Sunday, February 8, 2015

Unusual Artifacts: A Silver Rattle, 1901

Baby's Rattle
Sterling Silver and Bone
Saunders and Shepherd
Birmingham, England, 1901
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Silver rattles are still being given as special gifts—a lasting way to mark the birth of a child, and something which can be passed through generations. The practice of presenting a newborn with a silver rattle dates to the early days of the Victorian era, a time when children were especially revered and doted-upon.

This example dates to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign (and life), 1901, and the start of the brief reign of her eldest son, King Edward VII. Though many styles were changing during this period, this rattle looks as if it could have been made in 1837 and adheres to a traditional style which was expected for such gifts.

Unlike the silver rattles given as gifts today, the sterling rattles of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries were actually intended to be used by the baby. Let’s examine this one more closely. The silver rattle is mounted with a teething ring of bone at one end while the other side is fitted with a loop for a ribbon, and terminates in a whistle. The bulbous central section is decorated with scrolling ornament and hung with six, enclosed, cone-shaped bells. Above this, two more bulbous tiers are mounted, each of these hung with three similar bells with two below.

The little object would have provided quite a lot of hours of entertainment for a baby who could make it rattle, ring and whistle. Furthermore, the bone teething ring would have helped junior work his teeth through his gums. But, there’s also another aspect of this rattle which isn’t immediately apparent or remembered.

As I mentioned, this a period during which children and babies were especially romanticized. The infant mortality rate, at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, was much higher than at the end of it. During this time, anything that could be done to ensure the long life of a child was going to be employed. Superstitions and what we now refer to as “Sympathetic Magic” were big parts of this philosophy. Even the smallest detail might have had some importance. For example, the fact that the teething ring portion of the rattle is made of bone is not just a matter of practicality and availability of the medium. The use of animal bone was thought to confer the strength of the animal to the child—a strength which would be employed to fight pain and illness. Sometimes teething rings were made of red or white coral—or both—in order to symbolize the battle between the flesh and the bone which was inherent to teething. But, also, the use of coral would have imbued the child with the power of the ocean.

This may sound very quaint and silly. But, think about it. Even as recently as 1901, such superstitions came to play. And, if you think about it, humans are, by their very nature, still a species which relies quite a lot on “magic” and assigns significant power to the unknown. The rattle is marked “CS” with a six-point star. It is also stamped “FS/ anchor/ lion/ b” and “Made by Saunders & Shepherd.” It was assayed in Birmingham, England as sterling silver; marked 1901.

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