Collections › MESDA Collection › Blanket Chest

Blanket Chest

Place Made:
Wilkes County North Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
1850-1860
Medium:
poplar –paint
Dimensions:
HOA: 20 3/4″
WOA: 40″
DOA: 21 3/4″
Accession Number:
5547
Description:
DESCRIPTION: Painted chest: Chest joined at the four corners with rather chunky dovetails; base molding, scalloped skirt, and feet made from one piece of wood, three pieces forming the base are mitered at the front corners and nailed on; lid molding is nailed onto front, but each sidepiece was through-tenoned first and then nailed on; sturdy hand wrought pintle hinges holding the lid onto the case; nails used throughout the chest appear to be cut; no til on the interior; first painted with a red/orange base coat and then covered with black dots placed in a somewhat orderly pattern of straight lines.

STYLE: Both the basic construction and unsophisticated decoration of this chest strongly suggest it was a completely homemade product, and not one of an established cabinetmaking shop. As with many “neat pieces,” that is part of its charm.

MAKER: See HISTORY

History:
Both the maker and original owner of the chest called the foothills of Wilkes County, North Carolina, home–an area so far west in the Piedmont, that some might argue it is actually part of the Mountain region. Living about twenty miles north of Wilkesboro were young Henry Adams and his wife Nancy, who were married in 1835. Family history suggests the chest was most likely made for Nancy, perhaps as early as her 1835 marriage to Henry, but more likely later in her married life. Either her father or new husband is the chest’s probable maker.

The chest’s history is most closely associated with Henry and Nancy’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth Adams Johnson (1856-1940), who was given the chest by her mother and father. Elizabeth’s memories include the chest’s “hiding” her family’s valuables during the Civil War—that most quintessential and ubiquitous of southern memories. According to Elizabeth, “During the Civil War when it was rumored the Yankees were coming, whatever was considered of most value would be put in the ‘chist’ and hidden in the leaves in the woods.” Lending credence to then 10-year-old Elizabeth’s memory is the harrowing experience of Wilkes County residents during Stoneman’s Raid in the spring of 1865. Union cavalry under General George Stoneman plundered through Piedmont North Carolina as part of the North’s effort to demoralize the South. According to historian Chris J. Hartley, the Wilkesboro area “bore more than its fair share of pain.” In fact, one local historian of the period described the time as one of “robbing and plundering everything in sight leaving [in] their trail a howling wilderness.” That the Adams family would use the spotted chest to protect their most valuable belongings from marauding troops is entirely believable.

In 1880 Elizabeth married the young widower, Sidney Lewis Johnson. Her granddaughter Butrice Johnson Luffman remembers “Grandma Betty” saying that she packed “her clothes and linen in a chest, which she called a ‘chist,’ that was painted brown with black coin dots,” and traveled the short distance from her family home to the small frame home of her new husband. There it stored personal possessions, was sat on, and probably played in while Sidney and Elizabeth raised ten children. One special object stored in the chest still survives: Elizabeth’s white cotton wedding dress.

Even as it aged and faded, the “chist” remained a prized family heirloom and was passed down to Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Butrice Johnson Luffman. Perhaps inspired by the love her family had for the little spotted chest, in 1965 Mrs. Luffman became one of the first “hostesses,” or guides, at the newly opened southern decorative arts museum in Winston Salem known as MESDA. When Mrs. Luffman died, her three daughters most generously donated the chest to MESDA in memory of their mother, who recognized the importance of the colorful little chest.

Today the Johnson chest is a prized part of the MESDA Collection because it tells the story of a simple object imbued with multiple layers of meaning for the women in one backcountry North Carolina family. It speaks volumes for all of the early hard working, average females whose objects and stories have not survived.

Credit Line:
Given in memory of Butrice Johnson Luffman by her daughters: Winnie Luffman, Jean Luffman Humber and Lucy Luffman Dearing.