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Stamp Boxes

These Victorian-Era Bric-a-Brac
Have Become Sought-After Collectibles

By Tony Shaman

Postage stamp boxes, long the purview of stamp collectors, postal historians, and museums, are being discovered by an ever-increasing number of antique lovers. Collectors with a penchant for unusual collectible items are finding that the array of stamp boxes manufactured almost since the introduction of postage stamps in 1840, and continued down to our time, can add an element of excitement and spice to their collecting lives. Admittedly, Victorian-era stamp boxes are difficult to find but it is their scarcity and eye appeal that make the challenge of forming a stamp box collection well worth the effort. Museum curators have long appreciated the art form intrinsic in better quality boxes and have assembled some truly magnificent collections. The Postal Museum in Paris has one such collection; another is housed at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. But individual collectors have not been asleep at the proverbial switch. Much of the Hugen collection, sold at auction, ended up in the Paris museum. It is unfortunate, or fortunate depending on one's point of view, that great collections are broken up and dispersed by auction sales. The fortunate part is that the break-up of all great collections allow new generations of collectors to enjoy their prized acquisitions, some of which may well go on to become the nucleus of exciting new collections.
What is it that makes stamp boxes so attractive for collectors? The answer is multifactorial: they are historically significant, coming on the scene during the Industrial Revolution that, to a great extent, made possible their creation. Stamp boxes also filled a perceived need in the minds of acquisitive-minded Victorians who filled their homes with bric-a-brac made possible by the discretionary incomes of a Middle Class that could afford luxury items not available to earlier generations. For example, postage stamps could just as easily have been stored in a desk drawer, in a lady's purse, or in a gentleman's billfold but stamps boxes were a status symbol that many Victorians chose not to forego. An entrepreneurial class of business people also had great influence on the spending habits of the public and stamp box manufacturers were no exception. Their products, made possible by the technological innovations in metallurgy and new production methods, allowed manufacturers to create ever more attractive and technically more complex products. The first box, specifically designed for dispensing postage stamps, was made of brass that incorporated a container, known as a damper. Because the lid on the damper is not watertight, it is believed that the "damper" attachment was designed to hold a moistened sponge of some sort rather than pure water. Its designers appear to have had great hopes for its success as they went to the trouble of registering the design as "The pocket stamp box damper."

Although the earliest stamp box is believed to have been made of brass, the vast majority of boxes were manufactured from wood. By the time that postage stamps and stamp boxes to house them made their appearance wooden boxes had been available in Europe and Asia for hundreds of years for such objects as perfumes, spices, disinfectants, candies, snuff, and other similar items. As a consequence, the fancy box industry was well positioned to fill this new niche market when the introduction of adhesive postage stamps serendipitously opened a market for what was to become a new art form.

Some of Europe's most talented artists and artisans began to work in a variety of mediums that included both natural and man-made materials. A number of established manufacturing companies also began to exploit the technical areas in which they had the greatest expertise. For example, Wurttemberg Metal Fabricators, a Germany company, began specializing in sterling silver for some of their more expensive stamp box creations; Bradley & Hubbard, the leading stamp box manufacturer in the United States began specializing in brass. Frequently many of the metal boxes are stamped with the name of the company that produced them along with the year of manufacture.

Louis C. Tiffany, son of the founder of the famous New York jeweller and silversmith, achieved considerable success with his attractive line of desk sets incorporating stamp boxes in their design. A silver finish applied by electroplate was a Tiffany hallmark of the many stamp boxes they retailed in their exclusive stores.

Carl Fabergé, the well-known jeweller to the Russian Imperial court, is also well known for the stamp boxes he sold to his wealthy clientele in cities such as Odessa, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. Although his stamp boxes are not nearly as luxurious as the 57 lavish Easter Eggs he fashioned for the Tsarinas of Russia before the Russian Revolution in 1918, they are recognized for their exquisite workmanship. Contrasting the opulence of much of Fabergé's custom-designed jewellery consisting of gold and priceless, precious stones, his stamp boxes are highly prized for their quality workmanship: successive firings of layer upon layer of enamel followed by hours of polishing to bring out a lustrous sheen, mathematically framed edges and border designs, and lids so precisely hinged as to near perfection. In short, his stamp boxes are unsurpassed in craftsmanship.

