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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

There's Nothing Like a Good Early Wall Box

My current favorite thing to find is a good, early New England wall box in old paint or an original surface They make my heart leap. I find good ones completely hard to resist.

I'm not sure why this is my current obsession. They are often beautiful, but more often, quite simple. They come in all shapes and sizes, and were made for different uses. They are practical - you can display things, store things, or just look at them.

I hang them wherever I have a spot. I think this one on the left was the first one I ever bought. It is a simple form, old pewter paint, and was used originally to hold soap, hung near the kitchen sink. It is only 5" across and I have squeezed it between 2 light sockets in my kitchen.

So why did the early settlers make boxes to hang on the wall? There doesn't seem to be much of a practical reason too have one today. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries they were a necessity.

Mice and children were the primary reasons. Anything left on the floor or on a table was fair game for the mice that inhabited every house. They particularly loved soap, candles, grains, and probably lots of other things. A box hung on a wall was the safest way to keep them from invading.

This was meant for long tallow candles. Some candle boxes were divided to house different sizes of candles. This one is about 14" long. The shape made it easy to reach in and get one. They often hung near the hearth, so the candles could be lighted easily.

Toward the second quarter of the 19th century candle boxes were made out of tin, and they were lidded. This was better insurance. But before this time they were made of wood.

Matches weren't invented until the middle of the 19th century, and since they were a danger for children, they were often put in little tin boxes near where they were needed.

This is a painted tin match box, and it's always been a favorite of mine because of the color. It's only about 3" across.

Before matches were available tinder boxes held strikers and wicks, but they were never wall boxes. They were covered tightly, though.

The easiest way to light a candle was the hearth, which was going in the kitchen all year round.

Salt was derived from sea water in New England, and from mineral deposits elsewhere. Every home had some. When it arrived in the home it was coarse in texture and was ground in a mortar and pestle.

Because it was susceptible to moisture it was often stored in a hanging box with a slanted lid.

The "saltbox" house is an 18th century New England form which had a slanting roof toward the back. It was named after the box that held salt, although that was a 20th century term!

The salt box was usually hung in the kitchen, adjacent to the heat of the fireplace.

I'm not sure why the lid was slanted, but it always was for salt, which was used not just as a seasoning, but for brining meat for the winter.

Tall, skinny boxes were made to hold clay pipes. Some had drawers at the bottom. This is one I found in Vermont many years ago.

The simple wall box was created for utilitarian purposes, but that doesn't mean the makers weren't creative. The ones that are most intriguing to me are those that have unusual form, particularly the backs. Here are a few that I find most interesting:

The one on the upper left is a Hudson Valley box which I bought from a dealer friend many years ago. It hangs in my kitchen and has had everything from napkins to note cards to junk in it. I love the one on the upper right because of the color and the little designs on it. On the bottom left is an odd one - the front is probably where the little ovals are, but the back is lower. Very odd and fascinating. The one on the right is of Connecticut origin and is so great -both form and color.

This little one is a soap holder. Love the color. Note the high back to keep the soap from rubbing on the wall.

The most sought after and the hardest to find are the double and triple wall boxes, especially in early paint. (I'm referring to ones that are hand made with hand cut nails, not newer ones.)

I looked for several years until if found this one at a show in Vermont several years ago. It hangs in my keeping room, filled with candles and a little bowl. I love looking at it.

Some boxes have very distinctive backs that make them stand out. These 3 are all from Connecticut - the arched tombstone back is the giveaway.

Some wall boxes are large and have drawers, usually a slanted top. These were not used for salt, but likely to store letters and writing implements. The slanted top was the writing surface.

They hung on the wall to save desk space. They would be brought down to a table for use.

The wall box is not uniquely American, nor is it especially a New England form. But American ones are easy to spot. Those from Pennsylvania were often decorated with bright colors and birds, and flowers. European ones have a very different look, and are often not made of wood.

My preference is for the simple New England wall box, which as you can see, was often not that simple in form. Function is another story - they were used for essential reasons and just for stuff.

When looking for a wall box, note the nails - they should be hand cut - square or unevenly round, and you will often see small differences in the symmetry since they were made by hand. These will date from about 1780 until 1860.

I hope you find wall boxes that make you smile!



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