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Great Canadian Furniture

1840s Victorian Empire Bird's-eye Maple Chest

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Empire Chest 1840s
Maple & cherry chest of drawers - Size - 36" x 50" x 30.5"h
Found - Milton, ON

Rarely is one fortunate enough to come across an eye-popping piece of early nineteenth century Canadian furniture such as this spectacular bird's eye maple and cherry chest (of drawers).

It is Empire period, probably built in the Niagara peninsula in the early 19th century, c. 1840s, and is in immaculate condition.

It is a "two over one plus three" chest of drawers, featuring two rounded shallow drawers, over one large, overhanging three backset medium drawers. This arrangement was a very popular design style. All are faced with some of the most spectacular bird's eye maple you will ever find. The sides and top are cherry.

Another rare feature is the original back-splat of glowing bird's eye maple, ornamented with "chimney pot" ends. So often - because of the "moving" abuse a piece of furniture usually undergoes in 150 years of living - the backsplats - because they are the most vulnerable, and most easily damaged part of furniture - are broken, or missing.

As a result many backsplats are repros, or jury-rigged from other furniture and never really look right. If you look at them with a critical - instead of an accepting - eye, you will see that the size or design, or look of a backsplat, just seems out of kilter with the rest of the piece. It probably is, and is a recent addition by a handyman antique seller.

This chest is in such fine shape because it has had a stable life by having been in a good home for a long time.

The Blanket Box: The Canadian chest of drawers evolved from the blanket box, the only furniture most immigrants to Canada could bring with them, either by ship from the UK, or by wagon or sleigh, from the United States. What tales the box (right) could tell of its adventures since it was made in the 1820s or 30s.

For most new Canadian settlers, then, the first substantial piece of furniture they put into their log cabins, was the blanket box. It contained linen, cutlery, clothes, the family bible, candles, etc. It also served as a bench to sit on, and a work surface to pound holes into leather straps etc.

The earliest blanket boxes were "six board," meaning all sides were made of only six pieces of pine, easy to do then because the trees in the virgin forests were huge. Of course there was a hinged top which was lifted to get access to the huge box interior. The earliest corners on the boxes were butt joints, just simple overlaps. Then came the "dove-tails" (left) which took more skill and time to make but lasted a lot longer. You can still see vestiges of the scribe marks made by the carpenter almost two centuries ago...

Women would not put up with this "one box" method of storing all their family valuables for long, axes and hunting horns and powder mixed in with crinolines and fancy shawls or precious family silverware. Soon small drawers were fitted in the bottom of blanket boxes, to accommodate their wishes. The top remained one big box. (Left is a 1970s repro of this early style blanket box and below it, a genuine Georgian 18th century pine blanket box with two drawers.)

Mule Chest: For some, the small drawers were not convenient enough and so became one large drawer instead. This version of the blanket box became known as a "mule chest" in the US, and a "transitional chest" in Canada, meaning furniture in transition from a blanket box to a full chest of drawers. (Right a New England mule chest in original red paint.)

Soon, when John came back from working hard in the fields, his Polly asked for a second drawer on top of the first. She had been mulling this over all day...

John gave in reluctantly. The more drawer space he gave up, the less room he got in the box top for putting in his broadaxe, hatchets, adzes, shaving spokes, beaver hats, Sunday boots, etc.

Later, when Polly asked for a third, John became obstinate. "Look I'm losing more and more of my space just so you can put your stuff in here. Just how much space do you need for your hosehold goods? Where am I going to put my pipe and tobacco? But to show you I'm not a mean guy we'll compromise. I'll give you two more drawers than you have now - I mean drawer fronts, than you have now. OK? That way we both win? OK? Happy now?"

Below, two of these "compromise" chests. The dark one (William & Mary late 17th century) has two real drawers on the bottom and three faux drawers above, marking the big box on top. The English Georgian mule chest (left) has three real drawers on the bottom. The top four are faux.

There are some who say that this is not really what happened.

Some claim that it happened when Polly visited the doctor's home one day - or was it the lawyer's office, it may have been - that she saw the chest of drawers he had imported from England, and felt ashamed of her boxy looking furniture, went home demanding that if John couldn't get her a decent chest like the doctor had for his wife, the least he could do was faux the front, so she could at least keep up appearances.

John, being a decent sort, did that to bring peace to the household.

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