Cutting Paper Valentines with Elizabeth Cobbold

PenBowDetailValentine’s Day has finally provided me with some inspiration and motivation to get back to my writing desk! Many of today’s holidays were celebrated very differently in the Georgian and Regency periods, but Valentine’s Day is an exception. Then as now, it gave an opportunity for sweethearts and friends to exchange tokens of love. Last year I looked at folded and decorated puzzle purses, and made some of my own. This year I am captivated by the delightful valentines made by one very accomplished Regency lady, Elizabeth Cobbold. I just had to try making some myself!

Elizabeth Cobbold, painted by George Frost (BBC)

Elizabeth Cobbold of The Cliff

Elizabeth Knipe was already a published poet and novelist by the time she married her second husband, brewer John Cobbold, in 1792. Around 1806, she began to hold an annual St. Valentine’s Day ball at their home in Ipswich, Cliff House. As part of the festivities, Elizabeth devised a fortune-telling game on the theme of love and marriage which made use of her talents for two lady-like accomplishments: poetry and paper-cutting. These “Cliff Valentines” became famous enough that she published two slim volumes of the poetry from these games in 1813 and 1814, so we have a description of the process in her own words:

Excerpt from Cliff Valentines, 1813 (Google Books)

The poetry in the published books is divided into one section of verses for gentlemen, which foretell the personality traits of the men’s fated brides-to-be, and another section for ladies that describe their destined husbands. There is also one poem in each section titled “The Prize.” While each verse purported to give a glimpse of a future spouse, Cobbold says that The Prize foretold an engagement or marriage in the year to come.

“For you all the Choicest of Birds in the Air,” Cut Paper Valentine by Elizabeth Cobbold (Live Auctioneers)

“Some Degree of Neatness”

Cobbold’s modest description of her poetry and her cut-paper work really doesn’t express the intricate playfulness in her designs! Although familiar valentine images of hearts and cupids appear, Cobbold didn’t limit herself. She chose themes as varied as the Fairy Queen Mab, a Chinese Landscape, an Indian Boat, even a pyramid covered in hieroglyphs! We’re so lucky that any designs of these ephemeral party favors survive at all, and amazingly enough some of them survive in two different formats. Two extant copies of Cobbold’s Cliff Valentines 1814 contain pen-and-ink drawings attributed to Harriet Cobbold- possibly Elizabeth’s daughter. Fortunately for us, UC Boulder Libraries, which holds one of these hand-illustrated books, has digitised it and made it freely readable! Read Cliff Valentines 1814 and admire Cobbold’s designs here. One of my favorites is this “Lacerta Chameleon”, which must have shocked the gentleman who drew it out of Mrs. Cobbold’s basket! The verses explain that the recipient’s bride-to-be will not be a scaly lizard, but she will be a gentle creature that changes her emotional color to match her husband’s, just like the chameleon.

Lacerta Chameleon, ink drawing by Harriet Cobbold in Cliff Valentines 1814 (UC Boulder Libraries)

Many examples of the actual cut-paper valentines with verses on them also survive and even occasionally come up for auction. One gorgeous cache of Cobbold’s work is now in the Johns Hopkins University Libraries’ Special Collections: an album of 123 paper cuts, some of which match the verses and designs in Cliff Valentines! The album is a recent acquisition and is not yet in the library catalog, but several images of the valentines have been made public on Flickr. That’s where I found it, and I am grateful to JHU Special Collections Outreach Librarian Heidi Herr for filling in more details on the album for me. And guess what? Our friend the Lacerta Chameleon is there! I was also delighted to find some Valentines on the theme of accomplishments, and those are the valentines I decided to try reproducing myself.  I’ve linked to the original valentine on Flickr at the beginning of each description.


This Valentine must be for a gentleman, as it uses typically feminine textile “implements” to predict that the lucky recipient will have a “meek domestic bride.” I love how the scissors, thimble, and netting tools seem to be spilling out of the unrolled sewing case or “housewife”. On the lower edge, you can see a bodkin for threading eyelets or drawstrings, along with what I think might be a tambour needle.


