Vintage Lane Expert | Chad Hilkemeier
Aug 17, 2016 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Be still your cedar-loving hearts dear readers, for we are embarking on another fact-filled Lane Furniture adventure. (As you know, Lane’s products are shrouded in so much mystery that getting genuine insight is like hitting the jackpot – and boy are we winning Vegas style today!)
Remember when we spoke about those swoon-worthy miniature cedar chests handed out to high school graduates? Ever since that article went live I’ve wanted to know more about these little gems. As luck would have it I met the guru: allow me to introduce you to vintage Lane expert and collector Chad Hilkemeier. His blog, Lane Cedar Box, is a must-read for every mid-century enthusiast.
Here, within each post, you will find a treasure trove of information and inspiration. If you are looking for a new space-saving collecting genre, this is it! His blog is a fun place where questions are asked and answered, allowing you to start this new venture with confidence (if you wish to interact further and be part of the conversation, I encourage you to check out their Facebook page). So what drew Chad to these boxes? The following hits at the heart of his collecting spirit and I think you’ll all identify with the spirit of this quote! Join us as we get to know more about these small but mighty prized possessions.
I love these little boxes because of the romantic notion of it all. There were over 27 million of these little boxes presented as high school graduation gifts to only individual young ladies (like my mother and my wife). Each box really has a story of its own to tell. How many boxes held precious mementos like class rings, love notes and graduation tassels? As a young lady, how could you part with such a symbol of your youth? This is why vintage appeals to me.
We all love Lane, but what drew your focus to the cedar boxes in particular? (And for readers just joining us – what are the Lane cedar boxes?)
For nearly eight decades beginning in the 1930’s, Lane Furniture manufactured miniature cedar boxes and distributed most of them as graduation gifts to young ladies just graduating from high school. This Girl Graduation Plan was a groundbreaking marketing idea. Believe it our not, advertising to young ladies was almost unheard of back then.
For many years between one-half and two-thirds of all girls graduating from high school received a box. The boxes were usually available to pick up at local Lane retailers. While at the retailer, the girl and her parents could view the full size cedar chests offered at some kind of discount – hint, hint. It was once estimated by Lane executives that nearly 27 million of these boxes were made and given away! Fortunately for nuts like me, many of the little boxes are still around because, I feel, they are cherished keepsakes.
As the demand for hope chests waned in the late 1980’s, Lane continued to make the boxes on a much smaller scale for distribution through companies like Disney, NASCAR, JCPenney’s and many others until at least 2004. Some, during this time weren’t even (Gasp) made of cedar!
For as long as I can remember, we had one of these little boxes in my house. Ours was received by my mother when she graduated from high school in 1962. This box ended up in my room and contained some of my most prized possessions. Keep in mind, the boxes have a lock so young ladies (and I) could keep possessions private and away from parents and nosy siblings. Another box, containing dominoes at my grandparent’s house, was probably obtained by my life hero, my grandfather, who worked for 30 years at a furniture store that carried Lane furniture. Both boxes were branded under the lid with the Lane logo and Ballentyne’s Furniture Inc. of Norfolk, NE. So, I guess you could say I have a sentimental attachment to the little boxes. Side note: My home town, Norfolk, NE, shared by Johnny Carson but I digress…
My wife also received a box when she graduated from high school in Phoenix, AZ in 1985 so when we married we had two boxes. Over the next few years those two turned into six and then I got hooked. I noticed the boxes I found in antique and thrift stores were similar but not identical. I didn’t know the whole Lane story but, as a marketing guy, I was captivated by what I learned about the Girl Graduation Plan.
Please tell us all about the project, the process, and what your goals are with the site.
I figured since everything in the world can be found on the internet, I would be able to locate information on the boxes to satisfy my curiosity about the different boxes and when they were made. Much to my surprise, three years later, I have not found another half-way serious collector! I can’t be the only one interested/obsessed, right?
Unfortunately, by several accounts, Lane lost most of the company’s records and archives in a massive flood and, therefore, the current iteration of the company is of little help in researching the boxes. The Virginia Historical Society, who maintains the Lane company archives, is very accommodating. However, they don’t have much useful information about the boxes either. Part of the challenge with determining the age or chronology of the little boxes is that they don’t have any model or serial numbers. Therefore, I have to rely on anecdotal evidence to come to any conclusions about age.
Having exhausted all the research avenues I could think of, I turned to writing a blog about my quest for knowledge in hopes of locating other collectors. Readership to my blog is growing and I enjoy hearing from other curious Lane collectors. So to anyone out there interested in knowing more – reach out and be part of the conversation. My main quest to date is understanding chronology and where styles/variations fit into that design timeline.
The thrill of discovery is definitely a big bonus of the research process; what’s your favorite moment / memory of this project?
