Thinking outside (and inside) the box

For thousands of years, people have needed boxes of one kind or another in which to store clothes or other valuable possessions. Today, the typical definition of a box for most individuals is a square or rectangular container that has some kind of cover or lid. Antique boxes, however, can come in all types of shapes and may or may not have a lid. When they are painted (or when they were handmade in an historically prominent setting like a Shaker community), they can command significant money.

The diversity of size and style in antique boxes is staggering. At one size extreme are the huge boxes often called trunks. Many of these originally were made for travel. Leather examples were made by craftsmen called cofferers (from the same root word as coffin), who stretched the leather around a wood frame. They then used round-headed brass nails to secure the leather closely into place. The brass studs and the leather made the trunk very durable.

Wooden trunks with hinged lids also were made with brass studs. These were popular during the stagecoach era. When railroads and steamships began to be used more by the traveling public, around the 1840s, trunks evolved into the “steamer” style, which, being less subject to wear and tear, were frequently covered only with oilcloth or canvas.

At the other size extreme are small boxes that could also be used for myriad purposes. Some of these were meant to contain stamps, others cosmetics, while still others served to hold calling cards, cigarettes or pills. Particularly toward the end of the 19th century, small boxes also were made with advertising slogans on them.

Other types of boxes were created for service in the home. These were used to store just about anything. Over time, some specific types emerged. Some of the more collectible of these include candle boxes, which were long and rectangular containers designed to keep mice from attacking the candles, and Bible boxes, which often were made from oak and had wrought-iron hinges.

Some antique boxes were highly specialized and elaborately made. Knife boxes, for example, often used exotic woods and decorative inlays. Knife boxes have serpentine fronts, sloping lids and interior slots to hold both knifes and forks.

Tea caddies are small boxes that held tea leaves. The word “caddy” comes from the Malaysian word “kati,” which is a measurement of 1 1/3 pounds. Originally, tea imported from Malaysia came in containers of one “kati.” Caddies that subsequently held the tea were made of mahogany, burl walnut, rosewood, teak and fruitwood. Apart from wood, glass, mother-of-pearl and other materials also were used for tea caddies. Some tea caddies had two compartments, designed to hold two types of tea.

Some collectors choose boxes on the basis of where they originated and the culture that inspired them. The Pennsylvania Germans of southeastern Pennsylvania, for example, created some very distinctive box types in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One type was a painted “bride’s box,” which was typically about a foot to 2 feet long. It was used for storing wedding accessories.

Other German-American boxes are of a more whimsical nature. One 1820s patch box has a double portrait of a man and woman facing each other in profile. Turned one way, the faces are smiling and the words (in German) “Before marriage” appear. When the box is turned halfway, the two profiles are frowning and the words “After marriage” can be seen.

Another type of Pennsylvania German box was lidless and meant to be hung on a wall. This frequently saw heavy duty in kitchens.

On the other side of the world, boxes of all kinds have long been a favorite of Far Eastern artisans. If anything, the “average” antique box made in the Orient will be more detailed and stylized than many Western boxes. Although Oriental boxes come in numerous shapes and materials, perhaps the most popular are the lacquer examples. Lacquer is derived from the sap of the lac tree. It can be applied to ceramics, metal or wood. Across the centuries, Korean, Japanese and Chinese craftsmen have all made use of it. Frequently, lacquered boxes will have high-relief carvings such as dragons or nature scenes.

The value of an Oriental box may often depend on its elaborate motif. While this is also true for Western boxes, the value of most European and American boxes will be determined largely more by their material. Some wear and tear, especially in old copper or brass boxes, is acceptable. Of course, if a particularly unique box, such as the one with the double profiles described above, appears in the market, its value will be much higher. Unusual features, such as a clock built into the box, also will affect value.

Frequently, the iron hardware on an old box will be of special interest and enhance the value. This is especially true when the hardware is hand forged.