Pretty Little Boxes

In the days before designer labels and expensive electronics, the personal items that communicated one's status to the world were all the little functional things that people kept on and around them. The more decorative they were, the better. Our Collection of Sterling Silver includes a number of charming examples of just such lovely little pieces.

One of the most common personal items throughout the 18th and 19th centuries was a little box to contain one's stash of tobacco of one sort or another. Snuff boxes came first, and then the cigarette case. Snuff (powdered tobacco) arrived on the European continent with the returning party of Christopher Columbus's second voyage to the New World. Catherine de Medici is credited with popularizing snuff in Europe after she found it to be useful in treating her persistent headaches (perhaps a side effect of her ten children?).

Taking snuff was common practice for both men and women of any social station. The cheapest snuff boxes were made of potato starch. But for those who needed to impress their well-to-do peers, only a finely decorated silver snuff box would do.

fullsizeoutput_59An Antique Russian Silver Gilt Snuff Box

By the end of the 19th century, cigarettes were beginning to become the preferred method of nicotine delivery. Once the cigarette-making machine was invented at the end of the century, the social smoker had access to a stash of ready-rolled cigarettes. Which, of course, needed a pretty home, especially if they were going to be produced in polite company.

fullsizeoutput_5aAn Equestrian Motif Sterling Silver Cigarette Case

Women of the upper classes did not generally smoke cigarettes until around the two World Wars. Before this time, men would retire after dinner to smoke together. So earlier fashionable cigarette cases were more often decorated with masculine themes like the hunting scene above. But once women did publicly take up the habit of smoking, its coarseness was softened by a beautiful cigarette case.

Of course, if one did smoke, one's cigarettes were not going to light themselves. And so tobacco gave rise to yet another decorative personal item - a lighter or match case. Match cases can be identified by a ridged area used to strike the match, as seen below on a pig-shaped match safe to which at some point was added a rhinoceros's horn. Apparently a pig did not make the kind of statement that its owner desired.


A Brass Pig Form Match Safe

Just as they did for snuff and cigarettes, it seems that dainty silver accessories were a way to take the edge off any number of gentle vices that might otherwise have been deemed unsavory in socially delicate times. Our sale includes a number of examples of women's compacts and vanity pieces. Cosmetics were publicly considered a vulgar tool of prostitutes for centuries, but there were still masks, powders and scents that women used quietly at home and needed to store in pretty bottles. And when make up finally became more acceptable at the beginning of the 20th century, a classy compact or lipstick case eased the transition.

fullsizeoutput_5cThree Sterling Silver Vanity Accessories

And then, of course, there's alcohol. Needing to take a nip in public, outside of meal times, might to this day cause some sideways glances socially, not to mention the long legal roller coaster that has been this country's relationship with drinking, in public and otherwise. But in a certain time and place, if a gentleman or lady produced an engraved silver and cut glass flask for a discreet sip, surely that was more acceptable than the old bottle and paper bag?

flaskAn Unger Bros. Sterling Silver & Cut Glass Flask

Little decorative accessories found their place in our lives for years, in every form and function. From pill boxes to desk accoutrements, status symbol or not, they added an element of beauty to the otherwise mundane.

View the complete Collection of Sterling Silver

Content created by the Leland Little editorial team