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- Antiques and Collectibles
- Inside Antiques:
- Those Victorian Sewing Treasures
- By Robert Reed
- In an age where household sewing machines are more and more
of a domestic exception, it is difficult to appreciate the Victorian
need for them and their accessories.
- During the Victorian era, girls were expected to learn sewing
by the age of six. And within a few years thereafter, they would
complete a distinguished sampler which would demonstrate a range
on intricate stitches.
- "Sewing then was almost the only recreation acceptable
for Victorian women," observes Marilyn Estes Smith
in the reference work Spinning Wheel's Antiques for Women. "They
took great pride in their ability to embroider as well sew a
- The many Victorian sewing-related items that were so vital
then are understandably quite collectible today. They range from
cushion dolls, sewing baskets and scissors to early machines,
thimbles, and even advertising cards.
- Certainly, sewing accessories were available to American
woman as early as the Colonial period. A 1746 advertisement in
the New York Weekly Post noted that an establishment near the
Fly Market "sells all sort of Ironmongery and cutlery Ware,
Thimbles, Pins, and Needles."
- However, it was the Victorian era that really saw the zenith
of household sewing and sewing implements.
- One significant accessory was the sewing bird. In 1852, the
Hartford Times offered "Ladies Sewing Birds, the latest
invention and most useful article for ladies that be found."
Basically, the birds served as clamps to hold fabric for sewing.
Initially the clamps were in the shape of birds and therefore
called sewing birds, but they later appeared in the form of other
animals and even a butterfly. Moreover, the birds could be made
of a variety of materials, ranging from brass to plated silver.
- Another popular Victorian sewing item, darners, were probably
of even more varied materials than sewing birds. Typically, darners
were in the shape of an egg with an attached handle and were
quite handy for darning socks at the heel. Most were made of
wood, but more expensive models were made of silver with ivory
- There was also a wide array of scissors, some with sterling
silver handles and many with decorative patterns. During the
1870's, there was fairly widespread use of needle cases to preserve
and protect needles, which remained a relatively costly item.
- During the latter 1870's, the snap-back tape measure came
into vogue in America. Prior to that time, women had to rely
on measures which were hand-wound on a spindle. Snap-back measures
were soon very popular and could be found with celluloid, mother
of pearl, or even silver coverings. Some even bore advertising
and were either given by merchants as premiums or sold at a relatively
- For a time, dolls helped the home seamstress keep track of
all her sewing implements. Sewing dolls were fashioned to hold
scissors, buttons, thimbles and other items in the pockets of
their dress. During the second half of the 19th century, various
women's magazines offered instructions on how to construct them.
The pin cushion doll was also another management tool for sewing.
- Typically, young women used commercially produced porcelain
doll heads to attach to their own pincushion creation. Often
these pincushion dolls also had small pockets for holding thimbles
and other small objects.
- Not surprisingly,
the accumulation of sewing implements created a need for boxes
and other containers to properly contain and organize needed
items. Simple woven baskets were often used for this purpose,
however more elaborate work boxes of polished wood and velvet
lining could be put to use.
- At the height of the Victorian era, the selections necessary
to enhance sewing were as vast as they were important.
- "Rich or poor, a lady's sewing tools were a reflection
of her good taste," said Carol Wallace, author of
the comprehensive book Victorian Treasures. "The thimbles
and needles cased reflected the variety of materials possible
for even the most mundane of tools. Objects like an acorn thimble
case, and a shinny silver basket-like pin cushion, very often
took the shape of something else, presumably to simply charm
and bemuse the user."
- Even a simple pair of scissors could now be quite charming.
Early in the 1890's, Chicago's Marshall Field Company offered
lace or embroidery scissors with polished blades and fitted bows.
A Boston department, meanwhile, was offering a wide selection
of "Ladies' Buttonhole scissors with beveled bows."
The short, hatchet-shaped blades of buttonhole scissors were
heavily used in homes without extensive sewing machine attachments.
- During that era, it was not unusual for the blades of fancy
scissors to be manufactured in Germany or England and the handles
to be added in the United States, with the final produce marked
made in USA.
- The Singer Manufacturing Company was the world's leading
maker of sewing machines for the home in the late 19th century,
although certainly not the only manufacturer. Singer's lavish
advertising in magazines and colourful trade cards helped fuel
the demand for more extensive sewing in the household.
- And even with a fine Singer sewing machine, a great number
of other accessories were constantly needed. Catalogs were filled
with mail-order selections of gold-filled thimbles to silver
plated needle cases. The 1895 Montgomery Ward general catalog
offered their own version of the "new improved Singer Model
Sewing Machine with high arm"
- Ward customers could also order Lightning Hand Sewing Needles,
and two-drawer cabinets filled for Clark's O.N.T. spool thread.
The cabinets, some holding as many as four drawers, were also
on display at neighborhood retail stores.
- Pin cushion dolls became more popular than ever before. Striking
examples were produced in Germany, Japan and the United States
and offered in major catalogs as well as in fashionable shops.
Finally, they could be purchased fully assembled and ready to
sit in full Victorian costume among the sewing necessities.
- More than a century later, Victorian sewing implements are
out of practical use but certainly very much in use as decorative
and historic collectibles.
- Recommended reading: Sewing Tools and Trinkets by Helen
Thompson. (Collector Books).
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