Furnishing George’s House: What Exactly is That? Curatorial Conundrums in the Washington House – Part 2: Sugar Box

Furnishings posts logo finalAfter lengthy research and an occasional head-scratcher, the furnishings plan for the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is finished!  Reproduction furnishings are now being made. The probate inventory made after Augustine Washington’s death in 1743 guided us in determining the furnishings for the house, but because it was written over 270 years ago before standardized spelling, certain objects named on the inventory were pretty unfamiliar to us.  Some items in particular required some detective work to determine what exactly they were.

The first unusual item was a scrutoire in the Hall, which we wrote about in part 1.  The second unusual item in the inventory was listed in the Parlor. At first glance, it didn’t seem so mysterious.  It is a “sugar box”, which was not an unknown term in 18th century probate inventories, especially those from the southern American colonies.  Obviously, we can assume the item was intended for the storage of sugar, but beyond that it gets a little murky.

Augustine Washington's Probate Inventory

Portion of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory with “Sugar Box” highlighted in pink.

The descriptor “sugar” is often found in front of a variety of furniture forms in probate inventories – chests, cupboards, cases, boxes, etc.  The two most common combinations are “sugar box” and “sugar chest,” with the boxes more common to coastal Virginia and North Carolina inventories and the chests being more likely to show up on inventories further inland.

Only a few 18th century identified sugar chests still exist.  They are all finely made boxes on stands of turned or carved legs, equipped with drawers and compartments, and adorned with fine hardware.  In short, sugar chests were considered fine pieces of furniture, not simply storage devices.  They were status symbols, probably placed on prominent display in the best rooms of a house, signifying to visitors that this household, even though far inland, could afford the rare and expensive commodity of sugar.

So, what were the sugar boxes of coastal Virginia like? Until recently, no known sugar boxes were thought to have survived, but new scholarship may indicate that they were hidden in plain sight all along.  Bottle cases, or cellarettes, are known forms found in all sorts of households in colonial Virginia.  They were simply crates, or sometimes something more elaborate, intended to store bottles of alcohol.  The interiors were divided into standard size compartments (4”x4”) to fit the standardized gin bottles being produced in England.

Occasionally, a bottle case would surface that had abnormally large compartments inside, perhaps only two or three.  The assumption was made that these bottle cases were simply intended for larger sized alcohol containers.  The prevailing theory now, though, is that these particular cases, which almost always look like miniature blanket chests, were actually the mysterious sugar boxes.  The two or three large compartments were intended to hold loaves of sugar, or perhaps cones of sugar.

Sugar boxes were not nearly as elaborate and finely made as their inland sugar chest counterparts for one basic reason – it was much easier for coastal Virginians to access imported sugar than it was for inland colonists. Sugar wasn’t nearly the status symbol on the coast that it was inland.  Coastal Virginians didn’t need to show off their sugar – they simply needed to store it.[1]

As a result of this current scholarship on 18th century sugar boxes, a piece from the Foundation’s own collection has been selected for reproduction. It was originally cataloged as a Virginia-made cellarette, as its interior is divided into compartments.  However, its exterior can be described as a diminutive blanket chest.  In reproducing the piece, the interior will be divided into only two compartments instead of the current arrangement for multiple bottles. Thus, we will have a sugar chest in the Washington house.

Cellarette (1)

Cellarette at Historic Kenmore that has been selected for reproduction as a Sugar Box for the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Cellarette (2)

An interior view of the cellarette at Kenmore shows the large compartment on the upper right that may have been used for sugar storage.

As you seen with both the scrutoire and sugar box listed on Augustine Washington’s probate inventory, even when we have 270 year-old written documentation, there can still be mysteries to solve!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Collie, P.E. Are Cellarets from the East Coast and Sugar Chests from Kentucky? Edenton Historical Commission, 2016.  http://ehcnc.org/decorative-arts/furniture/cellarets-and-sugar-chests/

 

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