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.


4 comments:

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.

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