Exhibition is First to Focus on Cherished Shenandoah Valley Furniture Form

Winchester, VA  5/1/14…The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) in Winchester, Virginia, will present the first-ever exhibition of food safes of the region when it opens Safes of the Valley on May 11, 2014. Organized by the MSV and on view through March 29, 2015, the exhibition is the premier presentation in a newly renovated 2,300-square-foot gallery space that will display Valley-focused changing exhibitions.

Featuring decorative punched-tin panels, the rustic food safe represents country charm and awakens memories of a simpler time for many people. In the 1800s, most homes in the Shenandoah Valley had a food safe. Yet as common as food safes were, scholarship regarding these unique cabinets has been limited. Now, for the first time, according to MSV Executive Director Dana Hand Evans, Safes of the Valley will present an unprecedented opportunity to see so many Valley food safes in one location. Evans anticipates that visitors will be surprised to discover the many safe forms made in the Valley and the variety of their punched-tin designs.

According to the exhibition’s guest curators, Valley furniture experts Jeffrey S. Evans and Kurt C. Russ, Safes of the Valley will feature more than 40 food safes, most from private collections and many on first-time display in this exhibition. MSV Deputy Director of Arts and Education Nancy Huth credits the tremendous amount of fieldwork conducted by Evans and Russ and the curators’ relationships with Valley families and collectors as the significant factors in making it possible for the MSV to host the exhibition and tell the story of the Valley food safe.

Among the many new findings presented in the exhibition is the degree to which Valley cabinetmakers and tinsmiths cooperated to produce these storage cupboards with punched-tin panels. The exhibition also provides first-time identification of specific Valley craftspeople who produced food safes, as well as important regional areas and schools of production.

In conjunction with Safes of the Valley, the MSV is also publishing Opening the Door: Safes of the Valley, a catalogue presenting the full body of the curators’ scholarship informing the exhibition. The book will feature color images of every safe on display and images of the exhibition installation and is slated for publication in November of 2014.

In addition, a variety of educational programs will further explore the topic of the Valley food safe. This programming includes, most notably, the Regional Seminar of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is being presented jointly by MESDA and the MSV on May 16 and 17. For details on all programs, see page 4.

Notable Findings of Safes of the Valley

For many people, the term “pie safe” is the more familiar phrase used to describe a type of storage cabinet having punched-tin panels. That term, however, dates to the 1900s. In inventories of household items and advertisements of the 1800s, the phrases “safe,” food safe,” “parlor safe,” and “closet safe” were used to describe this unique furniture form.

While the phrase “pie safe” or “food safe” might seem to suggest these cabinets were used exclusively to store food items, in fact, according to MSV Director of Exhibitions Corwyn Garman, people used these cabinets to store all sorts of things. This included, in addition to items of food, tableware, cutlery, linens, and more. Accordingly, says Garman, people not only placed safes in kitchens, but also in dining and other rooms of the Valley home.

It appears that German settlers first introduced the safe into the Valley during the second decade of the 1800s. Various Valley regions developed their own unique interpretations of the safe, with variations in size, design, and, especially, decorative tin patterns. These patterns had cultural meanings to those who made the safes as well as those who purchased and used them.

For example, stars were prevalent in the work of Lexington-area Rockbridge County tinsmiths. Rockingham County safe designs included eagles as well as intricate geometric patterns, and in Shenandoah County, home to the largest population of Germans in the Valley, tinsmiths often used German design elements. In the Winchester area of Frederick County, safe panels often featured animals, including birds, leaping stags, roosters, and horses.

From Rockbridge County and the earliest safe in the exhibition, the Kahle-Henson safe dates to 1829. Its punched-tin panels feature an image of the profile of George Washington. Signed by the tinsmith, “JH,” this safe also includes the name of the original owner who commissioned it, “R L McDowal,” from a family that operated a tavern in Lexington, Virginia.

A group of safes dated between 1860 and 1871 and initialed for the RDH cabinet shop of Augusta County demonstrate the height of safe-makers’ artistic expressions. Safes of the Valley provides the first documentation of these safes with their beautifully executed punched-tin panels, and it identifies the specific maker for the first time.

Safes of the Valley also shows safes made into the 1930s by Phil Baker in the Brock’s Gap region of northwestern Rockingham County. These later Baker safes are among the last examples of 1800s-style food safes made in the United States.

According to curators Evans and Russ, this presentation of safes from the earliest to latest examples will provide Museum visitors with a better understanding of how the safe was made and changed over the years and how people used it in their everyday lives. For Evans and Russ, Safes of the Valley presents research they began in 2010 as part of their Virginia Safe Project with their goal being to record and document all forms of punched-tin paneled furniture from every region of Virginia. Both men have been researching and collecting safes for more than 30 years.

