Since the beginning of time humans have always used boxes to store, protect from both damage and theft, organize, and/or display their belongings, whether precious, perishable, small or large. The ancient cultures made boxes for their games, their jewelry, their food, their money, and their papers. The ancient Egyptians used boxes to store food as well as implements and the innards of their dead to be used in the afterlife.
Boxes have always had a mystique about them. Human history abounds with famous boxes such as the mythological Pandora’s box, the political ballot box and the religious donation box. All these boxes are part of our culture and have fascinating stories associated with them. Ancient cultures developed the art of making boxes early on, and to the trained eye a box can easily be related to the culture that created it. Early boxes were normally made of materials found abundantly in nature. The requirements for such materials were rigidity, resistance to dampness, easily shapeable, and durability.
Wood, being a solid material with many of the required properties for box making as well as being one of the most abundant and easiest to work with, lends itself very well to such an application. The fact that wood can be obtained in large pieces also makes it very well suited for making large boxes. It also has an inherent natural beauty associated with its grain giving wooden boxes a decorative property that many other materials do not provide.
While large boxes and chests were the most common in the early days of American modern history, the economic prosperity in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century resulted in people’s increased ability to acquire and purchase luxury items. Thus the use of smaller boxes to protect, organize, and display these luxuries became more common as the middle class began to prosper. In addition, such prosperity allowed people to purchase foodstuff and perishables in large quantities, which necessitated the acquisition of storage boxes for use in the kitchen.
Generally softwoods are easier to work with than hardwoods. These were very abundant in the Northeastern part of the US, where the early settlers lived. These woods were not inherently as decorative as hardwoods and thus when used to make boxes they were further decorated to enhance their beauty and value. Painting them, drawing on them, or covering them with decorative paper was the method of choice to decorate such boxes.
Many of these boxes depend on their shape, coloring, and metal straps or nails as the means of decoration. They usually develop a nice patina with age, which is probably the only way to authenticate them. Their simplicity and the fact that many were destroyed in use or by rodents in the old farmstead makes them difficult to find and very desirable. Those retaining original decoration or authentic patina are rare and valuable.
This article looks at some of the primitive utilitarian boxes or containers, which were very common in American homes in the late 18th and through the 19th centuries and are becoming highly collectible. These boxes, which were used to store and protect all types of staples and valuables, were normally made of common woods abundant in the Northeastern US such as pine, poplar, walnut, and maple. They were held together with nails, wooden pegs, metal straps and/or wooden straps. They were often decorated by painting with vegetable based paints in monochrome colors and hand decorated with floral or country scenes to increase their aesthetics. Such boxes were prevalent in the Northeastern part of the United States with many coming from the Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and New York. Those made in Pennsylvania had a distinct German (so called Pennsylvania Dutch) character and were highly decorated. Pennsylvania German decorated boxes are highly collectible and usually command very high prices.
Examples of primitive boxes include sugar buckets, otherwise known as firkins, pantry and spice boxes made of bent wood, Shaker boxes, a generic name for simple and austere boxes made within the shaker communities in New England, New York and Kentucky, miniature chests, and candle boxes.
Pantry and spice boxesThese boxes were used in the kitchen and were normally round in shape and had lift-off lids. They were constructed using thin pine or maple sheets, which were bent to create the round shape of the box. Such boxes came in all sizes to accommodate the various quantities to be stored. Shaker boxes are one example of this type of box used extensively in the kitchens of American homes.
In the 1700’s these boxes were made individually by hand. However, the advent of mechanization in the 1800’s allowed mass production. The difference between handmade and machine-made boxes can be detected by carefully inspecting the box and its construction. Handmade boxes are normally rarer than the machine made boxes and command a premium.
Attributing the handmade boxes is very difficult, since they are normally unsigned and have no markings that would allow identification. On the other hand many of the mass produced boxes were stamped with a patent date or the name of the manufacturer. Purchasing the older handmade boxes in estate auctions is probably the best and safest way to acquire them, since they would have been in the family for generation and such provenance would guarantee their authenticity.
Shaker boxes were made of bent maple and pine, which was used for the top and the bottom. These boxes have fingers, which are nailed to the sides of the box to hold the box together. They were used in the pantry to store foodstuff. They developed nice patina with age and have been imitated by many makers over time. Figure 1 is Small Shaker fingered herb box from the mid 19th century. It has a lift-off lid initialed "BC". It measures 3½” in length, 2” wide and 1½” high. Side is maple, top and bottom made of pine. These boxes are rather rare and command a high price in auctions. This specific example sold for $150.00 at auction.
