Tuesday, February 2, 2016
QUESTION: I recently attended an upscale antiques show in my area. While there, I came across a beautiful wooden box filled with little jars with silver lids and other containers. The dealer called it a “Gentleman’s Box.” I had never heard the term before. In fact, the box looked like a deluxe traveling toiletry box. Can you tell me where the term Gentleman’s Box originated? Is it the same as an early men’s toiletry box?
ANSWER: Some antiques dealers lump all sorts of men’s traveling boxes into one category—the Gentleman’s Box. However, like the word “vintage” that’s so often misused on eBay and in many middle-market antique shops, it doesn’t apply to every box used by gentlemen in the 18th and 19th century.
A true Gentleman’s Box refers to a wealthy man’s dressing case, which carried toiletries and other small personal items a gentleman might need when traveling. Sometimes, the term can also be applied to fancy wooden boxes containing small bottles of liquor or wine.
Towards the end of the 18th century, upper class gentlemen carried dressing cases with them when they traveled. These cases were originally utilitarian but they’re fine design and craftsmanship showed off their owners’ wealth and place in society, as at that time, only the very wealthy could afford to travel.
Gentleman’s dressing cases contained bottles and jars for colognes, aftershaves, and creams as well as essential shaving and manicure tools. As these boxes became more popular, makers came up with other items to include in them. By the early Victorian era, when ladies began to travel, the exteriors, veneered with exotic woods, such as calamander, rosewood, burl walnut, satinwood and mahogany, and often was inlaid with contrasting wood or mother-of-pearl, or abalone.
The Gentleman’s Box had an expensive fitted interior, often set in tiers with pull-out drawers and many compartments. The top, removable tier often contained cut-glass toilet jars and bottles with engraved silver mounts and covers. There were also separate holders and layers to hold the toilet accessories, such as scissors, steel nail-files, buttonhooks and penknives.
The inside of the cover sometimes had a framed mirror, and the base had a secret drawer released by a spring catch or button on the top of the box inside. Few people could have been deceived by this, however, since it was really meant to prevent the drawer from opening while the box, itself, was closed. An alternative to the brass button or catch was the use of a chained brass pin which slid into a retaining hole for the secret drawer.
Most of these boxes were around 12 inches wide and 10 inches deep. The height varied, as some had multiple drawers that made them look like miniature chests. The more luxurious ones incorporated a writing box and a sometimes a compartment to hold basic tea-making equipment.
Weight and size were unimportant, for not only did gentlemen travel with their servants on coaches and trains, but there were plenty of porters waiting to help at railway stations.
A mother-of-pearl or brass plaque in the center of the lid was usually engraved with the initials of the owner. Wealthy gentlemen often purchased these boxes as status symbols of their wealth rather than as actual traveling pieces.
Gentlemen’s Boxes are usually pricey, selling for upper four figures. Most have been kept in very good condition or have been professionally restored.