What is this?
A dressing case that belonged to Commodore William Bainbridge
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
This dressing case or “vanity box” belonged to Commodore William Bainbridge, captain of Constitution during her engagement with the British frigate Java on December 29, 1812. Bainbridge would have used this box to carry his toiletries. The elegant case’s interior was fitted with compartments, each originally containing a razor or strop, perfume bottles, scissors, tweezers, combs, and other grooming tools. Stylistically, the case is very similar to English examples of the period. It was probably made by a Boston cabinetmaker in the early 19th century. Unlike the more public commemorative pieces celebrating Bainbridge’s victory, this was a personal, private memorial to his success, one that reminded him of his achievements every time he shaved or combed his hair.
In the early nineteenth century both ladies and gentlemen used boxes like this to carry personal items while traveling. Thomas Sheraton, in his The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing Book of 1793 features “a lady’s travelling box” with many of the same features as this example. Occasionally these boxes doubled as writing desks, with a baize-covered writing surface and compartments for pens and ink bottles.
The mahogany case measures 10 ¼ inches wide, 8 ½ inches deep and 4 ¾ inches high. Brass bumpers protect the top and bottom corners, while brass straps reinforce the center drawer front. The center of the lid bears a brass plate engraved “Como Bainbridge.” The interior is lined with fairly wide rosewood [?] veneers. Groves in sides and bottom indicate that it was originally partitioned into at least six compartments. The lower drawer is 9 ¼ inches wide, but only 1 ½ inches deep. The lock escutcheon is missing, but the mechanism is intact. Two recessed carrying handles of brass are set in the ends. Pasted inside the lid is a calling card of donor James Barnes, on which is written “Toilet case of Commodore Wm Bainbridge/ made out of the wood of the Constitution/ after her action with H.M.S. Java/ presented by/ James Barnes/ Com. Bainbridge’s great grandson/ Princeton/ Colonel, A.C.R./U.S.A.