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  • Carole Conn

Hannah And Her Boxes

Hannah Davis Bandbox

Three years ago I posted a blog about the famous New Hampshire bandbox maker, Hannah Davis. I have revised it, what year no building now they're doing Native American now native American Collection oh more of you based on new information that I discovered, and here it is:

Hannah Davis, of Jaffrey NH, is not the swimsuit model married to Derek Jeter. This Hannah was born in 1784, the daughter of a New Hampshire clockmaker. Hannah made boxes. Very pretty boxes.

"Aunt Hannah", as she was known, was a spinster lady whose parents died young, and who had no other family. She had to figure out how to earn money - tough for a man in rural New Hampshire in the early 19th century - but for a woman? Nearly impossible.

Antique American Bandboxes

The period between 1825 and 1855 was the heyday for the bandbox in New England. These boxes were usually made of pasteboard, covered in wallpaper, and they were used to store and transport hats, collars, ribbons, combs, gloves, laces, beads, - you get the idea. The name came about in the 1600s in England- boxes used to store men's collar bands. The name stuck in the new world.

V&A Museum, London

Lots of people made bandboxes because there was a big market for them. Most were either box or wallpaper manufacturers. Because these boxes were made of pasteboard, they were quite perishable. It's hard to find wallpaper covered pasteboard boxes from the 1800s in good condition,-- unless they were stored in the back of somebody's closet for decades.

But Hannah wanted her boxes to last, so she made hers out of wood.

Hannah invented a foot powered machine which cut thin slices off spruce logs. She then bent these slices while they were still green and fastened them with nails. She cut thicker flat pieces of pine for the tops and bottoms. These were really sturdy boxes.

Hannah Davis bandboxes

She had no money at all. She scoured the nearby woods to find spruce logs. To decorate the boxes that she made she traded some of them for sheets of wallpaper left over from friends' decorating projects. These papers were hand blocked and often had floral designs, geometric patterns, animals, birds, even buildings on them.

She lined her boxes with local newspaper published between 1825 and 1855 - her most productive period.

Hannah was a smart entrepreneur. She made labels with her name and address -at least 10 different designs - and pasted them on the underside of the lids of her boxes.

Hannah Davis label

All the labels are similar to the ones pictured above. They are pasted in the center of the underside of the lid, often at an angle, appearing to be a bit haphazard in their placement.

There is a later, round label which is not an original Hannah Davis label. It is usually found on smaller round boxes made of wood, and while these boxes have some age, they are reproductions and were not made by Hannah Davis. I am guessing that they are museum reproductions.

If you see a box with this label on the underside of the lid, it does not mean that the box was made by Hannah Davis. And while some of these boxes are very pretty, they should cost considerably less then a true Hannah Davis box.

In the early years she traded her pretty boxes for food and other necessities - she was really poor. So she made lots more. Lots and lots more.

She discovered a ready market among the young women who worked in the textile mills in Nashua, Manchester and Lowell. Eventually, she bought a wagon and a sled, borrowed a horse, loaded up her boxes and took them to the mills where she waited outside for work breaks. With time and great tenacity, she became a wealthy woman. Her prices ranged from 12 to 50 cents, depending on size. She sold a LOT of boxes!

There were many bandbox makers in the 2nd quarter of the 19th century in New England. A notice in the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1839 listed railroad shipping rates between the cities of Hartford and New Haven for bandboxes at 50 cents per dozen. This suggests that there were many Connecticut makers at the time.

Bandbox with two different wallpapers

The wallpaper and box manufacturers tended to mix and match the lids of the boxes, so it is not unusual to find boxes with two different papers on them - that doesn't mean that the lid doesn't belong to the box. It came that way.

Top hat shaped band box

Rare, but still available, are boxes that are not round or oval - half round ones were made in the 1830s to accommodate the carved combs which were fashionable at the time. Some were shaped like men's hats, complete with brims, and some other were made into whatever shape necessary to hold a particular object. But most are oval or round.

You sometimes see rectangular wooden boxes covered in wallpaper. These are not considered to be bandboxes, but just boxes that people wanted to look prettier, so they pasted wallpaper on them. Many are from the same period as the bandboxes.

19th century bandboxes in good condition are extremely collectible today. Hannah's are the most collectible, and very pricey. Good ones, not made by Hannah, start at about $200 and can go much higher. A label and/or provenance enhances the value. Hannah's boxes usually start at well over $1000. Condition is very important in determining value. For the beginning collector, a nice box that only looks good on one side - the side you want to display - can be had for much less.

I've collected bandboxes for a long time, and only recently purchased my first Hannah Davis. I particularly like the miniature ones - of course, they tend to be the most expensive. A group of them in multiple sizes is very pleasing to look at. I guess you could use them for storage, too, but the pasteboard boxes tend to be delicate - the less opening and closing the better.

Hannah Davis 1784-1863

I love them all. However, there is just nothing like a Hannah Davis bandbox. The quality and durability of hers are special, of course, but the fact that she was a very early, true American woman entrepreneur, strong of mind, body and spirit, with time for her famous kindness to strangers, is what I admire most.


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