Wednesday, February 26, 2014

All the Bells and Whistles

Object: Baby Rattle with Whistle and Coral Teether
Accession Number: 2006.0003

Children have had and played with toys for as long as people have made it a point to record it.  While this is true, according to Karin Calvert, author of Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900, the purpose and appearance of their toys has changed over time in America.  Different time periods have had different ideas of what childhood play should look like.

The collection at Wilton House museum includes a silver and coral rattle and teether that dates from the late 18th or early 19th century.  It consists of a piece of red coral with an ornate silver handle surrounded by bells, and a whistle at the other end.  It has a maker’s mark which is made up of a lion’s passant, a queen’s head, the letter “X” or “K,” and an anchor.  This maker’s mark is evidence that the rattle was likely made in Birmingham, England.

In the 17th century, children were expected to be essentially small adults.  This was out of fear that a child would not develop into an adult unless they were pushed by the parents.  For example, American colonists did not want their children to crawl, as they believed crawling was animalistic and beneath the dignity of human beings.  Most of the furniture for children was designed to deter crawling and promote standing and walking.  In all respects, children were encouraged to “grow up” quickly.  The toys children played with during this time were those that encouraged them to be adults.  The items that were acceptable were those that would prepare children for activities of adulthood, such as using a gun, sewing, cooking, or using tools.  During the second half of the 18th century, children were given more freedom to be children.  American parents began to believe the development of children into adults was natural and would occur without the children being pushed.  Playtime became acceptable and valued as necessary for a healthy childhood.

The coral and silver rattle served several purposes.  In addition to being a handsome toy, keeping the child happy and entertained while their older siblings contributed to the household chores, it was also a teether, a magical charm to ward off evil spirits and disease, a financial investment as it was made of silver, and a statement regarding the parent’s prosperity and position.  Rattles like this may have been given as elaborate christening gifts.  They were one of the few toys of the time period made specifically for infants.  For this reason, bells and coral became an icon associated with infancy during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The coral provided a smooth surface for a child to relieve the discomfort associated with teething.  It was believed the coral protected children from disease.  Parents feared teething as much as they did the deadly diseases of the time, such as diphtheria.  Doctors warned parents that problems associated with teething could cause “fevers, cramps, palsies, rheumes and other infirmities.”  Additionally, teething troubles could lead to “falling-sickness, and sometimes death thereby.”  Coral was the most common object recommended by doctors to assist them with the process.  Parents also believed the rattle protected children from the evil eye and other evil spirits.

During the time period in which the coral and silver rattle was made, play was understood to be a necessary and beneficial activity for children.  While this is true, these rattles were not toys exclusively; they served other practical, superficial, and even supernatural purposes.  They provided the infant with a teething outlet, exhibited a family’s wealth and position, and allegedly warded off evil curses.  The combination of these purposes kept children as well as their parents happy.

Portrait of a Boy with a Coral Rattle

10-month-old Elizabeth Gilbert in 1839 of New England

This blog entry was written by Shari Davis, an undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying history. An audio version of this blog entry can be found here.


Brown, Gillian. “Child’s Play.” In The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Caroline F. Levander and Carol J. Singley. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Calvert, Karin. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. Northeastern University Press: Boston, 1992.

McManus, Jennifer, Julia Grover, Kim Surber, and Theresa Laufer. “Play and Material Culture.” Gettysburg : Gettysburg College. (Accessed Feb. 17, 2014),

"Nicholas Roosevelt: Rattle, whistle, and bells." The New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (Accessed Feb. 17, 2014),

Robinson, David. “Babies, Balls, and Bull Roarers: Christmastime or Anytime, Kids Still Enjoy the Toys and Games Their Forebears Loved”. The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. (Accessed Feb. 17, 2014),

Image Credit

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Pinch of Snuff

Cowrie Shell Snuff Box
Accession Number: 1903.0002

What introduces Whig or Tory,
And reconciles them in their story,
When each is boasting in his glory?
A pinch of snuff.

Where speech and tongue together fail,
What helps old ladies in their tale,
And adds fresh canvas to their sail?
 A pinch of snuff.

            From the seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, the consumption of snuff played an important role in the social lives of men and women. As implied by the preceding poem, snuff stimulated conversation at social gatherings or allowed for a point of contact for those of different backgrounds. An 1863 article in Harper’s Weekly claimed snuff was consumed to prevent infections and “amuse the vacant mind” in the presence of dull company. Snuff also created moments of surprise and cultural difference, such as the shock many eighteenth century northerners experienced when encountering elite southern women regularly using snuff.
Clearly it was an important part of colonial and early American life, but what is snuff? Snuff was made by curing tobacco leaves and then grinding the leaves by hand or with a mortar and pestle, a method initially adopted from Native Americans. With the wide variety of tobacco leaves available in colonial and early America, snuff came in a variety of types and flavors. For example, a common type of snuff called “Maroco” called for “forty parts of French or St. Omar tobacco with twenty parts of fermented Virginia stalks in the powder.” Usually a pinch of snuff was inhaled through the nose, sometimes as often as every hour.
Snuff users developed distinctive mannerisms and technologies associated with the production and intake of snuff. Of particular interest was the emergence of small, pocket-sized containers used for carrying snuff known as snuff boxes. These boxes were made of materials including shells, paper-mache, wood, and silver and were often decorated with engravings, portrait miniatures, or jewels. Snuffboxes functioned as an accessory for many men and women, therefore demonstrating their social class based on the materials used to construct the box or the beauty of the piece. Paper-mache boxes were common and less ornate, while boxes made of shells or jewels were more rare and associated with the upper class.

The collection at Wilton House Museum contains a mid-eighteenth century brown and white cowrie shell snuffbox with silver hinges and a silver bottom engraved with “E.T” in script. Although the original owner of the snuffbox is unknown, the Randolph family likely owned an object similar to the cowrie shell snuff box because of their great wealth. Cowrie shells were associated with womanhood, fertility, birth, and wealth. Since cowrie shells were only found in Africa and Asia, Europeans and American colonists typically acquired cowrie shells through their involvement with the West African slave trade. Cowrie shell snuff boxes were quite rare compared to other types of boxes and it is exciting, and unique, that Wilton has one in their collection!

This blog entry is by Caitlin Foltz, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying 19th and 20th century American history.  Listen to the podcast version here.


Betts, Vicki. “The ‘Social Dip:’ Tobacco Use by Mid-19th Century Southern Women.” (Accessed Feb. 2, 2014),

“Cowrie Shell.” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. (Accessed Feb. 7, 2014),

Curtis, Mattoon M. The Book of Snuff and Snuff Boxes. (USA: Van Rees Press, 1935).

“You Say Six Reasons Are Enough.” Harpers Weekly. (Sept. 28, 1867, p. 619).