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Antique boxes and chests: The art of packing, colonial style

Ever wondered how our expatriate precursors lugged their gear around the world? Turns out, they knew how to pack with more than a little flair. “When India was under colonial rule, local artisans created pieces of furniture specifically for expat residents and traders,” says antiques expert and Past Perfect owner Marie-Hélène. “These elegant pieces blended British Regency and Victorian styles with native craftsmanship and typical Indian ornamentation.”

A far cry from today’s flatly functional wash bags, suitcases and packing boxes, it’s no surprise these beautiful boxes, chests and trunks were treasured by their owners and are still highly prized today.  The combination of the best craftsmanship, decorative materials and techniques of the age, along with their endless variety, makes colonial boxes and chests so attractive to collectors. Here’s a breakdown of the luggage of the past…

Writing boxes

Stationed far from home, officials were obliged to send regular written communications about trade and local political developments. “These had to be copied three or four times, which must have made writing and document boxes almost indispensable items of furniture,” says Marie-Hélène.

home decor, antiques, colonial furniture
Decoration often featured intricate inlay work of contrasting ivory and ebony, or elaborate brass mounts in geometric and floral patterns.

“These ornate pieces, derived from the Western-style writing box, or escritoire, were introduced into India during the East India Company era. The interior has places for pens, inkpots and other odds and ends. Some open in tiers, revealing complex arrangements of compartments, sliding shelves and secret drawers.”

Vanity cases

Especially popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the portable personal dressing box (or vanity case) came about due to increased mobility for social reasons.

“Ladies of the higher social echelons made long house visits to the stately homes of their friends,” explains Marie-Hélène, “and their vanity box would command pride of place on the dressing table.”

home decor, antiques, colonial furniture
The very quality and aesthetic standard of both the vanity box and its contents conferred on the owner the stamp of elegance and distinction.

The ultimate lifestyle accessory, vanity boxes not only kept personal belongings in a compact and elegant manner, they also became a symbol of social status, style ranking and, of course, wealth.


“After chairs and settees, large chests were the most common item of furniture for the European colonists in India,” Marie-Hélène says. “The many moves from post to post undertaken by trading company officials made the chest an indispensable item of furniture in every household. They served as packing cases in which desirable goods such as tea, Indian textiles or even silver plates could be stored when the officials were either transferred or repatriated.”

home decor, antiques, colonial furniture
The ornate mounts and hinges on these magnificent chests often featured “jali” work, whose delicate patterns let the wood show through.

These elaborately decorated chests came in all sizes and woods. For example, camphor, with its fresh scent and insect-repelling properties, was a popular choice for storage chests in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Adorned with brass mounts, decorative hinges and intricate patterns of studs, every piece is unique.

Visit the Past Perfect showroom at the Sime Darby Centre, 896 Dunearn Road and check them out for yourself between 15 September and 15 October. Like all of the Past Perfect collection, each piece has been hand-picked by Marie-Hélène and her husband Pieter from stately colonial homes in India before being carefully restored by a team of highly trained craftsmen.

The Past Perfect Collection
315 Outram Road #11-05 Tan Boon Liat Building Singapore 169074
6737 3078 | pastperfect.sg | Pinterest | Facebook | Instagram

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