Making your Mark: Studying Silver and Reading Hallmarks

Silver has been valued by mankind for thousands of years, along with its big brother, gold. Silver has had a big impact on our lives and our language, although we don’t always realise it. A silver spoon. Silverware. The Pound Sterling. A hallmark of quality. Up to scratch. Acid test. These are all expressions or phrases which have their history in mankind’s love affair with silver. So, what is silver and what are we looking at in this posting?

Silver is an elemental metal. In this posting I’ll be covering what silver is used for, the various grades of silver, and how to identify silver hallmarks. Let’s begin!

What Is Silver?

Silver is an elemental metal – a metal that appears in nature – and has been used for thousands of years to make everything from coins to cups to candlesticks. Silver can be melted down and reformed, it can be used to make almost anything, and it has been mined everywhere from China to Europe, England to South America. For centuries, conspicuous ownership and use of silver was seen as a status symbol. Grand households could, and did, amass great quantities of silverware – everything from shaving scuttles to candlesticks, ice-buckets to chamber pots!

What are Hallmarks and Why do they Exist?

Hallmarks are the little symbols, pictures, letters and numbers stamped onto the little (and big!) pieces of silver that we buy from places like antiques shops, jewelry shops, watchmakers and silversmiths. They have existed for centuries and centuries of history, in one form or another and are generally recognised as being the oldest regulated form of buyer-protection in the world.

…why?

It is impossible to tell, just by looking at a piece of gold, or silver, what level of purity the metal is. It could be 10 percent, 20 percent, 40 percent or 90 percent purity. It could be solid silver, pure silver, silver plated, or not silver at all! So, how do you know?

You don’t! Not unless you have it tested. But to have everything you own tested and checked all the time would be a pain in the ass! Right? As Yente would say: “Of course right!”

The Assay Office

Because it would be impractical to have every single piece that a person buys, tested for silver purity, the way to ensure consistency, honesty and proper regulation was to introduce a system whereby every piece of silver which could be legally sold, had to be independently tested and indelibly marked as being made of silver.

Enter the Assay Office.

An Assay Office was the institution or body which regulated the testing and marking of silver and gold. The oldest surviving one in Great Britain is the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, which dates back to the 14th century! It was made law in England and France in the 13th and 14th centuries, that all silver had to contain hallmarks – symbols that swore to the fact that the metal had been independently tested for purity – before it could be legally sold on the open market.

Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. This building (or rather, the original built on this site; this is the third such Goldsmiths’ Hall) gave us the origin of the term “Hallmark”.

It is from the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London which the term ‘hallmark’ originates. They still carry out hallmarking services there to this day.

Hallmarks are not only found on silver – they’re also found on gold and platinum, but in this posting, I’m concentrating on silver marks.

How old are Hallmarks?

Hallmarking is the oldest form of consumer protection in the world that still exists today in something approximating its original form. It was established in the FOURTH CENTURY (300s), and more or less the same form of hallmarking has existed, in one way or another, ever since.

Hallmarking as we recognise it today was first standardised in the medieval period, starting in France in 1275, and then in England, in 1300. The types and numbers of hallmarks rose and fell over time, depending on the laws and regulations of the era. A traditional set of European hallmarks will be anywhere from four to six in number, by which they can be dated, identified and certified as being gold, or silver.

Throughout the succeeding centuries, extra hallmarks and standards were introduced, such as creating proper, well-regulated assay offices, assay marks, date letters, and maker’s marks, in addition to simple purity or ‘fineness’ marks.

Types of Hallmarks

There are a number of different hallmarks in the world, and they vary wildly by country, but there are only about half a dozen specific *types* of marks, that you really need to be aware of. I’m going to talk about them here.

Fineness Mark

The first mark you’re likely to find on a piece of silver is the fineness mark. This mark indicates the purity or ‘fineness’ of the silver, whether it’s 750/1,000, 800, 900, 925, 935, 950, etc. There are two types of fineness marks: Traditional fineness marks (usually represented by animal symbols) and numerical fineness marks (called ‘milesimal’ fineness marks). Traditional fineness marks are more old fashioned and stylistic; milesimal fineness marks are a more modern method of marking.

Degrees of fineness vary from country to country, as each nation or continent has a minimum standard of silver purity which may be classified as “solid silver”. In Britain, ‘solid silver’ has to be at least 92.5% purity (called ‘sterling silver’). The lowest legal grade in Europe is 800/1000 silver (80% pure), which is enforced in countries like Germany. Consequently, 800 silver is generally known as ‘Continental’ silver. Countries like Switzerland have a slightly higher grade, which is 935 silver (93.5% pure). For a short period in Britain, the standard was 950 (95% pure), although that was discontinued in 1720.

The traditional fineness mark in Britain is the symbol of a lion walking to the left, called a ‘Lion Passant’, which indicates Sterling Silver (92.5% pure). A higher grade of silver (95%) was traditionally marked with the picture of a woman, sitting down, with a shield at her feet (Lady Britannia). This grade of silver is known as Britannia Silver.

