This unusual cash box, which the National Heritage Museum purchased for its collection in 1990, is a favorite with several staff members. So it comes as no surprise that it is currently on view in our exhibition, Curators’ Choice: Favorites from the Collection.
The inlay work draws the eye around the entire box. On first glance, you may think that it is inlaid with ivory, but it was actually made using sulfur! The preference for this material seems to have been localized to German woodworkers in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area during the early and mid-1800s. Despite the unpleasant smell of the sulfur, these craftsmen seem to have enjoyed the speed and ease of completing the inlay this way. Initially, the sulfur dried into a yellow color, which has lightened to its current ivory shade over the decades. Our box is helpfully dated to 1861 (along with the Masonic date of 2395), although it is not signed by its maker.
The box's maker melted the sulfur and poured it into the wooden sections while in a liquid state. Once it hardened, he polished it and, in this case, it was decorated with pen and ink. The delicate illustrations are copied from the sixteenth edition (1851) of The True Masonic Chart, or Hieroglyphic Monitor by Jeremy L. Cross (1783-1861). Cross first published his book, with illustrations engraved by Amos Doolittle (1754-1832), in 1819 after witnessing the “improper classification” of Masonic symbols at degree lectures. Cross soon became America’s leading Masonic lecturer, and his book became a best-selling and influential source of Masonic symbolism.
The box has a tray inside with spaces fitted for coins and bank notes, suggesting that it was used as a cash box by the Treasurer of a Masonic lodge or Royal Arch chapter. Do you know of other examples of household accessories made using sulfur inlay? If so, let us know in a comment below!
Masonic Cash Box, 1861, Pennsylvania, National Heritage Museum Special Acquisitions Fund, 90.3a-b. Photographs by David Bohl.