By Jo Sonja Jansen
The boxmaker splits the log by hand into thin slivers, smooths the slivers with a handplane, soaks or steams the pieces, then bends them around a wooden form, holding them in place with clamps and handmade wooden pins until they dry. He then drills holes and fastens the bent pieces to a thin, ﬂat top or bottom piece, either round or oval, with small wooden pegs, all of which he has prepared by hand in advance. Finally, he secures the side piece by sewing it with birch root, thin cane, or rushes. A laborious process only just begun.
Now the artist basecoats the sides and top of the box, usually with black. (The wood on the inside and bottom of the box is left “natural,” perhaps because the paint is too precious, though maybe it is the artist’s time that is too costly.) Then, picking up a smaller brush, he begins to apply red paint to the broad bands that will decorate the sides and maybe the top of the box. The colors, usually a very limited palette, are mixed from the strained sour milk remaining from the mornings churning, a little slaked lime, and pigments ground by the artist himself. These paints dry fairly quickly, so the artist works out the color progression beforehand and mixes paint only as it is needed. In fact, he usually works on a number of boxes at one time, space permitting.
Bit by bit, the designs emerge on the top and sides as the artist uses his brush to develop the basic shapes that will become a “love-pair” in baroque or rococo costume. Sometimes, for a change, he paints an angel, a soldier on horseback, or a group of people. Though he rarely departs from the best-selling designs, each box is slightly different because it is done freehand.
The large floral borders are especially distinctive. The border on the rim of the lid runs in one direction, and the one on the base of the box in the other, two never-ending wreaths. The fact that the flowers on the lid and the base don’t align doesn’t detract from the design; it proclaims the artists spontaneity and inspires a unique, refreshing charm. He applies a little beeswax polish—also homemade—if it is available, and the piece is finished.
While examples of decorated bentwood boxes can be traced to the Late Middle Ages, the style shown opposite was popular during the late 1700s and early 1800s. There were other styles, as each area developed its own designs and palette. It is generally believed that most of the decorated boxes came from central or lower Germany, the Thuringian Forest region in particular. Brides’ boxes provided families and many small communities with a means of economic support for several generations. Everyone, from grandparents to young children, were busily occupied in this enterprise, which was usually done in the main room of the home, often only by the light of the fireplace or a pine ingot, unless they were fortunate enough to have a candle for the long winters night. The artists were very proficient at making these casually stroked pieces; the strokes and calligraphic elements seemed to ﬂow effortlessly from their handmade brushes.
Easy to transport, the finished boxes were carried by backpack or boated downriver to the nearest large city and sold by expectant merchants. Some immigrants brought their boxes to America as treasured mementos of their homeland. I once saw a box in a Danish antique store whose lid featured a Danish proverb, suggesting that several boxes may have been specially ordered by a local merchant for his import business.
The strong style is easy to recognize and difficult to reproduce accurately. One would have had to paint these boxes month after month, day in, day out, to attain the freedom of expression that a good example represents. What was the inspiration for this strong graphic style? Could weavings, tapestries, and cross-stitch have contributed some visual elements? The answers are lost in time, but these beautiful boxes can still be seen in many museums around the world and in some private collections, documenting a style of decorative painting that provided income for many mountain families and gave great pleasure to those who owned the boxes it adorned.
If you would like to explore some other designs in the Brides' Box genre, please click on the items shown below.
If you remember the Brides’ Boxes that we shared with you in “Folk Art Sampler Vol. 3”, then you’ll know that I painted the Bunny Wedding in the style of the beautiful old brides' boxes from Germany.
50TH Anniversary Box
This contemporary adaptation of a German Bride’s box was created in celebration of our friend’s 50th wedding anniversary. Finished with small strokes and liner of Rich Gold to commemorate their special year, you can easily change many of the items to personalize your own version. Includes a color step sheet.
German Bride's Box
In the 18th Century, boxes made of ‘wood shavings,” usually oval in shape, were given as wedding presents or love gifts. There were many centers for the painting of these boxes; but it is generally believed that most of them came from central or lower Germany, especially the Thuringian Forest area. The artists became very skillful with these casually stroked pieces.
Full of detail, yet charmingly simple, this Bavarian inspired Christmas box holds yet another surprise.
In the 18th century, bentwood boxes, usually oval in shape, were given as wedding presents or love gifts. The style of Bride's Box illustrated here was popular in Germany during the late 1700 to early 1800's..
Continuing in the Bride's Box tradition, we offer 2 smaller sized variations. The little German tulip box is perfect to hold a small jewelry piece. The oval Bride's Box depicting a young woman and stylish, traditional tulips makes a stunning desk box to store keepsakes.
I sincerely hope you enjoyed this first of many blog entries to come. Thank you.
Jo Sonja Jansen
Eureka, CA, USA