September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
The sturdy, foursquare piece of furniture on the opposite page is a kast , and if it is evocative of seventeenth-century Holland, that is an important part of its job. In fact, it was made here, most likely in the rural outpost of Kings County, New York (more familiarly known as the borough of Brooklyn), between 1710 and 1740. Although completed long after 1664, the year New Netherland was handed over to the British, it is a provincial interpretation of classic Dutch models, and its owners would have seen it as an emblem of their heritage, a bulwark against the encroachment of English culture.
“The states of New York and the Jerseys were settled by necessitous Dutchmen … who concerned themselves much more with domestic economy than with public government,” the Marquis de Chastellux observed in the 178Os. “These people have kept this same spirit … their views are centered on their families, and it is only from necessity that these families form a state.” With this astute testimony in mind, it is no wonder that the kast , a massive cupboard for storing household valuables, was the most important piece of furniture a Dutch settler in America could own. It safeguarded not only such tangible treasures as gold, silver, porcelains, and linens but Dutch notions of domestic life as well.
Most of the Dutch who immigrated to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (the only areas where kasten were made) in the seventeenth century were people of modest means. Those who became rich in the New World established comfortable homes that emulated the tastes and flourishes they had left behind. As in Amsterdam and The Hague, prospering Dutch settlers used their main gathering room as a showplace for household wealth.
A family’s most prized possessions were gold and silver objects and textiles. (Because of the Dutch emphasis on cleanliness—which the less fastidious French and English regarded as a terrifying and unnatural obsession—families required great amounts of bed and table linen.) Kasten (from the Dutch kast , or cabinet), the storage chests for articles that were too precious to be left out in the open, became characteristic furnishings in their own right, symbols of order and achievement. They were often singled out in wills as special bequests. Peter Stuyvesant’s widow, for example, left her son her “great case or cubbard … together with all the china earthenware locked up in said cubbard.”
A bride from a wealthy family often brought a kast to the marriage as part of her dowry, and before her wedding she labored to fill its shelves with napkins, bedding, and hangings. Once these textiles had been amassed, the new housewife was expected to clean, press, mend, and store them with fanatic care, locking them in the kast when she was finished with her work.
Kasten were made in America from the middle of the seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, when they were replaced by more fashionable cabinets, wardrobes, and, ultimately, closets. They remained remarkably similar in appearance over the years. The example shown here, though not so ornately carved and veneered as its counterparts in the mother country, is nevertheless elaborate for its time and place. The forceful architectural presence and monumental proportions, enhanced by such features as the dramatic overhanging cornice and the great round ball feet, have precedents in Dutch cabinetry. Only the keyhole escutcheon betrays another influence; presumably the carpenter who made this kast had to obtain his hardware from shop owners in New York City, who by the early decades of the eighteenth century were importing chiefly English goods.
Kasten were made out of maple, cherry, walnut, poplar, oak, and pine. This one is constructed primarily of native sweet gum, a warm, smoothgrained, red-brown wood that could be mistaken for mahogany, which was probably the point. Sweet gum was inexpensive; mahogany had to be imported, so it was not. Here the craftsman applied rectangles of mahogany as inset panels, a contrast that gave the cabinet a rich appearance while employing a nice economy.
The kast also offers other lessons in combining the practical and the aesthetic. Whereas the interior of the cabinet, with shelves deep enough for holding rolled bedding, was eminently functional, the bold decorative facade made the exterior the focal point of a room. If the kast ’s style imbued it with energy, its form projected household substance and reliability—two qualities that were distinctly Dutch. Indeed, this monumental cabinet, a repository of social values, is eloquent of the strength of purpose that allowed its colonial makers to successfully preserve their heritage long after all political ties with their homeland had been severed.