Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cedar Chests Through Time

I like cedar chests. They often serve as little personal time capsules. We put precious things (often textiles) in them, and then we forget about them. I've found neat artifacts in more than one cedar chest I've refinished. I mentioned in my last post that my parents had a HUGE pine cedar chest at the foot of their bed when I was a kid. My mom always told me she'd lost the key and couldn't remember what was inside. Now I'm seriously curious. What's in that cedar chest, Mom?? Or is it still locked?

          But cedar chests are time capsules in another way as well. They were primarily made between about 1910 and 1990, though there's still a few made new to this day. Each year a new model of cedar chest came out from each of the major makers, Lane and Montgomery Ward the biggest of the bunch. And with each passing year the design and style varied, sometimes drastically sometimes slightly, but always echoing the changes in taste that defined that year. And so by looking at cedar chests through all of the 20th century we can see these mass movements of furniture, eras of style, marked by the simple, humble cedar chest.

           I'm guessing somewhere there's a cool coffee table book on this, or a big chart, and if not, there damn well should be. Until we discover that handy reference guide you'll have to suffice with the poor man's version, my archive files on all the cedar chests I've refinished in the last ten years.

Group 1: 1920s-1940s 
            To be fair, I think all three of these cedar chests date from the late 1930s, but as all three came with no provenance or markings, I can't say for sure. This William and Mary or Jacobean Revival form is the earliest I've seen. Any piece that comes before but serves the same purpose doesn't seem to be the mass produced cedar lined form we're used to, but rather pine blanket chests.
As you can see all three have the "bun" feet typical of William and Mary design. We may have Wallace Nutting to thank for this, as his reproductions, which helped fuel the first Colonial Revival of the 1910-1920s frequently featured over the top William and Mary details. Of the three, the bottom one is the most historically accurate reproduction of a c.1720-1740 blanket chest, disregarding (of course) my very modern color addition. The top two have lots of applied frou frou and panels, which are seen time and again on sideboards, dining tables, hutches, and dressers from the pre-WWII era.
There are Art Deco cedar chests that were produced at nearly the same time, or just before, but I've never refinished one as, truth be told, I hate Art Deco design.
And interesting aside, I had to remove the veneer on all three of these chests as they were all falling apart. Time had not been kind to any of these first examples.

Group 2: Post World War 2
1940-1970 was the cedar chest heyday. I've had countless clients and vendors tell me about the cedar chest they or their mother received upon graduation in this era. They were generally called 'Hope Chests' and a young lady was supposed to fill the chest with the linens and bed coverings to furnish her new home when she hopefully got married, a 19th century holdover tradition which has thankfully finally kicked the bucket. And about the time that tradition started to decline, the cedar chest started to lose momentum... and birth control became widely available. 

       But right after World War 2 the hope chest was hot Hot HOT! All of the pieces below are from the 1950s and 60s. They, just like the last group, heavily reference furniture forms of the 18th century. Here we see the cedar chest take on the lowboy, both in Queen Anne (green) and Chippendale (dove gray) styles. Both are fairly faithful interpretations, though they're chunkier, and lack the height and delicacy of leg that first period lowboys have, and of course, they're lift top and the drawers are faux. Note the graceful cabriole legs ending in pad feet and the the center shell motif with allllmost cyma curves on either the side of the apron on the green cedar chest- All classic Queen Anne details. On the Chippendale chest we see much more aggressive, dare I say gawdy, carvings, with shells on the center bottom 'drawer', and all four knees. The apron is a riot of swirls and returns and the feet terminate in the inescapable ball and claw foot that are all but synonymous Chippendale itself. 
           The final three cedar chests are all less extreme variations on this theme. The first is a sweet little Queen Anne version with bandy legs. It has the applied molding typical of cedar chests in group 1, and is likely the earliest of the three, possibly mid 1940s. The black one has very similar legs but the cleaner lines, lacking the applied frou frou indicates a date closer to 1950. The final one, which I just refinished today, has handsome Chippendale ogee feet, and a solid cherry top instead of a mahogany veneer top. It's from right around 1960. 

Group 3: Stylistic Outliers
This group is a funny bunch. They all come from the 1940s and 1950s. And while they reference 18th century design elements, they're a little too weird to fit in with Group 2. Something about the funky squat flared feet gives an Art Deco feel, and the yellow one has a Chippendale shell, but otherwise marches to the beat of its own drum. The pale green Montgomery Ward chest came with all its original labels, so we know it dates to February of 1940. It's also far more Art Deco than the yellow one, which is likely closer to 1950. The third is the latest of the three, and could even be early 1960s, but has bun feet similar to group 1 and a funky and rather ineffective faux paneled door treatment above the single bottom drawer.

Group 4: Mid Century Modern and beyond
These are the last years of the cedar chest boom and as the form became more outrageous, the sales continued to slip. The first piece is a wonderfully bombastic late 1950s or early 1960s cedar chest. It's absurdly hip and cheeky. Next is a more sophisticated mid century modern chest from about 1965. It's a symphony of graining and form, and is my favorite of the whole lot. The third marks the death knell of the cedar chest empire, a late 1970s or early 1980s pine over cedar chest. It's again referencing 18th century design, as had become popular once more when bicentennial fever surged through the states in 1976. 

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