Purchase Story

Shenandoah Valley Safes

A Book Review


Opening the Door: Safes of the Shenandoah Valley

by Kurt C. Russ and Jeffrey S. Evans
Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, 2017, 136 pages, softbound, $44.95 plus S/H from Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates (www.jeffreysevans.com/education-and-research/) or (540) 434-3939, or at the museum store at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Virginia.


The long-delayed catalog for the 2014-15 exhibition Safes of the Valley at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia, is now in print. The authors, collector Kurt C. Russ, a historical archaeologist, and Jeffrey S. Evans, a Mt. Crawford, Virginia, auctioneer, began their Virginia Safe Project in 2010 determined to document the food safes found in households in the Shenandoah Valley from 1820 to 1935. This comprehensive study tells why these cupboards, known as pie safes in the 20th century, were so popular, who made them, and what contributed to the safes’ demise.

Every type of Shenandoah Valley storage safe known to the authors is illustrated. They identify every tin panel pattern and the names of the cabinetmakers and tinsmiths who fashioned them (when known), as well as their customers. The authors illustrate cupboards with hand-punched tins and later ones with standardized machine-stamped designs. They wanted to document these food safes while collectors and dealers still remembered where they had found them and before their histories were lost. They say that they have only laid the foundation to further research, though it is hard to believe that they have left any safes in the valley to be discovered.

In addition to adding ventilation, the punched-tin panels present a selection of decorative geometric shapes, hearts, plants, urns, animals, buildings, American eagles, and portraits of American heroes. They sometimes include the names of the makers or the owners and occasionally reveal the politics and patriotism of the times. Moreover, these safes reflect the settlement patterns of the valley as immigrants and migrants fanned out along the Great Wagon Road that bisected the valley.

Everyone needed a place to keep food away from insects, vermin, heat, and humidity, and also to keep mold and mildew from linens. The ventilated safe was the answer. Regional forms developed. The authors acknowledge previous researchers who have published their findings, especially J. Roderick Moore’s article “Wythe County, Virginia, punched tin: its influence and imitators,” published in The Magazine Antiques in September 1984, and studies of Ohio safes by Dennis and Louise Paustenbach and Indiana safes by Elizabeth Mosby Adler.

After a brief history of standing and hanging safes noted in early inventories, Russ and Evans focus on safes from the Shenandoah Valley. They begin with the Kahle-Henson school of Lexington, Virginia. Russ and Evans first published their study on Kahle-Henson in the 2012 American Furniture journal. Cabinetmaker Matthew S. Kahle and tinsmith John Henson made a “closet safe” for Robert L. McDowell for use in his house and the adjacent Washington Tavern in Lexington, Virginia. Matthew Kahle is known for carving the wooden George Washington that was placed atop Washington Hall at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University. (See M.A.D.,August 2013, p. 31-C, for a review of the 2012 American Furniture.)

The authors also address the discovery of a closet safe door at the York Antiques Show in September 2014 (see M.A.D., November 2014, p. 9-A). The door has three tin panels. The bottom tin is punched with the words “Henson’s Improved Closet Safe”; the middle panel has a punched-tin portrait of George Washington; and the top panel has a punched-tin star-in-circle design. With the publication of this book we now know that the buyer of that door was Kurt C. Russ and his wife, Linda. Sharon and Claude Baker of Hamilton, Ohio, who had discovered the door in Kentucky, were able to buy the matching door and reunite them. Jeffrey Evans said at the time of the discovery that these doors provided the terminology “closet safe” for what had been called pie safes for a long time. These doors were known from fuzzy photographs in Henry Kauffman’s book Early American Ironware (1966).

The story of the Kahle-Henson partnership was also told by Clayton Pennington in the September 2014 issue of M.A.D., p. 11-A, in the report of the sale of a Kahle-Henson pie safe with a portrait of Andrew Jackson and the words “Hero! Of Orleans.” The safe sold for $102,500 at Nicely’s Auction, Clifton Forge, Virginia, on July 19, 2014. Dealer-collector Burt Long of New Market, Virginia, was the buyer. Russ and Evans called this an even more exciting discovery, pointing out the name G. Armentrout in a diamond pattern on the case end. While working on the Virginia Safe Project, Russ found this safe in an outbuilding on the Armentrout farm. He is certain that it is the safe that was first published in Candleday Art (1938) by Marion Nicholl Rawson,who had described it as “an ancient safe” that was “on the north porch where the sun never comes” and mentioned the portrait of the “Hero! Of Orleans.” The authors suggest that Armentrout had the safe made for use in his tavern about 1824 when Jackson was running for president. The Jackson decoration reflects the politics in the daily life of the strongly political Scots-Irish community in the valley at that time.

