The 19th century was a golden age for all types of handcrafting. From busy needles big and small flowed embroidered and appliqued quilts and beaded berlinwork. Antimacassars, tablecovers, seatcovers, and much, much more were crocheted, tatted and (of course) knit. Sculptural crafts included shellwork, featherwork, leatherwork, waxwork, and mosaic work, as well as the weird and exotic arts of hairwork, “skeletonizing” and potichomanie. Not to be content with simple paint and brush, parlor artists dabbled in non-traditional mediums; butterfly wings, feathers, flowers, and fish scales came into vogue.
What gave rise to this extravagant flowering of DIY creativity? It’s often attributed to the out-of-control freight train that was the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly swamped with impersonal, mass-produced commodities, Americans found themselves longing for the comforting authenticity of objects created by the loving hands of a mother, wife or daughter. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine that today’s boom in crafting might come from similar emotional roots. Adrift in a sea of mass-produced disposabilia, we too have turned back to knitting, sewing, and crafting in search of authenticity and distinctiveness.
All but forgotten today, some of the most popular crafts of the era included:
Potichomanie. This is a really cool name for what is today considered a rather pedestrian artform: reverse glass painting. As bright and durable paints became readily available, random bits of glass started turning into works of art right and left. “Even an old Ginger Jar can be made into a lovely ornament by the most inexperienced persons,” promised an advertisement for Aspinall’s enamel. Tinsel painting was a variant of potichomanie in which a metallic foil would be crumpled and applied behind the unpainted areas of the glass to give it an intriguing sparkle in gas or candlelight. Decalomanie (gluing or laquering decals to the glass) was the easiest of all, and was a popular way to entertain children, who could be set down to cut out images from old magazines on a rainy afternoon.
Silk Crazy Quilts. While workaday calico quilts were a domestic mainstay, by midcentury the creation of all-silk crazy quilts had become a popular fad. Women could piece in items of sentimental value (old silk ties from husbands, brothers, and fathers were mercilessly scavanged) or even make a political statement (quilt tops sewn from silk pennants distributed by campaigning politicians still survive.) Furthermore, these show quilts were usually finished off with extravagantly fancy silk embroidery, providing their creators with another opportunity to showcase their needlework talents.
Hairwork. Most people today have heard of Victorian hairwork but few realize how popular and pervasive this craft was. Whole groups of people might pool their hair for a large and complicated project. And the sheer diversity of items that could be created with hair is truly astonishing: bracelets, brooches, earrings, rings, chains, necklaces, shawl pins, cravat pins, purses, bags, book markers, pencil cases, guards, studs, stud chains, scent bottles, walking sticks and even riding whips. (By the way, the “hair receivers” you’ve heard that Victorian ladies kept on their dressers to save the hair from their brushes? Well, they did keep the hair, but not for hairwork. Rather it was used to stuff pincushions—the oil from the hair serving to lubricate the pins—or to create “ratts”, which were balls of old hair stuffed inside a hairnet then pinned under one’s actual hair to provide volume to the hairdo. It sounds kind of skeevy, but it’s nothing compared to …)
Skeletonizing. A delightfully gruesome Victorian craft. As the name implies, it is the art of taking a dead animal (or a leaf, but that’s hardly as interesting to write about) and stripping it to its bare bones. “Parlour Recreations for Ladies” (1858) provides instruction on the skeletonization process:
“Put any small subject, when killed, either a bird (with the feathers plucked off), a mouse, or frog, in a box perforated with a number of holes. Let it be properly distended, to prevent the parts from collapsing or being crushed together by the pressure of the earth. Then place the box, with its contents, in an anthole, and in a few days it will have become an exquisitely beautiful and perfect skeleton, the ants having consumed every part of it excepting the bones and ligaments. When removed, place it under glass for a curiosity.”
I think that’s as good a place as any to wrap up this blog post for Book-Wyrm-Knits, don’t you? How about it, readers—what’s the oddest craft project you’ve worked on lately? I can tell you right now, if it involves small dead animals or hair, I don’t want to hear about it.