According to Merriam-Webster, a “trinket” is “a thing of little value,” which is odd when you consider the rich profusion of boxes designed to store them. There are porcelain trinket boxes, as well as lacquered ones from Russia to Japan. Some boxes are made of papier-mâché, sterling silver, or wood, and many are admired for their surface decorations, as in the enameled trinket boxes of 18th-century England.
Some of the earliest wood boxes in the Colonial United States doubled as desks, with flat surfaces on their tops for writing and a compartment below to store everything from writing implements to the family Bible. Eventually, these boxes began to sprout legs to become proper desks, so smaller boxes were made to sit atop them. Those boxes were often ornamented with carving, inlay, or gilt, and frequently featured domed lids. Before long, some boxes were also given legs (though far shorter than those of desks), while others were cylindrical in shape and either heavily painted or upholstered in tooled calfskin.
Shaker boxes of the 19th century may be viewed as a reaction to all this ornamentation. For the religious Shakers, being neat was literally a way to get closer to God, so Shaker boxes not only served to hide clutter and keep small items dust-free, they were themselves uncluttered objects. The most familiar Shaker boxes are the oval boxes of various sizes, with tight-fitting lids. The sides of Shaker boxes were most often made of thin maple, which was secured by copper rivets. Tops and bottoms were made of thicker slabs of pine. And while colors were not forbidden by the Shakers, the tones were muted, ranging from soft blues, reds, and yellows to dark browns that almost appear black.
More jewel-like are the porcelain, enameled boxes of 18th-century England. These dainty confections were produced by potteries from London to Liverpool, from Birmingham to Staffordshire. At times inspired by the work of Meissen manufacturers in Germany, English porcelain boxes featured floral decorations, portraits of noblemen and prominent politicians, the likenesses of dancers and actresses, and pastoral scenes, some of which were copied from popular engravings of the day.
Another box-decorating technique was lacquering, elevated to a fine art by the 17th-century Japanese, which is why the technique is also called japanning. Made from the sap of sumac trees, lacquer is painstakingly applied in layer after layer to a lightweight, white-pine form. A high-quality Japanese lacquered box from the heyday of the technique might have as many as 50 coats on its surface, but as Japan began to trade more frequently and casually with the West, shortcuts were introduced to satisfy global market demands.
Russian lacquered boxes evolved after these shortcuts had become the norm, though the techniques practiced by Russian artisans were similar to those of the 17th-century Japanese. The major difference between the two types of boxes, beyond, of course, the differences in the styles of the surface decorations, was the box’s base, which the Russians made out of papier-mâché rather than pine.