|By Larry LeMasters
The definition of a cabinet is “an upright cupboard-like repository with shelves, drawers, or compartments for the safekeeping or display of objects.” So it’s easy enough to define a chimney cupboard as an upright cabinet that sits near a chimney, but that might be too limiting a definition.
In fact, furniture historians believe chimney cupboards originated as kitchen cupboards around 1700. In the 21st century, we have a tendency to forget that all kitchens had chimneys at one time, and the kitchen fireplace or cooking stove was probably the only source of heat in a home, so the original chimneys in a home were found in kitchens, not dens.
Chimney cupboards are shallow, skinny cabinets that were first designed to fit into narrow niches between a stove or fireplace and a wall. Original, antique, chimney cupboards are tall, many average 6 ½ to 7 feet tall, so their tall, square design tends to make a cupboard appear like a chimney, which may have added to the “chimney cupboard” name continuing even today. It also might be that the name “chimney cupboard” is a modern, 20th century term attached to any tall, primitive cabinet, based on the cabinet’s appearance and not on its intended use. No one knows for sure how this type of cupboard acquired its name. It is even possible that the name came from Shaker cabinetmakers.
Chimney cupboards are often associated with Shaker furniture. As early as 1740, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly known as Shakers, formed in the Northwest of England. Around 1775, the first Shaker community was formed in the United States near New Lebanon, New York.
Shaker communities quickly became famous for their distinctive style of furniture that mirrored the religion’s guiding principles of simplicity, utility, and honesty. Shaker furniture has always been seen as well-made, minimalist pieces, and chimney cupboards certainly fit this description.
While it is possible that chimney cupboards originated in Shaker communities, it is also possible that these cabinets began as the primitive work of farmers and townspeople who hand built primitive cabinets for their own usage.
The oldest chimney cupboards known all possessed functional form and plain design, forgoing the use of gaudy ornamentation, such as inlays, carvings, metal pulls, or veneers. Many antique chimney cupboards were made of solid, nailed together boards (pine, maple, and walnut were commonly used lumber for the times), and then painted since, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, painted furniture represented a middle-income life style (the poorest of families could not afford paint). As chimney cupboards caught on as a desirable style of furniture, cabinetmakers began creating acquisitive chimney cupboards in natural woods with dovetail joints for finer homes.
Today, furniture collectors and interior decorators search for outstanding examples of primitive, hand-made, painted chimney cupboards. Decorators position chimney cupboards in bathrooms, to store linens, in kitchens, as additional storage, and even in bedrooms, as underwear organizers. Because of their simple, primitive designs, chimney cupboards are often used to complement rustic, Colonial décor; however, many chimney cupboards have been converted, often by removing the cabinet’s original doors, into book shelves or open-faced, whatnot-type cabinets, used in living areas or near fire places. Chimney cupboards are even used to hold fireplace accessories.
While repurposed chimney cupboards are convenient for storage, altering the appearance of an antique cabinet not only destroys the cabinet’s original look; it also devalues it as an antique. If you are a novice collector and chance upon a beautiful, antique chimney cupboard, it is best to leave it as you find it. Tighten screws, clean the wood’s surface, and then leave it alone. The true beauty in an antique is seeing it as it has become, not changing it to fit some modern vision of what it should be. Not only does the eclectic and sometimes worn manner of a cabinet resonates new life in the hands of a loving owner, the value of antique chimney cabinets remains steady or climbs only when the cabinet is original.
If you desire authentic, antique chimney cupboards, be selective in what you buy. Reproduction chimney cupboards abound on the secondary market and many sell on primary markets. Some of these reproductions are beautiful, and with their distressed surfaces and skillfully applied, multi-layered paints, they look more authentic than an authentic1820 chimney cupboard. If you are a novice, ask questions before spending $1,000 on a reproduction you don’t want.
There appears to be no limit to how chimney cupboards are used today, especially in Shabby Chic décors. But whether or not you use your chimney cupboard behind a door, in a Shabby Chic bathroom, as a hall cupboard, replacing the overly done hall tree, or as a primitive, yet stylish extra cabinet near your hearth, chimney upboards add warmth and texture to any home. And, due to the cabinet’s flexible usage, a chimney cupboard purchased today offers a small footprint in any home but an amazing impact on your life, and it may easily become a family heirloom tomorrow.