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Faint remnants of the "Philadelphia" Label. Photograph by Alexandra Cade

Photograph by Alexandra Cade

Policies of Insurance Filed away in this drawer by the cabinet’s original owner was undoubtedly insurance policies penned in ink on sheets of handmade paper. Winterthur’s manuscript collection holds several such examples that were issued to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century merchants to protect precious ships and cargo with significant monetary value. Like insurance today, these policies covered merchants from loss or damage to capital. Due to their cargo often including enslaved humans, merchants involved in the Atlantic trade obscured the language in these documents to ensure full protection.Insurance Agent Form, Lloyds of Londonhttps://www.lloyds.com/about-lloyds/history/corporate-history

Wood The main wood used in the construction of this chest is island mahogany, a luxurious and expensive material that was first harvested in the Caribbean as a profitable byproduct of clearing land for sugar plantations. Later, cabinetmakers and consumers throughout the Atlantic world revered island mahogany for its dark burgundy color and ease of use. The choice to use island mahogany speaks to the high regard of this chest within its original context and ownership. "Mahogany," City-Gazette and Daily Advertiser. Charleston, South Carolina. 13 May 1800.

Modern UseWhat happened to this cabinet when it was no longer in its original location or with its original owner? Ideal for storage and organization, it could serve a variety functions for later owners who decided they needed labels other than “Gold Coast” or “Bristol.” While we primarily study this piece of furniture within its eighteenth-century context, it is important to remember that objects often had second or third lives, sometimes serving new or different functions.Photograph by Alexandra Cade

Photograph by Alexandra Cade

Gold Coast Why is the Gold Coast the only port to be listed twice on the drawers of this cabinet? The Gold Coast, an area of Africa in what is now Ghana, was an active site of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. The two drawers for this port — “Gold Coast” and “Gold Coast Answered” — suggest that the owner of this cabinet had more business with the Gold Coast than with any of the other ports listed on the drawers. 2 views of "Cape Corse, or Coast Castle, by Mr. Smith, "; East and Northwest views of Cape Coast Castle, Gold Coast, West Africa. , 1745. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2007677175/.

One Case, Two Case?It’s possible that these two chests were never used together. This cabinet may not have always been used and displayed as it is shown here. While the cabinet was purchased by Winterthur as one piece of furniture, stacked together, the top and bottom halves of the cabinet can separate for convenient transportation and storage. You may even be looking at the top halves of two cabinets. Careful research remains to be done on this complicated piece of furniture!

Lock Both sets of the cabinet’s exterior doors were fitted with small brass locks. This extra security served to protect the valuable insurance policies, shipping documents, and other records held within the cabinet’s drawers and shelves. In addition, extra locking compartments were built into the sides of the cabinet for further safekeeping. What else could have been stored here that required such precautions? Album de serrureri. Birmingham, England. 1789.

Drawer Slot Although the exact nature of the materials stored in this cabinet are not known, it can be concluded that this cabinet was used as an early filing system. The drawers and slots labeled with either geographic locations or letters of the alphabet most likely held paperwork dealing with Atlantic trade goods, which also may have included enslaved individuals. Photograph by Alexandra Cade

Photograph by Jim Schneck

Philadelphia Although today this drawer is conspicuously blank, curators and conservators have determined that it was once labeled “Philadelphia.” Who removed the label, when, and why remains a mystery. This intriguing detail of the cabinet’s evolution over time poses important questions about the memory of slavery. Did later generations scrape “Philadelphia” from this cabinet to erase the city’s involvement in the trade? Or did an earlier owner cease trade with Philadelphia after the American Revolution? Or something else? "The City & Port of Philadelphia, on the River Delaware from Kensington," from Birch's Views of Philadelphia (1800)

Photograph by Jim Schneck

Photograph by Jim Schneck

Where in the world are the locations listed on the cabinet? This drawers of this cabinet list the locations of Philadelphia, North Carolina, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, Gold Coast, Senegambia, Tenerife, Bristol, and Waterford - all places that played a significant role in Atlantic Trade. While these locations are critical to our understanding of the cabinet, it is also important to note what places aren't mentioned. It is notable that South Carolina, a major trafficker of enslaved Africans, is not among the listed locations. Because of its absence as a port of trade, our current belief is that this cabinet is from South Carolina.