Britannia-grade silver was discontinued in Britain in 1720, because while it was a higher grade of silver purity, the lack of enough alloying copper made the metal far too soft to work properly and silversmiths were complaining that their finished pieces were suffering in quality as a result. So the old sterling standard was reintroduced in the 1720s. It has remained the standard in Britain ever since.

Assay/City/Town Mark

I’ve always called these things assay marks. Some texts call them City Marks, Town Marks…whatever…

The assay mark is the official hallmark of the assay office which assayed (tested) the piece of silver that you’ve got in your hand. This mark on your silver tells you that the piece was independently tested and certified to be (or be above) a specific purity of silver.

Assay marks still in use in Britain today include the Castle (for Edinburgh), the Anchor (for Birmingham), the Rose (for Sheffield. Previously, this was a Crown), and the Leopard’s Head (for London). There used to be several assay offices scattered throughout Britain, but now only a handful remain. Silver pieces with the marks of defunct assay offices on them can command high prices due to their comparative rarity.

Maker’s Mark

Compulsory in Britain since the mid-1300s is the Maker’s Mark. The Maker’s Mark is usually the initials of the silversmith, or the company, which manufactured the piece. Maker’s marks are highly individual. As some initials can be repeated between makers, different sizes, styles, fonts, and arrangements of letters were used to make each mark recognizable. Different styles, shapes and sizes of borders around the marks also helped to make them stand out, and be identified by the general public.

Date Letter

The date letter system was introduced so that people would know how old their silver was. Each assay office would have bordered sets of letters in alphabetical order, and these were used to mark each piece sent through the office to act as a date reference later on. Dating pieces can be tricky – letters changed all the time – capitals, lowercase, italics, serifs, sans serifs, different border-shapes…the list goes on. And then there’s the added factor that each set of date letters is unique to the specific assay office which marked the piece. You can’t use London date letters to date a piece assayed in Birmingham, for example – it wouldn’t work.

Duty Mark

From 1784, until 1890, an extra mark was required on British silver called a duty mark. The presence of this mark indicated that the required silver duty (silver tax) had been paid to the Crown. The Duty Mark was represented by a profile portrait of the reigning monarch of the day. There were four duty marks: George III, George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria. The presence, or absence of a duty mark can help date the age of your piece.

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A full set of traditional English hallmarks. L-R: [D&LS] (David & Lionel Spiers. Makers). [I] – date-letter for 1885. [Anchor] – for Birmingham. [Lion Passant] – for Sterling Silver. [Monarch’s Head] – Duty Mark.
Milesimal Marks

These days, the most common type of hallmark that you’ll see on modern silver is what’s called a ‘milesimal’ fineness mark. These marks or stampings indicate the purity or ‘fineness’ of the silver in a numerical manner, instead of a symbolic manner (such as the Lion Passant).

Common milesimal marks include:

950 – 950/1000, or Britannia Silver.
935 – 935/1000, or Swiss silver.
925 – 925/1000, or Sterling Silver.
900 – 900/1000, or 90% silver by purity.
800 – 800/1000, or 80% silver by purity. AKA German Silver or Continental Silver.

You sometimes see silver purity below 800, although this tends to be rare.

One mark you might sometimes see (exclusively in American silver) is the term “COIN”, “COIN SILVER” or “FINE COIN”. This indicates that the silver piece in your hands came from the melting down of a whole heap of old, out-of-circulation silver coins. The standard purity is usually 800.

When is Silver Not Silver?

Silver has been prized by man for centuries – its colour, its sheen, its sparkle – have all made it desirable. But its price has not. To this end, silver-imitating metals have long been popular silver-substitutes, and craftsmen have often made items out of such metals to sell to people who would like something in their homes or lives that looks like silver…but which isn’t…most likely because they can’t afford the real thing.

Pewter

Another white metal which has been used, if not prized, throughout history, is one called pewter. Pewter is a mix of copper and tin, in this case, high levels of tin and low levels of copper; in older times, lead was also included. The opposite (high levels of copper, low levels of tin) gives you bronze.

Pewter has a darker, greyer colour than silver, but was nonetheless used for things as diverse as candlesticks, spoons, cups, mugs, flagons, plates, bowls and many other things. It’s sometimes plated in silver and it may have the letters ‘EPBM’ stamped on some silver-plated pewter items.

EPBM is Electroplated Britannia Metal – This means that it is silver-plated pewter. It is NOT Britannia SILVER, which is 95% silver by purity.

Nickel-Silver

Another common metal which is sometimes mistaken for silver is a material known as Nickel-Silver, which despite the name, doesn’t have any silver in it at all! Nickel-Silver is made out of an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc – it has the superficial appearance of silver, at a glance, but contains no real silver in the mix, unless it’s been silver-plated.

Nickel silver is usually marked “N.S.”. Electroplated nickel silver is “EPNS”. It’s also called German Silver, and alpacca, among many other names.

