1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Box

BOX (Gr. πύξος, Lat. buxus, box-wood; cf. πύξις, a pyx), the most varied of all receptacles. A box may be square, oblong, round or oval, or of an even less normal shape; it usually opens by raising, sliding or removing the lid, which may be fastened by a catch, hasp or lock. Whatever its shape or purpose or the material of which it is fashioned, it is the direct descendant of the chest, one of the most ancient articles of domestic furniture. Its uses are infinite, and the name, preceded by a qualifying adjective, has been given to many objects of artistic or antiquarian interest.

Of the boxes which possess some attraction beyond their immediate purpose the feminine work-box is the commonest. It is usually fitted with a tray divided into many small compartments, for needles, reels of silk and cotton and other necessaries of stitchery. The date of its introduction is in considerable doubt, but 17th-century examples have come down to us, with covers of silk, stitched with beads and adorned with embroidery. In the 18th century no lady was without her work-box, and, especially in the second half of that period, much taste and elaborate pains were expended upon the case, which was often exceedingly dainty and elegant. These boxes are ordinarily portable, but sometimes form the top of a table.

But it is as a receptacle for snuff that the box has taken its most distinguished and artistic form. The snuff-box, which is now little more than a charming relic of a disagreeable practice, was throughout the larger part of the 18th century the indispensable companion of every man of birth and breeding. It long survived his sword, and was in frequent use until nearly the middle of the 19th century. The jeweller, the enameller and the artist bestowed infinite pains upon what was quite as often a delicate bijou as a piece of utility; fops and great personages possessed numbers of snuff-boxes, rich and more ordinary, their selection being regulated by their dress and by the relative splendour of the occasion. From the cheapest wood that was suitable—at one time potato-pulp was extensively used—to a frame of gold encased with diamonds, a great variety of materials was employed. Tortoise-shell was a favourite, and owing to its limpid lustre it was exceedingly effective. Mother-of-pearl was also used, together with silver, in its natural state or gilded. Costly gold boxes were often enriched with enamels or set with diamonds or other precious stones, and sometimes the lid was adorned with a portrait, a classical vignette, or a tiny miniature, often some choice work by an old master. After snuff-taking had ceased to be general it lingered for some time among diplomatists, either because—as Talleyrand explained—they found a ceremonious pinch to be a useful aid to reflection in a business interview, or because monarchs retained the habit of bestowing snuff-boxes upon ambassadors and other intermediaries, who could not well be honoured in any other way. It is, indeed, to the cessation of the habit of snuff-taking that we may trace much of modern lavishness in the distribution of decorations. To be invited to take a pinch from a monarch’s snuff-box was a distinction almost equivalent to having one’s ear pulled by Napoleon. At the coronation of George IV. of England, Messrs Rundell & Bridge, the court jewellers, were paid £8205 for snuff-boxes for foreign ministers. Now that the snuff-box is no longer used it is collected by wealthy amateurs or deposited in museums, and especially artistic examples command large sums. George, duke of Cambridge (1819–1904), possessed an important collection; a Louis XV. gold box was sold by auction after his death for £2000.

A jewel-box is a receptacle for trinkets. It may take a very modest form, covered in leather and lined with satin, or it may reach the monumental proportions of the jewel cabinets which were made for Marie Antoinette, one of which is at Windsor, and another at Versailles, the work of Schwerdfeger as cabinet-maker, Degault as miniature-painter, and Thomire as chaser.

A strong-box is a receptacle for money, deeds and securities. Its place has been taken in modern life by the safe. Some of those which have survived, such as that of Sir Thomas Bodley in the Bodleian library, possess locks with an extremely elaborate mechanism contrived in the under-side of the lid.

The knife-box is one of the most charming of the minor pieces of furniture which we owe to the artistic taste and mechanical ingenuity of the English cabinet-makers of the last quarter of the 18th century. Some of the most elegant were the work of Adam, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. Occasionally flat-topped boxes, they were most frequently either vase-shaped, or tall and narrow with a sloping lid necessitated by a series of raised stages for exhibiting the handles of knives and the bowls of spoons. Mahogany and satinwood were the woods most frequently employed, and they were occasionally inlaid with marqueterie or edged with boxwood. These graceful receptacles still exist in large numbers; they are often converted into stationery cabinets.

The Bible-box, usually of the 17th century, but now and again more ancient, probably obtained its name from the fact that it was of a size to hold a large Bible. It often has a carved or incised lid.

The powder-box and the patch-box were respectively receptacles for the powder and the patches of the 18th century; the former was the direct ancestor of the puff-box of the modern dressing-table.

The étui is a cylindrical box or case of very various materials, often of pleasing shape or adornment, for holding sewing materials or small articles of feminine use. It was worn on the châtelaine.