Thursday, March 19, 2015

19th Century Cut Steel Jewelry

This is one of my first posts spanning three centuries! In all honesty I find myself stretching to different time periods, though my little toe is barely scratching the surface of the 18th century. I love Regency jewelry too!
This is me, loving it.

What I've found is that often jewelry will snake its way through different time periods, waxing and waning in its popularity. For example, I've seen pearls used throughout the 19th-20th centuries. I owned a set of pearls before I became a reenactor. While they are not the *most* popular right now, researchers of the future could still document their use.

When I first started to research cut steel, my first look was to the 18th century. As I continued, I counted examples through the Regency and eventually mid to late 19th century. While I cannot say cut steel was the most popular during the Civil War time period, I do have various forms of documentation proving that they were in use during that time. Should every reenactor own a pair? No. Would adding historically accurate variety to reenactor jewelry choices better the community as a whole? I'm going to go with a big YES on that one!

So if you're looking for a little historically accurate variety, I hope to provide that here with plenty of documentation!

History of Cut Steel
Some sources have dated the use of cut steel all the way back to the 16th century, but it truly became popular in the 1700s. Birmingham, England was the source of most cut steel adornment, though French factories were producing during that time as well. Men and women in mid 18th century England donated their gems/jewelry to fund the Seven Years War, with cut steel as a glittering replacement for diamonds and other jewels.

Early pieces using cut steel contained up to as many as 15 facets per stud. By the late 19th century the quality of cut steel production dropped drastically, resulting in a declining popularity. Unfortunately time has the greatest effect on this pretty jewelry; much of it has already succumbed to rust.

Photographic Evidence 
While I do believe in finding photographic documentation, this is often the hardest to attain. The details are just not fine enough to pinpoint specific forms of jewelry. Here is my effort: 

As with my other jewelry research, it is nearly impossible to find out if a piece is actually cut steel. The detail of this jewelry would not be visible with the photography available in the 19th century. In these examples, I lean more towards yes, but as always it is not definite.

Textual Evidence
Designs of Latest Fashions, Godey's Lady's Book, February 1860


Fig. 5.&#151 Girl of the same age. Velvet perdessus, the waist fitting neatly to the figure, and confined by an elastic belt with steel or jet clasp; the skirt full and plain; sleeves and waist faced by a rich facing of steel-colored silk. Round velvet hat, edged and trimmed with crimson. Crimson gaiters. Cambric sleeves and frill.


Centre-Table Gossip, Some Gossip on Novelties, Godey's Lady's Book, February 1860
Steel, gilt, and jet beads are used to ornament the ribbons, by many; cut steel ornaments, including buckles, brooch, and ear-rings, are still worn for travelling and demi-toilette. At a little distance— especially by artificial light— they have the glittering effect of diamonds.


Chitchat upon Fashiosn, Godey's Lady's Book, December 1860 
Here also we find the pretty Zouave worsted jacket for little girls, to be worn in the house, or under a loose sacque or cloak in the street. The display of new rigolettes, infant's caps, scarfs, etc. in worsted is excellent. The chief novelty in these goods is a crocheted worsted round hat,over a frame; we do not think it will be popular, as it takes away the warmth and elasticity which make knit or crochet articles of dress valuable. Mr. Myers' infants' and fanciful children's hats are in every possible variety. He has some charming hats for little girls, of the new shape, “the Shepherdess” and “Di Vernon's” having had their day. The present shape is an improvement upon the “Mushroom” of last year, the brim turning down like it, but being slightly full, it loses the stiffness that characterized that style. Bands of rich, bright velvet, with a rosette of velvet and black lace, and a centre of jet, gilt, cut steel, and a plume de coque, heron's plume, curled ostrich with a velvet stem, or the richer Bird of Paradise, turn back from this rosette to the right of the brim, drooping gracefully toward the shoulder. FASHION.
Chitchat upon Fashions, Godey's Lady's Book, January 1861
In our notice of Mrs. Scofield's bonnets the past month, an error occurred in the mention of the bridal hat. The ornaments were a barbe of rich blonde, a branch of orange flowers and buds, with a light plume of marabout to the right. A novelty in the cap, was a papillon (butterfly) in velvet and gold, on the right temple.

Short, full feathers— these butterfly ornaments, long grooved leaves in velvet the color of the bonnet— golden ornaments, macaroons in steel, pearl, and gilt, are among the chief ornaments of the velvet bonnets. 

Headdresses, Godey's Lady's Book, November 1861 



Fig. 2.— The coronet is composed of black velvet, with three pearl or gold stars, a large one in the centre and a smaller one on either side. Two long white ostrich feathers, fastened in at the side of the coronet and crossing behind, complete this coiffure. It would be equally pretty made in pink or blue velvet, with feathers of the same color, the stars being made of pearl, studded with steel .

Chitchat upon Fashion, Godey's Lady's Book , March 1863
Another dress less pretentious, but perhaps more elegant, was a very rich black silk. The skirt was trimmed with a narrow fluting, which was carried round the bottom and up the sides, in the tunic form, to the waist. In the space left between the trimmings were placed rosettes, edged with lace, and with steel centres. An edge of black guipure formed the heading to the fluted border. The body was trimmed with a fluting to imitate a jacket, which it did perfectly.

