The origins of the French travelling box date back to the late 14th century, with some of the earliest examples containing the most basic equipment for personal grooming.
Over the centuries these boxes, most often the property of royalty, nobleman and other wealthy individuals, evolved from purely useful travel accessories into decorative and valuable luxury accessories. With these boxes gaining popularity, variations for toiletries, eating and drinking, sewing, writing, and other scientific purposes were manufactured. During the mid to late 18th century, Ébénistes (cabinetmakers) and Orfèvres (goldsmiths/ silversmiths), recognising their customer’s expanding needs and requirements when travelling, began manufacturing sets that contained all the necessities together. Known as a Nécessaire de Voyage or simply, a Nécessaire, these boxes were made for both ladies and gentlemen, and predated the English dressing cases significantly.
Nécessaires often set themselves apart from their English counterparts by the ingenuity of their interior placement design, as well as their exterior design. Apart from the typical cuboid form, French Ébénistes manufactured Nécessaires in a narrower but deeper form (in the case of the masculine ‘portemanteau’ varieties), or even a curved, radial edged or ellipsoid form. Favouring woods like Mahogany, Walnut, Rosewood, Palisander, Ebony, Elm, Kingwood and Thuya, characteristically French boxes could also include the usage of extravagant brass inlay, Boulle-work (brass inlaid into turtle shell), engraved metalwork, or various woods in combination with each other.
Most of the finest manufacturers and retailers of these Nécessaires were based within very close proximity to the Palais Royal in Paris; some located in grand arcades within the grounds of the palace itself, known as the Galeries du Palais Royal.
Dressing Case Tools and Accessories
Vanity and travelling tools were essential components of most dressing cases and vanity boxes. Tools such as scissors, tweezers, nail files, retractable pencils etc, were often present in both ladies and gentlemen’s versions. Gentlemen’s dressing cases might also include cut throat razors, shaving brushes and boot jacks, whereas the ladies equivalents tended to incorporate sewing related tools such as needle cases, crochet hooks, bodkins and thimbles etc.
The tools themselves were manufactured from steel, brass or silver; these were sometimes then gilded for decoration as well as for stain resistance. Mother of pearl, ivory, bone, brass or silver were popular choices for the tool handles, and some of these finishes were further enhanced with engraving, engine turning, gilding, chasing, repousse or plating etc.
The photo below shows a detailed view of the vanity tool compartment from an 1884 Coromandel dressing case with Betjemann Patent mechanism, by Jenner & Knewstub.
- 2. Pair of scissors. 3. Retractable tooth pick. 4. Stiletto/ Awl. 5. Double-ended medicine spoon. 6. Napkin hook. 7. Penknife 8. Pair of scissors. 9. Nail file and cuticle scraper. 10. Tweezers. 11. Bodkin/ ribbon threader. 12. Pair of scissors. 13. Mordan & Co retractable pencil. 14. Hinged perfume bottle corkscrew. 15. Crochet hook. 16. Pencil lead case. 17. Hinged glove buttoning hook. 18. Needle case. 19. Pair of scissors. 20. Wax seal stamp. 21. Bodkin/ ribbon threader. 22. Button hook.
- Hair and clothes brushes, combs, glove stretchers and shoe horns were sometimes included within the lower levels of the box, or inside the fitted drawers. They were manufactured from ivory, bone or silver and often further decorated with matching monograms or crests etc. The bristles of both hair and clothes brushes were usually made from boar hair, set into numerous rows of securing bore holes.
- Glove stretchers or ‘glove expanders’ are essentially two prongs joined by a spring-loaded hinge. They were inserted into the fingers of the glove, and by pressing the handles together, the prongs would open out and thus stretch the finger compartments. Glove stretchers were indispensable for use with kid goat skin gloves, a very popular tight-fitting fashion accessory for the Victorian lady.
French Nécessaire de Voyage Contents
The Nécessaire de Voyage was an earlier French equivalent of the English dressing case, often more comprehensively equipped for travel. Larger sets could include kettles with heating burners, tea caddies, tea and coffee pots, cream jugs, sugar bowls, porcelain cups and saucers, sets of cutlery, drinking glasses, as well as sizeable items like silver wash basins, ewers, serving trays and removable candlesticks.
