NEW YORK – Through the 17th century, women often carried small, useful items, like pencils or ha’pennies, in tie-on cloth pouches beneath their ample petticoats. Those responsible for running great houses, however, wore handy waist-clipped chatelaines, named for mistresses of medieval French manors, above their overskirts. Since their dangled keys accessed locked pantries, bureaus, chests, wine cellars and silver drawers, chatelaines came to symbolize power.
As fashion silhouettes became slenderer, without provision for hidden pockets, women adopted chatelaines as their own. In addition to keys, early cut steel models kept everyday essentials, like utility knives, folding corkscrews, watches and household seals (used to impress sealing wax), at hand. Men wore them too, suspending watches, snuff bottles, pocketknives, shoehorns and writing implements. Bright, glittering, larger, clinking models not only announced their comings and goings, but, as of yore, revealed prestige, wealth and status.
By the 18th century, chatelaines, often made of steel or base metal, were not only popular but also often personalized. Though servants and maids toted simple tools, a lady of the house might keep a watch, change purse, magnifying quizzing glass and vinaigrettes (aromatic vinegar), for fear of fainting. Stitchery fans might favor sewing chatelaines replete with thimbles, stork-shaped scissors, buttons and bodkins, embroidery thread, tape measures and pincushions. Nurses might keep thermometers, sheathed scissors, safety pins, pill boxes, pencils and swiveling, ivory-paged notepads at the ready. From the mid-Victorian era, mourning chatelaines, featuring angels, likenesses, or braided hair in lockets, also became common. Some of these appendages were purchased as complete sets. Others were acquired individually, piece by piece.
In time, European chatelaines became more fashionable than functional. Many, featuring decorative medallions backed by metal tongues, were belt-clipped as of old. Many, mounted on elongated brooches, were pinned at the back. Some, in addition to symbolic keys, dangled heart, cross, star, anchor or flower trinkets, representing love, charity, hope or faith. Others featured tiny whistles, purses, ivory card cases, memorandum books and writing boxes holding ink, stamps, paper knives and penholders.
By 1850, chatelaines were so popular that the British satirical publication Punch lampooned sporting gentlemen who dangled “foxes heads, silver horseshoes, daggers, pistols and guns, gold race-horses with steel jockeys, big bull dogs and ferocious wild boars” from theirs. Yet, it continued, “should these models also feature pencils, latch-keys, corkscrews, wire-nippers [to pop-open soda water and champagne bottles] and miniature betting books, to pick up the stray odds,” men need not empty their pockets of letters, keys, loose silver, secrets and odd [items]” to find these articles sought.
Fanciful, gold or silver chatelaines, worn when out for the evening, might feature combs, covered mirrors, fans, opera-glasses, handkerchief-holders, pomanders, smelling salts and vials of scent, to fend off nasty odors. Others, perhaps made of pinchback (a gold-like copper and zinc alloy), suspended decorative pendants, baubles, as well as carved cameos.
Toward the 20th century, exquisite pearl or diamond set chatelaines, created by master jewelers like Tiffany, Boucheron, Lalique and Faberge, often showcased costly watches. Others boasted bloodstone or jasper-mounted Rococo-style plaques flanked by ornamental pendants and charms. Many also featured central etuis, small embellished cases, containing exquisitely tiny forks, folding knives, scoops, and other gilt goodies. Yet these stunning chatelaines were prized not only for show, but also for show-and-tell.
“How charming it was to go over the Chatelaine piece by piece, and talk about each one,” reveals The Natural History of the Flirt (1848). “Young hearts throbbed against it, making the lights flash from its polished facets at every pulsation: or, at times, the breath of low soft words, whispered over it. … There was such room for so much about anything for you might hang anything to it, from a lucky sixpence to … a desk-key, and a tiny watch, no bigger than a shilling. A pair of scissors like a bird, a horseshoe against witchcraft; a barrel pincushion, and a pistol pencil … a thimble-case, made like a wise owl, in silver, with enamel eyes … And then, on a ring all to themselves, came little Neapolitan coral charms … The remedy against an evil eye. And then a boot, a mouse, and a Punch’s head in a slipper.” Yet some charms, like lockets, elicited just single, silent sighs.