Nathaniel Mills & Sons was a 19th century company of silversmiths in Birmingham, well known for producing high quality silver boxes that regularly appear at The Silver Auctions at McTear’s.
It was one of Britain’s most prestigious makers of ‘castle top’ boxes, which feature pictures of famous (or sometimes obscure) buildings or landmarks, such as St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and Windsor Castle; although not all were castles, many were – hence the generic name. They were decorated by repoussé (hammered from behind to create a low relief design) or using a die-stamp.
Boxes were made primarily in the form of card cases, snuff boxes and vinaigrette cases. The latter has a hinged lid that opens to reveal a pierced grill, which is also hinged; underneath that would be a small sponge soaked in a sweet-smelling oil, and the interior would be gilded to prevent the silver from staining. Both men and women used vinaigrette cases, generally while travelling, to provide a pleasant aroma as a distraction from the foul smells of the city streets or unwashed travelling companions, both of which were common in the 1800s.
The originator of the brand, Nathaniel Mills I, registered his mark in 1803 – when he was a partner in jewellers Mills & Langston – from a new address in Caroline Street, Birmingham. When Nathaniel I died in 1840, he was succeeded by his sons Nathaniel II, William and Thomas; it was under their direction that business really took off, and the firm’s most collectable boxes were produced during this period. William and Thomas designed many of the pieces made after the death of their father; Nathaniel II, meanwhile, introduced several new techniques, such as engine-turning, stamping and casting, and became known for successfully adapting them to this industry. William died in 1853, and with him the family trade.