05. The Fall and Rise of the Patch Box

After the mid-1700s, in Britain the practice of wearing patches hit a terminal decline, if not an outright death.

Always more popular elsewhere,1 over a century after it first appeared as an edgy trend, by now patches looked anything but novel. We see them in caricature and criticism but almost nowhere else.

Extraordinarily, it was at this point that the patch box really took off.

These, and other similar small boxes with which the eighteenth century was so entranced, turned out to be an ideal vehicle for enamelling.

See caption
Patch box, oblong, with blue base and white and blue lid with floral pattern, on which is written ‘Keep this for my sake’ (heavily worn), Enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2254, Photo: York Museums Trust.

Look Closer…

Enamel patch boxes range from the superbly to the crudely decorated. This box features a quickly painted vignette of a bird framed with flowers, both popular motifs to convey sentiments of friendship and love.

It may have been painted in a small West Midlands workshop, conceivably by one of the women the cottage industry employed. The Swedish industrial spy, Rheinhold Angerstein, came to Wednesbury, a manufacturing centre 6 km from Bilston, on 11 April 1754 and reported that:

‘In one farmhouse between Bilston and Wolverhampton there was a factory for making snuff-boxes and other enamelled work, where a large number of women were employed in preparing the enamel, dipping the copper sheets and painting.  They were also occupied in firing and tempering the enamel …  Later on I saw a factory making the same things in Wednesbury and there are also a large number of them in Bilston.  The boxes fetch good prices when sold, according to the quality of the painting.  A discount of 15 per cent is allowed if one takes a dozen or more.’4

Enamelling – decorating metal with coloured vitreous glazes – was not new.

But around the mid-eighteenth century, painting with these glazes exploded into fashion. A factory existed at Battersea for a few years in the 1750s, but most of the British enamelled boxes were made in the West Midlands, particularly in a small town called Bilston. And this is how it was done:5

First a box and its hinged lid were made out of copper or copper alloy, the metal being rolled into thin sheets and then pressed into shape. This was done by a box-maker or, in the sense of someone who created fanciful playthings for adults, a toymaker. Often, but not always, a mirror was set inside the lid, initially of steel but from around 1785 made from glass.

Look Closer…

The Bilston patch box was a truly local product. The copper was mined locally in the Ecton Hill Copper Mines in Staffordshire, which employed many children.

So called toy-makers or box makers then used the copper to fashion the three parts: the box itself, the hinges, and the frame.

Often box makers extended their business to include an enamelling workshop.

Open patch box
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘Love & Live Happy’ with green base and mirror inside the lid, c. 1780, Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM J2256. Photo: York Museums Trust.

Look Closer…

The solid green of this patch box is typical of its type. Other common colours were turquoise, dark blues, red, purple and white. The colouring is achieved by mixing mineral oxides in powder form into the basic paste of soda, potassium silicates, lead oxide and silica.

While the painter could laboriously grind these pigments by hand, by the second half of the eighteenth century they could be bought ready-made. Specific suppliers often specialised in hues they had produced through experimentation and whose formulas were guarded as a trade secret.

To appreciate the range of patch box production at Bilston, see the extensive collection of the Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

It was then up to the enameller.

The decoration of each part of the box was completed in stages, with each layer needing time to paint, dry, fire and cool. The furnace was heated by wood or coal, and with little control over the temperature, each firing was a potential disaster and needed experience and skill.

Slowly, layers of enamel were applied by degrees until the right thickness was achieved and the design took shape. The order of the colours depended on their different melting temperatures. Get this wrong and the decoration would fuse and blur into a mess. The edges of the lid, difficult to enamel, were usually left with plain metal rims.

Damaged lid of open patch box, viewed from the hinged side

The damage on this patch box allows us to see clearly how the enamelled decoration was applied to the plain copper. Here it has chipped off the convex lid, the edges, and also inside. We can clearly see the base metal beneath.

This shows the weakness of the otherwise durable enamel – just like the way enamel cookware can collect dints and chips.

Damaged lid of patch box

Our patch box here, a souvenir from York, has suffered a sharp impact on the top.

The cracks radiate out from a blow that landed somewhere above the cathedral’s eastern end, like a miniature meteorite plunging into the chancel.

Damaged base of green patch box
Patch box with picture of York Minster, c.1760–90, Enamel on copper with green base and white lid, with mirror inside the lid. York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2257. Photos: York Museums Trust.

Turning the box upside down reveals more of the life story of this object.

Here the green enamel has worn away, exposing different layers and colours underneath.

With freehand designs (or parts of designs), the colour, the motifs, and the decoration were all up to the enamel painter.

Patch box with blue base and pink lid with floral border, inside which is written: ‘A Friends Gift’ (heavily worn), Enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2253. Photo: York Museums Trust.

These painters were mostly, but not all, men: girls were sometimes apprenticed to the trade and the business of some workshops was continued by the master’s widow. But from about 1760, the lids of most patch boxes were produced with the new technique of transfer printing. And in transfer printing, the engraver created the design.

First this design – a picture, a text, or a combination of the two – was engraved onto a metal plate. An ink that would withstand furnace firing was applied – making sure the engraved lines were all filled – and then wiped off, leaving only the incised design still inked. Gummed paper was rolled onto the plate, so that the design transferred and then dried.

The design was in turn transferred from the paper by wetting it and placing it on a lid that had been enamelled ready with its under layers. Firing in the furnace caused the design to burn into the enamel while the paper simply burned off. The more basic boxes were then covered in a clear glaze; the more elaborate were further painted by hand.

Our damaged patch box from York is, again, an excellent example. While the overall design is simple, the fine lines and detail of the building and the ‘printed’ appearance of the letters would have been impossible to achieve painting freehand.

These techniques of production utterly transfigured the market. Copper was both relatively cheap and mined locally; engraved plates could be used again and again. Having once been expensively crafted novelties of beauty, fit to give royalty, patch boxes were now being made for the masses.

[1] For instance, there are far more French visual sources depicting patches being worn in non-satirical contexts. Mexican portraits indicate a long-lasting, or late, adoption of the fashion: see Rachel Kaplan, ‘Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder’, a curatorial blog post on the exhibition ‘Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici’, held by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017-18)
[2] The Pic-Nic, A Collection of Recitations, and Comic Songs, Toasts, Sentiments, & c. selected by D. Jacques (London, 1816), p. 135.
[3] The Works of the English Poets, From Chaucer to Cowper, including the series edited with prefaces biographical and critical by Dr Samuel Johnson, vol. iv (London, 1810), p. 630.
[4] R R  Angerstein’s Illustrated Travel Diary, 1753-1755. Industry in England and Wales from a Swedish perspective, transl. Torsten and Peter Berg (2001), p. 52.
[5] Based on Tom Cope, Bilston Enamels of the 18th Century (published by the Black Country Society, no date), particularly pp. 23–9, 95. See also Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (London: Orbis Publishing, 1978), esp. pp. 29–37 (on manufacture), and pp. 75–87 (on West Midlands production).

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