THE FIRST COLONISTS had no closets in which to store their clothing, blankets, and house hold linens. Attics were not readily accessible, and cellars were apt to be damp. Thus, the chest came into use.
In its simplest form, the chest was a large box of wood with a hinged lid. Although it functioned primarily as a receptacle for clothes and valuables, it also served as an additional seating place, for chairs were a luxury in most homes. Frequently chests were used for the storage of linens, especially those a bride brought to her husband.
Early ships' records show the chest to have been the sole item of furniture accompanying the earlier settlers. It is not surprising, therefore, that the chests built by seventeenth-century joiners in this country were copied from English pieces designed in the prevailing Jacobean style. As early as 1660, such crafts men as Thomas Dennis of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and Nicholas Disbrowe of Hartford, Connecticut, were fashioning paneled and carved oak chests, constructed of wide stiles and rails. These had slightly sunken panels with elaborately carved intaglio decorations. Instead of a paneled top in the English fashion, the Colonial chest had a plain pine board top. This unadorned top surface was ideal for seating and did not need cushions.
In their crude fashion, these chests were the counterpart of the elaborate coffers, caskets, and cassoni (large Italian chests with fine carvings and paintings) owned throughout Europe by wealthy families.
The Bible box, a smaller version of the chest, was designed to protect treasured volumes and documents. It also held coins, jewelry, and sundries. These small chests were usually made of oak and were decorated with incised linear patterns composed of lunettes, foliage, and floral motifs. The carving of this period is rarely executed in the round to produce bas-relief modeling. To understand the vast difference between the crudeness of these early decorative forms and the sophisticated handiwork of the master European wood carvers, one must consider what the Colonial carpenter-builder had to work with. His tools were few in number and wrought by the local blacksmith. Also, his time was always limited, and he had no books to guide him.
The typical blanket chest, made from about 1650-1750, stood about thirty inches high and was usually four to five feet long. It had a deep well, bracketed legs, and a top lid, with three sunken panels in front, separated by stiles and rails varying from three to four inches in width. The rails were decorated with running patterns, such as the guilloche, scale, or a double scroll enclosing leaf or rosette forms. The front panels, and sometimes the end panels, were designed symmetrically in the form of tulips, sunflowers, or other floral groups, often arranged in an arched or lozenge shape. Stylized foliage filled the areas; animal or human forms never appeared. The carving, generally flat and crude, cannot be used to date pieces, since many copied previous styles. Over the years, drawers were added to the basic form, increasing the height, and gradually a different piece of furniture evolved.
An important development in the decorative treatment of chests is attributed to Nicholas Disbrowe, who followed the Jacobean style of using split balusters. These turnings were applied to the flat surfaces of the stiles in place of carved relief. They were usually painted black to simulate ebony and were supplemented with small knobs, diamonds, and lozenges formed from the raised moldings. The so-called Hartford chest, also known as the sunflower chest because of a grouping of three sunflowers on the front center panel, was made by Disbrowe between 1660 and 1680. The flanking panels were ornamented with carved tulips and leafage scrolls. Two full-width drawers under the paneled well had octagon shaped molded panels with applied bosses and were fitted with elongated turned wooden knobs. This chest was made from oak and had a pine top.
The Hadley chest was named for the town in Massachusetts where it was produced between 1675 and 1740. It was decorated with rather crude and shallow carving of simple designs, usually tulips, vines, and leaf forms, which covered the entire front. It had three rectangular upper panels, one, two, or three drawers, and was made of oak with pine parts. These chests were painted red, black, brown, and sometimes green, and generally bore the initials or the name of the person for whom the chest had been made. About one hundred and twenty examples are known, proving they were very popular in their day.
The town of Guilford, Connecticut, is identified with another type of chest. It had a stile-and-rail construction, with a wide front panel instead of several smaller panels, a single drawer, and a large upright panel at each end. Unlike most other New England chests whose decorations were carved, the Guilford chest featured an all-over polychrome treatment of flowers, foliage, and running bands of scrolls and leaves. Often the end panel carried a large bird rendered in silhouette. The painted designs show strong evidence of Tudor and Dutch derivation and formal patterns of inlay like those used throughout Europe at the time.
Toward the closing years of the seventeenth century, the art of japanning was introduced into this country from England, where it had caught the fancy of many cabinetmakers. The increasing British trade with the Orient had resulted in the importation of assorted goods from China, Japan, India, and Indochina. In Holland, an influx of Huguenot refugees learned the art, and the mania for everything Oriental was further stimulated and brought from Holland by William and Mary.
An important volume written in 1688 by John Stalker and George Parker called A Treatise of Japanning fanned a raging controversy between the Classicists, on the one hand, and the proponents of Orientalism. The English furniture makers and their followers on Colonial shores plunged into an orgy of Oriental fantasies, covering surfaces of cabinets and highboys with chinoiserie that invoked a colorful realm of costumed figures, pagodas, toriis, temples and gardens, birds and beasts. The skillful practitioners of the art of japanning produced raised designs, built up with chalk compounds for relief. Surfaces were highly polished, sized, and metal leaf was then affixed. "Lay on your gold," the Treatise advised, "if your work be sufficiently moist, you'll perceive how lovingly the gold will embrace it, hugging, and clinging it......
Colonial japanners used maple as a ground for their principal surfaces and pine for less important areas. After building up, polishing, and painting, several coats of varnish were applied to give permanence and luster to their painted efforts.
For their source material, the decorators and japanners turned to imported goods principally the Oriental porcelains, and Delft pottery, using motifs from the Far East and Indian calicoes. Various pattern books published by the leading British cabinetmakers contained plates of value as exemplars. In Chippendale's The Gentleman & Cabinet Maker's Director many Oriental motifs are shown, particularly on fire screens, tea chests, chemney pieces, and picture frames.