Chinese Chests on the Northwest Coast

August 4, 2017

IMG_1459This 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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SLAM Project 2015: Maritime Section

March 17, 2015

Here is another snapshot of the conservation work ahead for our upcoming new exhibits.  The Alaska State Library Archives and Museum (SLAM) project is in the construction phase, with opening of the new building planned for June 2016.  There are approximately 22 interpretive areas, around 90 exhibit cases, and roughly 2,500 objects. This section, Maritime, has a LOT going on!  Anjuli Grantham was here from Kodiak earlier to help with some artifact selection and history, Tim Troll and Andrew Washburn have both told me a lot about the Bristol Bay fishery, and I’ve been in touch with Louie Bartos at least weekly for some time now getting a replica sail made.  Here’s a link to an article about that sail by Megan Petersen at the Ketchikan Daily News, and another article by Matt Martin over in Dillingham for public radio station KDLG.

ASM 97-34-1Bristol Bay Double Ender, a fishing boat that will go on display, rigged with a new sail made by master sail maker Louie Bartos, and film footage will be projected on the replica sail.

ASM 97-34-1 Bristol Bay Double Ender, a fishing boat that will go on display, rigged with a new sail made by master sail maker Louie Bartos, and film footage will be projected on the replica sail.

Tim Troll saw the boat, and had lots of good info.  Here he is looking at the sprit, part of how the sail was held up.  Tim thinks we ought to paint the boat.

Tim Troll saw the boat, and had lots of good info. Here he is looking at the sprit, part of how the sail was held up. Tim thinks we ought to paint the boat.

Here's a plaque inside, I don't know exactly what the numbers stand for.  It was from the Libby McNeill & Libby cannery, and would have been a peachy orange color originally.

Here’s a plaque inside, I don’t know exactly what the numbers stand for. The boat was from the Libby McNeill & Libby cannery, and would have been a peachy orange color originally.

We have two sails that go with this boat, but didn't want to fade a rectangle into one by projecting film footage.  So I took the sail to the loft studio of Louie Bartos so he could measure and make a replica for us.

We have two sails that go with this boat, but didn’t want to fade a rectangle into one by projecting film footage. So I took the sail to the loft studio of Louie Bartos so he could measure and make a replica for us.

I first heard of Louie at the WOAM conference back in 2010.  An internationally renowned sail expert right in Ketchikan!  How could we pass up the chance to get a sail made? Here Louie shows a couple of his sailmaking palms...

I first heard of Louie at the WOAM conference back in 2010. An internationally renowned sail expert right in Ketchikan! How could we pass up the chance to get a sail made? Here Louie shows a couple of his sailmaking palms…the thumb goes through the big hole.  When you make a sail, you need more than a thimble…

We've got a rudder, and will use it.  But will need to make a replica mast because the ceiling is just not quite high enough. And we will probably buy new mast hoops because the originals are rather delicate now.

We’ve got a rudder, and will use it. But will need to make a replica mast because the ceiling is just not quite high enough. And we will probably buy new mast hoops because the originals are rather delicate now.

More photos of Maritime Section stuff below, but I have to make a pitch for our WISH LIST of things we would like to add to the Alaska State Museum collection for interpretation and to include in the display of the Bristol Bay Double Ender.  I think we could find loans of most of this, but ideally we would like to add items to the collection that come from the Bristol Bay fishery from this historic period…

  • Roller (that gadget that helps pull the net up without rubbing on the boat)
  • Cleats associated with roller
  • Oarlocks
  • Bailing Cans
  • Bilge Pump (the one that was supposed to come with the boat went missing in Homer)
  • Tent
  • Stoves: both the “Swede Style” and the “Italian Style”
  • 5 gallon water beaker
  • Old box compass, a few inches on a side
  • Old cannery dishware
  • Samples of caulking and caulking tools
We are putting out quite a few salmon cans, and their labels are quite marvelous.  We will be devising various methods of monitoring the risk from light fading for items like this.

We are putting out quite a few salmon cans, and their labels are quite marvelous. We will be devising various methods of monitoring the risk from light fading for items like this. (ASM 2000-39-1)

This is a stencil set from a cannery, and needs to have the dead spiders and dust removed without losing its authentic grime.

This is a stencil set from a cannery, and needs to have the dead spiders and dust removed without losing its authentic grime. (ASM 2005-9-36)

Several folks on staff are excited about this stencil from a boat called the Goldywn.  However, how to unroll and flatten it, how much to unroll, and whether to include the chunk of oar handle are tricky conservation dilemmas.

Several folks on staff are excited about this stencil (ASM III-O-635)  from a boat called the Goldywn. However, how to unroll and flatten it, how much to unroll, and whether to include the chunk of oar handle are tricky conservation dilemmas.

This deadeye, ASM II-O-290 from the Star of Bengal has some serious spalling rust issues.  Staff are disturbed by the resemblance to a skull, given the history of the ship...one of the worse maritime disasters in Alaska history...more than 110 Chinese cannery workers perished in the wreck.

This deadeye, ASM II-O-290 from the Star of Bengal has some serious spalling rust issues. Staff are disturbed by the resemblance to a skull, given the history of the ship…one of the worse maritime disasters in Alaska history…more than 110 Chinese cannery workers perished in the wreck.

This huge wok, ASM 2000-4-1 also has some rust issues.

This huge wok, ASM 2000-4-1 also has some rust issues.

 

We have quite a few instances like these lure where the object numbers have been put on in a place that is not the best for display purposes. (ASM 98-40-1).  We'll need to remove the numbers and re-label these lures.

We have quite a few instances like these lures where the object numbers have been put on in a place that is not the best for display purposes. (ASM 98-40-1). We’ll need to remove the numbers and re-label these lures.