On the second floor at the Physick Estate, sitting on top of a faux bamboo armoire, we have two Chinese export pigskin boxes. I’ve always wondered whether they were part of Chinese culture, or were created purely for the export market. I’ve just learned that the answer is more complicated than I’d thought. It always is. Apparently, the Chinese have used “wedding boxes” for a thousand years. Before the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) the boxes were undecorated with only the hardware as ornament.
The boxes were used to store the bride’s dowry and were paraded through the streets before the wedding. The size and number of the boxes were a conspicuous symbol of the bride’s family’s wealth and there was great competition to provide enormous displays. It’s a lot like the European tradition of assembling a “hope chest,” but much grander and more elaborate. Through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, they became more elaborate and continued to be used for their original "conspicuous consumption" purpose.
The first of these boxes probably came to Europe and America as souvenirs sent home by missionaries. By the second half of the 19th century, they were being made for the Western market as decorative items. They were extremely popular among “artistic” and “tasteful” folk as part of the general Aesthetic Movement interest in the Far East. The Physick Estate also features Chinese export rosewood stands in the billiard room and some Asian porcelains in the library.
Elan Zingman-Leith is a former curator and board member at MAC. He is an accomplished artist and he and his wife, Susan, own Leith Hall Bed & Breakfast on Ocean Street.