Wooden pie safe with colored punched tin on the front doors.
A cherry pie with a cutout “pi” symbol in the center and the numbers of pi around the border.

A Pi Day Tangent: Pie Safes and a Slice of American Decorative Arts History

High Museum of Art
Mar 8 · 3 min read

Let’s talk about pies and the furniture designed to keep them safe.

By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art

If you’ve watched many cartoons, you know that keeping a fresh, warm pie safe from sweet-toothed thieves is extremely difficult. A pie’s allure has been known to charm passersby, causing entrancement, levitation, and spontaneous theft.

Thankfully, we have a solution: the pie safe.

Robbers are coming—lock up the pies! Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, and Yogi Bear have all been known to steal pies.

Despite the dramatic name, pie safes aren’t high-tech lockboxes used to deter valiant robbers — or at least not the human sort. These wooden cupboards with punched tin panels were designed to keep insects and vermin out and to preserve pies and perishable goods in pre-icebox households.

The Tennessee pie safe below is from the High’s Decorative Arts Collection, and its painted tins and hand-punched ventilation holes make it a premier example of this important type of furniture.

Wooden pie safe with colored punched tin on the front doors.
Pie Safe, ca. 1830–1860, Unknown Maker (East Tennessee), walnut, tulip poplar, tin, and paint

Pie safes became popular in the United States in the 1700s, thanks to the Pennsylvania German community (commonly referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch). These German immigrants began settling in Pennsylvania in the late 1600s, and their artworks and objects often featured designs like hearts, stars, tulips, birds, and circular motifs known as hexes. You can see the continuation of that tradition in the High’s pie safe, which is from East Tennessee.

The cupboard’s colorful tins depict various symbols, including urns, stars, hearts, and candlesticks, found in unusually good condition. The piece also boasts a rich, warm wood with a patina that shows both use and care.

Wooden pie safe drawer partially open.
Side view of a wooden pie safe featuring a panel of colorfully decorated punched tin.
Wooden pie safe with punched tin doors opened to reveal inner shelves.
The horizontal form of this pie safe is specific to the Eastern Tennessee/Southwestern Virginia area. Pie safes made in Georgia and Alabama tended to be more vertical, simple, and utilitarian.

Come see the safe for yourself in Skyway Gallery 404 at the High!

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