About the Curators

Jeffrey S. Evans is the president of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates auctions, specializing in early American glass and lighting, Americana, and fine and decorative arts. He began his career as an auctioneer at his parents’ auction house, being licensed as an auctioneer at age 12. His research interests lie in Shenandoah Valley decorative arts, and he has organized museum exhibitions of pottery and furniture. Evans has contributed to antiques reference volumes and periodicals, and lectures widely on early American glass and Shenandoah Valley decorative arts. He has served as a consultant for several museums, and sits on the boards of directors and advisory committees for numerous national, regional, and local organizations. With Kurt C. Russ, Evans is co-founder and co-director of the Virginia Safe Project.

Kurt C. Russ is the Executive Director of the Mountain Valley Preservation Alliance, Inc. A specialist in Virginia ceramics and nineteenth-century material culture, Russ earned his bachelor of arts from Washington and Lee University, and his master of arts at the University of Tennessee. As a historical archaeologist, Russ has conducted excavations of historical potteries in Virginia as well as investigations of domestic farmsteads, early educational institutions, and iron mining and manufacturing sites. A consultant for a variety of local, state, and federal agencies, Russ is also a collector of nineteenth-century Virginia decorative arts, has served as guest curator for several Virginia stoneware exhibitions, and has contributed numerous articles on Virginia pottery to prestigious ceramics journals. With Jeffrey S. Evans, Russ is co-founder and co-director of the Virginia Safe Project.

Related Programming

Programming in conjunction with Safes of the Valley gets underway on May 17 with “Safe at Home! The Southern Food Safe and its World,” the 2014 MESDA Regional Seminar jointly sponsored by the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Held at the MSV from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 17, the seminar begins with an introduction by MSV executive director Dana Hand Evans. Various presenters will then explore the decorative vocabulary of the Valley, punched-tin pattern motifs, the safe in the context of Valley foodways, and new trends in Southern furniture research. Presentations will be made by curators Evans and Russ, as well as by: Robert Leath, chief curator of MESDA and vice president for collections and research, Old Salem Museums and Gardens; Daniel K. Ackermann, associate curator of MESDA; and Scott H. Suter, associate professor of English and department chair, Bridgewater College. In addition to these presentations, workshop demonstrations will be presented by Jeff Headley, Mack S. Headley & Sons, Berryville, Virginia, and furniture conservator Jim Sheppard from Green Bank, West Virginia. For more information about the seminar, those interested may find more information at www.theMSV.org or www.mesda.org. The seminar fee is $120 for MSV and MESDA Members and $135 for all others. Registration by May 12 is required.

From 2 until 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 28, and again on July 26, the MSV popular Family Art Duos series will focus on Punched-Tin Art. In this program, an adult and a child will tour the exhibition together and then create original works of punched-tin art. For children ages 8 and up with an adult, the cost is $10 for MSV Member duos and $15 for all others. Pre-registration is recommended; walk-ins will be accommodated as space allows.

From 6:30 until 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 9, the MSV invites all to a program in its Valley Crafters series.  Valley Crafters: Tinsmithing presents an evening with Michael Walsh, “the Irish Tinner,” who will explain and demonstrate this traditional craft. Cost for MSV Members is $15 and $20 for all others. Program price includes the opportunity to tour Safes of the Valley from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Registration is required by July 7.

From 10 until 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 23, Care of Metals presents the history and function of metals and how to handle, clean, exhibit, and store them. This class, taught by MSV registrar and Collections Manager Kyle Bryner, is $20 for MSV Members and $25 for all others. Registration is required by July 21.

From 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 2, exhibition guest curators Jeffrey S. Evans and Kurt C. Russ will present a Safes of the Valley Lecture and discuss different safe forms and schools of production. The program is free to MSV Members and $10 for all others. Lecture tickets will be available at the Visitor Information Desk beginning at 10 a.m.

Creating decorative punched-tin holiday decorations will be the focus of two Artsy Ornaments: Punched-Tin Patterns workshops on August 13. Led by instructor and artist Rhonda Smith, MSV coordinator of adult programs, the program will be offered from 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Cost for MSV Members is $10 and $15 for all others. Registration is required by August 6.

From 10 until 11 a.m. on Wednesday, October 29, Care of Woods will focus on the care and preservation of furniture and wood artifacts. This class, taught by MSV Registrar and Collections Manager Kyle Bryner, is $20 for MSV Members and $25 for all others. Registration is required by October 27.

Additional information and registration access will be available in advance for all programs at www.theMSV.org or by calling 540-662-1473, extension 240.