Saturday, August 27, 2011

From the Collection: Morally Minded Buttons, and Pins and Laces, Moral or Not

Thought to change gears a little. Over the summer I have been collecting quarters and with this little mad money stash, I've found a few little tidbits of material culture which give us glimpses into women's lives.

As always, please click on the images to see larger versions.

So, what have we here?

Buttons Most Morally Minded
At the top of the collection shown here, are seven small brass buttons. They are studded with cut steel, faceted for a brilliant effect. This is true cut steel, for on the reverse of one of the buttons you can see the rivets, and you can also see the shanks. The quality of the workmanship is very high: consider all the detailing and those minute steel rivets, all packed into a button less than three-quarters of an inch in diameter! I think the design is an illustration of Aesop's fable called The Fox and the Crow, for a fox is up on his hind legs and appears to be reaching towards a bird on a branch.

Here is the tale in full, courtesy of Aesop's

A Fox once saw a Crow fly off with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree. "That's for me, as I am a Fox," said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree. "Good-day, Mistress Crow," he cried. "How well you are looking to-day: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds, just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of Birds." The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox. "That will do," said he. "That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese I will give you a piece of advice for the future. Moral of Aesop's Fable: Do not trust flatterers.

From their size and style, I put them in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. They would have looked marvelous on one of the front-buttoning dresses then so fashionable. Was the button maker toying with irony, as he studded a fable about flattery with flashy facets? Or was he clueless? How about the dressmaker? Was she teasing her client or attempting to teach her? Or was mama offering a continual reminder to her daughter through her dress buttons? Or did nobody even bother to look and wonder?

This was an exciting find: hairpins still in their original brown paper wrapper. The paper is still quite strong, although I am trying not to handle it much. It is crisp and fine-grained, if that makes any sense, but there is no true gloss on the paper.

Kirby, Beard & Co. was a British company of long standing that made pins and needles, razors and much more. See Grace's Guide for the basic facts, and this PDF article, "Gloucestershire Folk Museum and the Mechanisation of the Pin Industry", by Nigel Cox, from the Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeology Journal, 2005.

The pins are the ordinary pins used for eons and still available today. I have pulled out the wrapper gently so that you can read the labeling; like so many pins and needles, they were made in England.

Let's peek inside. I have shown the how the wrapper closes; the hairpins are grouped tightly inside, so tightly that they are almost interlocked. For those of you interested in selling hairpins at a living history event, knowing how things are folded is most helpful.

I am not quite certain and need to ask my friend Curtis Grace, from whom I purchased the pins and laces, but think these are from the attic of a former milliner and her sister. More on them in a moment: it's a tasty tale.

These laces are still tied and wrapped just as they were found. Like many of the reels of ribbons in that same milliner's attic, some of the laces are tied with cotton thread, of a thickness that reminds me of buttonhole twist.

I am not sure what type of laces these are. The leftmost are flat tapes, loosely braided. The right laces are tubular, and also braided. At their ends both sets of laces are crimped with black-painted metal.

Haven't estimated their length, but they do not seem long enough for corset laces. Boots, more likely.

The Milliner Sisters
Curtis goes to estate sales and has done so for many years. At one of these sales he visited the attic of a lady who, with her sister, had been a milliner. She was a hoarder, oh, was she a hoarder, he laughed. She had stuffed purses with all of her bills, and he found her grocery lists. Then there were the stocks of millinery supplies: rolls of silk ribbon on specially made cardboard tubes. The wide ribbons were wound on the rolls between very thin sheets of paper; I shall show you an example some other time. The narrow ribbons didn't always get this treatment. Some of the larger rolls of ribbon were tied closed with that same thread you see above, and shorter lengths ditto. There were rolls of ribbon from a quarter inch to three and more inches wide, moire, edged, picoted, or printed. Many were stained from their years in the attic, and a few were shredding, being made of weighted silk, but many are still strong.

Now for the fun part. The sisters shared their business, but split at some point, and every little item they owned, Curtis explained, split too, in exact halves. Even ribbons were divided right in half! Whether the split was amicable and the division the decision of two very precise ladies, or a tragic and angry separation, I cannot suppress a smile, these years later. Certainly the items don't retain any sadness, like some items do, preventing me from even handling them. Instead they seem to be happy, sunny things, telling their story to us afresh.

Material Culture and Social History Blogs
Are you interested in reading about material culture and social history? Then I have several more blogs for you that I follow regularly. They are all quite different, but I think you will dip into each one with joy.

At the Sign of the Golden Scissors
Specifically eighteenth century dress. A really wonderful journey into textiles, stays, portraits, and more. American.

Picking for Pleasure: Understanding Antiquing Acquisitions
Examining a wide range of American items through the lens of material culture studies.

Zho Zho's Textile Adventures
Textiles, history of costume, historic houses, fashion, from New Zealand.

Today I leave you with...
...Muffin and Ladybug snoring, apropos to the Cat Days of Summer. Why should the dogs get all the press?


The Dreamstress said...

What fun little bits! Thanks so much for posting about them, especially the bits about the owner, which is so important.

I've got some vintage pieces in very similar paper packaging to the hairpins: some between-the-wars bandages from colonial India, and some 1900s threads. How old do you think the hairpins are!

ZipZip said...

Dear Dreamstress,
Glad you liked them! I have many more little treats to show over time, from threads and ribbons to a child's bustle and a child's hoops.

As far as the age of the hairpins, if they are in similar packaging I would tentatively place them as Edwardian era. I have not done a study of the packaging, but the condition of the paper and the styling of the text leads me in that direction of course, if the company were conservative and used an older look and feel to convey stability, tradition and quality, then the hairpins could be newer. Time to see if there's a hairpin collector out there who studied all of this. Hmmm.
Very best,