Antique Boxes: What's Inside?

By: Carly Hill, Staff Writer • Jan 24, 2012 • 0 Comments

“People are fascinated with boxes because they want to see what’s inside…” – Sally Kaltman of Sallea Antiques

What’s the Appeal?

The longer you live, the more “stuff” you accumulate.  As you collect your precious loot, you end up finding some sort of system to store it – even if your system is having no system at all.  You may simply end up with piles of clutter everywhere and embrace being an “organized mess.”  You may go to Wal-Mart and buy a bunch of plastic bins, transforming your messy home into what looks like a craft store or medical supply closet.  Or (hint: this is the best choice), you can opt for the elegance and beauty of antique boxes.  Antique boxes are not just for storing your things, though.  Their beauty and matchless craftsmanship make them a decorative piece like any other antique that can simply stand alone as a decoration, with no particular function at all.

Sally Kaltman, owner of Sallea Antiques says she’s confident that her business will continue to flourish because people will always need somewhere to put their things.  Her store’s motto is “Boxes are our business.”  She carries antique boxes from the 17th, 18th, and 19th century.  Sally grew up in Georgia, went to the University of Michigan and worked as an interior decorator before she got into the antiques business.  Running her store, she still gets to help people with decorating when they come in to shop and want advice about where to place their new pieces.  Plus, she gets to travel all over the world to find these treasures.  Sally gets most of her inventory from England and France, but she has also gotten some of the boxes her store carries from trips to Africa, Scandinavia, and Russia.  Her store has boxes from all kinds of other places as well - China, Italy, India, all over the world. 

Sally said, “People are fascinated with boxes because they want to see what’s inside!  People come into my store and the first thing they do is open the boxes.  Open, open, open, open, and open!  The contents are all so diverse.” 

More Than Just a Container

There are almost endless varieties of antique boxes.  In the 18th century, there were different boxes made for every type of item you could imagine.  Sally walked through her store and rattled off the many types of boxes she has available. 

Sallea Antiques carries an English tortoise shell box with ivory trim, about 12 inches long, containing inside a fish knife and fish fork made of sterling silver.  There is a cosmetic box with a mirror in the lid, and all of the original bottles with silver tops and cut crystal.  There are jewelry boxes, cigar humidors, writing boxes, sewing boxes – filled with needles and pins, brass tobacco boxes that look like shoes (there was a time when everyone did snuff), needle boxes, game boxes, thimble boxes, ivory or tortoise shell toothpick boxes (that house gold or silver toothpicks), peppermint boxes – which were given as a wedding gift to couples in Holland, stationary boxes, perfume boxes with perfume bottles included, French Cav de Liquor boxes (small liquor cabinets) containing decanters, and liquor glasses,  gun boxes for rifles or pistols, and even crystal card cases.  People once carried crystal card cases where they would keep their calling cards.  When you went to someone’s house, it was customary to put your calling card into a little tray to announce that you were there.  Sallea even has POW boxes!  After Napoleonic war, French prisoners were held in English prisons and many of them made a living by making boxes out of bone.  Sally carries three of these in her store – one made for dominoes. 

These antique boxes are made of everything from crystal to wood to mother of pearl.  They are truly treasure boxes, whether or not they contain any additional “treasure.”

Tea Caddies

The most popular boxes you’ll find are tea caddies.  Back in the 18th century, only the rich could drink tea.  Tea was kept in a lock box so that the servants couldn’t get to it and the woman of the house would keep the key on her chain.  The boxes usually contained two compartments – one for black tea and one for green tea.  A larger tea container for those who wanted to store more at once was called a tea chest.  However, once tea got cheaper, the use of tea caddies diminished.  Because tea was so precious, tea caddies were made of precious materials such as ivory, tortoise shell, and inlaid wood.  Many times the caddies were in the form of fruits – made to look like apples, pears, melons, etc. These designs are rare and can fetch up to $15,000. Sallea carries 150 to 200 18th century tea caddies.

Writing Boxes

From Sally’s experience, writing boxes are the second most popular item.  Antique writing boxes used to house writing utensils have been around for centuries, but by the end of the 18th century, due to socio-economic troubles in England, these writing boxes began doubling as lap desks. Writing boxes are also called “writing slopes” or “portable desks.”  Many writing boxes are small enough to be carried and were used by travelers.  At Sallea, writing boxes are attached to a contemporary base, so the box can be used as a small table or chest.  Most are made of wood or wood veneer.

Jewelry Boxes

Another popular item is, of course, the jewelry box.  Jewelry boxes have been around for ages.  Prior to the 19th century, jewelry boxes were handmade out of materials such as wood, fabric, bronze, silver, and gold.    Egyptians used ebony, calcite, faience, gilt, and ivory.  Romans used wood, ivory, bronze, and fine metals.  Asians used wood and china – sometimes covered in silk.  Native Americans primarily used cedar.  The Industrial Revolution brought about mass production, which meant items were cheaper.  This meant that more people could afford jewelry boxes - once considered a luxury.  Some jewelry boxes are small – used to encase one item of jewelry.  Others expand with drawers and mirrors and are used to house an entire jewelry collection. 

The most common materials in antique jewelry boxes are wood, crystal, tortoise shell, ivory, mother of pearl.  This is one of the factors that make antique boxes so valuable.  The other factor that makes them valuable is that they are one of a kind.  At Sallea Antiques, you’ll find well-made, hand crafted, old boxes that have held up for centuries.  Not only are they functional, they also add grace and taste to your home.

Decorating with Boxes

Phoebe Howard, a decorator quoted in a article says of decorating with boxes, “It’s a craze that never seems to die.”

Stacking larger antique boxes on the floor, or placing smaller ones on shelves adds depth and dimension to any space.  Something else you can do with larger antique boxes is to create a makeshift table. 

You can spruce up your more informal rooms by adding antique boxes.  Place some in your kitchen – on the table or counter space, or add some to the shelves of your den.  Get creative!  Even antique storage boxes can be put together with the openings facing outward to create a rustic and eclectic bookcase. 

If you purchase a specific type of box, such as a cosmetic box, you can use it as bathroom décor.  French cosmetic boxes, in particular, are very elaborate.  Many English cosmetic boxes are bound in brass and contain silver topped cut crystal bottles, also manicure and sewing tools with mother of pearl or ivory handles, jewelry drawers, a mirror, and a letter compartment.  You can place an open cosmetic box on a small table in your powder room.  Even if the box doesn’t contain every original item, they still make a beautiful statement in your bathroom or powder room.

Sallea Antiques is the longest established specialist in antique boxes of all types and shapes in the United States.  Visit Sally’s Latique profile and link to her site to read more about antique boxes, view her selection, and pick out your favorites.



Happy Latiquing!


Interview with Sally Kaltman of Sallea Antiques