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( Originally Published 1963 )
New England sugar buckets have sides of splint, bottom and cover of solid wood. Two or more bands of splint encircle the bucket, depending on its depth. Handles were either curved splint, or metal with a wooden spool grip in the middle. Probably few nineteenth-century wooden buckets are still to be found, but so many uses have been thought up for buckets of this kind that more than one factory is busy making them at the present time. A large bucket is advertised as a receptacle for magazines. Various other sizes are mounted on tripod legs and recommended as sewing baskets (with hinged covers) or as storage places for a pipe-smoker's paraphernalia or knitting or shoeshine equipment.
At least a dozen different kinds of boxes have been popular enough to be made for both the poor and the rich during the history of this country. At one time or another, some of these boxes were made from silver or other metals, china, glass, or papier-mache, instead of wood. But the wooden ones always are charming. Many of them were painted, sometimes with decoration in more than one color added to the basic coat. Wallpaper was another means of adding bright colors to a simple wooden box. Carving and occasionally inlay were other types of decoration. FIowever, marquetry or inlaying woods in two or more colors to form a pattern was less often done on boxes made in the United States. Old lacquer, ivory, or cloisonne boxes may be discovered by families whose forebears included sailing men.
Boxes of rosewood or mahogany for storing different hinds of tea were fashionable in the late 1700's and early 1800's. Here is a metal-lined mahogany one with compartments at either end. The glass for mixing teas that fit into the center has long been lost, but a pressed glass tumbler has been inserted to display small bouquets. The miniature inside the cover is also a recent addition.
Bible boxes and most Bride's boxes were made of wood. The rectangular Bible box is perhaps the oldest made in this country for a specific use. The first ones were brought from England by the early settlers and others continued to be made, especially in New England. Bible boxes were imposing enough to be as important as any piece of furniture. They were quite deep rectangular boxes with hinged lids, made of heavy wood and decorated with carving and perhaps also paneling. In the Pennsylvania German section, Bible boxes usually were painted. Wherever they were made, the family name was either carved or painted on the cover.
Bride's boxes were a Pennsylvania German custom, probably brought from Europe. They were painted in typical colors and designs and were meant for storing wearing apparel. Such a box was often given to the bride by her intended husband.
The Shaker colonies were especially noted for simple yet distinctive and well-made boxes. These were as likely to be round or oval as rectangular. Shaker boxes of wood splint were made in graduated. sizes from as large as the biggest hatboxes today to very small ones.
During the latter part of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth century, handsome boxes were made to hold an assortment of teas. The box itself might be mahogany or rosewood. It was divided into from two to ten or twelve compartments, with a special compartment in the center that held a glass for blending the teas to a guest's taste. The box and its compartments were lined with metal, and each compartment had its own cover. The box could be locked to keep the precious teas safe.
For kitchen use there were salt and sugar boxes. The plain wooden salt boxes to hang on the wall still adorned many kitchens in the early 1900's. Their slanting covers were responsible for houses with steeply sloping roofs being called "salt box" houses. Both salt and sugar boxes usually were made of pine and were extremely plain in most parts of the country.
Spice boxes varied greatly. If they had six, nine, or twelve drawers they usually were called spice chests, but both boxes and chests were made to stand on a shelf. Sometimes they were small copies of larger chests in the house. Some were quite plain, others were painted or carved, and many were initialed and dated, which would seem to imply that they were gifts. Oak, walnut, cherry, and maple were used. Sizes varied from six inches to about two feet in height, with the width in proportion.
Knife boxes of two kinds are known. Handsome urns or boxes with slanting covers were carved from mahogany to stand on sideboards and hold the table silver. These are not plentiful. However, the shallow rectangular box made of pine or maple and divided lengthwise into two or three compartments was common in kitchens throughout the nineteenth century.
Quite as useful as any of these boxes but much gayer and more personal were the bandboxes that became popular during the nineteenth century. Bandboxes originated in New England and had their first great popularity from 1825 to about 1850, at which time they were made of thin wood and decorated with bright paper, either wallpaper or other paper with scenes, historical and otherwise. Later, they were made of pasteboard.
Bandboxes were generally round or oval and were made in several sizes. Both men and women used them to keep hats dust-free. Women used them also to store various kinds of clothing, not just collars, caps, and lace. Bandboxes were carried on trips too. Really old bandboxes can be sold for infinitely more money today than they cost originally. Incidentally, always look inside a bandbox-they were customarily lined with old newspapers and these may be valuable now.
About 1850 to 1860, Victorian ladies became fond of writing boxes. These were not as large or as heavy as the writing boxes or lap desks that preceded full-size desks. Victorian writing boxes were approximately 12 inches long, 7 to 8 inches wide, and 3 to 4 inches high. They were mahogany, rosewood, or black walnut, the favorite woods for furniture at that time. Bands of inlay or shallow carving were the usual decoration. These boxes, of course, could be locked.
