Jewelry in American Folk Portraits
American folk portraits tell the private stories of their sitters and the broader narrative of the cultural and economic development of a new nation. The jewelry worn by women and children in these portraits reveals aspects of the social status, personal values, and mourning customs of the sitters. A closer look at the jewelry depicted in the following sampling of early portraits highlights the recurring cultural themes of sentimentality and novelty in nineteenth-century society.
New England artist Ruth Henshaw Bascom (1772–1848) was an active and sensitive portraitist who worked from about 1820 to 1845.1 Nearly 200 of the delicate likenesses she created for friends, neighbors, and family are known. Her choices of media and pose were distinctive; she created profile images outlined in pencil and colored with pastel crayons that she then cut out and mounted on separate background paper. On June 27, 1840, Bascom drew a portrait of eight-year-old Eliza Jane Fay in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire (Fig. 1). Bascom noted in her diary: “Eliza Fay called after the Juvenile singing school to set for her [picture] began today.”2 Young Eliza’s hair is shown tucked behind her ear to reveal a small flower-shaped earring set with seed pearls and coral. She also wears a miniature gold charm that hangs from a black ribbon. Inscribed “In Memy/Geo./Washingt,” Eliza’s locket is an example of a style worn by many women and children during the early nineteenth century — a neoclassical mourning miniature inspired by popular images of memorials to George Washington.3
The death of Washington in December 1799 sunk Americans into a collective culture of mourning, as the young nation united in grief and national pride.4 This traumatic event combined with European examples to lead to the advent of the neoclassical mourning picture, a distinctly American artistic style of symbolism and sentimentality grounded in the ideals of liberty and sacrifice. The lasting popularity of this antebellum style is evidenced in a profusion of tokens of mourning made by both professional jewelers and young students in female academies. In his 1859 travel memoir, Life and Liberty in America, Charles Mackay observed, “Mount Vernon, the home and tomb of George Washington, is the sacred spot of the North American continent whither pilgrims repair, and on passing whichever steam-boat solemnly tolls a bell and every passenger uncovers his head, in expression of the national reverence.”5
An engraving by T. Clarke from 1801 (Fig. 2) exemplifies Mackay’s observations, and it was a source for many mourning pictures made by both school girls in academies and professional artists. The tomb in the engraving relates closely to the tomb depicted in Eliza’s miniature. The engraving depicts grieving figures at George Washington’s tomb and illustrates the societal norms of mourning and patriotism that inspired the fashion for rings, lockets, and brooches with miniature memorial pictures. These were usually painted on ivory, but occasionally an example can be found that was painted on paper (Fig. 3). This tiny painting, which depicts a weeping, dramatically posed woman leaning on a monument framed by colorful trees and foliage, is very finely rendered in a charmingly expressive style.
In a diary entry in 1810, Bascom reflected on the importance of Christian duty.6 At this time, Christian values became interwoven with ideals of liberty and patriotism in the minds of many Americans. 7 In Eliza’s portrait, Bascom turned her subject’s torso slightly, to a three-quarter view, to clearly display her mourning miniature, and thus ensured that she was presented as a fashionable, patriotic, and virtuous New England girl who held the values of her generation close to her heart.
Another popular and highly personal form of jewelry sometimes depicted in folk portraits was a miniature locket embellished with human hair (Fig. 4). A portrait by an unknown artist from the 1830s shows a woman wearing such a locket on a gold watch chain (Fig. 5). The sitter wears a blue satin dress with large puffed sleeves and lace trim, as was fashionable around 1830. Her curled hair is held in place by a pearl-set ribbon ferronnière, a type of band worn around the forehead. This fashion was reported in The New York Herald to have been seen in London and Paris, “… across the forehead, a very narrow band of velvet and a rose on each temple. A row of small pearls may be substituted for the velvet.” 8 The sitter’s hairwork locket likely served to commemorate a deceased loved one.
