Boxes — simple to elaborate

The importance of the primitive box explored

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Joshua's Box with painted dome top, early 19th century New England. (Courtesy Skinner Inc.)

From simple to elaborate,  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 1800s.

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 considered 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 colors, while others might even be decorated with flowers, birds, horses, or other figures.

The way boxes were decorated varied as well. One technique was known as smoke graining; the box was painted with a light-colored base coat, then varnish was applied. Before it was completely dry a lighted candle was passed near the surface causing the soot in the smoke to adhere to the fresh varnish, leaving a curious result on the surface of the box.

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Another technique involved previously stenciled silhouettes. The stencils were used to form cutouts of wood, which were then glued on the surface of the box. The type of silhouettes was limited only by the imagination and the ability of the person crafting them.

Various types of putty 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 be added.

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 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 other small things of sentimental or monetary value.”

Almost anyone could construct a made-to-order box for an individual need or a local craftsman could build it. 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 century too. Among them were bandboxes, so named because they were designed carry a lady’s tie or fastened neckband, 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 New Hampshire woman who did surprising well producing and selling them. Her creations were often highlighted with butterflies, birds or flowers in an array of pastel colors. Even today the use of the name Hanna Davis for the thin wood or cardboard boxes covered with wallpaper is a regular term of reference.

Somewhat less common were men’s hatboxes. While some men’s hatboxes were of leather, the majority were paper-covered and crafted of the same material as bandboxes. Often the hatboxes 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 manufactured by William Griffiths and Sons of Boston and even included the image of a top hat. Such boxes depicting balloons, ships, railroads and such are highly prized by collectors.

At any rate, the need for boxes grew in the 19th century with the increase of possessions.

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“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 or changes in society required new storage facilities.”

And thus the simple but colorful box established itself was a well-regarded and necessary element to life in the 19th century.

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Recommended reading:

19th Century Wooden Boxes by Arene Burgess (Schiffer Publishing).
Neat & Tidy by Nina Fletcher Little (republished by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities).

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