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.