Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Seashells by the Seashore

QUESTION: Ever since I was a child playing in the sand at the seashore, I’ve loved seashells. I started collecting them and eventually began making shell crafts with them. I’ve seen antique shell-covered boxes at antique shows. How old are these boxes? And why are they decorated with shells?

ANSWER:  When you pick up a pretty shell on the beach or purchase a shell souvenir from a seaside gift shop, you’re following a tradition that goes back as far as the 16th century. A homemade sewing box decorated with shells gathered during an outing at the seashore evokes memories of a wonderful vacation.

Shells from the Far East were rare and expensive collectors' items as far back as the late 1590s. Archduke Ferdinand II devoted four rooms of his castle near Innsbruck, Austria, to shells, fossils, amber and mounted branches of coral. Soon, all over Europe, it was the fashion to decorate rooms with both common and exotic shells.

With the exploration of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the expansion of European trade, interest in sea shells as decorative items grew even stronger in the 17th century. Merchants imported large quantities of exotic shells into Europe, and shell collecting became a serious hobby. 

In the early 18th century shellwork became a popular pastime for upper-class women. They practiced all sorts of shellcraft, including making shell plaques and pictures. To help Georgian ladies with their shellwork, Mrs. Hannah Robertson published The Ladies School of Arts in 1806. In it she described various techniques of shellwork. When Victoria became Queen in 1837, the study of shells and their inhabitants became a popular subject in school. Teachers encouraged their students to take walks along  the seashore to study marine life which led to an increased interest in shell collecting and shellwork.

Ladies covered glove boxes, trinket boxes, work boxes, and musical boxes with shells. They used heavy pasteboard to construct the boxes, using patterns they found in books on shellcraft. Once they had the parts cut out, they lined them with absorbent cotton and covered them with velvet or silk, then they sewed the sides together with strong thread. They then pasted muslin over the seams and fastened the lids with strips of muslin attached with strong glue. The box makers then made a cushion which they attached  the top of the box with a glue and proceeded to cover it with shells. Those who didn’t want to make their own boxes could buy plain ones onto which they could attach their shells.

Many of the Victorian boxes contained mirrors inside the lid and had heart-shaped pincushions attached. Ladies often gave them as gifts and pasted sayings such as "Forget-me-not" and "To My Dear Mother." Some Victorian women glued on paper scraps and pictures cut out from magazines to enhance their designs.
To obtain shells for their projects, some ladies would gather them on trips to the seashore. Those who lived too far away from the sea could obtain them from sailors or purchase them from shell dealers.

After women gathered their shells, they soaked them in fresh water for a few hours. Some shells naturally possessed a fine polish and required no preparation for display. In many cases, however, when shells became dry, they lost their natural luster, which women restored by washing them with clear water into which a little glue had been dissolved. The most popular shell, the periwinkle, which lined almost every box, had to be specially treated. The natural, grayish outer scale had to be removed with acetic acid to reveal the pearly iridescence underneath.

After cleaning their shells, women had to sort them according to size and color. It was important to have large quantities of tiny "rice shells," and other small shells in order to fill in spaces. Ladies then laid out their shells to form a design. Roses and hearts were popular in the center of a design. Once they had their designs finalized, women dipped the ends of their shells in a mixture of white wax and glue which adhered them to the cotton batting or paper.

Shell work declined in popularity toward the end of the 19th century though it has never faded as a home pastime.

 To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 18,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac. Learn more about the Victorians in the Winter 2018 Edition, "All Things Victorian," coming this week.

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