Articles At A Glance
Dower Chests Once A Must For Brides
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, March 2008
You hear a lot about fancy weddings these days but nothing about dower chests. Yet, even into the 1950s brides-to-be stored fine linens and silver a dower chest, even though it may have been a cedar chest or even a metal foot locker. These days antique dower chests with fanciful painted surfaces fetch fancy prices at auction. Prices range in the high thousands.
The dower chest idea is centuries old. But, this tradition became important even in the new world with brides-to-be. These storage pieces were among the few pieces of furniture that the first colonists brought to America along with a variety of other chests. In 18th century America designs came from the countries of origin such as Holland and various regions of England.
By the early mid-seventeenth century craftsmen made paneled and carved oak chests in Ipswich, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut. Among the most expensive dower chests when they make a rare auction appearance, are those made between 1675 and 1740
in the town of Hadley, Massachusetts. With good reason. According to experts only one hundred and twenty examples are known. A true rarity can sell at auction for over $150,000. Those made elsewhere in the 18th century can be had from over $2,000 to over $7,000, depending on the design and condition.
Early American craftsmen began making changes in European chests adding their own touches. One of the first changes was to use a plain, pine board top, rather than the standard English top.
Another early change was made in the Jacobean style. Split baluster turnings were added to the flat surfaces in place of carved relief and then painted black.
By the 18th century it was fashionable to mimic expensive carving with painted “faux” reproductions. As a result the ornamental painter, both professional and itinerant became important influences, well into the 19th century.
One of the most common forms was “graining”, imitating wood graining with paint. The results could be very different, depending on the materials used. Putty and carbon from candle smoke as well as feathers, sponges and leather combs were among the objects used. In the late 18th century freehand painting was popular as a form of the Pennsylvania German techniques.
When a painted piece can be attributed to a specific artists, such as Johannes Spitler, Shenandoah County, Virginia, circa 1800, the price zooms.
CLUES: Faking of painting on once plain chests has been going on since the 1920s when
interest in all things early American was first revived. Lots of faking was done during the 1976 Bicentennial as well. If you are offered a painted dower chest for a low price be suspicious. Sniff the wood. If it smells new it is. Look for aging in logical places where wear would take place.
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