This article is about popular jewelry made in the late-18th and 19th centuries to commemorate George Washington, such as rings, lockets, and brooches – some of which even included pieces of his hair. It originally appeared in the February 1939 issue of American Collector magazine (Volume VII Number 12), a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
The fashion for personal adornment with memorials of recently deceased relatives or of persons held in particular esteem reached its height in the decade between 1795 and 1805. It was an age of exaggerated and often ridiculous sentimentality for which the display of mourning jewelry afforded an individual and apparently satisfactory form of expression. Therefore, in view of the reverential affection with which George Washington was regarded by all who knew him and, in fact, by the American people as a whole, it is not surprising that, following his death December 14, 1799, a veritable flood of jewelry appeared especially designed in his memory. Almost, it would seem, everyone in the country felt his death as a personal bereavement and desired to wear some token indicative of this sentiment.
Much of this Washington memorial jewelry took the form of lugubrious miniature paintings set in pins or lockets, a familiar type of memento mori then extremely popular and which, apparently, had first come into use about the middle of the 18th Century.
Commonly, these miniatures depict a sorrowing female, beneath a weeping willow tree, languishing over a cinerary urn, a bust of Washington, or a tomb either carved with a bas-relief of the General or marked merely with his name and death date. Since this type of work was seldom scorned even by the best artists, many of these doleful scenes are beautifully executed; often, too, they are set in frames which are excellent examples of the goldsmiths’ art.
But the miniature painters did not confine themselves solely to the production of such melancholy subjects; miniature portraits of Washington met a wide popular reception. They appeared as embellishments on an extraordinary diversity of objects, naturally varying in excellence according to the skill of the artists who painted them.
Although not usually classed as mourning jewelry, the lockets, watches, and similar articles bearing Washington’s likeness which were made shortly after his death were primarily intended as memorials and were worn for that purpose; in fact, some of them bore his name and death date either incorporated in the paintings or engraved on the settings.
But without such inscription or exact knowledge of the date of production, it is not possible to say that any particular example belongs in the memorial class, since portraits of Washington continued to be used in this manner for a great many years after his death.
Two exquisite miniatures, painted in 1801 by Robert Field after the Vaughan type portrait by Gilbert Stuart, undoubtedly are true memorials. One, illustration VII, was presented to Tobias Lear, Washington’s secretary, by Mrs. Washington and has a lock of the General’s hair set in the back, proof positive of its memorial character. The history of the other, a duplicate, is not as well established; but most probably it was given by Mrs. Washington to a member of the family of Joanna Ball, sister of Washington’s mother.
But these painted memorials may be described as individual efforts, and similar pieces of jewelry can be found in memory of many other persons of wealth or distinction, although, of course, in smaller quantity.
In the case of Washington, however, so great was the demand for such articles, that it may be said the principles of mass production were applied in order to satisfy it. In other words, methods of duplication were employed, the most obvious being the use of small engraved plates bearing a likeness of the General from which prints were made.
These tiny engravings were then mounted, under glass, in appropriate settings, usually rings, and were generally colored to resemble miniatures. Undoubtedly, these articles were plentiful enough at the time, but today they are scarce, some of the types being exceedingly rare, and all are of great interest.
At least two of these little engravings were the work of the well-known artist Fevret de St. Memin. One, illustration VI, is a profile bust in uniform, the other a profile head, laureated. They appeared about three weeks after Washington’s death, the first notice of them being in the following advertisement of the goldsmith, Simon Chaudron, of Philadelphia, published in the Federal Gazette of January 4, 1800: “Mourning Rings, With an elegant Portrait of the late illustrious General Washington. To be had at S. Chaudron, No. 12, South 3d Street.”
Since St. Memin had advertised that examples of his work might be seen at Chaudron’s, and also, since on December 18, 1799, he had stated in a newspaper that he had moved to 12 South 3rd Street, Chaudron’s address, it seems quite certain that the goldsmith was using one of the St. Memin engravings in his jewelry.
The Federal Gazette carried another advertisement on January 17, 1800:
“Hair work and Jewelry Manufactory, No. 55 South Second, corner Chestnut street. J. B. Dumoutet, Informs his friends and the public that he has for sale a variety of articles in the above line. Likewise a quantity of those Rings so much in demand, with striking likenesses of the late General Washington, in uniform dress. . . .”
On February 18, this was followed by a second notice:
“J. B. Dumoutet having discovered that there are a quantity of Rings, &c. with false likenesses of the late General Washington, informs his customers and the public that he is the only person in Philadelphia that is in possession of the plate with a true likeness of General Washington in uniform dress, as has been allowed by the first artists. He has just received, per the ship Franklin from Hamburg, a large assortment of fashionable Ear-rings.”
