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

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Brass Amulets For Harness

( Original Published 1913 )

In my novel, " Smalilou," I wrote of " a pony dizened with gypsy symbols, the egg and snake and new moon in brass." Here are some pictures of such symbols, chosen from a collection of hundreds. A New Line.-Harness ornaments in brass are almost an unworked vein for collectors. I know of a small show of them at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; and Miss Lina Eckenstein, Dr. Plowright, and a few Oxford and Cambridge dons and professors have made collections of the kind. Two articles on horse brasses and amulets appeared in the Reliquary (October 1906 and April 1906). But beyond that the subject, so far as I am aware, has not been written on ; it is virgin soil. " There is nothing on brasses in books," Miss Eckenstein wrote in one of the articles cited ; " even the words commonly applied to them-such as horse brasses, medals, and metals-do not figure in this connection in the dictionary."

The use of such harness ornaments is dying out, partly because of kindness to animals-a complete set of nineteen brasses weighing more than six poundsand partly because motors are so numerously displacing draught-horses. Brass harness ornaments will soon cease to be made, and will then have passed into that delightful limbo from which collectors rescue treasures after a generation or two of oblivion. Now, therefore, is the time to acquire these interesting bits of old brass. You can find them in marine stores, old-metal stalls, horse markets, and country saddlers' shops, for threepence or sixpence each. A few already are to be seen in curio-dealers' shops, priced at three to five shillings each. Forty did not cost more than twelve shillings in all; they hang against the rich red end of an old mahogany bookcase, and over my sanctum door; and if there be luck and safeguard in them-, then am I plentifully amuleted indeed.

The Number Collectable. I have counted up to 180 different patterns of the kind shown in the illustrations, not reckoning the boss and the two "flyers"which appear in one of the top rows. A collector need not despair of picking up an example of each pattern, therefore, and it is always a pleasure to have a collec tion (of anything) that is quite complete.On draughthorses in the streets or country lanes you may observe these ornaments in plenty; a complete set consists of a face brass hanging on the animal's forehead, two ear brasses hanging behind its ears, ten martingale brasses hanging on its breast, and three brasses on each of its side-runners down its shoulders. These " metals," as carters and horsekeepers call them, usually belong to the carter or horsekeeper, and not to his employer; bought as additions to the harness, not as an original part of it, for ornament at May Day parades.

The Meaning of Them. I don't suppose a London carter or horsekeeper has much idea of what the brasses signify, but once, as a boy in Worcestershire, I asked a gypsy driver what they meant, and he told me they " kept off the duvvel." To the same question put in Italy a carter will reply, " To keep off the evil eye, signore." For the Italian populace still believe, as all the ancients believed, that the eyes of certain naturally malignant persons dart noxious rays at human beings and beasts. Virgil, in his Third Eclogue, sang of the evil eye as making cattle lean. But the superstition goes a good deal further back than Virgil ; it goes back to the very beginnings of the recorded existence of mankind, and it has been observed in every land. In one short chapter I could not discuss a hundredth part of the myths and folk-lore involved; I can only here say that the earliest horse ornaments were worn as amulets, safeguards against sorcery, and votive decoration; custom and tradition have kept up the practice of wearing the same designs even to our own day. The earliest horse ornaments consisted of symbolic representations of the earliest worshipped gods, the sun and stars and crescent moon. Among all the horse brasses I have ever seen, only one Christian symbol, the cross, was found-you observe it in the illustration; it is quite recent-new, in point of fact-and has a pagan form of hanger at the top of it; I have seen that same hanger on a pilgrim's badge of the eleventh century. All the other horse brasses reproduce symbols that are Buddhist, Egyptian, Moorish, or Gypsy. Let us study them awhile.

The Eye and the Heart. Look at the illustration which shows a boss or bridle ornament at the top left-hand corner. It represents a human eye ; the pupil is brass, the iris is blue enamel. This came from Italy, where such an " eye " is valued as a preservative against the evil eye. Around the iris you note a sunlike brass rim, and outside that a ring of tiny crescents. The next brass is a crescent-the moon. The crescent is reproduced in the fourth brass, a " flyer " (which rises from the horse's head or collar). The brass with a Royal crown in it is worn by Army draught-horses, but even the crown itself is topped by two crescents, one crossing the other, and the fleurs-de-lis, which edge the crown, are nothing but the lotus of the East; outside the crown in the brass is a circle-the sunand outside that a ring of crescents.

The horse-shoe brass is a crescent also ; a horse-shoe was first thought lucky because it was a crescent inverted. The brass which begins the third row shows many crescents, solid or open, and the horse inside it is the horse of the Saxon standard, and the one cut in the chalk of the Downs. The brass next to that is crescental in shape, and contains the lotus, which itself contains a star. The lotus or fleur-de-lis appears in the next to that. In the last brass of the third row the lotus has developed into shield-shape ; in the next into something like heart-shape. In the next the bull's head appears, with horns ; and to this day in Italy the superstitious put up two fingers, as horns, against a stranger's gaze. In the last brass but one the centre-piece is more heartshaped. Notice how all the four brasses just mentioned contain circles representing the sun. In the last brass on this sheet the heart is fully developed ; it stands inside a sun-like rim, which is itself surrounded by hearts.

The Other Illustration. In the first brass the heart of the last has become a diamond ; hearts and diamonds and clubs and spades on cards contain the same mythological idea. Then come seven brasses representing the sun, the seventh especially. The inverted crescent is pierced by two suns and a star. In the next brass the centre represents a lotus-seed, developed or degenerated, through endless copying, into something more like an acorn. In the next brass the petals of the lotus are seen. In the next the lotus petals merge into star and sun surrounded by the crescent moon. In the first of the last row the star and crescents are more plainly evident. In the next are stars within stars and crescents. The last but one shows the star very notably. And in the last the star is associated with the crescent, as in the Turkish standard itself.

Hints to Collectors. The oldest brasses are the most desirable to acquire. They are the heaviest ; they are of cast or wrought brass ; sometimes they weigh as much as six ounces; at the back of them you can see the grain of the metal. The more recent brasses are thin and brittle; they were stamped, not cast ; you can detect the stamping by the edge or burr which is left at the back edge of each perforation. Brasses representing Lord Beaconsfield within a wreath of primroses, or cannon under captured Boer flags, or King Edward VII, are, of course, quite recent. But the thing for a collector to do is to obtain one example of every known design, either old or newer. If dirty, a brass should be steeped in ammonia a while, then polished with one of the many soaps for metal, and then thinly coated with vaseline to preserve it from oxidisation.