What makes the collection of stamp boxes an affordable hobby today is their use of ordinary, inexpensive materials. It is the artists' wizardry in the use of materials that gives boxes their attractive appearance. Judging by the extensive variety of different materials used in their manufacture, from the most inexpensive such as papier-mâché and domestic wood to sterling silver and semi-precious stone, manufacturers appear to have targeted the widest possible cross-section of consumers. They tailored their products to meet every conceivable market.

The most common mass-produced stamp boxes were fashioned out of various types of domestic wood. Tunbridgeware and Mauchlineware, named after the towns of Tonbridge in England and Mauchline in Scotland where their manufacturing facilities were located, are among the best known. Both manufacturers, of course, turned out a long line of products besides stamp boxes that numbered in the hundreds and included such everyday household items as salt and pepper containers, egg-cups, novelty items such as thimbles, spools, and picture frames and, as might be expected, a long list of toys.

The best-known Mauchlineware stamp boxes are decorated with various tartan patterns. Each is given several coats of varnish for a durable finish to stand up to daily wear. Not unexpectedly, the number of different boxes with a tartan design is limited only by the number of Scottish clans, each with its own unique tartan pattern. Mauchlineware's major competitor throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries was Tunbridgeware, named after the numerous woodwork manufacturers situated in the region surrounding Tunbridge Wells located in the south of England. Skilled turners, bandmakers, and joiners, along with painters, illustrators, and calligraphers were the craftsmen that fashioned and decorated these wooden works of art.

Another natural material used in the manufacture of stamp boxes is leather. A typical creation might consist of dyed leather in a variety of colours which is then used as a cover over a wood box. For a decoration, the artist might apply gold leaf embossing. A variation might be a floral or pastoral scene hand painted on the leather cover. If we recall that early stamp boxes date back about 150 years, we can appreciate that natural materials would have played a large part in their manufacture and, besides wood and leather, include alabaster, agate, ivory, jadeite (a soft form of jade), marble, mother-of-pearl, seashells, and probably others. Jadeite is sometimes used as an inset to decorate the lid or side-pieces of stamp boxes manufactured from either natural or man-made materials.

With the use of ivory having fallen into disfavour with much of the public, manufacturers came up with an alternative man-made product called "French" Ivory. Although stamp boxes made of this particular material resembles natural ivory, it tends to "yellow" with age and actually looks more like plastic. Nonetheless, it can be easily moulded and lends itself well to the manufacture of stamp boxes. "French" ivory boxes are not uncommon with some quite attractively decorated in a variety of designs.

Man-made products used in fashioning stamp boxes, however, outnumber natural products and it is here that we see a great variety in styles and prices.

Some of the most cleverly constructed boxes are heavily lacquered papier-mâché creations. Their multiple coats of lacquer are needed to provide durability and strength. Usually hand painted, some of the most delightful are decorated in a variety of bucolic, floral, and topographic views that very often give us a clue as to their origin. Because of their authentic artwork, many of these lacquered stamp boxes now reside in museums, but also in private collections, as repositories of historically important paintings in miniature.

Retrieving a fragile postage stamp from what is essentially a relatively small enclosure posed a challenge for stamp box designers. Stamp tongs had not been invented at the time so they solved the problem by designing a "dished-out" or concave floor. This characteristic feature of stamp boxes allowed the stamps to be removed by sliding them up along the sloping floor to the top of the box. These specifically designed floors also serve as a means of identifying unmarked stamp boxes or boxes whose originally intended purpose may be uncertain.

Artisans also needed to differentiate their stamp boxes from those made for other purposes. Some chose to incorporate a postage stamp or stamps in their designs; others opted to place the word "Stamps" or "Timbres" on the lids of boxes.