Since John Baptiste Dumoutet was a compatriot of St. Memin, as was Chaudron, it is probable he had the plate by that artist showing Washington in uniform while Chaudron had the other, but I have been unable to find any record to verify this supposition.
Incidentally, these two engravings are listed in Hart’s Catalogue of the Engraved Portraits of Washington as No. 709, bust in uniform, and No. 710, head, profile to right, laureated. Hart also lists a third by St. Memin, No. 185, with almost the same description as No. 710. I have found no further records of jewelers in Philadelphia who handled these small engravings, although apparently there were, and doubtless they were also sold in other cities.
At the recent dispersal of the collection of the late Erskine Hewitt, two pieces of jewelry were sold which were described as:
“Two Washington Mourning Items. Circa 1800. Mourning locket in sepia wash, depicting a woman beside a monument with bust of Washington, from the collection of Wm. Lanier Washington; and black cameo profile of Washington set as a brooch, the back engraved, ‘Mrs. Tobias Lear to the mother of Judge Lee from him to Dr. Cohen, Baltimore.’ On the reverse of the cameo brooch is said to be a lock of Washington’s hair; engraved around the collar of the brooch ‘Hair of Washington’.”
The first item is, of course, one of the funeral miniatures already described; the second, illustration I, is an extremely rare and interesting article and an example of another method of duplication employed in the production of Washington memorial jewelry. Although listed as a cameo, it is not a cameo at all, but a thin, dark gray, iron casting, in bas-relief of the type known as “Berlin castings.” This item is probably the very one noted in Bowen’s Centennial of the Inauguration of Washington, published in 1889, where it is described as:
“Breastpin with hair and portrait of Washington in ‘Berlin casting.’ The original owner was A. Collins Lee, of Baltimore, who belonged to a Washington club of twenty-five, at whose solicitation Washington gave some of his hair, which was divided among the members and placed at the back of the profile.”
But two more of these Berlin castings are known to me. Of these, the first is the same size as that in the brooch and appears identical, but it is set in a ring. It was originally owned by General Daniel Keim of Reading, Pa., illustration II. The second, illustration III, is a smaller size, set in a pin; it belonged to one Samuel Myers of Richmond, Va., and family tradition says it was a badge of a Washington club of which he was a member. Neither has any hair work.
Some of these castings may have been used as badges for a Washington club, but I am confident that Bowen was in error in stating that Washington furnished some of his hair to be divided among its members. In fact, I believe the first casting mentioned was originally a piece of mourning jewelry belonging to a niece of Mrs. Washington, Frances Dandridge Henley, afterwards Mrs. Tobias Lear, and that she later gave it, with the hair of Washington in the back, to Mrs. Lee. This opinion seems to be in accordance with the inscription on the brooch and with the disposition of Washington’s hair, so far as it is known.
Berlin castings, as the name would imply, had their beginnings in Germany toward the end of the 18th Century when, owing to the constant succession of wars, the country was greatly impoverished and gold and silver were practically unobtainable. According to several accounts, they were originally modeled from the small boxwood carvings made in the Schwarzwald and their use in jewelry was popularized by Queen Louise of Prussia. It is said that the metal used was taken from old cannon.
The name “Berlin” may come either from their place of manufacture or from the use of a special iron known as Berlin iron. Unfortunately I have found no indication of the source of the Washington castings, but doubtless they were made in Germany and, as may be seen from the Dumoutet advertisement already quoted, jewelry was being imported from that country in 1800.
The head of Washington may have been taken directly from the Houdon statue or more probably from the medal commemorating the evacuation of Boston, engraved by the French artist, Pierre Simon DuVivier, done in 1786, after Houdon, illustration VIII.
These particular castings should not be confused with another Berlin casting of Washington, illustration V, made about 1826, which is much larger and shows a three-quarter face. This latter medallion was used for a cap piece by the Washington Blues of Philadelphia. The design for it came from a print by the celebrated Italian engraver, Guiseppe Longhi, made in 1817, which was known in Germany through an extremely close copy engraved by G. G. Felsing. It is a combination of the Stuart and Trumbull heads.
If it cannot be said positively that the Berlin castings were used as insignia by a Washington club, there is an engraved portrait of Washington which certainly was. The engraving was made by David Edwin, after Gilbert Stuart, and it is described by Hart who listed it as No. 369. In a note concerning it Mr. Hart wrote, “The oval was used by the Sons of Washington for members’ badges, set in a medallion of gold with the name of the member engraved at top, and, at bottom, the date, ‘Feb. 22, 1810.’ Five of these badges are known to me. . . .”
The date undoubtedly is that of the formation of the society and I am informed, but have not been able to verify the information, that the Sons of Washington was a Baltimore society whose members were the prime movers in getting the Legislature of Maryland to authorize a lottery to raise funds for building: the Washington monument in the City of Baltimore.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.