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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