In order to fit such an assortment of items into a box whilst maintaining its portability and aesthetics, greater importance was directed to the placement of the interior fittings; with jigsaw-like precision, layered trays of tools and utensils nested in and around, underneath and above the other fittings, with virtually no space left unused. Some of the contents fitted neatly within each other, like a Russian Matryoshka doll, in order to maximise the limited room available.
Index of French Makers and Retailers
Directory of French Nécessaire de Voyage and Nécessaire de Toilette manufacturers and retailers during the 18th and 19th Century.
Année – Th. Année et A. Hayet (Théodore Année and Hyppolito-Hector-Amédée Hayet): 13, 18 & 22 Rue Chapon, Paris.
Th. Année et A. Hayet established: 1839.
Aucoc – Aucoc Ainé – Louis Aucoc Fils – La Maison Aucoc (Jean-Baptiste Casimir Aucoc, Louis Aucoc Ainé (the elder), Louis Aucoc Jr and André Aucoc: 154 Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris – 4 & 6 Rue de la Paix, Paris.
Business established: 1821.
See our section on Aucoc
Audige: 44 Rue Notre Dame Des Victoires, Paris – Rue Du Cimetiere St Nicolas, Paris.
Audot: 1 Rue Neuve-Montmorency-Feydeau, Paris – 81 Rue de Richelieu, Paris.
Badin – Badin fils : Palais-Royal No.152, Paris – Palais-Royal, Galerie de Pierre No.177, Paris.
J.F Balon: Palais-Royal, Galerie de Pierre No.161, Paris.
Berthet: 198 Rue du Temple, Paris.
Berthet & Peret: 13 Rue Montmorency, Paris.
Biennais (Martin-Guillaume Biennais): Au Singe Violet, 509, 510 & 511 Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris. The address numbers were changed in 1790 to 119 & 121 Rue Saint-Honoré, then changed again in 1805 to 281 & 283 Rue Saint-Honoré.
Business established: 1788.
Boin Taburet (George Boin and Emile Taburet): 3 Rue Pasquier, Paris.
Business established: 1873 – 1900.
- Bonnet: Place Bellecour No.22 & 57, Lyon.
Boudet: 143 & 144 Palais Royal, Paris.
- Christophe: Rue du Temple 83, Paris.
Daubrée (Alfred Daubrée): 21 Rue St-Dizier, Nancy – 85 Rue Montmartre, Paris.
Charles-Guillaume Diehl: 3 Rue de Thorigny, Paris – 170 Rue Saint-Martin, Paris – 16, 19 and 21 Rue Michel-le-Comte, Paris. Workshop: 39 Rue Saint-Sebastien, Paris.
Business established: c.1840.
Dujat (Louis Dujat) – Maison Smal L. Dujat: Palais Royal, Galerie Montpensier 7 & 8, Paris.
Fenoux: 119, 120 & 121 Galerie de Valois, Palais Royal, Paris.
Garnesson (Hippolyte Garnesson): Palais-Royal No. 21, 22 & 225, Paris – Galerie de Pierre No. 155 & 156, Paris.
Giroux – Maison Alphonse Giroux – Alphonse Giroux & Cie – Giroux & Cie (François-Simon-Alphonse Giroux, Alphonse-Gustave Giroux and Andre Giroux): 7 Rue du Coq-Saint-Honoré, Paris – 43 Boulevard des Capucines (adjoining Rue Neuve des Capucines 24), Paris.
Business established: 1799 – 1867.
See our section on Giroux
Goebel & Martin: 6 Rue des Quatre-Fils, Paris.
Hébert: Galerie de Bois No. 258, Palais Royal, Paris – Galerie de Pierre No.20, Palais Royal, Paris.
Herbin Pere et Fils: 52 Rue de la Verrerie, Paris.
Kapp & Staudinger: 157 Rue du Temple, Paris.
