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Pie Safes: Simple Technology Keeping Food Safe

IN THE January 25 ISSUE

FROM THE 2014 Articles,
andDiana Bulls,
andFood Fun,
andHometown History
SECTIONS

by Diana Bulls

Today there are not many Americans who think about how to store food. Nearly every household has a refrigerator, a freezer and a variety of plastic or metal storage canisters. Food comes from the grocery store in cans, bottles, boxes or bags–ready to just put away in the frig or pantry–with little concern about hungry critters.

Long before refrigerators and ice boxes, the pie safe was introduced in the 1700s and remained an important piece of American kitchen furniture through the 1800s. Designed to keep pies, bread and other food items safe from mice and insects, the pie safe remained in style until iceboxes came into regular use.

Diana's Pie Safe

Pie safes in America are pretty much of a Germanic influence, possibly introduced by the early Dutch and German settlers who came into New York in the mid-late 1600s. These people immigrated to Pennsylvania, and then traveled into Virginia and westward. This simple piece of furniture became an important part of the history of food-ways because of its storage of food.

Pie safes are known by many different names, depending on what part of the country you are from. Sometimes the name can even differ from county to county. There are pie cabinets, pie cupboards, pie safes, kitchen safes, screened safes, meat safes or jelly cupboards, and everything from bread to cake to meat was kept in a pie safe.

A pie safe is considered a utilitarian piece of furniture, not decorative. The safe is generally tall and narrow, about the size of a large dresser and about 18 inches deep. Sometimes they can be wall mounted, but most often they are freestanding, with long legs to keep it away from the floor. Pie safes were usually made from local wood; pine predominates, but there are examples of hickory and walnut. Usually the wood will give you a clue as to which part of the country the piece was made. Pie safes can often be found painted red, blue, green or cream. Their value is in the long-term wear of the paint.

Generally there are two hinged doors on the front of the safe, with one or two narrow drawers above. The hinged doors, and usually the sides, are ventilated with punched tin plates or screen. The holes punched in the tin tend to be simple shapes like circles, tulips, or stars. However there are some real folk-art gems to be found with designs ranging from flower baskets, eagles or even Masonic emblems! Inside the cabinet are shelves to hold the pies and other foods, and sometimes these shelves are perforated.

tin

The punched tin or screen allowed the baked goods to have ventilation while protecting them from mice and flies (or hungry kids). The ventilation also helped other foods to stay cooler and to keep from molding easily. The pie safe was kept as far from the wood stove as possible, to keep the food safe from too much heat. A common site was on the back porch where it would also catch as much cool air as possible.

Many pie safes are unmarked, and it is probable that they were built by the original owner or a local carpenter. A notable pie safe maker was the American industrialist and founder of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, Captain John Baptiste Ford. He made pie safes completely out of tin and sold them throughout the United States.

white screened safe

Pie safes can be readily found in the southern states and in Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee and Missouri. If you are lucky, you might find one at rural flea market or yard sale (think of the World’s Longest Yard Sale!). The “shabby chic” interior design style has made pie safes popular again, so they are also commonly reproduced. Originals are considered to be collectable antiques and can be worth hundreds of dollars.

I use my pie safe to store cookbooks and crocks. My husband, Jim, says: “The safest place for a pie is in my stomach!”

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.

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