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The Legend of the Jelly Cupboard


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Early jelly cabinet, with drawers above, walnut

Early jelly cabinet, with drawers above, walnut

 

 

 

 


Woodworking Planshow to Woodworking Plans for 19th century jelly cupboard, drawers above double doors. Skinner Inc. auction photo.

 

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Woodworking Planshow to Woodworking Plans for
Classic pine jelly cabinet ca. 1840.

 

 


Single drawer jelly cupboard with double paneled door.

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News Article

for 1 last update 2020/06/05   

By Robert Reed

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, January 2008

History records that a variety of cupboards were used in the kitchens of 19th century America. The story handed down for generations is that one of the smaller ones was the legendary jelly cupboard.

To this day not all of the would-be experts agree. Some contend the term jelly cupboard was only used in the Midwest, and elsewhere it was merely a small cupboard. Some counter it was only a jelly cupboard in the eastern states and perhaps New England. Others attribute to sill other parts of the country.

One British author went so far as to suggest that Americans had merely invented the term jelly cupboard to make small and plainly constructed pieces to seem more interesting to collectors and buyers.

Such controversy has raged on for decades. Back in the 1970s author Dan D''Imperio concluded however that they were indeed properly identified, adding "these cupboard were always well stocked with jellies and other preserves in the autumn season."

Fairly large cupboards were used in early American homes. Narrow shelves were open in the upper section for display of pewter or other attractive tableware. Shelves in the lower section were closed by a single door or double doors and were used for storage of food stuffs.

In some cases the cupboard was constructed with an overhanging shelf or middle section where dishes and food could be combined for serving. Not surprisingly such cupboards were sometimes referred to as servers.

Sometime around the first quarter of the 19th century a smaller door closing cupboard came into usage. The specifics of such pieces varied from craftsman to craftsman and from region to region, but their purpose most everywhere was to store jam and jelly.

By the 1830s jelly was becoming a significant staple of the American household.

Fruits were readily available, for one thing, throughout the abundant summer seasons of various parts of the country. The apple orchard or the strawberry patch was harvested to provide generous amounts of jam and jelly. Elsewhere there were apricots, blackberries, blue berries, cherries, grapes, peaches, plumbs, raspberries, and in some places even oranges.

Once the fruit was gathered the women and the girls of the house prepared to store it in vast amounts. The clear juice was combined with sugar to create jelly. Both the clear juice and the pulp of the fruit were combined with sugar to create jam. Because of the high content of sugar the jelly or jam could be readily stored at room temperature once it had been properly boiled. In terms of the rigors of the 19th century, preparing jelly and jam was a relatively easy job. A busy kitchen therefore could result in numerous containers being filled during the preserving process and set aside for the duration of winter and spring.

Typically the beloved jelly cupboard had two drawers above its double doors which opened outward from the center. However the variations were understandably endless. Jelly cupboards were simply individualized by most everyone who decided to build one.

The shelves themselves were originally not very tall which allowed for more of them to be fixed in stationary positions within the interior of the jelly cupboard. The cupboard''secure''s mail order catalog and other retail sources were offering the basic jelly cupboard with a single drawer above two doors. At Montgomery Ward they were constructed of "seasoned hardwood" (oak) and offered "adjustable shelves." 

Their models were 34 inches wide and 60 inches tall, selling for a price of $9.95.

Today vintage jelly cupboards are prized by collectors. Those with original paint, even though worn from use, are highly sought. Also attractive are original iron strap hinges, or other original latch ware.

Recommended reading: Antique Trader Furniture Price Guide edited by Mark Moran (Krause Publications).

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