I was intimidated by this intricate Valentine, but since it featured a quill pen so prominently I felt I had to make the attempt to copy it! The other tool is a porte-crayon, a brass holder for chalk or graphite. Together they symbolize the arts of writing and drawing. While they may hint at a gentleman’s talents or professions, the verses are rather coy: “The Pen and the Pencil your Valentine true,/ With Garlands of Roses has circled for you / But deems not, presumptuous, their Magic combin’d / Can picture the Charms of his Valentine’s Mind.” My reading is that this valentine was meant for a lady, and she should expect to marry a talented artist and poet who would idolize her for her character and intelligence. What do you think?

Project Notes

I broke my own rules for this project, I’m sorry to say. I was so eager to try out these designs that I didn’t work from primary source instructions or experiment with the tools of the period- I turned straight to an exacto knife and a plastic cutting mat. I have a lot more research to do on the craft of paper-cutting as it was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it before long.

I chose a tough art paper for cutting, since I wanted it to stand up to lots of handling. Although Cobbold seems to have used mostly smooth wove paper in the JHU album, I worked with a laid-texture paper that I happened to have on hand. I free-hand sketched the designs with a soft pencil on tracing paper while looking at the Flickr images. Then I flipped the tracing paper over onto my art paper and rubbed over the pencil lines with a bone folder. I used the resulting lines as a guide for cutting from the back-side of the paper, while the front of the paper remains clean and white. As I worked on those delicate vines and flowers, I found that they weren’t as difficult to execute as I thought they would be. Each flower is formed out of simple petal shapes that are filled in with finely-cut lines. The vines are formed of repeating three-leaf motifs. All the extant valentines attributed to Cobbold are glued to red or pink paper, although in her description of the Valentine Lottery she only mentions wrapping them in “blue demy paper.” I have left mine unmounted for now, but I placed them on bright paper to get the best contrast for photos. I had so much fun with these two designs, I might just have to try out that Chameleon. I’ll share it if I do!

Thanks to all my readers for your patience as once again a short hiatus turned into a long gap in posting, especially if you sent me an email or comment while I was away. I’ll get back to you soon!




My dear this heart that you behold

MyDearThisHeart1Earlier in the week I got into the Valentine’s Day spirit by examining museum images of three folded paper “Puzzle Purse” Valentines from c. 1790 – 1800. I felt moved to put my accomplishments to use and reproduce two of them. It was a lot of fun, and I learned more about the museum examples in the process!


First, the simpler valentine, modelled on an example in the British Postal Museum. Since the pictures of the original show only the finished, fully folded form and the unfolded sheet, I was especially interested to see what this valentine looked like in the intermediate stages of unfolding.

PuzzlePurse2 copyIt was really nice to see how the two hearts and the x-shaped “cross” described in the poem came together, since the museum images don’t show them folded together. Unfolding them breaks the cross and reveals the four linked hearts at the center. The original has several verses of earnest love poetry in the center as well. You can read all of it in transcription at the museum’s site if you wish- it’s full of romantic sentiment and foresees that “pale Death must be my fatal friend” if the recipient of this valentine doesn’t agree to marry the sender! I decided to include only two slightly less feverish couplets in my version.

PostalMuseumDetailThe inscriptions in these valentines are my first attempt at translating what I’ve learned about English Round-hand into an every-day “running hand”  like most people used to write their letters and diaries.  My practice to date has been a ‘copy-book’ hand of the kind taught by writing masters and used for more formal documents.  Rather than trying to imitate the handwriting of the original valentines, I tried to loosen up my copy-book hand and write it more quickly, to achieve a cursive hand that maintained traces of the lessons of the writing-masters.  I need to practice more, especially since I found it easy to lose the slant I’ve tried so hard to cultivate.  Most handwriting I’ve seen of this period has a very consistent slant, as if that habit was deeply ingrained from childhood lessons.

Next, I made a copy of a valentine in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  In the process, I came to appreciate how elaborate and detailed this example is. The original is truly a work of art.

PuzzlePurse1 copyThe front edges of the original Valentine are so worn that it’s hard to read the verses that surround the heart, so I substituted the verses that seem to be traditional for Puzzle Purses. Specifically, I used the wording from another American puzzle purse, Sarah Newlin’s love token in the American Folk Art Museum. So in a sense this is a composite reproduction, but I used the design features of the Free Library example throughout.

