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My Sugar Chest

( As of October 2017, over 4000 people have read this post on my sugar chest.  This post represents my own experience and is my own opinion on the subject.  If you want dozens and dozens of pictures of real sugar chests, go to Pinterest.com and put "sugar chest" in the search box...you will be amazed at how beautiful and varied they are.  My Pinterest page has over 200 different chests shown.)

   




Sugar Chests were built in Kentucky and Tennessee, with other examples from some of the closest of areas in surrounding states, and were made from ca. 1790  to 1840.   I have heard reports that some were made or used in GA, NC, SC, and in New Orleans.  A recent reader from Lynchburg, Virginia reports that he has owned and sold documented chests from North Carolina and Virginia. He also says there are rare documented chests made in New England. 

They were purchased by upper class people to hold sugar loaves and brown sugar that was purchased from boats coming up the Mississippi River from New Orleans.  

Sugar of this type was very expensive and was bought in bulk, so this piece of furniture was created to store  large amounts of it under lock and key. I have recently been told that some chests were actually shipped down the Mississippi to be filled with sugar, then locked and shipped back up the river.  I don't know if this is true or not. 

Here is the inside,  once divided to house white sugar on one side and brown sugar or coffee on the other.  The dividers have been removed years ago, a common occurrence.  The grooves remain where the dividers were,  proving the original intent of the piece.

The lid measures 30" by 20".   The body measures 29" by 19  1/2 ".  The height is 26" 




The back is dovetailed and would not be varnished.



The top has many years of wonderful stains.


My Opinion.

Some things I have learned about sugar chests:

1. Don't buy a blanket chest posing as a sugar chest. Sugar chests won't have a til....the little box on one side or the other at the top. No, this is not to hold the sugar nippers. This little box tells you it is not a sugar chest.

2. There was no pattern book for making sugar chests. They come in many shapes and sizes.  Don't buy a cellarette ( built to hold wine bottles) thinking it is a sugar chest. Cellarettes are expensive enough in their own right.

3. Don't buy a blanket box/quilt chest/blanket chest because someone calls it a sugar chest. The sugar chest will have a divider or evidence that once there was a divider on the inside...for white sugar/brown sugar, coffee....at least one divider. Maybe there are some out there that never had a divider. 

4. There are also sugar tables, sugar desks, sugar lots-of-things...they must be deep enough to have held the sugar cones from the pre-1850's era.

5.  Sugar chest prices are running anywhere from $1000 to $7000 ( and more if a bidding war starts at an auction or you are in a high-market shop) . 

6. A sugar chest will have a lock or evidence of a lock...This was the purpose of the sugar chest...to lock up the valuable sugar. Some have a drawer at the bottom.  Some don't.  I have seen six examples of very early ( pre 1820 ) sugar chests with no lock.   It's not as if there were sugar chests laws to follow. 

7. There might be a divider or evidence of a divider.. Remember after 1860 there was no need for sugar chests so the divider might be removed and the piece used as a blanket chest. But the narrow groove to hold the divider/dividers or other nail marks showing a divider was there... should still be there. No one in 1860 thought, "Wow, this was our sugar chest. I need to leave the divider alone and the lock alone so it will sell for thousands of dollars in 150 years."

8. The sugar chests that have dovetails on the corners are very valuable.  If all four corners are dovetailed it is exceptionally great.  And the original locks. And the original dividers.  And a drawer at the bottom. And the original top and hinges. Sugar chests are so rare that missing some things... well, if you find one,  don't sweat the small stuff.  

9. Most sugar chests originated in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia.  What others may be  calling a sugar chest is not the same thing as a Southern sugar chest, which is what I am writing about.

10. Beware of mule chests that have had their bottoms cut off...they make excellent fake sugar chests. A mule chest around here might bring $700 to $1200.  Do a little fake doctoring and now it sells for $2000 plus. 

11. A family might move west after 1865 for example and take a sugar chest with them. Suddenly, at an estate sale, a sugar chest might show up in Colorado or Texas and the sellers are unaware of what it was so they call it a blanket chest with ( or without) a divider.

12. Around here (Alabama) I see real ones selling for $1000 to $4000.  I know there are claims that they are worth $6K-$10K-whatever $K.  I'm talking about the real world here with real people. I know where 2 are for sale now....one guy is asking $2900 and the other is $3,200.   Yet, one sold last year in North Alabama for $7,000 at an auction. It had dovetails and three inner compartments. It's according to who is at the sale and how bad they want them, or how willing the seller is to get rid of them.

13. If you are really serious about learning more about them, go on ebay and look for the book that is the best ( and only) one:  
JOURNAL OF EARLY SOUTHERN DECORATIVE ARTS VOL. XXIII, NO. 2 WINTER 1997. Written by Anne S. McPherson
It is from the Museum of Early Decorative Arts and is a 72 page paperback full of pictures of real sugar chests with scholarly text. 
This little paperback book will sell for about $40 to $50 and is, as far as I know, the only book written on sugar chests.  The author/s actually went into courthouse estate inventories in Tennessee and looked for the word "sugar chest" to prove that they were listed as what people say they were.  These books are on ebay every so many weeks. Check back until one appears for sale. 

Comments

  1. What a wonderful find! We both love it. You are so fortunate to have this piece.

    Frank and Pam

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  2. I have owned a couple in my life that I sold. This is a wonderful one. You deserve it and It is beautiful. Richard from My Old Historic House.

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  3. That is a wonderful find! It looks so much like my blanket chest. Same woods, same construction. Mine has a drawer and shows no signs inside of having ever had a divider. It does have a lock.We could never confirm whether it was Tn or Va. The family we bought it from had owned it for 75 years and I have had it for 35.Their grandmother was from upper E.Tn, near the Va border. I really like the goodies you are finding lately. You are on a roll.

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  4. Boy you are having good luck. This is a wonderful piece of early Southern made furniture. When I lived in Baltimore one of the Consignment shops that I would go to often. Had a Federal Diminutive size one on tapered legs with inlay. No price was on it. When I asked for the price I was informed that it was sold. I missed a Alabama made huntboard just a few months ago.

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