Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

ca. 1790-1800
United Kingdom: England: Bilston (possible)
metal; enamel on copper
Overall: 7/8 in x 1 13/16 in x 1 5/8 in; 2.2225 cm x 4.60375 cm x 4.1275 cm
"American INDEPENDENCE For [space] ever" [sic] in brown with bellflower- and acanthus-swag beneath decorates the lid
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Roger G. Gerry
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

This small box was probably made during the last quarter of the eighteenth century or in the early nineteenth century in Bilston, England, one of several South Staffordshire towns noted for its production of small enamel-on-copper wares.1Susan Benjamin, English Enamel Boxes from the Eighteenth Century to the Twentieth Century (London: Orbis Publishing, 1978), 51–94; see also Nina Fletcher Little, Neat & Tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American Households (1980; reprint, Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2001), 93. Most motto boxes of this type were made as souvenirs, but a few, including this one, have political or patriotic associations.  The simple inscription— “American INDEPENDENCE For ever,” painted in brown on a white background—indicates that this box was produced for an American consumer.  While seemingly straightforward, this motto was politically charged in the volatile political climate of the 1790s and early 1800s, when the Fourth of July and other commemorative celebrations took on partisan meanings.  This box, which celebrates independence rather than echoing popular Federalist toasts such as “the Constitution” or “The Constituted Authorities,” may have been meant as an expression of support for Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Democratic Republicans and author of the Declaration of Independence.2Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 83–119; and Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 69–106. It is also possible that it was meant as a statement of a more neutral character.  When asked to provide a toast for the local Fourth of July celebration in 1826, John Adams, who, like his old political rival Jefferson was on his deathbed, replied “I will give you ‘Independence forever!’”3David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 645.

Barbara McLean Ward

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.