Shadow box

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A shadow box for a US soldier who served during the Iraq War

A shadow box is an enclosed glass-front display case containing an object or objects presented in a thematic grouping with artistic or personal significance. The grouping of the objects and the depth effect created by their relative heights from the backing creates a dramatic visual result.

Artistic and personal shadow boxes[edit]

While shadow boxes have a strong tradition in military history, they are also frequently created purely for artistic goals. Shadow boxes are sometimes built by amateur crafters, as a way of preserving and presenting artifacts of historic or personal nostalgic value.

American artist Joseph Cornell constructed many shadow boxes during his career, with the works evoking a strong sense of nostalgia, decay, or loss.

Military shadow boxes[edit]

By tradition, shadow boxes are typically presented to members of the military upon retirement. These shadow boxes will usually contain the various medals and awards a person has earned through a military career, the flags of both their country and their military service branch, and their final badge of rank.

Traditionally, military personnel would keep all their personal belongings in a trunk which would accompany them on their travels. During the retirement ceremony or upon retirement, many members of the military, particularly in the naval service, use the lift out tray found in a well-worn trunk as their shadow box. Some retirees also maximize the display space found in these trunks by also incorporating shadow boxes into the lid compartment as well. An added benefit by having a shadow box in an antique trunk is all of the storage space for uniforms, hats, photograph albums, and any other service memorabilia collected over the years.

In the United States, some businesses in the construction and sale of shadow boxes, at prices ranging from just a few dollars to several hundred. People often purchase these in order to preserve and still enjoy viewing memorabilia. A similar case, called a uniform display case, displays an entire military uniform with correct insignia placement.


Military shadow boxes were originally simple boxes in which sailors retiring from shipboard service carried their belongings ashore. Superstition held that if the sailor's shadow touched shore before he set foot upon it, he would suffer ill luck. By carrying his belongings, a metaphorical "shadow" of himself, enclosed within the box he could ensure he would touch land before his "shadow".[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History of Military Shadow Boxes their tradition. [sic]". Plaques and Patches. 1 July 2019. Archived from the original on 12 August 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2019.