06. The World on the Lid of a Patch Box

Patch boxes from the second half of the eighteenth century were mass produced, but they also had mass appeal. They are delightful, infinitely collectable, and reference almost every area of contemporary life. With little practical function, enamelled patch boxes of this period are primarily carriers of a design. They are small portals to a set of emotions, beliefs and memories.


Let’s look at the typical types of decoration.

Many have bold colour schemes, particularly on the sides – solid blocks of blue, pink or green particularly. The design on the lid is often encircled by raised white spots, like pretend seed pearls.

Blue enamel box with typical Bilston ring of white dots
Patch box, 1760–90, Enamel on copper, mirror in the lid, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM J2256. Photo: Courtesy of York Museums Trust

Elements also echo other genres, such as miniatures painted in enamels, also popular at the time. But there is much, much more to what you can put on the lid of a patch box.

Like greeting cards today, boxes with sentimental mottos were a paradox: made in bulk for a one-off occasion; mass-produced for a unique use.

Enamel box with white, pink and green oval decoration, including the typical circle of white dots, with the motto in the centre.
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘Love & Live Happy’ with green base and mirror inside the lid, c. 1780, Enamel on copper, Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM J2256. Photo: York Castle Museum

Making a consumerist market out of relationships ­– using an industrialised template to pattern individual experience – suddenly makes these boxes, despite their age, seem very modern. There is a sense in which they could be said to be teaching the expression of particular kinds of feelings – doing their bit to form the events in which they appeared.

Let’s think about this in today’s terms. Why do we give cards on birthdays? Would Mother’s Day and Father’s Day be celebrated in the same way without their commercial paraphernalia? How many people buy ‘best teacher’ cards at the end of the school year who might not otherwise have thought to express a formal ‘thank you’?

Some of these verses present as tokens of courtship.

White, rectangular enamel box with black decoration. An urn with a heart above it, surrounded by the motto.
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘Let Marriage Show I’m True to You’, 1780, Enamel on copper with transfer-printed decoration; brass mounts; mirror, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG CE 1968 0006 0026, Lotherton Hall. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries
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A few look rather saucy.

Oval enamel box with blue, white and gold decoration and, in the centre, a small drawing in black outline of a young woman in a garden, surrounded by the text of the motto.
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘Who Opens this must have a Kiss’, 1780, Enamel on copper, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG.CE.1968.0006.0018. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries
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Lid of a white enamel patch box with motto round the edge and in the centre, two birds on two hearts
Patch Box with the motto ‘My Love is loving o And her Lover’s true’, made in South Staffordshire, c. 1780, Enamel on copper, with transfer-printed decoration; brass mounts; mirror, 2.2 x 3.2 x 3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, The Richard P. Rosenau Collection, 1975, no. 1975-140-32. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art
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Curator’s Notes: ‘What Is in a Cage?’


Patch boxes frequently play with the idea of the mirror under the lid that will reflect the viewer back to themselves.

Oval box with copperplate writing
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘Open this box and to your eyes / It will reflect the Nymph I prize / Happy were I did it discover Whilst thus I gaze your favorite lover.’, c. 1780, Enamel on copper with transfer-printed decoration; brass mounts; mirror. Photo: Courtesy of Bunch Auction

Look Closer…

The verse on this patch box is typical of contemporary popular literature – the sort that offered its readers the light entertainment of short stories, sonnets and intriguing snippets.

This verse comes from a small poem that circulated, in both its French and English versions, on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1827, for instance, it was featured as a poem by ‘a man of gallantry’, which he wrote on his mistress’s mirror.1 Literature like this, particularly with themes of idealised romance and courtship, was aimed at a female readership.2

With its fashionable pink colour, reminiscent of the popular Rose de Pompadour first marketed by Sèvres in 1757, this box would have appealed to a fashionable young lady.

Fingers holding an enamel box with the lid open and an eye reflected in the mirror inside the lid.
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Curator’s Notes: ‘The Eyes Have It’

It is also clear that many, perhaps most, are pitched as gifts, whether from would-be lovers, from friends, or among family members.