The interior of a Victorian writing box was fitted with compartments. The arrangement often consisted of a 2-inchwide trough across the full width of the front for pencils and penholders, with one end squared off to hold the inkwell securely. The rest of the interior space, where paper, envelopes, and perhaps letters could be kept, was closed off with a thin, slanted, feltcovered piece of wood. This provided a writing surface. The lid had a tightfitting inside cover that made a concealed or secret place to keep important papers and letters. Sometimes writing boxes were lined with decorative colored paper.
Still other wooden boxes of about the same size and outward appearance were evidently made for trinkets or possibly cosmetics. In these, a small mirror was inserted into the paper lining of the cover. A paper-covered tray divided into shallow compartments fit into the box.
Trinket boxes of wood splint were common in Pennsylvania and some parts of New England, also during the nineteenth century. The covers and sometimes the sides of these boxes were painted. In Pennsylvania the painted decoration usually had Pennsylvania German motifs. Elsewhere, flowers and birds were done freehand. Trinket boxes were .12 to 18 inches long, usually oval but sometimes shaped like a small trunk.
Sewing was such an essential accom plishment 200 and even 100 years ago that boxes as well as accessories for this occupation were likely to be attractive. Women had to sew whether they liked to or not, and probably it helped to have nice equipment. Sometimes each female in a household had her own sewing table made in the style of the period. Boxes-usually they were called work boxes instead of sewing boxes-were important for keeping sewing necessities together and carrying them wherever the lady chose to sit. Some boxes were decorated tinware, but most probably were of wood. The Shakers made plain sewing baskets on the order of their splint boxes.
Sewing boxes ranged from the simplest sort, made from whatever wood was at hand, to elaborate ones of fine hardwood handsomely decorated. Inlay and veneer were used frequently.' However plain or fancy the box, its interior was lined with bright paper or fine fabric. Most sewing boxes had a shallow tray to hold thimble, needles, scissors, and the like. This could be lifted out to get at patches and bulkier materials stored underneath. Some boxes were divided into compartments.
Accessories for sewing often were handed on from mother to daughter. Very nice accessories also were given to little girls to encourage their learning to sew. Needlebooks or needlecases were essential. A needlebook had leaves of flannel in which to insert needles; the covers often were of wood (occasionally one with mother-of-pearl covers or an odd-shaped case of silver is found). Cases for knitting needles, shuttles for netting or lace-making, and darning eggs were other accessories made of wood.
Ingenious boxes for spools of thread were made during the nineteenth century, and anyone can be excused for not recognizing what they are. One example is a small chest with a drawer at the base and two shallow cupboards above (the drawer has a wooden knob in the center, the two cupboard doors similar knobs at the left-hand side). The proof that this is a thread chest is the two rows of holes (5 per row), pierced alternately across the front of each cupboard door, through which thread could be fed to hang outside without snarling or tangling. In other words, ten spools of thread could be stored in each cupboard. Simpler wood boxes such as a small round tub with a tight cover also were made for storing spools of thread.
Many small boxes were made for various purposes, and more often than not were carried. Snuff and tobacco boxes, patch boxes for the ladies, toothpick cases for both ladies and gentlemen who carried their own toothpicks, often were made of wood. They also might be made from silver, pewter, brass, and other materials. However, the wooden boxes made for personal use were not necessarily crude or unattractive. Sometimes two woods in contrasting colors were worked together. Then again, veneer, inlay, or other decoration was applied.
These small boxes to be tucked into a waistcoat pocket or a lady's reticule were made in many amusing shapes. A snuff box of wood might be shaped like a shoe, not the Dutch wooden shoe but the sort Americans worecomplete to the buttons. One toothpick case for a lady was fan-shaped.
Most of these small boxes have become outdated. So has a powder shaker for gloves, which was shaped like a large perfume bottle and often was made of wood. Such a shaker was essential on the dressing table or bureau of every Victorian lady to enable her to pull on her long, tight-fitting kid gloves. Just as baffling is the much smaller pounce box. This also was a sort of shaker, filled with sand or other coarsely ground material; it was a necessary writing accessory before blotters were invented.
Boxes were made for so many purposes that every person is likely to find at least one made before 1900-at some time during his life. Probably all of the very old Bible boxes have been accounted for, and Bride's boxes also are rare. Should you chance to come upon one of the latter, it would have to be in very poor condition to sell for less than $100. The mahogany knife boxes displayed on sideboards were never common in this country. However, everyday knife boxes as well as salt boxes and other kitchen containers, fancy writing boxes, and the small personal boxes so popular during the Victorian era are all too frequently found and ignored.
A Victorian writing box in good condition should bring $10 or more. Sewing and thread boxes can range from $10 up to around $100, depending on their condition and rarity, the quality of the wood and workmanship, and the number and intricacy of the interior compartments and fittings. The smallest boxes or curiosities of wood will be worth a minimum of $3.00 to anyone who collects wooden articles or some specific class of wooden equipment.