fence. You can get an idea of how this works here:

      It is very labor intensive to inlay stringing and added greatly to the cost of any object that has it. That’s one of the reasons why an object like the spice box is of interest.

      Today, those who do this type of work will often go out of the way to protect the surface from the compass point or fill them after the grooves are cut. This was not the case in the 18th century where every object with radiused line inlay shows these small holes left by the point.

      • Thanks for the answer – I’ve seen pictures of those tools, but until your note, no good description of how they were used.

  5. Hi
    Thanks for the post and the erudite discussion. I also wait with baited breath for these posts.

    This is a charming little chest

    Why is surviving red cedar furniture so rare? Was it not popular during this era, or has it not survived?

    Also, do you know why such aromatic woods as oak and cedar would be used in a box used for storing spices? Did the drawers house other receptacles for the spices themselves?



    • This is s great question. I had been planning to do a short post about this – red cedar – my slowness has to do with my uncertainty about my audience. There are some who read the blog who know very well the answer, but I can often forget many others are not knowledgeable about the less well known details of early 18th century furniture and are here to learn about them. So a quick answer here then a short post with images to come shortly.

      Red cedar enjoyed a popularity for both furniture and architectural paneling in Philadelphia during the first two decades of the 18th century. One house – Belair – that survives in south Philadelphia, and another – Fairhill – which does not, are known for their paneled rooms of red cedar. In his description in “Travels into North America,” the naturalist Peter Kalm who wrote of the red cedar paneling at Fairhill: “I saw a parlor in the country seat of Mr. Norris … wainscoted many years ago with boards of red cedar. Mr Norris assured me that the cedar looked exceedingly well in the beginning, but it was faded when I saw it, the boards looked very shabby, especially the boards near the window had entirely lost their color…”

      Red cedar was prized for its brilliant color and pleasant smell, but after time, these properties faded. Ultimately it would be mahogany that replaced red cedar for its similar color and the added benefit of more dramatic grain figure. The drawers of the spice box, protected by a thin varnish and door that would be closed most of the time, allow us to see the brilliance of the wood as it would have looked when first made into furniture and room paneling.

      What we call “spice boxes” today never were used for storing spices. They were valuable boxes or cabinets. They are referred to as spice boxes in 18th century inventories and joiner’s account books so we use that term today to describe them. When inventoried they are always found in the best rooms of a house. How they were used, what they contained, and why they continued to be called spice boxes when they never actually contained spices are good questions for later posts.

      Thanks for your kind words and questions!

      • Thanks for your reply. It was very interesting.

        There are also people that read your posts that may have quite a bit of knowledge on furniture from parts of the world other than North America, but enjoy learning about and comparing American furniture with that which they are familiar with. I myself am from New Zealand, and our colonial furniture was built with a completely different suite of woods that are native here. The internet is good like that.

        Thanks again , and I look forward to learning more.

  6. Pingback: Red Cedar in Philadelphia | In Proportion to the Trouble

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