According to some accounts of naval history and tradition, when a sailor retires and is departing the ship for the last time, it’s considered bad luck for the sailor’s shadow to touch land before he/she does. Thus, the sailor’s shipmates would construct a sturdy box, hand-crafted of the finest materials, in which to display mementos of the sailor’s accomplishments — thereby symbolically creating a “shadow” of the sailor. The box safely contains the sailor’s “shadow” until he/she is safely ashore, at which time the shadow box can be given to the sailor in a presentation ceremony.
Historically, when a sailor would join a ship’s crew, he would join that ship for his entire career. During the sailor’s voyages to ports of call around the world, he would collect many trinkets, souvenirs, and reminders of his travels. Naturally, as space aboard ship was at a premium, these items tended to be small. When the sailor piped ashore for the last time, his shipmates saw to it that a special ceremonial box was constructed for him. The box would hold all the possessions that had been collected during those many voyages, a and would simultaneously symbolize the sailor’s career and time aboard ship.
Ideally, a shadow box serves not only as a reminder of achievements and accomplishments, but also as a summation, a culmination, of a career. A shadow box should enable a stranger glancing at its contents to gain a substantial understanding of the owner’s past service and achievements.
Shadow Boxes are born of an ancient naval tradition that’s still practiced today, both in the militaries of the world and throughout civilian life. The Shadow Box is laden with items that represent the recipient’s service or accomplishments or achievements.
The shadow box is typically laden with personal items that depict advancement and achievements. These may include personal awards, medals, duty stations, insignia, rating badges and uniform devices that indicate progression through various military ranks. A boatswain’s whistle may even be included as a reminder of both service aboard ship and the ceremony at which the shadow box was presented.
The national flag is placed inside the shadow box to symbolize the country that has benefited from the faithful service of the recipient of the shadow box.
Naval presentation of a shadow box can be accompanied with the following speech. Naturally, it can be modified as circumstances dictate.
“On behalf of your fellow shipmates, we present you with this shadow box. Within the shadow box lie a sailor’s most honored and cherished possessions, including the flag of the United States of America, representing a lifetime of valiant and faithful service.”