Sugar box

about 1680–85
John Coney (American, 1655 or 1656–1722)

Object Place: Boston, Massachusetts

Catalogue Raisonné

Buhler, 1972, No. 33


Overall (h x w x d): 12.2 x 15.2 x 19.8 cm (4 13/16 x 6 x 7 3/4 in.); Weight: 29 oz., 10 dwt

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


On View

Burton A. Cleaves Gallery (Gallery LG27)




Silver hollowware

Oval with four scroll feet. Body repousee & granulated; cover more elaborate with acanthus & wreath, knotted serpent forms handle. Pierced sheild-shaped hasp.

Sweetness and silver were luxuries purchased at a great price-in both human and economic terms-in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Inhumane slave labor was used to extract silver ore from the mines at Potosi and elsewhere in South America and to grow and harvest sugar cane in the West Indies. Wealthy consumers then expended considerable sums to buy the imported sugar and to commission elaborate silver vessels, such as these three sugar boxes, to hold the precious substance on their tables.

Of the ten known survivingAmerican sugar boxes, nine, including the three examples shown here, are by John Coney or Edward Winslow of Boston, while one anomalous example is marked by Daniel Greenough of New Hampshire. Fashioned in the form of Italian cassoni (chests) and richly ornamented, these boxes are among the finest examples of early American silver. The elaborate chasing on each box may be the work of a skilled immigrant specialist. Nathaniel Gay may have been responsible for the chasing on this box, while Henry Hurst may have performed a similar role for the Winslow example (42.251).
In the seventeenth century, sugar was thought to possess special powers: one writer in 1637 argued that it “nourishes the body, generates good blood, cherishes the spirit, makes people prolific, [and] strengthens children in the womb.” The iconography of the boxes alludes to marriage, fecundity, and fertility, making them “colonial expressions of courtly love” perfectly suited to house a material thought to contain reproductive and amatory properties.

This text was adapted from Ward, et al., MFA Highlights: American Decorative Arts & Sculpture (Boston, 2006) available at


Inscribed on base in script:
"The gift of Grandmother Norton
to Anna Quincy born 1719" Later "Joanna Quincy (Thaxter) Loring.
Sophia (Loring) Whittemore.
Anna Quincy (Thaxter) Cushing.
Mary (Cushing) Churchill. 1900"


Five marks: all heart-shaped with "I C" and a cross of fleur de lis beneath
1. interior, center of bowl, facing towards rear of piece
2. and 3.- on rim of lid, above lactch/lock, facing towards center of lid
4. and 5.- on lid, embedded in matte decoration, both rear half of lid, one on either side of finial


First owner conjectured as John Norton; his widow, Mary (Mason) Norton, to Anna Quincy (1719-1799), daughter of John Quincy (Harvard 1708) and Elizabeth (Norton). By descent to Mrs. Joseph Churchill (1); February 13, 1911, lent by Mrs. Churchill to MFA; 1913, gift of Mrs. Churchill to MFA. (Accession date: April 3, 1913)

1: Anna married John Thaxter 1744; their daughter Joanna Quincy (1757-1856), m. Thomas Loring; their daughter Sophia, m. Nathaniel Whittemore; the eldest daughter of her cousin Susan Joy Thaxter, Anna Quincy Thaxter, m. Benjamin Cushing; their daughter Mary, m. Joseph Richmond Churchill.

Credit Line

Gift of Mrs. Joseph Richmond Churchill