Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Antiques And Arts News Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Eighteenth-Century Knick-Knacks

( Original Published 1913 )



The wise collector is like Autolycus, "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles," and does not confine himself to lines already well-known and pursued; in fact, he cannot unless he be very wealthy indeed, and it is not for the wealthy alone that I write my chapters here. Where twenty years ago there were a hundred collectors at work on a " line " there are now at least a thousand, and a collector is wise in every way who strikes out a path for himself. And there is hardly any possible line which may not become remunerative, sooner or later. I do not say that, for instance, the enthusiast who never rests till he possesses an example of every regimental button every issued to the British Army will find his buttons a Golconda when he comes to sell them, but he all the delight of collecting-the hunt, the find, and the acquisition-has cheaply known. In this chapter let me talk about some of the " ornamental trifles " (which is a dictionary definition of " knick-knacks ") that are lying about and seldom sought after just now.

Dainty Rages and their Relics. The eighteenth century was for fashionable women in England and in France a period of indoor life, as a rule, there were many sedentary hours to pass and to cheat of their weariness somehow. Fancy needlework has at all times been the great resource for otherwise unoccupied women of fashion, but in the eighteenth century they were apt to discover other methods of sedentary pastime also. Fashions in such occupations spread from France to England or from England to France, and the fine lady in Mayfair trifled with knick-knacks resembling those which occupied the fingers of the fine lady in the Marais at Paris. Early in the eighteenth century the rage for cutting out prints began, and it spread like an epidemic. Much of the present rarity of the prints issued at the time is due to the fact that fine ladies cut the figures out of them (particularly the coloured ones) and then gummed the cut figures upon cardboard boxes, hand-screens, and so forth. Boxes and hand-screens thus ornamented still remain in existence; I saw one in a shop-window the other day; and on some of them there are pieces cut out of prints which cost fifty livres at the time they were issued, and, if complete, would be worth five hundred livres to-day. Then came the rage for hand colouring prints. You will find in old portfolios stippleprints and mezzotints, very carefully tinted in watercolour-the handiwork of fashionable dames a century ago ; and some of them have puzzled print-collectors terribly, seeming to be modern forgeries, and yet old.

After that arrived the rage for making "pantines" and "pantins," little figures cut out of cardboard, painted and jointed, with threads to make the limbs move; and also the toy theatres in which they were to play the marionette. Harlequins, Scaramouches, Shepherds, and Shepherdesses, dancing cardboard figures of all sizes and values, from one that cost a shilling to one that Boucher designed and painted for Madame la Duchesse de Chartres at a cost of &0, decked the consoles in Belgravia, Russell Square, the Marais, and the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Examples of these quaint old figures still remain extant. Dolldressing belonged to the same category, and the tiny old dolls in their robes and furbelows of contemporary brocades and laces make a capital "line" for a woman who is a collector today.

Imitative "Art." "George Paston " tells us that " so terrified were the women who lived under the third and fourth Georges of seeming to execute anything with professional skill, that they deliberately invented a kind of ` mock art,' for which England has been unique among the nations. For example, to model well in clay would have been considered strong-minded, but to model badly in wax or bread was quite a feminine occupation. Filigree and mosaic work was imitated in coloured paper, ` medals' were made of cardboard and gold leaf, ` Dresden china' of rice paper, cottages of pasteboard, flowers of lambswool, coral of blackthorn twigs painted vermilion, and ` Grecian tintoes ' {so called) were painted-or plastered-in black lead mixed with pomatum, the high lights being scratched out with a pen-knife." (By the by, in Gandy's " The Artist," one of the earliest Baxter books, there are full instructions for making "Grecian Painting," " Japan Painting," and others of the things mentioned above.) And just as they copied line-engravings in human hair stitched into white satin, so the Georgian ladies imitated prints in lead pencil; I possess three wonderful examples of their skill in that way.

Fashionable Oakum-picking. Then came the rage for unpicking gold and silver lace, unravelling old shoulder-knots, brandebourgs, and epaulets. Madame de Genlis, in her " Memoirs," showed how a diligent lady might unravel enough old gold and silver lace to sell for as much as L80 in one year. To this day you will find in odd corners of bric-a-brac shops old epaulets, edgings, and so forth, consisting of tarnished gold or silver lace. In the year 1772 Christmas-boxes to ladies largely consisted of fans, tiny chairs and tables, coffeecups, birds, windmills and " pantins," all specially made-up of gold or silver lace in order that the ladies might have the pleasure of unravelling it, thread by thread. When unravelled, it must be wrapped around bobbins, and old bobbins still full of the old thread may be picked up to-day. Gold lace was gold lace in those times; Dutch metal had hardly been invented. And this mention of bobbins brings me to another class of eighteenth-century knick-knacks, more easy than the above to come across now.

Workbox Fittings. I mean the dainty trifles which occupied the drawers, tiny recesses, and specially made receptacles which are to be found in the old workboxes which still remain. Bobbins of ivory, bobbins of horn, bobbins made of a metal shank between a beautifully pierced and carved mother-of-pearl disk (the top of the bobbin) and a round of bone (the bottom of the bobbin), may now be picked up for sixpence or a shilling apiece. Then there were the thimble-cases, made of carved ivory or bone, and if you find one with a bone thimble still inside it you have acquired an ancient knick-knack indeed. Next, there were the tape-measures. The Georgian tape-measure was usually made of pink silk, marked off into nine inches and multiples of nine inches, not into twelve inches and into feet, as the severely practical tapemeasures are to-day. The carved and pierced bone, ivory, or silver cases of these old tape-measures are pretty and interesting trifles, and take the most extraordinary forms. I have one which looks like a cathedral spire ; I have seen one that worked like a windmill.

Needlecases of pierced and carved bone or ivory, long ones, to hold darning-needles and tapestryneedles, are still to be found. Then there were the pincushions, some of them large and ordinary, but some of them small and dainty, consisting of a pad of pink velvet, mounted on the top of a short pillar of bone or ivory. And, of course, no eighteenth-century workbox was complete without its powder-puff, powder-box, or its stiletto to use as a bodkin, its steel instruments to use in " pinking," and its spools for silk. I saw an Early Victorian workbox complete with all its dainty fittings selling for thirty shillings the other day.

Endless Variety to be Looked For. In fact, the range for the collector of eighteenth-century knickknacks is almost endless, and I have by no means touched upon all the articles which this line offers to the quick and recognising eye. Nearly all the knickknacks are small, dealers do not make a feature of them, they are not exposed in shop-windows, and you have to hunt for them, as a rule. But when you find them you can usually buy them cheaply-at present, that is.