- Klein (August Klein): 6 & 8 Boulevard des Capucines, Paris – Neubau, Andreasgasse 6, Vienna (Manufactory) – Stadt Graben 20, Vienna – 75 Wimpole Street, London.
Laurent & Leruth: 5 Rue de Chapon, Paris.
Lemaire: 8 Rue du Roule, Paris.
Pierre Leplain: 36 Rue Saint Eloi, Paris – 186 rue Saint Martin, Paris.
Leroux: Palais Royal 171, Paris.
Mace et Boulanger: Rue Chapon 4, Paris.
Maire (Pierre-Dominique Maire): 43 & 154 Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris.
Marot (possibly Antoine Auguste Marot): Passage des Panoramas No. 50, Paris.
Midocq & Gaillard (Noel-Etienne Midocq and Edouard-Auguste Gaillard): 63 Rue du temple, Paris.
Monbro – Monbro Aîné – Monbro Fils Aîné (Georges Marie Paul Vital Bonifacio Monbro & Georges Alphonse Bonifacio Monbro): 215 Rue de Beauregard (passage de la Boucherie), Paris – Rue Français No. 8, Paris – Rue Bourg-l’Abbé, Paris – Rue du Cimetière St. Nicolas, No. 5, Paris – 18, 32 & 44 Rue Basse du Rempart, Paris – 2 Rue Boudreau, Paris – 370 Oxford Street, London – 2 Frith Street, London – Rue de l’Arcade 56, Paris. Warehouse: 17, 18 & 19 Rue du Helder, Paris.
Business established: 1801.
Gabriel Raoul Morel: 7 Rue Neuve des Bon Enfants, Paris.
Palma (Jean-Philippe Palma): 34 Vieille Rue du Temple, Paris. The address number was changed in 1790 to 722 Vieille Rue du Temple.
Pradier (Michel Desiré Pradier): 13 & 22 Rue Bourg-l’Abbé, Paris.
Paul Sormani – Veuve Paul Sormani et Fils (Paul Sormani, Paul-Charles Sormani and Ursule-Marie Philippine Bouvaist: 7 Rue du Cimetière Saint Nicolas, Paris – 14 Rue du Temple, Paris – 10 Rue Charlot, Paris.
Business established: 1847.
Tahan (Pierre-Lambert Tahan and Jean-Pierre-Alexandre Tahan): 29 Rue Quincampoix, Paris – 10 Rue Basse-du-Rempart, Paris – 161 Rue Saint-Martin, Paris – 30 & 34 Rue de la Paix, Paris – 11 Boulevard des Italiens, Paris.
Business established: c.1806 – 1882.
Taulin: Palais-Royal No.131, Paris.
Vedel: 91 Rue de Richelieu, Paris.
Vervelle (Jean-François Vervelle and Alexandre-Louis Vervelle): 1 Rue Neuve-de-Montmorency, Paris.
Asprey Patent Bramah Lock
Asprey Patent locks were essentially Bramah locks that had been customised using Asprey’s own patented design. A normal box lock would simply be left in the unlocked position unless it was manually locked with a key. This meant that a forgetful, or over-trusting owner could easily leave the box unprotected and vulnerable. To try and combat this issue, some Bramah locks were modified by using a spring-loaded self-locking mechanism that automatically locks the box when the lid is closed. The key would then have to be used each time you wanted to open the box. However, this wasn’t a perfect solution as it would now mean that the key would need to be stored separately from the box, and indeed what happens if the key is accidently left in the box after its been closed?
Asprey’s solution was to take the self-locking Bramah lock and spring-load the front aperture mechanism, sliding it either across or downwards to disengage the locking mechanism; releasing hold of the front aperture immediately returns the locking mechanism to its locked position. If the key is misplaced or left inside the box, the box can still be opened using this very discrete action.
The purpose of the key is to lock the spring-loaded front aperture mechanism in place; in this state the box is completely deadlocked.
Asprey Patent locks were made with such precision, that unless you were aware about this sliding mechanism, you would not guess of its existence. The only visible sign differentiating this version from a more standard Bramah lock is the stamp ‘Asprey’s Patent’ on the circumference of the lock.
