01. The Puzzle of the Patch Box

Who can resist them?

Exquisite little containers that sit snugly in the palm of your hand, the inventive fancy of the patch box is unbounded.

Some are triumphs of decorative art. Others are sentimental, or appeal to memories of people and places. Then there are those that reveal a political or patriotic agenda, delving into topical events and giving them pictorial form. Pretty, droll, perhaps banal, but above all collectable, there is a patch box for every mood, taste, and price point.

Le Matin (Morning), by Gilles Edme Petit after François Boucher, 1694–1760, Paris. Etching and engraving, 31.5 cm high x 21.6 cm wide (sheet), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953, no. 53.600.1042. Photo: Public Domain, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Look Closer…

This engraving is entitled ‘Morning’ and we seem to have interrupted the young lady during her toilette.

She wears a peignoir, equivalent to our dressing gown or bath robe, and has decorated her hair with flowers, put on a bracelet and applied patches to her forehead and cheek. She is an enthusiastic patcher, because she has just retrieved a third from a round patch box in which we can detect many more.

Does she look at us confidently or questioningly? The clue is in the caption warning us that if placed badly, these artificial spots disfigure rather than enhance the eyes and complexion.

The cockatoo in the background is not only an
exotic pet but also the speaker of truth – whether the lady’s patching succeeds in, or subverts, the very purpose of the toilette. Has she made herself beautiful, or vulgar?

But what is there to be puzzled about? The patch box contained patches – little shapes cut from silk fabrics or leather that were stuck to the face as beauty spots.

The clue to the patch box is in its name. Or is it?

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