A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

September 2008

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Compact Mirrors

One of the things that has intrigued us recently has been the use of portable mirrors in the seventeenth century, like today’s powder compact. Eileen Ribeiro, in her excellent book Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England, tells us about “girdle glasses.” These were small looking glasses set into elaborate frames of feathers that were hung from ladies girdles as they walked in public. The fashion for black face patches, which came in during the reign of Charles I, made them essential, for the patches apparently needed constant checking.

Patches covered blemishes resulting from bad diet or pox, and also emphasized the whiteness (natural or artificial) of the lady’s skin. Their use became excessive. In The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1673) Hannah Moore writes of patches “cut out into little Moones, Suns, Stars, Castles, Birds, Beasts and Fishes…” so that a woman’s face “may be properly termed a Landskip of living Creatures.”

Now, we’ve never seen a girdle glass for sale today, but Ribiero reproduces engravings of ladies with them, so that if we ever come across one, we’ll at least know what it is. The engravings were done by Wencelaus Hollar in 1639 and 1644.

We also came across an intriguing definition of “mirror” in the Oxford English Dictionary that reads, “a small glass formerly worn in the hat by men and at the girdle by women. B. JONS.” Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare (probably there’s a nutcase somewhere who thinks he was Shakespeare), but the OED infuriatingly gives no reference. If any of you know a reference, Ben Jonson or not, to men carrying mirrors in their hats, please pass it on to us.

Seventeenth-century men’s clothes had no pockets, and there’s no doubt that the voluminous hats of the first half of the century had plenty of room for a mere looking glass. Men did carry spoons in their hats, and there’s a delightful 1681 painting by Lambert Doomer to prove it. But mirrors?



"Exorbitancy of the Tongue"

Ducking stools are one of the things that kids best remember from their history lessons: ducking sounded more like fun than punishment. But we’d never actually seen a ducking stool, not till we went to the Old Gaol Museum in York, Maine. In it was a seventeenth-century English ducking stool.

It was a solidly made joined armchair -– we mention this because ducking stools were one of the few pieces of furniture that carpenters (as opposed to joiners) were allowed to make. In 1632 the Court of Aldermen in London decreed that joiners should make “all sorts of chaires and stooles which are made with mortesses and tennants,” and that carpenters were allowed “all Sesterne stooles washing stooles Ducking stooles whatsoever that are to be headed with Oake Elme Beeche or Deale and footed with square or round feete Excepte all framed stooles glued or pinned.” This one is made with “mortesses and tennants” so presumably a joiner made it.

Most contemporary engravings of a ducking show the stool suspended from a beam, but on this stool the beam ran under the seat.

In Colonial America, the jail was not a place of punishment, but a holding pen for the accused who were awaiting their trials. Sentences were short, and favored quick, painful or embarrassing punishments, after which the wrong-doers returned immediately to their communities, where their skills and labor were sorely needed.  Ducking was a punishment for scolders and gossips (almost always women), though bickering couples were sometimes strapped back to back and ducked together. For particularly bad scolding, the duckings could continue intermittently throughout the day.

On May 15, 1672, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law that stated:

“Whereas there is no expresse punishment for any law hitherto established affixed to the evill practice of sundry persons by exorbitancy of the tongue in rayling and scolding, it is therefore ordered, that all such persons convicted, before any Court or magistrate that has propper cognizance of the cause for rayling or scolding, shall be gagged or sett in a ducking stoole & dipt over head & eares three times in some convenient place of freash or salt water as the Court magistrate shall judge mete.”

Come and see the ducking stool and us, as we set up in the tap room of the Jefferds Tavern for the Museums of Old York Antiques Show, on Friday and Saturday, September 12 and 13. The Old Gaol with its ducking stool is just across the street, so guard against any exorbitancy of your tongue when you’re discussing our antiques with us!




Now here’s an esoteric topic for you. In some of the dates carved on cupboards and coffers we occasionally see a numeral that looks like a small loop whose ends rise up into a “V.” Sometimes the top of the “V” is closed by a bar, when it is usually interpreted as an “8.”

Our good friend and colleague, John Maggs, showed us a press cupboard whose carved date we illustrate here. He suggested that the third numeral is a “4,” and that it is sometimes known as a “half-eight.” This date, therefore, is 1641.

A friend of his is an ancient linguist -- “ancient,” we hasten to add, refers to the languages he studies, not to the man himself. He told John that the third numeral is a 4 in Sanskrit, and shows up in many languages. Our so-called Arabic numerals, he explained, are actually Hindi-Arabic, and reached Europe in the fifteenth century. Some European medieval manuscripts use the same V-loop numeral, but turned upside down, as a “4” (and on its side, we cannot fail to notice, it exhorts us to Support Our Troops on the back of pick-up trucks)!

If this V-loop numeral is indeed the Sanskrit “4,” as certainly seems plausible, then the “closed-V” variant, which is not Sanskrit, is a derivative and may or may not stand for an “8.” If it does, we should call it a “double-four” instead of calling the original Sanskrit numeral a “half-eight.”

But this still leaves us with the unexplained mystery of why the Sanskrit (Hindi) “4” should occasionally displace the Arabic equivalent, and why it should linger on into the seventeenth-century only in the work of English wood carvers? Oh yes, and why only the “4”? All we can say is that words, and apparently numerals, move from language to language in weird and wonderful ways.

By the way, if any of you have a carved date that includes the “closed-V,” we’d be grateful if you’d send us a picture of it. Thanks.

Pick of Our Picks: Scroll-Foot Gateleg Table

The received wisdom among long-time dealers is that in a recession, it’s as hard to buy as it is to sell: people hold their good things back until the market improves. Despite that, we’ve had great luck in finding three or four special pieces in the last month or so -- OK, we work for our luck, but you still need to have the Lady on your side. Our finds? A wonderful mural cabinet, a couple of great “great chairs,” and this table.

It’s got to be rare –- Chinnery doesn’t illustrate the form, though Bowett does, with the caption, “This is a rare type; the turning is unusually rich and has some similarity with contemporary candlestands. The scrolled feet are perhaps rare precursors of the more common ‘Spanish’ foot introduced after c. 1710.”

Bowett’s example is more elaborately turned than ours, and has plinths under the scrolled feet (we think the scrolls on ours are better), but otherwise the two are so similar that they could well have come from the same shop. The molded cross-brace is unique to this form, structurally efficient and absolutely beautiful.

It’s the Cadillac of gate-legs, and we’re very proud to have it in our inventory. We show you Bowett’s (top) and ours (bottom) so you can compare the two. For more details of ours, click here.

Ref: Adam Bowett, English Furniture 1660 – 1714, p. 275.