Adrift in a sea of digital apps for every imaginable function, we often feel our needs are met better today than in any previous era. But consider the chatelaine, a device popularized in the 18th century that attached to the waist of a woman’s dress, bearing tiny useful accessories, from notebooks to knives. In many ways chatelaines provided better access to such objects than we have today: How often have you searched for your keys or cell phone at the bottom of a cavernous bag?
“Certainly, they clanked; when they moved, the chatelaine would’ve made a lot of noise.”
Like a customized Swiss Army knife, a chatelaine provided its wearer with exactly the tools she needed closest at hand. For an avid seamstress, that might include a needle case, thimble, and tape measure, while for an active nurse it might mean a thermometer and safety pins. Inspired by the complex key rings carried by “la chatelaine,” the female head of a grand French estate, these beautiful, little contraptions were as fashionable as they were practical. In fact, their design was sometimes so trendy that style trumped usefulness.
We recently spoke with collector Genevieve Cummins, co-author of the book Chatelaines: Utility to Glorious Extravagance, about the forgotten history of chatelaines.
Collectors Weekly: In what context did chatelaines develop?
Cummins: From early times, humans have had to carry necessary items on their person. A practical solution was to hang these from the waist. Keys or tools such as scissors could be carried attached to a cord or ribbon, or these items could also be placed in a pouch. This became quite common from the 16th to 18th centuries.
The concept of waist-hung items is almost universal across all cultures. For example, the Japanese wore netsuke and inro or the Chinese wore embroidered purses and pouches. Though purses and pouches preceded the chatelaine—they are mentioned in Chaucer—later purses were very small and dainty. The chatelaine was a more useful addition to an outfit.
Some items, like toiletries or precious possessions, were placed in fitted containers called étuis, made of base or precious metals, and when worn on a cord would be called “equipages.” From the introduction of the watch, circa 1510, watches were worn by women on such watch equipages, or on a long chain with watch at one end and keys seal etc at the other end. These chains were worn looped over the waistband or draped across the body.
However, the word “chatelaine” was not used until 1828 when a London magazine called The World of Fashion reported a new accessory, called “la chatelaine.” The medieval chatelaine had worn the keys to the castle, so these new accessories included a symbolic key, as the ladies were wearing them as a symbol of their status as “The Lady Chatelaine” of their chateau.
The next year the same magazine published three fashion plates of ladies wearing chatelaines. The word is now used for earlier examples, though technically these should really be called equipages. During the 19th century, the popularity of chatelaines varied, but it was still a major fashion accessory.
Collectors Weekly: Who produced these devices?
Cummins: Most major jewellers made or sold chatelaines, including Tiffany, Liberty, H.W. Dee, Samson Mordan, Thornhill, Boucheron, Faberge, Lalique, and many more. It absolutely stunned me when I looked at a book called The Master Jewelers, and saw that almost every major and famous jeweler in the later 19th century, at some stretch, had made a chatelaine.
These were mainly watch versions, but absolutely beautiful items encrusted with diamonds and enamels. The majority were made as a complete entity and were matching. Complete examples are the most aesthetically pleasing and collectible, but not always easy to find. Interestingly, the original sets that have survived are more likely to be made from base metals because it’s not worthwhile for people to break them up into pieces. The base metal and steel examples were generally mass produced.
Collectors Weekly: How were chatelaines actually worn?
Cummins: There were two styles. The majority have a medallion at the top, and then behind that is a metal tongue that hooks over the waistband. The other style, which is more typically American, has a very long brooch pin at the back.
Gowns of the era did not have large or convenient pockets and women did not have large handbags, only little bags or reticules. It was therefore necessary to carry any items that were needed for a specific pursuit. There were even chatelaines for nursing, sporting, painting, or dolls.
Collectors Weekly: What kind of person carried a chatelaine?
Cummins: All members of society, from mistresses to maids. Royalty wore them, though these were more likely to be a watch, purse, or fan example, and nurses carried their necessary medical implements on their chatelaines. The quality of the items and its variety would carry status; each would have a variety appropriate for their needs.
There was also a lot of symbolism used in these accessories, like pansies for thoughts, etc. I have one that’s got crosses, anchors, hearts, and stars on it, as a faith, hope, and charity symbol. I think the anchors were a symbol of hope.
I think this particular one might have even been a mourning chatelaine, because after I bought the item, I put my finger in the thimble bucket and out came this tiny piece of paper with a quotation from Longfellow: “Oppression, and sickness, and sorrow, and pain Shall be to our true love as links to the chain.” It really had quite a punch.
Collectors Weekly: Did women wear them out in public, or only in the home?
Cummins: The really beautiful ones were worn in public. There was a typical American variety, which is like a miniature chatelaine with only one chain that drapes across the body and has a watch at the end. And in fact, there is quite a well-known carte-de-visite of Mary Todd Lincoln, and she’s almost certainly wearing one of these. This way of wearing the watch was part of her fashion statement, part of her jewelry.
To some extent, on these long, flowing gowns a chatelaine broke the plainness of a skirt. Dance chatelaines were worn when you went to a ball or a party. But the really utilitarian, basic ones you would’ve only worn around the house. You’re more likely to find images of housekeepers or nurses wearing those.
I was very excited to find a photo of a lady sitting in a big crinoline gown wearing a chatelaine, because she was a titled lady but she was photographed at home doing her needlework. It’s the only image I’ve ever seen like that. Her chatelaine was important enough to her that she was happy to have her photograph taken while wearing it.