An enamel box with a pink and white border and the motto running around the edge; in the centre, a white bird flies in a blue sky with a speech bubble saying, 'Peace'
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘May the Wings of Friendship never need a feather * Peace’, 1780, Enamel on copper, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG.CE.1968.0006.0025. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries
White, oval enamel box with a blue and rd decorative border and the motto in the centre
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘Esteem this Gift for those who Give and Joy Attend you While you Live’ (heavily worn), 1780, Enamel on copper, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG.CE.1968.0006.0021. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries
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White, oval enamel box with a pink, brown and gold decorative border, including the typical white dots, and the motto in the centre.
Bilston Patch Box with the motto ‘A Mother’s Gift to a Deserving Child’, 1780, Enamel on copper, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG.CE.1968.0006.0022. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries
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Look Closer…

The decoration of this patch box imitates tiger cowrie, a species of mollusc (Cypraea tigris) native to the Indo-Pacific. Since ancient times, the creature’s large shells were valued for their vivid pattern of blueish, black, and red dots on a smooth, lustrous white ground. The French and British exploration of the Pacific during the eighteenth century enhanced trade routes to Europe, and along these routes flowed many desirable and exotic commodities, including the tiger cowrie. Shells became widely available and affordable.3

Our patch box is probably inspired by the highly popular metal-mounted cowrie shell snuff boxes that were produced in specialised workshops across England and of which you can see an example from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It therefore imitates something familiar, yet more expensive.

Ultimately, the imitation of naturalia with paint evokes the Humanist idea that art vies with, or even surpasses, nature. Does the patch box invite comparison of man-made and nature’s enamels? Or is this patch box just a piece of fakery to catch a mother’s eye?


A few of the boxes suggest mourning – or perhaps ‘memorialising’ might be a better way of putting it. ‘The Absent not Forgotten’, is one motto that recurs, along with imagery of urns and funerary-type monuments. 

However, others are altogether more robust, pulling the rug from underneath the feet of any mawkishness. Look at this one slyly poking fun at relationships of mutual exploitation.

An enamel box showing the 'Buxom Widow' side
Patch Box, A Fortune Hunter A Buxom Widow, made in South Staffordshire, c. 1780, Enamel on copper, brass mounts, mirror, 2.9 x 2.5 x 5.7 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, The Richard P. Rosenau Collection, 1975, no: 1975-140-89. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art
An enamel box showing the 'Buxom Widow' side
Patch Box, A Fortune Hunter A Buxom Widow, made in South Staffordshire, c. 1780, Enamel on copper, brass mounts, mirror, 2.9 x 2.5 x 5.7 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, The Richard P. Rosenau Collection, 1975, no: 1975-140-89. Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Some designs take dogs, cute emblems of fidelity, and curl them over a patch box lid. Though as so often, putting containers of this period into clear categories is problematic. Some of those here may in fact be bonbonnières, little boxes for sweetened cachous or lozenges. These three also have an extra decorative flourish on the base (or the lid, depending on which way they are approached).

Patch box moulded to the shape of a dog, like aspaniel, brown and white, lying on a blue background
Patch box or bonbonnière, moulded and enamelled to resemble a brown and white spaniel on a blue cushion, reverse white with rose motif, mirror inside, enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2258. Photo: York Castle Museum
Patch box lid with a spray of flowers against a white background
Verso of patch box or bonbonnière, moulded and enamelled to resemble a brown and white spaniel on a blue cushion, reverse white with rose motif, mirror inside, enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2258. Photo: York Castle Museum
Large, dog-shaped patch box held on a gloved hand
Patch box or bombonnière, moulded and enamelled to resemble a brown and white spaniel on maroon cushion, 1760–90, Enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2261. Photo: York Castle Museum
Patch box the shape of a spaniel, brown and white, lying on a patterned floor
Patch box or bombonnière, moulded and enamelled to resemble a brown and white spaniel on maroon cushion, 1760–90, Enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2261. Photo: York Castle Museum
Landscape with a cottage left and an artict sitting under a tree sketching, on the right; in the centre a road leads to a wide river with trees alogng its bamks.
Verso of patch box or bombonnière, moulded and enamelled to resemble a brown and white spaniel on maroon cushion, 1760–90, Enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2261. Photo: York Castle Museum
Small, dog-shaped patch box held in a gloved hand
Patch box, moulded and enamelled to resemble a black and white spaniel on a blue cushion, reverse white with rose motif, mirror inside, enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2259. Photo: York Castle Museum
Dog-shaped patch box
Patch box, moulded and enamelled to resemble a black and white spaniel on a blue cushion, reverse white with rose motif, mirror inside, enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2259. Photo: York Castle Museum
Spray of purple and yellow flowers against a white background
Verso of Patch box, moulded and enamelled to resemble a black and white spaniel on a blue cushion, reverse white with rose motif, mirror inside, enamel on copper, York Castle Museum, York, no. YORCM : J2259. Photo: York Castle Museum

