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5 of the most popular antique boxes to collect


There are many different types of antique boxes and they represent a great and varied area of collectables for the beginner and more experienced alike. Here we discuss the 5 most collectable pieces and tell you what to look for.

Antique Tea Caddies

In Britain, the tea caddy came about from the need to store newly introduced tea leaves which were a valuable commodity, safely and securely. Tea canisters were often made in pairs, to store both green tea from China and black Indian tea and then stored in a lockable chest with sometimes a third designed to hold sugar. Other caddies would feature compartments with internal lids, in which the tea would be placed directly and some also had drawers, possibly for spoons.

How to identify an antique tea caddy

Look out for antique tea caddies with their original key, internal lids, canisters and drawers that remain intact. Early examples had paper linings to protect the leaves from moisture and were made from a variety of woods, including mahogany, walnut and pine. Later tea caddies were lined with lead and crafted from other materials including ivory, tortoise shell and even papier mâché, while wooden caddies became more decorative with brass inlays and paintings. As pre-packaged tea became more widely available in the 19th century, the demand for tea caddies disappeared. Collectors prefer unrestored and original examples, so look for minor surface damage such as scratches, and wear to the base of the caddy. Linings will be flaking or disintegrating from age and any veneers or marquetry detailing to the exterior may show signs of fading where they have been exposed to sunlight. A restored piece may have feet, handles or hinges that have been replaced.

Antique pill boxes

Originally designed to fulfill a functional purpose, the antique pill box today has become a sought after and decorative collectable. Early pill boxes were crafted from whatever material the maker had to hand and many of the first examples were made from wood, animal bone, ivory, jade and metals including tin and copper. Intended for the bedside table, pill boxes became much smaller in size as ladies began to carry them in their purses. 

Things to look for in an antique pill box

Seasoned collectors covet Chinese pill boxes and those crafted from Italian silver. Others to look for are silver examples in novelty shapes including purses and books. Look carefully when purchasing an antique pill box – often the hand painted artwork on the newly miniaturised boxes did not scale down well, resulting in blurred lines and disproportionate figures. This almost sloppy detailing can also sometimes be seen in enamel work and engravings on boxes.

Antique Sewing Boxes

Prior to mass produced clothing, sewing was a part of everyday life for many, with young girls being taught from an early age. The sewing box was a means to contain tools for the pastime, including scissors, embroidery tools and thread. By the 18th century, early fabric or leather sewing bags were replaced by the sewing box, designed to house the finer tools of high ranking ladies, and crafted from wood, ivory and precious metal, with silk or velvet lining.

18th century sewing boxes

18th century sewing boxes were typically rectangular and often decorated. They were lined with paper and made from mahogany, pine and oak which was often veneered. Some examples featured edgings or crossbandings and others had inlaid cartouches on the lids. Sewing boxes were finished in wax or varnished, and those remaining will have developed a rich patina (if finished in wax) or will show signs of deterioration in the varnish.

Victorian Sewing Boxes

Industrialisation brought an increased demand for cheaper and more practical sewing boxes and a Victorian sewing box was big enough to hold a sewing kit and some handiwork. A sewing box was considered a private space and were often lockable. With the introduction of the sewing machine in 1860, manufacturers released sewing boxes for advertising purposes.

Antique Trinket Boxes

Trinket boxes can be seen from the time of the Ancient Egyptians, as early as 5000 BC.

What is a trinket box?

Trinket boxes are small boxes used to store jewellery, curiosities, and precious objects. They are made of an assortment of materials, including silver, porcelain, ivory, wood, and papier mâché, and were typically kept on dressers or hidden away in larger jewellery boxes or drawers. Early examples, from the 17th and 18th centuries are rare as few people owned enough jewellery to have one. However, by the Victorian and Edwardian periods, owning jewellery was less of a luxury, and the demand for trinket boxes amongst the middle classes increased. These were used for collectables and precious items, hence the term trinket box rather than jewellery box.

Features of antique trinket boxes

Victorian trinket boxes were made in large numbers, making them a collectable item that can be found easily and at a good price for the beginner collector. They were lined with velvet and more elaborate examples featured interior compartments and trays. The outside of an antique trinket box was often decorated, with the décor becoming more ornate as the intended contents became more valuable. Edwardian trinket boxes were often circular or oblong in shape and stood on short, cabriole legs, with lids made from luxury materials such as tortoiseshell.

Antique writing boxes

The portable writing box as we know it today came into its own in the 19th century in military expeditions, travel and in libraries, when it was used for dispatch and letter writing. Prior to the late 18th century, writing boxes featured sloping tops but post 1780, the tops became flat for easier storage when travelling.

Characteristics of antique writing boxes

Writing boxes are found in a variety of woods, including mahogany, walnut and rosewood, with less expensive ones having a pine base veneered with calamander or rosewood. Marquetry was a common way to decorate the writing box and some had brass corner mounts for protection. The interior of the writing box varies too, from simple paper linings, to velvet. Later examples have leather linings. An antique writing box may have interior compartments to accommodate accessories such as stationery, quills and ink and there may also be a secret drawer. The writing desk evolved into the lap desk and featured hinged lids that formed a sloping writing surface when opened, with just one compartment underneath for storage. These are often referred to as writing slopes.

Where to buy antique boxes

When searching for antique boxes for sale, antique centres like Hemswell have a rich vein of examples, with experienced and expert, specialist dealers offering antique tantalus barrels and boxes from every period. Many are available to post for £15 so spend some time browsing our collections online, or treat yourself to a day out and visit our centres in person.

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