A shadowbox is a framed box, usually square or rectangular in shape, with a glass front; it is used for displaying and protecting valued items. Often, a shadowbox looks similar to a framed picture or painting, but rather than simply displaying a picture behind glass, a shadowbox is a shallow box full of treasured or important items.
There are varying accounts of the history of the shadowbox. In the middle of the 19th century, many of the Victorian elite enjoyed viewing the world through their Sterio-Opticans. These were small boxes with a scope through which viewers looked at bright paintings and rare photographs of sights around the world. The Sterio-Opticans were so sought after that the women of that time period began putting together small boxes with pictures and other items, which did not require the viewer to look through the small scope. These new boxes became known as some of the first shadowboxes.
Of course there are other stories about the origins of the shadowbox. Naval tradition has handed down the ritual of making and giving a shadowbox to a sailor or officer who is retiring or leaving a ship. According to legend, it is bad luck for a sailor's shadow to touch land before his body does. The other sailors would create a shadowbox for the departing sailor, where they might put souvenirs, a flag, medals, travel memorabilia, and other items to remind the sailor of his beloved ship and shipmates. The shadowbox would contain the sailor's "shadow" until he was safely ashore. Today, the other military branches often give shadowboxes to departing soldiers or officers, as well.
Closer to home, a shadowbox can commemorate a vacation, a birth, a marriage, a graduation, a retirement, a collection, or any special occasion. Toys, trinkets, baby items, photos, ticket stubs, dried flowers, golf cards and balls, ceremonial programs, or any other desired items may be put into a shadowbox. The wooden, outer framed portion of the shadowbox may be painted to match the color of a room where it will likely hang on the wall, or it may simply be stained or left in its natural state. The glass cover of the shadowbox may be tinted, etched, or left clear.
A shadowbox is a very personal creation. Whether one receives a shadowbox as a gift or makes one for oneself, it is a treasure to be kept and handed down for generations.