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Chatelaines: The Lady of the House’s Tool Belt

by priceminer (02/01/10).

In 1871 the fashion of wearing châtelaines was revived by Princess Alexander of Wales, who wore one. They remained in vogue for another 20 years. Worn by housewives or housekeepers, the numerous chains carried a wide range of useful objects. This châtelaine is made of cut steel with a deep hook, which attached over the woman's waistband. The remaining tools include a shoe hook, whistle, needle case and small perfume bottle. Circa 1890.

In 1871 the fashion of wearing chatelaines was revived by Princess Alexandra of Wales, who wore one. They remained in vogue for another 20 years. Worn by housewives or housekeepers, the numerous chains carried a wide range of useful objects. This chatelaine is made of cut steel with a deep hook, which attached over the woman's waistband. The remaining tools include a shoe hook, whistle, needle case and small perfume bottle. Circa 1890.

A chatelaine is a brooch or clasp, worn at the waist, from which trinkets keys, and useful items are suspended. The chatelaine served the useful purpose of carrying a locket, a miniature or watch attachment, scissors, a writing tablet, seals, or badges. Its name came from the term meaning keeper of the castle, although in different forms chatelaines have been used by both men and women.

Keys hanging from the waist as a symbol of authority is traceable to Roman times. Jailers in olden times wore keys attached to their girdle of stout leather belt. The chatelaine used by the man of the house carried various tools, from a dagger for self preservation, to keys for the larder where precious meat was stored.

In Medieval days, it must have become cumbersome, with the increasing variety of items found to adorn it. A nutmeg box/grater was very useful when the bowl of punch was a common beverage. It was quite small and unscrewed in the middle, holding one, and some only half a nutmeg. Often it was accompanied by a tiny corkscrew.

When a woman became a bride, she was presented with the keys to her new home, one of which she attached to her girdle. Scissors, knives and little things necessary for the housewife, her sewing room, and her toilet adorned her chatelaine.

During the seventh and eighth centuries, chatelaines were particularly popular. The finest were made of gold, but other materials, such as pinchbeck—a mixture of copper and zinc—were also used. Some were enameled and depicting biblical or mythological scenes. Others were inlaid with agate or decorated with cameos. Expensive chatelaines were adorned with precious gems, the most popular of which were diamonds. Men attached their watches, their watch keys, and other accessories to them; women used their chatelaines for keys, scissors and other useful items necessary for the lady.

A cheroot or cigarette cutter with nice engraving on both the front and back with a swing hoop for attaching to a Châtelaine.

A cheroot or cigarette cutter with nice engraving on both the front and back with a swing hoop for attaching to a chatelaine.

A mechanical pencil with an ornate design and the top screw off cap. The top has an inset Carnelian Stone and below it is a hoop that slides for a Châtelaine. Circa 1893.

A mechanical pencil with an ornate design and the top screw off cap. The top has an inset Carnelian Stone and below it is a hoop that slides for a chatelaine. Circa 1893.

A set of glasses with a loop for attaching to a châtelaine. The frames are engraved 14k white gold and measure 4 inches across, with magnification lenses. Circa 1900.

A set of glasses with a loop for attaching to a chatelaine. The frames are engraved 14k white gold and measure 4 inches across, with magnification lenses. Circa 1900.

Art forms turned towards to simple, neoclassic art styles late in the century after the archaeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum. During this time, Josiah Wedgwood produced reproductions of classic cameos carved in relief on a white paste on light blue, green, black and pink backgrounds. Those were used in all sorts of jewelry and no doubt appeared on many châtelaines.

Beautiful scroll work engraving on the front and back of this 19th century match vault. There is a Cartouche in the shape of a shield on the front with initials in fancy English script.

Beautiful scroll work engraving on the front and back of this 19th century match vault. There is a Cartouche in the shape of a shield on the front with initials in fancy English script.

It has a thumb catch on the front top. It has a heavy strong hinge. There is a hoop on the side for attaching to a Châtelaine. The striker still has heavy grooves.

It has a thumb catch on the front top. It has a heavy strong hinge. There is a hoop on the side for attaching to a chatelaine. The striker still has heavy grooves.

During the 19th century, jewelry was produced for the masses, and large artistic commercial firms producing high-duality jewelry for the prosperous new bourgeois were established. Faberge created quite a sensation when he displayed all the Imperial Easter eggs that he had created at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris. Cartier became the most famous jeweler in the world by selecting on the purest precious stones and setting them in his “sec secret” manner so that only the stones, not any of the mountings, were visible. He supplied jewelry to the King of Portugal, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the grand dukes and princes of Russia, the Prince of Wales, and others.

This beautiful châtelaine mirror with the original beveled glass.

This beautiful chatelaine mirror with the original beveled glass.

The back of the mirror shows an idealized European pastoral scene of shepherdess, two sheep and gentleman with pan pipes.

The back of the mirror shows an idealized European pastoral scene of shepherdess, two sheep and gentleman with pan pipes.

From the mid-19th century on, ladies added their own personal accessories to their chatelaines. These could be any of the many items she deemed necessary . . . scissors in a protective casing, a covered pin cushion, a small holder for serving needles, a shoe button hook, a whistle to call for help or summon servants, a vinaigrette for smelling salts, or items to identify her stature. Educated ladies carried a miniature pen, a metal-covered notepad, and a letter opener. As years went by other items were applied, such as caddies for medications, and nail and face toiletries. In wealthy households, where more than one mistress of the house was required, each would wear items particular to her responsibilities. The chatelaine’s accessories were made to be as lightweight as possible, yet sturdy enough to perform their intended function.

This châtelaine chain mail purse has dangling steal beads on the bottom for various attachments and an interior mirror with the original green silk liner. A silver filigree top features a matching belt clip that also has Turquoise beads. Circa 1850.

This chatelaine chain mail purse has dangling steal beads on the bottom for various attachments and an interior mirror with the original green silk liner. A silver filigree top features a matching belt clip that also has Turquoise beads. Circa 1850.

As a little bit of history, chatelaines are fun to collect, but don’t expect to find them cheap! They are becoming rarer and more costly each day. What you might find, however, are some of the accessories that have been removed front chatelaines, and you can recognize them by a small ring attached to the top. Thimbles, scissors and small silver-cased pens do not usually have a ring attached at the top unless they were made for a chatelaine. Chatelaine accessories can still be found at flea markets, yard sales and what-not cases in antique shops. Be cautions however, because in this age of nostalgia, there are lots of companies reproducing Victorian items. As a matter of fact, we just received a catalog featuring numerous sewing items with rings attached to them. I suppose they could have been charms for bracelets, as no dimensions were given, but certainly envisioned them dangling front a chatelaine.

— from American Antiquities Journal

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