Blog Entry - Brides' Boxes

 by Jo Sonja Jansen, MDA, VGM

   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.