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Blanket Chest

Edwards, James __Probably by
Place Made:
Chatham County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
yellow pine
HOA: 29; WOA: 48; DOA: 18
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Paint-decorated chest: White, ochre, and red decoration on very dark blue/black field underpainted with red; eagle, flowers, dots, and other decorative designs on piece; above the eagle are the initials “SME” and the date “1801”; dovetailed case and front feet; inset rear feet with case overhanging rear feet; interior has till with lid; circular scar on top.

CONSTRUCTION: The most unusual construction feature is the inset rear feet with case overhanging feet.

DECORATION: Four chests, including this one, from the Chatham-Randolph County area have stylized foliate borders resembling those commonly engraved on neoclassical silver, and facades decorated with eagle and starburst motifs set in jewelled circles. Eagle motifs became increasingly popular after that bird was depicted on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782. With the exception of its circular reserves, which were laid out with a compass, all of the decoration was done freehand. The focal point of the decorator’s design is an eagle with folded wings and a shield on its breast. In most versions of this popular design, the eagle clutches a leafy branch in one talon and a cluster of arrows in the other. Often the eagle’s head is encircled with stars, and in some versions the bird holds a banner —occasionally bearing the inscription “E PLURIBUS UNUM” — in its beak. The decorator of this chest deviated from those designs by placing his eagle on a stylized orb and adding yellow flourishes to the banner in its beak. Those flourishes may represent the leafy branches in more conventional adaptations. Possible inspirations for this artisan’s work can be found in period coins and touch marks on pewter and silver. For example, a 1787 doubloon by New York goldsmith and jeweler Ephraim Brasher depicts a dropped-wing eagle framed by a circular wreath. On the opposite side of that coin is a rising sun with a circular beaded border that resembles the jewelled reserves on the chest. A similar dropped-wing eagle also appears on pewter plates by Jehiel Johnson, who worked in Fayetteville, North Carolina, between 1817 and 1819. Objects from Johnson’s shop may well have been in Chatham and Randolph County during the period when these chests were made.

The sides of the chest feature a jewelled square with radiating brush strokes that resemble fireworks. Pyrotechnical displays were extremely popular in the South, as indicated by an advertisement in the July 2, 1807, issue of the South Carolina Gazette and Daily Advertiser: “The 4th July, Being the Grand… Day of the INDEPENDENCE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, will be displayed…the most Superb and Variegated collection of FIRE WORKS, that ever yet has been exhibited in this city.” Alternatively, the radiating design on the sides of the chest could have mimicked kaleidoscopic patterns, which were prevalent in fancy decorative arts of the early nineteenth century.

MAKER: Family history says the chest was made by James Edwards of Chatham County, NC (See HISTORY for details). Whether the maker and paint-decorator were the same person is unknown.

Family history says the chest descended in the Eugene W. Reitzel (1883-1972) and Evia Swiggert Reitzel (1888-1987) family of Chatham County. Eugene was the son of Henry Reitzel (1847-1930) and Gattie Edwards Reitzel (1847-1917). Members of the Reitzel family appear in Chatham County records by 1900, presumably having come from Guilford County where numerous other Reitzel (also spelled “Rightsell”) family members lived, including Henry’s father Frederick A. Rightsell and his mother Liddy. The Chatham County census for 1900 listed farmer Henry Reitzel and his then sixteen-year-old son Eugene W. Reitzel. The latter was the E. W. Reitzel from whom the chest descended.

Eugene’s mother, Gattie Edwards Reitzel, was the daughter of James Edwards (1809-1885) and Grace Teel Edwards (1821-1871). Penciled on the interior of the chest is the name “Gitsy A. Edwards,” presumably a young Gattie Edwards’ attempt at writing her own name. According to Reitzel family tradition, the maker of this chest was J. R. Edwards, presumably the James Edwards born in 1809, and father of the Gattie Edwards who signed the chest. The chest probably was in the Edwards household when Gattie signed it. The 1850 census of Chatham County identified James Edwards as a forty-year-old carpenter and resident of the “western region,” and thus the most likely maker of the chest. Also listed in his household in 1850 was his 77-year-old mother, Sarah Edwards. Thirty years later, the census recorded that James Edwards lived in Matthews Township in the southwest part of Chatham County and had a seventeen-year-old son named “Jas. R.” The recurrence of the same neighbors in both censuses indicates that the elder Edwards remained in the same location from 1850 to 1880. The elder James Edwards died in 1885, and both he and his wife, Grace, were buried at Moons Chapel Baptist Cemetery in Chatham County, NC. Many woodworking tools were listed in James Edwards’s 1886 loose estate papers, and his son-in-law Henry Reitzel bought many items at the sale, including one chest worth $.50. Could that have been MESDA’s decorated chest?

The chest’s date of 1801 would appear to eliminate James Edwards as a candidate for maker, but the chest was most likely post dated. The initials “SME” may have been those of James Edwards’s mother Sara, although her maiden name is unknown. Supporting the post-dating theory is the fact that two other chests by the same decorator are dated 1824.

Credit Line:
Gift of Frank L. Horton