world of boxes

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History of Box-Making in Poland

The making of decorated wooden boxes has deep historical roots in southern Poland. Farmers and shepherds settled the Tatra region of the Carpathian mountains, a region called Podhale, toward the end of the first millennium AD. During the long winter months, as their fields lay under cover of snow, farmers spent their free time working wood. Every member of the family participated in decoration. The first products of this community were objects of everyday use: wooden houses, furniture, coat hangers, spoons, and large chests to store clothes and bedding. The oldest tradition preserved the white color of wood, ornamented with small carved triangles, circles, lines, mountain flowers and rosettes. Colored stains, originally brown and green, added a new dimension to the designs. Surface preservation techniques such as waxing and oiling were developed in local workshops.

Wooden objects were bartered between local families, and in the course of time some artists achieved prominence, earning them nicknames that were recorded for posterity. The most popular artisans specialized in carving wooden figures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and saints. These figures were used to protect fields, roads and houses. A visitor to the Polish countryside can still find them today.

Ornamented dowry chests were another popular product of this tradition. A bride's dowry consisted of a variety of household objects given to her along with a large wooden chest decorated with traditional symbols of love and prosperity - birds, flowers and hearts. After marriage, families used these chests to hold their most precious belongings - money, jewelry, and important papers. A metal lock or secret opening mechanism was often added to protect the contents from children and strangers.

Box-Making in the Industrial Age

The Tatra Mountains, where Poland's box-making traditions arose.
After more than 1,000 years as an important part of rural life, Podhalan woodworking caught the attention of city dwellers in the late 19th century. This discovery was a product of the neo-romantic movement, a major historical and intellectual development in Central Europe. Many artists, writers, and scholars were disillusioned with the bleak life of early industrial cities. They studied folk culture of the countryside and praise what they feared were its vanishing virtues. They also collected folk art and placed it on par with the "high culture" of the urban museum, resulting in detailed study and documentation of folk art styles and techniques. Romantic writings on Podhalan folk culture resulted in a tourist boom in the southern town of Zakopane and the surrounding Tatra Mountains. In addition to enjoying the spectacular mountain scenery, visitors hoped to collect a souvenir of the local culture. Podhalan craftspeople transformed their traditional dowry chest into small, ornately decorated wooden boxes that visitors could take home as their personal link to the folk tradition.

After World War II, the Polish communist government found its own reasons to continue encouragement of the box-making tradition: Marxist ideology called for development of the artistic talents and traditions of the common people. The government established local art co-operatives, which organized the production and marketing of traditional crafts. Wooden boxes were obtained from dozens of small family workshops in the countryside, and a few larger workshops in southern Polish towns. Decoration was done by individual craftspeople, mostly working at home.

Most local art cooperatives were in turn members of Cepelia, the national arts and crafts institution, which set up very stringent controls and standards on craft production and completely monopolized trade in crafts. This policy resulted in rigid, inefficient production of high quality, uncommercialized hand-made products. Wood-burning and brass inlay were added as decoration techniques, and modern varnishes applied to protect all decorated surfaces.

In 1989, the communists lost power in Poland and economic "shock therapy" was applied by the new government to hasten the arrival of capitalist prosperity. Arts cooperatives lost their government subsidies. The box-making industry was forced to reorganize, and its survival was threatened. The Polish domestic market turned its attention to newly available western goods, and quickly lost interest in traditional crafts. Other Eastern European markets collapsed for similar reasons. The only chance to save the cottage industry was exports to the USA and Western Europe.

This challenge was met by Enchanted World of Boxes, a company established in Boston in 1990. Its goal was to preserve traditional polish box-making industry but at the same time to infuse it with new life by and introducing contemporary and international designs. EWB now offers more than 300 different traditional and contemporary designs of decorated boxes. Every year, new designs and models are introduced reflecting local interests and international trends. Recent themes include religious and cultural symbols of the world, celestial designs, animals of land and sea, new age and astrology, and American patriotic designs. EWB has also begun importing unfinished boxes for the use of American artists and hobbyists.

House of a carpenter who makes boxes,
near Zakopane.  Next year's wood
is drying in the yard.
As living standards rise in Poland, it has become difficult to produce the largest, most ornate traditional boxes at prices that most consumers can afford. Like so much of traditional culture around the world, these objects are an endangered species, and might soon disappear. Enchanted World of Boxes offers one of the last opportunities to collect and preserve a thousand-year tradition.