Deciphering Silver Marks

Finding out what the marks on your silver mean can be challenging. Two great online resources for finding out what they are, are the following websites:

Silver Maker’s Marks for British & Irish Silver

This isn’t an infallible site, but it lists the marks of almost every British and Irish silversmith. Useful for finding out who made your piece.

925-1000.com

The online silver encyclopedia. Not always the easiest of resources to navigate, I’ve found, but the information it provides is good, once you’ve tracked it down.

 

 

Miniature French Opera Glasses – 6th Anniversary Post! Whoo Hoo!!

Studying history is a lot more than looking at books and watching documentaries and reading about stuff online written by something else – it’s about getting in contact with the everyday relics and remnants of the past which have survived from bygone eras, and seeing with our own eyes what the past was like. Personal possessions tell us so much about how life has changed, how style and design and fashion and personal tastes have all morphed and moved over time, and with the times.

A few days ago I stumbled across this curious item at the local weekend flea market. It was so whimsical and cute, I just had to make it the focus of my 6th anniversary post!

Yep, six years ago, at the end of October, 2009, I started this blog. And in honour of that momentous occasion, of which nobody reading this is likely to be aware…I present this!

And ain’t they just the cutest things ever!? Huh? Huh?? HUH!!??

So easily overlooked, I found these in a display-case of bits and pieces at the flea-market last weekend. They are possibly the world’s tiniest pair of antique opera glasses!! And they are just adorable!

What we have here is a pair of early 20th century (Ca. 1910) miniature opera glasses!

Made by Colmont of Paris, they’re marked with “Parisette” and “-x-” on the bridge, and a tiny letter ‘C’ inside a six-point Jewish star (presumably the company logo).

Are these opera glasses rare? Perhaps a bit, but not excessively so. I know that other companies in France made tiny compact opera glasses, but from what I’ve seen, very few as small as these. They measure just 3.25in across, and 1.5in high, when fully extended! The eyepieces are the size of pennies! If that doesn’t make them the world’s smallest, I dunno what does!

Here they are, compared with my other opera-glasses. Up the back is a pair of Jockey Club de Paris racing binoculars, from about 1910. Next along is a pair of nondescript brass opera glasses, probably from the turn of the century. The next pair with the blue guilloche enameled sides was made in Paris around 1880. Same with the next pair.

The middle Mother-of-Pearl set were made by Le Maire, and date to 1885 (the date is engraved on the bridge). The lorgnette opera glasses (with the folding telescope handle) are from around the same date, and were made by Iris, another famous French optician. The final and smallest pair, the Colmont set are next to them. As you can see – the size of these, even next to the next largest, is just minuscule!

Opera glasses of this style date from the turn of the century, from what my research tells me, from about 1900-1920. My research hasn’t brought up any dates more specific than that. I have read some speculation that they’re this small because they’re children’s binoculars, but I haven’t seen this claim made anywhere but on one website, so their true age and reason for their size remains a mystery. I suspect that it’s nothing more fantastic than being miniature opera glasses designed to be ultra-compact and easily stored/concealed in a lady’s clutch-purse or something, when she went out for a night’s jollification at the local theater, but they are wonderfully cute.

The glasses are made of gilt brass (brass with gold fused onto it using a healthy and safe process involving the vapourising of mercury…yum!!) and leather, which has been wrapped around the barrels. They’re certainly the smallest, and possibly the most interesting piece in my modest collection! I just had to have them, and I had to share them!

 

The Return of the Indian Star!

This took a bit longer than I expected, but here’s the result:

Is it perfect? No.

Does that matter? Probably not.

The machine wasn’t in perfect condition when I got it anyway, so it was never going to look as good as brand new. But at least here it looks complete again, with a front panel back on and the missing pieces replaced. All in all, a very pleasing result.

And there you have it. A 1945 Singer 15 ‘Indian Star’ back to working order and saved from almost certain destruction.

Here is the interior of the new base:

And here is the new bed-support, to stop the damn thing from SAGGING whenever it sits down (which believe me is more important than you might think – it prevents you from opening the slide-plate!):

This is what the same machine looked like about two weeks ago, when I got it home:

 

Antique Jewelry Case (ca. 1890-1910). Two lift-out trays and original key.

Isn’t this adorable?

Okay, maybe not NOW, but once upon a time, this was a very smart, black Moroccan leather jewelry box. And it’s my latest find.

It came complete with its two original…

…lift-out trays…

…and a surprisingly large amount of storage for something so compact…

The box also came with its original key. It’s a bit old and grimy, but the lovely, green velvet and silk linings are both in spectacular condition. And the box and both trays are in excellent structural condition.

A box like this features storage for chains, bracelets, cufflinks, earrings, a small pocketwatch (the circle on the top tray), rings (the two ring-grooves either side of the watch-hole), and much more besides!

I’ve no inkling who the maker is, but it’s in stunning condition for something over 110 years old!

 

S. Mordan & Co. Sterling Silver Dip Pen & Pencil Set w/Original Box. Ca. 1880.

You do find the craziest things when you have to run errands on terrible days…

In preparation for a family reunion, I’d been running myself ragged for two weeks, buying food and cooking ingredients and all other manner of things to prepare for the big day ahead. It didn’t help that the weather lately has been absolutely GHASTLY. Raining nonstop, blowing a hurricane and freezing cold almost incessantly.

