Thursday, November 12, 2009

Treasure Chest Thursday ~ The Mystery Chest

We had a mystery chest passed down through the generations. Four generations of our family had lived in the same house in Beverly, and the chest was in the cellar. Later we moved to central Massachusetts, and Dad used it as a tool box. Once he had a Salem antique dealer come to the basement to look at some old furniture, and the fellow ignored all the furniture, but he wanted to buy the tool box from my Dad. Of course, Dad didn’t sell it. Where would he store the hammers and screwdrivers? Dad kept it in the basement, next to the kitty litter box. It was old and scratched and abused.

Years later I toured the Jonathan Corwin House on Essex Street in Salem. It is popularly known as the “Witch House” even though the only witch related event that took place there was that Corwin was one of the Judges in the witch trials of 1692. There was a slant topped bible box in the parlor of the Corwin House that looked just like my Dad’s box.

I called Dad and started asking questions. He didn’t know where his old chest came from, but it was from his father’s side of the family. The Wilkinsons lived in Salem and Beverly, Massachusetts for many generations, and on this side of the family there were also many ministers, going all the way back to Reverend Samuel Skelton, the first minister in Salem. I looked on line, and found many images of bible boxes and valuables boxes from the 1600’s and 1700’s, and some looked like Dad’s “tool box.”

Bible boxes were used to keep the most valuable items of the house safe, and of course the family bible was always one of the most precious items in a New England Puritan’s possession. The slant top let it also be used as a desk top. Some bible boxes had legs, and most sat on top of other tables. Some were plain, dark painted wood, without decorations like Dad’s, some were very fancy, like one I saw at FDR’s library in Hyde Park, made in Holland in the 1600s and decorated with carvings.

Bible boxes defined according to Wikipedia: “In Colonial America this container was produced locally in a great variety of styles and finishes, by amateurs and professionals. Just about anybody who could afford nails, a few planks of wood and a hammer could improvise a bible box.” That describes Dad’s box, for it was simply made, without dovetails or fancy woodworking techniques. Wikipedia also states that the term “Bible box” is often used for just a portable desk. They also served as portable lecterns.

Not many people in the family were students or very educated people, except for the ministers in the family. The last minister in the family was Rev. Ingraham Ebenezer Bill, who never even attended high school or college. I suppose the slant topped box could have made a great pulpit in a pinch, but I could see it more for being used as a desk or for storage.

When Dad passed away, and Mom moved out of the old house, I was given the box. I still don’t know who made it, or who used it. I don’t know its real purpose. We’ve started to call it “The Coffin” because of its size and shape. It lives in our basement down next to our cat’s litter box, but we no longer store tools inside. It sits empty- waiting for me to discover its origins. Maybe we’ll find a local taping of “Antiques Road Show” and bring it out for an appraisal?

A bible box at the Jabez Howland House, Plymouth, Massachusetts
photographed in 2011


See my blog post from September 15, 2009 for a story about Rev. I. E. Bill


To Cite/Link to this blog post:  Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Treasure Chest Thursday ~ The Mystery Chest", Nutfield Genealogy, posted November 12, 2009, ( accessed [access date]).

1 comment:

  1. It might be old and ugly and abused, but it has so much history! Good to still have it, and who knows, it might be useful again (for your genealogy files? photographs?)!