Celluloid Boxes: An Unknown Collectible

The following article, written by Lady A, Andra Behrendt, was published in the June, 1993 edition of Antiques & Collecting magazine.

Boxes were very much a part of the early twentieth century domestic scene. Owned by both women and men, they often contained items of a personal nature, usually accessories connected to the wardrobe.

Like most small collectibles, boxes were carefully preserved and as a result, are highly collectible today. Regardless of their shape, material or size, they have and always will be functional and practical.

Celluloid covered boxes fit this category. Once selling for as little as 35 cents, they were manufactured in large quantities and were sold by most general merchandise companies such as Sears, Wards and Butler Brothers between 1893 and 1910.

The manufacturing process of celluloid covered boxes was simple. Wooden pieces or heavy cardboard backing were glued into a specific box shape, glove, collar, jewelry or dresser. Sheet celluloid, embossed or lined with a lithograph or colorful paper, was then laid face down across a heated die, conforming it to the backing.

Clear sheet celluloid was often stamped or embossed with flowers or wording such as "neckties" or "gloves" to indicate the intended use of the box.

Machines were used to press cardboard fittings that were glued to the inside of the boxes. They were then lined with silk and sold with the accessories (comb, brush, mirror, manicure or sewing sets).

Celluloid was the first artificial plastic, that is a plastic that evolved through a chemical transformation. Celluloid was also a true thermoplastic; it melted when heated and hardened when cooled.

In 1869 John and Isaiah Hyatt were looking for a substitute for ivory suitable for the manufacture of billiard balls. They added camphor to cellulose nitrate to make it more flexible. They named their discovery "celluloid" and immediately registered the name.

It was, however, Jens Redlefsen and A.C. Hafely who received an initial patent in September 1893 to manufacture celluloid covered boxes.

Hafely worked for the Koch Sons & Co. in Brooklyn, NY. While the history of the Koch Sons & Co. is not extensive, they were listed in the 1906 Thomas Register as a manufacturer of celluloid boxes.

In the early 1900s, Butler Brothers, a wholesale company with stores in Chicago, New York and St. Louis, advertised celluloid covered boxes as well as celluloid covered photograph and autograph albums in many of their catalogs. Their 1906 catalog featured six pages of celluloid items that included 14 different types of boxes. These items were most likely made by the Koch Sons & Co. or competitive manufacturers.

Because many of the purposes for which several celluloid covered boxes were made have become obsolete, they help in the understanding and appreciation of lifestyles that have now disappeared.

Glove, collar and shaving mug boxes were among the popular containers most often given as gift items. Manufacturers mixed and matched the boxes, sometimes assembling them with a top with a lithograph scene that did not correspond to the theme of the box. For example, a box intended to hold a man's collars and cuffs is often found with a colorful lady or floral lithograph. The box was meant to be used as a container for the item and the recipient kept the box.

Celluloid boxes and albums and the colorful lithographs will never again be made as they were in the past, yet a celluloid covered box with a Louis Prang or Frances Brundage lithograph was very significant of its time and certainly adds much warmth and charm to a room today.

Since so few lithographs were signed by the artist, and boxes seldom included identification as to their manufacturer, it is very difficult to determine when and where the items were made.

Old catalogs, however, featuring these items, are a wonderful source for information and it is very exciting to own a box or album that was for sale 90 years ago! In examining a large collection of celluloid covered boxes and albums, if the same paper or lithograph was used on an album, glove, jewelry or dresser box, it is assumed that the same company manufactured all the items.

Celluloid was flammable, and over the years light, heat and natural aging will alter the color of the celluloid and lithograph underneath. Celluloid will also crack or peel, and while tacky glue works well, it should be used sparingly as it will spread and stain the lithograph under the celluloid.

As in all transactions, supply and demand is an important factor in pricing celluloid items. Prices do vary greatly from one area to the next, and because celluloid is growing in popularity, it is difficult to give absolute prices for boxes and albums.

Large upright boxes and extra large albums have been found priced as high as $750 on the East and West Coasts. In the Midwest, $100-$200 seems to be average for a box in top condition. Albums are often priced higher. In addition to condition, prices are usually based on size, shape and lithograph.

It is still a mystery as to why more of the celluloid boxes and albums have not been uncovered. Were they simply not valued and as time went by, just discarded? And, why hasn't more information on the manufacture of these items surfaced? So many questions still remain to be answered about these lovely and unusual collectibles.

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