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History of Military Shadow Boxes their tradition.

Here is a history of military shadow boxes and their tradition. When military personnel retire they are often presented with a custom display case in which to store their national flag, medals, and other marks of honor. While these cases are in common use today they have a rich and interesting history that includes a very different original purpose. As with many military traditions it is best appreciated with a full understanding of its past and how it arrived at its present state.

Shadow boxes are used by every branch of the United States military, and by armed services and civilian agencies worldwide, but their origin lies in naval tradition. Naval lore is filled with quaint and interesting superstitions. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner gives us the origin of the fear of bad luck following the killing of an albatross. Greek myth provides tales of the monstrous Kraken that could attack ships at sea. A lesser-known fear provides the origin point of shadow boxes.

Anchor Shadow Box

Shadows have often been thought to have dark and dangerous connotations. Stepping on a person’s shadow was once thought to bring them harm. The term shade, a name for ghosts, springs from the idea that ghosts were made from the material of unattended shadows. In English naval lore of centuries ago shadows had another dangerous superstition associated with them: if a sailor retired and left a ship for the last time, and his shadow touched land before he stepped ashore, it was considered an omen of terrible luck to follow.

In centuries past making a career of sailing was similar in some ways to how we perceive employment from generations ago. Just as our forefathers might select a career, get a job, and work for the same company till retirement, so it was with sailors. They would typically become sailors and serve aboard a single vessel for their entire careers, with the ship becoming their actual home. Their crewmates became an extended family, and officers became its patriarch.

For this reason retirement was a very important time in a sailor’s life. It meant giving up a home in which he had lived for years, or even decades. It meant leaving behind a family he had known since he was first able to work. Ships faced enormous danger at sea and the bonds among crewmen were forged in a life-and death career.

When leaving the ship, with its attendant superstition about the risk of bad luck depending upon whether a man’s foot or shadow struck land first, it was thought important to protect departing comrades from that risk. Much as people sometimes throw salt over their shoulders or whistle in the dark, they developed a ritual to ward off bad luck. The ritual was the presentation of a shadow box.

At the outset a shadow box was a very literally named item. It was a wooden box, that being the primary constriction material available at sea in an age of wooden ships, in which crewman would place items meant to be a representation of the departing sailor’s shadow. At that time navies often had conscript sailors whose entire list of possessions consisted of whatever small knickknacks they had accumulated during a career at sea, typically items collected at their various ports-of-call.

Space on wooden sailing vessels of the pre-internal-combustion-engine era was very limited. This ensured no sailor would own a large collection of items and that possessions were generally tiny. It was a simple matter to place a retiring sailor’s entire set of worldly possessions in a box small enough for him to carry in his hands.

The possessions in the box were a symbolic representation of the sailor himself. While carrying it he was said to be carrying his own shadow in hand. So long as he set foot ashore before setting down the box the superstition was satisfied and future curses of bad luck were avoided.

The original shadow boxes were very simple items. They were wood frames with four sides and a bottom, often lacking even a rudimentary cover. Over time two things would change that brought about changes in the construction of the boxes.

First, militaries around the world began filling their ranks with volunteers. While conscript sailors were, in many cases, little more than slaves at sea volunteers were free to enlist at any time, and could leave their seagoing service at the end of virtually any voyage. Loyalty was now a concern in order to keep experienced sailors working aboard ship.

That meant military life slowly transformed into more of a professional career, with greater pay, more benefits, and of particular importance here, more attention to recognition of service and achievement. While original shadow boxes needed only to be sturdy containers in which someone could place what amounted to junk and trinkets for a walk measured in the distance from one end of a gangplank to the other, new versions needed to be more ornate. Sailors who had accumulated many marks of service, honors, and medals didn’t want to just chuck them into a cheap receptacle for a twenty-foot walk. They wanted containers that would show respect for the symbols of merit they had earned.

The second item was the spread of education. As sailors grew more educated around the globe they lost the superstition of bad luck based upon a shadow touching the ground. They saw shadow boxes as a formal tradition rather than a supernatural one. In addition to the cases becoming sturdier and more formal, they also became keepsakes meant as display cases rather than being little more than a crate for small possessions.

Over time the boxes evolved to have more complex, more ornate, and more beautiful designs. Some were built in styles mimicking the stereopticons of the 1800s, which were enclosed boxes with viewing scopes attached. They protected the contents while allowing people to examine them through a periscope-like device attached to the box.

Present-day boxes generally have sides and a bottom or backing, and a clear cover constructed of transparent plastics or display-grade glass. As the popularity of shadow boxes grew they were adopted by different branches of service, many nations, and many civilian agencies like fire departments and police forces. Styles indicative of the service from which a person retires are numerous, varied, and often built with great care by woodworking artisans.

While there are no carved-in-stone rules on how the items in a shadow box must be displayed some services do provide guidelines. Generally speaking military shadow boxes will contain a folded national flag. Military honors and medals are either displayed in an order specific to a particular nation, service, or branch; or they may be displayed grouped by type or chronological order of award.

(Note: This article is Copyright 2013 and is the sole property of American Plaque Company. No copies can be made or distributed without the written consent from American Plaque Company).

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