The enduring charm of any antique box is the history which surrounds it. Antique jewellery, writing and dressing boxes are an easy introduction into collecting antiques and offer a fascinating insight into the lives of those who first owned them.
When India was under colonial rule, local artisans created pieces of furniture specifically for expatriate residents and traders. Besides cupboards, chests and chest of drawers, small furniture pieces for storage, like writing boxes, dressing boxes, jewellery boxes, cash boxes and more, were created catering to the tastes of the European settlers.
The first colonial writing boxes were made in India in the early part of the 18th century. They had a practical use, as officials were obligated to send regular written communication regarding trade and political developments on a regular basis. As these had to be copied three or four times, these writing and document boxes became almost indispensable items of furniture.
Interior view of office in Madras, India. Credit: RCAHMS (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland)
The writing boxes blended British Regency and Victorian styles with native craftsmanship and typical Indian ornamentation. They are frequently decorated with detailed inlay work of contrasting colours such as ivory and ebony, or elaborate brass mounts in geometric and floral patterns.
Other boxes sometimes open in tiers, to reveal complex arrangements of compartments, sliding shelves and secret drawers that operate with spring mechanisms. These boxes are derived from the Western-style writing box, or escritoire, introduced into India during the East India Company era and used by company employees and private individuals to contain papers and writing materials. The interior has places for pens and inkpots in addition to small areas for other odds and ends.
Indo-Dutch Satinwood & Ebony writing box with writing slope
Anglo-Indian Rosewood Writing Box on stand
The portable personal dressing box was especially popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The increased mobility for social reasons which gathered momentum as the eighteenth century progressed, made this personal accessory indispensable. The need for personal accessories to be kept in easily portable boxes, which gave rise to the writing box, also gave rise to the Vanity box or dressing box.
The dressing box was and still is the ultimate life-style accessory. Not only did it contain in a compact and elegant manner items necessary for personal grooming, the very quality and aesthetic standard of both the box and its contents conferred on the owner the stamp of elegance and distinction.
This became increasingly important as ladies of the higher social echelons made long house visits to the stately homes of their friends. The vanity box would command pride of place on the dressing table, its contents sometimes spread around it for the hostess and other guests to glimpse a hint of the quality of its owner. Far from being a mere container of bottles, it became an exposition of the social status, style ranking and of course wealth.
Perfume Box with Inlay of delicately shaped pieces of brass.
Perfume Box - Original Bottles
The Indian craftsman lavished his imagination on the exterior as well as the interiors of the boxes, each one more intriguing than the other. Ivory was a favourite decorative element, works of exquisite artistry emerging from the hands of the craftsman. The finest ivory inlay and fret-work boxes came from Mysore and Vizakapatanam where these boxes were veneered in ivory and engraved with black lac and mosaics typical to these Indian cities.
Sandelwood box veneered with tortoiseshell and fret-work engraved ivory.
Antique jewellery, writing and dressing boxes are an easy introduction into collecting antiques and offer a fascinating insight into the lives of those who first owned them. They are highly valued today, especially the early designs, and they are extremely collectible. They make wonderful gifts for men and women alike and are very practical as well as highly decorative.
At The Past Perfect Collection, we have writing boxes; dressing boxes, jewellery boxes and even cash boxes to name just a few.
Literature: The Schiffer Book: Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies & Society 1700-1880
Antigone Clarke & Joseph O'Kelly