This posting is a gift for a certain clan caretaker and woodworker who is interested in making some of these chests. It is easy to find photos of the exterior. This post is heavy on the visuals and interiors, to help understand the construction technique.
These chests are ubiquitous in museum collections that include Tlingit and Haida material culture, even small museums in Southeast Alaska tend to have several of them. Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson has a research file on these chests, and added the following information into the museum’s database regarding them:
“These chests were made in China beginning in the mid 1800s or earlier for the export market. They were popular in Europe and the United States, especially during the Victorian era. In Alaska, these chests were very popular among the Tlingit and Haida people, who used them for storage of ceremonial regalia, clothing, and other property. The resins in the camphorwood were believed to have repelled moths and other insects. There are two basic forms of Chinese camphorwood chests that were traded in Alaska: one made of varnished boards, and the other made of boards covered with painted pigskin. Both have brass hardware and reinforcements on the corners and edges. The pigskin covered chests are also decorated with rows of brass tacks, which usually outline the brass fittings…. To save room in the ships’ holds, the chests came in at least 3 sizes, and designed to nest together; the smallest chest contained a stash of Chinese tea. The earliest visual representation of these chests is a drawing by I.G. Voznesenskii of a Sitka potlatch ca. 1844; other seafarers mention purchasing chest in China even earlier.”
ASM 92-13-1 from Yakutat 37″L x 17 1/2″W x 16 1/2″H
Here is one with no painted pigskin on the outside. Nice dovetail details in the corners.
ASM 91-48-1 from Old Kasaan, early 1800s. 33″ L x 16″W x 14 1/2″ H
Another plain one, no tack holes so we know it never had pigskin covering. Sometimes things that are a little damaged reveal the most about methods of manufacture. The way the corners are done on this one is really nice. Also, you can see how the brass parts are set in…the wood is ever so slightly recessed so the whole surface will be flush after the brass is added.
ASM 90-17-1 from Sitka, the Wolf House, Gootch Hit. 1790-1850.
38 1/2″L x 18 1/2″W x 15 1/2″H
One more plain one without leather. Notice how the lock mechanism is similar on the three plain ones. Also, this one seems to have a repaired area on the lid? Generally each side of these chests was a single big plank. On all the chests the lock on the front face is met along the edge with a beveled feature on the wood.
ASM III-O-128 unknown provenance 34 1/2″L x 17 1/2″W x 15 1/2″H
Most of the painted ones I have seen are green or red, with perhaps red being more common? The foliage design I have once or twice seen on carved silver bracelets. I guess camphorwood is the equivalent of cedar in some ways, highly aromatic and with an insect repellent quality to it. That would be quite important in keeping pests away from wool robes, furs, feathers, and other elements on regalia that might be at risk for infestation.
ASM 95-37-4-3 from Wrangell 23 1/4″L x 11 1/2″W x 9 1/2″H
This one is the baby brother of the two that are on display in the first image. This size is the smallest of the typical sizes, and you’ll see the underside is different. No “feet” on this one. This seems typical of the small ones.
ASM II-B-1584 unknown provenance 39 1/2″L x 20 1/4″W x 18 1/2″H
This is the largest one in the Alaska State Museum collection. You’ll see the back is undecorated. That seems typical, too. Front, sides, and lid tend to have the foliage decoration (sometimes including birds) but I have not seen the back decorated.
II-B-1367 unknown provenance 35″L x 17 1/4″W x 15 1/2″H
The leather and the wood react to changes in humidity differently, but they are not allowed to move independently because they are tacked all together by the brass tacks and trim. Consequently, almost all of these pigskin-covered chests I have seen have extensive tears in them. Treatment-wise, the most straightforward repair would be to insert a layer behind the tear that would match, and tack the edges to it as best as possible. The chain on this one is not original. Typically they have hardware like the previous one.