Georgian-Era Brass Telescope with ‘guillotine-style’ Shutters. Ca. 1825-1835 (?)

 

As far as functional telescopes go, this is probably the oldest one that I’m ever likely to get my grubby little mitts on! I have no idea how old this thing is – it was sold as being early Victorian (1840s). However, research suggests anywhere from 1800-1850, with the style becoming increasingly uncommon from the 1850s onwards. What I do know is that this telescope is definitely of a much, much older style than I’m used to, and which hasn’t been seen in at least a hundred and forty years.

The way it’s constructed, the way it operates, and its various component pieces, and features, screams just how different it is from any other telescope which I’ve ever had the privilege of handling.

So, what do I know about it?

This particular type of telescope is pretty freakin’ old. That much I do know. In some respects it’s not too different from the others I have, in other respects, it is very different!

It’s a two-draw wooden-barreled naval telescope with brass fittings, with an eyepiece cartridge, erector cartridge, and two-piece objective lens, which were all common features of antique telescopes of the 1800s. Where it differs is in how these pieces are assembled and fitted.

For a start, let’s look at the eyepiece mount. It’s much larger and more elaborate than most such mounts, and the eyepiece lens which it protects is also fitted differently into the cartridge which holds it.

The eyepiece cartridge has two lenses which magnify the image seen by the big objective lens at the front of the telescope. On later telescopes, both these eyepiece lenses are fitted into rims of roughly the same shape and size, and are screwed into either side of the cartridge which holds them.

On this telescope, the eyepiece lenses are not only of dramatically different sizes, but how they’re mounted into the cartridge is also markedly different. This style of fixture is something you just don’t see in telescopes which come from the second half of the 1800s.

The second major difference between this telescope and others which I’ve handled, and which points it out as being an older style, is how the lens-caps are mounted and operate on the telescope.

Most telescopes have one big round objective lens-cap, which just covers the front of the telescope, to stop the big, light-catching lens from getting dirty, gritty, scratched or damaged, and a smaller cap at the other end, for the same purpose. To use the telescope, it’s necessary to remove the lens-cap at the front, and to slide the lens-cap built into the eyepiece mount, to one side. The cap or shutter pivots on a screw-post into the side of the telescope’s eyepiece and is hidden neatly away.

Here, you can see the two ‘guillotine’ shutters raised into their open positions.

By comparison, this telescope has rectangular, sliding lens-shutters on both the front, and back end. They slide open and shut and they stick out the sides of the telescope instead of tucking neatly away. I’ve seen some people call these ‘guillotine-style’ shutters, on account of how their operation resembles that of everyone’s favourite full-sized vegetable-chopper – so, I’ll call them guillotine-style shutters too!

The lens-cap removed, with its shutter raised.

They really are a very whimsical piece of telescopic history. They’re a feature that you simply do not see on modern telescopes – and not on many antique ones, unless they’re really old, like this one! I’m pretty sure I’ll never find another one like this – at least not at any price which I could comfortably afford!

Another feature which I like about this telescope is the fact that the lens-cap that protects the objective lens at the front of the wooden barrel has two purposes. First, it acts as a lens-cap, to keep the lens free from dust, scratches and breakage – second, it acts as a rain and glare-shield! It’s not actually necessary to remove the lens-cap from the front of the telescope, in order to use it. You simply slide up the shutter on the front of it!

This feature would’ve been common on telescopes designed for naval use at sea, where sea-spray or rain could easily have obscured the view of the telescope’s user. Protecting the telescope’s lens from the full force of the rain or sea would’ve allowed for clear vision even during inclement weather.

Given all these factors, how old is it?

I honestly don’t know. My guess is the 1820s or 1830s. I have no evidence to back this up beyond what I’ve seen from similar telescopes which were dated to this era, and which match the design elements which I’ve seen here. But that said, that would make this about 180 years old…which is impressive, any way that you slice it!

This has certainly been a fascinating piece to tinker with and pull apart, fix and clean. Hopefully I’ll have a video about this coming soon on my YouTube channel, so watch out for that! 🙂

New Video: The Kyneton Lost Trades Fair – SewWhat Maryborough

 

This weekend just gone, I went to the Kyneton Lost Trades Fair in Kyneton, country Victoria, where I got the chance to see all kinds of ‘lost trades’. Blacksmiths, cobblers, bell-makers, potters, glass-blowers, knife-makers, carvers, carpenters, chandlers, weavers, spinners…the list goes on and on and on.

Anyway, while I was there I ran into some friends and got the chance to film them. This is the result!

Looking Into the Past: Antique Telescopes

 

I love antique telescopes, I just think they’re so cool. Their construction, their beauty, their intricacy, and the levels of embellishment put into their design. I’ve always had an interest in all antique optical equipment because of my poor eyesight, but there’s a romance about telescopes that you just don’t get with binoculars. They make you think of ships at sea, people on clifftops looking out over the coast, of trekking across the countryside, and the mysterious, far-off places which they’ve seen.

In this posting, I’m looking in detail at antique telescopes. A bit about their history, their construction, repair, refurbishment, etc. So polish your eyepieces and hold onto your lens-caps…

Antique Telescopes: The Basics

There are two basic types of telescopes which most people will be familiar with: The refracting telescope, and the reflecting telescope. The refracting telescope uses lenses of glass, whereas the reflecting telescope uses finely-polished mirrors. In this issue of TAT Antiques, I’ll be covering the more common refracting telescope, as this is the kind that you’re most likely to come across in antiques shops and flea-markets.

So, what do you need to know about antique telescopes?

Antique Telescopes – Context and History.

In an age before aircraft of any kind beyond a hot-air balloon, all travel beyond shore, and all delivery of cargo beyond shore relied on sailing ships and steamships. Before GPS, RADAR, satellites and transponders, mariners relied on maps, compasses, chronometers and sextants to find their way around the world. However accurate these aids might’ve been, arguably the most important maritime aid was the refracting telescope. Knowing where you were supposed to be, or where you had to go, or simply identifying where you were at all, was almost impossible without a telescope. Mariners needed powerful, long-distance vision-aids to help them scan everything from far-off flags, cliffs, hills, buildings, and other ships as they sailed around the world.

A Georgian-era telescope from the 1730s.

For all these reasons, from the 1600s up to the mid-20th century, telescopes were actually pretty important, and they were made by a wide range of manufacturers. Telescopes could see things great distances away, and with impressive clarity, important when you’ve sailed halfway around the world, and you’re trying to identify the harbour that you’re meant to dock at, which might be several dozen meters away. Mariners prized the telescopes, and on any given ship, they would’ve been among the most important and treasured possessions owned by the common sailor.

Telescopes were seen as the badge of office for sea-captains, admirals and naval officers, and such officers and captains might even receive telescopes from their colleagues as rewards for heroic deeds, tokens of good esteem, or presents to mark important events. In such instances, details of the deed or event which warranted the presentation of a telescope (which would’ve been an expensive item in its day!) would’ve been handsomely engraved on the barrel or draw-tubes of the telescope, as a form of commemoration.