Russ and Evans then take their readers county by county, showing them safes of the Shenandoah Valley, pointing out the various patterns used by the tinsmiths such as tobacco leaves, urns, stars, circles, fylfots, houses, churches, the alphabet, flowering plants, rosettes, fans, eagles, diamonds, and scrolls, a vocabulary of design related to quilt patterns and pressed into pattern glass. The forms range from a large sideboard to a small tabletop storage case and a breadbox, but most of them are two-door cupboards raised off the floor on turned or tapered legs. One from Shenandoah County has an open-top cupboard, and several have drawers, including one from the pottery-making Bell family of Strasburg, Virginia, that has tins with fylfot designs and a backsplash on the top. Sometimes open-top cupboards and built-in cupboards were fitted with punched-tin paneled doors. Some have tins painted blue or green, the more common colors; one with red tins is illustrated, and a few pictured appear to have a yellow wash. The illustrations should make it possible for owners of Shenandoah safes to identify where in the valley they were made, although a magnifier may be necessary to see details.

 The kitchen safe period ended at the turn of the 20th century. Large furniture factories in the North and Midwest manufactured inexpensive furniture, constructed in sections for easy shipment and assembly at their retail destinations. The Hoosier kitchen cabinet with its compartmentalized storage system provided homemakers with a way of organizing their kitchen, and the demand for locally made food safes waned. In rural areas of the Shenandoah Valley old ways continued longer. In Brocks Gap in northwestern Rockingham County, Virginia, Philip Franklin Baker (1859-1935) made more than 20 storage safes in the style of the 19th century into the 1930s. Many of them were made for the people for whom he had built houses. Most are oak and white or pitch pine, and occasionally he used poplar and yellow pine. They all have cutout galleries applied to the top, joined with nails, and upper drawers that overhang slightly in the Empire manner. They all have two hinged doors with three inset punched-tin panels and solid ends. Some have cutout skirts, and their tall feet are extensions of the case corners with cutout brackets. Some are signed and dated. One was made for the occasion of a wedding. Baker used manufactured punched-tin panels in three different patterns. The authors located Baker’s shop and recovered some woodworking templates. His attractive safes are a fitting end to the tradition of a family craft tradition.

In summary, the ventilated food safe, called the closet safe by one maker, is uniquely American, a product of the combined skills of craftsmen from various ethnic groups, and was embraced by Virginians in various socioeconomic levels of society. They were made as early as 1810-20, and in less than a quarter of a century, many houses throughout the valley had a safe. Even though the authors collected advertisements for safes, they never found a signed safe that they could attribute to any of the cabinetmakers who had advertised.

In time, the common-form safe with 12 tins and two drawers moved from the kitchen to the dining room and parlor. Some of these later safes have lightly punched designs, suggesting that ventilation became important only as decoration. Some safes have grooved shelves for plates, and others are compartmentalized for storage of dishes and cutlery. A portable breadbox safe and a small one-door tabletop safe are illustrated, as are some unusually tall safes and some very wide ones. New technologies brought speed in production, and improved rail transportation brought factory-made furniture from the Midwest into the valley beginning in the late 1850s. During the Civil War many cabinet shops closed, and craftsmen went to battle. When standard safes could be ordered from catalogs, local makers simplified and standardized their designs. Factory-made tins were available. By the 1870s most cabinet shops became retail outlets.

The Virginia Safe Project, its exhibition, seminars, and catalog have made known that the patterned punched-tin panels on cupboard doors were an adaptation by German Americans who settled in the valley. The furniture form spread to other cultural groups during the first three quarters of the 19th century. The Germans favored hearts and flowers; the Scots-Irish liked buildings and political themes. We now know that safes, kitchen safes, food safes, parlor safes, and closet safes were not called pie safes until the 1920s; the term pie safe is documented with advertisements of goods for public sale in 1926, 1927, and 1929. The authors claim that the safe tradition lived longer in the valley than in other parts of the country, and their research continues in other regions of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

It is nice to have all this research about Shenandoah Valley safes in one place with ample footnotes, but the book could use a good editor. It is repetitious and wordy, and many of the images are small and hard to see to make attributions. The paperback format is lightweight and convenient but poorly bound; my copy is falling apart.


Originally published in the December 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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