Brides' Boxes PDF Conversion

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 so the artist works out the color progres-  
only just begun. sion beforehand and mixes paint only  
Now the artist basecoats the sides as it is needed. In fact, he usually works  
and top of the box, usually with black.  
(The wood on the inside and bottom of  
the box is left “natural,” perhaps be-  
cause the paint is too precious, though  
maybe it is the artists 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, usu-  
ally 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,  
In addition to indicating  
the regions of Germany  
and Switzerland in  
which decorative boxes  
were made (shown in  
green), the map illus-  
trates the geographical  
relationship between  
these areas and others  
in Europe in which vari-  
ous styles of painting  
were practiced.  
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 espe-  
cially 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 dont align doesnt  
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 popu-  
lar 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 communi-  
ties 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 calli-  
graphic elements seemed to flow effortlessly from their hand-  
made 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 ex-  
pression that a good example represents. What was the inspira-  
tion 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.  
Details of the tops and sides of the an-  
tique brides’ boxes shown in Figure 1.  
Figure 1  
Contemporary  
interpretation of  
brides’ boxes.  
Details of sides  
and tops of  
modern  
interpretations.