More Unusual Objects From the Past

More Unusual Objects From the Past

Based on the positive response from my blog last month — Fascinating Objects From the Past — I decided to continue the fun this month too! In fact, I may have this as a series … until I run out of weird things to boggle your minds, if that is even possible. After all, as I noted in last month’s post, there are a whole host of unusual, no-longer as necessary objects, and others that have evolved into improved designs. For today, I again randomly chose five objects with no particular “theme” in mind. All of the images below are examples that date to the early 19th century and prior. This isn’t a test! But if you recognize the object before clicking the hidden information, let me know in the comment section. 


What are these things?

Canterbury is a low, open-topped stand with slatted partitions and a drawer beneath, sometimes with short legs on casters, designed for holding sheet music. Originally found in England during the 1780s, they were made in mahogany from about 1800, and later in rosewood and walnut. In a period when printed music was more widely available and disseminated due to more affordable printing techniques, sheet music was very popular and therefore storage for such favored tunes as might be bound became an exquisite luxury and an opportunity for innovative design.

According to famed furniture designer Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) the reason for the name is that “A bishop of the see first gave orders for those pieces”. The “bishop of the see” referred to is none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most important English bishop and leader of the Church of England. Given the dates from which the earliest known models appear, the patron in question would likely have been Frederick Cornwallis (1713-1783), who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1768 to 1783. Cornwallis had been George III’s chaplain and had aristocratic associations prior to his ascension as Archbishop, therefore his connection with some of the most illustrious cabinetmakers at the time seems plausible.



What are these things?

Stymied by the limitations in properly diagnosing heart and lung ailments by pressing one’s ear to a patient’s chest, French physician René Laennec devised a brilliant invention. He tested his idea initially by simply rolling a piece of paper into a tube through which he focused his auscultation to specific sections of the internal anatomy. His theory not only worked in deciphering the amplified sounds for improved diagnosed and treatment, but also solved the “problem” of maintaining a female patient’s modesty during an examination. Laennec created his cylinder-like stethoscope in 1819, the powerful diagnostic tool revolutionized the cardiac and respiratory medical fields.

Many varieties of the monaural stethoscope were designed, the desire to improve auscultation always the purpose. The modern-day binaural stethoscope was invented in 1850, the subsequent improvements in design completely supplanting the monaural stethoscope by the 1880s.



What are these things?

Early sewing needles were precious items that were easily lost, therefore, needlecases were a necessity for storing these fragile objects. Example are found in cultures around the world:  tubular bronze needlecases are common finds from Viking-age sites in Europe, cane needlecases were found in a Peruvian grave dated to 1000–147, and bone, leather, and metal needlecases have been found from Medieval London. Needles date to the dawn of time, a necessary and vital tool for a host of purposes. Needles were not an expensive item to purchase (the industry in England alone so perfected that by the 18th century over a million were produced each year) but their constant use meant keeping them safe and close to one’s person. Needlecases were often decorative (as seen in the examples above) and often one part of elaborate sewing kits. Other needlecases were attached to the chatelaine worn by the lady of the house or housekeeper, again the purpose to have a needle readily available.

Above needlecases, left to right:
a French Palais Royal needlecase in Mother of Pearl dated 1820;
a Mother of Pearl case shaped as a parasol dated 1810;
a Georgian Perpetual Calendar Needle Case c.1820;
a circa 1840 needlecase of carved bone.




What are these things?

Powder flasks have been in use since the early 15th century to carry the black powder necessary in the use of firearms. Whether made from ox or cow horns (appropriately called a “powder horn”) or from wood and iron, powder flasks had to not only hold the black powder, but also keep the powder dry. Every powder flask’s design and style was unique. Some were ornately decorated while others were plain without markings. Metal flasks were successors to the powder containers made of cattle horns which accompanied the earlier flintlock guns. The Napoleonic Army was the first using these metal powder flasks between 1800 and 1810. Soon afterward, English firms began to produce them and there is no doubt that the earliest ones used in America were imported from England. Even in 1830, when various American firms began producing them, it is more than probable that English workmen were employed for making the first ones at least. One of the firms, Capswell Horseshoe Nail Company of Woodbury, Conn., definitely employed English workmen.

