Intricate cases such as these were used for public display on the sideboards of the early American elite. Despite the name, these boxes generally held an array of eating utensils including marrow spoons and forks. In the 18th century they were generally called knife cases but this changed in the 19th century to knife box. Typically knife boxes were made in pairs and came in two shapes– the earlier version in the shape of an urn, and the later a box shape with a slanted lid and bombe front like the one at Hammond-Harwood House. Early boxes often had a shagreen exterior that was generally made from shark or fish skin, tanned a dark color. Later boxes were made of luxury exotic woods like mahogany. According to the 1793 Cabinet Makers London Book of Prices, the average knife case held space for three dozen knives, forks, and spoons. English knife boxes often had a fabric lining in deep red or green that created a protective barrier between the wood and the cutlery. Intended for display, these boxes were often left open to impress guests with the intricate inlay on the interior, like the star inlay on these pieces.
Spoons were displayed right side up so that their silver could be seen, while knives and forks were put handle side up to show that they were made of materials like ivory, agate, tortoise shell, and silver. The silver in the knife boxes on display during gatherings of the gentry stood in stark contrast to the bone or wood utensils brought by guests at lower class American dinner parties. Rooms were versatile in the late 18th and early 19th century so these knife boxes can be seen in paintings of parlors and even entryways; however, the boxes were most frequently seen on dining room sideboards, as English cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite suggests.
While these knife cases are British, Annapolis cabinetmakers did make knife boxes as well. Edward Priestly, who later worked in Baltimore, and John Shaw likely produced versions. The Chesapeake region in particular made the largest variety of knife boxes–in forms such as columns, elliptic, and quasi-urns.
Knife boxes fell out of favor in the 19th century as the cost of silver dropped and no longer held the same status. They were replaced with knife trays until the 20th century, when casual dining made such containers superfluous. Appreciators of history and the decorative arts can admire these little pieces for their unique design and representation of formal dining in the past.
By Rachel Lovett, Curator & Assistant Director