The most common material used in box construction is wood but other materials such as: marble, porcelain, ivory, gold, silver, horn, and tortoiseshell have also been used. While some boxes are simple and robust, others exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship much of which has now been lost.
Boxes reflect both the practical needs of their owners, such as housing their needlework, medicines and jewellery as well as their leisure needs. In the seventeenth century the importation of tobacco into Europe led to the creation of highly ornate snuff, cigarette, cigar, and tobacco boxes. Other highly worked boxes included boxes for holding a gambler's cards and boxes for holding small facial patches used to cover pock-marks.
Miniature boxes which were carried on the person were regarded as fashion accessories in much the same was as jewellery was used. Because of this they often reflect changes in the design and fashion increasing their historical significance. The majority of early European small boxes were made for two purposes, to hold snuff or carry scent, and their value and beauty reflected the status of their owners.
In the eighteenth century miniature boxes used to hold fermented, ground, and flavoured tobacco, or 'snuff', became popular with both men and women. Snuff is reputed to have originated in Brazil, where the dry tobacco leaves were rubbed between pieces of fragrant wood to permeate the powder. The taking of snuff is said to have been first introduced to Europe through the court of Catherine de Medici in the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century lower prices increased the number of people using snuff and this in turn led to a decline in the ostentatious use of snuff boxes among the wealthy.
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, April 2008
MacGregor, A., 'Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman period', Barnes and Noble Books, New Jersey, 1985.
Mossman, S., (ed.), Early Plastics; perspectives, 1850-1950, Leicester University Press, London, 1997
Schaverien, A., 'Horn, its History and its Uses', Everbest Printing Co., 2006
Mossman, S., Morris, P. J. T., (eds.), 'The Development of Plastics', Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 1993
Klamkin, M., 'The Collector's Book of Boxes', Redwood Press, London, England, 1972
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