Some of the better Victorian and Edwardian jewellery boxes are today more collectable than the trinkets they were made to contain
Victorians, and particularly Victorian ladies, loved to put things in boxes, which were custom-made to contain snuff, pills, pins, tea, cosmetics, gloves, cards or a host of other things. The boxes were decorated for display and were to be found on virtually every surface in the house.
Pride of place in the bedroom was reserved for jewel boxes. Jewellery, particularly costume jewellery, was being increasingly worn throughout the 19th century. The average middle-class woman had to have pieces hat not only matched a particular dress or marked an occasion but also signalled the status and wealth of the wearer.
The best jewellery was kept in the specially shaped protective boxes in which it was sold. These were usually made of wood and covered with stamped and textured leather. The insides
were lined with velvet or silk.
Other pieces were stored together in a jewel or trinket box. Early ones were variations on the medieval casket, a small, portable chest with a
lock and a domed lid. Betraying their medieval inspiration, they were made from heavily carved wood, usually oak.
During the 19th century, jewel boxes were increasingly made in other materials, including pewter, silver, tin, earthenware, silver gilt, and papier mache. Wood, though, remained the most important base material. The best examples were made from expensive timbers such as figured walnut, rosewood and sandalwood. The insides of these boxes were lined with silk, velvet or satin, and many were fitted out with compartments and drawers for brooches, rings, earrings and so on.
Their shape varied, but generally speaking the domed lid gave way to a flatter one which was much easier to decorate, usually with inlay of contrasting veneers, and sometimes coloured stones, mother-of-pearl or tortoiseshell. Tunbridge ware and ceramic tiles were also used. Lacquerwork and paintwork featuring
chinoiserie designs of flowers, birds and scenery were popular choices for decorating papier-mache boxes. So handsome were many of these jewel boxes that they were handed down from generation to generation along with the jewellery.
Although jewellery and trinkets were usually kept in boxes, small cabinets with fitted drawers, often secured with side-hinged lockable doors, made a pleasing alternative. The array ofl9thand 20th-century pieces above includes cabinets finished with parquetry, stain and veneers, and boxes
of gilt and enamelled metal, lacquer and plastic, among others.
Victorian jewellery and trinket boxes can turn up in all sorts of places. As so many of them were handed down through families, a look round relatives' dressing tables may yield something of interest or a starting point for a collection. Remember that many boxes may have changed their purpose over the years, and that old trinket boxes might well be holding sewing materials or bundles of love letters rather than jewels. Antiques and bric-a-brac shops and stalls are also likely hunting grounds. At auction sales are the best source if you're looking for really decorative items or those with a known history.
CASTLES AND CABINETS
So great was the variety of boxes made in the 19th century, that it can be difficult to specialise and still build up a collection. One interesting possibility, though, is novelty boxes. Some of these were made in the shapes of miniature houses or tiny castles. Other
attractive examples had hinged doors on the front which revealed charmingly decorated chests of drawers when opened.
The condition of a box is particularly important in what are essentially decorative pieces. Check carefully for missing pieces of veneer, mother-of-pearl or other inlay. The hinges should be original and secure; if not, this must be reflected in the price. The same goes for locks and keys.
Make sure that all the drawers and compartments inside the box are in good order, and that there are no scuff marks on the lining to betray the position of a compartment that has gone missing. Torn linings can be replaced, but original ones, even if they're less than perfect, are more desirable.
When displaying your collection, remember to keep all boxes, but particularly ones which have wooden, leather, paint or lacquer finishes, out of strong sunlight and away from extremes of heat or damp.