Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Suited for Sewing

Object: Needle Case with Needles
Accession#: 1984.0067.A-K
The needle was so valuable in medieval times that even a wealthy woman owned only one.  The use of the needle was taught to girls at a young age.  Small air-tight containers became necessary to keep needles from getting lost while not in use and to keep them from rusting. An example of one these containers is this dual pineapple, screw top American or English 19th century vegetable ivory needle case, which contains nine tambour needles. From the last part of the 18th century to the mid-19th century, tambour needles were “one of the most fashionable needlepoint techniques in use.” This type of embroidery was taught to the women of higher status, such as the Randolphs, and was practiced at home.   
Tagua nut
The case is carved out of vegetable ivory, or the tagua nut of South America, which has been used as a raw material for over 160 years. The nuts grow in large clusters on the tagua palm which still grows at lower elevations in the tropical rain forests of Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Brazil. The owner of a factory that processes tagua into jewelry and decorations, notes that the tagua palm is the only “plant product that produces a material that is white, durable, and pure.” Nuts are extracted from the tagua palm and then dried for up to eight weeks. At that point the nut is able to be carved.

The tagua nut was brought from South America to England in small quantities in the 1820’s and 1830’s. This particular needle case, in Wilton’s collection, has two sides carved out of vegetable ivory resembling pineapples. The pineapple was first imported from the Caribbean and cultivated in European greenhouses in the 17th century. The European colonists carried the pineapple symbol to the Americas to represent “friendship” and an image of welcome. Due to its “seemingly exotic qualities and rareness” it became a symbol of hospitality in America and it was considered an achievement for a host to adorn their table with a pineapple.

The needles that are in this particular needle case are tambour needles. Tambouring, the precursor to crochet, is a type of embroidery where chain stitches are worked with a hook through a piece of fabric stretched taut on frame. Tambour is the French word for “drum,” the stretched background resembling a drum. The work originated with Indian leather workers who used it to embellish the belts they made. Tambour needles were generally made of steel and affixed by the means of a small screw into a handle made of ivory or bone. Patterns for tambour, or “white” work, became available in women’s magazines by the early-19th century.
In a 1830 volume of Godey’s Magazine, a popular women’s magazine, describes tambour, its proper material, and methods. The magazine explains that if tambour is “intended to work in crewels, a colored pattern will also be of service, as a guide to the selection of the worsteds, which are usually worked into beautiful groups or wreaths of flowers, in their natural colours, principally for the bottoms of dresses.” Patterns would be done in indigo so they would disappear after washing. According to one historian, “Tambouring was highly fashionable and an easy and elegant accomplishment for aristocratic ladies in their drawing room and allowed their delicate hands to be seen to advantage.” It was popularized by women such as Madame de Pompadour, a member of the French court and the official mistress of Louis XV, who is depicted in a portrait at her tambour frame.
Madame de Pompadour

In the 1770’s, teachers advertised their abilities to educate students on how to do this “new technique.” For example, a notice in the South Carolina Gazette (Charleston) for September 19, 1774, has Ann Sage advertising her ability to teach young ladies “Reading, Tambour, Embroidery, and all kinds of needlework.” Tambour work might have been taught to the Randolph girls around age 7 or 8, when they were starting to learn these skills from their mother or a private tutor. They also could afford a needle case that was made out of a valuable material, such as vegetable ivory, which would have kept their needles together and accessible in a pocket or on a table.

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0ctober 1992. 22 February 2013. <>
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2008. 22 February 2013. <
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Image Credit 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Travel in Imagination

Object: Rocking Horse, 19th century
Accession #: 2002.9

One of the most loved toys in a child’s nursery is the rocking horse.  This one, in Wilton’s collection, looks as if it might have seen a lot of adventures at one time, by many excited children. Covered with tanned animal hide and adorned with a tail made of real animal hair, this wooden rocking horse looks out of glass eyes.  Its wooden snout also has red nostrils and an open mouth. One historian states that, “Posed imperiously on their curved rockers, many horses do exude quite an aggressive air, and probably taught the small child something of the respect he would later need in dealing with a living horse.”

Charles Lavallen Jessop (Boy on a Rocking Horse), 1840
Sarah Miriam Peale 
Children's toy horses goes back as early as the Middle Ages with the popular hobby horse- a fake horse’s head attached to a stick.  Early construction of rocking horses consisted of two boat shaped plank sides attached to sides of the bottom half of the horse’s body.  These toys were carved by hand until the late 19th century when they began to be mass-produced.

Horses were made to look realistic by being covered in animal skin.  Reference to these types of toy horses are made as early as 1561 when a young Bathasar Paungartner writes in a letter requesting from Frankfurt Fair a horse covered in goatskin.  These rocking horses were, by 1880, the more the more expensive types which also included manes and tails of real animal hair.  Queen Victoria’s children would not go on a trip to Osborne House, the royal residence in the Isle of Wight, without the desire to bring along their skin covered rocker.

Rocking Horse,
Victoria and Albert Museum Collection
The toy horse was seen as a valuable tool to teach skills to children they would need in adulthood.  James I, of England, told his young son that “the honourablest and most commendable games that ye can use are games on horseback.”  William Long, who was a carver and cabinet maker from London, boasted in the Pennsylvania Packet, in 1785, that his rocking horses were made “in the neatest and best manner to teach children to ride, and give them a wholesome and pleasing exercise.”  A wooden rocking horse in the Victoria and Albert Museum is thought to be the oldest in the United Kingdom. Charles I, who was the possible owner of this 17th century rocking horse, was a “delicate child” having trouble walking and speaking.  He suffered from rickets, a disease characterized by softened bones due to lack of Vitamin D intake, and it has been suggested that a rocking horse may have been used as treatment and to provide exercise while strengthening his legs.

Knowing the importance of learning how to interact with a real horse through the use of a toy rocking horse could have been evident in the Randolph household, especially with five boys. One historian adds that “to have the concept of a horse brought down to one’s own level when one is little opens wide the doors of unlimited travel in imagination.”  The children throughout the generations of the Randolph family living at Wilton would not have been any different, as a rocking horse similar to this one would have provided hours of limitless play and exercise. 

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