I had to go to another suburb to pick up a fresh gas-cylinder for my home-carbonation kit, along with a whole heap of other things. The weather was patchy and rainy all day…Oh God…

To make the most of a bad situation, I stopped in at one of the several charity shops in the area (there’s three or four of them, all within a few blocks of each other) to look around.

In one of these shops was a very dark case inside a display-cabinet. Inside the case were something long and thin and shiny.

At once my interest was piqued.

I thought the items to be not worth much – items in charity shops rarely are. Anyway, I asked to have a look. They were removed from the cabinet and presented to me…

…inside the case was…

“Are they silver?”
“Maybe…I dunno. There’s no hallmarks on it”.

I had a look and sure enough…no hallmarks.

But there was a name. A manufacturer’s name. Hidden in amongst the forest of engraving.

“S. Mordan & Co”.

My heart went flitty-flutter…

I’d heard a friend of mine talk of this company, once or twice, a few years back. But I couldn’t quite remember why she found it so interesting. I suspected the set might be worth something…they thought it was junk. Cheap stuff not worth bothering about…but I decided to take a chance.

They were on sale, anyway, I noticed. There were two prices on the tag. And I got a bit confused, until the guy who showed me the set explained that the second price meant that they’d been reduced. I snapped up the set and carried it home. Today, I sent an email to my aforementioned friend and she sent a reply, dating the set to the 1880s or 1890s (which lines up with the research I did) and said that they were almost certainly sterling silver, since S. Mordan & Co didn’t start making silver-plate pens and pencils until the 1910s.

I think I need to sit down for a minute…

What’s the significance of S. Mordan & Co?

Well…S. Mordan is Sampson Mordan Snr. He lived from 1790 until 1843. He’s the man who invented the propelling pencil. The great-grandfather to every mechanical pnecil in existence today.

As a result, anything bearing his name in the writing world can carry a hefty value along with it…Wow!!

 

Restoring a Victorian-Era Double-Hinge Writing Slope

I’ve often been told that if you restore an antique, you ruin its value. Not a belief that I have ever wholeheartedly followed. Mostly because it varies significantly on a case-by-case basis. A slipshod, half-assed restoration can destroy an antique. A careful, loving restoration can increase an antique’s value significantly. The difference is knowing when to restore something, and whether your actions could damage the item irreparably.

Take for example, this item:

I purchased this during a day-trip down the coast. It’s a very, very battered late-19th century gentleman’s writing-box. I bought it because I’d never seen a box of this style with this type of metalwork on the lid before. As far as old writing-boxes go, it was very cheap, and I daresay if I hadn’t bought it, it would’ve been thrown out as a useless bit of old tat, sooner or later. I figured that if I did buy it, then I could restore it and use it as my own personal writing-slope. I didn’t want to use any of my nicer ones, in case I damaged them. This one was already in ‘rustic’ condition, shall we say – so I wouldn’t feel too guilty about using it, since there was very little of value left to damage!!

See what I mean?? This box’s list of ailments was impressive, to say the least. Let’s see now…

– No key.
– Torn accessories caddy.
– Broken organiser.
– Broken inkstand.
– Ink stains everywhere.
– Inkwell was falling apart, and leaking like a sieve.
– Scratches and grime all over the place.
– Broken divider between the inkwell and pen-rest.
– Completely devoid of writing accessories.
– Aide Memoire was shot to a million pieces.

Repairing the Inkstand The first and easiest repair was fixing the inkstand. This is just three or four pieces of wood which just slot together. Unfortunately, someone glued them together. Someone else then tried to pull it apart, and broke the wood at the glued joints. I pulled the wood apart and used a very sharp knife to cut away the glue and separate the wood. I glued back the broken parts as they were originally intended, and then slotted everything back together, without glue or nails or screws to hold it together (as it was originally designed to do).

The writing-slope with the inkstand disassembled. Removing this also allowed me to clean up a lot of the ink that you can see in the corner, from the leaking inkwell. I used extra-fine steel wool for that. It scrubs away the majority of the ink without seriously damaging the wood finish.

Once that was done, I had to measure and cut a new divider between the pen-rest and the inkwell. The old one was broken in half, and the removable pen-rest kept sliding back and forth, knocking against the inkwell. It was a simple repair and easily accomplished.

Repairing the Leather Not so easy was repairing the leather. The writing-slope had DEEP scratches, and many stains and blemishes, not to mention the fact that in areas, the leather was peeling off and in others, was gone completely! Fortunately the vast majority of the box was still leather-covered. I was able to glue down the loose bits, and then cleaned and polished the leather with dubbin and black shoe-polish. It removed some of the scratches and marks, but not all of them. Indeed, not even most of them. But it’s better than nothing! And far easier than ripping off all the leather and replacing it entirely!

