Victorian Valentine cards were experimental and eye catching. At this time of year London stationers put on enormous, impressive displays of valentine cards in their shop windows. When the pre-paid penny post system came in valentines could be posted anonymously, and London’s stationers experimented with thousands of ideas for cards. London valentines were so popular that they were exported to the USA. London produced valentines that were romantic, humorous, cryptic and even insulting. Some were even a precursor to LOLcats. Some were downright weird. A huge variety of cards were designed for all tastes and budgets. The Museum of London has a large collection that includes some really unusual examples, like this roller skating cupid.
By the late nineteenth century, when this card was made, roller skating was a big craze in London. ‘Rinkomania’ struck the capital, and roller rinks opened around London. Skates were advertised for children and adults, and the roller rinks were a new opportunity for men and women to socialize. One observer described how “In the use of these wheeled skates some of the men have gained great proficiency, but I saw no fancy skating amongst the ladies” (from The Graphic, April 1875, source) – it certainly can’t have been easy performing tricks in skates and dresses. Despite the difficulties, The Graphic’s reporter also wrote that ‘no-one was so ill-bred as to tumble.’ Perhaps this card was for someone who did not tumble, but fell in love at the rink instead.
Cataloguing the Museum’s collection of medieval pilgrim badges for Collections Online has been a great opportunity for me to look really closely at our objects and sometimes to find out that items are not at all what they appear to be. A great example recently has been a tiny little badge in the shape of a comb.
This little badge (no. 8737) was catalogued in 1908 as a pilgrim badge of St Blaise with the following entry: ‘Blaise, Saint; a comb, with double row of teeth, divided by a foliated bar in the centre; 13th-14th century’. It was found at Dowgate Hill near the River Thames in the City of London.
These comb badges were thought to relate to St Blaise as he had been martyred in the 4th century by being pulled apart by iron combs (before being beheaded). Some of the relics of St Blaise were kept at Canterbury Cathedral in a shrine by the high altar so it was thought that comb badges may have been brought by pilgrims visiting Canterbury.
While I was cataloguing this badge I double-checked its old record card, which had a better picture than the one in the 1908 catalogue. I noticed something rather odd about the decoration in the centre. What had been described as a ‘foliated bar’ (i.e. a band of foliage such as leaves) seemed to be a line of four phalluses joined by a wavy line. This was very intriguing. As I wasn’t sure whether to trust the photograph I went to the store to look at the object itself. When I peered at the object I realised the photo was correct – there were no leaves on the object, just phalluses.
So what did this mean? Clearly this badge could not have been a saintly souvenir. I knew that we had a couple of so-called ‘sexual’ or ‘erotic’ badges in our collection (one depicting a penis inside a purse for example). Many bawdy badges have been found on the Continent in places like the Netherlands and France showing all kinds of ‘sexual’ imagery but this type of thing is rare in London. In a catalogue of medieval Dutch badges I discovered a comb badge decorated with a copulating couple so obviously the link between combs and sex was not unknown in the medieval period. It was exciting to think that I had re-identified a badge from our collections.
I consulted with a colleague to see what he thought of the discovery. He suggested that it would be worth investigating whether the word for ‘comb’ in the medieval period had a naughty double-meaning. He thought that it might work as a pun in medieval French. Luckily I have a contact who is an expert on medieval French and passed the idea by him. He confirmed that the word ‘penil’ in Anglo-Norman (the type of medieval French introduced into England by the Normans in 1066) meant both ‘little comb’ and ‘penis’, ‘pubes’ or ‘groin’. There is an Anglo-Norman dictionary online where you can check this. He thought it very likely that the pun would still have been in use in medieval London in the 14th and 15th century. However, we don’t know for sure that our comb badge represents this double meaning – at the moment it is just an interesting possibility.
So why would someone wear a badge like this? It may be a smutty version of the beautiful ivory combs given as love tokens in aristocratic circles – perhaps the badge is satirising courtly love. There’s also a theory that badges with bawdy or lewd symbols were worn to distract the Evil Eye away from their wearers and could therefore have protected people against the Black Death. Other scholars have suggested that these badges might have been worn by sex workers to advertise their availability or by young men as a sign of their virility.
