Thursday, December 11, 2014

The 19th Century Skull Motif

Sometimes my research takes me to strange places. Sometimes I want to stay in those strange places. It doesn't always make sense, but if I don't do it I can lose my overall research focus. That minor misdirection is necessary to my peace of mind. So I do apologize. 
That misdirection includes shopping
Photo by Ken Giorlando

I found a mention of a skull pin in Godey's Lady's Book. There is little photographic evidence, as well as written documentation. However, many originals are floating around online, so I know they did indeed exist. Welcome to my crazy world!

The Skull as Motif
Throughout my research, I've discovered that attitudes about death are completely different today than they were back then. To illustrate this flip, I think of it in terms of death/sex. Yes, sex. I don't know who told me about this (will insert citation later!), but thank you for illustrating this topic. I want to add your name/book here because you are awesome. 
Are you in here?
Photo by Ken Giorlando

See, back death was openly discussed. Men and women openly mourned with their clothing. Bodies laid in the living room, pictures taken. Death was a tangible, real thing that effected everyone. People could talk about it. In contrast, no one talked about sex, unless it involved some sort of scandal. Sex was almost a dirty thing, hidden behind closed doors or the naughty CDV. Heck, laws were passed that even banned such pornographic imagery, with soldiers losing the occasional letter if it included one of those "special" pictures. To illustrate:

Victorian Era
Death=Ok to talk 
Sex=Do not talk

As for today...death is very far removed. That infant mortality rate is very low-I have yet to lose a loved one that I've known personally! When a person does die, he or she is sent to a morgue, and eventually the funeral home. The idea of laying a body in my living room (even a family member!) feels...weird. When someone dies people will often avoid discussing the topic, and we are expected to move on as quickly as possible. No mourning crape for the 21st century woman! Yet she can openly wear that bikini ASAP (don't get me wrong, I love my bathing suit!). Sex sells everything, from cheeseburgers to car insurance. There are entire television shows centered around sex. To clarify:

Today
Death=Do not talk
Sex=Ok to talk

I am not saying either is good or bad. Personally I feel that information should be shared openly, and that learning must be encouraged regardless of the topic (but age appropriate). This background is necessary to understanding the 19th century sensibility, explaining why a skull pinned to a lapel did not represent a morbid fascination with Halloween. It meant...more.
Pictured: Sentimental Reflection
Photo by Ken Giorlando

The skull itself can represent much, just as the serpent in one of my previous posts. An obvious connection is death. Remember death in that time was very real, so people could put loved ones' names/faces to the word. A seemingly morbid representation could remind a person of someone special. Mometo mori, or the reflection on death. In a way it reminds of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead in Mexican culture. The skull means remembrance, rather than a gory demise. See what I did there? CULTURE MIXING!
Another significant meaning lies in the occupation of the wearer. With my fiance in medical school, I have seen countless morbid representations of the skull and other body parts. The body is a working machine that must be studied, processed, understood; whether for humor or study, a medical, anthropological, or fraternity curiosity, the skull and its contents are essential to understanding the human body. The 19th century doctor might even have a real skull sitting on his shelf! 

So please examine my evidence with a different lens than your modern focus. Try to imagine yourself as one of the originals, accustomed to death in ways that we cannot imagine today.

Photographic Documentation
Most of my evidence here is later, and difficult to see. Could a person be wearing a skull pin on a lapel in other pictures? Certainly! As I've mentioned before, my nearly perfect vision is starting to blur from staring at these photographs!
1880s


Just as an aside, I showed these pictures to a few of my students. They were SO grossed out. When I tried to explain the whole "they thought differently back then" thing, I earned several eyes rolls and a confused sigh. I think I'm losing my fan base! It also reminded me of the great difference between the past and now, a societal shift that cannot be explained to an angst-filled teenager at my desk.

Textual Evidence
And here it is, the tiny quote that inspired a blog post:

Godey's Lady's Book. October, 1865.

 Instead of studs, gentlemen are wearing three small pins with fancy tops, connected by fine gold chains.The latest idea for a scarf pin is a fly, wasp, or beetle, transfixed apparently by the pin itself. A very odd design for a scarf pin, lately brought out, is a skull with double eye glasses suspended by a miniature gold chain and a lighted cigar between the teeth.

