|By Larry LeMasters
Although the word spice did not appear until the end of the 12th century, the use of spices or herbs dates back to nearly the dawn of humanity. Primitive people wrapped meat and other foods (grains, etc.) in the leaves of fragrant bushes for storage, and, quite by accident, soon learned that food tasted better when it has been in contact with an aromatic herb or spice. During ancient or Biblical times, herbs and spices were used to mask the often-unpleasant odor and taste of foods, and salt was used as a way of storing food and keeping it fresh.
Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are leafy, green plant parts used for flavoring purposes. Herbs, such as basil or oregano, may be used fresh, and are commonly chopped into smaller pieces. Spices, however, are dried and often ground or grated into a powder. Small seeds, such as fennel and mustard seeds, are used both whole and in powder form.
Spices were coveted as early as 1,000 B.C as noted when Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem and offered him 120 measures of gold, many spices, and precious stones. At his time, a handful of cardamom was worth as much as a poor man’s yearly wages and slaves were bought and sold for a few cups of peppercorns.
Great spice caravans were organized in ancient times to ensure that spices would always be in supply. There are even Biblical references to the huge value that spices held in pre-Christian times. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery to spice merchants. And In Song of Solomon, the male speaker in one poem compares his beloved to many forms of spices.
And let us not forget that two of the gifts given to Jesus at his birth by the Magi were rare, quite expensive spices of the time frankincense and myrrh.
By the Middle Ages, spices were so much in demand that pepper became a form a currency, much like gold dust in the American West.
America even owes its discovery to spices if you believe that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Columbus set sail in 1492 to find a shorter route to the Indies spice fields. Opening up a new spice route to Europe was Columbus’ primary objective; all that stopped him was a continent North America got in his way.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as a young America began to dominate world trade, spices became big business, especially in New England. Salem, Massachusetts dominated the North American pepper trade. In 1797 Captain Jonathan Carnes sailed into Salem with a boatload of pepper, becoming the first of nearly 1,000 American ships to make the around-the-world voyage for pepper. The reason was simple: Carnes voyage produced a 700% profit for his investors. Many pepper voyages sailed from New England ports to the spice docks in Sumatra. In fact, New England imported so much pepper (remember that pepper was so valuable it was once used as currency) that the price of pepper fell, in 1843, to less than three cents a pound, ruining many aspects of the American business economy.
Beginning around 1800, Americans not only desired more spices in their diets, but they began to look for better ways to store the valuable spices that came their way. Small crocks were used as the first spice canisters. And by 1820, farmers and city craftsmen alike were building one-of-a-kind spice cabinets to hold the meager store of spices available. Normally these handcrafted spice cabinets sell for tidy sums at auctions and in antique stores. Look for ones that have original paint on them, lettering, or some other special feature. Most of these old spice cabinets sell for about $100. But exceptional pre-Civil War spice cabinets easily bring $500 or more, and some can still be found in the rafters of old barns or the attics of old houses.
Following the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution blossomed. While hand-made spice cabinets still appeared on farms and on the shrinking Western frontier, the majority of spice cabinets were now manufactured.
Again, watch for painted ones and ones with lettering, especially since spice cabinets and apothecary cabinets were virtually identical during the late 1800s, so the name of spices on the cabinets ensures both its purpose and its value.
From the late 1870s on, tin spice cabinets were produced, becoming the preferred spice cabinet for most homes by 1900. These early tin beauties can easily cost $500 in good condition.
Other spice cabinets worth looking for are old Hoosier spice bottles and rack that once were sold inside the Hoosier Cabinets. These glass and metal sets are quite stunning to use today and are valued at $200 or more if you can find a complete set.
Collectors often begin a spice cabinet collection when they inherit a spice cabinet that once belonged to their mom or grandma. Some of these cabinets are the tacky wooden ones from the 1960s and ’70s that came complete with spice bottles, wooden utensils, and note pads. In good condition, they can add both a sentimental air to a collection and still represent a specific time in American kitchens. If your mom did not leave you one, a vintage ’70s spice cabinet can be found in most antique stores for about $30.
Today, spices are used in nearly everything we eat. It is hard for the modern homemaker to imagine a time when fragrant bits of leaves, seeds and bark once controlled the destiny of empires. Spice racks have changed over time nearly as much as the spice business itself. Most spices are now simply hidden away in a kitchen cabinet or pantry, left in the bottles they were sold in. But there was a day when the spice trade was king, and a collection of old spice cabinets adds both nostalgia and romance to any home.