Bootleggers and Poison Rings

When I was a kid we lived for a short time in the house my great-grandparents bought when they immigrated from Lebanon. It was a dark and foreboding structure at the end of dead end street with woods on two sides of it. The street actually doesn’t even exist anymore. The house looked a little bit like this one though not as beaten up.

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That house was full of mysteries. Trunks in the attic were full of tintype photos and old glass perfume bottles. There were giant wooden wardrobes to hide in and a basement so terrifying I used to run by the door to it as quickly as I could for fear something unearthly would reach out and grab me. In truth, it was just a creepy turn of the century cellar filled with old tools. That house imprinted on me. It has influenced most of my design choices as an adult. Thanks, great-grandparents.

During Prohibition my great-grandparents supplemented their income by being bootleggers, though neither of them drank. Apparently the neighbors did the same and soon enough they became competitors. I’m told the competition escalated to a full on Lebanese Hatfields-McCoys rivalry.

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You can read all about it in my memoir once it’s finally finished, but for now dearies that’s all you get. I only bring this up to explain the existence of a secret door in the floor of the house’s dining room. Under the rug there was a small door with a metal ring for a handle. The door led to a series of tunnels out into the backyard where the original copper still was stored along with 60 year old bottles of hooch. So that’s where all the magic moonshine happened.  From the day I learned of its existence I was hooked on secret hiding places, convinced it was my sole responsibility to safeguard our family jewels (I was 4 and there were no jewels).

Most of my childhood you could find me hiding inside a wardrobe or closet with a flashlight and a book or “spying.” Other days I was in the backyard with the dog digging holes to hide our valuables from potential jewel thieves (always up against those pesky jewel thieves). I left crayon maps around the house with secret codes on them, left trails of clues, and I watched way too much Fantasy Island. I also read too many Nancy Drew mysteries after I learned to read, of course.

(Note: That last cover may not be a legit Nancy Drew book title but it made me laugh)

My love of secret lairs, hidden doors, and decoder rings grew strong during the years we lived in the creepy ancestral home and hasn’t really died out yet. Just recently, I took my car in to be serviced and the mechanic asked if I knew about the secret compartment in my Mini Cooper. I did not. I’m not ashamed to say I cried a little. It now holds bandaids. I like secrets. Here are a few of my favorite hiding places.

An antique wardrobe as a portal to a workshop from House Beautiful. Apparently this is the home of designer couple who couldn’t agree on how to deal with the husband’s workshop. Brilliant.

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And more.

I’d prefer it if it were a secret laboratory behind these bookshelves instead of a conference room but alas.

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More secret doors in antique wardrobes hiding private rooms.I think Tim needs a secret evil magician’s lair.

I would have loved this wardrobe/secret play room as a kid, very Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, another childhood obsession I might add. Found on  Odee.com.

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Secret staircases? V.C. Andrews would be so proud.

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The Hidden Passageway Company will actually build you a secret room or a safe behind a painting. I think their bookcases are the best option. I imagine, with a little design nudge in the right direction, they could create some really unique pieces.

Tangent! Download this video on how to make a portrait that appears to follow you with its eyes then line your hallway with them or hang one in your guest room.

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Before there were safety deposit boxes, there was trick furniture. Valuables were stashed away in secret drawers. The most famous of which can be viewed in all its mechanical clockwork splendor here. You have to see it to believe it.

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The most brilliant pieces of secret compartment furniture ever made were created by the Roentgens, father and son, who engineered pieces for Europe’s royal families. They’re who Marie Antoinette went to when she wanted a desk. Several of their pieces were on display at the Met and one sold at Sotheby’s recently for 133,000 pounds.

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After I read this article from Collector’s Weekly on how to find secret compartments in antique furniture, I went home and inspected all my furniture. My lips are sealed, but let’s just say if you have the choice between buying an antique and a new piece of furniture, always go antique. You may find a surprise.

Traveling was especially dangerous in ye olde days so a lady needed to hide her valuables. This vanity case with a secret drawer sure is pretty, if impractical by today’s standards. It recently sold on Ebay which has quite a few antique boxes with secret drawers for sale.

You can always hide your goodies in your expansive library of first editions. Easy enough to carve out the pages or purchase one pre-made like this ca. 1889 copy of Montaigne on etsy.

 

Poison Rings: I loooooove these. Want to poison your enemy but remain stylish? Are you worried you might need to take state secrets to your premature grave? I’ll never talk! Poison rings became popular in Europe around the 16th century when just about everyone poisoned everyone. It was all the rage.

A triple compartment enamel poison ring ca. 1840 found on Antiquejewel.com.

This ring found on Collectors Weekly is actually a series of interlocking rings or a Gimmel ring that hides a secret message, albeit a sweet one.

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Sometimes the message isn’t so sweet as in this ring which bears occult symbols and has a poison chamber. No one sends a nice message with a ram’s head.

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Another interlocking Gimmel ring, this one with a message that life is short. Gather ye daisies, friends.

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More poison, more!

And this one belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. A sassy gal she was.

Jewelry with secret compartments was the precursor to mourning jewelry where pieces of hair were kept in lockets, pins, rings etc. Read all about it in my former post on mourning, “Death Becomes Her.”

And here’s more gold from Collector’s Weekly. These sure are clever, consider them day-to-evening-wear earrings. The covers come off to reveal the diamonds inside. Also handy for fooling jewel thieves!

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This intricately carved ball from the 16th century holds layers of biblical scenes and was used for prayer.

Last, but certainly not least, the nineteenth century invented pocket watches, clocks, compacts and, even cane handles with secret compartments to hide pornographic paintings. Early erotica at its most clever. Check out this recent auction for examples that will make you blush. Definitely not for the shy or prim. Here’s a fairly tame one.

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May all your jewels be safe and all your secrets well kept. xoxo

 

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