  Godey's Lady's Book. March, 1850.
A MEMENTO MORI WATCH, GIVEN BY MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, TO HER MAID OF HONOR

 Godey's Lady's Book. October, 1850.
Before taking his departure, our hero opened the doors of his choice library to his fair guest. He laid before her his objects of vertu, his drawings, skulls , fossils, and curiosities of all descriptions.

I did note other mentions of skulls-I completely forgot about phrenology! The range of meaning behind the word startled me. Caterpillar skulls. Broken skulls. Grinning skulls. Skulls straight from the grave. Skulls glaring from a desk. Godey's was the only periodical to use the skull in terms of a fashionable object; the rest were mostly scientific.

Surviving Originals

There are also many bits of memento mori that I did not add, though I will probably do a separate blog post on that topic later! I wanted to see if the lapel pin actually existed, and boy did I find my evidence! Ivory/bone appeared to be the most common material, though the coral/crystal caught my eye. That pearl pin looked exquisite as well!
Conclusion
I am proud to add skulls to that growing list of motifs that were used during the 19th century. Most of the photos only included men, while the textual evidence points to them as a more masculine accessory. The material to make the skulls suggests that they were a more expensive item, probably not worn by the lower class. Maybe a doctor? A fraternity? A man interested in filling his curio cabinet? These are just assumptions based on my current evidence-if this changes, I will update the post!

In the meantime, I decided to reproduce the lapel pin! I have no men's jewelry in my shop, and seriously I was hooked by that Godey's description. I just LOVE reproducing things with evidence! 

Thank you for following the little twists and turns of my research...Sometimes it's good to take a break from the usual, and delve into the unusual!

~Kristen

Monday, November 24, 2014

Kristen: Lincoln Mourning Ribbons

Death is an incredible concept to grasp. To imagine that everything ends, that this life can just stop at any time; the constant threat of mortality makes us human. Makes heroes, cowards. The Civil War gives us so many of these stories with tales of loss in the heat of battle. Nearly every household utilized that solemn black color, shed tears for a father, husband, son, brother, uncle, nephew...

The nation too felt a deep loss. Abraham Lincoln's death in the mourning hours of April 15th, 1865 shocked Americans. His violent end effected Mary Todd Lincoln for the rest of her life, and turned the figure of Lincoln to near martyr status. The funeral procession drew thousands of people at each stop. Even in death he held value, as criminals once attempted to ransom his body. Needless to say, Lincoln's legacy has even survived into the 21st century.

I can hardly imagine how I would personally deal with such a moment in history, and my only frame of reference would be 9/11. I was in 7th grade and completely overwhelmed with the images of death, felt the sting of that day in my chest. For weeks I had nightmare about the sky raining a metallic hell on those that I loved. Our country mourned. I've even visited the memorial, one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life.

For this particular post I will focus on the mourning ribbons themselves, rather than the whole spectrum of mourning during that time. For some reason I am fascinated by these little strips of fabric that tied together an entire country through the death of a beloved leader. Oh fabric, that beloved medium...

Photographic Documentation
As I've noticed in the past, finding a picture of someone using/holding/wearing a particular item in a 19th century photograph can be difficult at best. 

...And that's it. I've seen plenty of photographs of cockades, though I don't want to focus on those in this post. Heather Sheen over at Creative Cockades has so much (good) research already on the topic that I fear my mention would be redundant. Seriously though, go check out her site, since it has a lot of really delicious cockade information!

As in the past, I realize that I may not have access to the variety of photographic evidence necessary. This does raise many questions: Did people like/dislike photos wearing Lincoln mourning memorabilia? How do social status/financial/political factors play a role in the prevalence of this type of documentation? When am I going to get glasses so I can see these darn pictures better? 

Textual Documentation
I found so much textual information. Mourning ribbons were certainly in use, and the many newspapers and magazines documented the widespread popularity of these during that time.

Abraham Lincoln, Godey's Lady's Book, July 1865
As the news flashed over the wires from city to city, every dwelling, store, and public building was draped in mourning, the church bells tolled forth the dreadful tidings, badges of sable hue were placed upon every arm, breast, or shoulder, and with one accord the nation bowed in grief-stricken homage to the mighty dead.


Honors to the Martyr President, The New York Herald, April 25, 1865
Many ladies were dressed in full mourning . Nearly all the rest wore emblems of woe. Few men in
those living columns of the people did not wear badges of lamentation.


