Social History – Object Corner

Object Corner gives you the chance to find out a little bit more about some of the interesting items in the Social History collection.

Owl Woodcarving

Owl woodcarving

Owl woodcarving

This carving of an owl was made by Charles Humphriss, who lived and worked in Warwick from 1835-1927. He was one of a group of gifted craftsmen who worked in the Warwick area in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are known as the ‘Warwickshire Woodcarvers’.

At the age of 15, Charles Humphriss began work as an apprentice in the studio of James Morris Willcox. There, he met another talented young carver, Thomas Henry Kendall. Kendall took over the Willcox studio in 1859, and Charles became his foreman.

Owl detailed view

Detailed view of the Owl

The carving of the owl was made c.1862, when Charles was 27. It was exhibited at the International Exhibition, where it was admired by the Prince of Wales.

This carving of an owl is made from limewood. Lime is usually chosen by woodcarvers because it is soft and easy to work on, with a mellow grain and few knots.

Pictured is a detail of the owl woodcarving, showing the fine craftsmanship. This is shown particularly well by on the mouse, and curling ivy leaves.

Charles worked on many of the major commissions undertaken by the Kendall workshop. These included the panels in the House of Commons dining room.

Charles Humphriss worked for Kendall until his retirement. He died in 1927.

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‘Make do and mend’

This jacket is made from an old linen sheet and decorated with a floral design in coloured threads, buttons and beads.

It was made by Mrs Winifred Horton in 1943, when she wanted something to wear to a party.

During World War II (1939 – 1945) everyday goods were in short supply and basic items like food and clothes were rationed. Each adult was given 66 coupons a year for clothes, shoes and fabric. Each time they bought clothes they had to give up some of their coupons – and they didn’t go very far. In 1941, a woman’s suit ‘cost’ 18 coupons.

Many people created ‘Make-do-and-Mend’ outfits from old sheets, blankets, and other household materials.

Mrs Horton’s daughter, Elizabeth, remembers helping to make this jacket:
“I remember having fun sorting through her box of buttons, and particularly finding the pearl ones for the lily-of-the-valley on the back.”

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18th Century Dress

This dress, from the mid 18th Century, is made in a style known as an ‘Open Robe and Petticoat’. It is made in two parts – an open-fronted robe, or gown, worn over a matching petticoat, or skirt. (In the 18th Century, the word ‘petticoat’ meant a skirt, rather than an undergarment.)

The open bodice would have been filled with a separate panel, or ‘stomacher’. This would be pinned or tied in place. The large skirt would have been worn over a hooped underskirt.

At the back of the robe is a pleated train, falling from the shoulders to the hem. This style is known as a ‘Sack-back’ or ‘Saque’. It was sometimes called ‘Robe a la Francaise’, or ‘French Robe’.

The dress is made from a figured, or patterned, silk fabric called damask. It is woven with a design of stylised leaves, flowers and exotic fruits. The bodice and sleeves are lined with linen.

We don’t know who made or owned the dress. It is one of two 18th Century dresses found in an attic in the 1970s. Both dresses are very similar, suggesting they were worn by the same woman and made by the same dressmaker.

By exploring the dress, we can discover some interesting things!

Just below the waist, the side seams of the robe open up into slits 28cms long. 18th Century dresses didn’t have pockets. These would be worn separately, sewn to a waistband and worn under the skirt.

18th Century Dress drawing

A drawing of the back of the dress, showing it looped up on the left

The slits in our robe would enable the wearer to put her hands through to similar slits in her petticoat, to reach the pockets worn underneath.

Below the pocket slits are two small buttons, covered with silk thread. It seems an odd place to put buttons! However, on the inside of the robe – at the same place as the buttons on the outside are two cord loops. Together, the loops and the buttons were used to gather up the hem of the robe, showing the petticoat underneath.

The dress is made in the style of the 1750s, but the fabric is older. By looking closely, we can see that the dress has been altered.

18th Century Dress drawing Pattern

A line drawing, showing the detail of the silk fabric

There are horizontal seams running round the skirts of the robe, and the petticoat may have had a panel of fabric taken out.

We can guess why the dress was altered… it may have been done to fit the smaller hooped petticoats worn after the 1740s.

Silk was very expensive. Only the rich could afford to buy the latest designs. Perhaps the owner of this dress couldn’t afford new fabric, or maybe she liked the silk so much she decided to alter the dress instead of having a new one made.

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17th Century Casket

This casket dates from 1650 to 1670 and is probably the work of a 12 to 14 year old girl. We do not know who actually made it, but it belonged to a North Warwickshire family for many years.

The casket is made of wood, covered with embroidered, ivory silk-satin panels. Green paper leaves have been applied, as well as silk-wrapped metal and silver coloured threads.

On the outside, there are geometric designs and stylised fruit and flowers.

On the two doors at the front are male and female figures, dressed in clothes of the mid seventeenth century. These people could be the parents of the girl who did the work, although we will never know!

The doors open to reveal small drawers, and even a ‘secret’ compartment, where rings and coins could be kept.

