Jonathan Hoppe

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What’s in a Commode?

One day you walk into the Kennett Square ReStore and lay your eyes on this:

Cabinet 3/4 view.

Confronted with glory.

What do you do? In my case, I bought it immediately. But why, you might ask? Because the instant I laid eyes on it I knew I had something special. As it turns out, this is a pine lift-top commode. Its name of course has been adopted by our modern times to refer to a different fixture, but the function is the same. The top lifts to store a wash basin and pitcher, the little drawer is for towels, and the bottom is for your, er, chamber pot. Golly gee willickers!

Opening the lid revealed it was detailed with milk paint, a not uncommon method for the early 1800s.

Inside milk

Opening the lid reveals the original milk paint.

And the detail work was something to marvel at: dovetailed joints, a fine finish, and square cut nails? Everything pointed to it being something very special indeed.



Old burl knobs.

Old burl knobs.

All I had were indicators that the thing dated to the early 1800s, but when it spontaneously deconstructed itself carrying it inside, I made a startling discovery: the hinges were stamped:


Hinges spill their secrets.

As it turns out these hinges were made by the T&C Clark & Co., of Birmingham, England based on a patent from around 1840. But though the hinges were made abroad, the cabinet was not. The “TARIFF” stamp dates the box to sometime between 1846 and 1861. The Walker Tariff went into effect in 1846, stimulating through reduced duties the importation of iron from Britain, which drove prices for iron down substantially. The Tariff of 1857 further reduced rates, but the Panic of 1857 led to the adoption of the heavily protectionist Morrill Tariff in 1861. Neat! Almost makes


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