Artifact of the Week: Puzzle Boxes

We have two Puzzle Boxes sitting in our Drawing Room! Both of them require different steps and a different number of steps to open. The two boxes contain one note in each. The smaller box note reads “The Box made in Hakone near Tokyo”; and the larger box contains an ivory elephant and a page that reads “With Compliments of Mr. T.ASO. – Owner of the Sansuien – Beppu Hot Spring, Japan.”
Conflicting sources claim that the boxes were made in Hakone near Tokyo, or made in Switzerland and other parts of Europe and America. The boxes made in the Hakone region of Japan are known as “Himitsu-Bako” which had been used as small personal storage boxes to protect their items. The oldest “Japanese Puzzle” in the Slocum collection is dated 1872, but it was not designed or made in Japan. In 1749, this design was described in “Les Amusemens” as manufactured by E.A. Howland in Worcester, Massachusetts. Why “The Japanese Puzzle” then? Most likely it was because Japan was closed to the outside world from the mid 17th century until the mid 19th century. Artistic movements capitalized on the interest of the exotic unknowns of Japan.

The 17th century trend of Chinoiserie (European interpretation and imitation of Chinese and East Asian artistic tradition) was popularized in the 18th century from the influence of Athanasius Kircher’s study of Orientalism, and is similar to the elaborate decoration of the Rococo style. This imitation inspires attraction of collecting objects exhibiting Asian culture. Most of the designs were on decorative arts, furniture, and architecture. This artistic movement was continued in the Europeanized wooden toy trend and other fashions, but began to decline in popularity as the neoclassical era began in the 1760s.
Not enough detail is contained in our collection to tell how both of these were acquired by the Hillary Family. Nora Hillary loved to travel and has been to Japan once making it highly possible that these are souvenirs. The paper from Beppu Hot Spring, Japan in the larger box makes this even more likely. Magazines also sold toy boxes and had a large collection of “Japanese Puzzles” available for order beginning around World War One. The more complex the puzzle, the more expensive it was, with puzzles ranging from 15 cents to 1 dollar.

Watch our puzzle box in action below:
Puzzle Box

Further reading on Japanese Wood Puzzles: