The house in 50 objects from around the world #32: the chatelaine


Throughout history, people have found it necessary to attach themselves to their most essential possessions. A 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991 had a pouch attached to his belt containing flint, a drill, an awl and a dried mushroom. From 300 AD. inro, to their belts, adding ornaments netsuke as a counterweight.

Perhaps because they had the freedom to travel, men’s essential household items tended to be tucked away in the safety of concealed pockets. More confined to the home, women kept theirs largely on hand and displayed in crosshairs or purses, or worn on a crew, cord wrapped around the belt, or draped over the body.

The ultimate in portable household tool kits appeared in the 19th century in the form of the chatelaine. London magazine World of Fashion coined the term in 1828 to describe the newly fashionable accessory, which usually came with a symbolic key, a nod to medieval chatelaines who had worn castle keys around their waists. .

Most took the form of a medallion with a metal tab behind for looping onto a belt, while in the United States a more secure long brooch was used. A number of mass-produced working examples survive. These were worn around the house by working women, housekeepers and nurses. The incomplete and undated example in silver (pictured above) includes a hare’s paw for applying blush, a perforated ear spoon and a toothpick. The purpose of the heart and spade spoons is unknown.

The chatelaine has become a reliable indicator of social status. Members of the royal family wore only a watch, purse or fan, while lesser mortals might have up to a dozen more prosaic hanging accessories – pin ball, thimble holder, whistle, folding button hook, handkerchief purse, notebook, scissors.

The satirical magazine Punch imagined a version that would attach a woman to a toddler, a pram and a dog as “a real blessing for mothers”.

The chatelaine’s popularity lasted throughout the century, with high-end jewelers such as Boucheron and Tiffany creating extravagant examples. But today this once ubiquitous object is almost forgotten. No museum has a good selection and Genevieve Cummins’ lavish 1994 book Chatelaines — Utility to Glorious Extravagance is exhausted.

Anyone prone to losing glasses, scissors, tape measure — even their ear spoons — might feel like a revival is overdue.

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