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A shadow box is an enclosed glass-front 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. While shadow boxes have a strong tradition in military history, they are also frequently created purely for artistic goals. The best-known artist of shadow boxes is Joseph Cornell.
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 flag of both their country and military service, and their final badge of rank.
In the United States, some companies specialize in the construction and sale of shadow boxes. Price can range from just a few dollars to several hundred. People often purchase these in order to preserve, and still enjoy memorabilia. A similar case, called the uniform display case, displays an entire uniform with correct insignia placement.
During the retirement ceremony and certainly upon retirement, many members of the military, particularly in the naval service, utilize the lift out trays found in antique trunks as their shadow box. Some retirees also maximize the space found in these trunks by also incorporating shadow boxes in 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.
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 that 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."
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