As I worked on this project, I kept coming back to the pictures of the original and finding new details I hadn’t noticed. Puzzle purses have space for three layers of decoration: 1) the outside when fully folded, usually decorated with a large heart; 2) The “pinwheel” formed when the flaps decorated with the large heart are unfolded; and 3) the central area of the sheet that’s exposed when the pinwheel is unfolded.  This puzzle purse fills all three layers with distinctive decoration and poetry, but no part of the unfolded sheet of paper has decoration on both sides. It’s organized very carefully and cleverly.


It was only as I began to decorate the pinwheel parts that I realized that each of the four ‘fins’ has a different floral design.  The pairs of hearts are all surrounded by a multitude of tiny dots- I had to sharpen my quill to a pin-point to imitate them.  I think I see traces of pencil lines under the red paint of those identical hearts on the original, so I decided they were probably traced from a paper template.  That certainly helped me get every heart the same size and shape.


I love the innermost layer of this valentine- the verses and the squared circle layout are such a nice little secret hidden inside the puzzle. Much of the central circle in the original has been damaged – it seems that the iron-gall ink and the green pigment used for leaves both corroded the paper. I used creative licence to fill in the circle with more flowers and squiggles like the ones remaining, but originally it could have looked very different.

It was as I was writing the verses in the square that I realized that this valentine was probably made by a woman! Both the other examples I looked at were almost certainly made by men for women.  The British Postal Museum example describes the recipient as a “girl,” “maid” and “loving bride to be,” while the Folk Art Museum love token names the recipient, Sarah Newlin.  The verses on the Free Library valentine aren’t so overt: “My heart is true to none but you /My heart I hope you will pursue.”  In the promise to be true, the writer takes on a relationship-role considered feminine in this time period, and hopes that the recipient will pursue her, a more masculine role.  I can’t be certain, nonetheless it makes this reproduction valentine an especially appropriate gift for me to give to my husband this Valentine’s day.

Project Notes: Materials and Tools

(See the links at the bottom of my previous Valentine post for instructions and templates)


I used a thin laid-textured artist’s paper made by Strathmore. It comes in 25 inch x 19 inch sheets, and I cut it down to get two 12.5 inch square sheets for folding puzzle purses. The museum examples range from about 12.5 inches to 14 inches square. A folded purse measures one third of the unfolded sheet along each dimension, so my versions are about 4 1/6 inches when fully folded.

If you’re making your own puzzle purses, I recommend choosing a thin, tough paper that will take well to folding. I tried using some nice watercolor paper at first, and it proved too thick to fold comfortably and cracked along all the folds.  If you want to make modern puzzle purses, thin scrapbooking paper is ideal since it’s already 12 inches square!



I used a quill pen cut to a fine point for writing all the verses. For the straight lines, I used my ebony straight-edge and a different kind of dip pen- a ruling pen.  Although mine has a black plastic handle, the ruling pen has a long history and is frequently seen in 18th century sets of drawing tools. As its name suggests, it’s designed for use with a ruler to make smooth, straight ink lines.  For the central circles in one of the valentines, I used a ruling pen attachment for my compass. Again, my tool is modern, but the technology is old.  My mechanical pencil is all modern, however! The bone folder is used to crease the folds crisply.

The paper heart cut-outs are templates that I drew around to make sure all my hearts were the same size. Above them is my dish of iron-gall ink. Since I used this traditional ink, the valentines I made are likely to become corroded along the ink lines just like the originals, given enough time!

I used modern watercolors for all the painted details.  Only red, yellow, and blue are required – I chose Rose madder, Gamboge, and Indigo colors to try to match the originals, but my paints are imitations and don’t contain those natural historical pigments (I have much more to say on that topic later).

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Three Love Tokens for Valentine’s Day

Puzzle Purse Love Token, c. 1790 (British Postal Museum and Archive)
Puzzle Purse Love Token, c. 1790 (British Postal Museum and Archive)

Valentine’s Day is less than a week away, so I’ve been thinking about how ladies and gentleman of Jane Austen’s era made use of their accomplishments to celebrate the day.  It was already an old custom to exchange love-tokens both amorous and friendly in this period.  Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, mentions giving and receiving Valentine’s gifts.  The oldest known printed Valentine’s card dates to 1797, almost 50 years before printed Christmas cards!   Annual “Valentine Writer” pamphlets were published in the late 18th and early 19th century to supply would-be lovers with appropriate poetry. So many of our holiday card- and gift-giving traditions date to the Victorian period, it’s nice to know that Valentine’s Day was celebrated by Jane Austen’s contemporaries as well.

