You don't have to be invested in the textile industry to get excited when you come across an antique spool cabinet in the wild. These popular antiques, with their delightfully small drawers and historic typography, come in a huge variety of styles and always bring some quaint country charm to any room that they're added to.
What Is a Spool Cabinet?
With the invention of the sewing machine in 1844, a new market opened up and the textile industry transitioned into a mechanized, industrial trade. Rather than spinning their own cotton or wool threads, women began to purchase ready-made thread on wooden spools.
Spool cabinets were made for the thread companies to store spools of thread. They could be found in the dry goods section of the local general store with each drawer labeled as to the type of thread inside. Most often, the cabinets would have three to six drawers, though some were made without drawers and rather had their threads stacked in easily viewable columns.
Some of the labels were:
Each manufacturer tried to design a unique case that would appeal to the customers' sense of style and reflect the quality of the thread inside. Because of this, most of the cases were made of higher grade woods like walnut, maple, or oak. Decals would have been applied that advertised the manufacturer and the quality of the thread. Later, spool cabinets for home use were created to store the variety of threads that the seamstress might need, and these were often unmarked and could be manufactured out of lesser quality woods.
Popular Spool Cabinet Manufacturers
While textile techniques are as old as time, the industry itself has only been operating in earnest since the 19th century. However, early silk and cotton thread manufacturers used spool cabinets as a way to advertise their own goods, and so many of the antique spool cabinets you can find currently on the market appear with one of these manufacturers' names on them. Of course, mercantiles and small stores could have their own unmarked spool cabinets as well, but the most opulent and decorative cabinets came from these manufacturers:
- Clarks O.N.T. - The Clark Thread Company, which began in the early 18th century, embraced cotton threads when they were first invented in the early 19th century. They manufactured their own threads and devised a way to spool these threads together, creating the need for specialized cabinets. Thus, Clarks O.N.T. cabinets were created with their own product in mind.
- J&P Coats - A Scottish contemporary of the Clark Thread Company, J&P Coats also produced decorative spool cabinets throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, eventually merging with Clarks to become the modern textile company, Coats.
- Heminway & Bartlett Silk Company - This family silk company went through many different iterations and company names over the years, though Heminway is the one you'll usually find printed across the front of a spool cabinet from the 19th century.
- The Merrick Thread Company - Started in the mid-19th century, Merricks was another thread business which not only sold various types of thread and notions, but also unique spool cabinets. In fact, Merricks is best known for its circular spool display case.
What to Look for in Antique Spool Cabinets
Because of the popularity of this antique, many reproductions have been made. Even if the cabinet is original, the decals, lettering, or knobs may have been replaced or updated. For this reason, it's a good idea to spend time getting to know what antique spool cabinets should look like. Familiarize yourself with the various fonts that the manufacturers used so that you will be able to recognize that someone updated a Coats cabinet with the font that only Heminway used.
Another item that often gets replaced is the knobs. Each type of cabinet had a distinctive knob with very little exception - Victorians were fond of details. There are various reference books that give the details of the knobs, and investing in one would be wise. Sometimes doing some research on the company will give you the details you need. For example, if you are being told that a Coats and Clark spool cabinet was circa 1925, a little research would show you that it could not have been made before 1952 when J.P. Coats and Clarks Thread merged.
How to Determine Spool Cabinet Values
The value of an antique spool cabinet is determined in a variety of ways. Some things that an appraiser will evaluate are:
- Lettering should be original. If it was restored, was the original font used?
- Lettering font should match the case and manufacturer.
- Colored glass inserts, if included, should be original and etched with the company name.
- Pressed composition drawer fronts with an intricate design are desirable to collectors.
- Advertising decals should be original and in good condition.
- Hardware, including knobs and hinges, should be original.
- The more unique the detail, the more expensive the case will be.
- Original finishes in good condition are the most valuable. Carefully restored spool cabinets are acceptable.
It's always a good idea, especially if you're new to spool cabinets, to get a certificate of authenticity or to have the seller make notes on the receipt guaranteeing the authenticity of the piece and the components. Once you know that an antique spool cabinet is authentic, you can move forward with adding one to your own collection. The priciest spool cabinets are going to be those in pristine condition; this includes having intact lettering and labeling, no missing drawers or glass, and high-quality materials. Spool cabinets of this caliber can get so expensive, in fact, that they can be worth thousands of dollars. Take this incredibly well-preserved J&P Coats spool cabinet that's listed for nearly $4,500, for example. However, you can also find smaller versions for a few hundred dollars as well, such as with this Clark's O.N.T. two-drawer that recently sold for almost $250.
Where to Find Spool Cabinets
The best way to acquire high quality antiques is to build a relationship with your local antique dealers. They can look for items that you might be interested in as they go to auctions and sales. Dealers are also usually networking with other dealers, so can spread the word for you.
If you don't have a dealer locally, or have one that is unwilling to work with you, try one of these online sites:
- eBay - The number one internet retailer for miscellaneous goods, eBay often has sellers listing antique furniture from their small town areas. This means that you can find a ton of different antique spool cabinets for various prices all in one place.
- Etsy - Etsy is an updated version of eBay that caters to a younger clientele, but it also has a ton of unique antique spool cabinets listed for various prices from a myriad of sellers.
- Ruby Lane- A highly reputable auction website, Ruby Lane often has both antique and vintage spool cabinets available. Keep in mind to check their website frequently as their listings are constantly changing.
- 1st Dibs - Another great online auction website specializing in antiques is 1st Dibs. They've got an expansive collection of antique furniture available, and you should check in with their website frequently, as their stock is constantly being updated.
Ways to Carefully Restore an Antique Spool Cabinet
Antique spool cabinets were always crafted out of some type of wood, making them susceptible to changes in temperature, sun exposure, and moisture levels. Therefore, you just might have found a delightful spool cabinet at a local antique store in a lower price range but it comes with some condition concerns. However, you can take a few calculated measures to bring your wooden spool cabinet back to life.
Clean and Polish at Home
First and foremost, you want to nourish the wood back to a healthy place. There are many different ways to clean a piece of wooden furniture, and even simply wiping it down using a microfiber cloth is a great way to remove the dust and grime from years of being unused. Once you've given the piece a proper cleaning, you'll want to renew its natural shine using a non-aerosol wood wax. A little goes a long way when you're polishing up your cabinet, so be thorough but conservative. Be particularly careful of any labeling that might be left, as the adhesive and paper material will certainly be fragile and sensitive to any liquids or waxes you use during the cleaning process.
Consider Professional Restoration
If you find that the repairs go beyond a deep cleaning, then you might want to consider sending the piece off to be professionally restored. This can involve such things as restaining, fixing or adding faded lettering, and repairing broken cabinetry. Many people find that they enjoy the aged look for pieces like this, but if the cabinets are no longer functional, then you might want to invest in a proper restoration.
Incorporate Your Cabinet Into Your Decor
Depending on the size of your antique spool cabinet, there's a ton of different ways for you to use it to decorate your home. For instance, you can use it as an end table or side table; the six drawer size is usually best for this. If it's a smaller piece, you can display it atop another piece of furniture. The drawers are shallow but can be used to hold small items, papers, and even jewelry. However, you want to keep your antiques out of direct sunlight and moisture so that they'll last for many generations to come.