Decorative box: one of the most stunning collectible items

Verica Sitnik
Gold and enamel North German snuffbox.

A decorative box is a form of a casket for packaging which can be used commercially and privately, utilizing different designs and types of function. Many such boxes are historical objects. Maybe the most commonly used type of decorative box is the gift box. These boxes made from paperboard often dressed with decorative paper, tissue, or ribbons are traditionally used to pack a gift.

Another form of a decorative box is the feminine needlework box. The date of origin of these remains unknown, but there are existing examples from the 17th century. They are designed with a tray or trays divided into compartments, which are used to pack necessary items for stitchery, such as needles, cotton, or reels of silk. The needlework boxes were ordinarily portable and elegant, covered with silk and adorned with embroidery. These boxes were so popular during the 18th century that almost every woman possessed at least one decorative work box.

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Chinese mother of pearl lacquer box. Author: user:Dr. Meierhofer. CC BY-SA 3.0

There is also the jewelry box. A receptacle for keeping jewelry safely in many small compartments. The size of jewelry boxes varies from small trinket boxes for one or two items up to ornate jewel cabinets. The materials used are also widely varied but often they are made from wood, which may be covered with satin or leather. Two such boxes that were made for Marie Antoinette can be seen on display, one is placed in the Palace of Versailles, and the other one is at the Windsor Castle.

A jewelry box lined with red velvet.

A strong box represents an old form of the modern safe. These boxes are for keeping securities, money, and deeds. Usually they have incredibly strong locks. One famous example is the strong box of English diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Bodley(2 March 1545 – 28 January 1613) which has a complex locking mechanism and it is placed in the Bodleian library.

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Metropolitan museum Gold and mother of pearl German snuff box from the 1750s. Author: unforth. CC BY-SA 2.0.

People in the Middle Ages when away from their own homes would usually carried their cutlery with them. Therefore, there is a type of the box named a knife box, stamped and embossed in various designs. As cutlery become more valued, especially the knives, the boxes become more decorative also. They were often left to display in the dining room. The designs of the boxes were mostly rod-shaped, or in some cases tall and narrow for exhibiting the handles of knives. The most common material used to make such a box was mahogany and satinwood. Some of the most elegant knife boxes were made in the style of George Hepplewhite, Robert Adam, and Thomas Sheraton.

Coffin-shaped snuff box made from sheet copper, pocket size, dated 1792. Author: VAwebteam. CC BY-SA 3.0

Snuff boxes come in two sizes, one is a communal box for a table, and the other is a pocket box. The pocket boxes are made to hold a small amount of snuff, and high-quality examples are made to keep the air out of the box. A table boxes in the traditional ‘ram’s head’ style is still kept at the House of Lords in the UK Parliament.

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Snuff Mull designed in the form of a ram’s head, table snuff box. Author: CC BY 4.0

When snuff was at the peak of its popularity, people of all classes carried it, and the wealthy ones were decorated with enamel and pieces of jewelry. Some of these boxes were made from precious materials such as silver, ivory and even gold often adorned with artwork or precious stones. Some were made in paper-mâché and even potato-pulp to keep the snuff in good condition. Snuff boxes were trendy during the 18th and 19th century.

Gold and enamel North German snuffbox.

Snuff boxes were known to be made from exotic materials also, such as cowrie shells. Even when snuff-taking discontinued as a modern habit, the snuff boxes remained in favor with many people. Today snuff boxes are collected, and one of the most popular is Napoleon’s snuff box. The most expensive are French and German examples from the 18th century, one such German box was sold at auction for the price of $1.3 million.