Silver stamp boxes became popular in the mid 1880s when they began to be manufactured in the U.S. and elsewhere. Although the Golden Age of stamp boxes lasted only for two decades, from the 1890s to the outbreak of World War I, many companies continued carving out a niche market for themselves in the stamp box industry during the inter-war years and beyond.

For example, the so-called tourist boxes were produced in large quantities for sale in places that attracted large numbers of visitors and travellers. The scenic, alpine villages of Switzerland and northern Italy are obvious examples. Seaside resorts are other good examples where these types of stamp boxes were sold to tourists. Communities as diverse in their geographic locations as Montreux, Switzerland, Corner Brook, Newfoundland, and Nottingham, England, are typical of place-names found on stamp boxes. An Edelweiss pictured on the lid or elsewhere on a box would likely have been made in Austria; a box with a Chinese or Japanese motif is likely to have originated in those countries although collectors are always wise to research the provenance of boxes before laying out substantial sums of money.

Although far from the most expensive examples, stamp boxes using various enamels must be counted among the visually most attractive.

The cloisonné stamp boxes manufactured in Russia, and to a lesser extent in Japan, are among the most beautiful ever produced. Yet, they used only inexpensive enamels fired to give them that perfectly deep, glassy finish. Champlevé is another popular decorating process and equally inexpensive to produce. It makes use of cheap, coloured glass fused into the desired patterns carved out of the pieces of metal forming the box enclosure. Incised sections of various patterns filled with heated glass gives the finished box its characteristic lustrous look.

Besides the many different man-made materials used in the manufacture of stamp boxes including, in addition to the ones already mentioned, metals such aluminum, Britannia metal, bronze, copper, ceramics, glass, gold, nickel, porcelain, and tin, boxes are further distinguished by the number of compartments they contain. Generally, the more divisions, the more one might expect to pay.

Two and three compartments are the most common; one and four are split about equally in scarcity. Boxes containing more than four are extremely rare and seldom come on the open market although boxes with up to ten compartments are known.

Stamp boxes are also divided by type. The two most basic types are desk sets, such as those manufactured by Tiffany, for example, and pocket models. Each has numerous sub-types. One such sub-group, designed to dispense strips of stamps, known as coils, or coil stamps, because they come in coil-like rolls, was manufactured in both desk-set and pocket versions. Not surprisingly, these dispensers, useful for keeping long rolls of coil stamps neatly tucked away and out of sight for convenient use whenever needed, are cylindrical in shape rather than the usual rectangular configuration that one normally associates with stamp boxes. The stamps are dispensed through a vertical slot on their sides.

Combination boxes, in contrast to coil stamp dispensers, were designed to perform multiple functions. They are also among the most imaginative of the stamp boxes. Some have attached match boxes, ink blotters, stamp scales, pen and ink sets, coin cases, card cases, letter openers, note-pad containers, and probably other objects as well.

Combination boxes have their own charm. They are prized by collectors as desk-set decorations or for display on credenzas or on other pieces of office furniture.

But it is the stamp boxes fashioned out of colourful materials that hold the most appeal for many collectors. Colourful, in a deep and lustrous finish, a champlevé box using opaque enamel is second-to-none in its appearance and appeal. Japanese and Russian designs, especially their cloisonné enamel boxes, are true works of art appreciated by the most discerning collectors.

Although stamp boxes are no longer acquired for the purpose for which they were originally intended, their one-time popularity has been revived. Because the supply of stamp boxes dating from just before and immediately after the turn of the 20th century is limited, they are as sought after by today's collectors as they were popular with the Victorians who used them to enhance the decor in their homes and places of business.

Stamp boxes were never a necessity. But, like love and marriage, or a horse and carriage, stamps and stamp boxes were a good fit and the extensive array of attractively designed creations produced during the last 150 years have assured them a place in the hearts of collectors.

  Tony Shaman is a freelance writer and editor of The Canadian Philatelist, the official journal of The Royal Philatelic Society of Canada. He can be contacted at www.cp-editor@rpsc.org Back to top