Collectors Weekly: What types of accessories were made for chatelaines?
Cummins: There was a gentleman called Walter Thornhill in England, and in our book we printed an article detailing the contents of his shop, and the list of objects is just incredible. It went on for pages with the varieties that were available.
There were some very basic, common things like the purses and the spectacle holders. The chatelaines to take to balls would often have a perfume bottle, a notebook, and a pencil, and sometimes a little purse where you put a little sovereign or a single coin or a handkerchief. I discovered quite a lot of articles about the plight of the pocketless woman in regards to where you put your handkerchief.
The most common notebook would have ivory leaves, and it might have five or six little pages in it that swivel. I don’t think they used it for anything serious; I think some of this was just affectation. But they’re very special when you find them still with messages written in. One notebook from the 1930s actually had a list of the winners of the Melbourne Cup, a major Australian horserace. I looked them up and they were correct, so I assume she had worn it to the Melbourne Cup and written down the names of the winners.
The little needlework toolkits that they used to take to their sewing circles vary from the most basic to the most absolutely glorious, exquisite things that you would never use because they’re too delicate. Many would have been more for “show and tell.” The needlework chatelaines would have a scissors holder, a thimble holder, a needle case, and sometimes a tape measure and a pinwheel where pins went in the sides.
Then there was another style called a “Norwegian belt” which royalty and high society clamored for in the 1870s and ’80s. They had interchangeable pieces with fans and perfume bottles and needlework tools. Not many people would’ve been able to afford them. The Norwegian belt that I have is so heavy that when you put it on a mannequin, it just slowly sinks down. It’s unbelievably heavy.
I found another extraordinary one that was made for a lady artist who painted the birds of paradise up in New Guinea. It was commissioned for her and had a little paint box, a container for brushes, and a container for water, all in silver. I also discovered one for playing golf, with little score cards and a pencil. Ladies even wore pen knives and cork screws, occasionally; it just depended on what they felt that they would need.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the most attachments you’ve seen on a single chatelaine?
Cummins: About 12 or 13. I’ve got some images of the larger steel ones and they are extraordinary. Certainly, they clanked; when they moved, the chatelaine would’ve made a lot of noise. Nuns wore an equivalent device, and they got used to holding the chains when they were approaching the children, so the children couldn’t hear they were coming.
It’s a very characteristic noise, and I think that was part of your status. They had some fabulous cartoons in Punch that caricatured the loud steel ones.
Collectors Weekly: Were certain styles more utilitarian than others?
Cummins: The ones that seem to be the most practical were the purses and the spectacle holders. There’s a great photograph of a lady during wartime who is wearing a purse chatelaine, a pen chatelaine, and a spectacle chatelaine, so that she had on her whatever she needed to go around.
That’s why the nurses adopted them, because they needed to carry all their basic essentials—thermometers, scissors, safety pins, styptics for dressing wounds, all sorts of things. At the children’s hospital where I’ve just recently retired, nurses in the emergency department are still wearing leather pouches from their waist, to hold pens and pencils and thermometers and scissors. And they don’t realize they’re wearing a nurse’s chatelaine, which goes back to the late 19th century.
They often had a shield-shaped leather pouch with all the little slots in it that you put things into, like a slightly up-market gentleman’s tool kit, or they had extra bits hanging off the leather pouch, such as a Red Cross pin cushion or a watch.
I’ve got a number of images of nurses wearing ones with steel, but I have also seen one in sterling silver. In one of our big hospitals here in Sydney, there’s a photograph of all the nurses in 1895, and I would say a third of them are wearing chatelaines, and they’re all slightly different.
Collectors Weekly: What are the most unique chatelaines you’ve come across?
Cummins: The most interesting ones were made for special uses, like nursing, painting, sports like golf or archery, children, or dolls. The most beautiful ones (made in gold, silver, enamel, precious stones, filigree, etc.) were those for watches, fans, perfume, and purses.
The ultimate chatelaine is an example that relates to one of the fashion plates of 1829, when the name was coined. This chatelaine is constructed of linked antique and ancient intaglios set in gold and includes the symbolic key and an agate locket. It drapes across the body then loops over the belt. I’ve had the individual pieces dated, and the actual intaglio seals come from a couple of hundred BC to a few hundred AD. A lot of people collected these seals when they went on their grand tours of Europe, and I think maybe this was put together later when the chatelaine fashion came in.
Collectors Weekly: Why did chatelaines go out of style?
Cummins: A couple of things caused this: One was the take-over of the wristwatch from the pocket watch (previously worn on a vest or guard chain or as a brooch). Handbags also became larger so ladies could carry their paraphernalia in these, rather than wear them separately. Women were becoming emancipated so were freer to move around and new fashions came and went. Some ladies still use a variety of needlework tool chatelaines today, and occasionally one sees a purse or watch made to wear at the waist.
Collectors Weekly: What surprised you about chatelaines?
Cummins: Just the ingenuity of them. As far as I know, there is no museum anywhere that has a good selection of the whole range of styles of chatelaines. It’s a subject that has been completely and utterly ignored.
Chatelaines were not an incredibly widespread fashion, but they were popular enough to have long articles written about them in a few of the ladies’ magazines of the day. You’ll see a few scattered here and there in museums, mainly 18th and early 19th century watch chatelaines, but it’s an aspect of women’s fashion accessories that has never been well represented. I don’t think people realize how gorgeous and varied they can be.
(All images courtesy Genevieve Cummins, except for cartoons and fashion illustrations. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)