Arts & Mysteries: Hidden in Plain Sight


Lessons learned from examining a Pennsylvania Spice Chest.
By Adam Cherubini
Pages: 20-23

From the December 2009 issue #180
Buy this issue now

On a recent tour of Pennsbury Manor, the reconstructed home of William Penn in Bucks County, Pa., where I volunteer some weekends each year, I noticed a small “spice chest” atop a larger case piece in a dark corner. The Pennsylvania black walnut, though lightened after nearly 300 years, did nothing to proclaim the presence of the tiny box. Roughly 17″ square and possessing restrained mouldings and bun feet, even its silhouette was uninteresting. Its flat door revealed only upon closer examination a touch of figured grain and a fancy keyhole escutcheon. The door was closed, concealing the only interesting part of the chest – the woodwork inside.

These chests were typically fitted out with myriad drawers to store precious items. It’s true that spices were expensive then, but few of these boxes were actually used to store spices. Rather, they were used to store valuables such as coins, jewels, important papers, possibly keys and other expensive household items.

Pennsbury Manor’s museum curator, Kim McCarty, probably positioned the box purposely to keep it out of the sun’s damaging rays. But she may have also suspected that a “hidden in plain sight” location would have been chosen for boxes like this one 300 years ago.


From the December 2009 issue #180
Buy this issue now