Early cabinets spiced things up

The majority of spices are the produce of tropical vegetation and climates. Few plants grown in temperate zones possess sufficient aromatic and palatable properties to be commercially grown for the spice trade.

Islands of spice. The most sought spices were originally found in the islands in the Indian Ocean, namely the Spice Islands or Moluccas.

However, the spices presented to Solomon by Queen Sheba were not native to any of those areas and probably were from Ceylon or islands to the east.

The tantalizing aromas of those tropical regions were highly prized by mariners venturing into unknown oceans to obtain them.

New land discoveries resulted in the travelers’ quests, and besides spices, records reveal that frankincense and myrrh ranked as the most esteemed luxuries.

Early spice racks. To ship the spices they found, travelers made finely-crafted wooden cabinets containing miniature drawers to separate and store the valuable spices.

The finish of these spice boxes was quite attractive; some had ornamental woodwork, veneers of expensive or finely grained woods, paneling, attractive handles and hinges.

These spice boxes were later used beside parlor or bedroom furniture to hold small valuables such as silver, gold or other metal type jewelry.

Many of these boxes had hidden drawers and complicated locking devices for special family possessions, but were originally for quite expensive spices.

Fine furniture. Pennsylvania craftsmen that created these storage boxes for the well-to-do, employed the same wood species and expertise utilized in making fine furniture. So attractive and prized were these boxes that sometimes they were prominently displayed in the parlor.

This room was the most prestigious room in the home containing the families’ best furniture.

Records indicate the majority of spice boxes were constructed in Chester County, Pa. The cabinet makers of that area are known for their finishes and woodworking techniques, which reveal an English influence during the 1700s.

However, the original English version of spice boxes were smaller, devoid of ornamentation; simply a plain small storage cabinet for spices, a sort of disposable container.

The Pennsylvania craftsmen employed the Jacobean styles with sometimes quite elaborate decoration.

Early in the 1700s, the interest in spice boxes began to wane, but the Pennsylvania cabinetmakers continued to make them. The Quakers traditionally remained interested.

Four styles. The length of interest remained through four distinct fashion styles – William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale resemblance, and the first phase of Hepplewhite motifs.

These craftsmen from Pennsylvania employed walnut, mahogany, cherry and curly maple. A few were inlaid with holly, locust or red cedar.

Two basic interior drawer styles can be used to identify original construction. The first is the standard layout seen in English and the later New England spice boxes.

Two drawer variations. This is a square center drawer amidst rectangular drawers in a well-proportioned arrangement. A few possessed an open center shelf for a pestle and mortar.

The second variation had diminished sizes of drawers from top to bottom.

The secret drawers were secured by a locking device named a “Quaker lock,” a designation given to it because it was of Pennsylvania origin.

Door locks. This device consisted of a thin wood splint fastened to the bottom of the drawer. It would catch on the drawer divider to stop the drawer from opening. This lock was released underneath by a finger pressure.

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