There’s still a lot of work to do on this and I’m only at the beginning of my research. However, it looks like the comb badges of ‘St Blaise’ are certainly sexual in nature and not connected to the saint or a holy shrine. I look forward to finding out more in the future.
By Meriel Jeater, Museum of London Curator
Over the last year I have been cataloguing the Museum of London’s amazing collection of over 700 pilgrim badges and souvenirs (that’s just the badges in the museum’s reserve collection – we have even more in our Archaeological Archive!). This has been a labour of love for me as they are my favourite objects in the Museum’s collection. I’m just going to reveal the story behind one of the pilgrim badges from the Museum’s collection but if you want to find out more about the badges, who wore them and why they were made, visit Collections Online. Of all the badges of saints I have examined over the last few months, I am particularly fond of those depicting John Schorn, an unofficial saint from Buckinghamshire.
John Schorn was the miracle-working rector of North Marston from around 1282 until his death in 1315. He was most famous as an exorcist who trapped the Devil in a boot. Schorn was never an official saint but his shrine was a popular pilgrimage destination in the 15th and early 16th centuries.
Badges of John Schorn often show him holding a long boot with a little bat-like Devil’s head sticking out of the top, in reference to his miracle. The Museum of London has 14 John Schorn badges, bought by pilgrims visiting his shrine. Whilst cataloguing, a particular fragment of a badge caught my eye. It was a saint’s head, shown by the halo around it, connected to something that looked a little bit like holly. The badge had been added to the computer catalogue in 1981 with the description ‘head of saint and foliage? With pin’. When I inspected the badge a bit closer, I realised that the so-called ‘foliage’ was actually a winged Devil’s head that had been bent upwards. It could only mean it was part of a John Schorn badge. After a moment of excitement, I started to wonder what might have happened to John Schorn’s body.
I knew we had several Schorn badges in the collection without heads so decided to do some digging. Whilst investigating one of the headless badges a bit further I discovered that when it was catalogued by the Guildhall Museum in 1908 it actually had a head. What had happened to it?
I went down to the store and looked at the head fragment and the headless badge and, just for the hell of it, held them together to see if they fitted …and they did! Obviously at some point between 1908 and 1981 the head had snapped off the badge and the two parts had been separated. After doing a little ‘dance of joy’ I took the pieces to our Archaeological Conservation Department to ask if the pieces could be fixed back together.
My conservation colleague Carmen Vida worked painstakingly to reunite the delicate pieces. Here’s what she said about her work:
‘When I started work on this badge, my objective was to reunite the pieces. This was a challenge, given the small size of the badge. It meant I had to work under the microscope to focus on very small areas, stick tiny surfaces together and introduce reinforcements. Whilst looking at the pieces under the microscope, I noticed two bits of lead folded over onto the back of the devil’s head and wing (see image above). The 1908 photograph of this badge showed the devil had one surviving horn, which seemed to have been lost over the years, but… was I looking at the other horn? I got so excited as I started the delicate operation of unfolding the tiny bits back, and even more so when I saw they indeed were one of the devil’s horns and part of the wing! Putting the badge back together was an incredible improvement to the object but, for me, finding the horn and a bit of the wing was what really gave it back its character, as the devil looks much more like one now. It’s another way in which conservation contributes to the history of an object, and it was very rewarding seeing the object coming back to life in that way.’
And here is the badge, complete again after years of separation. I’m so delighted that John Schorn has got his head back. You can see the record for the badge on Collections Online.
Thanks to everyone who entered our first Collections Online Caption Competition of 2013 last week! We asked you to think of witty caption for this image from our archive.
Digital curator Ellie Miles judged the entries. The winning caption is:
“I say, get the dreadfully awful gun out of my face. I have a truncheon here you know; and I am not afraid to use it”
Well done to Dave! Look out for the next caption competition this Friday.
With panto season firmly upon us, digital curator, Ellie Miles, goes back 200 years to meet some of pantomime’s earliest characters.
Whilst working on the theatrical portraits for collections online, I kept finding the same characters appearing. In the left hand side of this print you can see Harlequin, wearing a mask. To Harlequin’s right, in blue, is the character ‘Pierrot’. Beatrice blogged about Pierrot costumes a couple of years ago. She wrote about Gertie Millar’s Pierrot costume, which Millar wore in 1909, but this print is from 1802, when Pierrot was just one the characters in the Harlequinade.