A whole, endlessly repeated series of patch boxes catered to the new habit of tourism that developed at the time. Thanks to eighteenth-century improvements in transport – roads, carriages, toll routes, coaching services – people could go more places, faster. And with incomes and the middle classes on the up, there were more and more wanting to do so. Added to this, the new interest in places, scenery, and landscape – in the ‘picturesque’ as it was called – meant that travel for its own sake became the thing. And when you got to where you were going, you could buy a souvenir to take back home as a reminder for yourself or a gift for someone else. There are plenty of these for the tourist hotspots – spa towns like Harrogate, Bath and Buxton; cathedral cities like York and Lincoln; fashionable resorts like Brighton.

Patch box lid and side view - castle ruin
Patch box, A Trifle from Harrogate, Knaresborough Castle, late 18th or early 19th century, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 1/4 x 1 3/4 x 1 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.26. Photo: Artstore

Look Closer

The peak of the Bilston enamelling trade from 1760 to 1790 coincided with the burgeoning of domestic tourism in England. Improved road networks, cheaper coach services and communications made travelling easier and safer, and travel accounts and tourist guides shaped expectations of the experience. Patch boxes, with their vast choice of topographical motifs, must be understood within the mass production of tourist paraphernalia of the experience. Bilston delivered souvenirs to all major cities and places of interest in England, including Yorkshire’s spa town of Harrogate. We can relate to this: souvenirs of Europe’s cities are often produced in the Far East. Nevertheless, Bilston patch boxes perhaps contributed to the formulation of a national, architectural heritage and geography in people’s minds.4 This was spear-headed by the numerous travel descriptions of England published during this time that offered the aspiring tourist everything from notes on the details of buildings, to social history, to the quality of a town’s air and roads. Bilston engravers copied topographical views from these travel guides and from books of drawings. Both travel literature and Bilston patch boxes may have fostered a greater sense of heritage by making it accessible, replicable, and collectible.

Patch box lid and side view - castle ruin and flowers on the side
Patch box, A Trifle from Harrogate, Knaresborough Castle, late 18th or early 19th century, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 1/4 x 1 5/8 x 7/8 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.27. Photo: Artstore.

Look Closer…

Today we are accustomed to appreciating the broken remnants of historical architecture and regard such remains as worthy of preservation. For the first owner of this patch box, this may have been a relatively new attitude to the past. This view of the ruins of Knaresborough Castle may have appealed to a tourist with a taste for the picturesque.

The picturesque was an aesthetic ideal that gained currency during the last three decades of the eighteenth century. It favoured the irregular, rugged and accidental as opposed to the smooth, symmetrical and proportionate of classically inspired artefacts. Wild scenery and ruins became valued as places of a new romantic beauty. They gave viewers the opportunity to contemplate the grandeur of nature and the past. The influential artist, cleric and travel writer, William Gilpin, even suggested that the classically inspired architecture that had been earlier admired – all columns and harmony – was not fit for depiction in art. We must first, he said, ‘beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps’. A truly artistic view needed not ‘a smooth building’. Instead, ‘we must turn it into a rough ruin’.5

While the mass-produced patch box is only tangential to these principles, it illustrates that such ideas had reached a general audience.  The owner’s desire to visit this ruin and to purchase this keepsake may have been encouraged by them.

