McLoughlin House: Chinese Lacquer Sewing Cabinet

MPF Conservation conserved several objects for the McLoughlin House in Oregon City, Oregon, USA (which is part of the Fort Vancouver NM); this page documents Marguerite McLoughlin’s Chinese Lacquer Sewing Cabinet, ca 1833.

John Salisbury and Mitchell during the assessment, right; Marguerite McLoughlin, left.

Marguerite had a generous spirit and often sewed for the members of Fort Vancouver, and taught many women sewing skills.

Grateful members of the Fort Vancouver community gifted the piece to Marguerite, and one can imagine the excitement this beautiful cabinet must have caused in Fort Vancouver. It is one of the few items in the collection which belonged to the family.


The cabinet is a wonderful example of ingenuity. It was meant to be stored in a relatively small space, but when needed could be taken apart for travel or for sewing or other projects, into three parts:

  1. The cabinet (which could be removed and set on the floor) with the beautiful gilded cornice (also removable), and many drawers and cubbies;
  2. An independent sewing box/writing desk which could be removed and set on the table when the table was free of the cabinet;
  3. A table.

The Sewing Cabinet during assessment at the McLoughlin House (before treatment).

The issues of the Chinese lacquer Cabinet was fourfold:

  1. Exposure to excessive heat caused a dull burned appearance to the lacquer in places, called a thermochromatic shift (note the cloudy areas in the side view above left);
  2. Build-up of soot from the open fireplaces which heated the home covered the lacquer, and if left, would continue to degrade the finish;
  3. Several structural issues, which primarily consisted of hinge screw mounts and leg-to-table mortise and tenon connections.
  4. Damaged lacquer: fragmenting, tenting, and sloughing of lacquer, the latter of which had to be resecured to their ground and areas sealed to prevent further degradation.

MPFC treated the structure, but told the NPS in advance that there was no treatment to reverse the thermochromatic shift in the historic lacquer.


The first step in cleaning the cabinet was to remove large deposits, such as wax from candles used to illuminate work, shown above. This is delicate work, where a slip can damage the lacquer finish, so it is imperative to hold the razor correctly so it does not dig into the lacquer.

Phases of cleaning one area, above.
Below, the image Kate was working on before left, and after cleaning, right.

The biggest part of the project was removing years of built-up soot, a project Kate tackled, detail shown above and right.

The cleaning was a painstaking investment of time, as it had to be performed gently, using a cotton swabs and soft diaper cloth. The cotton swabs had just a hint of dampness in them; too much would ruin the lacquer. It was vital to remove the soot, which would eventually degrade the historic lacquer.

While there was obvious damage to the black lacquer, both black and gold lacquers remain quite brilliant as you can see in the before and after images of the left-facing side, below!

Left-facing side before cleaning, above, and after cleaning, below;
bottom are more before and after images.

Before left, and after cleaning, right.

Above, the cornice pediment before cleaning, image one, and after, image two and three;
Below, part of the pediment before, left, and after cleaning, right.

When cleaned, the lacquer loses a grey pallor; the metallic shifts to bright gold and coppery colors, shown above.

Right, the four table legs. If you look closely you can see they were hand-painted as they do not match from one leg to another.

Above, one leg’s steps as it was repaired.

One of the primary structural issues was in the loosened leg joint to base connection, while other issues, like the cornice tenon, was decorative and not load bearing.

The long European stylized cabriole leg exhibited quintessentially Oriental design, with dual pronged tenon splines and a multi-shouldered block. The joinery was constructed as a compression joint so glue was unnecessary. In this way the piece could be disassembled, crated, and shipped by sailing ship.

However, the tenons had lost girth over time, both from seasonal contraction of the wood cells and rubbing of the joints through regular use of the table.

MPFC cleaned the tenons and laminated shims to the historic tenons so they could fit snug into the mortise, shown above, as they did originally. Wood to wood contact was achieved, no more wobble and not one drop of glue!

The carved feet rendered the most significant visual shift after cleaning, left. Warmth, vivid color and brilliance! The shift makes them look gold instead of copper-colored!

The table top before cleaning, right.

So many handprints! Some of the handprints may have been there for decades (or maybe are a McLoughlin’s?) Many simply would not clean off, as if their imprint was embedded in the lacquer.

Above, the interior compartments of the Sewing Box before treatment with all its little compartments for sewing accoutrements. There were also sewing tools in the cabinet, many made of ivory.

The sewing box and its contents were damaged, with many knobs broken off their handles, and some chipped. While the compartment walls were made to be removed, they were damaged in ways that did not allow them to sit properly in the box.

Above and below, the Sewing Box before, left, and after cleaning, right. Part of the box is a writing desk, shown pulled out below. It has an area that lifts up to store paper, and cubbies on both sides for writing implements and to hold an ink bottle securely. The “desk” is in near perfect condition. Historic speculation suggests it may be because Marguerite was illiterate.

It was difficult to polish the interior of the cubbies, partly due to their size. Also, some of the “repairs” of past had used glues that would do more damage to remove that to leave intact. If you look closely at before and after images, however, you can see that it was cleaned.

Below, after treatment, in its proper place on the table. One way that the writing implements could be used was to remove the back cabinet, and set the Sewing box at the back, and remove the writing drawer. The table was big enough that the front of the table would still be free to use as a writing surface.

After Treatment, Completion

Everyone was thrilled to see Marguerite’s Sewing Cabinet installed after treatment, shown below. Staff was shown how to assemble (and of course disassemble) the Sewing cabinet in the event it needed to be safely moved.

Marguerite McLoughlin’s Sewing Cabinet after treatment, above and below.

Note: If you visit the McLoughlin House, you may see two Sewing Cabinets. A second one was donated which was not associated with the McLoughlin inhabitants.

Items MPFC treated as of this date from the McLoughlin home are:

Return to main page of the McLoughlin House.