The invention of the refracting telescope is generally attributed to famous Italian astronomer and engineer, Galileo Galilei, in the early 1600s. Whether or not this is true is up for some debate – chances are he probably invented the first one which was any good – as is often the case with great inventions – like the telephone, automobile and telegraph – great inventions can rarely be attributed to just one person.

At any rate, throughout the 1600s, from the time of Galileo, other inventors took his basic design and improved on it. Early telescopes were far from perfect – the images were often blurry, or even flipped upside down by the lenses! Knowing what type of lenses to use, and in what sequence they had to be placed would be worked out over the next century or so, until quality telescopes capable of clear views were developed.

Really early telescopes, such as those from the later 17th and early 18th century differed greatly from those of later decades in that they were much, much, much larger! The manufacturing limitations of the time meant that they could be several feet long, and quite heavy! It wasn’t until the later 1700s that collapsible telescopes which were more compact and also more powerful, were possible.

Although they were primarily used at sea for navigation, spotting landmarks, reading signals and sighting far-off, potential dangers to the ship, telescopes were also used on land, both in warfare, and for recreation. Field commanders used them in battle to watch the progress and direction of combat and to direct troops, and people used them for sightseeing, birdwatching and other leisure activities. How these telescopes all differ will be covered later on.

Antique Telescopes – Materials and Construction

From their earliest days, right into the second half of the 20th century, the vast majority of telescopes – almost all of them – were made of brass. Brass tubing, brass coupling-rings, brass rims for the lenses, brass screws and fixtures and brass lens-shutters and caps. The decision to use brass was twofold – for one thing, brass was relatively cheap. For another, brass did not corrode or rust like other metals might. This made it ideal as the metal from which to make telescopes, which might spend years and decades at sea, surrounded by moisture, humidity and saltwater.

The barrels, rims, coupling-rings, draw-tubes and other components of a telescope were all made of brass and the lenses were made of glass. But antique telescopes often had another component in their construction, and that was the barrel-cladding.

The barrel is the main body of the telescope. To make it easier and more comfortable to hold for long periods of time, the brass tubing was often clad in another material. This would stop the hand from slipping on smooth metal and provide better grip, and would also stop your fingers freezing to the brass if the weather was particularly cold. Popular coverings included thin sheets of Morocco leather, and various types of wood. Wooden blocks were spun on a lathe and rounded off, then bored out into a tube and slipped onto the brass barrel before being either screwed, riveted or glued into place. Mahogany and rosewood were popular.

One reason why telescopes were more popular than more compact binoculars was because telescopes were much more powerful. Most telescopes had up to half a dozen different lenses inside them, which magnified and clarified the image, as well as kept it steady, with minimal distortion from light. These series of lenses were screwed into double-ended cartridges or rims which could then be slotted and screwed into the telescope.

To clean the lenses, one simply unscrewed the telescope, unscrewed or slid out the cartridges, unscrewed the lenses, cleaned them, and then screwed and slotted everything back together. Since everything could only go back together in one very specific way, the chances of accidentally mixing up the lenses was minimal. Telescopes were expensive and were expected to last for many years. For this reason, they were really designed to be user-friendly, and easily maintained.

Some of my antique telescopes. The largest is also the oldest – from about 1850.

Many antique telescopes came with friction-fitted lens-caps over the large objective lenses, and usually – sliding lens-shields over the eyepiece. Older telescopes had sliding lens-shutters over both the front and back lenses, similar to guillotine blades, whereas more modern ones had detachable lens-caps on the fronts, and sliding lens-shutters on the back. This is one way to guess roughly how old a telescope is, as sliding shutters front-and-back became less common as time went on.

From the late 1700s right up to the middle part of the 1900s, how refracting telescopes were made (and indeed, how they’re still made today) hardly changed at all. The materials and finishes might have come and gone and changed with the times, but in essence, a telescope was made of drawn out brass tubes with threaded coupling rings, a barrel, glass lenses and brass lens-caps and shutters to protect the glass.

Because of this, it can actually be surprisingly difficult (and in many cases, impossible) to tell how old an antique telescope is. One made in 1770 would in all likelihood, be indistinguishable from one made in 1880, which would look very similar to one made in 1920 or 1930. There are subtle ways of guessing how old a telescope is, and I’ll cover that later on.

Different Types of Antique Telescopes

Antique refracting telescopes came with a surprising array of features and design-variations. The most basic ones simply slid out and back and had lens-shutters or caps at each end. However, there were differences and nuances.

Pocket Telescopes

Smaller telescopes (approx. 6-8in closed lengths) were typically sold as pocket telescopes. They were designed to fit into a jacket or trouser pocket for someone who might ride on horseback, who went hiking, or for someone who simply wanted a smaller, more compact spyglass.

Shielded Telescopes

Some telescopes were sold with sliding shields that extended beyond the end of the barrel, over and around the large objective lens at the front of the telescope. Such shields were typically three or four inches long, and were meant as sun-shields or rain-shields. Their purpose was to keep sun-glare off the lens, and to keep rainwater off the glass in instances where the telescope might be used in inclement weather.

Maritime Telescopes

Maritime or naval telescopes were much larger than pocket telescopes. A pocket telescope was typically 6-8 inches closed, stretching out to about 15-20 inches at its fullest extension. By comparison, a larger naval telescopes, which had to see much further distances, had larger, more powerful lenses installed in them. They would measure up to 10 or 12 inches closed, and might extend to over a meter when fully opened!

Library Telescopes

Occasionally, you’ll see a telescope on a tripod or stand. These can range from small tabletop ones, to much larger floor-models. What are they?

These are called library telescopes. Their design dates back to the days when gentlemen astronomers in country houses pursued stargazing as a hobby. They were designed to stand on a table, or on the floor near a large window in your library or study (hence the name). The tripod held the telescope absolutely steady so that the viewer could scan and track the heavens, looking for stars, constellations, the phases of the moon, or distant planets in the far distance.

They’re impressive, but beyond these applications (or scanning the bounds of one’s vast country estate, or looking out to sea from your lighthouse or seaside home), they’re not especially practical these days.

Sextant Telescopes

One device which most people probably don’t think about when they think of telescopes is the sextant – and yes, I do mean that curved navigational instrument – but yes, even that has a telescope built into it. Granted, sextant telescopes were not especially strong (they’re only meant for looking for the sun, after all), but they are telescopes nonetheless.

The sextant was invented in the 1700s as an instrument for determining latitude (north-south position), and in this, they work pretty effectively. To operate a sextant at sea, you waited for the noonday sun to be high in the sky. You sighted the sun through the telescope, and then pulled a lever on the side of the sextant. The lever adjusted the position of a mirror built into the frame of the sextant.

You pulled on the lever until the reflected sun was level with the horizon. When this was achieved, it meant that the angle between the sun and the horizon had been calculated. Then, you simply checked the lever to see what angle it had stopped at, and this gave you the angle of the sun above the horizon. From this, you could calculate where you were.

