by Elizabeth Ann Downes

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 1996

A Parquetry Box, c. 1900, beautiful detail, used for many purposes.
A Gentleman's writing slope, c. 1880, made in walnut.
A cutlery box presented to Joshua Smith on his retirement in 1937.
An Indian writing slope, 1920, in oriental cherry wood. All photos by the author.
Boxes have been around for centuries and people have always had a fascination for them. Little did Pandora know when she lifted the lid of the legendary box of tricks that we would inherit her insatiable curiosity for them.

Boxes are wonderfully functional and there are never ending uses for them. Royals, heads of state, sultans from the middle east, emperors from the orient and the most humble of servants had one. Most early boxes are now priceless museum pieces but 18th and 19th century boxes are still readily available and within an affordable price range.

Watch people at antiques shows as they go from box to box like bees on a honey jar. Which one will they choose? For what purpose will it be used? Where will it go? It is rather like choosing a puppy from a litter or the inexplicable attraction one has for the opposite sex. It is nearly always love at first sight. The chosen box is stroked with tender loving care and the lid is raised ever so slowly like the opening of a very special gift at Christmas time. From then on, the collector is hooked by the wonderful magic of boxes.

Boxes come in all sizes and vary somewhat in shape. They are usually constructed from different types of wood, such as mahogany, walnut, satinwood or any hard wood that would endure the passage of time. The oriental craftsman favored cherry and camphor for their elaborate carved boxes. A box can measure from as small as one inch up to as large as two feet. Anything larger would be classified as a chest.

In the Victorian years, boxes became very fashionable and there are still many to be found in good condition at reasonable prices. They were popularly used for jewelry, sewing, cosmetics, tea, spices, writing slopes, pills, business cards, music and many more purposes. A craftsman would construct a box to his or his customers' liking. Most boxes have a center inlay shaped from either mother-of-pearl or brass. The brass inlay would have been engraved with the owners' initials, or an appreciative employer might have a box engraved to present to a servant for his years of loyal service. Boxes were very acceptable as presentation gifts for sports events, wedding anniversaries and retirements. A craftsman's world was his oyster and he would have indulged in elaborate inlays, rich silk linings, precious and semiprecious gems, ivories and metals of all kinds, gold, silver, etc.

A lady's sewing box with original lining, c. 1880, probably walnut.

A gentleman of the 18th century would have in his possession a number of boxes. If he were a traveler, he would have a box measuring around eighteen inches long and eight inches deep. The box would contain several silver topped bottles holding tooth powder, wig whitener, a hair net, rouge, potpourri and even cosmetics. Yes! Gentlemen were vain even in those days. Some smaller boxes were used for stamps, snuff, rouge or pills. These can still be found at flea markets and garage sales.

Boxes can be such fun to collect, taking up very little space and, if displayed well, make a good focal point of conversation. Some larger boxes are fashioned into end tables and others are converted into humidors. Humidors are very hot numbers with male collectors.

When Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert died, she requested all her subjects to mourn with her. All crafted materials were ebonized since black was not available. Papier-mâché came into its own for beautiful furniture and wonderful boxes which were ebonized and inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. These boxes are now fetching very high prices at auction. They are not easy to repair and one in good condition is a sure investment.

A lady's jewel box, original lining, mother of pearl center and featured lock, c. 1880.
Who is to say that a doggy bag was not once called a doggy box?? In days of old when knights were bold, the rich were rich and the poor were poor, boxes had their valuable uses. In the British Isles on Xmas day, the very rich would laden their tables with colossal amounts of gourmet foods and gorge themselves nonstop, celebrating the Christmas festivity. Early the following morning, the wealthy would place the leftovers in wooden boxes and go out into the streets and distribute this food to the poor. This was a yearly tradition which led to the naming of Boxing Day. All over Great Britain, Boxing Day is always celebrated on the 26th of December and is an official bank holiday.

How do we first choose a box? Initially, follow your heart like the puppy in the litter. Then pick it up, feel it, give it a good scrutinizing all over. Look for any sign of damage or repairs. Inspect the hinges. If there is a lock and it is working and, one can come across a working key, this is an added bonus. Do not hesitate to ask as many questions as you can possibly think of. Ask about its origin and its authenticity. Maybe it needs relining. Ask yourself if it is possible to do it yourself. Any reputable dealer will only be too happy to answer your queries.

Many people collect boxes. Many do so out of choice, others quite inadvertently keep boxes to store a variety of things. Even chocolate comes in boxes! I cannot believe that such a small object can give such huge pleasure and I truly get this feeling for each box I purchase.

About the author:
Elizabeth Ann Downes, The Box Lady, started a serious interest in antique boxes in 1983 and displays in the major antiques shows in Miami. She has affectionately been named "The Box Lady."

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