Patch box lid and side view - line drawing of Bath Abbey and coloured flowers round the sides
Patch box, A Trifle from Bath, Abbey, late 18th or early 19th century, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 x 1 5/8 x 2 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.15. Photo: Artstore
Patch box lid and side view - line drawing of an urn with drapery surrounded by decorative border
Patch box, A Bath Toy, late 18th or early 19th century, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 x 1 3/4 x 1 2/5 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.14. Photo: Artstore
Patch box lid and side view - line drawing of Georgian street with houses along left side and people walking along the broad walkway
Patch box, A Bath Gift, affter 1745, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 4/5 x 2 x 1 5/8 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.10. Photo: Artstore
Patch box lid and side view - line drawing of the elevation of a Georgian crescent
Patch box, Buxton Crescent, after 1780, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 1/4 x 1 5/8 x 1 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.24. Photo: Artstore

Look Closer…

A particular aspect of tourism in late Georgian England were spa and resort holidays. Spa towns such as Harrogate, Bath and Buxton in Derbyshire were top destinations for those in need of the curative qualities of thermal springs or desirous of the social scene they attracted.

Designed by John Carr of York and built in1780, Buxton Crescent housed what we would today call ‘boutique spa hotels’. Architecturally indebted to Bath’s Royal Crescent, completed only five years earlier, it established Buxton as a contender in England’s geography of rival spa towns. This patch box would have evoked the aura of luxury associated with Buxton’s new architectural landmark.

Patch box lid and side view - drawing of a Georgian building covering a well
Patch box, St. Ann’s Well, late 18th or early 19th century, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 1/4 x 1 5/8 x 1 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.23. Photo: Artstore
Patch box lid and side view - line drawing of York Minster
Patch box, A Trifle from York, York Cathedral, late 18th or early 19th century, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 1/4 x 1 5/8 x 1 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.40. Photo: Artstore
Patch box lid and side view - colourful painting of Lincoln Cathedral
Patch box, A Trifle from Lincoln, late 18th or early 19th century, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 3/8 x 1 7/8 x 1 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.36. Photo: Artstore
Patch box lid and side view - line drawing of a side-on view of the Brighton Pavilion
Patch box, Brighton Pavilion, after 1787, Enamel, metal closure, and steel mirror, 1 1/2 x 2 x 1 inches, Wriston Art Center Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI, Accession no. 2006.005.50. Photo: Artstore

A royal watcher could visit Windsor and take home a patch box to complete the experience.

Bright blue patch box with gold and white dotted decoration around the lid, which has a colourful painting of a castle with lots of windows and another wall jutting into the foreground from the left
Patch Box, ‘The Queens Palace at Windsor’, c. 1780, Enamel on copper, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG.CE.1968.0006.0013. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries
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Look Closer…

Sometimes the subjects depicted on patch boxes give us clear pointers to their date of production. ‘The Queen’s Palace at Windsor’ thus poses the question: which queen is it? It’s unlikely that this fine patch box dates after Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. The Bilston enamel industry was by then defunct owing to a general economic decline, the subsequent rise of the coal and iron industries, and a new vogue for glass and metal trinkets. It is more likely therefore that this caption refers to Queen Charlotte (1744–1818), wife of ‘mad’ King George III.

Charlotte has a particular connection to Windsor, more precisely, to Frogmore House, a rural retreat she purchased in 1790. Besides enlarging and modernising Frogmore House, Charlotte later also ordered the building of Double Garden Cottage (subsequently ‘Frogmore Cottage’).

Frogmore estate became a much-loved retreat for the Queen and her eldest daughters specifically after the 1789 Regency Bill crisis prompted by the King’s worsening mental health. Charlotte was made guardian of the person of the King, his court, and all minor children.  Her indelible association with the Frogmore Estate and her charge of the King’s person would have made Windsor Castle ‘The Queen’s Palace’.


More surprisingly, patch boxes were also made as souvenirs for tiny destinations whose tourist pull was modest and whose fame was only local. Here is a simple one that advertises Leyburn in the Yorkshire Dales.

A very simple white enamel box with blue and red feathered patterned and the words in the middle
Patch Box, ‘A Trifle from Leyburn’, 1780, Enamel on copper, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG.CE.1968.0006.0016. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries

Looking at patch boxes, you can’t help but get the feeling that their designers were casting about for a new angle – anything else, as long as it would sell another unit. Topical events were therefore hurried off the transfer paper and onto the lid.

The first box here commemorates the Battle of Camperdown, just one of the engagements in the French Revolutionary wars that sprawled across the nations and continent of Europe. This particular battle was fought between the British and the Dutch, and was a resounding victory for the Royal Navy. The script around the edges simply reads: ‘The Glorious 11th Oct 1797’. Patriotism in a patch box.

