The fashion-conscious gentleman of 1800 that we recently saw here (and in detail below) was wearing one of the more popular and useful male accessories of his era: dangling seals, also called fobs or toys. Suspended by ribbons or a chain, the seals were a decorative evolution of a practical item. Before envelopes, letters were folded sheets sealed with wax. The letter-writer would personalize his missive by pressing an intaglio seal into the hot wax, marking it with a symbol or design meaningful to him: a monogram, family crest, cipher, or classical motif.
While a seal could be cast metal, more elaborate ones became a kind of jewelry, with carved stones set into precious or plated metals. Look closely at many portraits and drawings of gentlemen from the late 18th-early 19th c, and you'll see them, usually worn at the waist in a small cluster. But the fashion wasn't restricted to gentlemen. Ladies, too, wore seals, hanging from their waist as part of a chatelaine. (Here's a splendid one c 1740, complete with a watch as well as seals.)
But the seal, aboveleft, is more than mere ornament. (This photo shows the seal about twice actual size, and mounted on a display post.) To quote from the accompanying placard: "The engraved carnelian stone of this example depicts a half-kneeling African male, bound at the wrists and ankles by iron chains, beneath the motto "AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER." The design was first adopted in England in 1787 by the Quaker-led Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Within a few years, the "slave medallion" design achieved wide circulation in print, metal, and ceramics and was adopted by anti-slavery movements in France and the United States. With each use, the owner of this seal expressed his or her abolitionist sympathies."
Abolition was a complicated and volatile issue for Americans and Englishmen alike, involving questions of politics, morality, religion, racism, regionalism, and economics. Wearing a seal with this symbol – instantly recognizable at the time – would have made a subtle yet undeniable statement that had nothing to do with the whims of fashion.
Top: Seal, probably made in London; 1790-1810. Carnelian, gilt brass. Collection of Winterthur Museum. Below: Detail, A man of fashion in 1700: A fashionable man in 1800, drawn etched & published by Dighton, Charg. Cross, London, 1800. Copyright Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
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.