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The History of Collections and Curio Cabinets


With the release of Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities, we at Laurel Crown are reminded of our Curio cabinets. Not in the same sense, of course, as the television series—but as the history of the piece of antique furniture and where collecting curiosities may have originated.


Cabinets of curiosities, also known as cabinets of wonder, weren't originally cabinets but entire rooms dedicated to collecting unusual objects. Although collecting and collections had preceded them, the classic cabinets of curiosities became prominent during the sixteenth century, where complete rooms were filled with items associated with natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, or religious and historical relics, works of art, and antiques.
In German, Wunderkammern, Kunstkammer, or Kunstkabinett began in the homes of royalty and the aristocrats of Europe and intended to summarize the wonders of the entire world. Guides and manuals teaching collectors about proper preservation and display techniques began circulating during the second half of the sixteenth century. The first known manual was published in 1565 by Samuel Van Quiccheberg, a Flemish doctor and curation to the ducal art collection in Munich. In the manual, Quiccheberg instructed collectors on what pieces should be displayed and a gallery that included paintings, drawings, and engravings. Quiccheberg also stressed the importance that these collections should also act as a library, workshop, and apothecary. Collecting at that time was seen as both beneficial in both intellectual pursuits and a social sense, as these collections were both repositories of knowledge that could answer questions and inspire scientific curiosity.
Italy's storage and display rooms were called stanzino, studiolo, or most commonly museo, and galleria. One of the oldest naturalistic collections is that of Ulisse Aldrovandi, a Bolognese naturalist. Upon his death, Aldrovandi donated his entire collection to Bologna. The museum of Palazzo Poggi in Bologna is a large hall that has preserved Aldrovandi's "Natural Theater." Today, his collection still amazes visitors with his specimens of nature, such as crocodiles, puffers, and snakes.
Cabinets of curiosities were the early ancestors of today's modern museums, playing a surprisingly fundamental role in the development of modern science, even if sixteenth-century interests weren't always genuine or scientific.

What Was Displayed in 16th-Century Cabinets of Curiosity?

Artificialia were objects created or modified by humans, such as antiques, sculptures, and works of art.

Products that came from nature and displays of rare creatures with a strong interest in 'monsters' (such as a two-headed calf.)

Displays of objects considered exotic plants and animals from faraway lands.

Testaments to man's ability to dominate nature, objects of scientific pursuits such as clocks, astrolabes, automatons, and other scientific instruments.

Cabinets within these collector's rooms ranged in size from something as small as a dedicated piece of furniture with multiple drawers to pieces as large as an entire room. Drawers and shelves displayed original objects acquired through long journeys and often told stories about epic adventures or, more often than not, fabricated ones. For example, some showed what they believed to be Basilisks or Seahorse monsters—creatures that did not exist and most likely manufactured fabrications.

18th Century and American Colonies

By the 18th century, cabinets of curiosities had begun to spread to the American Colonies, with natural history and ethnology being trendy areas of the collection. For some, entire rooms were dedicated to their collections, while others began displaying them in furniture known as curio cabinets—or, as some call them today, china cabinets. Thomas Jefferson kept several curio cabinets at Monticello, dedicated to natural history, ethnological artifacts, human innovation, and the fine arts.

Throughout the 19th century, curio cabinets remained popular as the display of extensive collections grouped by like items fit seamlessly into the Victorian aesthetic. Gradually, families of all backgrounds began displaying items such as taxidermy, figurines, or historic family artifacts within their homes.
By the 20th century, curio cabinets had become traditional home furnishings with their original purpose now used for displaying fine china or family heirloom items such as figurines.

Are Curio Cabinets or China Cabinets Still In Style?

A glance at home magazines and style blogs today, and you may find many of them calling curio cabinets or china cabinets out of style. Several may call them dated or remark that families no longer use the dining room as much anymore, so they have no place in the modern home. Trends come and go, but beautiful, ageless antique reproductions such as the curio cabinet are timeless. Additionally, if you adore the look of a curio cabinet, you should keep it—especially if it is a cherished family heirloom. Heirloom quality furniture is treasured pieces that tell so many stories for every single room of your house, sparking conversation and providing a uniquely elegant look that can function for any need, not just displaying your china.

Regency style, Chippendale, Queen Anne curio cabinets, large or small, can be reimagined into many versatile pieces to display proudly in your home. You can turn a grandmother's china cabinet into a distinguished-looking home bar, a collectible display case, showcase works of art, your beloved books, flowers from your garden, or framed family photos.
A well-made curio cabinet can add to any room in your home, provide storage, and spruce up the already established décor in the process. Curio cabinets offer a wide range of classic shapes and exquisite details that seamlessly pair with sleek mid-century design, minimalistic interiors, cottage-core-inspired atmospheres, and any popular home design trend.
Curio-cabinets are a beautiful means to display the items which mean the most to you, inherently becoming part of thoughtful home décor and offering a versatile means to display your curated collections.
Have you been seeking the ideal piece of furniture to turn into a stunning home bar, a freestanding closet, or a display case for your precious collections? At Laurel Crown, we are humbled and eager to share our magnificent curio cabinet collection with you. We create each one from ethically sourced, breath-taking Honduran Mahogany and hand-made details by the finest craftsmen. Our heirloom furniture pieces are made to remain beautiful and precious for years to come."

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