You may already be familiar with folded paper “Puzzle Purses.” There have been instructions and examples available on the web for years, and the 2009 movie “Bright Star” made them popular for a while outside the world of history bloggers (See links at the bottom of this post). Although not all of the extant puzzle purses can be linked to Valentine’s Day, many are unequivocally love tokens. I’d like to look at three examples in museum collections that date from the time period I’m studying. All three use hand-written poetry and painted designs as part of their messages of love. Later in the week I’ll share my own take on the Puzzle Purse love token. [UPDATE: See my recreated puzzle purses here!]

1. British Postal Museum and Archive, c. 1790

The top image shows this puzzle purse token in its folded state. The verse on the outside edges around the large red heart reads:

My Dear the heart which you behold
Will break when you the same unfold
Even so my heart with love sick pain
Sure wounded is and breaks in twain

On the other side of the folded paper, the maker of this token promises,  “In this inside sweet Turtle Dove/ I’ve wrote a moral of my love. . .”   But to read further, one must unfold the flaps, “breaking” the central heart but also laying bare its secrets: more verses and hearts!

Interior of the Puzzle Purse Love Token c. 1790, (British Postal Museum and Archive).

The verses at the edges of the page are coordinated with the drawings:

‘My dearest dear and blest divine
I’ve pictured here thy heart and mine
But Cupid with his fatal dart
hath deeply wounded my poor heart
And has betwixt us set a cross
Which makes me lament my loss
But now I hope when this is gone
That our two hearts will join in one.’

The heart at the top of the page is pierced with an arrow, cupid’s “fatal dart”, while the two large V shapes on left and right form an X or “cross” when the paper is partially folded. The heart at the bottom can be read as two hearts in one, a blue one and a red one.

There is yet more poetry written in the center. You can read a full transcription of the verses at the British Postal Museum and Archive catalogue entry for this item. All these valentines are overflowing with text! The lovers who made them seem to have been compelled to make the most of this opportunity to declare their feelings. Or perhaps the tokens that were most eloquent and convincing were the ones most often saved by the recipient? With ephemera like this, it’s impossible to say.

2. Free Library of Philadelphia, c. 1800

The pictures of this example show a little more clearly the layers of text and image of these folded ‘puzzles’.  The front flaps are worn enough to make the verses difficult to make out, but they are definitely different from the first example.

PhilFreeLibFront copy
Folded Puzzle Purse Valentine, c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia. (I reconstructed this image from a picture of the unfolded object)

The quadrants of the large central heart are numbered  to make sure that the verses on the next layer are revealed and read in the correct order. When that heart is “broken,” the next layer revealed looks like a pinwheel.

Partially unfolded Puzzle Purse love token c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia
Partially unfolded Puzzle Purse Valentine c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia

The verses on the edges of the triangular flaps are very similar to the middle set of verses in the previous example:

My Dearest Dear and blest divine
I’ve pictur’d here your heart and mine.
But Cupid with his Cruel dart
Has deeply pierc’d my tender heart
And has between us set A Cross
Which makes me to lament my loss
But I’m in hopes when that is gone
That both our hearts will be in one

However, the drawings match the verses in quite different ways, using paired hearts: the first pair of hearts are set side by side (“your heart and mine”), the second pair include one pierced by cupid’s “cruel dart”, the third is separated by a cross, and the fourth are linked “in one”.

When the puzzle is completely unfolded, one more surprise awaits- a handful of verses and a painting of a posy of flowers (now damaged).

Unfolded Puzzle Purse Valentine c. 1800, Free Library of Philadelphia.

The verses in this central panel are also numbered to make sure they are read in the correct order. They finally let us know that this token was a Valentine’s Day gift:

My heart is true to none but you
My heart I hope you will pursue
The roses and the lillies twine
Since you became my Valentine.

