What is a Shadowbox?

Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes

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.

Photographs may be used to make a shadowbox.
Photographs may be used to make a shadowbox.

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.

Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes

Paulla is a freelance writer and website editor who currently lives in Maine. Paulla has a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University and over 15 years of experience as a freelancer. She relishes the flexibility and consistency of working on wiseGEEK articles, as well as the opportunity to constantly learn something new.

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Discussion Comments


A few years ago my aunt had to move into a smaller apartment at a retirement home. This caused her a lot of upset because she had to condense her belongings to fit in the new place, and even had to get rid of a lot of her beautiful collections.

I was trying to help her get inspired by her new space and found a shadow box at Michaels, the craft store. She had been a librarian for many years and as a result had a huge collection of book marks from all over the world. It was really something I'd never seen before.

We took her favorite book marks and attached them with velcro in the shadow box. It was filled with such an interesting and beautiful variety of small art, it was really a statement of who she was. This turned out to be one of her favorite spaces in her new apartment and she proudly showed everyone who came in her lovely little collection.


I bought a wood shadowbox at a craft store that was untreated. I did not leave it like this, but found the color of stain I wanted and put a couple coats of stain on the box.

This was several years ago, and I was decorating my house in a country cottage theme. The search for items to include in my shadowbox was a lot of fun. At that time, there were many items to choose from so I had no trouble filling up all the spaces in my box.

I had little wooden pieces of country dolls, animals, wagons and furniture like a small rocking chair.


I received a wooden shadowbox in the shape of heart with a few small treasures to get me started. I am a music teacher, so each of my pieces represented this in some way.

It was really a lot of fun to find other trinkets and treasures that were music related. Anytime I took a trip or visited a unique shop, I was always on the lookout for new pieces to add to my collection.


I have always been fascinated with shadow boxes because I believe that many of them tell a personal story. Most of the pieces that are collected in placed in a shadowbox display are not just chosen at random.

Often times there is a specific theme to the shadowbox and what is displayed is chosen with great care. This can be anything that has a personal interest to you and each piece has a story all its own.

If you see someone has a shadowbox in their home, begin asking a few questions and you may find out some interesting things about them and their life.

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