A Case for Boxes
In this gallery American boxes from the late seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth century have been brought together, and for the most part they are from the collection of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little. A detailed description of them can be found in Mrs. Little's Neat and Tidy, a copy of which is kept for reference in the gallery; other copies can be purchased in the Museum shop.
The oldest boxes in the gallery have been stacked on a seventeenth century carved Connecticut chest against the far wall to the left of the portrait. Not unlike their carved counterparts displayed on top of the Hadley chest in the previous gallery, they are representative of different regional schools of decoration. During the next century and a half, it will be increasingly dificult to define regional schools owing to increased mobility and a broad dissemination of ideas through common printed sources. A case in point is the work of the unidentified itinerant artist who decorated the wooden wall fragment en grisaille with owl and the small dome-top box with bird, both of which are displayed on the wall opposite the seventeenth century boxes. In the course of his travels around 1800 this unknown artist decorated interiors and furniture in New York State, Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Perhaps today the best known of all the itinerant decorative painters active at the end of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century is Rufus Porter: numerous documented examples of his painted interiors can still be seen throughout northern New England. In view of the fact that Porter published a slim volume on Concord, New Hampshire, in the 1820s, which he revealed many of his decorative techniques, his work was often imitated. Most characteristic of his work is the incorporation of sponge-like trees in his landscapes, which were for the most part painted freehand directly onto the wet plaster, not unlike frescoes. The source of inspiration for his landscapes, as well as town and seascapes, were the scenic wallpapers then being produced in France, and which enjoyed great popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. A rare example of Rufus Porter's painted furniture decorated with a landscape is the box he presented to Pauline Porter, his cousin's wife. It is displayed along with the bandboxes at the opposite end of the room.
Stencils were often used as an alternative to freehand decoration for furniture and wallpaper. Two stenciled dome-top chests can be found directly below the wooden wall fragment. Graining was another popular form of decoration used for interior woodwork and furniture whereby inexpensive woods, such as pine, were made to resemeble a more expensive wood such as mahogany or rosewood. Several grained boxes are exhibited to the left of the wooden wall fragment to illustrate the variety of decorative techniques the grainer had at his disposal. Also a set of grainer's tools are on display in order to make the craft of the grainer more readily comprehensible.
Most of the boxes shown at the other end of the gallery were intended for female use. The tiger maple sewing and keepsake boxes were often decorated with watercolors by girls and young women in female academies which flourished in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. The bandboxes have been displayed as three towering pyramids. The term "bandbox" goes back to the seventeenth century when such boxes were used for storing lace and slightly later narrow linen collar bands. In the early nineteenth century these boxes were manfactured with an eye to serving the storage needs of both men and women, and held "hats, caps, bonnest, shoes, muffs, etc." to quote from the label of the bandbox manufacturer, Avery and Company, 5 Union Street, Boston. Made of wood or cardboard, they were generally covered with brightly colored hand-blocked papers and like the work of Rufus Porter were frequently inspired by scenic French wallpapers. Bandboxes seem to have been especially popular with young women, and indeed became something of a status symbol among the ranks of girls who were attracted to work in the mills by the lure of higher wages.
An alternative to the factory for young men was a life at sea, and a variety of nautical boxes have been grouped at the entrance to this gallery. During their idle hours, keepsake boxes were often made for a sweetheart back home, such as the two dome-top boxes with deeply incised cross-hatching, or the scrimshaw domino box. Loggers in the backwoods of northern New England and Canada filled their free time with carving wooden boxes, in the form of books, as containers for spruce gum, and several of these have been included here as well. A young sailor from Tiverton, Rhode Island even tried his hand at imitating, albeit naively, the straw-decorated boxes then so popular on the Continent.
As the Orient was the principal destination of so many ships in the nineteenth century, it seemed appropriate at this point in the exhibition to include Chinese lacquered hat, shawl, and work boxes, many of which were brought back by on eof the great China Trade merchants from Providence, Edward Carrington. Tea was a mainstay of this trade, and therefore a variety of tea chests have been included, not to mention tea caddies made in the West to accomodate the Eastern product. Although it is one of the smallest objects in the exhibition, the tiny souvenir cardboard tea chest made in 1873 to commemorate the Boston Tea Party of 1773 should not be overlooked.
With the opening of Japan by Admiral Perry for trade with the West in 1853, a new source of exquisitely lacquered objects became available. Late nineteenth century collectors responded by actively collecting in this area with the result that this Museum has become the repository for some extraordinary examples, not the least of which is the seventeenth century bride's chest and the nineteenth century sedan chair. The latter was lovingly restored for this exhibition by two extraordinarily dedicated and highly talented individuals, Ann Saydah and Carolyn Morris.
As the decorative arts of Japan were untainted by the Industrial Revolution in the West, they were inspirational for the Arts and Crafts movement which took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly in England and America, as a means of encouraging individual craftsmen to be creative again and to take pride in their own work. The Providence Art Club served as a nucleus for the Arts and Crafts Movement in Rhode Island, while on nearby Martha's Vineyard it was the sculptor, Enid Yandell, and her Branstock school. Examples of copper and wood boxes from these Arts and Crafts centers are exhibited together by the entrance to C7.
The boxes at the far end of Gallery C9 cover many centuries and countries, come in all shapes and sizes, and are made of a wide variety of materials. The theme which unites them is that they were intended for personal use or pleasure, and that generally they were highly prized possessions of their owners, be it the treasure box which a little girl named Ellen from Boston filled with a highly personal collection of keepsakes to the handsome French document box bound in brass and tooled red leather from the 1820s.
The boxes which have been displayed as if they were sitting on giant building blocks in the center of the gallery are essentially a celebration of strong geometric forms thanks to the arresting profiles and use of dark wood, such as mahogany. Otherwise they have little in common other than the fact that they are, with one exception, English or American, and were made in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Their functions range from a draft drum used for raising troops in Rhode Island during the Civil War to an urn for housing knives and forks on an English Neo-Classical dining room sideboard at the end of the eighteenth century.
The final group of boxes, which are housed between the entrances to Gallery C8 and Gallery C9 are concerned with the ultimate box, otherwise known as a coffin. An eighteenth century coffin is put into the broader context of the funereal art by way of a portrait of a deceased child and a dome-top box decorated with urns and weeping willows. Shadow boxes were also thought highly appropriate as a vehicle for celebrating death, be it a nineteenth century wreath made from hair of the deceased, or the elaborate shadow box depicting the last mass of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI before they were imprisoned. Appropriately enough, the latter box is said to have been made from memory by a fellow prisoner.