Lifting the lid on a wooden hat box

Courtesy photo THE WHITE GLOVE lifts the lid of a vintage hat box constructed of wood last week while perusing the aisles of a Crest Hill antique mall.
Tonya Michalec

It was the bygone era when men and women dressed to the nines. From head to toe, wherever they went, people during the 19th century wore intricate ensembles donned with elaborate layers and multitudes of accessories.
Of all the frivolities, it was the hat that carried with it the need for proper storage when not in use. Hence the dawning of the hat box or hat tin came about.
The White Glove lifted the lid on one of these vintage storage devices last week while at Gallery 1700, located at 1700 Plainfield Rd., Crest Hill.
Hat boxes were made from a wide range of materials including cardboard, wood, leather or metal. The boxes were meant to keep some of the fancier hats dust free and undamaged on a shelf in the closet or while traveling.
Conventional ones were typically strap-free and made deep and round, or box-like in shape. More luxurious versions often included straps, a carrying handle and even had interiors lined with satin or silk padding.
The large wooden box featured in the photo above is priced at $40 and was designed to protect wide-brimmed hats. It is circular and made from thin, random width planks. The vertical overlapping seams along the side of the box and coordinating lid are secured with round head nails.
Since there is no date on the box it’s difficult to determine its age.
Hat boxes rose in popularity, along with that of the hat, by the early 1800s.
Cave drawings show people wore head pieces over 5,200 years ago. But it was not until the turn of the 19th century that hats became an acceptable item for everyday fashion.
Therefore, it is possible that the window for when this antique box may have been made could be over 200 years ago. Because of this, and according to advice analyst Martin Swinton, this box could be one of the oldest relics found by The White Glove so far.
In his article titled “Antiques and Reproductions: Can You Tell the Difference?”, Swinton delves into antique furniture and how it was crafted during different points in time. His findings and explanations can be used to see when the window of construction would most likely have closed.
According to the analyst, telltale signs of it being a reproduction, made after the fact, would be if it were built with narrow, even width wood boards and fastened with Phillips screws or staples.
Real antique armoires, tables and trunks were in most cases built with wide boards of uneven width - just lie this hat box. This method of construction would have been used for large surfaces, such as the backs of bureaus and drawer bottoms, or for circular shapes like tops and bottoms of hat boxes.
Another point of construction dating can be done by inspecting the hardware. According to Steve Staples, master craftsman and owner of Creative Art Furniture by Staple Cabinet Makers, prior to 1791, nails were forged by hand and had four tapered sides. They were often dubbed as “rose head nails”, since the heads were pinned with four to five hammer blows that caused the surface to bulge out in a flower-like shape.
Afterwards, nails were sheared or cut from thin plates of metal up until the beginning of the 1900s when they began being made of wire as they are today. According to Swinton, a good way to distinguish a 19th century nail from a 20th century nail is by patina.
Prior to the 20th century, hardware was not coated with a lacquer finish to keep it from tarnishing. Keeping that in mind, the hat box in question looks like it’s from the same period when nails had a heavy presence of oxidation.
Recognizing that the first patent for a stapler was not granted until Aug. 7, 1866, it can be gathered that this hat tin pre-dates the invention of the staple that most likely would have been used if it were available. Anyone who has ever tried to nail one end of thin board to the other would surely agree that the right tool for the job would be a staple gun.
With all things considered, the handmade hat box discovered by The White Glove was most likely constructed between 1800 and 1866, making it roughly anywhere from 151 to 217-years-old.
Hat boxes have made a  comeback as a form of interior design. Instead of using them to store hats, people are using them for home decor. Along with positioning them on top of their bureaus and armoires for an added touch of yesteryear, hat tins are also being used in stacks for mundane storage bins that double as side tables. As they did with hats, the boxes are just the trick to safely tuck away personal treasures such as photographs and greeting cards.
According to a popular on-line auction site, hat buckets are priced from $25 to $65, depending on size, age and condition.
Contact writer Tonya Michalec