LS sends me a photograph of a dough box, which, in its heyday (1850) would have weekly felt the weight of “three pecks” of flour to make the family’s bread. Don’t know what three pecks of flour is? About 27 liters or 7 US gallons. And before you say, wow, that’s a load of flour, bread was your family staple. Especially if you had farmhands or household servants. A peck was purchased in a huge sack, and the baker-woman of the household hefted that sack and dumped it into this object, pictured here, called alternatively the dough box, bin, trough; with a cover or lid, called the kneading trough or tray.
You see LS’s box stands on legs. Tabletops in kitchens weren’t the best places to knead dough: they fluctuate in temperature and could be drafty. If her flour has legs, the baker-woman may move it into a more temperate part of the house. In winter, the flour must be warm, so the dough box was part of your household interior. Once the yeast was added directly in the box, the mixture had to stay warm for it to rise, perhaps overnight. The lid was a necessity: mice like dough. If you wanted a faster rise, the dough had to be dragged near the fireplace. You’ll notice the sides of the box cant down so flour does not spill, also a necessity as the process is very messy.
Next morning, your brick or stone oven had to be swept and then stoked which took hours. While that was heating, you shaped the dough into loaves, and set them on the lid of the dough box. The baker-woman carried the lid/tray close to the oven (women were strong) and she wielded a long handled shovel, called a “peel.” Notice your pizza guy; he uses a wooden peel, today’s stainless models, but in the past, long-handled in iron in the 17th century or a very long plank paddle in Rome of the 1st century. People who are learning to use the peel tell me that there’s a trick to having the dough slide without tearing into the hot oven.
Dough boxes are not just American, as in LS’s case. The finest and most expensive examples are French Provincial (1830) and those are carved in relief to the sides with baskets of flowers or wheat; the apron, which supports the box, is also carved meaningfully. A nice one will sell for upwards of $3,000, usually made of French walnut, except for the ones from Provence, which are oak.
Dough boxes in America were made of pine or poplar, or a combination of the two, and sometimes pine and oak. An early (1801) Pennsylvania pine box was usually painted with “Dutch” designs on a uniformly tinted background. Expect the good American boxes to bear traces of paint pigment such as slate gray, milk paint light blue, or red. The boxes that were stripped in the 20th century (and many were, because not many people realized almost everything was painted in the early 19th century) were stripped, ironically, to make them appear “primitive.” American Primitive furniture was a hot style in the 1980’s.
American dough boxes sometimes lift off the legged base, and at auction today sell for $200-400 without the stand. With the stand, a good American painted dough box will sell for $400-600, much less than its French Provincial counterpart. In either parts of the world, the dough box was never washed – soap could flavor the bread and water could absorb into the wood. Whatever the country, kneading dough meant bending over the dough box for hours, with the gooey dough up around your elbows. No French manicure needed.
The value of LS’s dough box is $450 today. American Rustic is not desirable. And so far, I have not discovered any fine cabinetry wooden mid-century modern dough boxes. I say this because anything mid-century is beloved in today’s market. Wonder if Charles and Ray Eames ever considered designing one?
Speaking of midcentury, the first bread maker machine comes out of mid-1980’s Japan, the Raku Raku Pan Da from the Fumai Electric Company, sold in the US as the Pak Auto Bakery model FAB-100-1. Today fast-bake bread making machines push out loaves in less than one hour without breaking your back and without dough encasing hands and arms. Packaged bread mixes are purchased with pre-measured flour and yeast, flavorings and dough conditioners: all you do is add water…what a change, but the flavor no doubt suffers.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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