Sextants became extremely popular in the 1800s and 1900s. Provided that the sea was calm and the sky clear, they were relatively easy to use. Their use lasted for so long because they were basically failsafe. Even today, they’re still one of the most reliable navigation devices to use at sea, two hundred years after they were invented.

Day/Night Telescopes

Last but not least, we have day/night telescopes, and their name directly reflects their function – they’re designed to be used both day, and night! Now all telescopes can be used during the day, but what makes a night telescope?

As I said earlier – everything we see is a result of rays of light reflecting off of an object. The more light we see, the more reflection, the more object. To this end, a night-time telescope (for example, those used in stargazing) differs from a daytime telescope in that it is usually much larger, both in length and lens-size. The larger the lens, the more light you can capture, the more stuff you can see. This is why those astronomical telescopes at observatories are so massive!

The Anatomy of a Telescope

Your basic antique refracting telescope, of the kind that you’re likely to find at most flea-markets and antiques shops has a surprising number of parts! Knowing what they are and how they operate is important to knowing how to clean, fix and use your telescope. So, what are they?

The Barrel

The barrel is the main body of the telescope. Depending on age, it will be clad in either leather, or wood. Most antique telescopes will have a ridge at the front of the barrel. This ridge or lip is there to catch the lens-cap when you slide it on to protect the objective lens from dust, chips, cracks, and scratches.

Draw Tubes

Extending out from the barrel are the draw tubes. Most antique telescopes will have three draw tubes, some will have two, some will have four, some will have half a dozen or more! The number of tubes is how you describe what the telescope is. So if your telescope has four draw tubes, you’d describe it as a four-draw refracting telescope.

Coupling Rings

Between each draw tube, and between the main draw tube and the barrel, you will have couplers or coupling rings. These couplings are what hold the draw tubes together. They screw in and out and stop the tubes from sliding apart. You unscrew these to pull the telescope apart for cleaning.

Eyepiece Cover

At the back of the telescope is the eyepiece cover. This is usually just a threaded lens-cap screwed over the eyepiece lens, usually with a small, sliding shutter built into it. This is to keep dust and grit out of the eyepiece lens.

Eyepiece Cartridge

Immediately in front of the eyepiece cover is the eyepiece cartridge. This is a tight-fitting tube inside the smallest draw tube of the telescope. You should be able to just pull it right out (some telescopes might have you unscrew this to get it out). The tube will have two lenses in it that will magnify the image coming down the tubes.

Erector Cartridge

At the other end of the smallest draw tube, opposite to the eyepiece cartridge is the erector cartridge. Now this one DOES screw into the tube (because the lens-rim also doubles as an end-stop for the first coupler) so be careful when you try and pull it out for cleaning! Again, it’s a brass tube with two lenses in it. These two lenses are the erector lenses, meaning that they flip the image seen through the objective lens, the right way up.

Objective Lens

Right at the front of the telescope, you have the objective lens. This is the one that captures all the sunlight. On all but the earliest telescopes, the objective lens will almost always be what’s called an achromatic lens – that is, one lens made out of two parts. The reason for this is to sharpen clarity and improve focusing, and also to prevent what’s called ‘chromatic aberration’. Basically, two lenses help to sharpen the focus, and bring all the rays of light to a single point. If you only had one lens, the rays of light would all focus at different points inside the telescope, and you’d end up with a blurry image.

Finder Scope

The finder scope is something that you occasionally get on larger, tripod-mounted library telescopes. It’s the little baby telescope that’s sitting on the top of the main telescope. These little fellows are low-powered telescopes with wide fields of view. They’re used to search for an object in the far distance (to find them, as the name suggests), and the object, once being found, could then be viewed more easily through the main telescope (which is mounted directly underneath).

Telescopes: Care and Cleaning

You just bought your first antique telescope! Oh boy! You can finally live out your pirate fantasies, or go to sea on your rich friend’s yacht, or go birdwatching or stargazing after sundown. But, being a newbie at this, you perhaps bought your telescope without really thinking about how to look after it…woops! Now what?

Don’t worry, this chapter is all about how to clean and maintain your beautiful new antique telescope.

The good thing about antique telescopes from the 1700s and 1800s is that they were really designed to be user-friendly. For the most part, lenses, barrels, couplings and other parts can all be unscrewed, cleaned, polished and reassembled relatively easy. But there are some things which aren’t covered in the care-and-feeding manuals!

To service and clean your antique telescope, you will need:

  • One bottle of sewing machine oil, or a can of WD-40
  • Cotton-buds.
  • Tissue-paper, toilet-paper or paper-towels
  • Brasso metal polish.
  • Rubber gloves (optional).
  • Small, flathead screwdriver (optional).
  • Masking tape (optional).

These things should be all you need to get your telescope working great again, provided of course, that there is no damage to the body, the barrel, tubes or lenses. So, how does this work?

Step One: Cleaning the Lenses

To begin at the beginning – you should first clean all the lenses. On the vast majority of telescopes, these will simply unscrew from their housings, and you can simply pop them out and clean them with a damp tissue to remove any grit and dust. Make sure you clean the lenses inside and out, and be really thorough – all it takes is one tiny speck of dust to interfere with the optics of your telescope, so you want to blow out or wipe off any grit and grime that you see. Once this is done, carefully screw the lenses and their housings back into the telescope.

Step Two: Cleaning the Draw Tubes

This is one of the most important cleaning jobs that you can do on your antique telescope – cleaning the draw tubes. I will warn you now that it will take a lot of time, a lot of effort, and that if you don’t do this thoroughly, you can seriously damage your telescope.

Antique telescopes are made of brass. Brass rims, brass bodies, brass tubes, brass coupling-rings. Brass is everywhere. Brass was used because brass did not rust or corrode easily and it was easy to clean. But the problem was, brass is shiny, and manufacturers didn’t want light bouncing around inside shiny brass tubes in their telescopes. The reflections would drive you nuts! To stop this, they painted the insides of the draw tubes with a cheap paint made from lamp-black – basically, the soot that builds up inside the glass chimneys of old-fashioned oil-lamps.

Now over time, this sooty coating crumbles away. It’s caused by constantly opening and closing the telescope, as well as just by time and wear. Combine this with the fact that telescopes are not air-tight, and the tubes of your telescope will pretty quickly fill up with gunk and dust. This acts as an abrasive and creates friction. If you do not clean out all this gunk, then the dust will cause your telescope to jam when you try and focus it. And if you try and force the telescope to move, you stand a very good chance of breaking the coupling ring and ripping the telescope in half – and this would be nigh impossible to repair.

To prevent this, and to make the telescope easier to use, you need to clean out all this gunk. The easiest way to do this is to simply open the telescope to its fullest extent, and then drip or spray oil up and down the draw tubes. Then close the telescope, twisting and turning as you go, to distribute the oil all around the tubes. Then pull the telescope open, twisting and turning as you go. Repeat this several times and then using a tissue or paper towel, wipe off the oil. And then stare in shock and disgust and the black, oily grime that comes away in your hands. This is the gunk that is jamming your telescope. You must repeat this process until all the grime is gone, and the paper comes out clean.