Above powder flasks, left to right:
16th century European triangular powder flask with a wood body covered in rust-colored velvet and hammered iron strapping;
an 18th century Scottish powder flask, with un-hallmarked white metal fittings and a cow horn flask body;
circa 1800 powder flask of green horn;
a late 18th – early 19th c English powder flask by, J.W Hawksley with an embossed decorative pattern;
a nautical, maritime, late 18th c George III period, British sailor’s carved coconut “Bugbear” gun powder flask, carved in relief, with two oval medallions.



What are these things?

Invented by famed Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1659, the magic lantern was the first image projector and the origin of motion pictures. Combining a series of lenses, a concave mirror, and a light source (candle or oil lamp) inside the body of the lantern, intense light was directed through a glass slide upon which was painted an image. A final lens at the front projected and amplified the image onto a flat wall or screen. Slides were either painted in a sequence of individual images so that when pulled through the slot an illusion of motion was created, OR the slide itself contained layers of images that could be flipped by levers or pulleys to create movement. Other slides were still paintings designed for educational purposes.

Since its invention, the magic lantern was used for entertainment, education, research, and as a children’s toy. Traveling entertainers and lecturers brought the lantern to peasants in the village and citizens in town. Slides were used at a variety of occasions: on fairgrounds and in private homes, in theaters and churches, in society club houses and community halls, in venues for popular education, and in schools and university lecture halls. The earliest known “lanthorn show” in the U. S. was in Salem, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1743, “for the Entertainment of the Curious.”

The name “magic lantern” comes from the experience of the early audiences who saw devils and angels mysteriously appear on the wall, as if by magic. This scary aspect of the magic lantern was the genesis of Phantasmagoria, the terrifying ghost and specter show created by Etienne-Gaspard “Robertson” Robert in 1798, which is universally credited as the origin of the horror movie genre.

Dates of the above magic lanterns, left to right:
1747, one of the oldest surviving;
1830 of wood and brass;
late 18th century.



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!
Come back next month for more of these oddities of the past.


15 Responses to More Unusual Objects From the Past

  1. I got two correct and came close with the last one as I thought it was a camera which is kind of close, right? Thanks for sharing these objects, it’s so much fun guessing what they were used for.

  2. Oh what fun. I love this post. I was more successful this time that I was the last post. I first thought a magazine holder as we had one similar but thought I needed to go back earlier in time. I couldn’t imagine what it was holding. How interesting. The needle case was pretty clever, I figured out the powder horn, and the lantern I imagined was a projector of some sort. Well done. I loved this. Thank you for making me think.

  3. Well I got the music stands (although not the correct name & only a guess because the one on the right had decoration that looks like a lyre!)
    I also got the powder flasks but that’s it I’m afraid.
    I loved the sewing needle cases – so intricate.
    Thanks for sharing Sharon 🙂

  4. Thrilled with myself. Admittedly the music stand was a guess but I knew the powder flasks and the stethoscopes. I guessed a camera for the last one but wondered how that would work. Still I wasn’t a mile off the mark. Great post!!!!

  5. Great post, as usual! The only one I actually recognized were the powder flasks, although I had at least heard of them all. I had no idea the needle cases could be so decorative though! The monoaural stethoscope is one I should have recognized though; I’ve seen several of other designs, metal ones that look liked two-ended trumpets. Cool pictures though!

    • Thanks Alecia! Indeed, the “trumpet” looking monaural stethoscopes are probably more familiar than the tube style of the originals. As a nurse who has used a stethoscope a LOT, I can understand why since the wider, funnel shape base (what is called the “bell”) captures and amplifies the sound. I love weird medical stuff. Perhaps one of my guessing-game blogs will just be medical related!

    • Yes, etui are commonly seen. I’ve done a bit of research on those, and the consensus seems to be that the term was rather vague in how it was applied. Essentially, any number of cases containing frequently used items were called “etui” with no strict guidelines as to what it contained. But it is true that a large portion of the cases dubbed “etui” held sewing-related items. I have lots of pictures on my Pinterest page, if you are interested.

      Thanks for the comment, Ginna

    • They are so lovely, aren’t they? Nothing made today comes close. I know because I searched far and wide for a nice case to keep my needles in. Best I could find was one in wood, which was pretty enough, but nothing special.

      Thanks Rebecca!

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