Frank Leslie's Weekly, May 13 1865
President Lincoln Mourning Badge . All should have one. Price 50 cents. Address UNION NEWS CO., Chicago, Ill.

Mourning Badges, Frank Leslie's Weekly, MAY 20, 1865
This beautiful Badge , printed on White Satin, draped in Mourning , with splendid Gilt Pin and Likeness attached, will be sent, postpaid, on receipt of 0 cents. Price by the 100, postpaid, $25; ditto, without Pins, $12.50.

 Arrival at the Metropolis, The New York Herald, April 25, 1865
New York's part in the last solemn honors to the illustrious dead began yesterday, and the metropolis presented such a scene as it never exhibited before since its foundation. Sadness, mourning and silence, deep and solemn, prevailed everywhere, but particularly down town around the City Hall,
where the remains of the first murdered President of the republic were laid out in state, receiving the last touching tribute of respect from a sorrowful people. The entire community observed the occasion in a proper manner. Business was laid aside, flags floated at half mast from every building, badges of mourning appeared on the breast of nearly every male and female in the streets, and crowds were to be seen in every direction wending their way down to view the corpse of the
lamented statesman, patriot and President

Feeding the Needy Populace, Frank Leslie's Weekly, May 20, 1865
Mourning Badges , Mourning Pins, BADGES , Satin, 5 x 1½, inscription
With neat PIN, the whole covered with Crape, Price, by mail, 50 cents; $20 per 100; Badges , without Pins, $10 per 100. MOURNING BREAST PIN.—Fine Portrait of A. LINCOLN , in silver plate oval frame, with eagle, flags, and inscription “ E Pluribus Unum ,” and silk mourning steamers, 50 cents; $20 per 100. MOURNING PINS, 10 styles, from $10 to $25 per 100.

Surviving Originals
This is perhaps my best form of evidence for these ribbons. When a tragedy such as this takes place, people save mementos. My grandmother still keeps a stack of newspapers from important days in history, from JFK's assassination to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. These are tucked away in books, cabinets, attics, until an unsuspecting, history-loving granddaughter pulls them out of a pile of dust. If only these ribbons could talk!

Silk, paper, crepe. These seem to be the most common materials found with the ribbons, with the occasional gilt picture of Lincoln. Newspapers sold different styles, while groups such as the Veteran's Union created their own design. I could also see a person modifying an old ribbon from Lincoln's presidential campaigns. It seemed that nearly every person found at least something small to publicly commemorate Lincoln.

Conclusion
There are other ribbons that I have certainly missed. Every time I look online I find another added bit of Lincoln mourning. This post is certainly not exhaustive; think of it more as a place to start your research. The sesquicentennial anniversary of his death will be in 2015. Reenactors are already preparing for the season, with The 2015 Lincoln Funeral Coalition held May 1-3 in Springfield Illinois. I do hope to attend that event, as I know the planners have already dedicated themselves to a high level of accuracy! 

As for myself, I designed a mourning ribbon based on an original because I totally wanted one. And now I have them to sell in my shop! If you're interested, you can find them here at The Victorian Needle on Etsy***. I could have waited until spring, but I figured that people might want to receive them as Christmas presents, and avoid that crazy reenactor rush that is April-June.

I'm excited to see pictures from this upcoming year's events. I know that our reenacting community will honor Lincoln's memory, as well as the many lives given on both sides of the war. 

~Kristen

***The ribbon is date stamped in accordance with APIC political memorabilia standards

Monday, November 17, 2014

Becky: Keeping up with the seasons

Snow has finally fallen in south east Michigan. The hubby to be has taken his first night trip to salt. This is my least favorite season, but I'm loving the extra time with him.

Our little family traveled to Cadalac this past week to visit hubby's aunt for her birthday. We were on the Tedder todder deciding if we should go or not. Snow was our biggest issue. It had snowed from when we arrived to when we had left.

On our way back, we got a call from his mother explaining that she walked into her kitchen flooding. The pipes had burst and the water was going through to the basement. Andy's parents have collected many things over the years and we had to remove them and get the kitchen cleared.