In some cases, this may involve completely disassembling the telescope right down to its component parts to clean out the grime. This is not a process that you can rush, and it is not one that you can skip – because if the telescope jams and you try and unjam it with an overenthusiastic tug, you could very well damage it irreparably.

Once the tubes have been thoroughly cleaned and wiped down, the telescope should open and close fast and smooth – You should hear a sharp, smooth clicking sound as the tubes extend and collapse. This is the sound of the coupling rings snapping into place against the end-stops of each draw tube.

Step Three: Fixing Worn-Out Couplers

Some telescopes – not all, but some – suffer from worn out coupling rings. Every draw tube comes with a coupling-ring and an end-stop. The coupling ring slides over the tube and down to the end-stop. The ring has corrugations on it to help unscrew it, and it has threads on it, which connect it to the next draw tube in the sequence. On some telescopes, these threads can get worn out from years of screwing and unscrewing for cleaning and maintenance.

One way of repairing this is to unscrew the worn out coupling ring and wrap masking tape around the threads. This builds up a very thin layer of paper over the threads, which will provide the friction and grip necessary for the thread to bite, and hold, and stop coming apart! Now masking tape is the cheap solution – if it doesn’t work, you can go to your local hardware shop and buy threading tape which is specifically designed for sealing loose threads (they use it in plumbing to stop leaks). Whether you use painter’s masking tape, or plumber’s threading tape, the important thing to remember is to apply the tape smoothly over the threads. Any folds, kinks or twists in the tape will cause the threading to jam, and then you’ll be in real trouble!

Step Four: Fixing Jammed Couplers

Just as how coupling rings can get worn out, they can also get stuck! It isn’t uncommon on antique telescopes for coupling rings, lens-housings and other threaded components to get stuck and jammed on. This is usually because nobody cleaned it for decades, and the dust and grime got into the threads and the friction is so bad that you simply can’t unscrew it!

To get over this, simply drip in a couple of drops of sewing machine oil. Let the oil seep into the threads – put in a couple of drops all the way around and let it dribble inside. Then, with a firm grip, simply twist the threads open. If you’re still having trouble, use rubber gloves to provide extra trip.

Having opened the threads, make sure that you add more oil, to the threads and then wipe it clean with tissue-paper! Again, you’ll get the same, black, oily gunk that came out with the draw tubes. Once you’ve unjammed all the threads, you should clean out all the grime before screwing them back in, to prevent them jamming in the future.

Step Five: Polishing the Brass

The last step is optional, but it’s the process of polishing the brass on your telescope – which is basically everything that isn’t glass, or leather! Despite what you might think, polishing antique brass is perfectly acceptable, and in some cases, even necessary, although for the most part, it’s largely to do with aesthetics and visual appeal. It is up to you, but most collectors and sellers of antique telescopes that I’ve come across would prefer their telescopes polished, rather than dulled. It just looks that much more awesome.

Antique Telescopes: Storage and Usage

So, you’ve bought yourself a beautiful antique telescope. You’ve pulled it apart, cleaned it and wiped down the lenses. Now how do you use it? And once it’s been used, how do you store it?

To use your telescope, slide off the lens-covers on both ends and then pull it out to its fullest extension. Hold it up to your eye and look through it. Does everything look all blurry in the distance?

Of course it does, that’s because you haven’t focused it! Provided you’ve cleaned out all the gunk inside the telescope, and the tubes are sliding smoothly, focusing your telescope will be really easy. Simply slide the smallest draw tube into the one ahead of it. Eventually, the distance between the lenses will sync up, and the image will come into focus. The other tubes will remain stationary. In most cases, focusing the telescope to view things further and further afield will simply be a matter of sliding the first draw tube back and forth to find the ‘sweet spot’ for each different distance.

Storing Your Telescope

Once you’re done using your telescopes, to protect the lenses, make sure you slide the shutters and caps back on (if the telescope came with them, that is – most will not have their original objective-lens caps). Ideally, you should stand them upright when you’re not using them. This will stop dust getting on the objective lens, and will also stop the telescope from rolling off of any shelves or tables that you decide to display them on.

Researching Your Telescope

So, you just picked up an antique telescope. Maybe it was at auction, maybe at the flea-market, maybe from an antiques shop or from some place on the world wide web! However you got it, you have it now, and you suddenly realise you don’t know the first thing about it…woops! How do you research how old your telescope is, where it was made, and what it was used for?

Well, I’m sorry to say this, but in many cases, this will be next to impossible to find out. The problem is that a lot of companies manufactured telescopes for all manner of customers and markets. Sailors, soldiers, sportsmen, hunters, sightseers, the leisured country gentleman on his estate, ranchers, birdwatchers, stargazers…the list goes on, and on, and on. Because of this, many telescopes were made and sold anonymously. It’s not uncommon at all to buy an antique telescope with absolutely no markings on it whatsoever.

That said, some manufacturers did put their names on their products, and did it loud and proud, too! Names like ‘Dollond’, ‘Broadhurst, Clarkson & Co’, and dozens of other smaller manufacturers would’ve engraved their details proudly onto the barrels or more commonly, the draw tubes of their telescopes.

But even without a name or address to research, is it possible to date a telescope? That really depends. The challenge is that telescopes made from the 1700s to the 1900s really didn’t change that much. Draw tube numbers rose and fell and it wasn’t uncommon for the same basic designs to be used for years, and years, and years! However, there are some small details which can guide you on rough dating of your telescope.

The Size of your Telescope

The earlier a telescope is, the larger it tended to be. Those from the early 1800s and earlier tended to be exceptionally long, and with only one or two draw tubes. The quality of manufacturing available at the time limited the size and complexity of telescopes and how compact they could be made. As manufacturing techniques became more advanced and refined, smaller and more intricate telescopes with improved optics became possible.

Engravings and Inscriptions

One of the most reliable ways to research the history of a telescope is if it has an engraving or inscription on the draw-tubes. As mentioned earlier, telescopes were popular as gifts in maritime circles, to commemorate promotions, milestones, long service, or were given as rewards for great deeds done at sea. Such inscriptions often included the date, the recipient’s name, the name of the party presenting the telescope, and the reasons for the presentation. Depending on the amount of detail given, there might be enough information provided to research the backstory of the telescope, as well as give us a rough date as to the telescope’s era of manufacture.

The position of a manufacturer’s engraving is also one way to determine a telescope’s age. Up to the end of the 18th century, manufacturer’s engravings tended to be on the ‘right’ side of the telescope, and after the start of the 19th century, manufacturer’s engravings tended to be on the ‘left’ side of the telescope.

“Uh, Brainiac – telescopes are ROUND. They don’t have sides”, I hear you say. And you’re correct – they don’t – but nevertheless, the positioning of an engraving on a manufacturer-marked telescope is one way of telling how old it is. From the 1790s and back, maker’s names and their details (addresses, etc) were engraved on the ‘right’ side, meaning that the first letter of the first word in each line of the engraving was closest to the eyepiece.

