What Is It? Eighth in the Series of Unique Historical Objects.

What Is It? Eighth in the Series of Unique Historical Objects.

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.

What are these things?

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.


What are these things?

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.

Drawing of a “turnspit dog” from the book Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800

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.


What are these things?

Busk to left is Italian. Stays with inserted busk are English. All are from the mid-1700s.

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.

What are these things?

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. 


#1 – Fascinating Objects From the Past

#2 – More Unusual Objects From the Past

#3 – Intriguing Historical Objects. Can YOU Guess them?

#4 – Intriguing Historical Fashion Objects

#5 – Identify the Unique English Garden Objects from the Past

#6 – Angling History & Fishing Object Guessing Game

#7 – Strange Things of Yore


16 Responses to What Is It? Eighth in the Series of Unique Historical Objects.

  1. Recognized all but the spit jacks – they really looked like medieval instruments of torture! Got a modern epergne that looks like an ordinary wood block until it’s unfolded. The sock darners was easy – have my grandmother’s marble egg-shaped one! If you’d ever worn an obi, a busk would be familiar except the busk is thin, vertical and placed in front!
    Love these posts!

  2. These are so much fun. I figured the function of the epergne but didn’t know the name. I also missed busk but have read stories where our dear lady carried a thin knife or stiletto instead of using bone. That was an interesting function. I actually took Home Economics back in the day when they taught us to darn socks. I tried it once after we were married and my hubby wanted no part of that. he said we could economize another way. Socks with holes went in the garbage. I love trying to guess these. Thanks for researching them and sharing them with us.

  3. That was fun. And friends, if this shows up twice I apologize. My comments are sometimes not getting through.

    I almost guessed epergne, but didn’t trust my instincts. I’d hear of them, read of them described, and even the pronunciation, just not a picture.

    I got busks and the sock darners. I thought the busks looked dangerous for the wearer in some cases, and weird the way they stuck out above the stays in the picture. A couple of them could be considered a lethal weapon.

    I’m just old enough that I learned how to darn socks, or other knitted wear. But I told my self ‘No, I’ll not be doing that!’ However if I was the one knitting the socks, I’m sure I’d be really frugal about them and get used to darning. Better to darn than knit a whole new sock. I learned well, but could never believe it could be done finely enough that you wouldn’t feel it irritating your foot.

    The spit-jacks were very inventive.

  4. That was fun. I wanted to guess epergne but didn’t trust my instincts. Like Teresa said, I had heard of them, and heard them described and even the pronunciation. Just hadn’t seen the real thing. I got busk and sock darner. Whew, some of those busks could be lethal weapons, or really dangerous to the wearer! I’m actually old enough that I learned to darn with one of those things, but told myself ‘nope, never gonna do that.’ Ha. I was taught very well, but I could not believe that anyone could do it fine enough that you wouldn’t feel it and that it would bother your foot. But needs must. If I was the actual knitter of said sock, I’d be very frugal with those holey socks, better to darn than knit.

    The spit-jacks were incredibly inventive.

  5. The only one I got was the busk. I’ve seen them in historical programs. My mother had a sock darner. I wish I still had it. So glad to read the info about the epergne. Didn’t know what it was but heard of them often. And the pronunciation. I finally know how to say it!! This post was great fun.

  6. I guessed the first one. And could use the last one, or, I could just run out and get that bag’o’socks. Fun! Thanks for sharing.

  7. I got the sock darners and the item at the beginning although my thought was a lazy Susan but I guess they are along the same lines.These posts are so much fun!

  8. Well! I got the first and the last right! I like watching antiques programmes and epergnes are often featured on those. I remember my Mum having a mushroom shaped sock darner so that was easy. I even tried using it myself but I can’t say I was successful as anyone unfortunate enough to have to wear the sock would no doubt end up with blisters from the lumpy darn ?
    I knew the third one was obviously page turners!! ? wrong!! How uncomfortable would they be? Hard luck if you sit down and it pokes out of the top of your dress!
    The second one I had no idea. I got winders for something but didn’t think of meat.
    Thanks Sharon, I really love these posts ?

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