PART II (Read Part I)
Earliest American Origins
It is not surprising that a region which still prefers sugar in it vegetables would inspire a furniture form specifically for the storage of that sweet commodity. Perhaps because it is so symbolic of the Southern antebellum home, there has arisen controversy over the true origins of the sugar chest. Early attributions were to both Kentucky and Tennessee, alone and in combination, but further research would indicate an origin in Virginia and the Carolinas. It has been hypothesized that the sugar chest emerged as a metamorphosis of the cellaret or bottle case on stand just as sugar production came to the forefront in Louisiana about 1805. That might be so if referencing only this “classic” sugar chest form we most commonly think of, but this isn’t quite true for the chest altogether, for the earliest types of sugar chests documented seem to have been crafted just inland from coastal Virginia and North Carolinaiii ca. 1750, with references to their use in Virginia dating back to at least that periodiv. In essence, the sugar chest did emerge about the same time sugar came to Louisiana, just much earlier than scholars had once assumed. Sadly, very few sugar chests have retained their full and accurate provenance to such an early period in these two states. Estate inventories, however, prove the continued use of the form for many generations well into the 19th century, primarily in Virginia.
The Virginia Prototype
By the middle of the 18th century, the term “sugar chest” seems to have become part of the established vernacularv in Virginia, so it must be assumed that settlers pouring into Kentucky and Tennessee by the 1790svi were already well aware of the wordageviithus the continuation of the term’s use in estate settlement documents of the first years of the 19th century. These “alpha” prototypes of the 18th century followed closely the construction of blanket chests, though generally of a greater capacity and height. They were little more than enlarged blanket boxes with a divided interior to store white and brown sugar & molasses and perhaps coffee, with their sole decorative value derived from their beautifully grained walnut lumberviii from the old growth forests of Virginia. The best boasted simple but elegantly carved cabriole legs, then in vogue, but not with the elegant addition of ball and claw carvings.
These very earliest of sugar chests thus far discoveredix, rather surprisingly, display no real vestigial links to the equally famed Southern cellaret as might be expected. Though the cellaret seems to pre-date the sugar chest in its use in the South by a few decades, it was actually the pattern for the next, and most prolific, generation of the sugar chest that would appear with the dawn of the 19th century. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see that the cabinetmakers of the day would have made simple improvisational adaptations upon the cellaret, then becoming increasingly popular throughout Virginia in the Hepplewhite stylex This makes sense, for by the close of the 18th century, in that period of advancing Louisiana production, sugar was becoming more of a luxury commodity, just as wealth was increasing in the upper South. As such, those earliest utilitarian forms of sugar storage were being replaced by the classical, sophisticated lines borrowed from the Hepplewhite cellaret complete with inlay ornamentation worthy of display in the owner’s finest roomsxi. It was a natural progression to take the general layout of the divided interior meant for the storage of wine bottles and exaggerate it to establish a pattern for the form that would thence forth be utilized for sugar storage until the War Between the States throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, and forever afterwards symbolize that mythic era of antebellum culture for the region as a whole.
Sugar Chests here, there, everywhere?
One would be hard pressed to conclude that the Deep South was void of sugar chests, but since the need was never prevalent, the surviving examples fail to be abundant, at least not to an extent they can be easily identified and studied. Several Mississippi sugar chests are known to have Kentucky and Tennessee origins. Examples continue to surface in Alabamaxii, but sound provenance is seldom available to show these were actually made in that state and not simply transported there with the large scale migration to the “Black Belt” region from throughout Tennessee. To date, little reference to sugar chests has been documented from the northern most limits of Georgiaxiii or South Carolinaxiv, but surely some variation was utilized in the inland plantationsxv. While ships could provide sugar to the coastal cities at a cost far reduced from that paid in the Southern “Upcountry,” some form of the sugar chest must have been crafted at some point in the large-scale plantations of the state where they still required the bulk storage of sweets. A very crude sugar table consisting of a safe-like cupboard base with a round table top may solve that puzzle, as a few such examples of this form have surfaced with ties to the Palmetto State. A similar table-like sugar safe has been documented to southern Louisiana. In their simplicity, these Coastal sugar tables of the early 19th century were a throw-back to the very first basic sugar chests that applied function before form.
