Cabinets and Boxes The History of the Origin of the Design Period Known as Early American Colonial Furniture

An Assortment of Boxes

The extraordinary use of the chest in the middle ages has been continued in colonial times in the tracing of the origins of the style known has early american colonial furniture by a very great number of small boxes and cases made for special purposes. there are the letter- and the pillar-
boxes, often not boxes at all. There are paint- and pencil­boxes with an ancestry going back to prehistoric egypt. The solicitor's deed-boxes and the business man's cash-box are direct descendants of the small chests containing valuable documents that were left for safe-keeping in the churches, and the iron-bound coffer that was kept at the foot of the feudal lord's bed. Tinder­boxes gave way to match-boxes. Snuff-boxes, still occasionally used, were often exquisite little masterpieces. Books and boxes have always been closely related. the romans had a special kind of chest for books called a " scrinium", and the " shrine", which is a chest for sacred things, was used in the irish church for preserving the sacred writings. The Scandinavian word today for a small box is " skrin". In protestant England the scriptures were pre served in bible-boxes. Bookbinders at first used thin wooden "boards" for book-covers, and the modern substitute is called "cardboard" and the outer binding of a book is its "case". Portable writing-desks which open with a sloping surface for writing these items of furniture must be considered in the tracing of the origins of the style known has early american colonial furniture purposes, and which contain a variety of small compartments, have been made from the time of the Renaissance until today. For the special accommodation of articles of attire there have been lace, glove, collar, hat and glove boxes, etc.


Furniture to be considered in the tracing of the origins of the style known as Early American Colonial



Writing Desk circa 1700 A.D.

Writing Desk circa 1700 A.D.

In the Tracing of the Origins of the Style Known as Early American Colonial Furniture: Tea Caddies 

Perhaps the best known of boxes made for special purposes are tea-caddies. The word is an English form of a Malay word meaning a weight of one-and-a-third pounds used in the measurement of tea. Tea did not come into common use until the last years of Cromwell. Tea was then from £5 to Rio a pound. It never became a really cheap article, and at one time (181o) tea duty was as much as 2s. 21d. per pound. No wonder it was kept under lock and key. A pound of tea in a suitable casket was an acceptable present among the very well-to-do. The key of the caddy was kept by the mistress of the house. Beautiful little boxes were made by the most skilful craftsmen and reflected the style of ornament in vogue at the time. The first tea came from China only, and so the earliest caddies were small, and have but one compartment. Much later, at about 1838, tea was also imported from India, and so caddies were made with two compartments, one for China and one for India tea. A third compartment was sometimes added for the white loaf sugar which was too expensive an item to be left as an open temptation to children or servants. The introduction of tea was accompanied with cups (the first of which had no handles) and saucers, teapots, bowls and jugs of china ware, and corner cupboards and china cabinets were devised for their safe-keeping. Special tea-tables also were made. Special fast vessels called clippers were built for the China trade, and, besides tea, brought home, among other things, lacquered articles. This form of decorating wooden articles became extremely popular, and for nearly a hundred years after William and Mary came to the throne, very much furniture to be considered in the tracing of the origins of the style known has Early American Colonial Furniture was decorated with lacquer.

At about the same time that tea-caddies began to be made, another old friend, the grandfather's clock, made its appearance. There had been clocks for many years, but the great invention of the pendulum made it possible to produce exact time-keepers at a low cost. The practical use of the pendulum is due to a Dutchman, Huygens, in 1657, the same year that the first tea-shop was opened in London. Charles II was then in exile in Holland and acquired a collector's mania for clocks. Under his patronage the clock­makers of London became famous. Glass faces, boxes to preserve the works from dust, and long bodies to enclose the weights and pendulum were made. These were raised upon a foot or pedestal for steadiness, and the three part "grandfather" clock case was made.

Finally, in this very incomplete notice of the uses of boxes must be mentioned the knife-boxes that were made at much the same time as tea-caddies and clock-cases. Up to William III's time it was a general custom for men to carry their own knives. Forks were unknown except as a rarity for the eating of fruit. The introduction of the fork from Italy in Stuart times was preached   as disrespect to God the proverb says, " Fingers were made before forks " and those particular folk who wished to use forks carried them about in small cases. Manners improved slowly, and guests carried cases with knife, fork and spoon, just as soldiers on active service do to-day. Then the custom arose of the wealthy pur­chasing sets for their personal use and that of favoured guests. These were valuable and were kept locked in knife-boxes which had a place of honour on the sideboard of the dining-room. Nowadays their place has been taken in some degree by "canteens" of cutlery.

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