After the 1790s, for reasons unknown, telescopes tended to have their maker’s details engraved on the ‘left’ side, meaning that the last letter of the last word on each line of the engraving was closest to the eyepiece.

It’s a crude dating mechanism at best, but seems to hold up, in all the examples I’ve seen, both online and in antiques shops.

This excerpt was originally published in the February, 2017 edition of the TAT Antiques Magazine, and was reproduced here by the permission of its author…me! 🙂 

My First Vintage Pocketknife

 

When I was attending university a few years ago, for the first time in my life, I found myself doing a lot of travelling and walking around every day. Going to the campus, going to lecture halls, going to classes, the library, the store, the cafeteria for lunch, all kinds of places. And it was during this time in my life that I started to realise just how many things I needed to cut open. Lunch packets, sauce packets, that super-annoying skin-tight plastic wrap that adorns almost every single type of manufactured product these days, from POST-IT notes to writing supplies, and I began to wish more and more that I had some sort of pocketknife on me.

I never had a pocketknife as a child. I never saw the point, I never saw the need, and for almost every cutting job around, I used a pair of scissors. But as I got older, and started moving around more, I began to realise just how handy it would be to have a portable blade on me with which I could do things. And so I started hunting.

At first I really didn’t know much about knives, but with my historical bent, I knew that I’d like a pretty, antique one. The good news was that antique pocketknives are really common. The bad news is that finding a decent pocketknife that you like enough to buy, refurbish, maintain and use can be a bit tricky. There are loads of different styles, models or patterns out there, each one suited for different purposes. After a lot of hunting around, I bought a knife at the local flea-market. As I said, vintage pocketknives are really easy to find, the trick is finding one you like. The good thing is that most of them really don’t cost much at all.

What Did I Buy?

I ended up with a neat, medium-sized ‘Barlow’-pattern knife. It’s rounded off at one end of the knife (designed this way so that it’s easy to slip into the pocket), and has a pair of bolsters at the other end. The scales (decorative panels) on the sides of the knife are covered in panels of polished bone. Would be nice if it was ivory, but we can’t all be that lucky!

The Barlow knife is one of the oldest knife-patterns still manufactured today. And I mean really old! The first Barlow knives were invented back in the 1600s and were owned by such people as George Washington, and mentioned in the works of Mark Twain. Although it was actually invented in England, the Barlow became an icon of Americana by the middle-1800s, and was liable to be owned by thousands of people.

The classic Barlow has a handle with a rounded end, and two folding blades which both pop out of the same end. The style of the blades changes from manufacturer to manufacturer, but in the end, they comprise of one larger main blade, for general use, and one smaller blade, about half the size. This smaller blade was originally intended as a pen-knife, used for sharpening, cutting and shaping pens and pencils, in the days when writing was done with either quills, steel dip-pens or pencils (before the widespread availability of pencil-sharpeners).

The reason the Barlow was so popular was because it was effective, simple and cheap. The two blades did just about everything that most people in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s needed of their knives, and it was also small enough, and cheap enough for most men, boys and probably women too, to own one. It’s qualities like this which have seen it last into the 21st century.

Cleaning the Knife

Any antique pocketknife that you pick up at an antiques shop or at a flea-market is bound to need cleaning. In most cases, the knife won’t have been properly maintained in decades. Cleaning the knife is important for a number of reasons.

First, it makes it easier, and therefore, safer to operate – an essential importance when anything with sharp blades is concerned.

Second, it improves the look of the knife and keeps your clothes clean. Nobody wants to carry a pocketknife in their pocket when it’s full of grime, and liable to transfer that to your jeans or slacks. And for something so small, a pocketknife can come with a whole heap of crap packed into it, and I’m not talking about the blades!

The first thing you’ll want to do, if you can, is to open all the knife-blades and toss it into an ultrasonic bath, ideally with warm water and liquid soap to blast out all the gunk inside the knife. Turn the machine on and watch all the dust and grime and crud come shaking out. You may need to do this two or three times, and change the water in between washes. This should clean out most of the grit inside the knife. Anything extra you can pick or scrape or wipe out with tissues, cotton-buds, or pins (useful for getting into the tiny cracks).

Once you’re removed all the grime, it’s time to remove all the tarnish and rust. This can be done using either hard abrasives like extra-fine sandpaper or steel-wool, or liquid polishes like Brasso, depending on how bad the the tarnishing is. Like the cleaning, polishing and rust-removal may take a few applications to get the look that you’re most comfortable with.

Sharpening Your Pocketknife

Once you’re done cleaning your pocketknife, the last thing to do is to sharpen it. There’s a million ways of sharpening a knife and half a billion ways of testing how sharp it is, so I won’t be going into this in great detail. YouTube is always a great place to find more, if you need it.

But to cover the basics – I sharpen my knives using stones of three different grits – coarse, then fine, then extra-fine, staring with the roughest, and progressing to the finest, with about 20-30 strokes of the blade across each surface on both sides. It’s important to keep the stones lubricated while you sharpen them. If you’re the sort of person who sharpens blades regularly, it might be useful to keep your stones soaking in a bucket of water somewhere, so that they’re always ready for use. If not, you’ll need to soak them for a few hours before you start using them.

Once you’ve given each blade of your pocketknife a thorough sharpening on both sides, now is the time to test it. The classic way is to see how cleanly it slices through a sheet of paper. A well-sharpened knife will produce a clean, straight cut and the paper will have sharp, clean lines either side of it. A knife which hasn’t been sharpened properly will simply tear the paper, or fail to cut it at all. As you cut, make sure that you pull the blade along so that you can test that its entire length has been properly sharpened. If it cuts cleanly, then congratulations, you’ve sharpened your first vintage pocketknife!

PUBLIC NOTICE: Antiques For Sale!

 

Hey folks!

As of today, throughouthistory.com will be listing all the antiques which I currently have for sale. If you want to see what’s available for purchase at the moment, please visit the ANTIQUES SALES page here! It may also be accessed through the ‘PAGES’ menu, down the left side of this blog.

Please note that all prices are listed in AUSTRALIAN DOLLARS, and that the final price to be paid on each item is the price of the item itself, plus postage! 

The flag of the Commonwealth of Australia, in case people have forgotten what it looks like.

Reasonable offers are accepted on all items, and questions are welcome. If you wish to buy an item, make an offer, or ask questions about something which I’ve got for sale, please email me at contact@throughouthistory.com. Thank you!

All payments for purchases and postage will be carried out through PAYPAL.

All photographs featured in the ANTIQUES SALES page are of the items themselves, and have been taken by me, your friendly blogger!

Daily Life in the Tudor Era

 

Life during the Medieval and Renaissance eras is often romanticised as being quaint, quirky, idyllic, relaxing and easy. A simpler time where simpler people with simpler pleasures led simpler lives. But what were the realities of life during the Medieval era and the Renaissance which followed, a period of time lasting 1,200 years?

Before the Industrial Revolution, technological innovations were slow. It wasn’t uncommon for things to be done the same way that they’d always been done, for hundreds of years. The same building techniques, the same methods of cooking, the same basic styles of clothing and countless other practices remained unchanged for generations.