Repairing the Organiser

Repairing the organiser (the two-slot space for storing papers), was significantly easier than trying to remove the blemishes from the leather. I had enough broken and loose bits of wood leftover in the box to trace, cut and stain extra parts of the correct size. I then glued them all back into place…

Replacing the Aide Memoire One of the biggest issues with this box was replacing the Aide Memoire. The two white shield-shaped panels on the lid. Really fancy writing-slopes have these made of sheets of purest ivory. Cheaper ones, they’re made of celluloid. And the really rock-bottom economy models (like this one!!) – they’re just cardboard! In fact they’re not even cardboard, they’re cardstock. The same stuff which Hallmark uses in all its fancy greetings-cards! The original aide memoire was so dilapidated it literally crumbled off on the way home. I scraped off the remainder with a knife…

…and then made tracings of the outlines. I cut two identical white, waxed cardstock templates and glued them into place. I measured and checked everything countless times, to ensure that they were as close to the originals as possible…

Gluing the Inkwell Back Together One of the biggest headaches about this writing-slope was the inkwell. After 100 years, it was falling apart in the most spectacular fashion, and I had no idea how to fix it. The inkwell is made up of three components: – A necked, glass bottle. – A threaded, brass collar that goes over the neck. – A threaded, brass cap that screws onto the collar. The collar is held onto the neck by some manner of filler-adhesive. Over 100 years or more, the adhesive had not only lost its grip, it had lost its integrity, too.

One good wiggle was all it needed to part neck from collar, in what was already a construct of the flimsiest condition. Fortunately, no element of the inkwell was broken when it came apart. I chipped, scraped and sanded off all the leftover adhesive-filler, and then I used two-part epoxy filler-adhesive, to glue the collar back onto the glass neck, and create a watertight seal. It was a bit messy, as glue is apt to be, but it got the job done with spectacular results! The inkwell is now whole again, leakproof and able to hold fluid without leaking everywhere!

Cutting a Key After all that came what was possibly the hardest task, which ironically, had been among the easiest in all my previous jobs! Finding a key for the lock! These old writing-boxes, generally, have very simple one-lever locks. A key with a barrel and head the right size is all that’s needed to turn the bolt. No fiddly teeth or notches required. Or at least, not normally. But this lock was proving more than cantankerous. It defied all my usual attempts to find a key for it.

I was on the verge of giving up and sending the whole damn thing to a locksmith, when I decided to give it all one last try. To send this to a locksmith would’ve cost me a prohibitive amount of money, and time, considering that a box of keys is only a few bucks. I purchased said box of keys, found one of an appropriate size, and then unscrewed the lock from the box, and then used a flat-head screwdriver to lever the plates apart…

Once sufficiently loosened, the entire thing fell apart. The lock is only made up of three components. The frontplate, the bolt, and the backplate, containing the lever and spring. This was just a one-lever lock. So I only had to file down a key to make it the right size to push against one item. Locks like this can have as many as three, five, or even eight levers, or more. After a lot of filing and testing, I got a key to fit the lock. I reassembled the lock…

…and then I hammered it back together, slotted it back into the box, screwed it down, and tied the key to the box-handle to stop it getting lost.

Finishing Touches After repairing the lock, the aide memoire, as much of the leather as I could, the inkstand and the inkwell, the organiser and wiping off a considerable amount of grime, all I hd left was the finishing touches. Cleaning it once more, and finding all the necessary bits and pieces to fill it up. Like all the bone and ivory to accessorize it with:

The ink-eraser knife, the letter-opener, and the page-turner (white thing on the pen-rest) are all ivory from the Victorian era. The dip-pen is bone. And here we have it. Is it perfect? Not really. But it’s the closest that we’re likely to get to ever seeing what the original condition of this box might’ve been, over 130 years ago.

 

Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Pith Helmets – The Original Sun Hat!

One of the most popular postings I ever wrote for this blog was about hats. It continues to be searched, read, viewed and commented on, much to my disbelief and amazement.

Thanks to everyone who’s visited this blog and likes hats. I like hats too. Hats are neat.

I’m taking this opportunity to write about the fascinating and whimsical story behind one type of hat in particular. A hat which has generally fallen out of favour, ever since the late 20th century, and which has yet to undergo any sort of serious mainstream revival.

I am of course talking about the Pith Helmet.

Boaters, Panamas, Trilbies, Homburgs, Fedoras, flat-caps, panel-caps, Fez-caps, Greek fishing-caps, even the deerstalker hat made famous by Sherlock Holmes, and countless other items of headwear have all survived well into the 21st century. Most men and women would wear them anywhere and everywhere, and think absolutely nothing of it. And yet, the same freedom of movement has somehow never been afforded to the humble pith helmet, which I think is a shame, given its noble history and many excellent qualities.

This post aims to explain the wonders of the Pith Helmet. What makes it such an iconic and fascinating…well…hat…essentially, and why it lasted so long.

What Is a ‘Pith Helmet’?

