Keeping Secrets, 18th Century Style

In today’s world we keep our valuables, like money, important documents, jewelry, etc. locked safely in a bank vault or safety deposit box.  These options for safe-keeping of valuables were not available in 18th century America, and so our ancestors had to be a bit more creative in hiding their important items from would-be thieves or prying eyes.

Probably the most romanticized method for securing valuables was the use of hidden or secret compartments in furniture.  There is no shortage of novels or plays that use a secret compartment to hide the key to the mystery.  In actuality, these secret compartments were fairly rare and usually reserved for only the wealthiest of people, those who could afford not only to commission custom furniture, and perhaps pay for the joiner’s silence about the location of the hidden drawer or concealed box.   Still, when a curator encounters an 18th century case piece, one of the first things they look for is any sign of just such a feature.

Two candidates at Kenmore for hidden compartments have thus far revealed nothing.  Betty Lewis’s desk, now on display in the Chamber, is a likely suspect because of how it would have been used during it’s time in the Lewis household.  Betty’s desk was the hub of her “command central.”  She ran every aspect of the household from that desk, including the management of funds and the storing of expensive foodstuffs, like spices and sugar.  The spices were kept under lock and key and doled out to kitchen servants as needed, while money would have been kept under strict supervision.  Either could be a candidate for storage in a secret compartment in the desk.  Although the desk contains a multitude of tiny drawers and divided pockets, many with tiny key locks, we haven’t yet found a truly hidden space.

Another, perhaps even more intriguing, possibility is the bookcase-on-desk currently displayed in Fielding’s Office.  This piece does not have a Lewis family provenance, but its history includes a span of time when it was used in the back room of a store, as the proprietor’s desk.  It, too, has a variety of drawers and doors, many of which were marked by the shopkeeper as to what went in each.  Surely, this piece must have at least one hidden compartment, a place for the shopkeeper to hide the day’s earnings or extra cash.  But sadly, nothing has surfaced yet, despite our best efforts.

What Kenmore’s desks may lack in hidden compartments, is made up for by the house itself.  During Kenmore’s most recent restoration, a group of painters made an exciting find.  While stripping old paint from woodwork around a window on the second floor, a small section of paneling fell out of place.  At first, the painters were concerned that they had inadvertently broken original material, but upon closer inspection it quickly became clear that the small panel was intended to come loose from the surrounding woodwork.  Behind the panel was an open cavity between the decorative woodwork and the brick masonry of the wall.  And, to everyone’s astonishment, embedded in that masonry was a tiny drawer-front, with a little handle.  It turned out that during the original construction of the house, this small drawer had been built into the brick below the window in such a way that it could be accessed through a false panel in the woodwork.

The drawer was empty when the painters found it, but there are a variety of theories about what it might have originally held.  Money or important documents are the most likely items, but suggestions have been made that Fielding might have concealed a gun there for personal protection, especially during the final months of the Revolution, when the Washington and Lewis family members were at risk of being kidnapped by the British for ransom.  Other theories have suggested that because Fielding was a frequent correspondent with General Washington, he concealed their letters in the drawer so that they wouldn’t fall in to enemy hands.

Does the secret compartment’s location under a window that overlooks the town of Fredericksburg and all the way down to the riverfront where Fielding’s ships were docked provide a clue? And why would the compartment be placed in this particular room to begin with? It was simply a bedchamber, probably used by guests.

While we may never know what secrets the hidden drawer contained in Fielding’s time, we do know that today it has become a time capsule of sorts and holds the business cards of anyone who has worked on Historic Kenmore.

As with many aspects of Kenmore, there are many questions about this little drawer.  While we may never know the true story behind it, it allows for some imaginative possibilities!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

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