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- Inside Antiques,
by Robert Reed
- Inside Antiques:
- Those 19th Century Boxes of Variety and Style
- By Robert Reed
From simple to elaborate and from homemade to manufactured the
box took on special symbolism in the 19th century.
- It held one's personal possessions. It was useful. It had
an important place in the home.
- The 19th century was the golden age of the decorated box,
wrote author Arene Burgess who complied an entire book on the
subject. Creativity and ingenuity were
valued and rewarded by American society.
- Further, there was the development of the middle class in
America's 19th century. They could afford a few special things.
And they truly needed a place to store those things.
- Of course there were boxes in use before the 19th century,
just not as casually nor as prolific as the golden age of the
- Primitive boxes were in use earlier, most with flat or simply
sloping lids. But their use was limited for writing perhaps,
or storing the Bible. Gradually they were used in a few more
ways but consider technically a case more than anything else.
In 1790 an English dictionary simply defined the word case as
a little box or covering for anything.
- Boxes, of all domestic objects
that furnished the early American home, have always been the
most useful and exhibited the most interesting variety of materials
and forms, declared Nina Fletcher Little decades ago in a small
book entitled Neat and Tidy. Because many of the purposes for
which they were made have become obsolete they help in the understanding
and appreciation of lifestyles that have now disappeared.
- And their variety just made them that much more appealing.
Some were flat and some were domed. Some were decorated and some
were plain. Some had hinged
lids and some had sliding covers. Some bore bright designs and
some bore the owner's name.
- Dome top boxes were popular, especially in the early part
of the 19th century. Typically they might have a hinged lid,
perhaps with a brass knob. Usually they were rectangular in shape
with dovetail construction. Some were embellished with bright
colours, while others might even be decorated with flowers, birds,
horses, or other figures.
- Decorating varied as well. One technique was known as smoke
graining. Basically it involved the use of a light-colored base
coat before a varnish was applied. Before it was completely dry
a lighted candle was passed near the surface causing the soot
in its smoke to adhere to the fresh varnish. It left a curious
result on the surface of the box, and although it was sometimes
referred to as smoke graining, technically it had nothing to
do with actual graining.
- Another technique involved previously stenciled silhouettes.
The stencils were used to form cutouts of wood which could be
in turn glued on the surface of the box. The type of silhouettes
were limited only by the imagination and the ability of the person
- Various putty types of decorations were also sometimes employed
in 19th century boxes. Often a mixture of brown putty was applied
upon a solid painted surface. Further decorations could also
- Then there were inside gimmicks as well.
- Some early boxes were marvels of ingenuity, notes author
Burgess. Secret drawers and compartments were more common than
rare. Even tills in blanket chests had secret compartments. The
inlay or paint work on some box lids held secret messages known
only to the maker and the recipient.
- Elaborate early sewing boxes often had a secret compartment
to hold mad money or any small thing of sentimental or monetary
- Most any individual could construct
a made-to-order box for an individual need. Or it could be done
by a local craftsman. Still another source, whose work is highly
prized today, was the Shaker communities of the 19th century.
More than a dozen religious-based communities produced highly
accomplished furniture and other items including boxes.
- Typically, Shaker storage boxes included pine tops and bottoms
supported by solid bent maple. They were meticulously made and
then finished with copper nails or tacks. Such boxes varied in
size, and some were crafted to nest together when not in use.
- Fully manufactured boxes were fully appreciated in the 19th
- Among them were bandboxes, so named because they were designed
to carry women's neck bands, hats, sashes, muffs, ribbons, and
other articles of female attire. Similar to the cylindrical bandboxes
were bonnet boxes intended obviously to house a lady's bonnet.
In some cases both were referred to as Hanna Davis boxes as an
acknowledgment of the woman in New Hampshire who did surprisingly
well producing and selling them. Her creations were often highlighted
with butterflies, birds, or flowers in an array of pastel colours.
Even today the use of the name Hanna Davis for the thin wood
or cardboard boxes covered with wallpaper is a regular term of
- Somewhat less common were men's hatboxes. While some men's
hat boxes were made of leather, the majority were paper-covered
and crafted of the same material as bandboxes. Often the hat
boxes for men bore a printed maker's label inside. One example
is the label for Furrier & Bean, a hat and cap manufacturer
in Belfast, Maine. The box itself was manufactured by William
Griffiths and Sons of Boston and even included the image of a
top hat. Such boxes, depicting balloons, ships, railroads and
other icons of the era, are highly prized by collectors.
- The need for boxes grew in the
19th century with the increase of possessions. Momma didn't need
to keep her sewing equipment in a sack, concludes Burgess; the
local craftsman could make a nice box out of cherry or walnut.
A young woman thinking of marriage needed a box to keep her quilts
and linens safe. A large trunk or box with her name on the front
was an expected engagement gift.
- Fads and changes in society required new storage facilities,
and thus the simple but colourful box established itself and
was a well regarded and necessary element to life in the 19th
- Recommended reading: 19th Century Wooden Boxes, by Arene
- Neat & Tidy by Nina Fletcher Little (re-published by
the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities).
- Photo 1: Joshua's Box with painted dome top, early
19th century New England
- Photo 2 - Shaker oval-shaped boxes, late 19th century
- Photo 3 - Painted and decorated dome-top box, 1820s
- Photo 4 - Putty painted dome-top box, early 19th century
- Robert Reed has written on antiques and collectibles for
more than two decades. He has also authored 15 books, including
his recently released Antiques and Collectible Dictionary, available
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