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Boxes Open and Shut

Box with carving, wrought-iron escutcheon, and traces of red paint, made in Hingham area, Massachusetts, 1670–90.

A variety of food containers spanning almost two hundred years: wooden saltbox, c. 1800; cocoa tin, early twentieth century; pantry boxes, late nineteenth century; lunch box, c. 1965.

Bandboxes, 1820-40. Made of cardboard or thin sheets of wood covered in patterned paper, these boxes were commonly used to store hats, cuffs, collars, gloves, and other apparel.

Snuff box, c.1774

Birchbark card case embroidered with dyed moose hair, c. 1850, with a dance card inside.

A new exhibition at SPNEA’s Boston gallery tempts our curiosity.

Boxes were made for every conceivable type of storage, in a variety of shapes and sizes, from plain to lavishly decorated. They make us curious—we want to open them, examine their contents, and understand their secrets. As containers of culture, they can reveal clues to social status or lifestyle. SPNEA’s current exhibition “Boxes, Open and Shut,” sponsored by Northeast Auctions by Ronald Bourgeault, presents over fifty boxes that will delight the eye and offer clues to how New Englanders have lived over the last three centuries.

The oldest object on view, a late seventeenth-century box with a lock and handsome carving on the front, is significant for its age and rarity. Venerated by collectors, who dubbed them “bible boxes” because of their supposed Puritan origins, boxes of this type probably served a secular rather than sacred purpose and were used to secure a range of valuable possessions. In contrast to this imposing hand-crafted box, the newest item in the exhibition is a mass-produced 1960s lunch box whose appeal stems from its bright colors and Disney decorations.

Colorful bandboxes dating from the 1820s and 1830s reflect a society on the move and a growth in the availability of consumer goods. (The word “bandbox” is derived from the seventeenth-century term for gentleman’s collar.) Made at home or purchased from manufacturers, these boxes were decorated with wallpaper or papers printed specifically for this purpose and came in nests of graduated sizes. Bandboxes were convenient for travel and provided useful storage space before closets became common later in the century.

Very often a box and its contents will conjure up a detailed picture of an individual at work or at leisure. A simple pine box that belonged to itinerant painter Moses Eaton of Hancock and Dublin, New Hampshire, contains brushes, wood blocks, and stencils that he used as he traveled about the New England countryside in the 1820s and decorated the walls of parlors, hallways, and bedchambers. This relic of a craftsman’s trade, found in the attic of the artist’s house long after his death, reveals his work process and reminds us of his wandering existence. A high-style liquor box from the same period, probably an English import, portrays life at the opposite end of the economic spectrum—a gentleman at his ease. The initialed lid opens to reveal a set of engraved, gilded bottles and glasses in a case lined in pink silk. Most evocative of all is a little girl’s box with its hoard of tiny playthings, evidence of her childhood pastimes and of her family’s comfortable status.

A household’s many consumables required an assortment of container types. In the eighteenth century, snuff was carried by fashionable gentlemen in small ornamental boxes that were as much decorative accessories as a handkerchief or fan. Until the mid-nineteenth century, a saltbox was customarily hung near the fireplace to keep its contents dry. Pantry shelves were lined with circular wooden boxes containing herbs, spices, meal, sugar, butter, and cheese. Tea, cocoa, tinder, candles, and matches were stored in brightly painted tinned sheet-iron containers. Once found everywhere, these boxes have disappeared from common use due to changing fashion and replacement by modern disposable packaging. Nina Fletcher Little points out in her indispensable 1980 book, Neat and Tidy (just reissued by SPNEA), that this very obsolescence helps us understand and appreciate lifestyles that have now disappeared. Please come explore the exhibition and make some discoveries of your own about boxes, open and shut.

—Jennifer M. Swope, Associate Curator

Boxes Open and Shut