Along with all of the unexpected surprises, Cynthia has been keeping me busy! We still struggle with sleeping and falling asleep, but she is great at playing by herself at times. She's learned how to walk between furniture!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

She said WHAT?!? The Power of a Name in the Reenacting Community

I would say that, as of late, people have been reading my blog. Over the past two years we have had 75,000 views, 178 posts, and dozens of comments. I've gone to reenactments where people don't know me, but they know The Victorian Needle. Two engagements, one bouncing baby girl, and at least a dozen Civil War events have graced this blog. Not bad for two rough and tumble Michigan girls!
Emphasis on the "tumble"
Photo by Ken Giorlando

During this time I've posted my thesis and other research. I've received many compliments, suggestions, and even a few critics. My posts have been used by others to support their documentation, and I have contributed to my own reenacting unit in so many ways. Our blog title and personal names have become known. I am both excited and terrified.

Being known for something has its perks. The compliments are glorious, and I get to discuss awesome things with awesome people. Even the occasional negativity can be ignored with the overwhelming support of family and friends. The downside is that I am known, my name is out there and (proudly) connected to the things that I do. People look to me for guidance, and others look for mistakes. That is so much pressure!
There it is! I see it! Everyone come look!
Photo by Ken Giorlando

Recently, I thought about how people make their name known in the reenacting community, and the consequences of such action. I've had it explained to me as a sort of "reigning hierarchy," with those who are considered experts by the reenacting community at the top. I personally know one of those experts, and my relationship with her has made it easier for me to examine this group of people. The purpose of this post is to examine how people interact with one another within the reenacting community, specifically those we hold to a different standard. How does this affect everyone?

To further support my thoughts, I've included quotes from The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto by Susan Lyons Hughes, as found on The Sewing Academy. I strongly urge you to read the whole thing when you get a chance!


How does one become an authority?
This is tricky to answer, because there is not one answer. I know people who are very knowledgable about certain aspects of the 19th century, but completely lacking in others. My fiance and I have argued over me learning more about the war itself-I'm hopeless when it comes to naming statistics for battles. I would never consider myself an expert on much of anything, rather a curious individual with a computer and research skills. Speaking of research...


#1 Lots and Lots and Lots of Research
The art of research has certainly evolved in the last 20 years, even to my own eyes. When I was a kid, we had dial-up internet, and I spent a bit of time at the library. Now I order my books off Amazon, with many on Kindle. So many books/magazines have been digitized! This makes information more available to the average citizen, rather than collectors of originals or reproductions. Knowledge is power, and it has certainly spread to a larger group of people.
Look at that scary woman with all that power! 

The actual process of research looks different for every person. For me, I find a topic I like and then find textual, photographic, and physical documentation to tie it all together. Sometimes I find more of one or another, though if I can't find a bit of everything, I generally look for something else to research. Nearly all of my sources can be found on the internet-surprise! Digitized books!
Wait, this isn't my Kindle!

Academic research looks a little different. Whilst preparing for my thesis, I had to meet with my advisor to discuss the right topic. I wrote one, two, three, four, five...drafts of every section. I used 30 different sources. I had at least 3 editors look through the document. And yet I knew mistakes would be made-as as writer I've come to terms with the fact that nothing will ever be perfect! We need to keep that in mind when researching too; you will sometimes hit a brick wall, with seemingly no way around the block. Really knowing about a topic means pushing past this point. This process can take years, as one develops that "eye" for all that is 19th century.
The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto

#2 Who Can Help?
This can be the easiest part of the process. I will admit that I know *nothing* about 19th century quilts. That topic has never interested me, though I respect people who have that knowledge. Someday if the mood strikes me, I will try to find someone who really knows about them. I will ask them, and it will become a part of my brain library. 
I swear I know nothing about dishes
Photo by Ken Giorlando

Certain people within the reenacting community are better known for their particular areas of interest. Within my own unit, I could ask my friend Liz for her opinion on glass beads, while in the next moment turning to Sue to ask about nurses uniforms. I respect the time they took to look up that stuff that I didn't have time for!

