Thursday, September 22, 2016

An Antique Dresser With a Story to Tell

I walked by this dresser the first time I saw it at the local arts community tagsale last weekend. It was sweet but otherwise fairly unremarkable, a little pine chest of drawers like any number I see at every flea market and antique shop.
             When I returned a bit later to pick up another, more impressive pine chest of drawers from the same era I took a second look at the forlorn little chest tucked in a corner, unwanted and forgotten. I'm not sure what made me scoot the thing away from the wall to look at the backboard, as I said, I had no intention of buying the piece, but I'm so glad I did. On the reverse I found the most wonderful hand painted inscription which reads, "C.E. Gillette and Son/Sayville NY". And that was it, I was sold, I NEEDED to own this piece, to rescue it. I bought it straight away. Of all the hundreds of little late 19th century pine dressers I've seen over the years, this is the very first to have an inscription IDing the original maker scrawled massively across the backboard.

 Credit for discovering our mysterious Mr. Gillette and Son goes to a follower of mine on instagram, who set about hunting him down as soon I posted a picture of the inscription on my feed. So without further ado, here's the story this dresser has to tell:

First, a nice write up from the Sayville Library history page-
-Gillette House/Grand Central/Duryea Building: Two locally well-respected retired sea captains, Jacob Smith and Charles Zebulon Gillette, founded Smith & Gillette, a general store, in 1850 at the intersection of North and South Main Streets. Smith dropped out and in 1884 Gillette & Son built their new larger building at the same location, 60 feet front on North Main, 83 1/2 feet on South Main, and 56 feet on Sparrow Park where it was three stories high .  The I.O.O.F. (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) moved into the third floor and remained until they built their own quarters on Foster Avenue Extension in February 1936 and H.T. Rogers Restaurant & Confectionery took one of three independent stores on the first floor facing Sparrow Park.  The Gillettes occupied most of the rest with their general merchandise.  Following the untimely early death of his only son in March 1888, Gillette sold his business to Edgar W. Green and H. Treadwell Rogers, who introduced trading stamps for cash purchasers (for use in their own store), installed a handsome soda fountain, and had a sales force of ten with four wagons making circuits of the village taking orders and delivering them- 

And after some digging, here's a little more about Gillette duo:

Charles Zebulon Gillette was born in Blue Point, Long Island on the 12th of January 1827 to Zebulon Gillette (1788-1828) and Lucinda Avery (1788-1879)- I wonder if he's a distant relative of my husband! CZ Gillette married Phebe Edwards (1829-1912) of Sayville, NY in 1847. They had six children (though only three survived childhood). Their son, Charles E. Gillette born october 30th, 1857. Phebe minded the brood at home on Long Island while CZ Gillette, a merchant mariner captained his ship, Neptune's Bride back and forth to the Mediterranean through the early 1860s. His seamanship made him something of a Civil War hero in 1862 (excerpt from Sayville Orphan Heroes by Jack Whitehouse

After such excitement CZ Gillette had apparently had his fill of the sea, and retired back to Sayville to oversee his thriving dry goods store with brother in law, Captain Jacob Smith. In 1884 Gillette bought out his brother in law and for the next four years ran the business with his son Charles under the name "Gillette and Son". Sadly on March 14th 1888 tragedy struck when Charles E. succumbed to tuberculosis, aged just 30. 

Charles Zebulon Gillette, wife and two daughters, early 1890s

Heartbroken, the elder Gillette sold the business and spent his remaining years with his family in their handsome home at 47 Gillette Avenue. He died June 2nd, 1906. The home on Gillette Avenue still stands and is now a community arts center.

And so we know that this little dresser dates to between 1884 and 1888, the only time when Gillette and Son was in business in Sayville, NY. 

          I set about refinishing the piece with all this in mind, and determined to do justice to its history. I could tell that it had originally been painted a soft sage green, there were little flecks of the paint here and there caught in old gouges and cracks. The quality of the pine, with lots of knots and irregularities made it clear this piece was never meant to have its wood exposed, it was supposed to be painted! The chest had been refinished fairly badly sometime in the mid 20th century, but retained its original handsome brass ring pulls. I sanded, stained, and sealed the top, repaired all three drawers, and painted the case in a custom mixed green that matches the original color. I've named it, of course, 'Gillette Green'. I suppose the moral of the story is to always check the backboard, and also to never underestimate the stories that antiques can tell you!



  1. Oh, you know how I love a good story. That was a great one!

  2. What a great story!! Thank you!