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?
Could the kitchen cupboards have been used to proof bread? Could they have held kindling, fire starter materials, small fire logs?
My better half suggests that they were just taking advantage of space around the chimney. But I like the one about letting the dough rise!
I think Gram, above is right. Some chimney areas were also used for smoking meats. And, women often had their friends to visit in their rooms, and often made tea and toast there. Maybe the cupboards were a place to keep the accoutrements.
Love all these ideas! Maybe some day a time traveler will be able to let us know for sure .. or maybe it was just a good use of space … nd all were used differently by different households. Fun to imagine, in any case.
Hi Lea, we also have a chimney closet. It is next to the kitchen wood stove. It is indeed rough on the inside as you have described. I believe this kitchen one would have been good for storing the wood which was to be burnt next. It would help to dry or season the timber. I think its like a drying cupboard. Would be good for drying shoes too. I also like Ann’s idea of proofing bread.
In many New England homes, these Preacher cabinets are a quaint reminder of being proper. Drinking Liquor was not allowed. However, when the clergy called, the side cabinet next to the fireplace was where spirits were stored and offered. In other words, the liquor cabinet. A wee drop was shared with the minister in an age of strict Puritan morals.
Yes – we have one in our 1825 home and it was the “minister’s cabinet” where Shery was kept warm for when the minister stopped by.
The house my Father started building in the late 30’s initially resembled something like a chicken coop. As each room was added on it eventually became a standard 1 1/2 story home. The chimney cupboard was built like so many others simply to make the most of the space. It was away from the kitchen though so ended up collecting odds & sods, like the carton of cigarettes my brother brought home as part of his board after he started working.
I stumbled onto your blog after wondering if a “chimney cupboard” was a real thing or just something we said at home, unknown elsewhere. Thanks for answering this deep and meaningful question! 😉
I believe they were used to dry their wigs.
I have a picture of a chimney cabinet in the county of Vastergotland, Sweden. I was told it had been used to put the baby to keep them warm at night! It was generally so cold that their water in their glasses also froze. Wow, now that’s cold!
Following is a picture from an 1800 century home in Västergötland, Sweden. I was told that the chimney cupboard was used as a baby warmer to keep the babies warm overnight. Apparently it was so cold that the water glasses on the nightstands froze. Now that’s cold!
How about……………………. FIREWOOD?!!
They were to keep wigs warm and dry.
When we bought our house that was built in 1836 we were told it was used for keeping hats warm in the winter, especially for visitors/guests so that when they left, they had a warm hat to get them home. Our house is situated on what used to be the old National Pike (Route 40) and local folks have told us they were told that our house was actually an inn at one time which tracks based on location and.the size of the house as far as I can figure.
I saw on Who do you think you are that they were also used to keep new babies warm in their basket