This elaborately decorated box features “piano stenciling” on a grained background. It is thought to be the work of Ransom Cook, Saratoga Springs’s foremost nineteenth-century chair manufacturer and decorator. Cook described himself as “a machinist and furniture manufacturer obtaining my livlihood by my personal daily toil.” This modest description does not do justice to the diversity of his interests and the handsomeness of the neoclassical motifs found on his work. Cook was born in South Wallingford, Connecticut, the son of a cabinet- and chair-maker, and he himself could make a simple chair by the time he was ten years old. Shortly after the family moved to Saratoga Springs, Cook married Rachel Ayres, whose initials may appear on this box. He established his first chair factory in 1822 and expanded by 1828. In addition to manufacturing chairs, Cook invented new machines to shape wood and chair parts in quantity, thus playing a role in the trend toward industrializing production methods that had previously been done by hand.
Many of Cook’s stencils have survived and been preserved. They, and extant stenciled works, demonstrate the complexity of design that could be achieved with this time-saving technique. Early stenciled work required many layers that together built an involved and elaborate design. This could be enhanced further by the subtle use of metallic powders of different shades. The result was a design with depth and nuance that rivaled its more expensive prototypes in etched gold. According to existing receipts, Cook purchased his paint supplies in New York City: stenciling powders from J.L. Waugh at 86 Reade Street and brushes and ground paint from H. Smith at 247 Pearl Street. Although this box has not been definitively identified as by Cook, the decoration bears a strong similarity to his surviving stencils.
Stacy C. Hollander, ""R.A.C." Box," in American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 330-31.