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Sara, here

It’s time for a bit of history, mainly to satisfy myself but also because it’s related to food, and things related to food are also connected to cookware.

So. Spice boxes! Tin spice boxes, specifically, which typically were made out of a thin plate of steel and hot dipped with tin and then painted (so any part of the steel exposed to the elements wouldn’t rust easily) and labeled.

These boxes were used by chuck wagon drivers after the Civil War (post 1860) when Charles Goodnight in Texas realized his cowboys needed a camp kitchen that would service all of his men when they were in the middle of huge, month-long ranges to move his cattle across the country. (This is well before cowboy / farmer issues and Texas Fever created all the cattle death, which in turn created bigger issues in the later 1880’s. I digress.)

The wagons were repurposed Civil War and pioneer freighter wagons retrofitted with drawers and storage and tent flies, along with a relatively educated man who took care of the food, made insanely stiff coffee, and acted as dentist, doctor, postmaster, and psychologist for the group. He was usually paid almost double or more than the cowboys, and his wagon was where all the cowboys stored their goods and did their banking to boot.

But the biggest reason for the wagon was to create food for the cowboys – several times a day – and if the wagonmaster or cook was lucky, they’d have a spice box along on the chuck wagon.

(By the way, the chuck wagon was driven by mammoth jacks which I had to look up. Those things were HUGE!)

The spice box was actually one huge, square or rounded tin box with a lock. Why a lock? Well, spices were almost 100% imported at this time, especially nutmeg and cinnamon, for example. That meant they were rarer and expensive, and a small box filled with cinnamon was easy for a camp helper or other person to lift, slip into a pocket, and sell. Having one huge box filled with 6 – 12 boxes of spices was harder to steal, and also required a key. Cook usually had the only key and he would open the box as needed, use the one spice, put it back and lock it up.

Common spices in the box? Nutmeg, cinnamon, all spice, cloves and ginger. Sometimes mace, oregano or thyme was available.

Spice boxes themselves were usually created in the 1860’s by stamping companies, such as the Dover Stamping Company. However, before stamping sheet metal became possible, tin boxes were made by hand by a tinsmith, and he would use nothing but a stake, hammers and pliers at first. By the early 1800’s, hand crank machines were available and a tinsmith who had made some money could save up a month’s wages and purchase one.

So – making a tin box required the measurements or pattern for both the small box and the large one, some tin, wire, and solder. The pattern was cut out using snips (tinsmith’s scissor) and then bending over a stake with a hammer and pliers, the box could take shape, with copper soldering irons used to seal the cracks.  Later, burring, turning, wiring and beading machines would make the process fast, though soldering remained a slow process until electricity was invented and soldering irons (as we know them today) were also invented.

Tin boxes were usually waterproofed as best as possible, and were repairable by a tinker. They are still found today in antique stores. I can only imagine what stories they’d tell of the pioneer journeys and chuck wagon drives they’ve seen in their long life.

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