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  • Carole Conn

Boxes, Beautiful Boxes

No closets, no wardrobes, no privacy!

This is how it was in the typical early 19th century homestead. People lived together in one or two rooms that also had to act as kitchen, dining, sleeping and sitting rooms.

So where do you put your stuff? How do you keep some things private and safe?

The answer was ubiquitously the wooden box.

Boxes for Blankets and Clothes

Before wood peg racks appeared on walls to hang clothing, all clothes were stored in boxes. Remember, they didn't have huge wardrobes.

Storing wool blankets during the warm months to keep them from being destroyed by moths was really important. These big boxes could take up a lot of space.

They often served as surfaces for other things in the rooms they occupied, ~ including smaller boxes.

This one had a lift top and a drawer at the bottom.

Long strap hinges were often used to make the top as strong as possible. The little box built into the inside is called a "ditty" box for smaller items.

They were often unembellished - stained or painted to protect their surfaces - nothing fancy. As people had more time to spend in making their homes prettier, these boxes were often embellished with fanciful designs.

I use this one as a coffee table - it is a blanket chest which was embellished by vinegar paint and the owner's initials painted in a cartouche on the front.

Boxes for Valuables

Where to put your money? Your deeds, certificates, important papers? These boxes had to be safe, able to be locked and secured, ~ small enough to be hidden or heavy enough to make them hard to steal. This one has a tiny drawer at the bottom which can only be opened if you push the lever a certain way.

Most had built in locks and keys. Toleware boxes usually had a separate removable lock that the owner could carry around.

Boxes with locks were almost always used exclusively for valuables, but a settler's valuables weren't necessarily the same as ours: tea, candles, soap, spices - almost anything that had to be purchased was considered a valuable item. Valuables boxes, often called trinket boxes, come in all sizes, colors and detail.

Boxes for Food Storage

Where do you store grains, flour, seeds, sugar, salt, herbs, for the winter for both winter and summer?

Pantry boxes are often called "Shaker " boxes, although most were not made by the Shakers. They were made in all sizes (up to about 11") and held grains, spices, herbs, condiments, dried fruits, and anything else used for cooking or herbal medicines. They are round or oval and made of bentwood. Some retain their original labels of contents. Larger ones (up to about 14") often had wire bail handles because of their weight.

Firkins are technically sugar buckets - larger than pantry boxes, staved and canted with a bentwood or wire bail handle. They were used to store dry staples - sugar, rice, flour, etc., in the buttery.

Look for the earlier, hand made pantry boxes and firkins. Early pantry boxes have thicker sides than the later ones, and are secured with wood pegs, with copper or metal tacks securing the seams. Earlier firkins have tongue in grooved staves, bentwood handles with wood button knobs. The bands are secured with metal tacks. Later firkins are not as heavy, and the bands are stapled.

Paint is an important feature of both pantry boxes and firkins, ~ original or very old paint, which is never shiny. Avoid painted surfaces that have been waxed, or paint which is new. Sometimes it's hard to tell how old paint is - and unscrupulous sellers sometimes pass off new paint as old. Be careful!

Paint is not always necessary to make a pantry box valuable. Very finely made boxes that have never been painted and retain their natural, ages surfaces are equally desirable.

Boxes for Candles

You needed a lot of candles for the long New England winters. Mice love to eat them, so storing them securely and also keeping them within reach was really important

Many candle boxes were hung, often near, but not too close to the hearth, for easy lighting. Metal ones, like the one above were more secure against critters than wood ones. Old paint enhances their value. Wooden ones often were open at the top.

Slide-top candle box

Long, thin slide-top boxes were also used for candles. They did not hang, so they were quite portable. Look for old paint, square or even rose head nails, simple but quality construction.

Boxes for Herbs and Medicines

Multi-drawer apothecary chests housed small amounts of the necessities of rural cures - mostly herbs from the garden or local pharmacist.

This one is fancifully grain painted. Others are unpainted or painted with hand drawn labels on the drawers.

They come in all shapes and sizes - this one has sat on my kitchen counter for years and is very handy for small items.

Bentwood spice boxes - the same shape and construction as pantry boxes, but much smaller, were used for individual spices and herbs. These are painted, but most are not.

Boxes and Totes for Food

Where do you put the apples you just picked in the garden?

How do you carry the squash, potatoes, onions and greens from the garden into the kitchen? Berry baskets, like the one above, usually had smaller compartments that were not too deep, so that piling the berries up would not cause crushing.

Apple boxes are shallow with canted sides to distribute the weight of the fruit. They would have been used for many kinds of fruit.

Totes, canted boxes with a center divider which also acts as a handle, were very useful for carrying many kinds of food, and are often called "cutlery boxes" because of the shape of the 2 sections which accommodate knives and forks well.

Salt was stored in slant top boxes and they were usually hung on the kitchen wall.

Boxes for Wood and Kindling

You needed lots of logs for the fireplace during the long winters, and something to start a fire. A deep box siting next to the hearth could store enough kindling and small logs to give the fire a good start, without having to go outside to the wood shed.

Soap and Scrub Boxes

You need a spot for your lye soap and some pumice near the sink in order to scrub your cutlery.

Scrub or scour boxes usually have a slanted surface which, if well used, shows lots or wear due to scrubbing, and there is often a section to hold a piece of lye soap.

These boxes often were hung.

Boxes for Cutlery

There are lots of totes out there - the ones with just a center divider were often used to store and carry cutlery, particularly knives. Look for fanciful handles, a nice canted shape, or early paint.

Lap Desks

A box with a slanted lid, which could lock, was a nice personal, and private desk. It could be carried from room to room and moved closer to a light source at various times of the day or night.

This one has a lockable drawer at the bottom. They sometimes have cubbies inside.

Boxes for Trinkets, Sewing, Hair Ornaments, Dressing Items

Boxes of all shapes and sizes were made to suit individual tastes and needs. Look for interesting designs, personal touches, clever use of the insides. They are infinitely fascinating!

Band Boxes, or wallpaper covered boxes were used to store hats, ribbons, buttons, collars, and other small cloth items. These are extremely collectible and vary widely in size and condition. The tiny ones are particularly desirable - they were originally used to store buttons, pins, pills, and other tiny items. There are a lot of reproductions around, so look for early paper, newspaper linings with dates, etc.

Boxes for Pipes, Snuff and Spirits

Pipe boxes, like the one above, are fun to collect. They are tall and narrow with an open top. Useful in many ways. Look for old paint, square nails.

There are specialized boxes meant to hold liquor bottles, but most are European or Victorian, so I don't pay them a lot of attention. The same goes for little snuff boxes, which can be quite charming, but the nicer ones are not American.

Endless Possibilities

You can find boxes for lots of other specific purposes - ones that were created to hold a specific game, or special tools. The fun is finding them and then imagining how they were used, and what the maker intended with dividers, sections, lids, and so forth.

Look for early pieces that are hand made, not machine made boxes. Square or rose head nails, dovetailed or mitered corners that are hand made, original surfaces, wear in places that make sense. Craftsmanship is important - the more finely made the better, although very primitive items often have more charm.

The bottom line is, find boxes that appeal to you and for which you have a purpose. You can never have enough storage boxes!

Happy hunting,


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