Lady's Waistband Bag, Godey's Lady's book, March 1864

THE revolutions of fashion have once again brought this waist hag into use, and it certainly is not only an ornament to the dress, but possesses this advantage over the hand bag, that it cannot be dropped or forgotten, or left behind. It is desirable, therefore, both for the sake of the fashion and usefulness, that we should give a design for one of these articles.

The waist bag shown in our illustration is made of either kid or some other sort of leather. Russian leather or kid may be used. It is cut in two parts, the back having the flap added to it, overwrapping the bag in front. A silk lining having been laid in the inside, the edges are bound round with two strips of cloth pinked at their edges with a very small vandyke, the under one being white, or scarlet, or blue, the upper one a dark chocolate, brown, or black, having a line of herringbone in scarlet or blue purse silk carried all round. The pines are in whichever of the cloths may have been chosen for the outer edge of the border, and the flowers which surround them in white cloth, the first of these being cut in the same small vandyke, and the little sprays upon them being in the very smallest sort of steel beads now manufactured, which being done, the pine is to be laid upon its place with a touch of gum water, and its wavy line of the steel beads worked all round. The flowers being also cut out according to the shape given, and arranged in their places with a similar slight touch of gum, are to have short lines of the steel beads carried from the centre to the outer edge, with one larger in the centre of each, the spray work being also in the steel beads. The strings of the bag are formed of leather, having a strip of cloth cut exactly of the required width and vandyked at each edge, laid underneath it, the edges brought over and herringboned down.


John Sterne's Disappointment, Godey's Lady's Book, September 1864
No reply from him. But he turned and gazed at her. Her brown curls rested on her hand— a small hand made whiter by the soft blue dress she wore; her eyes were fastened with an intentness and unwonted sobriety upon the dancing flames before her. Her slippers peeping from beneath her dress displayed two buckles of cut steel which shone in the fire-light, betraying every restless movement of the feet within. 

Chitchat for Fashion, Godey's Lady's Book, September 1863
Swiss bodies are still worn, but the greatest novelty is the Hussar sash, which describes a point in front, and a sort of basque at the back. It is made of two colors, and the seams are studded with small round silver, steel, or gilt buttons.


Hairnets, Godey's Lady's Book, January 1864

NETS for the hair being much worn at the present season, we have chosen a few of the most fashionable for illustration, and as several of our subscribers have written for patterns of this description, we have given directions for both useful and ornamental nets.

The Marie Louise is an entirely new design, the ornamental part being formed of narrow bands of Russia leather, secured with steel beads; the front is trimmed with small stars, worked in tatting, and of the same color as the bands. The, net is of Alexandra Blue Braid, or, if preferred, black may be substituted; and it can of course be made in any color, but blue or black harmonizes best with the ornaments.

MATERIALS.&#151 For the net, a piece of colored braid, a large netting needle, and a flat mesh three-quarters of an inch in width. For the trimming, a bunch of steel beads, No. 9, and seven bands of narrow Russia leather, which are usually sold twelve inches in length, and are stamped with a small gimp pattern. For the stars, a skein of tatting twine the color of the bands, a small shuttle, and a ring and pin. To trim the front, one and a half yards of blue ribbon, one and three-quarter inches wide, and one yard one inch-wide. Also one yard of elastic.

After doing all of this research, I realize that not all of these references are specifically for "cut steel." Steel jewelry was popular in its own right, but I wanted to include it to show the widespread use of the material. And honestly, I wonder if a few of them are actually cut steel references, just assuming that the reader would know what is implied. As more information becomes available to me I will rework this section of my research.

Surviving Originals
Cut steel adornments date all the way back to the 18th century, so it can be difficult to properly identify a piece with an untrained eye. From what I understand, less facets on the metal indicates later jewelry. In any case...aren't they just adorable?


Conclusion
While I do have documentation to support the use of cut steel throughout the 19th century, I would not call this use widespread or common enough for them to show up on every reenactor at events. By the Civil War they just weren't nearly as popular as they were in the 18th century. This was for a few reasons; the quality had declined (less facets), and fashions changed to accommodate mourning. 

As I look to reproduce cut steel jewelry, I keep these things in mind. Could this piece be handed down from a family member? Would a young lady love the glittery centerpiece to her bonnet? Or did she read in Godey's that they had "the glittering effect of diamonds." With these thoughts I pressed for the possibility of having this jewelry available.

Cut steel itself is quite heavy...and I just could not find the right size/cuts that I could affordably reproduce a piece. And then I saw it! A very close, very lightweight, very pretty glass bead with the glittery appearance. Of course I needed the right metal to match, with sterling silver as the best solution. By the time I finished, I found that I had completed my first hypo-allergenic set of earrings. That has been my goal for some time, as numerous people have contacted me about doing such a thing.

Whew! This one took a bit more work than usual, possibly because I am preparing for the Kalamazoo Living History Show this weekend. Stop by and say hi if you're in the area! Otherwise, you'll hear all about it next week...wish me luck!

~Kristen

Sources

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