The cabinet is decorated on the inside too. The doors show floral designs which are decorated with silk wrapped thread and gold-coloured sequins.

In the seventeenth century, needlework was an important part of every young girl’s education. They began to learn when very small, first studying simple stitches and techniques. They would then move on to more complicated skills as they grew older.

The result of hours of practice was often a beautiful and impressive piece of work such as the casket seen here. Other pieces of work could include pictures, mirror frames or book-bindings.

However, the girls did not usually design the patterns and pictures seen on such work. Just as today, needlework ‘kits’ could be bought. These would contain all the sewing materials and designs to produce the embroidery. This means that many pictures look similar, with common themes of biblical and classical stories.

Once the embroidery panels were completed, they would be sent away to be made into an object such as the casket seen here.

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1912 Empire Day Pin Flag

Empire day pin

Empire day pin

School children in the past often had special events and holidays to look forward to, much as they do today. These included May Day, Harvest Festival, Christmas, and special treats such as a visit to the countryside or afternoon teas.

This small metal pin badge was given to children in Warwick to celebrate Empire Day in 1912.

Empire Day was a celebration of the power and greatness of the British Empire. It was first celebrated following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

Empire day pin - back view

Empire day pin – back view

The day chosen to celebrate Empire Day was Queen Victoria’s birthday (May 24th). It was especially popular and celebrated in schools. As a treat children would hold pageants, dress-up in fancy dress, and wave the Union Flag.

Empire Day was a way of inspiring patriotism throughout the British Empire. It was hoped that children would grow up to be proud and devoted to both the Empire and the monarchy. To the children it was a chance to escape everyday school life and have fun!

Empire Day began in 1903 following the creation of the Empire Day Movement. The movement was founded by the Earl of Meath, who believed children should be brought up to feel devotion to the King and Empire.

Studley School on Empire Day

Group photograph of Studley Council School Infants in costume for Empire Day celebrations in the 1920s

By 1904 he had persuaded a number of local education authorities to adopt Queen Victoria’s birthday, May 24th, as a day of celebration in their schools. By 1907 many schools in England and Wales were taking part, and Empire Day continued to grow in popularity. In 1958 Empire Day was re-named Commonwealth Day.

Commonwealth Day is still celebrated by many schools in countries that once were part of the British Empire. Today, the focus is on the celebration of diversity and the importance of international cooperation between the 53 member states of the Commonwealth.

Since 1973, Commonwealth Day has been held on the second Monday in March, which is marked by a service in Westminster Abbey attended by Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen also records a Commonwealth Day message, which is broadcast by radio throughout the member nations of the Commonwealth.

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Wooden Dumbbells

These wooden dumbbells, from the early 20th Century, can be seen on display in the Victorian Classroom at St. John’s Museum. Dumbbells like these would have been used as part of exercise and drill lessons in the Victorian School.

The role of exercise was to teach children to follow instructions and be obedient, rather than encouraging health and fitness. Military style drill was used to develop discipline; this would have taken place in the playground or, in bad weather, between the children’s desks.

‘…Wretched weather prevents open air drill, only dumb-bells exercise can be taken inside.’
Extract from Atherstone National Free Grammar School Log Book, November 6th 1903. (Warwickshire County Record Office- CR 370/2)

Sometimes drill would be done to simple music, usually played on a piano. The book ‘Musical Drill for Children’ by Winifred Wilson c.1870-1890, contains illustrations that were intended to promote health and happiness in the nursery and schoolroom.

‘Children used “Dumb Bells” for the first time this afternoon’
Extract from Binton C of E Junior and Infants School Log Book, February 25th 1898. (Warwickshire County Record Office- CR 701(2))

Today, with the growing concern about childhood obesity, children at school are encouraged to be as active as possible. Physical Education or P.E. is an important part of the school timetable and children take part in a wide range of sports and activities. Competitive and team sports are encouraged as they teach teamwork, discipline, self-respect and how to cope with winning and losing.

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Cardboard Wedding Cake

During World War II many foods were rationed, making it difficult to buy enough ingredients to make cakes.

Food rationing began in January 1940, with butter and sugar. Margarine, fresh and dried eggs and dried fruit were soon added, making the baking of traditional wedding cakes nearly impossible.

Friends and family of the bride and groom often helped by putting together their rations to make a simple cake.

Using lots of sugar for icing and decorating the cake would have been difficult, and possibly seen as extravagant and wasteful.

Instead, highly decorated cardboard covers could be made or hired from bakers or caterers to simulate large and lavish cakes.

This cardboard cake was made in Birmingham and used at a wedding on February 4th 1944. It is decorated with fabric and plaster bells and flowers.

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Noah’s Ark, 1840 – 1890

In many Victorian homes, children were not allowed to play with toys on Sundays. Instead, they were expected to go to church, and play quietly and calmly.

The Noah’s Ark was one of the few toys children could play with on a Sunday because it related to a story from the Bible.

This large wooden ark is hollow, with a sliding side panel that reveals a space for its 116 wooden animals and birds. It was added to the Social History collection as part of the Cyril Hobbins Wooden Toy Collection.

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