I started to read about the history of Harlequin and Pierrot. Harlequin was the star of the ‘Harlequinade’, a conventional part of pantomime. Although London had two official theatres with royal patents, it also boasted a range of illegitimate theatrical enterprises. The Harlequinade became popular in London’s illegitimate theatres, where exiled Parisian actors and Italian commedia dell’arte performers delivered comic mimes. Because these performances were mimed they were not considered serious theatre, so they were beyond the jurisdiction of the theatrical patent system.
Pierrot began life as one of the principal characters of the Harlequinade, alongside Harlequin, Columbine (Harlequin’s love interest) and Pantaloon (Columbine’s father.) The four characters delivered comic scenes, often making use of the commedia dell’arte’s batacchio, commonly known as the ‘slapstick’, which you can see Harlequin holding above. These conventional characters would have been immediately recognisable to the audience, and although their exact adventures varied, each had established characteristics. Pierrot was usually Pantaloon’s servant, and in London versions of the harlequinade, was performed as a naïve buffoon.
Pierrot was a simple character in London pantomimes, without the romantic complexity of his continental counterparts. Joseph Grimaldi was the London-born son of an Italian actor, and he revolutionised the role. Grimaldi performed this character as a clown, bringing influences from English comedy to the Pierrot role. It was so successful that it was not long before Pierrot was replaced by Grimaldi’s invention of the role of clown. Even Harlequin was eventually displaced by the popularity of Grimaldi’s clown, which became the central character. The Museum of London has several objects connected with Grimaldi, including some of his costume:
Grimaldi’s creative performances mean he is credited with introducing the modern clown. He was a specialist in physical comedy; particularly tumbling and falling, although this took a toll on his health as he aged. Many of Grimaldi’s innovations outlasted the Harlequinade, and shaped pantomime for years to come: he introduced the first pantomime dame and the tradition of audience participation.
Grimaldi’s clown replaced the Pierrot character in London’s pantomimes, but did not supersede Pierrot’s popularity elsewhere in Europe. Just as Grimaldi’s clown outlived the Harlequinade, so too did Pierrot, whose naivete became a sympathetic quality. By 1909, when Millar wore the costume and Beatrice takes up the story, Pierrot was not just a character in the harlequinade, but appeared in plays, ballets, poetry, fiction, music and even early films. Pierrot became symbolic of the sad clown, living on alongside Grimaldi’s rambunctious comic archetype.
Thanks to everyone who entered our Collections Online Caption Competition on Friday 7 December. We asked you to think of a witty caption for this image from our archive.
‘Can you toss something in under the bridge? That crowd are going to be really disappointed that I’ve found nothing’
Well done @JamesAtkinson81. Look out for last week’s caption competition winner over the next few days.
Thanks to everyone who entered our Collections Online Caption Competition last week. We asked you to think of a witty caption for this image from our archive.
Collections Online Project Assistant Ellie Miles judged the entries. The winning caption is:
“WHOA! I mean no… no it doesn’t look big…”
Well done to @jon_shimmin. Look out for this week’s caption competition today.
This week Project Assistant Anna Elson posts her final blog on digitising the Museum’s collection of Henry Grant photographs.
Well that’s it – almost 1,000 photographs have been uploaded to the Collections Online and I have come to the end of my work on the Henry Grant collection.
Henry Grant was a freelance photographer working exclusively in black and white. Employed by a news agency on Fleet Street he photographed political events for the newspapers but also recorded scenes which he happened upon on his way to assignments. These are an eclectic mix of pictures including the sights of London, children playing and city workers gossiping. Most are informal and spontaneous. Grant’s wife Rose was a journalist and in the 1960s and 70s they worked together specialising in education so many of his photographs feature schools, classrooms, teachers and pupils.
It’s been a fantastic opportunity to look through, sort, photograph and digitise some of the thousands of negatives which we hold and to get them online for people to see. I have posted some of my favourite ones below.