#3 Challenging the Status Quo
Going against a long-held belief within the reenacting community is difficult. When someone spends 10 years doing something one way, even suggesting a different possibility can garner a strong reaction. From what I understand, the best-known reenactors have successfully challenged an opinion with strong documentation (this is when the research comes in). Speaking up when someone doesn't agree with you can be terrifying, especially if that other person has more experience. This is a moment when someone's name can overpower another person's research, even if it is incorrect.
I make funny faces when speaking up about things
Photo by Ken Giorlando

Yet I find this step absolutely necessary to improvement. If we all get *too* comfortable in our current research, what happens when a contradiction comes along? Do we toss it aside because it makes us look bad? Or take it as a lesson and keep going? One of my favorite debates that I've seen online is the day cap discussion. Ladies go back and forth about the who/what/when/where/how/why of the day cap, using evidence as a guide. A few even show large emotional attachment to their particular beliefs. Is that wrong? No. Is it wrong to be rude to someone with a different opinion based on evidence? Probably. 
The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto

So now you're an authority...
I've met a few of these ladies and gentlemen throughout the years. Many of them share certain characteristics, besides those previously mentioned. These reenactors become well-known for their research, and I've found that *most* will fall into the following pattern:

# 1 Share Knowledge
Elizabeth Stewart Clark, Anna Warden Baursmith, Juanita Leisch, and Donna. J Abraham***. What do these ladies have in common? They are all published! So many reenactors share their research with others, which is how we know they are an authority in the first place! My first encounter with all of these ladies was opening the cover of each of their books.

Many of these ladies have blogs too. They share their knowledge in different ways, from full presentations to quick responses on Facebook groups. What I love the most is how giving they are of information. Their research isn't about personal gain; these reenactors generally want to improve the Civil War reenacting community as a whole. And I applaud their hard work and dedication.

***If your book or article is not mentioned, please mentally insert your name here.

#2 Mentor others
The art of mentoring can be very tricky. As a teacher, I feel it is a superb way to share knowledge. As a human being, I know not everyone has the personality for it, teacher or student. So while I consider this a necessary part of being an authority, I understand if not everyone does it directly. If an authority is sharing published research, that may be a sort of mentoring figure, even without the author's knowing.

With that said, I love the reenactors that mentor others. This happens in most groups; more experienced members help along newbies. They teach them to avoid the polyester snoods, and point in the direction of quality research. They are obvious at events, like mother geese sheltering the flock. I have been a goose at several reenactments.
Just where did the flock go?
Photo by Ken Giorlando

My own personal mentors are wonderful. Ken Giorlando has been with me every step of the reenacting way, ever since the day I unloaded my original stash on his dining room table. Glenna Jo Christen's advice helps with the research aspect of my impressions, always guiding me to another source. Countless discussions with other reenactors have made me want to be better. So thank you awesome reenactors, for your mentoring skillz.

#3 Letting Go
Ah. When one becomes an authority, people look to her for advice, guidance. Inevitably, someone will ask a question that is so simple, yet so outside of her knowledge. I would call this a defining moment, one that really determines whether or not she truly sticks to her guns. She says...
This is the face I make.
Photo by Ken Giorlando

...I don't know. The decision to forgo pride rather than spread bad information is totally unselfish. It leaves a person open to the risk of appearing to lack knowledge. I know a few reenactors who could not make this choice, who would rattle off a list of books they've supposedly read (to remind everyone that they are an authority) while still not understanding the answer to the question. Saying you don't know when you genuinely lack the information is a sign that you care more about the reenacting community as a whole, rather than the elevated status of an authority. I greatly respect "I don't know." I think reenactors deserve honesty, rather than pride.

At the same time, admitting to a lack of information can make a person look bad. This is the political side of reenacting according to Glenna Jo, one fraught with disagreements about which authority figure's information to trust. One lady says this about gloves, while another says that. Both are well-known and respected. Who do you believe? I don't have an answer, but I do know that such discussions have led to snitty comments, glaring stares, and outright rude behavior. I've heard of ladies not speaking to each other for years because of a contradictory statement. These feuds are mentioned delicately behind closed doors, with most reenactors unaware. While I know the reenacting community is made of many different people who can't always get along, this pettiness needs to stop.

Beware...
There are a few things to be careful of when mentioning the authority figures. As it is I've spoken of another topic that does not appear often, though many speak of it. Silly me, putting my name to something like this.

The Designer Label
Sometimes we give names too much power. Just because someone said/created/looked at thing, does not mean it exists correctly. I have seen a few items out there with absolutely no research to support them (zilch, nada) and yet because it is sold by a "big name" reenactor, it is taken as truth. Please do your own research, and demand that from the businesses your frequent. Don't take everything a person says as "gospel." Saying something is "appropriate" without any documentation should be a red flag. Ask for it.
What do you mean my outfit isn't appropriate?
Photo by Ken Giorlando

One of my favorite stories from Glenna is of a reenactor proudly displaying a dress, bragging that it  was a ________ creation. Later the reenactor would discover that dress needed many alterations to make it suitable. I can only imagine the misinformation spread to others because of that one dress. Take care ladies and gentlemen!

