So thousands of people have checked out my post on my grandmother’s camphor chest. Well, hundreds of people. Ah, dozens. Never mind. But everyone’s been looking at the photos of the camphor chest. This got me thinking – what’s so interesting about camphor chests? Is my grandmother’s one something special?

I decided to look into what the heck camphor chests were used for. In the 18th and 19th centuries, camphor chests were used to carry tea, silks and porcelain from China to European destinations, mainly London, and also to America. Women saw the beauty of the chests and displayed them in living rooms. They were made from camphor wood, a natural repellent against moths and wood boring insects. Camphor also has a wonderful, fresh scent. Brass brackets usually adorned the corners of the chests and the chest’s clasp was also usually of brass.

Prior to the sea trade, Chinese families used camphor chests to store everything from blankets, clothes and linen to food and personal papers. Chests were often stacked one on top of the other to save space. Sometimes the chests were made of plain, solid camphor wood but, more often, ornate Chinese carvings of dragons, ships, people and animals decorated the chests.

My grandmother’s chest is intricately decorated with ships and dragons. To me, it tells the story of some sea dragon attacking a flotilla of Chinese vessels or maybe it’s actually protecting the flotilla. I have no idea if the chest is from China, Hong Kong or some other country in Asia. So I took more photos in case someone out there is an expert and can tell me more.

My grandmother used to keep the camphor chest in the master bedroom but my mother had it in the hallway of my childhood home. She used to put a bowl of flowers on top of it. I have it in the bedroom and it’s stuffed full of my mother’s Marghab. The chest has a drawer that sits at the top level – I guess to hold smaller items.

A few posts back, I was telling you about how I have my grandmother’s camphor chest and how it’s stuffed full of my mother’s (and grandmother’s) linen, lace tablecloths, doilies and so on. This old-world stuff was always a part of my life growing up – both of them had a penchant for fine things. My mother always talked about Marghab linen and would show me her collection. I would yawn as there were far more interesting things to me in life when I was a teenager.

There have been many opportunities for me over the years to chuck out all this stuff but, for some reason, I’ve always hesitated. So the camphor chest came with me to New Zealand and was in the paws of MAF for awhile (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry), whilst they sorted out whether any evil bugs had hitchhiked their way from Oz to NZ. Intrigued by my research into this Marghab business, I learnt that Marghab is Portuguese hand-stitched linen produced on the island of Madiera and that linen from 1934 to 1984 is highly prized. Apparently, this 50 year period is the height of production – 1933 was when the company was founded by Emile and Vera Way Marghab and around 1980 was when the company closed. You can get Chinese knock-offs now though.

I was wondering how my mother laid her hands on Marghab because she never travelled outside of Australia once she moved from NZ. More research revealed that Marghab linen was sold exclusively to only a few stores around the world and one of these was David Jones in Sydney. My mother and grandmother haunted DJs so that explains how she bought Marghab.

There is so much linen in the camphor chest that I’m not sure I recognise which ones are Marghab so another spot of research looking at photos of this Portuguese linen on the internet leads me to think I’ve spotted some of them. Along the way, I rediscovered a cocktail purse my mother said she used to take to nightclubs in the late 1930s/early 1940s. I took some quick iPhone shots but will maybe spruce up the linen and get better shots to compare to those I’ve seen on the internet.

 

My grandmother's camphor chest has always been a fond memory. It was in her home, then in my mother's and now mine. I would think it dates from the 1920s or 1930s but not sure.

 

 

Close-up of top of camphor chest - wonderful Chinese-inspired carvings.

 

 

From the photos I've seen on the internet, there was some marine-themed Marghab. This one is pink and white.

 

 

The bottom pink and white one looks to me like the Waterleaf pattern.

 

 

Marghab seemed to have a lot of birds and flowers - I think this could be Marghab with a butterfly, ribbon and small flowers.

 

 

Not sure about this one: can't find a similar photo on the internet.

 

 

My mum's evening bag from the late 1930s/early 1940s. It has gorgeous gold tassels.