This photograph of an early motor car is stranger than it first appears! Something didn’t look quite right and the caption scribbled on the contacts sheet ‘fixing the engine’ just didn’t give enough information. On closer inspection it’s actually a man dressed in a women’s costume who is fine tuning the engine – the boots and trousers gave the game away! This gentleman is taking part in a rally or event of some kind, although the car was never registered for the London to Brighton rally it must have been a similar convention. After some detective work I discovered that this car, a 1906 De Dion Bouton 8hp, is still in existence today… it would be amazing if the owner saw this photograph and could provide us with more information!
I love this photograph. Taken on a station platform at Kings Cross the nun’s white headdress contrasts with the dark steam train behind. These cornettes were only worn by nun’s from the Roman Catholic order of the Daughters of Charity and it made them instantly recognisable. The cornette was heavy and hot and in 1964 the decision was made to disregard them. With her umbrella and suitcase this nun is obviously going on a journey but to where and why? This photograph was taken without her knowledge and is a fantastic example of the spontaneity in Grant’s photography.
This photograph depicts a scene which 21st century commuters will instantly recognise. Taken in 1973 it shows passengers taking the steps down to Oxford Circus tube station from the corner of Oxford Street and Regents Street. This scene is very similar to today’s rush hour and captures the fast pace of the queue and the hustle and bustle of people’s tube journeys. It’s always interesting to look at fashion in old photographs and this one is no exception – hair is worn longer than today for both men and women and there are examples of formal suits and hats as well as fashionable outfits worn by the young generation.
This is a great photograph of a toddler with two tiger cubs at London Zoo. Taken in 1951 it depicts two of a set of three tiger cubs born that year to great excitement by the British public. They were only the second litter to survive birth at the zoo and it was a great disappointment that the tigress Memsahib abandoned her cubs shortly after. The cubs had to be hand reared and were introduced to a Welsh collie who acted as a mother to them, even feeding them. Sadly it was discovered that the cubs were suffering from a calcium deficiency and all three died that same year. Having visited the zoo I know that no toddler would be able to get that close to tiger cubs these days and from Grant’s photograph of a snarling, snapping tiger cub you can see why.
This photograph of a boy feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square is wonderful and reminds me of sightseeing trips into London when I was a child. The mixture of fear and excitement on his face is fantastic and always makes me smile. The photograph was taken in November 1954 when Trafalgar Square was renowned for the large numbers of pigeons and feeding them was a popular activity. The birds (and their droppings) caused much damage to the buildings around the square and cleaning up after them costs thousands of pounds every year so this practice was banned in 2003.
So Henry Grant has been completed, but where to next…? Well, in quite a change of direction, my next project is to write about the collection of toys from the shop in the Museum’s Victorian Walk. Researching children’s toys will be an interesting change from black and white photographs… although I will miss those pigeons!
A year on from beginning life as a Project Assistant for Collections Online, Verity Anthony shares the range of work that she has been involved with over the last 12 months.
When I started at the Museum my primary responsibilities were the digitisation of the Museum’s Roman samian ware and its collection of 17th century trade tokens. This hasn’t stopped me dabbling my toes in to other archaeological collections though…
After a stint working with the trade tokens, I then had the opportunity to help supervise the photography of some of the Museum’s medieval pilgrim souvenirs.
Pilgrim badges were purchased by pilgrims as souvenirs of shrines they had visited. The Museum holds a collection of over 850 pilgrim souvenirs, which are currently being prepared for publication on Collections Online by curator Meriel Jeater.
In supervising the photography of this collection, I was able to handle and study a wide assortment of badges of differing size and levels of preservation, which represented a range of saints and their shrines.
Most recently the scope of my work has involved working with gallery objects – specifically those displayed in the Museum’s War, Plague and Fire gallery.
As part of Collections Online the objects had to be removed from display so that they could be photographed, and measured where necessary, for the project. As the Museum opens to the public at 10am, this meant we had to be on the galleries early to cause as little disruption as possible. The variety of material on display is huge, from pill-slabs to pussy cats, so every case presented different challenges in removing and reinstalling the material.
The aim was to get the objects from the cases photographed and replaced as quickly as possible (usually the next day), and with a huge effort from curators, project staff, photographers, technicians and one handily tall colleague, the collection was all back in place on the galleries a day early. Just a brief insight into the daily challenges of digitising 90,000 of our objects for Collections Online!