One of the most delightful things about material culture and conservation work is the process of discovery. Every artifact is interesting for various reasons, and I love when I encounter something entirely new. I have seen a lot of different examples of decorative arts, but on my first day as the collections assistant at the Hatfield Historical Museum, I saw something I had never seen before. Curator Kathie Gow handed me a box of items to write up accession sheets for. There were a few fans, a needlepoint piece, and what appeared to be a booklet of faded construction paper, fastened with a bow on one side.
When I went home that afternoon, I couldn't stop thinking about the wreaths and the golden fringe and the not-quite-geometric netting that supported the pressed plants. Thankfully, we now have modern technology as well as old books of fancy work ideas and directions. To the internet I went. My first search was for “Victorian pressed flowers.” My goodness there are a lot of folks making things in the Victorian style these days. Next search: “vintage Victorian pressed ferns” That brought me to Etsy, a marketplace for new and vintage crafts, where there was a very similar construction paper doily.
This artifact looked so much like the one I'd seen earlier in the day I felt it must be the same technique, particularly in the close-up of the not-quite-geometric netting. How exciting! And a new lead, with new search terms -- the caption mentions Jamaica, the U.K., and fundraising in the 1870s.
My next search, “1870 pressed ferns Jamaica,” took me to the last step on this discovery quest: A PDF of a paper on Jamaican lace-bark, which has an inner bark that can be stretched and expanded to make a sturdy, flexible natural netting. The article even shows a picture of a wreath like ours and identifies the golden outer fringe as the seed hairs of French cotton, Calotropis procera – which is basically a giant milkweed. The link is absolutely clear, and there remains no doubt in my mind that what we have in Hatfield is an authentic 1870s Jamaican fern doily. This allows us to include a date on the record for this piece, and to understand more about how it may have wound up in Hatfield – these artifacts were made and sold either as souvenirs or as fundraising items to support mission work in Jamaica.
In writing this up and recreating my searches, I came across a few other interesting sites with more information on these beautiful handcrafts:
Jamaican Fern Doyleys
Fern Gully Jamaica
I wonder what discoveries my second week will bring?