The Pith Helmet is a hard-shell, high-crowned hat with a wide, sloping brim made of the ‘pith’ (soft heartwood) of the Sola plant. It’s for this reason they’re also called ‘Sola Topees’ or Sola hats. Other names include sun-hats or sun-helmets. Pith helmets are constructed thus: Soft pith from the Sola plant is placed on a mold and glued on, layer after layer, forming the shell of the helmet. The helmets are built up kind of like how you make papier-mache. Once the glue dries and a hard shell has been attained, the helmet is removed from the mold and is swathed in tight-fitting cotton to protect the shell.

Originally, this cotton covering was white, but over time, most pith helmets were stained an earthy sand colour called Khaki. This was originally a form of camouflage in the sandy regions of Africa, India and the Middle East, but soon it became standard on most pith helmets. These days, pith helmets are typically manufactured in two colours – white, and khaki. There is no real distinction between one or the other, except that white pith helmets are used largely for ceremonial roles, and khaki pith helmets are used for more practical roles.

The word ‘Khaki’ comes from the Persian word ‘Khak’, which literally means ‘soil’. Therefore – Khaki-coloured helmets were helmets which were the colour of soil, or dust. Some people in Britain still use the slang-word ‘khak’ to this day, meaning general filth, grit, grime and mess.

What are Pith Helmets Made Of?

Traditionally, pith helmets were constructed of sola pith, although when pith wasn’t available, they were also made of cork. Today, helmets tend to be made out of one or the other, depending on local resources. Pith helmets made in Vietnam (where a lot of pith helmets are made for export) are still made of traditional pith.

What is the Purpose of a Pith Helmet?

OK, they look cool…but…what the hell do they DO??

The Pith Helmet’s design was taken from the German Pickelhaube helmet (Those fancy Prussian ones with the brass spikes on top), and came into being around the mid-1800s. The Pith Helmet was designed for use in hot, dry and humid climates, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and India. It has a number of features which make it ideal for these kinds of conditions. Let’s see what they are…

My own pith helmet, made of cork, lined in dark khaki cotton fabric with a neatly folded puggaree around the crown. Leather chin-strap and six riveted ventilation holes. French colonial style.

The pith helmet has a high crown. This keeps the top of the helmet away from your hair and prevents sweat-buildup. The hard shell made of pith means that no matter what happens, it won’t cave in and cause sweat to build up in your hair. The helmet comes with steel-reinforced ventilation holes. The number of vent-holes varies depending on the style of helmet you have. My helmet up above is the French colonial style. These traditionally came with six vent-holes – three on each side, arranged in a triangle. Wind blowing through the vent-holes cool the head down and wick away sweat.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the pith helmet is the wide, sloping brim. This is designed to keep the sun and rain off your face and neck. The leather belt across the front brim is actually meant to be a chin-strap, stored up there when not in use.

However, one of the most famous characteristics of the pith helmet is that it’s designed to get wet!

Soaking your Helmet

Pith helmets (Well-made ones, anyway), are designed to be soaking wet when they’re used. A good-quality cork, or pith helmet is designed to retain water. On a hot day, dunk the helmet in a bucket of water, or flip the crown upside down and fill it with water and let it soak in for a few hours. Drain off the excess water, shake the helmet to remove the runoff, and then put it on.

Out in the heat of the sun, the water evaporating from the helmet will keep you cool. The helmet’s rigid shape will stop the water getting all over you and the hard shell won’t collapse on top of your head. So long as the helmet is regularly re-hydrated, it’ll remain cool and comforting throughout the day. It was the pith helmet’s ability to act as your own personal cooling-device that made it so popular in hot and humid countries like India, Singapore, Vietnam and elsewhere.

The History of the Pith Helmet

Developed in the mid-1800s, the pith helmet was originally military-wear. It was modeled after the German Pickelhaube helmet and was issued to troops stationed in Africa, the Middle East and Asia from the 1850s up until after the Second World War. Apart from soldiers, they were also issued to police-officers in places like China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya and Australia.

Helmets were originally white, but the whiteness made the soldiers which wore them a target to the enemy. To make them less conspicuous, they covered them in dust and sand. This stained them a sandy yellow-brown hue which was named ‘Khaki’, after the Persian ‘Khak’ (‘Dirt’). This led to the helmets being manufactured in both white and khaki. The colours of the helmets issued to soldiers varied according to the uniforms they wore and the ranks they held. Badges of rank were placed on the fronts of the helmets.

The pith helmet soon became popular with Western civilians living in hot climates and it was worn by both men and women. Europeans going to South America, Panama, the Caribbean, Africa, or Asia would buy a pith helmet before going. In fact for a time it was believed that if you were going to these places, you NEEDED a pith helmet because the paler Caucasian complexion was too fragile to bear up under such strong, equatorial sunbeams. A large, broad-brimmed helmet to provide defense against the rays was essential!

Pith helmets continued to be popular, and continued to be military-issued, right up until the 1950s. Due to the wide range of locales where they saw service, pith helmets gradually developed into about half a dozen different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation.