French Box Design
The French ébénistes (cabinetmakers) enjoyed a reputation for the artistic and decorative expression they applied to their box manufacture; this being amplified, in the opinion of some, when compared to their more ‘reserved’ British counterparts. Whether it be in the use of extravagant brass and metal inlay, Boulle-work (brass inlaid into turtle shell), engraved metalwork, various woods in combination with each other, or unusually shaped exterior casings, their boxes are unmistakably French in style despite the diversity of their aesthetics. The French design influences weren’t lost on the British and indeed vice versa.
Whilst Mahogany, Walnut, Rosewood and Kingwood were favoured by both British and French box manufacturer’s alike, the use of woods like Palisander, Ebony, Elm and Thuya were more often seen on the French examples.
Some early nineteenth century French gentleman’s travelling boxes (including those belonging to officers within the military) were sculpted into tactile oblong, radial edged, cylindrical or ellipsoid form from solid Mahogany.
With fewer restrictions on portability, and with contemporary fashions and tastes dictating, the ladies’ equivalents tended to be larger and more lavish, yet still retaining the conventional cuboid form.
French boxes are also immediately recognisable by their lock fittings; cylindrical links to the top link plate and circular entry points to the main lock housing. These attributes, though subtle, weren’t found on British boxes which instead had cuboid links to the top link plate and rectangular entry points to the main lock housing.
Taking over from Pierre-Dominique Maire, the highly respected ‘Nécessaire de Voyage’ manufacturer, the company of Aucoc was started by Jean-Baptiste Casimir Aucoc in 1821. Based at 154 Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, Casimir worked primarily a silversmith, his speciality also being in the manufacture of ‘Nécessaire de Voyage’ dressing and travelling cases. His reputation for fine work gained him the appointment to King Charles X. In 1835, he moved the business to 4 & 6 Rue de la Paix in Paris, expanding into goldsmithing. Casimir was joined in business by his son, Louis around 1850, and they went on to win a prize medal for their dressing cases at the Great Exhibition of 1851. By 1854, Louis was at the forefront of the business after Casimir’s retirement that same year. On the birth of Louis’ son (also called Louis) in 1850, Louis (the father) was then referred to as Louis Ainé (the elder).
Louis Aucoc Ainé kept up the the great tradition of manufacturing and retailing Nécessaires, whilst also expanding further into the production of decorative jewellery. By this time, the business had acquired appointments to King Louis-Philippe I and then Napoleon III, as well as other members of the royal family. It was during the mid 1870’s, that Louis’ son took over the helm of the business. In 1876, a sixteen year old Rene Lalique was given an apprenticeship by Louis Aucoc, which was to last two years. On the purchase of the Parisian jewellery business of Lobjois in 1877, Louis renamed the family business to La Maison Aucoc. In 1900, Louis’s younger brother, André, was in control of the business, returning it to its roots by focusing again on silversmithing.
Maison Alphonse Giroux was established in 1799 by Francois-Simon-Alphonse Giroux, an art restorer, cabinet maker and one of the official restorers for the Notre Dame Cathedral. Based at 7, Rue du Coq-Saint-Honoré in Paris, the business initially started selling artist’s supplies, as well the products of his cabinetmaking work. The nature of the business soon expanded into the manufacturing and retailing of luxury goods and artwork, attracting the keen attention of french kings and members of the royal families.
His sons, André and Alphonse-Gustave joined the business in 1834. Upon the retirement of Francois-Simon-Alphonse Giroux in 1838, his eldest son, Alphonse-Gustave Giroux, took over the business as named ‘Alphonse Giroux et Cie’. Under his control, the business gained further acclaim for the quality of their work and merchandise, winning a silver medal at the 1839 Exposition des Produits de L’industrie Française.
In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, inventor of the Daguerrotype photographic process and its associated camera, signed one of two exclusive contracts with Alphonse-Gustave Giroux (his brother-in-law), to manufacture and retail the camera through his business.
In 1857, the business moved to 43 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, their exclusive dual aspect department store, extending to the adjacent Rue Neuve des Capucines 24.
The business was taken over by Duvinage and Harinckouk in 1867.