About a year ago, through my blind phone calling campaign to Altavista, VA (where the boxes were made) I was able to track down a 75 year old retired Marketing Executive of Lane Furniture. He was with Lane from 1963 to 2001 and still lives in Altavista. This gentleman was actually the head of Marketing Department (and therefore the Girl Graduation Plan) for many, many years. Although he provided some nuggets of information, the chronological questions I have remain unanswered. Regardless, it was a thrill for me to speak to someone so close to the Girl Graduation Plan. (More to come on this exclusive interview soon!)
There’s also a recent thrill I’d like to share – I have obtained a box unlike any I have seen before. At first appearance it looks like many of the other boxes except much shorter with the key hole part of the box missing. To an “untrained” eye, one may assume someone just cut the box down. However, given the shape of the box and other little clues, I now believe it may have been made short on purpose – likely in the factory. For now, it is a one-of-a-kind find!
Your posts are so fun to read; one favorite is the “Collections” post. You have a great collection – tell us about some of your stand-out pieces.
I now have over 70 boxes in my collection and it’s growing quickly. The problem is how to pay for them and where to put them! There are over 100 boxes for sale on e-bay at any given time. Currently I am only adding to my collection when I find a box that is rare or unusual (or really cheap). The crazy thing about e-bay is that the boxes are being offered for sale for $10.00 to over $100.00 with no rhyme or reason as to the difference. I understand wanting to get “top dollar” but, from what I see, no one understands the market because age, rarity, details and even condition are rarely considered or factored in at all.
I know Lane distributed boxes in all 50 states. I have about 25 states represented in my collection. I don’t, at this time, need to have all 50 states. However, if I get to 45 or so, how could I not complete the set?
I have isolated eight distinct types of boxes based on size and style alone. I developed my own nomenclature to help organize my burgeoning collection. For example, THBF stands for a box that is Tall, has a Hasp for the lock and has round Bun Feet. TFF stands for Tall with Fluted corners and Feet. There are several other variations on the eight sizes and styles based on lid brand, key hold escutcheons, etc. Finding a new style is a huge thrill!
It always seems that once you embrace vintage in one aspect of life, it starts to inspire in other areas. What’s been your biggest take-away from this project?
My hobby is woodworking and furniture restoration so it’s fun for me to find an old,beat-up box and bring it back to life by gluing up a crack or fixing a hinge. I don’t “re-finish” the boxes. As soon as the original finish is gone, you remove the character – patina and history is lost.
I am thoroughly baffled by the lack of information and interest I have found in three years of devoted research. People collect everything from bubble gum wrappers to Zippo lighters and there are collector clubs for almost anything that is collected. Yet, I have found no one with more information than I have been able to uncover. Maybe I’m a trendsetter!
Again, I believe and have been told that because ladies remember receiving these boxes upon graduation, they are sentimentally attached to them and are often very reluctant to get rid of them. Case in point, I was talking to my neighbor about my collection and the next day he showed up with his wife’s box in his hands! She graduated from high school in 1970. These simple, cute little boxes are woven into the fabric of our country by Lane Furniture and through the ladies that received them.
Many relate these miniature cedar chests to their “hey day” in the 1950’s and 60’s, not knowing they were distributed from the 1930’s to the late 1980’s in the Girl Graduation Plan (with the exception of the WWII years). Those people I have come across that do realize there are different sizes and styles are equally baffled by the question of chronology.
We’re a bit obsessed with the unique markings and notes you’ve found on some of the boxes – really makes them come to life. What are some of the special markings you’ve found?
Along with the eight different box sizes and styles, there are at least that many different Lane company logos branded on the underside of the lid in most of the boxes. Of course, just to keep me on my toes, the logos and the box styles don’t always remain consistent. The name of the retailer and the city where it was located is also usually found branded there as well.
It is always a great thrill when I find a box that has been annotated by the owner – her name and the year she graduated is an awesome find and really makes the whole experience much richer. Also, these handwritten dates are often the only clues I have to date the boxes. The oldest written note I have is from June 1935.
If you could travel back in time and ask Edward Hudson Lane one question what would it be?
Fortunately, as you and your readers know, Mr. Lane presented “The Company’s First 50 Years” which I have read several times. In reading that short publication, it is obvious how proud he was of the company and the people and the communities where they were active.
If I had one question, I would ask, “What in the heck do the “ears” or “handles” on the side of rectangular part of the Lane logo represent? I understand the tree-lined “lane” but what’s up with the other part?” By the way, as far as I can tell, the tree-lined Lane logo is only in the full sized cedar chests, not in the boxes. Maybe they thought there wasn’t enough space?
If I would have been able to Google search “Lane Cedar Boxes” and get the full history back a couple of years ago, what fun would that have been? Researching, finding, hypothesizing and collecting has been a welcome diversion for me. Maybe the whole story will never be known for sure…I guess that’s just fine with me if I can continue being excited by the journey. I do know this, when I tell people about Lane Furniture, the Girl Graduation Plan and all of the different boxes, they are completely fascinated and captivated by the quest I have undertaken. Hopefully this article can continue the conversation for many others as well.