Rude Behavior
There it is. Just because someone is really good at reenacting, does not mean they are really good at people-ing. Reenactors come from so many different backgrounds! To expect every one to fully grasp the complexity of human interactions...impossible. I respect that we're all different.
I still don't understand babies

Being correct is no excuse for rude behavior, internet or otherwise. Everyone could always benefit from this reminder. Here are a few ways to frame polite disagreements:

I understand your point, though I believe...
I beg to differ...
On the other hand...
I respectfully disagree...
From my perspective... 

Personally attacking a person in the middle of a disagreement shuts down a conversation. Belittling a person (even if you're right) shuts down a conversation. Relying on your name to make another person look bad shuts down a conversation. If there is even the remote possibility that someone could be insulted, take them aside out of the public view or send a personal message. Blaming someone for being too *sensitive* discourages others from asking questions/posting research. Practicing polite conversation is a 19th century etiquette skill as well!
The Authentic Civilian's Manifesto

We are all very personally attached to reenacting. We must take that into consideration, even if someone is completely inaccurate. If a reenactor doesn't respond to polite suggestions...then it's not your battle to fight. We can't *make* a person do something. I learned that lesson the hard way in front of a classroom. 

In Conclusion...
I am still proud to be a reenactor, even with its little hiccups. My hope is that people will read this post and want to improve themselves. My special shout-out here is for the younger reenactors, the next generation. You will be the leaders one day, planning events or writing books, and I want you to do it better. If I mentor someone and they surpass me in skill and research, then I did something right!

A few of my favorite blogs include younger ladies who share their own personal experiences with history. Veronica from A Country Victorian posts lovely pictures of her reenacting adventures, as well as research/dressmaking. Brooke from Stitches of the Past focuses on historical clothing, and I just love her tone of writing! Amber from Lady of the Wilderness does just about everything, seriously read her blog. The Couture Courtesan and Katie Lovely must be mentioned.

There are others too. I would love to see more in the future, as the perspective of a 20 year old on history differs from that of another age. We must support the next generation of reenactors if we would like to see reenacting continue. Give them plenty of time to grow into their role in the reenacting community, mistakes and all. I'd like to see my own (not yet existing) children tear into history just as their dear mother did so many years ago. After all...

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...

~Kristen

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Kristen: The Snake/Serpent Motif in Civil War Jewelry

Snakes or serpents have been a popular motif for thousands of years, from the ancient Egyptians to popular culture today. In terms of the 19th century, it became a symbol of eternal love and devotion. I came across the mention of a serpent from Godey's, and my fascination has led to a research distraction...my favorite! I'm looking to add a snake to my impression with plenty of documentation. Thus began another descent into research madness...



Research Terms/Word Origins

I started by changing up my research terms. According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), The word "snake" derives from Middle English snaca, close to the Middle Low German snake. The use of the word dates back before the year 1000, but it did not really become popular until the 20th century. The word "serpent" comes from the Latin serpere, a much older word and a better search term when searching through 19th century documentation. The following charts are from Google Word Origin, and clearly show why I found less when looking up "snake."




Use over time for: "serpent"


Use over time for: "snake"

I also needed to know the word in other languages, as I wanted both French and German: "serpent" and "schlange." The most difficult part of this entire process was figuring out the right terms to use for my search! At this point my background in English from the University of Michigan started to kick in, and I spent nearly an hour playing on the OED. I took several linguistics classes in Spanish and English while in school; one in particular was taught by William Kretzschmar, a famous linguist and tough grader! I skated by with a B+ (one of the highest grades in the class) but that attention to word detail definitely worked in my favor...

Symbolism
The serpent motif became quite popular during 19th century, and it was used earlier during the Georgian period for jewelry and mourning purposes. Then came that great trendsetter; Queen Victoria rocked the serpent in the form of an engagement ring from her beloved Prince Albert in 1840. Suddenly, the slithering serpent became a symbol of a sacred love, a fashion statement for the ages. If Queen Vicki does it, it has to be cool!   