But when someone has hit on a good scene it’s a pity to waste it on a single event. That’s why the next patch box is almost identical, even though it commemorates a different conflict entirely, the Battle of the Nile of 1798.

A brightly painted seacscape with two ships in full sail and another mostly sunk, surrounded by a black border with gold writing
Patch Box, ‘Battle of Camperdown 1797’, Enamel on copper, Leeds Museums and Galleries, no: LEEAG.CE.1968.0006.0038. Photo: Courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries.
A round patch box with a seascape showing two ships in full sail and another ship between them almost fully sunk
Patch Box, ‘The Glorious Victory of Adm. Lord Nelson’, ‘1st Aug. 1798’, Enamel on copper, 50 x 42 x 25 cm, Royal Museums Greenwich, no. OBJ0064. Photo: Courtesy of The National Maritime Museum

The Battle of the Nile was the engagement in which Lord Nelson defeated the French navy and, in the process, was raised to the pantheon of British heroes. Although it reuses an earlier motif, it’s just one example of a whole genre devoted to his exploits. This did not stop with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Rather, a whole new range of designs was then produced in his honour, which combined stirring patriotism with post-mortem remembrance.

A woman in a white dress and a black cape leans on a tomb with the letter N for Nelson and the words, 'He is no more'; the motto runs around the edge along with the words, 'As tore thy darling Nelson away'; the characteristic Bilston white dots run around the edge
Patch Box, ‘Mourn England Mourn Grim Death’, 1805, Enamel on copper, 52 x 40 x 22 cm, Royal Museums Greenwich, no. OBJ0071. Photo: Courtesy of The National Maritime Museum

The most striking example of a topical event has to be a box from c.1793, held in the collection of the British Museum. It commemorates the execution of the French king Louis XVI, framed with the motto ‘He Died Lamented by all Good Men’. While the Wolverhampton Art Gallery has a 1770 patch box depicting a rather porcine and louche-looking Louis of two decades earlier, the British Museum box illustrates the very moment of his death. In the middle of the lid is the guillotine with Louis’s body. His head is in the very process of rolling off, perpetually enamelled in motion halfway between his shoulders and the waiting basket below.

Patch box lid - A head falls from a guillotine, about to fall intonthe waiting basket, while three men look on.
Patch box, c.1793, made in Staffordshire, enamelled copper, 5.5 cm long, British Museum, London, no. 1987,0708.1. © The Trustees of the British Museum

We are lucky enough to also have the source from which the engraver drew his inspiration for this, an illustrated broadside (a single-sheet format) on the French king’s trial and death. The direct relationship between them is evidence for the way that the engravers of transfer prints were free to draw on any material that took their fancy as a commercially viable proposition.

Woodcut of man under the guillotine with three men looking on, over the text of the broadsheet
Broadside, Massacre of the French King!, 1793, London, paper print, 46.2 cm high x 3.08 cm wide (sheet), British Museum, London, no. 1856,0712.1101. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The discovery of an identical design transfer-printed onto other items shows our patch box fitting into a wider world of merchandise, one in which profit and propaganda cosied up together in a mutually beneficial partnership.

A basket sits under a guillotine ready to receive the head that is about to fall., and the words, 'View of [La Guillotine] or the [modern beheading] machine [at Paris by which] Louis XVI [late king of] France [suffered] on the [Scaffold] Jan 21 [1993]'
Mug, made by Cambrian pottery, Swansea, c.1793, earthenware, lead glazed and transfer printed, 4.30 inches (diameter, with handle) x 3.40 inches (height), British Museum, London, no. 1887,0307,H.59. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Three men stand around a guillotine with a decapitated man lying tied to it and the words, '[View of] La Guillotine [or the] modern beheading [machine]. at Paris by which [Louis XVI] late king of [France]suffered [on the Scaffold [Jan 21] 1993'
Mug, made by Cambrian pottery, Swansea, c.1793, earthenware, lead glazed and transfer printed, 4.30 inches (diameter, with handle) x 3.40 inches (height), British Museum, London, no. 1887,0307,H.59. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The new and exciting world of aeronautics was another topical theme. After Lunardi’s first flight in 1784, ‘balloonomania’ hit.6 Balloons were the subject of the moment, featured in everything from science to satire, fiction to fashion. Ascensions became huge spectacles – public entertainment events – and what better than to buy a patch box to mark the occasion.  

