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VANITY OR DRESSING BOXES
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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.
Most vanity boxes made in the late 18th century were made for men. Thomas Sheraton has an illustration for a lady's travelling box in his 'The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book' dated 1792 which shows a compact multipurpose box with a large section devoted to personal grooming containers. This is reproduced at the beginning of the writing box article. However, very few such boxes were ever made as very few ladies ventured too far from home at that date.
Sometimes the grooming necessities of the army officer or the traveler were accommodated in the drawer, or in a lift out tray of his writing box. They consisted of glass jars topped with silver plated lids, razors, strops and shaving brushes.
Rare brassbound Captains box of beautifully figured mahogany, having a screw-down mechanism. Such boxes are very rare.
They fitted very snugly in prearranged spaces to stop them from moving about whilst in transit.
A Georgian Mahogany Triple Opening Writing Box and Dressing Box circa 1800.
The boxes, which were made just to hold dressing accessories, were more complex. Early ones dating from about 1780 were made in solid mahogany with or without brass bindings; these were not usually longer than ten inches. They were wax finished and had a robust unfussy look.
Inside they usually had a lift out tray where all their flatter jars and dressing tools were fitted. The tray only covered part of the bottom part of the box. Taller bottles were fitted at the back or the side where the box was deeper. Under the tray there was room for brushes. The inside of the lid was covered by an envelope flap in leather. When the flap was opened there was a mirror in a recess of the wooden top.
Most of the bottles were covered by silver plated tops. Occasionally a more special box was made with silver topped bottles. The decoration on the silver was restrained and of very high quality.
During the Regency more glamorous vanity boxes were made in exotic woods and with more intricate decoration. The exteriors were made following the same fashions as for writing boxes but keeping to the smaller size. The Regency vanity boxes were made both for men and women.
Their interiors are lavish with velvet or gold embossed leather linings and flaps. The glass bottles and jars are often in cut crystal and the tops in exquisitely worked silver. Sometimes they have a tray fitted for holding jewellery under the jar tray. By the third decade the jewellery tray was generally replaced by a drawer.
Above is a mid 19th century vanity box. More pictures will be added to this article shortly.
The vanity box really came to its own during the Victorian period when the balance was reversed. By this time most boxes were made for women. By the middle of the 19th century there were two distinctive types of vanity box:
- Rosewood or walnut veneered relatively plain boxes with silver plated top fittings and jewellery drawers or
- Rosewood, figured walnut or coromandel veneered boxes usually brass bound or inlaid, with silver topped jars and bottles.
The silver boxes are on the whole of much higher quality. They were made to show the social standing of the owner and were prized as prestigious travelling accessories.
The French approach was different. The elegant boxes made in the Palais Royal area of Paris are packed tight. There are sometimes places to hide the personal under the bottles. The locks are strange to an English eye and average key.
Most Victorian boxes still have the jewellery drawer arrangement but there are a few examples of boxes with extra drawers and trick openings which epitomise the trend for mechanical devices on compact multipurpose boxes.
A famous firm of box makers, Betjemans, who worked at Islington in London, took out patents for quite ingenious devices for opening up a vanity box to a veritable cornucopia of treasures.
After the 1870s wooden vanity boxes were no longer in great demand. They were replaced by leather cases, which had fitted compartments for jars and bottles on the side.
A dramatic high quality figured walnut dressing box with chassed silver plate top crystal bottles and drop front Circa 1895
Request current list of available dressing boxes.
Jewellery and Glove Boxes © 1999 Antigone Clarke and Joseph O'Kelly
© 1999-2005 Antigone Clarke and Joseph O'Kelly