Here I am with the eighth month of strange, bizarre, possibly little known objects from bygone days. Each month I think I’ve exhausted my ability to unearth anything unique, and each month I end up finding three to five more! Who knows what will happen in September although my goal is to keep at it for this year. Wish me luck!
For today, I found four more historical items from all over the map insofar as their purposes. Once again, study the extant examples in the collage and try to figure out what they are before clicking the reveal box. Let me know how many you were able to guess! At the end of this post I have links to the previous seven “Guess the Object” blogs, in case anyone missed them or wants a refresher.
By the 18th century, entertaining had developed into a grand art with dinner consisting of a dozen or more courses extending for hours. Fancy does not begin to describe a properly adorned dining table! Every piece of cutlery, the linens, and serving dishes were of the finest quality and workmanship. As important as the aesthetics of a beautifully set table was the need for efficiency to ensure all the guests could eat what they wanted.
Originating in pre-Revolution France where elaborate dining began, an epergne (pronounced a-‘purn and from the French epargne, meaning “economy”) served a dual purpose.
First, it saved space on the table for the numerous covered entrée dishes, platters, meat carving boards, and soup tureens. The typical epergne style had a relatively narrow base, usually with slender legs and small feet, and a dominant column in the middle with a large raised bowl at the top. Stylized branches extended out from the center column, with each of these branches holding smaller dishes or bowls at their ends. The examples above, each from the Georgian period, reveal the economy of space aspect of an epergne, as well as how stunningly fabulous they are.
Second, the always gorgeous epergne economized as a perfect, functional centerpiece. The small, removable bowls and baskets typically held nuts, fruits, condiments, relishes, and other luxuries from the Far East or tropics. Many epergnes had candle holders or thin vases for flowers, the combination an exotic and colorful centerpiece on the table throughout the entire meal. Afterwards, the epergne would remain on the table or be moved to a sidebar, the edibles accessible to the guests as desired.
During the Georgian era the vast majority of epergne were made of silver, and thus quite expensive. The Victorians introduced the glass epergne, which remained a popular table centerpiece choice although smaller in size due to changes in dining style.
The low-tech and most common method for roasting meat was to hang the haunches and poultry from metal hooks over the flames. (see image to the right) The cook, or her assistant, manually turned and moved the meat to the desired temperature zones as needed. The invention of devices known as roasting jacks to turn the meat were not only fabulous time and labor savers, but also evenly cooked the meat.
There were a variety of types (hand crank, clockwork jack, bottle jack, spit-jack) some of which were quite simple, while others were huge and complex. The most infamous type was the turnspit dog, a wall-mounted circular cage inside of which a small dog (usually a terrier mutt) would run (akin to a hamster in a wheel) as the power source to turn the roasting spit. The poor animal would run as long as was required to fully roast the meat. This was a pre-industrial device considered an improvement over a young servant boy or girl standing by the fire and manually turning the hand crank variety for hours on end. Thankfully, both methods were obsolete by the end of the 18th century.
The clockwork spit-jack (four examples above left) was a vast improvement in technology. A weight attached to a string worked by gravity and needed to be re-wound every so often. By far the most common automated jack, there were dozens of makers with a wide variety of styles.
A far better option was the bottle jack (two examples above right) which derived its name from the shape: the mechanism housed inside a brass cylinder shaped like a bottle. It was an improvement over the clockwork jack-spit because it was spring driven, wound by a key, and ran for a longer length of time before needing to be re-wound. The meat swung in a gentle clockwise and counterclockwise rotation, and if used in conjunction with the half-barrel, metal reflecting-oven (see below) facing the fire, an even heat radiating from several sides resulted in better roasting in a shorter amount of time. The latter meant it was also an efficient use of fuel.
The larger the fire area, the more roasting racks and spits there would be. In the image below from a historic house in Bristol, the spit-jack is the brass object mounted in the upper right corner of the fireplace mantle, the dangling weight pulley turning the meat in the metal rack inside the fireplace and over the flames (if there were flames). Off to the right is a bottle jack mounted on a black metal half-barrel.
The simple definition of a BUSK is a piece of carved wood or bone inserted into a pocket in a corset or stays front, between the breasts and extending as far as the pubic bone. Busks were very common during the Tudor and Elizabethan eras, used in conjunction with heavily boned bodices and stomachers to contain and sculpt a woman’s figure into the slim waist and bosom flattened silhouette of the period. Prior to the fashion changes of the late Georgian Era, which including the Regency, the busk was triangular shaped and very narrow. The primary purpose of a busk was to maintain a straight, upright posture, and to a lesser degree help flatten the stomach.
As looser gowns gradually evolved during the latter decades of the 18th century, the overall silhouette drastically changed. Long stays remained common even as shorter stays grew in popularity, but whether short or long, the heavy boning receded until completely gone. Additionally, smashing the breasts into a sold mass of flesh gave way to the “lift and separate” ideal. Long before Playtex designed the cross-your-heart bra, a busk revamp did the trick.
Fitting the thin fabric, lightly corded Regency stays, busks during this period were much wider (up to two inches) and extremely thin. Compare the mid-18th century examples above right to the early 19th-century examples above and below. Made primarily of lightweight woods, the busk was stiff so continued to aid in maintaining a proper posture. Not all busks were elaborately carved, but as seen in the extant examples above, a great many of them were beautiful as well as functional.
Given their intimate purpose, and where they lay on a woman’s body, busks were erotically charged and therefore a special gift between lovers. Hearts and cupids were favorite motifs.
Socks and stockings have a bad tendency to wear through the heels and rip at the toes. That fact is true today same as it was hundreds of years ago. Add on the harsher soaps and hand scrubbing necessary to clean, socks from the past suffered worse than the modern variety. Dashing off to Walmart for a bargain-priced bag of Hanes to replace was not possible, so for the thrifty household, repairing the rip was the preferred option.
Darning a sock may seem easy enough, but the potential for stabbing fingers was not only highly probable and undesirable, blood stains definitely messed up the hope of salvaging the garment. Sock darners have been around since the 1700s in the forms seen above. Early varieties were round or oval shaped without a handle (see the wood example above top). Obviously the handle made it much easier to grasp onto while stretching the fabric taut over the wide, firm bulb end. Simplest sock darners were made of hardwoods (boxwood, maple, apple, and elm) polished and smoothed. Higher quality sock darners were made of glass, pottery, and porcelain, some with silver handles.
As a fun side note, darning was a part of most post cultures and in many ways a lost art. Ladies from a very young age were taught the best techniques of net darning, pattern darning, and needle weaving to repair a ripped or unraveled sock or stocking so that the darned seams could not be seen or felt when worn. Another reason to have a sock darner that was familiar and comfortable to use.
I hope everyone enjoyed the weird, interesting objects from the installment.
Tell me how many you were able to guess correctly before clicking the spoiler box!
Come back next month for another set, and if you missed the previous seven blog posts, the links are below.