This is a plain wooden sewing box, owned by Mrs Ayling’s grandmother, Edith, in the late 1800s. This seemingly standard sewing box, full of little objects, has intrigued the museum team here at Littlehampton. January’s ‘object of the month’ blog post will delve into this box to explore the items within, discovering things about its owner on the way.
Unfortunately, we do not know much about Edith herself, but many of her sewing items were donated to us by Mrs Ayling, her granddaughter, in 2000. But despite our lack of biographical knowledge about her, these items tell us about Mary in their own way. The museum team can interpret the items in the box, and make inferences about her character and lifestyle.
The box is wooden and quite plain, appearing inexpensive but durable. The sewing box is also quite large, and filled with various tools, threads, and trinkets, suggesting that Edith treasured this item and used it a lot. But before sewing boxes became popular in the late 1700s, and cheaply produced in the 19th century, ladies would keep their tools in pouches/baskets.
The making of samplers was a staple of a 19th century girl’s education, whether you were rich or poor. It was seen as a good way of preparing girls for a domestic life. Please do read more about samplers on our blog post ‘A Stitch in Time’.
Because sewing was such a widespread activity for women in the past, for mending fabrics and making clothes and toys, many women personalised their sewing boxes with decoration. Many women, like Edith, also peppered their sewing boxes with personal items as a place of safe-keeping. This sewing box holds many different items for sewing. Here we can see the ornate steel embroidery scissors are in a good condition, suggesting that they were not inexpensive and well looked after. The multitude of coloured threads also gives us a glimpse into the colours that the owner wore and had in her home.
The sewing box also contains some family related objects, presumably there for safe-keeping and nostalgia. We also found a medal from a children’s celebration of the 1897 Diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria, held in Arundel Park, possibly attended by Mrs Ayling’s mother, Edith’s child. However, the assorted wooden spinning tops are probably the most out-of-place items. In the documentation that goes with the sewing box there is a hint of information about these wooden toys, “wooden top played by brother on dining room table”. Unfortunately, we can’t confirm exactly whose brother, but it is a lovely insight into the life of an early 20th century woman, and perhaps the toys were used to distract a young boy whilst Edith sewed.
More unusual items in the sewing box include nutmeg and a dried seed pod. The object’s documentation notes that the “owner always kept one in her workbox”. Neither the seedpod or nutmeg were common additions to sewing boxes, so they must have had sentimental or personal resonance with the owner. If you know of any reasons for including these kinds of items in sewing boxes, please do get in touch with us, as we would love to know if there was another reason for these objects to be here.
There is also a silver-plated ornate powder pot, which still contains some cosmetic powder with the powder puff. Women did not wear as much make-up in the Victorian era, such as we do these days. Instead, if make-up was to be worn, it should be light and unnoticeable. Light-coloured powders were often worn to smooth the complexion without the heaviness of a base colour. In addition to this, we found a pair of earrings tucked inside a section suggesting that, alongside the powder pot, Edith also used her sewing box as a vanity box.
These mother-of-pearl items displayed beneath the box are also of a certain beauty and value that would suggest that they were there for safekeeping. It also tells us that Edith was partial to intricate and delicate things, and treated them with great respect. Unfortunately, we don’t know what these items are, as at the time of the donation the museum didn’t take the opportunity to ask Mrs Ayling. However, it is quite likely that these items were either gifts, or an heirloom, as they look quite expensive.
We are delighted that the donor chose to include the objects inside the sewing box when donating the object. It adds another layer of meaning to this object, when biographical details aren’t available to us. It acts somewhat as a time-capsule for Edith’s life.
You can see Edith’s sewing box in the centre display case in our Archaeology gallery.