These days, a lot of money and planning goes into weddings. In past decades, dower chests and bridal boxes played an important part. Even into the 1950s, brides-to-be stored fine linens and silver in a dower chest. Small items were placed in a bridal box. Both have a long history, dating back centuries. When they come to auction, prices depend on age and decorations. The more attractive examples can cost over one thousand dollars.
The tradition was carried over from Europe to the new world. These storage pieces were among the few pieces of furniture that the first colonists brought to America, along with a variety of other chests.
By the early mid-17th century, craftsmen were making paneled and carved oak chests in Ipswich, Mass. and Hartford, Conn. The rarest and most expensive dower chests are those made between 1675 and 1740 in the town of Hadley, Mass. To date, only 120 examples are known. Even in these dour economic times, a new discovery could fetch over $150,000 at auction. Those made in other areas are practically bargains for $2,000 and up.
In 18th-century America, designs came from the countries of origin such as various regions of England, Holland, and Germany. Especially desirable are bridal boxes from the late 18th to early 19th century with quaint Pennsylvania Dutch designs.
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 instead of 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.
It also became fashionable to mimic expensive carving with painted “faux” reproductions. This made ornamental painters — both professional and itinerant — 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. Among the objects used to achieve different effects were feathers, sponges, leather combs, and putty and carbon from candle smoke. In the late 18th century, freehand painting was popular as a form of the Pennsylvania German techniques.
Prices zoom when a painted piece can be attributed to a specific artist, such as Johannes Spitler, Shenandoah Country, Va., circa 1800.
CLUES: Since the 1920s, faking of painting on once plain chests has been going on. At that time, interest in all things early American was revived. A whole lot of faking was done during the 1976 Bicentennial as well. If you think you’ve made a discovery in a small, country antique shop, think again. Sniff the wood. If it smells new, it is. Look for aging in logical places where wear would take place. Beware of chests decorated in pale blue paint, one of the most common examples of fakery. Be suspicious if the painted surface is crazed. During the Bicentennial, special kits were sold that produced crazing.