Intriguing Historical Objects. Can YOU Guess them?

Intriguing Historical Objects. Can YOU Guess them?

Today, with the third installment of a theme, I believe this is a full-fledged series! I sure have fun searching for strange, no-longer as necessary objects … or others that have evolved into improved designs over the decades … and many of you seem to enjoy the guessing game meshed with historical facts. So why not continue on? Before moving on to new/old things, if you missed the previous two blogs, here are the direct links:

Fascinating Objects From The Past

More Unusual Objects From The Past


What are these things?

As is noted on page 1 of The Housemaid’s Complete Guide, written by A.M. Sargeant in 1851, “Dry toast may be made before it is wanted, and should be set up in the toast-rack the moment it is done.” On page 341 of Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery, published in 1865, Mrs. Beeton wrote, “to make dry toast properly, a great deal of attention is required; much more, indeed, than people generally suppose,” and goes on to definitively claim that the toast-rack is paramount to the process. In essence, and in particular to the British, toasted bread kept dry, even if cooled in the process, is critical to a properly served meal.

Or, as anthropologist Kate Fox wrote in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour —

“The English would rather have their toast cool and dry than warm and damp. . . American toast lacks reserve and dignity: it is too sweaty and indiscrete and emotional.”

Now that we have established how essential a toast-rack, what is the history?

I suppose it is safe to say that the concept of toasting bread is as old as bread itself. With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising that designing a device specifically to separate the toasted slices and prevent dreaded “bread soggery” wasn’t thought of until the mid-18th century. Prior to this, innovation revolved around devices for the making of properly toasted bread without burning it, rather than the presentation of it on a finely set table. In the 1760s, a new manufacturing technique emerged to create thin wires of copper fused to sterling silver which could be mass-produced. These delicate, light-weight plated wires were able to be twisted and molded into creative, beautiful designs. It is believed that toast-racks originated about this time, although the first reference to one using that name was in 1789.

According to Cynthia Harris of Sotheby’s in London, the toast-rack in question belonged to John William Anderson, a City of London alderman. It was stolen by two burglars, along with a significant amount of other domestic silver, and was documented as being worth two pounds, an exorbitant amount at this time. That must have been one fancy toast-rack! Whether the notoriety of the case (the trial held at Old Bailey was in the newspapers) aided in the subsequent rise in toast-rack popularity is unclear. But, from then on, numerous references to the toast-rack appear in cookbooks.

Normally silver or silver-plated, the toast-racks consist of vertical partitions, usually five to seven, which connect to a flat base with four to six feet on the bottom and a handle. Today, antique toast racks are often used as letter or mail holders! When, that is, they aren’t being used as, well, toast racks. The British still prefer dry toasted bread over the sweaty, emotional American slices!

The examples above are dated, left to right, top then bottom:
1790, late 18th century, 1822, 1820, 1790, and another late 18th century toast-rack with a “muffineer” used to sprinkle sugar or nutmeg onto the bread.


What are these things?

Betty Lamps evolved in the 1700s as an improvement on the lamps known as Crusies. In fact, the name itself comes from the German word “besser” which means “better, or to make better.”

Unlike the open Crusie, the Betty lamp added a cover to the top to confine the heat, decrease smoke, and make the oil burn more efficiently. Most importantly, the addition of a wick holder inside the oil reservoir allowed oil from the wick to run back into the lamp’s bowl, preventing it from dripping onto the ground to be wasted. Although an improvement over other spout lamps (of which there were many varieties), Betty lamps were still rather messy to deal with, so were most often used by farmers and tradesmen rather than the quarters of the wealthy.

Betty Lamps were typically found made of sheet steel, but are also found in tin or brass. They have a hook on top to hang (see the image to the right) or can be sat onto a flat surface. The simple Betty lamp produced excellent light for that period of time. The larger the size and better the material used for the wick effected the light output.

Animal oils or grease were commonly used fuels. Fish oil gave the poorest light and was very smoky. Animal fats were better but still burned with an odor. Whale oil produced the best light, equal to that of two ordinary candles, so was most sought after but also the most expensive.

While more efficient, the Betty lamp did not replace the Cruises lamp. Both were very common and used well into the 19th century.


What are these things?

Gentlemen and ladies carried personalized cards to give, as a matter of course, when first visiting someone newly arrived in the neighborhood, when calling for the first time on newly weds, when paying visits of condolence, and when making a visit to one’s host following an outing or ball. Additionally, paper, hand-written invitations for dinner parties were given out a month in advance and needed to be kept at hand for easy reference. For all of these purposes, and probably many more, the card rack was the perfect invention.

Card racks were typically quite small, only large enough to hold visiting cards or small notes, and were designed to be hung on a wall or over a fireplace mantle. Many were made from cardboard, yet sturdier examples exist made of porcelain and ivory. They also often came in matched pairs or trios and this, along with their varied and sophisticated designs, seem to indicate that they were fashionable objects which played a role in the social life of the house, perhaps as a way to pass messages from person to person.

