A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects


Click on any image to enlarge it.


Cradle, English, oak, 1675.

Jesus in a Baby Walker, the Hours of
Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Jan Kraeck, Maria Apollonia of Savoy, c. 1590

Interior of the cradle showing the knobs for lacing down a coverlet

In "the Kingdom of God."

A Fortress Cradle

Being a baby in the 17th century was an experience our kids would hardly recognize, just as they would hardly recognize this ornate wooden box as a place for them to sleep.

The cradle looks like it does because of the current philosophy of babyhood. From the Middle Ages until about the middle of the seventeenth century, it was common knowledge that all babies were born contaminated with "original sin" — all Adam and Eve's fault.

In 1658, Richard Alstree wrote, "The new borne babe is full of the stains and pollutions of sin which it inherits from our first parents through our loins."

Alstree was fully in accord with earlier thinkers, such as Robert Cleaver and John Dod. In their book, A Godly Form of Household Government (1621), they wrote, "The Young child which lieth in the cradle (is) both wayward and full of afflictions: and though his body be but small, yet he hath a great heart, and is altogether inclined to evil . . . . If this sparkle be suffered to increase, it will rage over and burn down the whole house."

Good parents, therefore, understood that "We are changed and become good, not by birth, but by education," said Cleaver and Dod. "Therefore parents must be wary and circumspect, that they never smile or laugh at any words or deeds of their children done lewdly . . . naughtily, wantonly . . . they must correct and sharply reprove their children for saying or doing ill."

By the end of the century, John Locke had overcome the idea that babies were born wicked and replaced it with the notion of the tabula rasa, or "blank slate." For Locke, the mind of the new-born child was blank like a sheet of white paper, and the main responsibility of the parents was to control what was written on it, and thus ensure that the child grew into an adult with all the correct notions. Conscientious parents, therefore, took care that the people around the child were all of good character and wouldn't pass on bad language, opinions or habits. (John Locke, 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690)

And good parents never allowed their children to crawl, because that put them on the same level as animals — and who knows what that might do to their mental and moral development! (I'm not going to let our dog read this.) A baby walker kept the child upright both physically and morally.

This control over the way that the baby's mind developed was paralleled by concern about their bodies. Immediately after birth babies were cleaned and swaddled. In swaddling, the child's arms and legs were straightened and then wrapped with cloth bands. This ensured that children's bodies, like their minds, grew up straight and not deformed. Children were kept in swaddling bands until several months after birth.

A baby, therefore, needed protection from a multitude of forces. And this cradle was designed to do just that. We might like to think of it as a "fortress cradle."

In it the swaddling child lay in the correct posture, fully enclosed and protected from evil forces regardless of the direction from which they might come.

When a coverlet was tied over the infant by cords laced around the knobs on each side of the cradle, there was only a small square opening at the front of the hood where influences (and light) could enter. Easy enough for the parents to control whatever was to be written on the child's tabula rasa.

Through this small aperture, then, entered words, opinions or behavior, but it also allowed entry to the "miasmas" that, according to medical doctrine, infected the child with disease by seeping through any uncovered skin.

Finally, we note that the greatest protection of all runs around this cradle — the word of God: "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for such is ye kingdom of God."

This cradle provided all the protection a child could possibly need — physical, medical, moral and religious. It really was a fortress cradle.

For full details of the cradle, click here.


Glass Patch Stand

"Here be your new Fashions Mistres," woodcut illustration to Laurence Price, Here's Jack in a Box, 1656, the British Library, London.

17th- and 18th-century patches, the Wellcome Library, London.

Satirical print, English, 17th-century.

Stand for Beauty

What would you expect to drink from this glass, given that the bowl is only half-an-inch deep? Sorry, unfair question, it wasn't made for drinking. You wouldn't find it on a dining table or a tea table, but on a dressing table. It is a patch stand.

From the about the 1550s till the 1730s fashionable ladies stuck black patches on their faces as beauty marks. And very fanciful some of them were. In her book, The Gentlewoman's Companion (1673) Hannah Wooley describes how patches "are cut into little Moons, Suns, Stars, Castles, Birds, Beasts, and Fishes of all sorts" so that a woman's face "may be properly termed a Landskip of living Creatures."

