For the entirety of my adult experience in collecting and selling antiques, painted American furniture in original or early surface has been my first love. Nothing peaks my attention like a fantastic set of Pennsylvania decorated chairs in rare salmon paint, or a chrome yellow blanket box with salmon pinwheel sponging, or, better yet, a Mahantango Valley chest with birds, angels, and tulips on the drawer-fronts and styles.
I have been very lucky in life to be able to sell hundreds of examples of early painted country American furniture, and to be surrounded by it every day in both my own personal collection as well as my inventory. I am inspired by the dynamic designs of the Pennsylvania German community, and the furniture of other rural Americans who did not generally have great financial means. The lifeblood of this nation lay in the poor but hard working individuals who populated it in the 17th-19th centuries. Craftsmen who made objects for the working class strove in their creativity to create utilitarian objects that also pleased the eye. They roughly copied the designs of their urban counterparts, then used paint and imagination to breath happiness into their work. Life for most early Americans with little or moderate means was everything but easy, and death was commonplace. Color and delightful forms helped to lift the spirit.
While today’s comforts and modern medicine have changed the lives we live, the colorful artifacts of early America give no less pleasure. I strive to acquire furniture with strong color, bold design, and excellent early surfaces .
Like any collector, I also delight in finding rare forms. One of my favorites, found primarily in Pennsylvania , is what I call a “milk cupboard.” While sometimes found with top and bottom portions, like a stepback cupboard, Milk cupboards are more often low and long, almost server-like. They most resemble jelly (preserve) cupboards, but are shorter in height and noticeably wider. I distinguish milk cupboards from other cupboards, however, not simply because of their exterior form, but rather because of their interior. Unlike jelly cupboards, which have many shelves for canning jars, the milk cupboard has only one lateral shelf, positioned in the center or slightly above center. This is commonly divided in the middle by a vertical plank (or planks) that separates the right and left halves and serves to support the long top so that it doesn’t sag. The interior is thus divided into four large open compartments that can easily accommodate milk buckets or pails. For this reason, the name “bucket cupboard” would be equally accurate. The bucket or milk cupboard is akin to the bucket bench, but it has blind doors (usually two of them) instead of an open front. This would obviously be preferable over a bucket bench for food storage, so it is interesting that more of them were not made. I encounter only a couple of them each year, however, while bucket benches are plentiful.
The milk cupboard is a form I have seen primarily in Southeastern Pennsylvania , but I recently encountered one in New York State, which was found along the Hudson River region, in Dutchess County. While antique furniture has certainly been know to meander from state to state throughout its existence, this cupboard has so many New York characteristics that no one with knowledge of New York rural furniture construction could easily suggest that it was likely made elsewhere. Dating to the period between 1820 and 1860, the beautiful, red, over-painted surface (ca 1870-80) has mulberry-colored overtones. The low gallery serves well for both aesthetics and utilitarian purpose, keeping objects from rolling or sliding off the top. Other shelves were added to the interior over time, as the need for storing buckets faded into history, but the original shelf is readily distinguished by its mortised construction and painted front edge.
For serious connoisseurs of painted furniture who are in search of a server for their dining room, there is no better form than the Milk Cupboard, which is a rare form, is often very attractive, has a large top, at a great working height, and can easily accommodate pitchers, wine bottles and glasses in its spacious interior.