Extant examples are rare, although it is not known why. Were card racks not hugely popular? Was the cardboard most often used simply too fragile to last the test of time? Whatever the case, the trend appears to have lasted for decades. Earliest references date to the 1770s and continue on into the Victorian Era. As always, for us, we turn to Jane Austen for Regency Era verification, and indeed, card racks are mentioned in Persuasion.

“And she,” said Mrs. Smith, “besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She had a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandize.”




What are these things?

nutmeg grater, or nutmeg rasp, is a device used to grate a nutmeg seed. Okay, simple enough, but why so fancy?

A common spice today, nutmeg was once a luxury. The tree from which the seed is taken originated on a tiny volcanic atoll in the East Indies, known as the Banda Islands and known today as a part of the Indonesian cluster of islands. Nutmeg was known in medieval Venice, but it wasn’t until the early 16th century that Portuguese and Dutch traders made it more widely available throughout western Europe. Nevertheless, the rarity of the little nuts and the peril of securing them made nutmeg a costly status-spice for centuries.

The scarcity undoubtedly led to the spice’s mystical attributes of curing nearly any ailment. Herbalist John Gerard wrote in 1597 that nutmeg “is good against freckles in the face, quickneth the sight, strengthens the belly and feeble liver, taketh away the swelling of the spleen … breaketh wind, and is good against all cold diseases of the body.”

Nutmeg purely ground and consumed in large amounts has a slightly hallucinogenic effect. This may be one reason why sprinkling it into alcoholic beverages became common. In the late 17th century, adding a dash of freshly ground nutmeg onto the shimmering surface of a glass of punch became fashionable for gentlemen of high society. This brand of “punch” was not the children’s party variety, by the way. Decidedly alcoholic, one’s recipe for punch was a closely held secret, but no matter the varied ingredients, topping it off with a sprinkling or two of nutmeg made it better. So much so that wealthy gentlemen considered it a necessity to carry these precious seeds in their pockets, just in case a drink was offered. That meant needing a way to grate them, since freshness was the key, and as with just about everything else, making graters of fine materials and ornately designed was an additional sign of money to spare.

Nutmeg graters are normally metal, cylindrical or half-cylindrical, with a compartment for storing the nutmeg seed. The surface is perforated with small rasped holes to grate the seed. Sized to fit comfortably into a jacket or waistcoat pocket. To be fair, nutmeg wasn’t only added to spirited drinks. The sweet, aromatic spice has always been a tasty enhancement in many dishes. Impressing a pretty lady or pleasing a loving wife by gallantly “spicing” her soup was a smooth move sure to earn a gentleman a nice reward.


I hope everyone enjoyed this month’s weird, interesting objects.
Tell me how many you were able to guess correctly
before clicking the spoiler box!

Maybe next month I can unearth more of these oddities from the past.



14 Responses to Intriguing Historical Objects. Can YOU Guess them?

  1. What an interesting article! I didn’t guess any of the items correctly. Lol
    Imagine, a nutmeg grater that a person carries around!
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. The English can do whatever they want with toast, because they have FRIED BREAD!! OMG!! It is so good!

  3. I figured the toast rack was a rack for some kind of food, but could not figure what, and that the bottom was a grater or file of some kind, but I thought it looked like a file for dried heels. Wouldn’t want that in any kind of punch or soup!
    I love these! You get such wonderful things, and I learn some fun things! I even forwarded the one with the curling irons and beard curlers to my sons who have beards!
    Please continue this!

  4. Got the toast racks because they’re still used today and the card holder. Great post. I really enjoy these.

  5. Wow, I didn’t get any! I realized that the betty lamps had something to do with fire, I knew the top was a rack of some type (but didn’t realize it was for food), and I knew the nutmeg grater was a grater or sprinkler of some sort, but had no idea it was a personal item. I love these historical things and the descriptions to go along with them. I especially enjoy looking at the workmanship of each individual item which we don’t see anymore with our mass-produced goods. Love it!

  6. The Betty Lamps were my downfall too! Had no idea what they were!
    Keep searching and bringing these items to our attention. I must admit there are times when I would prefer the dry toasted over sweaty emotional toast!

  7. These posts are so fun! I guessed the card holder and the rack but I wasn’t sure what it held! Lol I thought the nutmeg grater was a nail file at first because the one was kind of long in shape. Great post!

  8. 2/4 Oh well. I love these posts. I can’t help myself. These are so much fun. That toast rack caught my eye because I think I remember seeing them used in some of our Austen movies. I will have to look again but when our characters were at breakfast, I remember them reaching for the toast that was displayed on a rack. Thanks for the nostalgic walk through time.

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