Monday, June 18, 2012

A Stitch in Time

QUESTION: My great-grandmother used this piece of furniture as a sewing cabinet.  I’m interested in its age and use. The drawers have spaces for wooden slats—one side a round hole and the other side of the drawer has a slot. The side compartments are finished inside and may have been used to store fabric. What can you tell me about this piece?

ANSWER: You, indeed, have a sewing cabinet, a Martha Washington sewing cabinet to be exact. And while it takes Martha’s name, it isn’t much like the one Martha, herself, used. Her original sewing cabinet was a small work table with an open shelf space in the middle with no drawers set between two storage compartments. A fabric skirt, draping to the floor, shielded the shelves. Your cabinet is a Depression era reproduction of a table made in 1815. However, Martha Washington died in 1802.

Today, Martha Washington sewing cabinets generally have two or more drawers in the center flanked by half round compartments on each side of the cabinet that are covered by a shaped lid attached by concealed hinges. These side compartments, called project pockets, held fabric, needlepoint or knitting projects in progress, plus they were long enough to hold knitting needles.

These handsome little cabinets came in many similar designs. Some had nicely turned legs while others had plain ones. Matching wooden or glass knobs adorned the drawers, which, themselves, often varied in size and depth. Often the top drawer contained a removable thread holder. Makers produced them from the early to the mid-19th century in walnut or mahogany. Some came with drawer inserts and other didn’t.  Made to fulfill a practical purpose, they became popular with women who liked their small size and maximum storage ability.

The versions of this cabinet that mostly appear on the market today have three drawers and two flat top lids, which incorporated the "Soss" type invisible hinge, patented in November 1911, over the material compartments. The drawers can be either three different descending sizes, the smallest on top, or three of the same size. While thread holders appear in some, they’re not in all. Generally, they measure 27 inches wide, 14 deep, and 29 inches tall. In 1915, the Cowan Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio, advertised their mahogany version for $12.50.

In the mid-1920s, furniture manufactures began making small, relatively inexpensive pieces such as magazine racks, tea carts, and smoking stands that people could afford to buy during the Great Depression. Known as the "novelty" furniture movement, it helped keep production going when customers could no longer afford to purchase dining room or bedroom sets.

The quality of the 20th-century Martha Washington sewing cabinets ranges from those made of solid mahogany to cheaper models made of fruit wood (apple or pear), finished to look like mahogany. The better ones in good condition sell for around $150-$165 and finer examples can sell for as much as $500.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bob
thank you so much for all the information i love to find old funiture and restore them i have one from Cowan company and had no idea its that old :)

Anonymous said...

This is a great article. Thank you for sharing.
I have a White sewing machine in a poor condition Martha Washington cabinet.
I live in the Seattle area and would like to find someone that could use it.
Jim K

Cindy Collis said...

Just found one in little shop.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I have one of these sewing cabinets as well as my girlfriend has one. Mine has all wood drawer knobs and hers has white ceramic knobs. Both are the dark mahogany finish. I was curious if the ceramic knobs are an original feature or not?

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Peggy2957 said...

Love all the information on this little cabinet. I just bought one for a project and had no idea what it was. Mine looks like it has 3 drawers but the top one actually lifts up/open. I’m thinking a rack of thread would sit there.

Betsy Espinosa said...

How much does the value go up with the original purchase receipt from 1922

Steven said...

I just purchased one at an estate sale. Mine only has 2 drawers and it has visible hinges. By what I am reading the invisible hinges came around in the 1920's. Does that mean that the two drawer with visible hinges are from an earlier time period?

Thanks for your input.

Arnold Peter said...

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Anonymous said...

I just found one at our local Goodwill on sale for $15! It's marked on the bottom N5 807. Anyone know anything about the numbering?

Anonymous said...

Please contact me if you sfill have this piece. I need parts.
D. Woods

Nancy Hubler said...

The one I have has wooden knobs, 2 on each drawer, for mid 19th century, this appears to be common.

Promin Da Silva said...

Wonderful post, is this one sold?
I want to share with, star sports smartcric hotstar for selling purpose.

Unknown said...

Hi Kevin j k ..I just bought 1 n like to no a little more about it . It looks like the one on the picture. My b a little smaller to me .. not that great of finish..but still all there n solid... I payed 30 bucks for it . So I don't seem like a bad deal ...n just looking to c if I did good .. not for sale ..present for my girl friend ..