A “Pie Safe” Might Be the Piece of Furniture Your Kitchen Is Missing

published Jul 24, 2023
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Rustic refurbished house in the Umbrian village of Spello
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When you picture a kitchen today, you likely picture walls of built-in cabinets. While this is the standard for today’s kitchen (more cupboard space is a highly coveted kitchen feature!), early kitchens didn’t have the storage options that people consider necessary today. In fact, most kitchen storage in the 1800s came in the form of standalone cabinets — the most delicious of which was the pie safe.

Credit: Courtesy of Furniture Consignment Gallery

What is a pie safe, anyway?

During the 1800s and well into the 1900s, running to the store to grab a sweet treat wasn’t as easy as it is today. Most baked goods were made from scratch, typically by the women who ran the household. Before the ice box and modern refrigeration, it was difficult to store certain goods that required cooler temperatures, and it was a challenge to keep things out of reach of mice and bugs.

A pie safe, also called a kitchen safe or pie cupboard, was a standalone cabinet about the size of either a large bureau or a small chest of drawers, depending on the needs of the household, and was uniquely suited to storing pies and other baked goods. Its origins have been attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1700s. This simply constructed cabinet was made from local wood, often pine, and featured two doors and a few shelves — so it sounds like a pretty standard cabinet so far. 

What makes this piece of furniture unique, though, is the perforated panels located on the sides, the front, or the top of the cabinet. These tin or copper panels featured holes in intricate designs that permitted more airflow, allowing a freshly baked pie to cool while keeping insects at bay.

What’s the history behind pie safes?

Early American kitchens were often a large room with a dining table and a work table. Cabinets the way they exist today didn’t proliferate until the 1920s, unless the house had a butler’s pantry which featured lots of cabinets for storage. This meant that households used standalone cabinets to store their food, goods, and kitchen supplies. Cabinets like the pie safe became popular in many households throughout the 19th century.

The pie safe was a popular addition to a household that needed to store not only pies but also bread and other baked goods. In some cases, the cabinet’s design combined components of a pie safe and what’s known as a “jelly cupboard.”

Credit: Courtesy of 1stDibs

What’s the difference between a pie safe and a jelly cupboard?

Put simply, a pie safe was designed to store pies, while a jelly cupboard was designed to store jelly, jams, and preserves. This means that while they’re similar and would sometimes be combined into one cabinet, jelly cupboards were typically smaller than pie safes and the shelves were closer together to keep the jars from shifting around or falling out. They also often had two drawers at the top of the cupboard for more storage. Jellies and jams could be stored at room temperature, so jelly cupboards didn’t have any perforations.

Are pie safes valuable?

Depending on the condition and year they were manufactured, antique pie safes can be worth a few thousand dollars — like this one and this one. Distressed antique pie safes or pie safes built in the 20th century rather than 19th century will likely be worth less than $1,000.