The average person walking into a 21st century home would not expect to see or maybe would not even recognise the purpose a workbox in a modern sitting room yet in the 19th century these items were so commonplace that they would not be given a second thought.
These boxes were of a size that they could be placed on small tables and light enough to be carried with ease from room to room yet so cleverly designed that various sewing tools could be neatly stowed away and still have some room for small pieces of embroidery.
Boxes of varying shapes were made from papier mache, quills, all sorts of woods, ivory, mother of pearl, tortoise shell – the list is endless. They might be plain, painted, lacquered, embroidered, inlayed or carved.
Surprisingly needle workboxes only started to become fashionable in the 18th century in high society.
One of the earliest known workbox is our mystery object. Thought to date from the 7th century this Anglo Saxon bronze casket was discovered in a grave in Uncleby, Yorkshire.
Although there are no written records from this time similar objects have been unearthed with needles, threads and fragments of fabric inside so it is presumed that they were workboxes.
Until mass production needles and pins were very expensive and hard to come by. They were looked after with great care and women carried their sewing implements on their person.
As early medieval clothing did not have pockets needle cases made from bone or wood were hung from girdles. When pockets started appearing in Western dress the needle roll or small sewing wallet became fashionable. Eventually small straps were fitted into which tools could be slotted.
In the 18th century ladies in high society would take their embroidery to a social gathering. As new varieties of needlework became fashionable more and more tools were needed and the bags became bigger and bigger. By the end of the 18th century the workbox as we know it had emerged.
From trade with India and the Far East came exquisitely made caskets but it was the English craftsmen that originally used their creative skills to subdivide the boxes into increasingly clever and ingenious compartments.
By the middle of the 19th century it was almost de rigueur for all homes but the very poorest to have a workbox yet by Edwardian times its heyday was over. Emancipation meant that young ladies no longer spent hours in their drawing rooms embroidering and tatting. The sewing machine was on the rise and fine stitching was no longer considered an important accomplishment for young ladies.
Lidded wickerwork baskets gradually took the place of the beautifully crafted workbox which were relegated to attics or discarded.
The workboxes and their tools are now very collectable and well worth looking out for. Many can be admired in museums.
The V & A Museum have many fine examples in their collection. A particularly beautiful workbox is on display in British Galleries, room 122c, case 1
Papier-mâché became a fashionable material for small items of domestic use and decoration during the mid-19th century. Trays, tea caddies, screens, vases and even furniture were produced using a range of decorative techniques and styles.
For needleworkers a visit to the V & A to view workboxes would not be complete without seeing Martha Edlin’s magnificent casket on display in British Galleries, room 56d, case 6.
Martha Edlin (1660-1725) worked a series of embroideries during her childhood but her story and an indepth look at her work is for another day.
Photographs are copyright Victoria & Albert Museum, London.