Round is my ring and has no end So is my love unto my friend

This last verse, placed in the compass-drawn circle around the flowers, has a parallel in another paper love token dated 1816.  Like the puns and rhymes printed on modern day valentines (BEE mine) and scribbled in kids’ notes and yearbooks (2 cute + 2 B = 4gotten), these little love poems must have been used and re-used over and over again.

3. American Folk Art Museum, 1799

Love Token for Sarah Newlin, 1799. American Folk Art Museum.

This token includes the name of the recipient, Sarah Newlin, and the date 1799, but no indication of the sender (or if it was made for Valentine’s Day!).  The museum doesn’t have photos of this same purse unfolded, but they do have a separate catalogue entry for an “envelope” for Sarah Newlin’s love token. This envelope appears to have been folded the same way as the puzzle purse itself, and I think I can see the shadow of a large heart just like on the love token itself, but I can’t tell whether it is the sign of a heart painted on the reverse of that sheet, or a stain caused by the token that the envelope was wrapped around for many years. So, I’m not sure whether these are two images of the same object, two items that were folded together, or two separate love tokens that have been passed down together. In any case, there isn’t enough information to compare the interiors of this/these puzzle purses with the other examples. But the folded exterior is interesting in itself.  The familiar large red heart dominates the folded specimen, and the verse on the edges is also familiar:

My dear this heart that you behold,
Will break when you these leaves unfold,
So my poor heart with love’s sick pain,
Sore wounded is and breaks in twain.

The wording is ever so slightly different from the verses on the first example from the British Postal Museum.  It’s so striking that the British example shares such close similarities with two American puzzle purses. The puzzle format and the verses obviously work well together, and were re-used and re-combined over and over again. Was there a printed source that spread the fad for puzzle purse valentines from Britain to the former colonies? Or was this a folk tradition that passed from person to person, picking up variations in wording and drawing as it was transmitted? I’ll be keeping my eye open for more evidence, and making my own puzzle purses too!

Historical Valentine Links:

Anne Wagner’s Friendship Book: A Keepsake of Accomplishments

Anne Wagner's Friendship Book - Front End Paper
Anne Wagner’s Friendship Book – Front Cover

From 1795 to 1834, an English woman named Anne Wagner kept a most astonishing record of the accomplishments of her friends and family.  Her “Memorials of Friendship” is like an autograph book, commonplace book, guest book, and scrapbook all rolled into one.  I stumbled across the book in an online exhibition on the poet Shelley hosted by the New York Public Library, and I was soon paging through the library’s digital gallery of every page of this remarkable keepsake.

The first page, with a plaited lock of hair and poetry.
An early page with a plaited lock of hair and poetry.

Over almost 40 years Anne and her family, friends, and visitors filled this little book with poetry, paintings, collages, and tokens of friendship. A pencilled note on one of the first pages reads “Has requested this book be kept with great nicety.”  Was this Anne’s request to her contemporaries who embellished the book’s pages? Or a note to posterity to cherish this memento?

Poetry by Felicia, aged twelve. (c. 1805)
Poetry by Felicia, aged twelve. (c. 1805)

Anne’s sisters and friends did not confine themselves to one page each- it seems that whenever they thought of an appropriate poem or image they made a new entry.  One frequent contributor is Anne Wagner’s niece Felicia Browne, who became Felicia Hemans at her marriage in 1812.  Felicia was already an accomplished poet at age twelve when she penned the affectionate verse on the page above, and at age fourteen she published the first of many volumes of her poetry.  Her work was as popular in her day as Lord Byron’s, although she is almost forgotten today.  It’s because of Felicia’s pages that Anne Wagner’s friendship book has found its home at the New York Public Library: one of grown-up Felicia’s correspondents was Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the the NYPL holds the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.

A mixed-media collage honoring Viscountess Kirkwall- a friend of Anne's, perhaps?
A mixed-media collage honoring Viscountess Kirkwall- a friend of Anne’s, perhaps?


One thing that grabbed my attention was the variety of media Anne Wagner and her friends used to decorate their pages. Images snipped from prints, bookplates, or calling cards, gold paper, printed silk fabrics, and hand-painted motifs might all sit together on one page. I wonder if this style of decoration is what Jane Austen had in mind when she described the riddle-book that Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith make “ornamented with cyphers and trophies”? (Emma, chapter 9)

Painting and poetry by M. Casson, 1796.
Painting and poetry by M. Casson, 1796.