Going back to the basic question of attribution of origin and the misconception that all sugar chests are from Kentucky or Tennessee, one must understand the economics of the sugar trade to understand why the chest was so important in these two states in comparison to the rest of the South. With the advent of trade by the steamboats, improved roads, & the beginnings of rail travel, all combined with increased efficiency and output in Louisiana’s sugar industry, costs for the commodity droppedxvi throughout most of the South by the 2nd quarter of the nineteenth centuryxvii, then marking a rise again as the 1850s progressed. Commission, or venture, merchants like Jackson, Riddle, & Co. of Philadelphiaxviii contracted with both Louisiana and Mississippi sugar plantations and northern iron manufacturers during the 1830s to swap commodities for goods, and ship both to the remote settlements of the inland South. It was only in this still isolated interior of the region, in Kentucky, Tennessee, and the western portions of Virginia and N. Carolina (and perhaps north Alabama) that a need for the sugar chest did linger. While costs for sugar still necessitated the use of the chest throughout the 1820s, by the 1840s its use in Kentucky and Tennessee was more due to tradition than to need, but ingrained enough in the local society it was still considered an important household assetxix. Because the sugar chest became outdated along the coast so early on with decreased sugar costs, and lingered in the back country for so many decades, we tend to think today that it was a Kentucky or Tennessee innovation. It did, however, reach its peak popularity in those two states due mainly to its extended lifespan there. This may have partially been due as well to a spike in sugar costs, which reached an antebellum record in 1858xx. A survey of central Kentucky and Middle Tennessee estate inventories would verify the continued use of the sugar chest into the 1860s, likely due to that sharp rise in prices that would have affected this region of the upper South more than any other.
Besides migrating south, sugar chests were also carried north by 19th century farmers who retained the pioneer spirit of their ancestors and kept moving in search of cheaper land and better opportunities. Some Kentuckians and Tennesseans never moved, but speculated on lands in the Midwest and set up homes there, sometimes relocating agents or overseers. Either way, furniture from the upper South made its way early on to states like Ohio, Illinois or Indiana, causing many fine sugar chests to lose their true regional identities forever.xxi
Gary Dean Gardner is an independent scholar of Southern history & material culture. A native 10th generation Kentuckian, his maternal roots stretch to Fort Harrod, the first permanent American settlement in the state, where nearby his family established the first congregation of Methodists in 1783, while his father’s family, Tidewater descendants of Pocahontas, includes Virginia’s first native-born historian, Robert Beverley. Gardner was immersed in history from childhood, early developing an hereditary passion for silver shared by his 8th great grandfather, legendary Virginia planter and Colonial America’s first silver collector, William Fitzhugh. This genetic collecting desire led to a 30-year study and scholarship in the field of early Southern silver and silversmiths, which soon extended itself to an interest in early Southern cabinetry, stoneware, portraiture, and other affiliated regional decorative arts. Mr. Gardner is dedicated as well to the study of antebellum African-American arts, history and culture having identified and explored the careers of many enslaved artisans. Busy helping raise a next generation of family collectors, Gardner continues to explore, write, and speak regionally on Southern antiques and their makers.
All images in Part I and II courtesy of John Case Auctions, Knoxville, TN
iii At least one sugar chest, in desk form and in a vernacular Chippendale styling, is known to the author. This walnut sugar desk of ca. 178-90 retains a long provenance to the Bluegrass of Kentucky back to the 1820s, but from a family who had migrated from the Carolinas. Its holly inlay use and yellow pine secondary wood indicate that this was a prized possession brought with the family through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky from North Carolina. Such an example reinforces the conjecture that not only styles, but examples of cabinets which would later be copied, were carried westward into the far reaches of the “Back Country” South.
iv Likely one of the first period references to the term “sugar chest” is found in the ledgers of the “Partridge Store” which served planters in the Hanover and Louisa County, Virginia area throughout the 2nd quarter of the 18th century. Their surviving ledgers for 1756, in the account for William Hendrick (son of William Sr. of Amelia County who died ca. 1739) of that year, show among his 28 purchases that year ten hoes, 12 plates, a woman’s cloak, a fan, a sugar chest and lock, and a set of teaware.
v York County, Virginia May 16th, 1763, the inventory of estate of Samuel Tompkins includes a “sugar chest”. Colonial Williamsburg files
vi CWFL film M-1060.2 James Anderson Accounts, 1778-1799, Ledger c, p. 11 references the work of the Williamsburg, Virginia blacksmith in “mending sugar chest” for his neighbor Dr. Barraud.
vii Estate inventories from prior to1800 are scant anyway, but the use of the term “sugar chest” seems to occur on a regular basis in Kentucky and Tennessee sometime prior to 1810. Anne S. McPherson, in her article An Abode of Sweetness, the Sugar Chest and Sugar Box, cites an early reference to the use in the January 1805 inventory of Thomas Bedford, Rutherford County, TN Wills & Inventories, Book 2, page 2.
viii This early Virginia form would linger primarily in south central Kentucky well into the 1840s, while the inner Bluegrass Region as well as Middle Tennessee would transition to a form based upon the cellaret.
ix Sandra Crowther collection, Lynchburg Va.- lower Tidewater origin in the Queen Anne style ca. 1750-60
x Paul H. Burroughs in his classic 1931 reference Southern Antiques, references a cellaret of North Carolina origin which he dates to ca. 1690-1700, as well as Queen Anne versions from both North and South Carolina from the 1720’s on.