The Types of Pith Helmets

Over time, the pith helmet developed into about six different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation. They were, in no particular order…

Foreign Service Helmet

The Foreign Service Helmet is the quintessential Victorian-era British pith-helmet! It conjures up images of the colonial wars of the 1800s, of Safaris in Africa, of the British Raj, of the film ‘Zulu’, and the big game hunters of old. The Foreign Service Helmet has the highest crown. It also has a protruding, beak-like rim and sloping back. These are designed to keep sun and rain off the face and neck. They were available in both white and Khaki.

French-Style Pith Helmet

To protect them from the heat in such places as French North Africa, French Guiana and French Indochina, the French Army adopted this pith helmet. It’s got a low crown, it’s oval-shaped with a wide, turned-down brim. It has six vent-holes (three on each side) for cooling the head.

USMC Pith Helmet

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) adopted the pith helmet as part of its uniform starting in the early 1900s. At first-glance, it looks just like the French one, but it’s got a much higher crown and more vent-holes. Twelve, instead of six.

Bombay Bowler

Winston Churchill wearing a Bombay Bowler

Named after the Indian city of Bombay, this type of pith helmet was more ‘hat-like’ than other helmets and was designed more for civilian wear than military use, despite this, it still had the same characteristics as all the other helmets – it was lightweight and retained water for use in hot climates. While other helmets were more rounded, the Bombay Bowler has a flatter crown and straighter edges.

Vietnamese Pith Helmet

Worn by the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, this pith helmet is one of the most distinctive styles ever made. It is the only commonly-accepted version of the pith-helmet which isn’t white or khaki – but green, to go with classic Military Green of army uniforms. It’s also the most ‘bowl-like’ of the helmets, having a uniform dome-like crown and rim.

The Safari Helmet

The more generic ‘safari’ helmet

 

The last style of pith-helmet is the safari helmet. This varied significantly in size, crown-shape and height, and the number of ventilation holes. It doesn’t conform to any particular style previously mentioned. It most closely resembles the French-style pith helmet, but the positioning and number of the vent-holes does not always match the traditional three on each side, set out in an upright triangle.

These various styles of pith helmets remained common up until the mid-20th century but are now usually worn only for costumes, parade/ceremonial uniforms, or historical reenactments. That said, a well-made pith helmet is still one which will fulfill its original functions and capabilities as orginally intended. The next time you head out into the wilderness with a break-open shotgun and a yen for some big game, perhaps bring one along. If you go camping in the bush, the desert or the outback, one of these might prove useful. If nothing else, it’ll help hold a small amount of water if you turn it upside-down! They’re whimsical, useful, classic, charming and practical.

 

Ivory Ruler for an Antique Writing Slope

Greetings, regular blog-followers and readers.

Sometime back, you may remember a posting I did about my 1862 Toulmin & Gale writing-slope. And what a gorgeous thing it is, too!

Gorgeous, but incomplete. As the photos show, a number of the slots in the organiser-console were all empty.

Since that post I’ve managed to find appropriate, period items to fill out the gaps. Such as a pocket dip-pen, and the crowning glory, an antique ivory ruler.

The ruler was probably originally 12 inches long (1ft), but this one is only 11 inches. Not sure why. Maybe it was broken at one point and ground down to repair it. No idea. Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the end-result looks like this:

The ruler has some writing on it, which says…

It says: “LUND – MAKER 57 Cornhill, London”.

Haven’t been able to find anything out, but it’s definitely old. I love it, despite it flaws 🙂 Just something I wanted to share.

 

 

Family Heirlooms: Grandmother’s Antique Silver Peranakan Nyonya Belts

I’m writing this post as a tribute to my grandmother. I did write another post about this, but it was too waffly and boring, and the photographs looked like crap. So I decided to rewrite it and use better pictures. Anyway, without further ado, this is the story of my grandmother’s silver Peranakan belts.

Grandma and the Peranakan

My grandmother grew up in Singapore in the 1910s and 1920s, during the heyday of the British Empire. Grandma was descendant from, and was part of, the vibrant Peranakan culture that existed in what was then called the Straits Settlements. It was for this reason that the Peranakan were also called the Straits Chinese.

My paternal grandmother. Bertha Fu Kui Yok. The original owner of these belts. 7th May, 1914 — 28th November, 2011. Aged: 97. This photograph was taken about six months before she died.

The Straits Chinese or the Peranakan were the descendants of trading Chinese, who migrated from China to Southeast Asia during the 1500s-1800s. They were traders and merchants, sailing back and forth between the Chinese mainland, and countries in the South Pacific, like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaya and Bali. Over time, Chinese traders colonised these parts of the South Pacific, intermarrying with the local indigenous peoples. The descendants from these unions were called “Peranakan” (which literally means: “Descendant of Intermarriage Between a Foreigner and a Local”)

The Peranakan were famous for intricately decorated works of art. Everything from their dresses, skirts, robes, slippers and shoes, furniture, floor-tiles, window-shutters, porcelain, tiffin-carriers, even their dessert-cakes and snacks, their dinner-meals, luncheons and houses, and especially their jewelry were all very intricately decorated.

