A short history of knife boxes

Since my dive into the PFG project of building a knife box I also have uncovered this information about the evolution and story of the knife box. I have had some good fortune of finding this information in old throw away library books by Edgar D Miller Jr , Wallace Nutting and Edgar P. Fitzgerald. Some I have purchased when rummaging in antique shop book racks.

The evolution begins with the sideboard. In the picture A the sideboard and and cupboard or pedestal appears upon which an urn is sitting. Note the sideboard and cupboards are not connected. 

Robert Adam connected the cupboards to the sideboard making the set of 3 pieces and not 5 as shown in picture B. The next form was in picture C by Thomas Shearer a contemporary of Hepplewhite’s. Of course these are all Englishmen. Shearer later made just the sideboard without the cupboards and urns. Shearer and the Adam’s work was overshadowed by Hepplewhite and Sheraton. Shearer and Adams fade into obscurity. 

The urn style of knife box were the first in the evolution. This seems to have evolved from the use of lead lined urns with a faucet to draw out “ice” water. Ice water was a treat and was fittingly withdrawn from these fancy urns. The faucet is seen in the following picture upper right. About 1785 is the best date I have for the beginning of these vessels. These are mentioned in Hepplewhite’s Guide or maybe more accurately stated, “his wife’s guide”. In history she appears to be the author. 

The urns have their own evolution when later they were made spring loaded with expanding internal compartments for silverware and utensils for use at the dinner table. These are seen expanded in the center pictures above. The bottom center picture is in a Sheraton style. Although called knife boxes and knife urns they were used for keeping forks and spoons as well as knives.

As the evolution continues the development of the sloped front knife box is seen. Hepplewhite and Sheraton are again the primary designers. These items were made from mahogany and or satinwood. Other woods were only used in the inlays and not construction. 

The first line of knife boxes in the picture below are designs from Hepplewhite’s book. Note in the plans how they began as serpentine form and morphed into a “broken” serpentine form. Some have feet some do not. Sheraton liked his feet!

The bottom line of boxes are Sheraton’s boxes with the use of silver adornments making an appearance. I believe this last picture is also a Sheraton but from a different publication. The picture of the stairs has  no relevance to this discussion. I just failed to crop it out because I think the stairs are really cool and very ornate.

Following the knife urns and boxes was the cellaret. Or in modern terminology a wine cooler. I don’t have pictures of these. 

In our project knife box example  it is stated that it is not a typical knife box. It was made with a white pine body with a mahogany veneer. In the box I have built it is solid mahogany but with a mahogany veneer. Following my study I am pretty certain it was made in the colonies and not England. There were roughly 20 builders of knife boxes in the newly formed states. There were only a few specialists in England and the states who were building these. Our example knife box has elements of both Hepplewhite and Sheraton. I think the states builders were picking and choosing and doing what they liked and would sell.

I hope you have found value in this reading and will attend the next PFG meeting Dec 15th in Newington. Lots to discuss and learn as we continue with the knife box project. Also it is not too early to begin to think about our next project and what you would like to have presented at one of our future meetings.

Bill Taylor

Period Furniture Group