IntroductionIn Edward Allen Poe’s beloved mystery, The Purloined Letter, the French Chief of Police searches the apartments of a royal minister in vain for a letter stolen from royalty. In frustration, he states, “Any man is a dolt who permits a 'secret' to escape him in a search of this kind. The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk of space to be accounted for in every cabinet.”
Hidden in FurnitureJust like the frustrated police chief in Poe’s tale, uncovering the secrets of antique furniture with secret compartments can be difficult. Without knowing where to look, one might spend hours flitting their fingers along panels and carved motifs, searching for their mysteries. The suspense and challenges associated with concealed drawers and pigeonholes remain part of their lasting allure.
Within Nooks and Crannies: Secret Compartments in Furniture
Behind Lock and Key: Complex Safes and LockboxesWhile some furniture items may surreptitiously hide sundries in secret compartments, safes are less discreet. Their very function is to conceal and protect valuables behind lock and key. While safes and lockboxes may be more transparent in their intention to conceal, extremely complex locking mechanisms can create added layers of security that represent a secret all their own.
Crafty Cabinetmaker: The Illustrious Thomas Chippendale
Hidden in AntiquesThere is a certain novelty to finding the unexpected in small bits of everyday life. People tend to crave the unpredictable, fortuitous and exciting, as it adds more interest to the quotidian. As the early modern world began to take shape, rising wages and increased wealth in imperial nations expanded the clientele for small luxury objects — items that may have been considered frivolous in less prosperous times. These items did not only bring personal enjoyment; they were markers of status and demonstrations of disposable income and taste.
While the type of object could vary, the social capital that came from these antique treasures was amplified if the item was unique. Unexpected or hidden elements to these goods made a statement and provided a chance to show off the exciting aspects of the object.
Music BoxIngenious miniature portable devices, musical snuff boxes such as this one were called carillons à musique. Produced primarily in Switzerland, musical snuff boxes were once considered status symbols amongst the wealthy elite. A step above the traditional snuff box, musical boxes helped to influence the development and popularity of all music box production in the 19th century.
At first glance, this diminutive Swiss silver-gift snuff box piece appears to simply be an exquisite 19th-century snuff box, with Neoclassical-style chased and engraved borders of foliage and flowering thistles. A mere passerby may think that the case is purely intended to hold the owner’s snuff. A quick wind of the key, however, reveals the complex mechanism hidden inside. Crafted by the famed François Nicole, the musical movement plays two airs with a fine single-piece comb of 61 teeth. The movement is in exceptional condition, complete with its original key.
Another example of these items can be seen here: a special Swiss gold music box, chased and engraved with a set of musical instruments surrounded by elaborate swirls of ornate foliage. Embossed with a delightful braided gold design, the two-compartment box features an exquisite oval agate key, which opens a recessed lock in the base of the box. Such a box would have been a prized possession and would have been able to fit neatly into a gentleman’s waistcoat pocket.
Confidential Confessions: Love Letters in Étui
I have felt it in your arms – hush! Let not the light see, I was going to say hear it – these confessions should only be uttered – you know where, when the curtains are up – and all the world shut out – Ah me!
Secretly Salacious: Erotica in Plain SightFor other lovers, sweet smuggled letters may not be enough to express more carnal desires of their affections. Erotic art, while having the distinction of being created in different forms since the dawn of humankind in nearly every civilization around the globe, is frequently delegated to the storerooms of museums and galleries due to its salacious perception. Some items, however, may take the concealment upon themselves.
Though one might imagine that the Victorian and Edwardian eras were mostly devoid of sexual ephemera, the opposite is often true. A large volume and diversity of erotica was produced during this period. Artists of these eras, however, perhaps reacting to the prudish moral sensibilities of their time, began to explore ways of obscuring the true titillating nature of their sculptures from view. Austrian sculptor Franz Bergmann frequently hid racy imagery beneath the outer layer of his statues. His rendering above of a Bedouin man appears at first to depict him stroking a favored pet. Upon unlatching his robe, however, his arms open to reveal that this naughty man is engaged in a different sort of caress.
Other objects could be used to veil smutty materials, including this unassuming German snuffbox. Hidden in the compartment underneath a false bottom lies an erotic painting of a man and a woman in a sensual encounter. Utilizing inventive methods of concealment, the owner of this snuffbox could leave his companions none the wiser.
Hidden in CanesNot unlike James Bond’s classified gadgets, canes have long served well-heeled gentlemen as both walking aids and, at times, hidden tools for a variety of purposes. What began in the distant past as a necessary tool for animal herders and intrepid travelers evolved into a modern symbol of power and prestige. Rulers throughout the ages, including the luxurious collections of the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs, have wielded staffs and canes. In the Middle Ages, the church began to use walking sticks to symbolize rank among its clergy. It was in the 17th century, however, when the walking stick truly became in vogue. Men and women alike accessorized with canes as a part of their daily attire. In the Victorian era (1837-1901), any groomed, distinguished gentlemen would not traverse the public arena without this stylish accessory. Consequently, the walking stick became a prevailing symbol of taste and class, consistently becoming more elaborate as the nobility clamored for the most distinguished, ornate cane to adorn their finery. These canes featured intricate enameling and jewel-encrusted knobs by specialized jewelers and artisans.
The Industrial Revolution brought extraordinary developments in the realm of walking sticks that today can be assigned to two categories: system canes and weapon canes. While these canes may entice with their somewhat grand and gaudy exteriors, walking sticks of the 19th and 20th centuries can often disguise other functions - some benign and practical, others more sinister.