Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lee's Medicine Cabinet

I am absolutely inundated/swamped/buried/up to my eyeballs with tight-deadlined projects at work...and what better time to take a day off to visit Gettysburg?

The Museum Specialist at the Gettysburg National Military Park granted me hours of time to photograph and measure the General Robert E. Lee Medicine Cabinet.

He explained that the cabinet is thought to have belonged to one of Lee's personal physicians, possibly Lafayette Guild, but that a letter which supports this claim and perhaps more details about the cabinet, was lost with the most recent owner, a physician who specialized in tropical deseases, whose widow donated the cabinet to the museum upon his death.

Close inspection of the cabinet revealed not just its stunning good looks, but (what I consider to be) its complex and unusual construction. The cubbies in the top section (under the lid) are of two depths— 2 1/8" & 6 5/16"—including a skinny, secret compartment within the shallow front well which drops down an additional 4 3/16", thereby matching the depth of the 6 5/16" compartments.

What I find most interesting is the fact that, if the two doors on the front & back and the side panels are removed, the box is seemingly held together with 4 stiles and only one rail across the back (where the lid hinges are installed).

This isn't like any box construction I've ever seen. Little pins along the bottom edge of the 4 stiles indicate that they are dovetailed into the base. This holds the box together at the bottom, but what's keeping the top together? I believe that the long, lidded compartments in the top section are somehow attached (maybe just glued) to the stiles and effectively act as rails.

The back walls of the vertical cubbies (on the sides of the cabinet) are probably dadoed into the stiles. This would help keep the cabinet rigid and provide another glue opportunity.

Other details include v-grooves between the dividers in the upper compartments (beneath the lid), 5 dovetailed drawers (the largest one is removable from both sides of the cabinet), and two splined side panels that slide into grooves along the edge of the stiles. The wood is mahogany, the finish is unkown, and the pulls for three compartment lids look like pieces of shoe lace.

All the hardware is brass. I checked Londonderry Brass, but did not find an exact match. The pulls on the Londonderry Brass website are all fancier than the hardware on Lee's medicine cabinet.

The contents are as interesting as the cabinet itself with some of the original elements inside the glass bottles and other containers still intact.

My favorite label was "testimonial wine", which must have been a popular remedy as that particular bottle was empty.

*Photos are made possible through the permission of the Gettysburg National Military Park.


will said...

Cuban mahogany perhaps?

Did you notice whitish spots where the bottles rested? Perhaps the finish is shellac ... 'tho the finish appears much too bright for an aged shellac finish ... could it have been refinished?

Kari Hultman said...

Bill, I've never worked with mahogany, so I don't know the differences between the types. I did not see white spots from the bottles. I asked the specialist if it might be shellac or oil finish, but he had no idea since they had never tested it. The finish certainly seemed to be in good shape, so maybe it had been refinished at some point. That's a good guess.

will said...

Something that old is often with a blackish brownish original finish, typical of aged shellac. Mahogany is an open pore wood and it appears that the surfaces are smooth - meaning a filler was mostly likely use before the final finish.

Because it was a portable piece they may have just waxed it - was there any signs of build-up in corners or the right angle places?

There's still a fair amount of confusion about mahogany (Swietenia) - not all brownish-reddish woods labeled mahogany are mahogany. Because of the age and location of the the original user I'm guessing Cuban Mahogany. Since that is not available, Honduras mahogany is still findable and can look almost the same as the Cuban variety.

Kari Hultman said...

Bill, I did not see any build up in the corners; it was very smooth and clean. To my untrained eye, it looked just like a shellac finish. It was fairly shiny—almost like the maker was half way to a french polish.

Woodbloke said...

Kari - interesting piece with a fairly complex ideas on the finish though. I suspect that it's got to be French Polish of some denomination. Gettysburg looks an interesting place to visit though - Rob