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Fig. 1: Bible Box, Massachusetts, ca. 1675—1700. Pine, oak. H. 8, W. 24 1/2, D. 17 5/8 in. Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.

When learning about antiques, many people feel that some of the most useful lessons are gleaned from comparisons between two seemingly similar objects. To this end, the following study presents an authenticity analysis based on two boxes in the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village (Figs. 1, 3). By collecting and studying comparative objects, the museum continues the mission of its founder to teach the theory of “learning by doing.”

Among the objects in the collection are nine bible boxes from New England. The term bible box is a modern description for a storage container that in the seventeenth century was simply called a box. Used to protect and preserve important papers, books, or other valuables, these boxes were the safety-deposit repositories of their time. The boxes are generally made of pine and/or oak, with a top and bottom that protrude from the body of the box, which is usually embellished with carved or punched decoration (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Interior of Figure 1, showing uniform oxidation and wear. Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.

A few years ago, in a dark corner of one of the museum’s attics, curators discovered an undocumented bible box (Figs. 3-4). At first glance the box appeared to be a period seventeenth-century example similar to Figure 1: Hand-forged nails were used throughout;1 iron cotter pins secured the lid to the back;2 wide boards from old-growth trees were used for the top and bottom with edges worn from use; and there was a shrinkage crack in the bottom.3

Almost immediately, however, questions relating to the age of the box in Figure 3 arose. On the underside of the lid, where the two cotter pins are attached, are two small recessed rectangular areas that are now filled in, and there are also unexplained plugged nail holes on the inside near the lock in the front: Barring an error in construction, the purpose for nail holes and losses in the wood should be evident. There are traces of a salmon-colored paint on the edge of the lid not evident elsewhere on the box, and there are drip stains on the underside of the lid that illogically flow from the back to the front: Paint or stain evidence should make sense as it relates to the object and its intended use. The interior side and rear boards have a different oxidation color than that of the inside of the front board: Oxidation should be consistent throughout the parts.4 The bottom board has a thin piece of wood, a spline, between it and molding that trims its outer edges: While techniques vary, this particular method is not typical of period construction where the bottom boardextends beyond the sides.

Fig. 3: Bible Box, mixed periods. Pine. H. 10, W. 30, D. 17 in. Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.

While cabinetmakers occasionally made mistakes when constructing what are now authentic antiques, the combination of inconsistencies evident on Figure 3 indicates otherwise. Based on the above information, it appears that unlike Figure 1, which was actually made in the seventeenth century, the box in Figure 3 was constructed from both used and new parts. The lack of wear and oxidation on the side and back interior boards of the composite box (Fig. 4) indicate the parts are not particularly old, especially when compared with the natural aged color of the interior surfaces of the period box (Fig. 2). The darker oxidation on the interior of the front of Figure 3 suggests that this section is older than the rest of the body and possibly reused from another object; the carved decoration resembles seventeenth-century joined oak chests and boxes from Windsor, Connecticut, and this board may be an object fragment from the Windsor group. The top and perhaps the bottom of Figure 3 were probably table
Fig. 4: Interior of Figure 3, showing various discrepancies. Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.

leaves that were cut down for use in constructing the box; the filled recessed areas by the cotter pins in the top suggest the placement of flat angle hinges for drop table leaves. The molding profiles of the top front edge and around the bottom of Figure 3 are the same; if the top was reused and reworked, then by association the molding along the bottom was made to match—a hypothesis reinforced by the unusual construction method of the bottom.

We can never know for sure why the bible box in Figure 3 was made. However, we can learn from this brief exercise that illogical oxidation, wear, paint, and construction techniques may indicate when an item is not all that it should be, remembering to analyze an entire object before jumping to conclusions. When considering the purchase of an antique, a museum professional, conservator, or a qualified dealer can help guide you through your collecting experiences and respond to your questions along the way.

Henry J. Prebys is Curator, Domestic Life, at Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan.

  1. Hand forged, or “rose head” nails, have an uneven head resulting from marks left by hammer strikes. They were used on American furniture into the nineteenth century, although cut nails (with a rectangular head and shank) were introduced by the Federal period in the late eighteenth century.
  2. In the period, cotter pins, a small split rod with a loop in one end, were referred to as “snipe bills,” since they resembled a bird’s beak.
  3. Shrinkage cracks result from wood that was not seasoned properly, or when once in place, was unable to move freely when expanding and contracting due to fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
  4. It should be noted that different types of wood oxidize differently and can show varying shades of darkness, as in the pine lid, bottom, and till and the oak body of the box in Figure 1. The unifying factor should be consistency throughout from age.

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