Aristocratic marriages of the past were more often calculated unions of fortunes and political allies than affairs of the heart. Estates, great houses, incomes, and investments were the most valuable assets in pre-wedding negotiations, but an aristocratic bride could also bring more personal items of great value to the match. Her parents could generously launch her into marriage with a costly new wardrobe and jewels, plus furnishings for her private quarters.
This elaborate toilet service was likely made for a high-born English bride in the late 17th c. by master London silversmith William Fowle. The set is silver-gilt – silver plated with gold – richly engraved with Chinese-inspired designs, and includes a large looking-glass, candlesticks, boxes, caskets, salvers, a trimmer for candle-wicks, and a pin cushion. So lavish a set, with so many pieces, showed the bride was not only a lady of taste but of leisure as well, able to devote hours each day to herself and her appearance.
But silver pieces were not only for show. They were a tangible display of wealth, crafted from precious metal that could be easily liquidated in an emergency – which makes it especially noteworthy that this one has survived. A toilet service such as this would have been a valuable (and perhaps comforting) asset for any affluent bride.
Mary Evelyn (1665-1685) was the talented daughter of John Evelyn (1620-1706), a prominent scientist, writer, and courtier in 17th c. England (last seen on our blog promoting the consumption of salads here.) Mary's poem Mundus Muliebris, or The Woman's World was a satiric listing of all the things an extravagant young lady of fashion required before she could embark into "Marry-land." One section describes a toilet service much like this one: ...Implements, Of Toilet, Plate Gilt, and Emboss'd, And several other things of Cost: The Table Miroir, one Glue Pot, One for Pomatum, and what not? Of Washes, Unguents, and Cosmeticks, A pair of Silver Candlesticks; Snuffers, and Snuff-dish, Boxes more, For Powders, Patches, Waters store, In silver Flasks or Bottles, Cups Cover'd, or open to wash Chaps; Nor may Hungarian Queen's be wanting, Nor store of Spirits against fainting: Of other waters rich, and sweet, To sprinkle Handkerchief is meet....
Here's the link to the entire poem, if you'd like to read all the expectations of a 17th c. Bridezilla, from chocolate pots and romances to a "Pompous Coach."
Above: Toilet Service by William Fowle, English (London), 1683-84, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photography copyright 2011 Susan Holloway Scott.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.