Lea Wait here. For as long as I remember, I’ve known about chimney closets. We have four in our home — 2 in the bedrooms with fireplaces in the original part of the house, built in 1774, and two in what became the “new kitchen” in the ell added in 1832 or 1833.
When my mother owned this house, she collected nineteenth century original miniatures — often designed for doll houses. She decorated the shelves in the chimney closets (also called cupboards like miniature rooms: a dining rooms set with dishes and vases and flowers, sideboards, wine glasses, clocks, and oil paintings for the walls; a kitchen completely furnished with cooking utensils and pots and pans, and a butter churn. Tiny decks of cards were on the living room table. The bedroom included a child’s rocking chair, toys, a canopied bed, and a complete set of fireplace tools and a fire screen.
Mother also hid some of her liquor supply in one of the ell chimney closets when she left the house for any length of time.
Those miniatures, from the portraits to the Toby mug, were inherited by one of my nieces, and I don’t leave the house for long periods of time, so those chimney closets now hold a variety of decorative and non-decorative objects. Books about Maine (in the guest room;) decorative plates and art glass baskets. Family photographs. Cat food, out of reach, above the hearth where our cat takes her meals.
But — what is a chimney closet? And what were they used for when they were built in to eighteenth and early nineteenth century homes?
I thought I knew. Or, at least, I knew some historians’ ideas about them. But when researching this blog, and Googling “chimney closets” or “chimney cupboards,” I found a lot of pictures of tall, narrow cupboards of various sorts, made to stand near fireplaces. I saw nothing like the cupboards in my home, and in other homes of the same period near mine.
In the pictures here you can see that our cabinets (another term) are high above the mantel, if there is one. (One in the ell kitchen reaches the ceiling.) They are built into the wall, and at least one side is next to the chimney, keeping the contents of the cupboard warm. They have doors, to keep the warmth in or to protect the contents, or to hide them. Those in the bedrooms are well made — the ones in the old kitchen in the ell are rougher, but serve the same purpose. All have two or three shelves inside.
So — what were the built for?
One historian told me that they were a warm spot to keep nightshirts or gowns. But on cold winter days during the period these closets were built, men and women might remove their outside clothes before getting into a shared (for warmth) bed. But, except in movies, or in the homes of the very wealthy who had servants to sleep by the hearth and keep the fires burning all night, people in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century did not have special night clothing. Fabric was too dear; and underclothing was often kept on for all or most of the winter.
So — what else would the cupboards have been used for? Upstairs rooms were cold in winter, even those rooms lucky enough to have fireplaces, as two in my house were. When I was a child a friend of my mother’s once remarked that she couldn’t sleep well at night if the water in the glass on her bedside table wasn’t frozen in the morning. That’s cold! (Her home had no furnace; as many Maine homes, it was heated by a woodstove in the kitchen.)
So what would go into those cupboards/cabinets/closets? What would need to be kept warm? Medicine? But in that period medicines were mostly alcohol, but so they wouldn’t have frozen easily. Perhaps food or drinks for the elderly, or ill, or children, who might need food during the night, or nearby a bed. Clouts (diapers) for a baby, so the child was spared the shock of a frigid cloth. Special personal items, from jewelry or watches to precious mementoes, are possibilities for placement in the cupboards. Remember: during this period no rooms had closets They either had hooks on the wall, to hand the few items of clothing one person would own, or, later in the nineteenth century, they had wardrobes, and bureaus.
Perhaps candles were kept in the cupboards, available for light when needed. Candles would break easily if too cold; in the cupboards the warmth from the fireplace in the cupboard kept them more useable.
Or, perhaps, the cupboards were built in as decorative parts of a room, and individuals and families used them differently.
Have any of you seen chimney closets (or cupboards) What do you think they were used for?