xi Inlaid sugar chests are virtually unknown outside of Tennessee and Kentucky, with considerable scarcity even from Tennessee. The lack of such sophisticated ornamentation cannot, however, be the sole determination of status or wealth of the original owners. Some of the finest plantation homes of Middle Tennessee, as surveyed in Williamson County, boasted very simple sugar chests in their dining rooms. Reference Rick Warwick’s Williamson County: More Than a Good Place to Live, 2005.
xii There has been documented a Chippendale variety from ca. 1780 sitting low to the ground with fine ogee feet which surfaced in Alabama with a Tennessee provenance though, as with many early Tennessee antiques, it likely was brought into the state from North Carolina.
xiii The historic “Bobo House” in Union County, South Carolina displays a sugar chest, but it retains a provenance of having been brought by the family to SC at the turn of the 18th century from Baltimore.
xiv Will Book- Oglethorpe County, Georgia July 24th, 1868, “I, Mary Ann Black, being of sound and disposing mind and memory do make, publish and declare this to be my last Will and Testament hereby revoking all other wills by me before made. Item 1st I give and bequest unto Charles Filmore Sanders son of William J. Sanders my bed that I now sleep on and the furniture with it and one small chest known as my sugar chest, and one small round trunk.”
xv An Upson County, GA sugar chest of poplar & yellow pine from ca. 1840-60 resided in the collection of William & Florence Griffin. See Neat Pieces- the Plain Style Furniture of 19th Century Georgia, #81.
xvi See California Digital Library “Sugar and Origins of Modern Philippine Society” for an interesting overview of “global” sugar economies as they impacted one small agrarian island nation
xvii Parrelling the dropping cost of sugar, the sugar chest in the estate inventories of the mid-19th century reflect a serious devaluation. Period auction prices referenced include the following: Bullitt Co. Ky Will Book D- Richard Brashear estate March 17th 1851, “A sugar chest was sold to “Old Lady”/Widow Sarah for .75 cents”; Garrard Co. Ky Order Book P. pgs 436-37 Emanual Higginbotham estate, to “Martha Baugh 1 sugar chest and little wheel $1.90”; Barren Co. Ky Inventory Book 6:355 John King estate Dec. 2nd, 1851, to “Thomas king, sugar chest $4.60”; Washington Co. Ky Will Book J-601 J T Jarboe estate December 4th 1856, to “Mahala Jarboe one sugar chest $1.00”
xvii For details on the trade practices of this firm, references their records in the following collections: Southard Papers, Princeton Library, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, and “Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations” in the Southern Historical Collection, University of NC-Chapel Hill
xix Reference Scott County, Ky mortgage book pates 17-18, and indenture between James Moore and William Moore conveying in exchange for previously mortgaged debt by the Branch Bank of Kentucky a tract of “100 acres on Lane’s run and …the following Negro slaves to wit: Nancy, Jane, Tom, Lucinda, George, Harvey, John, Henry, also twelve head of horses, one cart & yoke of oxen, six head of cattle, sixteen head of stock hogs, six head of sheep, twenty barrels of corn, three beds, bedstands, and furniture, two bureaus, one sugar chest, and one clock & about 12 acres of hemp unbroken.” 2/25/1843
xx Louisiana State Museum, “A Medley of Cultures”, Hickman-Bryan Papers, the University of Missouri, Louisiana History Timeline, Louisiana Educational Television, John Gurley Papers, Louisiana State University (after the war, prices plunged to .25 cents a pound- Charles T. Daggs letter 2/11/1866)
xxi Clark County, Ohio Will Book- will of John Winn (of Springfield) to his wife Hosea Ballou Winn “ my carriage and harness, all my farming utensils, my brass clock, my silver plate, the whole of my household of kitchen furniture, including my secretary, bookcase of books, desk, beer can, sugar chest, beds of furniture” Per “A Lineage & Brief History of the Rawlings Family” Urbana Ohio 1931, “John Winn was a Virginian by birth, and that he emigrated to Fleming County, Kentucky about the year 1796. This account says that “He came to Kentucky from Virginia in an ox cart with no property save a Negro boy and his cattle.” When he came to Ohio, a free state, he freed all his slaves and gave his name as security for their good behaviour.” Purnell short was born 9/29/1779 in Scott County, Kentucky. He migrated to Greene County Illinois by ox team in the fall of 1833 and settled south of Carrollton, Illinois, dying 2/14/1851. From the Greene Co., Ill. Record Book C-346, “For a consideration of $37.00 on March 15, 1832, Purnell Short apparently took a chattel mortgage from James Self on one waton and gears, one bay mare and sorrel mare with one eye, one sorrel horse, two beds and bedding, a table and candlestand, one sugar chest, a cupboard and other household goods for 35 acres of land valued at $67.62.”