Life in Old South Central Alabama

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South of Birmingham, Alabama, United States
I am an antique trader in central Alabama....I love old houses... My log home was built in 1817 by my ancestors Benjamin and Hannah Harless Wilson .............. Outside the house are herb gardens and lots of pass-along plants................ No one in Alabama is in a hurry about anything......... Visitors think that the garden needs weeding and the furniture needs polishing....I am a direct descendant of Joseph Towne, whose two sisters Rebecca Towne Nurse and Mary Towne Easty were hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 as witches. I am also a direct descendant of Pocahontas and husband John Rolfe.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Sugar Chest

( As of October 2016, over 3,000 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 and put "sugar chest" in the search will be amazed at how beautiful and varied they are.  My Pinterest page has over 200 different chests shown.)


Sugar Chests were only built in Kentucky and Tennessee, with a few 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. 

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. 

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, least one 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 $4000 ( 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 lock up the valuable sugar. Some have a drawer at the bottom.  Some don't.  

7. There will 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. All of them will be from Tennessee, Kentucky, North Alabama, Western North Carolina...that's about it...There are no New England or Western sugar chests. What they are 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 guy is asking $2900 and the other is $3,200.   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:  
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. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

I've been busy buying and selling...

A lovely couple who are filling their home with Empire bought my Mint Julip Cabinet ( seen in an earlier post).  

I had decided to sell it because it suddenly seemed that everywhere I went, I was discovering grand pieces of furniture that I normally would not find and would not come up for sale again. 

I found this 1820 Federal Chest in Marion, Alabama and liked its unusual and authentic shape.  The pulls are wrong  ( added about 1890)  so I ordered some that are Federal style. 

This stepback cupboard was at a shop just south of Birmingham. The lady was a primitive lover and her booth showed it.   

This piece is in original red paint.  The little white knobs are wrong so I replaced them with better ones made of pine. 

The inside has been given a coat of blue/grey by someone in the last twenty years and that is fine since it reflects light much better than a dark interior would.

I went to a night auction in Calera Alabama and this new couch came up for sale. 

I bid ten dollars.  

No one else thought it was worth bidding on, probably because their trucks were full or they had come in their cars, or maybe stripes weren't their thing. 

Anyway, I won it and for ten dollars I'm not complaining.  

It has Chippendale ball and claw feet.  Not very primitive but it sits very nicely.  

I added mustard pillows my sister bought me from Pottery Barn.

This ca. 1830 beauty is called a Jackson Press. Most follow the plan of having small drawers over a large drawer over a pair of cabinet doors.  It's the cabinet doors that  make it what it is. 

Here is how I got it. 

 I went to a yard sale advertized on Craig's List as "having 20 items from 1860 or older."   

The very educated gentleman had moved to Alabama from Charleston, South Carolina.   

As he and I talked antiques and such,   I watched people come and go, looking at the pots and pans and ignoring the furniture.  

I got on my phone and called some of my antique people, but not after securing the things I wanted.  

I bought the Jackson Press,  a side chair I think is Meeks or Belter, and an 1840 stand. 

He took me inside his house and showed me a huge secretary/bookcase that was eight feet tall. It was a dandy piece but not for sale.  

My friends showed up and bought most of the other things he had.  He was happy I came along that day.  I was happier.

I was looking around in some consignment shops in Shelby County, Alabama, and here was this dry sink,  in pine,  square nails, and not messed up.  How could I let this get away?

So I bought a old primitive desk that I thought was pretty and nice on a Saturday, but by accident I have four old desks already, so I left it in the jeep and went to my friend's shop in Clanton, Alabama,  "Remember When Antiques."   

Jim had this two board table so we made a swop.  

I don't do well with green so I will be doing a scrape job soon and will make photos.  

The Fantastic bottle shows you how wide the boards are.  I hope the table looks fantastic after I spend a week scraping on it.

The county library people  held their first Antique Show and  Appraisal Fair on a wet Saturday a few weeks ago in Columbiana.  

The location was a barn and the atmosphere was like something you'd see on Road Show,  but Alabama style. ha 

This pine stepback cupboard was in a back stall and was being ignored because it was full of cases of old Coke bottles.  

I learned from my antique dealer friend Jim that if you want to sell furniture quickly, then don't cover it up with other things for sale. 

Most customers only notice the smalls and don't see the furniture. Fortunately for me, this was true that day and I was able to buy this piece.  

Orignial square nail construction. It is not a married piece, but sometime about 150 years ago the owner took the top part's doors off  ( and  threw them  away ) and had the side and top boards cut in the curvey pattern to "modernize" it.  

Someone also took the bonnet off the top ( evidence of one is seen clearly on the top boards including the square nail holes that held it on.)  Such is the history of a piece that was made to be used.

When I got it home, I filled it with Staffordshire and other dishes but it looked much too messy for me, so I empted it out and found wooden boxes and other brown things.  I did include a real blue Canton plate and one piece of Yankee redware. 

 I love this very heavy dough bowl.   The top of one side has been worn away from years of use.  The seller's husband on Ebay called it "the relic."

I bought the dough box from my friend Wanda in Chilton County, Alabama. 

 I like the burn marks caused I guess from sitting too close to the fireplace. The cabinet it is sitting on belonged to an early pharmacist in Selma, Alabama.

The dovetailed container on top of the stepback is either some sort of dough box or a feeding trough --  pine,  grungy, attic surface,  heavy, and heavenly.

If any of my loyal readers ( all 27 of you!) find yourselves just south of Birmingham,  please drop by for a personal tour, followed by some coffee  ( for Betty) or iced tea  on the front porch.  

You'll also get your choice of my peach cobbler or pineapple upsidedown cake. Or why not a little of both?    We'll add ice cream to kill the sweet.   ha