In this posting, I’ll be looking at some aspects of daily life as it would’ve been lived during the Tudor era, from roughly 1485-1600.

Housing in the Tudor Era

In the 1500s, the majority of people would’ve lived in humble wattle-and-daub houses, often with a thatched roof. The walls were made of thick posts driven into the ground, and braced with wooden beams. Rods were driven up and down between the open spaces, and reeds (the ‘wattles’) were woven in and out of the rods, back and forth, up and down, a bit like weaving a basket. It was easy work and could be done relatively quickly. Wattles (reeds, essentially) were always sourced green, and never dry. Dry reeds, like dry wood, cracks and breaks really easily. The reeds had to be green when they were woven, or they wouldn’t have the elasticity to be bent back and forth between the rods.

A basic wattle & daub house, with a thatched roof. Until the mandatory manufacture of bricks in the 1660s, after the Great Fire of London, the majority of houses were built like this.

Once the walls of the house were rodded and wattled, then came the daub – a mix of water, mud, grass or straw-clippings, and excrement – usually horse, or cattle – which was easily found almost anywhere in Tudor England! The mixture was trodden and mixed underfoot, and then toshed up onto the walls, packed into the reeds and wattles and rods to create a thick, weatherproof layer to set and dry and harden. Entire houses were built using this method, with gaps in the framework for windows, doors and passageways.

What about windows?

Glass for the most part, was extremely expensive. If it couldn’t be made locally, then it would’ve been imported from Europe (most likely Italy), so most people didn’t actually have glass in their windows. They might’ve had lattices, and at night – shutters – but for the most part, windows were open to the breezes. At night, it was common practice for the head of the household to go around ‘locking up’, which meant barring the doors, and shutting and bolting the windows.

For people who were a bit better off, and could afford glass, windows were often leadlight – meaning that they were a lattice of dozens of square or diamond-shaped panes, held together by strips of lead, melted and crimped into place. Glass was expensive, and large panes of glass were difficult to transport over bumpy and pothole-riddled streets, so smaller panes which could be clipped, chipped and broken down to smaller sizes, and then simply ‘glued together’, essentially, by strips of lead, were easier to produce.

Okay, not everyone had nice glass windows. But what about flooring?

Again, that varied according to what you could afford. If you were absolutely dirt poor, then you had…a dirt floor! Usually just earth, packed and compacted and rammed down with sledgehammers. If you were a bit wealthier, then hardwood floors were common. If it was possible or necessary, your floor might be made of stone, or if you were of the upper echelons of society – marble or granite, or fancy tiles.

Every home in Elizabethan times would’ve had at least one fireplace. Temperatures during this time were a lot colder than they are today, due to a phenomenon known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. In fact during Stuart times, the weather in winter could be so cold that the River Thames in central London would freeze over solid! ‘Frost Fairs’ were held, where people could go skating on the frozen river!

Fireplaces had been rare in the medieval era. They had to be made of stone or brick, which was expensive, so most people had open floor hearths, with the smoke just finding its way up out of the house through the roof, but by late Tudor times, fireplaces and the materials to make them were becoming cheaper, so it was now possible for most people of moderate means to have at least one fireplace in their house, usually in the kitchen.

Fireplaces were of course used for cooking, heating water, keeping warm, and providing light, but one thing they couldn’t be used for was baking! The inconsistent heat from the fire being stoked and fuelled and dying down meant that baking was not possible at home. It was for this reason that most people took their bread, cakes or pies to the local bakehouse to be baked by their local baker. This is why you prick it, and poke it, and mark it with ‘B’, so that you knew which pie was yours, so that you could get it back when it came out of the oven!

Houses in the Tudor period could be surprisingly large. It was common for houses to be two, three, or even four storeys high, often with the upper floors being wider than the lower ones. The result was that in especially narrow streets, your bedroom could be almost kissing the bedroom of your neighbour, which could be as little as just a couple of feet apart! Often, houses doubled as shops, so the ground floor of a building was often the family business, whereas the upper floor or floors, contained the family home.

But what about rooves?

The majority of rooves were thatched. This meant that bundles of straw were sewn to the roof using yarn, to keep the rain out. Thatch could be extremely thick, and while it was surprisingly weatherproof, it would still have to be replaced occasionally, as old bundles wore out, and new ones had to be brought in to replace them.

With the majority of houses built in this manner, you can bet that fire was a huge risk. Close-packed wattle-and-daub constructs with straw rooves are highly combustible, and it was what caused, a hundred years after the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the Great Fire of London, in 1666.

Water and Sewerage

Clean water and removing sewerage are the two biggest challenges of any city in the world. In Tudor times, water was sourced from springs and rivers far from the city, or else from the River Thames. Finding clean drinking water was such a problem that most people didn’t even drink water – well into the 1800s, the drink of choice for most people was alcohol – either wine, beer or ale. The boiling process for making beer and ale, as well as the alcohol content that it contained, killed bacteria and made it safe to drink.

Alright. What about going to the toilet?

The majority of houses in towns had either a cesspit or a chamberpot. Cesspits were dug out as frequently as every three to six months, to maybe once a year. Any filth on the streets was swept and shovelled away by streetsweepers. But what about the sludge in your cesspit?

Enter: the nightman.

Sewerage was meant to be carted out of the city by gong-scourers, muck-rakers or nightsoil-men, who worked the night-shift, digging out cesspits, clearing crud off the streets, loading it onto carts and then driving it out of town where it would be used as fertiliser. Nightsoil labouring was dangerous to one’s health, pretty unpleasant, and very physically demanding! For this reason, anybody willing to carry out this unenviable occupation actually got a pretty impressive weekly wage! Provided you didn’t mind shovelling crap all night long, you could earn yourself quite a lot of money…or if you were Queen Elizabeth’s personal gong-scourer…an impressive amount of booze…he insisted that half his wages were paid in alcohol!

So, how much could you make as a gong-scourer? Well, it depended on who you worked for. If you worked for the City of London, for example, you were paid by quantity. Two shillings paid for every ton of excrement removed. If you worked for the Queen at Hampton Court, you earned sixpence a day, or 3/- (three shillings) a week (if we assume a day off on Sundays). Not a bad wage in an era when most daily expenses were counted out in farthings, ha’pennies and pennies and most people earned maybe two or three pence a day! Keeping people clean and hygienic might’ve been unpleasant and messy, but at least the job paid well!

The occupation of nightman or nightsoil-man persisted in London into the mid-1800s, and in other parts of the world, right into the 20th century, although it’s now mostly relegated to history, except in some undeveloped countries.