A blue balloon with one man in its basket, flying over a large house and trees
Patch box, late 18th century, transfer-printed enamel on copper, interior of lid is lined with a mirror, 4 × 4.8 × 2.2 cm, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum Collection, Washington DC, Gift of the Norfolk Charitable Trust, Inventory no. A20140439000. Photo: Smithsonian Institution
A Yellow balloon with two people holding flags in its green basket; a red ribbon winds across the whole scene with the Latin words 'Stat sine morte decus'
Patch box, late 18th century, transfer-printed enamel on copper, interior of lid is lined with a mirror, 5.1 × 4.1 × 2.5 cm, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum Collection, Washington DC, Gift of the Norfolk Charitable Trust, Inventory no. A20140375000. Photo: Smithsonian Institution

But the subjects canvassed on a small enamelled lid could also be far more serious. An inhumane institution, but one whose profits had made Britain very rich, was coming under intense scrutiny. While plantation owners and business interests lobbied for the continuation of slavery, abolitionists found a range of ways to spread their message. And one of those, unlikely as it might seem, was the patch box.

A Black slave wearing only a loin cloth and in chains kneels on one knee and holds his hands together in supplication; in the background, a ship to the left, and round huts and trees to the right
Abolitionist Patch Box, ‘Am I not a man a brother’, c. 1800, Enamel on copper. Reproduced with Kind Permission of John Jaffa, Antique Enamel Company. Photo: Antique Enamel Company. Please see also, examples from the Chipstone Foundation

This design likely originated with medallions created by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787. Featuring a figure in chains encircled by the phrase ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’, the medallions were shared widely and gave a visual coherence to the abolitionist movement. The motto became a catch-cry and its motifs appeared on a range of merchandise, from plates to, yes, patch boxes.7

Less easy for us to endorse now is a design that appears to be related to the abolitionist movement, but in fact pays witness to the evangelical missionizing of nineteenth-century Christianity. Pursued with fervour by many in the Christian churches of Europe and America, this movement gave rise to missionary societies, Bible translations, and missionary work across the globe. The box here, showing a black figure with his arms raised in welcome or supplication, references Acts 16.9, in which a vision of a Macedonian appears to St Paul and begs him to come over and help. This Paul does, by preaching the gospel and baptising the newly converted.

A Black slave wearing only a purple loin cloth stands holding his arms out in supplication
Missionizing Patch Box, ‘Come Over and Help Us (Acts XVI, 9)’, c. 1800, Enamel on copper. Reproduced with Kind Permission of John Jaffa, Antique Enamel Company. Photo: Antique Enamel Company

Subjects like these should encourage us to reflect yet again on our easy assumption that a patch box was only about patches. At this stage they were a vehicle for a design, a way of selling a functionally unnecessary commodity, a way of leveraging support for ideas and ideals. Despite their old-fashioned name, therefore, by now they were a quintessentially modern item: a mass-produced thing that no one ‘needs’ but that many people want.


[1] The Cryptor, Receptacle for Things Past, 1 January 1828, p. 9; see also Oliver Oldschool’s magazine The Port Folio, 31 May 1806, p. 336. This magazine was published in Pennsylvania, USA.
[2] Lady’s Magazine, August 1790, p. 443; see also ‘Letter on Love’ by a Lady in the Lady’s Magazine, Supplement for 1790, p. 702.
[3] Ward, Alexandra, Boxing Venus: cowrie shell snuff boxes in the British Empire, 1680-1800 (MA Dissertation, University of Delaware, 2017). (link this reference to the actual text at https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/21790/Ward_udel_0060M_12893.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y)
[4] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination (2013), passim.
[5] William Gilpin, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty (1792), pp. 7–8 (referring specifically to Palladian architecture).
[6] Paul Keen, ‘The “Balloonomania”: Science and Spectacle in 1780s England’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006), pp. 507–35; Michael R. Lynn, ‘High-Flying Fashion‘, The Ultimate History Project.
[7] See Sam Margoli, ‘“And Freedom to the Slave”: Antislavery Ceramics, 1787–1685’, Chipstone Foundation.

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