Antique Jewel Boxes as Souvenirs

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Jewelry boxes have long been treasured, for they have held precious items—sometimes valuable in themselves, sometimes valuable for their memories. Throughout history, jewelry boxes were designed and constructed by craftsmen–one jewelry box at a time—each a unique piece reflecting the style of the time and locale.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, all this changed, and the concept of mass production was avidly adopted in the United States during the late 19th century. With the prosperity of the late 1890s came a quickening pace of competition in the jewelry, silverware and art metal wares industry. So, for the first time, metal objects like jewelry boxes could be manufactured in quantity and were, therefore, less costly to produce.

The Industrial Revolution also encouraged the development of the middle class in America who was now also able to purchase decorative items, not just the essentials. At the same time, middle-class citizens aspired to own beautiful items like those possessed by the upper classes; American ladies aspired to the “high style” of the world’s great cities like London and Paris.

International travel and trade had brought attention to new decorative styles from all over the world. One of these decorative influences, now called The Victorian Period, was immensely popular in the United States, c1880-1900+, and was well known for its eclectic taste and captivation with trinkets. The end of the 19th century and early 20th century saw an increase in travel abroad by Americans, as well as increased travel to points of interest within the United States.

To profit from these changes in traveling, American entrepreneurs created “Expositions.” An Exposition was really a trade fair with the primary purpose of providing an opportunity for advertising products and exchanging scientific, cultural and industrial ideas. These Fairs were very popular tourist destinations, providing a “world view” never before imagined and spurring an interest in and enthusiasm for collecting.

All these factors combined—increased travel and discretionary spending, a desire for beautiful items not previously available to the “average” American woman, and the manufacture of “objets d’art” priced as trinkets—encouraged travelers to purchase mementos of their journeys. This gave rise to the Souvenir Jewelry Box, and the sale of jewelry boxes, as souvenirs became a phenomenon.

These excerpts from “My Lady’s Jewel Box,” an article written by Alice Benedict in 1899, demonstrate the value placed on jewelry boxes and their contents:

“My lady’s jewel box, if chosen by herself, will quite probably give expression to some of the tastes and characteristics of its owner. It may be a richly embossed square or oblong silver casket….. Still another style of jewel box, well established in favor, is the heart shaped affair of silver, which ranges from a considerable size down to the tiniest of ring and trinket holders…… In briefly noting the contents of an equipped jewel box there is no question of the article with which the chronicler must begin. It cannot be other than the ring, around which clusters so much of the sentiment and romance of jewelry tradition, which has never been more profusely elegantly worn in this country than today. For though modified in appearance somewhat from time to time by the vagaries of ever changing fashion, the ring yet defies them all and, with its endless round, remains essentially the same, always beloved of womankind.” 

Also called “jewel cases,” “caskets” and occasionally “trinket boxes,” souvenir jewelry boxes were usually made of cast metal and finished (or plated) with gold, silver or copper. They were available in all sizes—from the smallest ring box to handkerchief and even glove-size boxes! Often they were decorated as beautifully on the bottoms as they were on the tops so as to reflect on a lady’s vanity mirror. Jewelry boxes were lined with fine pale-colored silk. Its lustrous fiber and enduring allure unceasingly captured the fancy of the American woman and explains its prolific use in jewelry boxes of the period.

There were several American manufacturers in the art metal and jewelry trades that designed and produced jewelry boxes. Kronheimer & Oldenbusch (K&O), in particular, frequently advertised their line of souvenir goods. But other enterprising firms such as Jennings Brothers, Brainard & Wilson, and Weidlich Brothers also found it to their advantages to capitalize on the souvenir business. The advertising and sale of souvenir jewelry boxes became an important component of the decorative art metal business during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The following is one example of a typical advertisement of the time:

“1906. The ELEMENT of LOCAL PRIDE: as expressed in SOUVENIRS—

Every locality has some good reason for self-congratulation. Some historic associations, picturesque features, old land-marks or notable edifices constitute appropriate subjects for local pride. Souvenir articles representing such associations are sure to be purchased by visitors or presented by local residents to their guests……..All of our souvenirs possess the double value of being very attractive and desirable in themselves while also having the interest of a Memento.”

Fortunately, we can still discover and collect examples of these 100-year-old decorative treasures.

Joanne Wiertella is author of The Jewel Box Book. The Definitive Guide to American Art Metal Jewelry Boxes 1900-1925.; 734/426-8346.

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