Travelling Around, Tudor Style

Travelling anywhere in Tudor England was slow and dangerous. Unless you had a horse and cart, your speed and how much you could carry was entirely up to how fit you were. The fastest way to travel was arguably by water. Travelling in London was particularly difficult due to the filthy state of the roads, and the sheer congestion of people. London Bridge, the only bridge across the River Thames for hundreds of years, dating all the way back to Roman times, was the only nearby river-crossing in Tudor times. The bridge had shops and houses built on it, and traffic was often so congested, it was faster to jump from boat-to-boat across the river, than wait at the bridge! The bridge also had to abide by a strict curfew. The gates were locked each night and unlocked at dawn. If you were unlucky enough to fall foul of the Tudor courts and end up with your head on a spike…that spike was driven into the bridge, so that everyone passing could see it.

Cooking and Cleaning

For most people in Elizabethan England, food comprised of pottage, vegetables and bread. Meat was often a luxury as animals such as chickens, sheep and cows were more important alive rather than dead. The only exception to this was the pig – which could be fattened and slaughtered regularly. Pork and bacon were the most common foods you were likely to come across in Tudor England.

Okay, what about cooking, then?

In theory, if you had a fireplace at home, then you could do most of your cooking at home, too. Cooking was traditionally done on a round-bottomed pot called a cauldron, hung over a fire on an iron hook and chain. Raising or lowering the hook (and therefore, the cauldron) determined how much heat was transferred to the pot (and the contents), thereby varying temperature and cooking-times. Most people just ate pottage – whatever they could find to chuck into the pot. Fish. Meat. Vegetables. Peas. Bread. Oats. Barley.

It’s the origin of the modern word ‘porridge’.

A fire in an open hearth, or fireplace, with a cauldron above it filled with pottage, would’ve been a common sight in many homes right up until the 1700s, when the first cast-iron stoves started being made.

As mentioned, most homes did not have ovens. Ovens were larger and generally harder to work properly. Part of the reason was that most ovens (not all) required you to rake out the flames, embers and burning wood, before chucking the bread in and closing the door, not like the wood-fired pizza-ovens we know today, where you keep the fire going while the bread bakes. The danger was that an errant spark could set the whole house on fire, and obviously this could only really be done safely in homes with dirt or stone floors.

Well that’s cooking. What about cleaning?

Although it would be centuries before knowledge of microbes was available, that did not mean that people back in Tudor times did not at least try to keep clean, although their concept of hygiene was somewhat different to ours.

Contrary to popular belief, people did wash and bathe, and keeping clean was considered important, but at the same time, bathing was not done as often as we might do today. Even into the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for most people to have just one bath a week. This was because of the expense of water, soap and firewood or coal to heat the water.

In Elizabethan times, personal hygiene as well as keeping a clean house were just as important then as now. Bathing was often done whenever and wherever it was practical to do so – a pond, a stream or river, or simply by heating water up in the copper (the enormous copper basin in the scullery or kitchen) and bucketing it into a tub for a quick scrub-up in the kitchen.

Cleaning the house involved many of the tasks we still associate today with cleaning – hot water, rags, brushes and brooms, however the Tudors did have some other rather more interesting cleaning methods, which they used in an era before soap and detergent.

For scrubbing wooden surfaces such as chopping boards, tables, benches, buckets, milk-churns and other wooden food-preparation items, salt and boiling water was used, one after the other, to sterilise and clean out an item thoroughly. They of course did not understand sterilisation, but the Tudors did know that improper cleaning spread disease.

For cleaning clothing, linen and fabrics, the Tudors used lye, an alkaline solution created by straining water through wood-ash, which was simply scooped out of the fireplace. The concentrated alkaline-water solution created by this straining process was added to the laundry and it helped to loosen up grease and sweat stains to make washing clothes easier.

Along with the lye solution, another common cleaning agent, for a whole host of things was…urine!

Stale urine, usually collected and left to sit for a few days, up to a few weeks, was the Tudor washing-liquid par excellence! Urine degrades over time, turning into ammonia (which gives it its delightful fragrance), and it was this concentrated ammonia that was useful in shifting stains, polishing metals, fulling cloth, and a whole host of other household tasks! Urine was also actively collected out in the streets, the nitrate inside it was concentrated and added to charcoal and sulphur to create gunpowder. Householders were encouraged to donate their urine to the State for gunpowder manufacturing. Public houses, inns and taverns often had large, communal piss-pots parked outside the front door where the gentlemen of a community could make a contribution to the safety of the realm and aid in the production of gunpowder!

Clothing

During the Tudor era, the majority of people wore garments made of wool and linen. Cotton wasn’t generally available, and silk was extremely expensive. For most men and boys, the typical outfit was the doublet and hose, complete with underclothes, stockings, a belt and boots.

The hose was a pair of leggings with an opening at the crotch, which was covered with a removable pouch or flap of fabric known as a codpiece. Underneath, one wore one’s linen underwear, and a linen undershirt. Over the top, a man would wear his doublet – a short jacket made of a double-layer of wool (hence the name ‘doublet’). The doublet was buttoned at the front, and then to keep everything together, short cords were looped and tied through eyelets at the top of the hose and the bottom of the doublet, holding everything together. This was reinforced with a belt, onto which things like knives, pouches or pockets could be tied to, or hung from. Garments with pockets included in them would not be a feature of clothing for another few centuries!

If it was cold, a man might wear an overcoat, or a cloak or cape on top, along with a hat. If it was sunny and hot, he might remove his doublet and just wear his hose and undershirt, however to be seen in one’s shirtsleeves was tantamount to being seen in one’s underwear – It wouldn’t be until the 20th century that the shirt would gain any sort of respect as a garment in its own right. Even in the Victorian era, it was considered impolite to show off one’s shirt in public, without a waistcoat to cover it.

Women on the other hand wore a whole host of fabrics! An undershirt or blouse known as a chemise typically went on first. Then came a corset stiffened with reeds, whalebone, or wooden stays. Then came petticoats, a stomacher, an overskirt and then another jacket or blouse to go over the top. Everything was held together by drawstrings tied in elaborate knots, or else by clothespins which were sharp little brass or steel pins designed to keep everything from coming apart at the seams. Pins were essential for proper dressing in those days, especially for women, which spawned the expression of ‘pin-money’ (a bit of cash on the side), but which came from the days of the Tudors, when you actually needed money for pins, otherwise your clothes wouldn’t stay together!

Lighting

The rhythms of life were very different five hundred years ago. In general, people woke up earlier and went to bed later. Waking up at dawn or near to it, was common. Work was started early and the main meal called ‘dinner’ was taken at late morning or midday, and another meal of ‘supper’ was had in the late afternoon, before one went to bed in the early evening.

…Why?

The reason was light. The availability of light affected everybody. It affected when and how long you could work, when you woke up, when you went to bed. The only forms of light were either oil lamps, candles or rushlights – cheap reeds (rushes) drenched in tallow (animal fat), dried, and then lit to provide illumination.

For most people, the main source of light was either an open fire, or candles, either made of beeswax, or tallow. Tallow candles were cheaper, but as with anything – you get what you pay for. Tallow burned horribly, it stank to high heaven, and it was never very bright. It was basically a candle made of animal fat! Eugh…

A rushlight in its holder. Extremely cheap to make, they only burned for a few minutes, unlike candles, which could burn for hours.