Hairwork jewelry reflects the sentimentality and culture of mourning in the nineteenth century, when Americans wore their most personal emotions and precious memories as public displays for all to see. Death touched everyone; although data is sparse and hotly debated among modern analysts, average life expectancy of white men and women in the 1840s was about 44 years, many women died in childbirth, and 43% of children died before they were five, primarily from infectious diseases. These high rates remained fairly consistent until about 1880, when they began to steadily, albeit slowly, decline.11
Hairwork miniatures served as mementos of the personal connections made between friends and loved ones. They kept memories accessible and part of everyday lives at a time when mourning was, as scholar Mary Louise Kete has noted, “the primary spiritual and social event in the American’s life.”12 In this tradition, Campbell advised, “Persons wishing to preserve and weave into lasting mementos the hair of a deceased father, mother, sister, brother, or child, can also enjoy the inexpressible advantage and satisfaction of knowing that the material of their own handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and gone.’”13
Coral is another material that appears frequently in folk paintings. In Ammi Phillips’s (1788–1865) ca. 1825 portrait, Mother and Child in Grey Dresses (Fig. 9), the little girl is wearing a coral necklace and armlets. A similar necklace and armlets are illustrated in Figure 10. The mother cradles her daughter on her lap and tenderly holds the child’s hand in her own. The coral the child wears was harvested in the Mediterranean, and the jewelry pieces were likely made in Italy and exported to the American market. Smooth beads were worn by children from the colonial period into the nineteenth century, and both smooth and natural branch-form beads are frequently seen in folk portraits.
From Miss Tyler’s “Letters from Italy”
Leaving St. Peter’s, we walked to see the manufactory of mosaic… The material used… is a composition of lead and glass and with colours; of this there are said to be eighteen thousand shades. We walked through a long room, lined with cases in which this is arranged, to the workshops. Here we watched the progress of the mosaic manufacture for some time.19
Eliza’s gold watch hangs from a long chain made of tiny glass beads in a repeated pattern of solid and open work beading. The sitter may well have made the chain herself. Beaded chains were a popular fad during the 1830s, as both a craft for young ladies and as fashionable jewelry. Inspired by the societal value of domesticity, girls and young women learned the art of beading on specially designed looms.24 Women exhibited their skill and creativity in these chains, as they did with samplers, quilts, and theorem paintings. Scholar Joyce Appleby has noted that a woman’s mastery of these domestic skills was valued as an element of refinement.25
Sentimental phrases were sometimes beaded into the designs, such as a chain with the phrase, “To the memory of C.E. and H Furness Sweet babes the arrows of calamity can never reach you - you are forever at rest.”26 Another example is inscribed, “A New Year’s Gift M.S.T” (Fig. 18). Chains such as these were given as gifts and tokens of friendship among school girls and women. In her discussion of the popular culture of gift giving, Kete explains that “[i]n this tradition, material articles become specially imbued with emotions of the people who come into contact with them through mere association or through the process of production and exchange.”27 The chain in Figure 19 has alternating sections of open and closed bead work similar to Eliza’s chain in the Powers portrait.
A portrait of a young African American girl (Fig. 20), formerly in the collection of the Dewitt Historical Society, in Ithaca, New York (now The History Center in Tompkins County), displays the sitter’s academic accomplishment and the socio-economic status of her family. Few portraits of antebellum Black children have survived. Her family was likely part of a small group of prosperous African-Americans in New York State.28 This portrait, painted in about 1850, shows the girl in a white dress with puffed sleeves, holding an open book in one hand and a gold pocket watch and fob in the other. The watch is prominently displayed to highlight her family’s position in the local community.
By the early 1800s, both men and women wore pocket watches as jewelry (Fig. 21). Pocket watches grew in popularity as they became more affordable through mass production in America in the 1840s and an influx of European watches in the 1850s and 1860s.29 Along with the watches and their keys, decorative fobs like gold seals and trinkets, were displayed on chains, like charms are worn today on bracelets. Fobs were sometimes set with gems such as amethyst, garnets, coral, carnelian, or different colored pastes. Hairwork fobs were popular as well: The M. Scott. Ladies Ornamental Hairwork Manufactory in Baltimore advertised “watch fobs plaited in the neatest manner.”30 Pocket watches were symbols of respectability that represented self-regulation, reliability, and conspicuous yet refined consumption — the cornerstones of gentility.31
In addition, a white metal engraved medal hangs from a ribbon around the girl’s neck, representing an affluent and literate young Black child proudly displaying her school medal and academic achievement. The tradition of awarding academic medals to white students became very popular during the Federal period and continued throughout the century. The New York State Board of Regents was the first board of education to organize in this country, and public schools were formed in New York as early as 1812. During the 1820s and 1830s, several female academies opened in the Tompkins County area of rural upstate New York, where this portrait was likely painted. Among these were Mrs. Phelps’ School for Young Ladies, Miss McDonald’s School for Young Ladies, and the Ithaca Female Seminary, which advertised in 1836 that primary classes would include “Reading Spelling, History, and Botany.”32
Few Black children were admitted to female seminaries or public schools during the 1850s, when separate schools for children of color were formed in cities and rural areas. Segregated Sunday schools were established as early as 1790, in the tradition of the Sunday school movement in England, which provided education to poor and working children on their one day off from work. From the 1810s to the 1860s, there were 110 Black Sunday schools in New York State.33 Many of these were organized by African Methodist Episcopal churches, which provided both academic and religious instruction. Literacy was the first priority at Sunday schools, where the children learned to read and recite Bible verses.
