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This elaborately carved chest,
constructed in Connecticut between
1760 and 1790, made a statement
about the owner’s good taste and
ID.THF 81368


Godfrey Wilkin made this exuberantly decorated blanket chest in Hardy County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1801. ID.THF 83279


August 2010

Storing Stuff in Early America

Have you ever thought that you have so much stuff you don’t know where to put it all?  Today, our options for storage range from ingeniously designed closets which maximize every square inch, to ubiquitous plastic tubs or even simple cardboard boxes. 

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Americans had fewer possessions than we have today.  They also stored their things differently since closets in houses were rare.  Instead, people used chests in various forms to store many of the things we keep in a closet or cabinet.  

A look inside two pieces of storage furniture from The Henry Ford’s collection gives us a glimpse of how, where and why people stored things in the home.



MORE:  Storing Stuff in Early America

The deep drawers of this chest-on-chest reveal plenty of room to hold the family’s textiles.  ID.THF 81380

This imposing chest-on-chest was made in New London County, Connecticut, between 1760 and 1790.  Large, elaborately carved chests like this one were expensive.  Owners often liked to show them off by placing them in the parlor (rather than a bedroom), where they could be seen and appreciated.  Though the chest was intended to impress, its more practical purpose was to hold the family’s best textiles.  Making cloth and sewing clothing was a labor-intensive process in the 18th century.  Household textiles like bedding and the family’s clothing were prized--and costly--possessions.  Wealthy families, like owners of this chest, would have had servants in the household.  Just in case any servants turned out to be untrustworthy, the drawers on these chests lock to eliminate any chance of theft. 

A look into the chest’s open drawers reveals the type of textiles likely to be stored in such an important chest.  In the bottom drawer is an elaborately embroidered bed hanging and a whole-cloth quilt.  The middle drawer contains a child’s dress and a woman’s red woolen cloak.  The top drawer holds a gentleman’s silk waistcoat and a lady’s petticoat made of fine, imported English brocade fabric. 


When opened, this chest reveals a multitude of storage options. ID.THF 83283

This chest was made in 1801 in Hardy County, Virginia (now part of West Virginia) by Godfrey Wilkin for his son, Jacob.  Godfrey Wilkin must have been pleased with his handiwork, as the text on the right and left sides reads “Wel Don” [sic].

Storage space in most middle-class households was minimal by our standards, making chests like this a necessity for the family’s storage needs.   Sometimes known as a blanket chest, this chest’s drawers and lid may be locked, assuring the family that their possessions were safely stored. 

The top portion of the chest holds household textiles like a woven coverlet and a woolen blanket.  Tucked inside are also a woman’s printed cotton dress, a man’s trousers, and a child’s shoes.  As secure storage, we see that they included their best Sheffield silver-plate spoons and a pewter mug.  The decorative front of this chest tilts to reveal a row of hidden drawers. These drawers likely held important correspondence and, perhaps, a secret storage place for coins and currency.

-- Charles D. Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts


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