Backcountry Makers: Hiram Starnes, Farmer and Cabinetmaker
By Betsy White | A! Magazine for the Arts | January 30, 2013Pie safes are a favorite with many antique collectors. Their usefulness as a storage unit, their handy size, and particularly their tins pierced into charming designs make them appealing today, just as they were in the 19-century throughout Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. They are known as country furniture, distinguished from more formal and high-style furniture like sideboards, dining tables and corner cupboards. These were made for the dining room or parlor, but safes, as they were originally more simply known, were usually destined instead for the kitchen or back porch. Unlike the cherry or walnut wood used to make their fancy cousins, less expensive woods, such as poplar, were usually the choice for the humble safe, which was often given a coat of paint to finish it off.
There is nothing humble, however, about the safe featured here that Hiram Starnes made, and it is doubtful that he intended it for the back porch. It is a stunner and a departure from the typical, in fact unique among known safes. Most do not include fancy inlay like this one, but Starnes has used light woods to create seven inlaid six-petal flowers as well as two diamond-shaped escutcheons. He employed the same light wood to make reeded molding, which he applied at an angle on either side of the drawer, a design technique he must have liked as he repeated its use on other furniture. At 53 inches high and resting on casters, this safe is taller than most. And we can be sure that Starnes never intended to paint it.
The heyday for pierced-tin furniture was between 1840-60, and tins were used not only on safes but, albeit less often, on cupboards and sideboards. The great majority of tins were hand-punched (or pierced), and the tins were often 10" x 14" in size, which were sometimes crimped together to form larger tins. Hand-pierced tin motifs came in a wide variety of designs that included flowers and trees, geometric shapes, swags, buildings and birds. Later, fashion for pierced-tin panels extended to mass-produced furniture, along with factory-made tins. Starnes has elected to use factory tins on his safe, and the design he chose is one frequently seen.
Starnes was born in 1820 and lived his long life in Scott County, Va., in the Starnes Bend area, near Fort Blackmore. Though obviously skilled at making furniture, the census records noted his occupation as a farmer, so he may have made furniture as a sideline venture or just for his own family. There is other furniture known to have been made by him of equal quality to this safe, including another safe as well as at least two corner cupboards, a bed, dining table and side table or stand. Though perhaps made solely for his family, furniture made by Starnes exhibits the skills and elegance of a first-rate cabinetmaker.
"Hiram Starnes, Farmer and Cabinetmaker" is adapted from "Backcountry Makers: An Artisan History of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee." This is the sixth in a series of articles related to this new book by Betsy K. White. Featuring more than 200 color images, it is in publication by the University of Tennessee Press. "Backcountry Makers" is White's second book on the history of the region's material culture. The first, "Great Road Style: the Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee" was published in 2006 by the University of Virginia Press.
Hiram Starnes' unique pie safe (Photo by James H. Price)