Painted pantry boxes were also very common and in todays market command a relatively high price especially if the colors are still evident and bright. Certain colors, such as yellow are less common than red and green and usually such examples are scarcer. Figure 2 is an example of a pantry box painted with a dark brownish red vegetable paint circa 1860. The box is held together with nails and measures 7 3/4" in diameter and 3 1/2" in height. Price $100-$200.
Sets of Spice boxes consisting of a large box with 7 small boxes fitting inside were a very common occurrence in the kitchens of American homes. These boxes were constructed similar to the pantry boxes discussed above and were manufactured in the North East mostly in Newark, New Jersey during the period of 1860-1900. These were always labeled with stenciled lettering to indicate their content. The large box would be labeled with the word “SPICE”, while the small boxes were labeled as to the spice they contained (e.g. PEPPER, GINGER, Etc.). Figure 3 is an example of such a box from the late 1800s or early 1900s. The large box measures 7 ¾” in diameter and is 3 ½” high, while the small boxes measure 2 3/8” in diameter and are 3 1/8” in height. Retail price $100-$150.
Firkin or Sugar Bucket
The firkin, also known as “Sugar Bucket”, is a round wooden container in the shape of a bucket with a lid and a handle. These were equipped with a snug-fitting wooden lid and were used in the kitchen for storing dry staples mainly powders such as sugar and flour. Earlier examples have wooden loops for a handle while later ones had wire handles which were factory made. The bucket was held together with wooden or metal straps on the top and bottom and nails or staples.
Figure 4 shows a 19th century a Salmon colored Firkin. It is made of tapered oak slats with wrought iron bands, a lid fitted with a porcelain finial, and a wrought iron and wooden handle. It measures 10 ¼” high and is 9 ½” diameter on the bottom and 8” diameter on top. This firkin was made in Pennsylvania, most likely in Lancaster County. The fact that this box retained its original color makes it highly desirable and such boxes would realize $800-$1,000 at auction.
Miniature chests are another type of American boxes that were very common in the 19th century. Figure 5 is an 1830 Pennsylvania Sheraton tiger maple and cherry miniature blanket chest probably used to store valuables or important papers, or may have been a toy. It has a lift lid over paneled case supported by delicately turned feet. It measures 17½” in width, 13” in height, and is 9 ¾” deep. The chest was made in Lancaster County Pennsylvania and is unmarked. It is valued at $3,000 - $4,000. Other miniature chests of more common woods were usually painted with red or green background and decorated with tulips and other floral as well as foliate designs.
Other Types of Boxes
Candle boxes, rectangular boxes with tight fitting sliding lids, were made of wood, mostly pine, and were used to store candles and protect them from rodents. Such boxes were normally painted and covered with floral design, Pennsylvania Dutch drawings of tulips and distelfinks (legendary birds which combine features from petcocks and pheasants). In a recent auction, a 1790 box decorated with red background, a Pennsylvania German compass, floral and tulip designs, with red, blue, and green highlights attributed to John Drissel of Bucks County Pennsylvania sold for $75,000. Quality Americana collectibles, which are attributable, and have original decoration command very high prices at auctions. I am always amazed at how much such items bring.
Pencil boxes, document boxes, toolboxes, apple boxes, cutlery boxes, and tobacco boxes are additional examples of these primitive wooden boxes and normally `cost less than $100. The exception is always if the artwork or the construction can be attributed to a known artist or maker. In such a case the box is much more valuable. Additionally, the condition of the box or the fact that the box retains most of its original decoration will highly affect its price. Figure 6 is an assortment of such boxes showing a candle box, pencil box, document box, painted small firkin, bent wood box with metal straps, and a small box with sliding lid and dovetailed construction.
Collecting primitives and Americana items in general and primitive boxes in particular is becoming a very popular area. A couple of decades ago these were not sought after and as several of my long time collector friends tell me “in those days no one bought this stuff and they practically gave it away in auctions.” Now-a-days, prices for primitives increase from one auction to the next within the same time frame, indicating their increasing popularity. Several large and famous auction houses in the Eastern United States now specialize in American and primitives and even auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby dedicate entire auctions to such items. It is my opinion that primitive antique boxes will continue to be a hot collectible and increase in value with time as I have seen their value double and triple in the past 5 to 10 years.
- Arene Bugen, 19th Century Wooden Boxes, Schieffer Publishing Ltd. Atglen, PA, 1997.
- Nina Fletcher Little, Neat and Tidy; Boxes and their Contents Used in Early American Households, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 2001.
- Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania German Collection, 1982, reprint 1999.
- Don & Carol, Raycrafts Book of Country, Collector Books, Paducah, KY 1989.
- Marian Klamkin, The Collector’s Book of Boxes, Dod, Mead & Company, NY 1970.