The World of Work Boxes

I was researching a post on painted “fancy chairs” from the Federal era and after when I got distracted by a great book and its subject matter: Betsy Krieg Salm’s Women’s Painted Furniture, 1790-1830 (University Press of New England, 2010) caught my eye in the library for numerous reasons (it’s a beautiful book, I love painted furniture, the era coincides with Salem’s golden age, so I knew I’d find some good stuff in it), but once I opened it I could not put it down. The result of three decades of research by the author (who is an ornamental artist herself), the book is art history, social history, education history, cultural history, world history all at the same time.

The subtitle, American Schoolgirl Art, is particularly appropriate as this book is about training, expectations, and influences as well as the motifs which decorate the furniture. I had never really considered the distinct genre of “schoolgirl art” and now I’m curious about its place in other eras and cultures. Lots of painted pieces are examined in Salm’s book, but my favorite by far are the work boxes produced by young women from relatively wealthy families, like Salem’s own Mary Derby Prince, the daughter of a Salem ship captain, with connections by blood and marriage to two of Salem’s most commercially aristocratic families, the Derbys and the Ropes. Another Salem box from the same era (and milieu) is that of Hannah Crowninshield, from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. Have I ever seen this before?  I don’t think so, but I could have walked right by it. I am familiar with samplers, of course, and the various types of wooden, decorated boxes produced for documents and other materials, but somehow I have never put the two together in the form of a work box, produced by young women as both an example of their work and for their work. Here are some of my favorites from the book:

Work Box by Ann Trask, Rowson Academy, Boston, circa 1810-20. Collection of Old Sturbridge Village.

Lid of Work Box by Hannah Bland, Massachusetts, circa 1810-30. Private Collection.

Detail of Lobstermen from Work Box of Fanny Barber, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1821. Private Collection.

These boxes are so charming and so reflective of the environments in which these girls lived and worked, as well as the more general cultural influences to which they were exposed.  A little bit more context, for both American schoolgirl art and (transatlantic) work boxes in the first half of the nineteenth century:  a concise yet substantive article about the curriculum and culture at the Misses’ Martin’s School in Portland, Maine, and a few images of professionally-made work boxes from the British Empire. The first box is a particularly expensive example, with leather covering, silk lining, brass fittings, and custom-made sewing and needlework accessories, from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Work Box, England, circa 1815. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

These last two “cottage” work boxes are both examples of Tunbridge ware, even though they were made in places thousands of miles apart:  southeast England and India. Tunbridge ware is the very intricate type of inlaid woodwork that emerged in the vicinity of Tunbridge Wells, Kent in the eighteenth century, characterized by the creation of mosaic patterns with different colored woods, and sometimes other materials. Tunbridge ware designs influenced American decoration and obviously Asian as well, as the second work box, made of wood veneered with ivory, was made in India around 1790-1800.

Tunbridge ware painted sewing box, early 19th century, Bleasdales Ltd.

Ivory-veneered Work Box, Vishakhapatnam, India, circa 1790-1800. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


12 responses to “The World of Work Boxes

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