sugar chest12 Sep 2005
Antiques Roadshow is on right now and this one was filmed in Memphis – Tennesseans have some cool stuff. This one guy had something called a “sugar chest”, which is a piece of furniture I have never heard of. The guy on the show described it as an ornate chest kept under lock and key to store sugar (both brown loaf and refined white) in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, sugar was a hot commodity, and so the chest served both to secure the goods, as well as to be on display in the dining room as a status symbol.
This article has more on the pretty interesting history of this piece of furniture, including speculation that they didn’t spend long as an elite status symbol of the upper classes. Rather, most of the more ornate sugar chests that were made were targeting the lower and middle classes, in whom the upper-class aspirations were a little more stubborn:
It has long been held that the sugar chest was almost the exclusive property of the southern upper and upper-middle classes. Yet a survey this year of ninety-one sugar chests that can be identified as having been made in Williamson County, Tennessee, found the overwhelming majority to have come from yeoman-class farms, despite the county’s large antebellum population of prosperous planters. (7)
The sugar chest is not a tangible survivor of the courtly Old South of grand plantations but rather of the southern backcountry, born of the scarcities that came hand in hand with the area’s early isolation. The absence of the sugar chest from the inventories of the wealthiest families after sugar became readily available throughout Tennessee may be closely related to their sense of fashion. For these families, storing sugar may have seemed provincial and old-fashioned. But among their yeoman neighbors the tradition died hard. We have found more than one sugar chest made in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, long after there could be any clear need to store massive amounts of sugar. Odder still is the near mythic aura that the form began to acquire just as the last of the sugar was removed from the old chest. Because of its small size, the sugar chest was ill suited to store anything else except possibly liquor. Unfortunately, the temperance movement was in full swing just as these cabinets became available for other uses.
This is as good a time as any to recommend Class, by Paul Fussell – a funny book about the American classes, which of course, don’t exist. Ahem.