Pennsylvania Spice Boxes

CabinetmakersÂ’ elaborate craft

By Susan Hanway Scott
Photograph Courtesy of H.L. Chalfant American Art and Antiques
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June 1, 2009
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Pennsylvania Spice Boxes

In medieval Europe, a pound of saffron cost the same as a horse. Spices were an economic force that carved ancient trade routes over land and 16th-century circumnavigation by sea. From the West Indies and beyond, spices came into Colonial Philadelphia for sale to the wealthy. In 17th-century England, and then in the colonies, valuable spices were often locked up in spice boxes.

“Most spice boxes are simply dovetailed frames with dividers rabbited inside to support a configuration of small drawers,” writes Lee Ellen Griffith in The Pennsylvania Spice Box. Griffith notes that considerable technical skill was required to create these miniature case pieces. Plentiful local walnut was the wood of choice for Pennsylvania cabinetmakers, with less expensive poplar and oak often used for unseen structural areas. Cherry and imported mahogany were sometimes used on exteriors as well.

Some spice boxes had “Quaker locks,” used to secure a secret drawer. According to Griffith, secret drawers were often hidden behind a backboard. “Quaker locks” were simply a thin splint of wood nailed onto the bottom of the drawer, preventing the drawer from being pulled open.

Outside of Pennsylvania, spice boxes were rare in the 18th century. H.L. Chalfant of H.L. Chalfant Fine Art and Antiques, says, “There are only about four known from New England and they’re Pilgrim-style, very different from ours. After about 1700, they didn’t make spice boxes in New England.” Delaware’s David Stockwell wrote in The Magazine Antiques in 1939, “The finest of these spice cabinets were used throughout the 18th century and even earlier, in rural districts within a radius of about 75 miles of Philadelphia.” Localizing further, Griffith wrote, “Although spice boxes were popular throughout the Delaware Valley, most of them were made in Chester County.”

Which makes the Chester County Historical Society the best place in the world to see American antique spice boxes. A little yellow room upstairs containing valuable local spice boxes, along with those placed in period rooms nearby, shows the wide range in styles among Pennsylvania spice boxes, from plain William and Mary square boxes on ball feet to high-style Chippendale boxes on frames with ball-and-claw feet. Fortunately, the Historical Society has several of the most distinctive local variety: those with decorative inlay. Perhaps the most spectacular example there, made between 1740–1760, has compass and herringbone inlay on the sides of the box as well as on the front.

“The inlay patterns on spice boxes are among the most elaborate and intricate of all the inlay decorations used on 18th-century Pennsylvania furniture,” according to Griffith. “There were two basic patterns: a compass pattern laid out using a series of intersecting arcs; the other consists of inlaid initials and a date contained inside an arched border. Several spice boxes have inlay on the interior drawers as well.” Griffith further notes that compass patterns are unique to Pennsylvania spice box doors. And, while inlay is common in Hepplewhite furniture from 1790-1810, “that’s late stuff to me,” Chalfant laughs. “Very few pieces had inlay in the 1730s-1750s.”

Although spice boxes were popular throughout the Delaware Valley, most of them were made in Chester County.

We don’t know who made or owned most of these treasures. “Most don’t have provenance. One that sold a couple years ago had papers in the drawer from the Downing family of Downingtown,” Chalfant says. “We know that William Brinton, who lived at the 1704 House in Dilworthtown, had two spice boxes and kept both in the ‘lower room”—probably the parlor.”

Griffith suspects that cabinetmaker Joel Baily may have made all of the inlaid, initialed spice boxes from Southern Chester County around the 1740s. Not only are several nearly identical, but, “The box initialed GPM/1744 was made for George and Margaret Passmore who were married at nearby London Grove Meeting in 1742. Their marriage certificate signed by all of the wedding guests includes the signature of Joel Baily.”

As spices declined in price, spice boxes increasingly protected small valuables rather than spices. Worldy Goods describes a New Jersey spice box c.1745-1750 retaining some of its contents of small keepsakes, jewelry, and needleworks.

So why are there spice boxes made as late as 1792 in the Chester County Historical Society? Griffith points to the “conservative tradition of the Quaker community.”

Perhaps a spice box, even without spices, was a traditional home furnishing for the well-to-do. Stockwell discusses regional house size, noting that 18th-century New Englanders, without spice boxes, had smaller houses and few servants while Southern plantations had large, locked spice chests. Another explanation comes from Revolution in Eating by James McWilliams, who claims that colonial New Englanders flavored food with typical English garden herbs, whereas nearby Chesapeake Bay settlers combined nutmeg, mace, and cloves with food.

Whatever the reasons, Pennsylvania spice boxes reign. Should you buy an antique, Chalfant says, “Make sure the origin is American, not English. English spice boxes go for one-tenth the price. You can tell it’s American by the wood. After that, it’s condition, condition, condition.”

Or you could create a future antique spice box and have your initials inlaid by Doug Mooberry of Kinloch Woodworking in Unionville (see his article on Pennsylvania spice box craftsmanship at Tauton.com). Like Joel Baily before him, Mooberry’s a member of the London Grove Friends Meeting. It’s a local thing.