Beeswax could be melted and purified, it could be coloured and scented, and it burned and melted more cleanly. This gave beeswax candles a much brighter, purer light. But this light came at a price, and candles were taxed…five hundred years later and we still have electric light bills…so not much changes! Because of the expense of candles, however, people, rich or poor, burned as little light as possible at night, and generally retired early. This was what dictated the rhythms of everyday life.

This article was originally posted in the September, 2016 issue of TAT History, and was reproduced here by permission of its author…me! 

Sharing My Latest Videos – 21st February, 2017…

 

The latest videos that I’ve uploaded since the start of February, showing off some of my antiques. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments and ratings in the videos!

Researching Family History – Genealogical Needles in Haystacks!

 

“So uh, where are you from?”

Looking Chinese, I get this question a lot. Almost every time I meet a new person, it pops up. Depending on the situation, a sarcastic or honest reply usually follows. But it’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve never been fully comfortable with saying that I’m Chinese. I’ve been to China but once in my life – I don’t speak Chinese, I wasn’t born in China, and neither were my parents.

Despite this, we have undeniably Chinese roots. Both my grandfathers were born in China in the early 20th century. But here again there’s a separation – my grandmother (on my father’s side, at least) – was not. She was born in Singapore – at the time, a jewel in the crown of the British Empire. She grew up speaking English, along with a slew of other languages,

You can start to see why there’s hassles involved in researching my family history.

My Own Historical Journey

I only really started getting interested in genealogy after my grandmother died in 2011. She had led what I felt, was an incredible and arduous life, as well as growing up during an incredible time in history, and as part of a unique element of Chinese culture.

I knew very little about my grandparents’ lives while they were alive. My grandfather died before either my brother or I were old enough to know him, and I never felt comfortable asking grandma about him. At any rate, grandma’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease as she entered her 90s meant that by the time I was old enough to ask intelligent questions, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to answer them. As a result, I learned most of my family history by asking my father, uncles, aunts, and older cousins.

It was only after my grandmother passed away that I gained access to a whole wad of her personal papers. Statutory declarations, passports, immigration papers, household documents, employment slips, hospital records, and even my grandfather’s death-certificate, that I was able to really delve into the history of our family – who was who, when and where they were born, and how everyone was related to everyone else. This was very exciting, but also incredibly confusing and difficult – not least because half the documents were written in a mixture of Cantonese, and Malay – two languages which I know almost nothing about!

The Difficulties of Asian Genealogy

In the Western world, tracing one’s family history is relatively easy. There are workhouse records, war-department records, immigration records, census-documents, birth and death registers, marriage records and school and university records to look through, to find out all kinds of things like when grandpa migrated to America from Italy, where and when he met grandma, what his parents and grandparents did for a living, where your Uncle Tony was born…all kinds of stuff.

Sadly such ease of access to ancestral information is next to impossible to attain for Chinese families. Centuries of war, revolution, invasion, occupation, more revolutions, more wars, more occupations and changing governments throughout China, Japan, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and other Asian countries has meant that the likelihood of finding a complete and unbroken chain of records and dates going back more than a few generations is pretty unlikely.

Confucian Filial Piety

Another huge barrier to recording Asian genalogy is filial piety, a notion established by Chinese philosopher Confucius, centuries ago, and something which a lot of Chinese people still adhere to, to this day. Confucius stated that in everything, there was an order, a ranking and a hierarchy which had to be maintained. Every person in this hierarchy, from the emperor downwards, had a ranking and a title. This even extended to the family-unit, where every member was addressed not by name, but by rank and title. And in many Chinese families, this has continued into the 21st century.

“Alright”, I hear you say. “So what?”

Well, imagine trying to trace your family tree through even just a couple of generations, when you don’t know ANYBODY’S names. Not your grandparents’ names, not your uncles or aunts’ names, not the names of your great-grandparents, your grandparents’ siblings, their spouses…nobody, all because they would’ve been known by rank and title, and not by name.

Beginning to see the problem here?

The fact of the matter is that it is very, very difficult, unless you have access to loads of documents, and someone who is willing to sit down with you and go through them all, and explain things – especially if, unlike your parents or relations, you don’t speak your ‘mother tongue’, let alone read or write it!

Grandma’s little brother. I never knew we had a pipe-smoker in the family!

For my own part, I was lucky enough that my father’s side of the family was largely brought up Christian, and as such, almost everyone had Christian names as well as Chinese ones. This made recording names, dates and relations much, much easier! I didn’t have to think in terms of first uncle, second uncle, third uncle, second aunt, second-aunt’s husband, fourth uncle’s wife’s brother, third uncle’s cousin’s brother…

You get the idea. It can be maddeningly confusing!

Researching My Own Family

Researching family history can be a lot of fun. I found out the names of my great-grandparents, I found out when and where my grandfather was born, I found out that my grandmother had a little brother who died in the 1950s – and that he worked as an apothecary! I found out that our family has had more adoptions in, adoptions out, and adoptions around the family, than a revolving door orphanage, but it helped to explain how we got where we are, and how the current family all fits together.

Clockwise from top left: Uncle Mark, Aunty Lucy, Aunty Noni, grandma (middle), Aunty Nancy (left) and dad (on grandma’s lap!). Date: December, 1952.

I found all these details out from photographs, records, and from interviewing family members. Unfortunately for me, finding out about my family history isn’t as easy as doing a Google Search, and that means that every single unearthed speck of genealogical gold-dust that I find is precious and fascinating. If you’ve ever struggled to piece together your family history, you’ll know what I mean!

My uncle as a youngster! Born in September, 1935, he estimated this was taken just after World War Two, so he’d be about 10 years old in this picture.

For some people, knowing who they are and where they came from is a point of pride and fascination. For others, they couldn’t give a damn!…My uncle is one such person – he didn’t even keep his wedding photographs! He told me so! I have copies of them, though, and keep them as a record of everything that’s happened in our family which I’ve been able to find out.

Researching Your Own Family History

Genealogy can be a fascinating hobby, albeit a frustrating one. if you ever intend to start, then the best advice I can give is to find every elderly member of your family that’s left, with decent memories, and absolutely pump them for every single drop of information you can squeeze from them.

Living memories are better than dry words on paper, and questioning people when they’re alive means that you get more details out of them, rather than trying to figure out everything from records, after they’re dead! This is one thing I wish I’d done with my grandmother before she’d died, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the interest back then.

Next, get a-hold of all the papers you can find. Birth records, death records, passports, immigration records, in any way that you can. If you need to, get them translated! And above all, make sure that you cross-reference things. Records are not always as definitive as you’d like them to be!

My great-grandmother. Nobody knows when she was born, or when she died. She lived into her 90s, that’s all anybody seems to remember!

Once you’ve confirmed what you know, write it down! On the backs of photographs, in a family bible, in a document that you’re keeping – anything! Once lost, information like this is never won back, so guard it jealously! And make things easier for future generations (should you intend to have any), by keeping, saving and recording everything that you can, if not for your own children, then for your nieces and nephews further on down the line. You never know who might be interested in who came before them!