The serpent continued in its popularity, according to Jeanenne Bell author of Collecting Victorian Jewelry: Identification and Price Guide (2004): "The snake motif was used throughout the Victorian period. On a stroll through London, ladies could be seen wearing serpent rings, serpents entwined around their arms, and serpents coiled on their brooches" (23). While my impression cannot totally mimic an English lady, I doubt American women would have ignored such a trend. In fact, I've not seen a single serpent anywhere during my reenacting career, a void I am glad to fill!

After Prince Albert's death the serpent remained, with adaptations for more fashionable materials, such as wood or onyx. Remember that mourning style became de rigour in the 1860's, so black became vogue. Hairwork easily translated into the serpent shape as well, adding another dimension to its popularity. The material depended on the wealth of its owner; eyes or skin of rubies, diamonds, and emeralds could be replaced by a simple glass bead.

This was perhaps the easiest part of the research process. It's simple to google search "victorian serpent jewelry" to find a jeweler's assessment of the trend. I know they were popular, but other documentation is necessary before I add it to my impression. If you are interested in knowing more about the representation of the serpent, I found an excellent blog post here.

Photographic Documentation
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a snake in a 19th century photograph? It is nearly impossible to do this, so any evidence I find is certainly the mark of my good eye. My eyeballs were practically bleeding while staring closely at my computer screen. After sifting through dozens of snake charmers and circus performers, I did find a few photographs, mostly later in the century. Please enjoy the sweet fruit of my labor.
Library of Congress, Belt Buckle


I know that I am missing photographic evidence, though as with the arrows it may take time. Snakes could be so small and dainty, a fine little detail that the camera would not capture. Guessing the popularity and widespread nature of the snake motif is difficult to imagine with this evidence. Yet the continuity of its presence in jewelry and accessories remains obvious, as these photographs show several decades of the 19th century. Luckily, I have other forms of documentation!

Textual Documentation
Throughout my search, the word "snake" or "serpent" appeared in so many different contexts. In many stories, the snake appeared often as a slithering evil creature, wreaking some sort of biblical havoc. The fashion column shows a different side of the animal, as it is depicted as a beautiful accessory, practically dripping off the wrists of ladies. Are these creepy or stylish? 
Serpent Bracelet, Godeys Lady's Book, December 1855
Materials .— For the body five skeins of fine gold twist, and one skein of dark green cord; or one skein of shaded violet and green silk, and a skein of coarse gold twist, which is used instead of the cord. If worked in imitation of hair, one skein of coarse netting silk, one skein of brown union cord. For the head, one skein of fine gold twist silk, same as the body; and for the eyes four steel beads, No. 6, and two large black ones; and one skein of German wool to stuff the body. Needle, No. 17, bell gauge. WITH the gold twist work twenty chain, and make it round, keeping the wrong side of the stitches outside; take the green cord, and with the gold work twenty-two stitches plain, working the cord under the stitches, still keeping the work on the wrong side; then work in spiral crochet; thus, it will be perceived on examining the wrong side of the plain stitches, that two threads of the gold lie perpendicularly across the cord of the lower part of the stitch; insert the needle in the left hand thread of the two perpendicular threads, and work a plain stitch in it. Repeat this stitch for ninety-six rounds, working the cord under the stitches, which should be worked rather loose1y. Then decrease one, by taking two stitches together, thirty-seven plain, decrease one, thirty-five plain, decrease one, thirty-three plain, decrease one. Repeat twelve times more, working two stitches less between the decrease each time; fasten off. Double the skein of wool, and with a large rug-needle draw it through the body to the end.
Fashions, Arthur's Lady's Home Magazine, 1856
Novelties for February, Godey's Lady's Book, February 1857
Fig. 1 The serpent brooch is of wrought gold, the coils being entwined around a cross band, or bar, handsomely enamelled. In this design, which gives the costliest form, a pendant is suspended from the mouth of the serpent . This may be dispensed with if desired, or, if added, may be ordered of any precious stone, carbuncles, pearls, &c. The one we give is of diamonds, and has of course a superb effect in evening-dress.
A Marriage in the Rothschild Family, Godey's Lady's Book, 1857
To this princely gift succeeded a long row of candlesticks, gold and silver filagree, and enamel ivory work-boxes, lace, fans, jewelled buttons, prayer-books bound in gold, and jewelled escritoires of buhl and marqueterie, more breakfast services, and a lace parasol. The latter was in a kind of jewel-case; the handle was covered with serpents of rubies and diamonds, and the tip of each rib was formed of an oval-shaped emerald and large pearl.
Der Bazar, November 1861
La Mode Illustree, December 1861
The What-not or Ladies' handy-book, 1861
"A serpent of fine scaly gold, the neck and back striped and variegated with minute gems, was wreathed about the mass of braids on one side of her head, and formed a knot of slender coils where it clasped the coronet...A serpent, similar to the one on her head, but glowing with still more costly jewels, coiled around the graceful swell of her right arm, a little below the elbow, but its brilliancy was concealed by the drapery of the sleeve..."