Grandma’s Peranakan Belts

Although not wealthy, my grandmother was fortunate enough to grow up with a small selection of jewelry to her name. Sadly, most of this has now been lost. But the two items which have survived are probably the two most important, and therefore, most valuable and significant of them all.

Her silver Peranakan belts.

The gold and silver belts owned by Peranakan women (“Nyonyas”) were specially crafted to be worn with traditional nyonya dress – Sarong Kebaya – A light, form-fitting two-piece outfit consisting of the Sarong (wraparound tubular skirt), and the Kebaya, the short, close-fitting jacket or blouse. The belts were worn with Sarong-Kebaya combinations to hold up the Sarong and prevent it from unwrapping or falling down. Such belts were usually reserved for special events. Family events and such. Weddings, dinners, anniversaries and so-forth. Made by hand by Peranakan jewelers, these belts were works of art to be treasured and used only on rare occasions.

Here are some examples of Sarong Kebaya, which I photographed during a trip to the Penang Peranakan Museum:

The silver dress-belts would wrap around the top of the Sarong to hold it up and stop it from unwrapping accidentally.

Traditional Sarong-Kebaya. Photograph taken at the Penang Peranakan Museum.

This is probably why grandma’s two belts have survived for so long, despite the family fortunes and the trials and tribulations that attended them, because they were stored away and only brought out on extremely significant occasions.

And here they are: First up is the older belt. This one is of a more traditional, segmented design, with dozens of little silver pieces linked together by dozens of tiny silver rings. Each link has a small flower stamped into the silver. The whole thing is 35 inches long. The oval-shaped buckle is removable. If you were a rich Peranakan nyonya, then you would probably have multiple belts like this. Then you could chop and change and swap belts and buckles around, contrasing silver with gold, and favourite belts with favourite buckles and so-forth.

Solid silver Peranakan nyonya belt. Probably from my great-grandmother’s (ca. 1875-1970) time. This belt is the older one, and probably dates to the late Victorian era or early 1900s, ca. 1890-1920. I’ve seen Peranakan belts of similar style dated between the 1880s-1920s.
The (removable) buckle or clasp depicts a tiger and a monkey either side of a lotus bud. Above them is a butterfly, and surrounding them on all sides are lotus flowers, water and leaves.
Closeup of the links and details, showing the rings and panels, and the little silver flowers

The second belt dates to the 1930s. It’s comprised of silver chain, and a 1 Guilder coin (that’s Dutch, in case anyone’s wondering), from 1929. The coin itself is 75% silver, so the chain would also be silver. There are examples of Peranakan belts which are made entirely out of silver coins, taken from British or Dutch currency. As money the coins were then obviously useless, but the Peranakan wanted the silver value of the coins, not the face-value stamped upon them or what they could potentially buy with the coins themselves.

Silver guilder coin with a rod of silver (coiled into a setting) soldered onto the face of the coin. Silver chain is then run through the coin to make up the rest of the belt.

This belt is of course, adjustable, just like the other one, but it works in a different way…

The whole length of the belt

This belt has segments of chain connected with rings and the end of the belt has an S-hook on it. Adjusting the belt’s length is a matter of hooking the S-clasp onto one of the three belt-rings, to get the closest possible length to what is ideal. The belt is then wrapped around, and the coin clasp or ‘weight’ is slipped through the chain, looping around and holding everything together purely by gravity.

How They Survived?

Your guess is as good as mine!

These belts, at least 80 or 90 years old, lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Japanese Invasion in 1942 and all kinds of other family hardships.

They were originally my great-grandmother’s. Then my grandmother’s. Then they passed down to my aunt. She had no interest in them at all, so when my father asked for them, she handed them over. That was a few years ago. But how did I come to own them? Read on…

The Finding of the Belts of Power…

A few years ago, I went back to Malaya for a family wedding. While I was there, we visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, where I saw this belt on display:

Solid gold antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

Walking a little further on, I came across this:

Solid silver antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

My father grabbed me by the arm and pointed at it, and said:

“Did you know that grandma has a belt like that?”

I was dumbstruck.

WHAT!? WHERE!? HOW!?…WHY!?

You have to understand that in our family, almost nothing of intrinsic value has survived. All our heirlooms have been lost. Grandpa’s steamer-trunk, grandpa’s pocket-knife, grandpa’s hand-engraved ivory chopsticks, grandpa’s Chinese encyclopedia from the 1920s. And almost all of grandma’s jewelry. All gone! The very notion that there was something THIS significant, THIS rare and THIS valuable still in family hands shocked me!

Then my father told me how he had retrieved the belts from his sister during a previous trip and that he’d taken them home! He knew she wouldn’t value them or look after them, and so had rescued them from her and brought them back with him. It took a lot of pleading, but I finally managed to get it out of his hands so that the belts could finally rest with a person who would take proper care of them, and cherish them, love them, and realise their rarity, and historical, cultural and familial significance.

Grandma’s belts, along with other documents detailing her life.