In 1847, mathematics professor Charles L. Reason founded the Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children, an organization that created schools for Black children in New York City. This society awarded a medal of achievement to its students called the Ridgway Medal (Figs. 22a and 22b) which was awarded to John W. Jacobs in 1855 “for General Scholarship and Punctual attendance at School.”34 This unique and elegantly engraved pictorial medal illustrates a classroom with a teacher and students and is inscribed “Knowledge is Power.”
Fig. 24a Reward of merit, American, c. 1845. Engraved and moulded white metal. Photograph courtesy Stack’s Bowers Galleries, New York, New York.
A portrait of Mrs. James Winn of Newbury, Massachusetts by an unknown artist exhibits the height of novelty and sophistication for a rural middle class American woman in the 1860s (Fig. 25).35 Mrs. Winn wears a black dress with a fashionable small lace collar, a demi-parure, or “partial set,” of gold earrings and a brooch, a gold watch and chain, and a black ribbon choker. As was customary, she tucked her gold watch chain into her brooch and tucked her watch into her belt. The earrings and brooch are set with pearls in the center of a gold medallion and gold fringe hangs from all three pieces. Mrs. Winn’s jewelry, which is influenced by the latest styles from Parisian jewelers, is painted with great care, as such a sitter wanted to be seen as a prosperous and genteel member of her community. The demi-parure is Archeological Revival style, which evinces the sitter’s sophisticated, European taste and the popularity of historicism in jewelry designs.
A renewed interest in ancient styles was sparked by the archeological discovery of meticulously made gold artifacts outside of Rome in the early 1800s. Among the discoveries were delicate Etruscan gold jewels crafted with ancient techniques previously unknown to contemporary metalworkers. These objects inspired the Castellani family of master jewelers in Rome to attempt to replicate the ancient work as closely as possible. They created unique designs in a style they dubbed, “Italian Archeological Revival,” which incorporated antique-inspired ornament and metal work methods.
The Great London Exposition in 1862 served to popularize and disseminate revivalist styles. Over time, Greek, Etruscan, and other historical revival designs were diluted and mass-produced in both Europe and America until they were only moderately related to the original works by Castellani. Mrs. Winn’s jewelry appears to be an example of this style, which became very popular around 1870.36 Her brooch and earrings are “Day to Night” pieces, with detachable fringe providing a more formal look for evening wear, or in this case, for her portrait, with “Fresh Imported Novelties: Jewelry, Fancy, Goods, Silver, and Plated Wares.”37
While more elaborate with granulated gold decoration and turquoise stones, a similar suite to Mrs. Winn’s is illustrated in Figure 26. Chokers were popular throughout the century as Peterson’s Magazine of 1849 reveals: “Throat Ribbons - The fashion for wearing a band of velvet ribbon round the throat, which was so prevalent some years ago, has lately been partially revived.”38 These chokers were custom-made of velvet or lace and set with diamonds or pearls, usually finished with a gold clasp. They were frequently worn with other necklaces, brooches, and watch chains. Mrs. Winn likely obtained her jewelry in a shop that advertised “Great Novelty,” such as Geer & Turrill in Boston (Fig. 27).
Although the stoic expressions of sitters in American folk portraits rarely betray emotion, details of personal ornaments depicted in these paintings reveal both private and public aspects of the sitters’ lives. The history of young America’s cultural and industrial development is reflected in these likenesses. The jewelry worn by the sitters gives us glimpses into their individual lives, reflecting their socio-economic status, their values and interests, and their sorrows and triumphs.
About the Author
1 Bascom was the daughter of American patriot and Minuteman William Henshaw. She kept a daily journal of her extraordinarily busy life as a minister’s wife, church record keeper, stepmother, summer school teacher, librarian, milliner, and artist.
2 Lois Avigard, “Ruth Henshaw Bascom: A Youthful Viewpoint,” The Clarion, vol. 12 (fall 1987): 41.
3 Robin Jaffee Frank discusses this at length with several examples of miniatures illustrated in “The Cult of Washington,” p. 97-117 in Love and Loss: American portrait and Mourning Miniatures, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).
4 The New York State Historical Association, Outward Signs of Inner Beliefs: Symbols of American Patriotism, (Cooperstown, NY: The New York State Historical Association,1975), 6.