Since I’m interested in handwriting right now, I’m delighted to see so many examples of accomplished handwriting in one place! Several friends from the continent signed Anne’s book, and their handwriting tends to be strikingly different from the English contributors. Some include only name, date, and place along with some appropriate verses from a well-known poet, while others are much more ambitious, composing pages of poetry especially for Anne.

-A Pineapple: "Compound of juices fraught with good! Be balm of life, be pleasant food! " (1795)
-A Pineapple: “Compound of juices fraught with good! Be balm of life, be pleasant food! ” 1795.

The paintings and the poetry are none of them masterpieces, but I find them charming and fascinating despite (or maybe because of) their simplicity.  They are meant to be private mementos of affectionate relationships, and have no pretensions to being museum pieces.  The book must have been precious to Anne, who treasured it and asked her loved ones to add to it over thirty-nine years- but it’s a small, fragile thing that could so easily have proved ephemeral in the nearly 200 years since it was completed.  I wonder how many similar books have been lost?

-Lady with a harp, painted by  Margaret Casson, 1796.
-Lady with a harp, painted by Margaret Casson, 1796.

When I read about young women’s accomplishments at decorative arts, there’s so much emphasis on status and husband-hunting, I often wonder what the women themselves got out of the experience. This book shows one important use for those skills- honoring friends and family and commemorating those relationships.

Fishing Scene in watercolors, bordered with paper shells
Fishing Scene in watercolors, bordered with paper shells

Women were not the only contributors- some of the watercolor pictures are signed by George Browne (Felicia Browne’s father or possibly her brother). Men too were expected be accomplished in useful arts like drawing and painting. But the majority of pages with names are by women, suggesting that sisters, nieces, and female friends particularly valued making this kind of memento.

Hair and accompanying poem from Elizabeth Venables, 1803.
Hair and accompanying poem from Elizabeth Venables, 1803.

There are a few locks of hair included as keepsakes. Elizabeth Venables added this poem with hers: “To Miss Anne Wagner. / Tho’ time shall change my Gypsy(?) hue, / And silvery honors o’er them strew;/ I still unchang’d shall think of you.”  I haven’t found much information about Anne Wagner’s life, although information about her family and her famous niece Felicia is more readily available. But I’m glad to know at least that she had an abundance of affectionate (and accomplished) friends and relatives.

Back endpaper with gilt initials AW.
Back cover with gilt initials AW.

If you enjoyed this small selection of images from Anne Wagner’s book, I suggest you read the essay about the book in the online exhibition at the NYPL.  168 pages from the book have been digitized and can be viewed at the NYPL’s digital gallery.


Filigree and Folly: Jane Austen’s Lucy Steele and Maria Edgeworth’s Rosamond

18th/early 19th quillwork tea box. Are those sprigs of myrtle and medallions? (Brunk Auctions, click for source)

It’s an unforgettable scene in Sense and Sensibility: Lucy Steele and Elinor Dashwood, both eager in their different ways to continue their confidential conversation about Edward Ferrars, find an unexpected opportunity to escape the usual evening game of cards with the Middletons.  The pretence that allows the two young women to sit apart and talk privately is Lucy’s “fillagree” work: she’s making a basket for Lady Middleton’s spoiled child and both women fear disappointing the girl’s hopes that the basket will be finished the next day.  I’ve often wondered why Jane Austen chose that particular craft for one of her least appealing, most manipulative characters.  Perhaps out of loyalty to the Dashwood sisters, I have always felt that it must be an inferior accomplishment to Marianne’s piano playing and Elinor’s drawing!  As an aspiring Accomplished Lady, I wanted to learn more about this decorative art.

Paper filigree, spelt various ways in Jane Austen’s era, is closely related to the modern craft called Paper Quilling or Quillwork. Here’s a definition  from 1810:

A General Dictionary of Commerce, Trade, and Manufactures; Exhibiting Their Present State in Every Part of the World; and Carefully Comp. from the Latest and Best Authorities, by Thomas Mortimer, 1810.

