Monday, March 25, 2013
QUESTION: My mother has a cabinet and has been wondering what it is. Whatever you can tell me about it would be grand.
ANSWER: Your mother’s cabinet is often referred to as a jelly cupboard. However, it seems that this name may have been a more recent reference invented by antique dealers to give these rather primitive cabinets some panache.
Before the advent of built-ins, the only means of storage in 19th and early 20th-century kitchens was separate cabinets. These held pots and pans, foodstuffs, preserves and such. One of the smaller cupboards, often one that stood in a corner, was the jelly cupboard, created to store jellies and preserves and jarred vegetables.
During the late 18th century, many a colonial kitchens had a large hutch/cupboard that featured an upper section with narrow shelves for holding pewter plates and spoons. The lower section held shelves enclosed in a single or double-doored cabinet in which wives stored foodstuffs.
Often a large serving shelf separated the two sections.
But between 1800 and 1825, smaller cupboards with a single door came into widespread use. These varied in styles from extremely primitive affairs, used in rural kitchens, to more refined ones for upper class kitchens. The specifics of such pieces varied from maker to maker and from region to region, but all were meant to store jams and jellies, which had become a staple in American homes.
Typically, jelly cupboards featured two drawers above double doors which opened outward from the center. But the variations were endless since the makers of these cupboards customized them to their needs.
Inside, the cupboards had shelves set only high enough apart as to accommodate jars of jellies or preserves. This allowed makers to permanently affix more of them into the interior of the cupboard. Most had wooden latches but better ones featured metal hardware and locks. Most people didn’t lock their jelly cupboards but may have locked the drawers in which they stored spices, tea, and sugar, above the cabinet portion. Early on, tea and sugar were both expensive commodities and had to be protected.
Generally, most women kept their jelly cupboards in their kitchens during the 19th century since they prepared their jellies and preserves there and having the storage cabinet close by was more convenient. Towards the end of the 1800s, however, some placed in their dining rooms. This practice demanded better looking cupboards that often doubled as a place to keep foods while serving dinner.
Jelly cupboard makers responded by using better quality construction, better woods, and better hardware.
Surviving examples exist in a wide variety of woods. Though pine is probably the most common, cabinetmakers also employed birch, butternut, cherry, chestnut, maple, poplar, oak, and walnut. At times they used two different woods, such as pine and poplar, for their cabinets.
According to furniture historians, jelly cupboards used in kitchens were usually taller than those used in dining rooms, which tended to be shorter and wider. Kitchen cupboards were usually vertical affairs up to 72 inches tall while those used in dining rooms tended to be about 45 inches tall and perhaps 60 inches wide.
To cover up less expensive woods, jelly cupboard makers often painted them in decorative colors, including robin’s egg blue, gray, sea green, barn red, and sometimes pale yellow.
At their peak during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, makers dovetailed the drawers and permanently mounted the shelves. But some later models featured adjustable shelves. As late as the 1920s Montgomery Ward's mail order catalog offered a basic jelly cupboard, 34 inches wide and 60 inches tall, with a single drawer above two doors constructed of seasoned oak and with adjustable shelves for $9.95. Sears Roebuck had similar models.
Though this jelly cupboard is one of the good ones, the primitive ones are easy to fake. It doesn’t take too much imagination, a few pieces of old weathered wood, and some old nails to fashion what looks like a charming old jelly cupboard. With even primitive ones selling for $400-500, it’s no wonder there are some great new “antiques” on the market.