5 Charles Mackay, Life and Liberty or Sketches of a Tour in the United States and Canada, in America, 1857-1858, New York, New York: Harper Brothers,1859), 225, retrieved on 8/10/20.
6 The Ruth Henshaw Bascom Papers, retrieved on 8/22/20.
7 For a discussion of Christian values in the Federal period see: Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000),195-238.
8 The New York Herald, Wednesday January 27, 1836.
9 Mark Campbell, Hair Jewelry of Every Description: Compiled from Original Designs and the Latest Parisian Patterns, (Chicago: M.Campbell,1867),138. Retrieved on 10/2/20.
10 For more details about this complex process see Martha G. Fales, Jewelry in America 1600–1900, (London: Antique Collector’s Club,1995), 216. See also “Tender Remembrance: Victorian Hairwork”.
11 Child mortality rate (under five years old) in the United States, from 1800 to 2020.
12 Mary Louise Kete, Sentimental Collaborations: Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth Century America, (London and Durham: 2000), 59.
13 Campbell, Hair Jewelry of Every Description: Compiled from Original Designs and the Latest Parisian Patterns, 18.
14 Catherine E. Kelly, “Mourning Becomes Them: The Death of Children in Nineteenth Century American Art,” The Magazine Antiques, July 2016.
15 Pliny The Elder, The Natural World-Three Remedies and Observations, chapter 11, retrieved on 7/23/20.
16 Alexandria Gazette and Daily Advertiser, April 29, 1818.
17 For a discussion of Prior’s career and the different styles of painting that he offered see Patricia Johnston, “William Matthew Prior: Itinerant Portrait Painter” in Early American Life, June 1979, 20-23 and 66.
18 Richard L. Bushman’s book The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, (New York, NY; Vintage Books, 1993) provides discussions of gentility and refinement throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in rural and urban areas.
19 Lexington Union, Lexington, Mississippi, December 19, 1840.
20 Fales, Jewelry in America: 1600–1900, 239-240.
21 The New York Herald, December 23, 1863, “Tiffany& Co. A visit to the house and all its different departments.”
22 This portrait and other members of the Farrar family are illustrated in Nina Fletcher Little, Asahel Powers: Painter of Vermont Faces, (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,1973) 32-36.
23 For a comprehensive discussion and definition of Fancy, see Sumpter Priddy, American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts 1790–1840, (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: The Chipstone Foundation, 2004). Priddy writes, “America’s artisans…[created] an astonishing range of Fancy artifacts that helped to meet the public’s rising desire to respond imaginatively to the surrounding world: brilliantly colored fabrics, vividly painted furniture, boldly patterned wallpapers, and whimsical ceramics, to name but a few” (xxvi).
24 Lynne Z. Bassett, “Woven Bead Chains of the 1830s,” The Magazine Antiques, Dec, 1995, 798-807.
25 Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans, 148.
26 This chain is in the collection of The Peabody Essex Museum and illustrated in Bassett, “Woven Bead Chains of the 1830’s,” 802.
27 Kete, Sentimental Collaborations: Mourning and Middle Class Identity in Nineteenth Century America, 105.
28 Carleton Mabee, Black Education in New York State: From Colonial to Modern Times, (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press,1979), xiii-xiv.
29 For a history and analysis of pocket watch production, availability, and repair industry see McCrossen, Alexis, “The Very Delicate Construction” of Pocket Watches and Time Consciousness in the Nineteeth-Century United States, Winterthur Portfolio, Vol 44, No. 1 (Spring 2010) 1-30.
30 American Republican and Baltimore Daily Clipper, November 13, 1846.
31 For a discussion of the evolution of time consciousness and pocket watches see Linda Young, Middle Class Culture in the Nineteenth Century: America, Australia, and Britain, (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003) 84.
33 Mabee, Black Education in New York State: From Colonial to Modern Times, 36.
34 John Sallay, “The Ridgway Medal’” The MCA Advisory: The Newsletter of Medal Collectors of America, Vol. 9 No. 9, October, 2006.
35 This portrait is illustrated in Dean L. Lahikainen, In the American Spirit: Folk Art From the Collections, (Salem, MA: The Peabody Essex Museum, 1994), 33.
36 For more examples and design drawings of this style see Daniela Mascetti and Amanda Triossi, Earrings: From Antiquity to the Present, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990) 122-123.
37 The Evening Telegraph, Philadelphia, December, 16, 1968, 5th edition, 5.
38 Peterson’s Magazine: Art, Literature and Fashion, Vol XV, 1849, 188.