A kas or kast is a large Dutch-style linen cupboard, and the one pictured here is one of my favorite heirlooms. It was made sometime in the 18th century in Bergen County, New Jersey of native red gum, probably for a member of the Zabriskie family. American kasten are difficult to date because they were made in essentially the same style by many cabinetmakers over a long period, from the later 1600s to the early 1800s. Furniture historians ascribe this conservatism to the relative cultural isolation of rural Dutch-American communities in New York and New Jersey.
Also kasten were often made for future brides to store up the linens they would need when setting up their own households. Like a Norwegian wedding chest, they were not only cultural emblems but were also bound up with traditions surrounding marriage and proper housekeeping. A newfangled one might be good for storing linens, but it wouldn’t make the same cultural or value statement.
When my mother decided to send it to me, we had a hard time figuring out how to ship it from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. I thought one of the carriers whose trucks I often see would be a possibility, since their slogan is “We ship anything, anytime, anywhere,” but it turns out that “anything” does not include antiques.
We turned to a well-established furniture moving company, and had it shipped directly to Professional Furniture Service, Inc. in Amelia, Ohio for restoration. They have done work for the Cincinnati Art Museum, so I trusted them to do a sensitive job. Unfortunately the kas was only a small part of a larger load headed for New York City, and the furniture restoration shop was not open when the truck first came through Cincinnati, so the driver had to keep going.
It took a full month for the kas to make it back to Ohio, and though the moving company seemed to know approximately where it was most of the time, it was nerve-wracking for us to think of our precious, ancient heirloom wandering the country by itself, possibly getting bumped and bruised. It spent some time in a warehouse in Brooklyn, closer to its place of origin than it had been since 1959. Finally it arrived at the restorer and did not seem to have any new damage.
I mainly wanted the restorers to reattach one of the drawer knobs and make appropriate feet. Almost all kasten have large, bulbous feet, and though you could see where they had originally been attached, ours had lost its feet at some point. To figure out the correct shape and proportion for a Bergen County kas, I read American Kasten: The Dutch-Style Cupboards of New York and New Jersey 1650-1800, a publication of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Page 22 of this book shows a photo of a kas nearly identical to ours so I knew that similar feet would be appropriate. The restorers did an excellent job of turning and finishing copies so that they look almost original.
Usually the cornice of a kas juts out at a 45 degree angle but the cornice on ours is more vertical. The shapes of the moldings used on ours exactly match the diagram of typical Bergen County cornice moldings in the MMA’s book, but they have been mitered to form a less dramatic, less baroque crown. I am not sure why that is, but a member of the Bergen County Historical Society told me that this was sometimes done so that the piece would fit within a particular spot in the home. The cornice seems to be a slightly different color than the rest of the piece, and I wonder if it is not original. Someday I would like a kas expert to examine it and tell me what they think.
In spite of this quirk we really enjoy having it in our home.