Monday, April 7, 2008

Scandinavian Chests

Most surviving Scandinavian immigrant chests date from early in the 19th century through the early 20th century; the most coveted examples predate modern machinery. Because not all chests were dated, the following tips may help the alert collector spot an early-19th-century example:


Examine the chest's surface

Early examples appear somewhat bumpy and have notches and irregularities not often seen on those made later in the century, when machines were able to achieve a smoother, more even surface.


Run the tips of your fingers over the wood

Hand-planed boards have thin grooves running in the direction of the grain. Boards planed by machines that cut across the width of the wood have faint ripples going against the grain.


Inspect dovetailed joints

Corners with small gaps and slight protrusions are more likely to have been joined before the age of machines, when mortise and tenon construction could be done with more precision.


Count the number of boards in the lid

As forests were harvested, trees large enough to produce wide boards became scarce. Therefore, while only two boards may have been needed for an early-19th-century lid, four or more may have been necessary by the end of the century.


Look for mellowed colors in the painted decorating

Chests decorated late in the 19th century and beyond have colors that sill appear bright today and do not have the same arm patina that collectors admire.

The 'America Chest'


Before the 17th century, when cupboards and chests of drawers first came into use, standing chests provided storage for linens, documents, and other household valuables. In Scandinavia, the pieces remained popular long after other forms of storage were available.

The most elaborately decorated chests were generally wedding, or dowry, chests. Made for prospective brides by their fathers or fianc├ęs, these treasured heirlooms were used to store linens and other household items. The painted designs that covered the exterior of the chests often included the intended wedding date and initials of the young woman for whom it was made.

This dowry trunk dated 1845 features female figures in Victorian dress surrounded by rosemaling.The strong sentimental value these handcrafted trunks held for their owners made it almost certain they would have been packed and brought to America. Other chests made specifically for the transoceanic journey often resembled wedding chests in size, construction, and purpose but generally lacked their intricate, allover designs.

Author Vilhelm Moberg described the importance of immigrant chests like these in The Emigrants*: "It was the roomiest and strongest packing case they could find — five feet long, three feet high, wrought with strong iron bands three fingers wide. The four oak walls of this chest were for thousands of miles to enclose and protect their essentials; to these planks would be entrusted most of their belongings. The ancient clothes chest which was about to pass into an altogether new and eventful epoch of its history was even given a new name in its old age. It was called the 'America chest.' "

Construction and Decoration


Long winters and an abundance of natural woods gave Scandinavian craftsmen much opportunity to make furniture. The want of sunlight throughout much of the year also led Scandinavians to rely on color and painted surface decorations to brighten dark interiors.

While some early examples were made of oak, most Scandinavian chests were made of pine and featured simple dovetailed construction and measured about three to four feet in length by about two feet in height and depth. A flat or domed lid extended slightly over the sides.

Chests were often strengthened by the addition of hammered-iron straps, bands, and corner braces. A lock was sure to have been attached and sometimes featured a wide iron backplate. Iron handles at either end of the trunk made it easier to move. These handles were especially important on chests that sat directly on the floor rather than on feet.

Linens, clothing, cookware, and books numbered among the items transported in 19th-century immigrant chests.

The amount of painted decoration on a chest often depended on the piece's intended use. Simple toolboxes or those chests made specifically for the trip to the United States may have been finished with a single coat of paint or false graining and a minimum of decoration. Wedding chests and immigrant chests made by a father or grandfather as a parting gift for a beloved child, on the other hand, generally displayed elaborate painted decoration.


Decoration on Swedish chests tended to be more subdued than that on Norwegian examples. Norwegian craftsmen favored bold, undiluted colors, intricate carving, and the detailed painted decoration known as rosemaling. One popular Swedish design, by contrast, featured a solid background of robin's-egg blue with a simple painted circle of flowers. Typical features incorporated into the overall design of both Norwegian and Swedish chests include the date the piece was made or the date of the event it was intended to commemorate and the name and initials of the owner.

Collecting Today

Although immigrant chests from Norway and Sweden can be found in antiques shops around the country, the majority of these pieces surface in the Upper Midwest and other regions where Scandinavian immigrants settled in large numbers.

Prices range from about $500 for a small chest with little or no painted decoration to about $3,000 for a large chest covered with intricate rosemaling that incorporated a name and/or a date into the design. In addition to size, age, condition, and degree of detail, a knowledge of the maker or the family history can also favorably affect the value of a chest.


Depending on their own family heritage, most collectors tend to concentrate on either Norwegian or Swedish chests. There are those, however, who appreciate the chests more for their painted finishes than for their historic or sentimental value; these collectors seek the most visually appealing examples, whatever their nation of origin. Chests with flat lids are thought to be more versatile in home decorating, as they can double as small tables, but if all other factors are equal, the shape of the lid will not dramatically affect a chest's price.

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