Today we have a fabulous silver chatelaine, from the 1890s. Designed to hang from the belt, it supports a pencil holder, a buttonhook, a scent or smelling salts bottle, a pill box, and a celluloid or similar memorandum pad (“aide de memoire”).

The clasp-and-chains chatelaine and the attached pieces may have been purchased separately (different silver marks appear on several pieces).  The little bits and bobs are attached to the chains with clips, so they could be removed and changed when necessary. However, it all goes together fairly well; the clasp has Greek or Roman motifs – including what looks like an infant throttling two . . . dragons? Griffins? – and the bottle and aide de memoire continue the theme, with a griffin on the latter and a Greek/Roman-type head (with a dragon on the helmet) on the former. (Photos are merrily scattered throughout this post.) The hallmarks on the clasp are hard to decipher – especially as the entire piece is suffering from an overdose of silver polish residue – it looks like it might have been made in Birmingham, UK though I’m not prepared to swear to it.

The piece was given to Mrs. Sophie McQueen Van Hoesen in 1922 by Miss Katherine McQueen (1874-1954), possibly her aunt. The only further hints of earlier ownership are the inscription “A.B.K. 13.2.92” on the cover of the aide de memoire, and “ABK” on the lid of the pillbox; the identity of this person is unknown, and while the 1892 date might be the date of acquisition, it might be something else significant like a birthday or wedding anniversary.  Chatelaines were quite popular during the 1890s, however, so I’ve gone with it as an artifact date.  Mrs. Van Hoesen, who lived in Capitol View for much of her life, donated the piece to the Historical Society in 1962.

When we think of chatelaines – if at all – we may envision a bunch of large metal keys hanging from the housekeeper’s waist. Technically, a chatelaine is defined as basically the mistress of a chateau or other large estate, or “a clasp or hook for a watch, purse or bunch of keys.” Some earlier sources define it as the chain about the waist, rather than simply the belt hook. The name for the belt hook stems from the idea that the “mistress of the chateau” kept the keys about her person at all times. The concept of the conveniently-hung-at-waist set of tools dates from the 18th century, though their popularity was not constant (they don’t look so hot hanging from a diaphanous, empire-waisted dress). Chatelaines came back into fashion in the late 19th century (along with voluminous skirts and normal-waisted gowns) and became highly decorative.  The ultimate accessory: practical and attractive!  They were used to hold all kinds of objects. Ours here seems to be sort of generally useful; other examples are geared toward specific tasks, like sewing or nursing. Options for your chatelaine were numerous; in addition to the pieces shown here there were coin purses, spectacles cases, timepieces, key rings, flasks, whistles, baby rattles, vinaigrettes, match safes, mirrors, lockets, pocket knives, face powder boxes, and an assortment of needlework and sewing tools. (Stay tuned next week for a regular-size purse attached to a chatelaine.)

Sadly I couldn’t find a good photo in our collections of a County lady sporting a useful chatelaine, and my beloved Victorian fancy-goods catalogs have let me down today, but if you’d like to see some examples of chatelaines in both artifact and vintage-catalog form, click here.

So if you’ve always longed for a utility belt, consider bringing an antique chatelaine back into fashion. Or if you’re of a crafty bent, you can make a brand new one for yourself. (While you’re at it, make me one for my work keys; I may not be the “mistress of the chateau,” but I do have a lot of keys.)

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