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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

My Addiction to Pantry Boxes

What is it about old boxes? Places to store treasures, display your favorite things, hide things. I was thinking about how I love them and I realized I have lots of types of old wood boxes, but I think I must be addicted to pantry boxes.

I have too many pantry boxes. Way too many. I just can't get enough of them. I have them in stacks - big stacks and little stacks. They are very useful to store herbs and other loose pantry ingredients, although I don't store anything in mine. I just like to look at them.

Pantry boxes were used extensively in the 19th century for just what they sound like - storing grains, meal, sugar, spices and herbs in the pantry. The thicker walled ones are the earliest - dating from the 1820s-40s. Those really thin walled ones are late - early 20th century, and usually machine made.

The best pantry boxes are in early paint. Of course, paint is faked so often, that you really have to be careful when buying a painted pantry box. Some of the fakes are amazingly realistic. Buy only from a dealer you know and trust. If they say it is original or early paint, and you trust them, buy it. Blue is the best, most collectible color, and also faked the most. A pantry box in early blue paint that is in good condition can bring a very high price, - over $300, and sometimes a lot more.

There's nothing better than a tall stack of them. I have spent years searching for just the right color and size for each step of my stack. They do come in all colors, and sometimes have several coats of paint of different colors on them. You can scrape off later layers to reveal the original paint, but that is kind of hard to do. Any paint is fine, as long as it isn't new. If it's shiny it is probably a 20th century paint. Milk paints have a matte finish. Shiny can also mean that someone put a coat of wax over the paint to preserve it - never a good idea. Nice painted pantry boxes, if the paint is right, cost more than $100 in today's market, and sometimes a lot more.

There are several types of pantry boxes: the ones with handles, the oval ones, and the round ones. Handled ones tend to be the costliest of the 3 types. A signature can really enhance the value, especially if it comes with a provenance. And Shaker ones are very sought after, although the multitude of pantry boxes identified as Shaker in the marketplace is absurd. People like to call all pantry boxes "Shaker" but that is a misnomer. Very few are actually from a Shaker community, and it is hard to identify them as such unless they are signed.

Pantry boxes with handles are always round (at least American 19th century ones are round). The handles are either wire bail handles attached with metal escutcheons to the sides and with a wood grip, or they are bentwood, attached with wood button pegs. They are usually quite thick-walled because they were meant for heavier items. They were constructed with metal tacks and wood pegs, with a seam on both the box and the lid, fastened with tacks.

Pantry boxes with handles tend to be larger than the rest, although there are miniatures - very rare miniatures:

This is a little Shaker bail handled pantry box - how do I know it's Shaker? It was sold to me by someone I trust to know these things, and it also has a very typical Shaker feature - the diamond - shaped escutcheon. No paint, but you can't have everything.

See how tiny it is? Only 4 3/4" across. Love it.

The typical handled pantry box is 9" - 12" wide. Good ones in paint run around $150-$800, depending on the condition and paint color. An unpainted one in good condition will still cost you more than $100 unless you are lucky and stumble across one which is underpriced.

Most pantry boxes without handles are round. They range in size from very tiny to 12" or so, but the most common is 6"-8". They are also fastened together with metal tacks and wooden pegs. Most have a straight seam down the side and a matching straight seam on the lid, fastened with tacks. The sought after are ones of any diameter if they have good paint, and really tiny ones. (I guess miniatures are just a thing).

This is a nice early blue one that I offered on my website for $295. It sold immediately. You can see the straight row of tacks down the sides of both the box and the lid.

Sometimes the seams are finger-lapped. These are the ones that people think are always Shaker, but they're not. The finger laps are a nice detail, and probably make the box stronger. Sometimes the finger laps are only on the lids, not the bases.

Finger laps often go in just one direction, and sometimes they are in reverse directions, like this green one. This style is often called Harvard Shaker, although somebody just made that up and it caught on. This type of opposing finger lap is most typical of pantry boxes made in Hingham MA, also known as "bucket town", because of the huge number of firkins and buckets that were made there. The most sought after of these are the ones made by the Hersey family. Hersey boxes have a distinctive rounder oval shape, and recognizable finger shapes. Many were signed. There are collectors who only want Hersey boxes, but I'm not that fussy. I love them all.

Many finger lap pantry boxes have the fingers going in one direction. Sometimes the fingers are swallow-tailed or blunted.

Original labels on pantry boxes are usually on round ones - old paper labels, hand painted ones, stenciled ones. They are somewhat hard to find, and I always buy them when I see them for a reasonable price, where I feel that the label is legit.

I love this little stack I have in my kitchen. The top one has a paper label that says "ginger", the middle one has a stenciled label that says "c tartar" and the bottom one has a painted label that says "saleratus" (which is baking soda). I bought the ginger one at an antiques show for $175. The blue "c tartar" one was $300, and the bottom one I got for (I think) $195. The paint is good on all of them.

Oval boxes are often more expensive than round boxes and are the ones people say are "Shaker" most often. They are usually not. Oval boxes are not as common as round ones, especially in paint, and can cost more than round boxes of the same age and quality.

I think I see more finger lapped oval boxes in the marketplace than straight seamed ones. Not sure, but it seems that way. The oval boxes somehow are more pleasing to look at than the round ones. Graceful.

I have had the two bottom boxes for 45 years. I paid nothing for them, but today they would be well over $200 each, even with the chippy paint. The little one is finger-lapped, but only on the lid, and it is unpainted, but thick walled, so early. The lower two boxes are about 6" x 4 1/2". They are usually between 3"-8" long, and rarely as large as the larger round ones.

And then there are the miniatures. They are relatively rare, especially in paint, and oh so wonderful!

These are itsy-bitsy pantry boxes. They range in size from 1 1/2" in diameter to 3" in diameter. Three of them are in old paint. They cost from $155 to $345. I know, an extravagance, but when you're addicted, you just can't resist.

But they don't have to be expensive. I found these three gray/blue boxes at various times - the colors are not bright, the paint, not great, although early milk paint. I just like the softness of them. I keep this little stack around and move it often. They have cracks and missing bits, some tacks are rusted, some missing. But they are real, honest, and I love them.

What's my favorite one? Of all that I have, which one? Hard to pick. I think it's this one: I bought it in 1976 at an antiques show in Bedford NY, and I paid $35 for it. The stenciling is old, but not original to the box. I didn't know much when I bought it. I remember saying to the dealer, "is the paint design original, old?" She said, " Oh, no, I don't think so." I thought she was wrong, so I bought it. But she was right. I think maybe I love it because it was the first pantry box I ever bought. Emotional attachment.

Sometimes I think that the pantry box was invented as the perfect recepticle for herbs, grains, flours, spices. It is wood, it breathes, it keeps critters out (unless they chew a hole in the side) and it keeps the sunlight out. All the things that plastic and glass containers don't do. I should use them for that purpose. But I don't. I wonder what was once in them, for one thing, and I don't like to clean them with soap and water or disinfectants. So I stay away. Maybe buttons. I have lots of buttons and I could store them in the pantries. Or paper clips? No. I'll just collect them, display them, and love them for what they are.



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