Thanks to their meticulously crafted exteriors and the myriad of exciting objects found within, antique boxes are some of the most intriguing and diverse objets d’art. Antique boxes have been constructed for nearly every purpose imaginable, from leisurely and professional pursuits to purely utilitarian uses. Their individuality makes them highly collectible, and the more rare or specialized the box, the more sought after they become.
Some of the earliest and most enduring categories of antique boxes were nécessaires de voyage. Read on to explore the intricacies of these rare sets.
What is a Nécessaire de Voyage?
Nécessaires de voyage are essentially the Swiss Army Knives of travel! A much more sophisticated version of today’s toiletry or carry-on bags, these boxes were crafted specifically for travel and contained all of the accoutrements one might need for on-the-go purposes, and most commonly grooming, in an easily accessible and organized format. The cabinets, akin to a small suitcase, were comprised of multiple compartments and tiers to be sure there was a place for everything, and that everything was in a designated place. More often than not, they were made on special order to fit an individual’s particular tastes and needs making them all the more refined and unique.
The extravagant writing nécessaire below, for example, was made especially for the personal yacht of Leonard Holmes by Tiffany & Co. The box opens to reveal room for inkwells, writing utensils, letterhead, and a calendar with interchangeable month, day and date cards lines the top, while a removable writing slate and pen holder rests at each side. This would have served Mr. Holmes’s specific correspondence needs while away on holiday on his yacht.
In past centuries, traveling was much more of an ordeal than it is today. Trunks needed to be heavy and bulky to stand up to the jolts and jostles of a cross-country steam engine or trans-Atlantic boat journey. Therefore, travelers needed a convenient means of transporting their personal belongings, or necessities of daily life, while their remaining belongings could be stored in less accessible trunks. These compact nécessaires were an elegant solution.
Although they date back to the late 14th century in France, these boxes’ popularity peaked in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Early French traveling boxes’ contents were mainly utilitarian and almost always made for men. They contained only the most necessary objects needed for grooming and perhaps a few utensils for a convenient quick meal or for writing correspondence. These early kits were typically owned by those of substantial wealth or nobility. The Louis XV-style miniature nécessaire below, for example, is stripped down to only the bare necessities a gentleman would need for a short trip. Its tiny, custom-made tools include a pair of scissors, tweezers, a pencil, straight-edge razor, file and aide-memoire (a “memory aid” or writing pad), and the container itself is a showpiece made of gold-mounted jasper and meant to indicate the status and taste of its owner.
In the 18th century, travel became a popular pastime for Europeans, many of whom were venturing on “The Grand Tour”. Thus, the demand for fitted travel boxes grew. Nécessaires were oriented towards men at first due to the simple fact that they did much more traveling than women. But as it became more socially acceptable for women to travel, especially on the lengthy Grand Tour, ébénistes began making these kits with women in mind.
These cases could be extremely intricate. Take a look below at the contents of one French nécessaire. Tucked inside is a tea and coffee service and all of the essential dining utensils. Beneath a tray of silver forks and spoons, one finds an array of items, from brushes and scissors to a razor and candlestick holder. The vanity mirror, neatly tucked in the interior of the lid, can be removed to stand independently. The case also houses a side drawer that unlocks to reveal a portable leather writing desk with its original two crystal inkwells. It is an exhaustive list - all managing to fit neatly into a box measuring 6 1/2" high x 17" wide x 11 3/4" deep.
At the same time practical and luxurious, nécessaires were a coveted item for any traveler. In a way, nécessaires remain popular today in the form of items like vanity cases, carry-on bags and even compacts, but none reach the level of elegance of these early traveling boxes. To view M.S. Rau’s collection of nécessaires de voyage, click here.