"Her crimson robe floated out on the wind, and the jewelled serpent about her brow gleamed like a living thing in the red light which lay full upon her." 

"The words were yet on her lips when a bullet whistled from the shore, and cut away the ruby crest of the serpent which lay upon her temple."
Les Modes Parisiennes, 1862
"L'autre est une chatelaine pour relever la robe de mauvais temps; elle deviendra indispensable pour retenir les habits de chavel, car la longueur des jupes d'amazone les rend tresincommodes des qu'on met pied a terre. Due reste, cette chatelaine est de forme tres-elegante, elle se prend dans la ceinture et une petite chaine soutient une espece de petit bracelet qui s'ouvre pour prendre le plis de la jupe, puis vous relevez ou abaissez vette chaine en passant un petit crochet dans un de ses anneaux. Ce bracelet en argent figure une branche d'arbre sur laquelle s'enroule un serpent en or."

"The other is a chatelaine to meet the dress of bad weather; it becomes essential to retain clothes Chavel, because the length of skirts amazon makes tresincommodes of you put foot on land. Moreover, this chatelaine is very elegant-form it takes in the waist and a small chain supports a kind of small bracelet that opens to make the folds of the skirt, then you raise or lower vette chain through a small hook in one of his rings. This silver bracelet branch of a tree on which a snake wrapped in gold." -Google translate
Arthur's Lady's Home Magazine, 1863
Novelties for April, Godey's Lady's Book, April 1864
Fig. 1 A headdress of lilac velvet petunias, with groups of palm leaves; a double chain of gutta percha is carried round the head; in front, among the palm leaves, is an enamelled blue and green golden serpent.

This evidence is perhaps the most compelling. American, English, French, and German magazines all mention the snake as an adornment. Here I will lay my shortcomings at the reader; translating German is a terrifically messy mess when one only reads Spanish/English/slight French, so I may be missing more documentation. Actually seeing the repeated snake from Der Bazar to La Mode Illustree the next month reminded me that the serpent could cross cultural boundaries. Oh you sly little thing you! I will add more to this section later if necessary, though I feel I've collected enough evidence to prove that the snake motif was alive during the Civil War period.

Surviving Originals
Dating jewelry can be especially difficult, since not every piece is stamped. Women could also pass down items through generations. Considering the continuity of the motif, it is quite possible that a young lady from 1860 might inherit a jeweled bracelet or brooch from her mother or grandmother. Just as I will lovingly wear my own grandmother's wedding ring, these ladies treasured family heirlooms. 

Gold, or silver, jet, plain or extravagant, the original jewelry illustrates the serpent trend with stylish fashion. They are found on everything, from necklaces, bracelets, rings, brooches, and belts. I saw pearls, turquoise, agate, ruby, garnet, diamond, and even emeralds. Viewing the surviving originals proves the popularity of the trend, as well as reinforces the textual documentation.

In Conclusion...
At this point I'm really excited to see a few slithering friends riding along with my less slithering friends at upcoming events. I do have a few concerns, as this particular motif may not be appropriate for every impression. Before adding a snake accessory, think about the following questions:

How would the snake function within your impression?
Why would your person have one?
When would it be worn?
How will you explain its importance?

I would love to see more variety at events, as such research can only improve our experience of the 19th century. However, the symbol of the snake may be too much for a few of my readers, as I've had more than one person say "ewww" when looking at my post. If you do decide to sink your fangs into this motif, realize that documentation supports your choice in the appropriate context. By the way, I totally did not intend this publish this just before Halloween? Or did I?
Where's your documentation?!!!

Seriously though, everyone have a safe and festive Halloween!
~Kristen

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