Of course, not everyone shared her enthusiasm: In 1654 the puritan Thomas Hall called them "...base and Beastly Spots, the spots of the proud, idle wanton Drones of the World."

Samuel Pepys thought that Margaret Cavendish had dressed a tad oddly when he noted "...Her velvet cap, her hair about her ears, many black patches because of pimples about her mouth, naked necked without anything about it..." (to be "naked necked" was obviously a true fashion faux pas!)

Pepys does at least give us a hint of the real function of patches: they hid the spots and blemishes on women's faces — spots that may have been caused by small pox, venereal disease or by the face cream made from white lead by which ladies kept their faces fashionably white — only the lower classes and servants had skins given color by the weather or by the conditions in which they worked.

As creatures of the 2020s, we will not be surprised that beauty spots became politicized. In 1711, Johnathan Swift noted that "The Whig Ladies put on their Patches in a Different Manner from the Tories." And a bit earlier, Anthony Wood was appalled at the way Oxford students dressed after the Restoration, creating a "strange effeminate age when men strive to imitate women, viz. long periwigs, patches in their faces, short wide breeches like petticoats...bedecked with ribbons of all colors."

So this little glass patch stand would have held a lady's collection of patches from which she would made her choice for the day. Next to it on her dressing table would have been a pot of gum Arabic to stick them on.

It's a pretty rare thing, this patch stand. Once patches went out of fashion it would have had no other use, and there would have been no reason to keep it.

For full details, click here


Courting Couple, framed 6-3/8" x 5-1/8"

Detail of Courting Couple

Marriage Casket with applied carvings from the Embriachi workshop. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Embriachi carving of two women.

Pilgrim Badge from the shrine of St. Jos, 14th-15th century, 2-3/4" x 1-3/4"

The badge framed for display, 6-1/4" x 7"

Pilgrim Badge from the shrine of St. Jos, late 14th century. Courtesy the Museum of London

Miniatures "Factory-Made" in the Middle Ages

For a Marriage

When we look at medieval examples of the decorative arts, the phrase "factory-made" rarely, if ever, comes to mind.

Yet we have just acquired a "factory-made" carving done in about 1400. This miniature carving is only 2-1/2" x 1-3/8" and shows a courting couple. Originally it decorated a small wooden box made as a wedding gift and known today as a "marriage casket."

The carving was done in a workshop, or factory, owned by Baldassare Embriachi, a Florentine diplomat and merchant who was a member of a noble family. He founded the workshop as a commercial enterprise possibly as early as 1370, but certainly by 1390. In 1395 he moved it to Venice, where it remained in production at least until 1416, and possibly till 1433.

Baldassare may well have moved to Venice because there were more skilled artisans there than in Florence.

The workshop employed local artisans, we do not know how many, to make two types of product: carvings like this done in horse or ox bone, and certosina which were marquetry inlays of stained woods, bone and horn.

For more details, click here

For a Pilgrimage

We have recently acquired another medieval miniature, a Pilgrim Badge that was also the product of a factory-like workshop.

Pilgrim badges were made of a lead alloy cast in molds made of bronze or limestone. Pilgrims wore them as visible signs that they had been on a pilgrimage to a particular shrine and, more importantly, as a means of carrying the sanctity of the shrine in their daily life.

The production of pilgrim badges flourished in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. They were collected and worn by English pilgrims on their journeys to more distant European shrines, but the custom died out in the early 16th century when pilgrimages declined in popularity and were banned completely when King Henry VIII's Church of England replaced the Catholic Church.

This Pilgrim badge is from the shrine of St Jos at Saint-Josse-sur-Mer, France. Jos (Judoc or Joos) was the son St. Judicael, King of Brittany in the 7th century. Jos renounced the crown for a pilgrimage and on his return became a hermit. After his death in 668 his body preserved itself and his beard continued to grow — sure signs of sanctity! St. Jos' hermitage became a popular stopping point for English pilgrims after arriving in France on longer pilgrimages.

For more details, click here