Styles change- the descriptions and extant examples I’ve seen from Jane Austen’s era tend to be a bit different from modern work.  Today’s quillwork artists tend to favor delicate, lacy openwork that sometimes stands free as three-dimensional sculptures or dangles as decorations and jewelry. It appears that 18th century filigree enthusiasts almost always attached their rolled paper to a support, and often filled each panel with as many densely packed rolls as possible. Where the backing surface can be seen, it is often colored silk or even sparkly mica.  I’m amazed at the scale of some paper filigree-covered articles, which included tables and cabinets! I’ve included links at the bottom of this post to articles and blog posts where you can see more pictures and learn more about extant examples, because right now I want to talk about a literary connection to Lucy Steele’s filigree basket.

A Paper Filigree workbasket, 1789 (Antiques Journal)

Maria Edgeworth (1767- 1849) is most famous for her novels: Jane Austen names Belinda with approval in Northanger Abbey (Chapter 5).  Edgeworth was also a prolific author of children’s stories. They are tales with moral messages, but they are better-written and more subtle than many such stories for children.  Her best known story is “The Purple Jar“, in which a little girl named Rosamond is so captivated by a beautiful purple jar she sees in a shop window that she begs to have it rather than the new shoes her mother planned to buy for her. After her mother reluctantly agrees, Rosamond empties the jar and discovers that all its color came from the foul liquid within, and she’s left with a plain glass jar and worn-out shoes.  “The Purple Jar” and other Rosamond stories first appeared in The Parent’s Assistant in 1796, but the character proved popular enough that Edgeworth published a collection of the stories as a book titled Rosamond in 1801.

Maria Edgeworth, 1808 engraving after William Marshall Craig. (via Wikimedia Commons)

A companion to Lucy Steele’s filigree basket appears in the Rosamond story “The Birth Day Present” from The Parent’s Assistant (I’ve been reading an 1826 collected edition of Edgeworth’s works on Google Books).  Rosamond plans to give her cousin Bell a special gift for her birthday, and settles on making an elegant filigree workbasket. It takes all week to make, and all of Rosamond’s money to buy the supplies! Among her motivations is the hope of continued approval from her godmother:

But did not you hear her say that I was very generous? and she’ll see that she was not mistaken.  I hope she’ll be by when I give my basket to Bell – won’t it be beautiful? – there is to be a wreath of myrtle, you know, round the handle, and a frost ground, and then the medallions. . .

– “The Birth Day Present” in The Parent’s Assistant, Maria Edgeworth

 I wonder if the “frost ground” is a reference to the mica used in some surviving filigree objects?  Rosamond’s preoccupation with her project contrasts with her sister Laura’s attentive compassion: she gives her money to a poor young lace-maker whose bobbins and lace Laura sees being destroyed by a callous footman in the street.  While the family are on their way to the birthday party, Rosamond’s father mocks Rosamond’s filigree basket:

‘Let us look at this basket,’ said he, taking it out of her unwilling hands; for she knew of what frail materials it was made, and she dreaded its coming to pieces under her father’s examination.
He took hold of the handle rather roughly, and starting off the coach seat she cried-
‘Oh sir! father! sir! you will spoil it indeed!’ said she with increased vehemence, when, after drawing aside the veil of silver paper, she saw him grasp the myrtle-wreathed handle.
‘Indeed sir you will spoil the poor handle.’
‘But what is the use of the poor handle,’ said her father, ‘if we are not to take hold of it? And pray,’ continued he, turning the basket round with his finger and thumb rather in a disrespectful manner-  ‘pray is this the thing you have been about all this week? I have seen you all this week dabbling with paste and rags; I could not conceive what you you were about-  is this the thing?
‘Yes sir-  you think then that I have wasted my time, because the basket is of no use : but then it is for a present for my cousin Bell.’
‘Your cousin Bell will be very much obliged to you for a present that is of no use ; you had better have given her the purple jar .’

– “The Birth Day Present” in The Parent’s Assistant, Maria Edgeworth

Indeed, it turns out that Bell doesn’t appreciate the present very much, since she manages to ruin it while taking a peek at her presents before it’s time to open them! Bell is a spoiled, fretful liar: she has at least seven tantrums on her birthday (Edgeworth numbers them) and she blames the damage to the basket on the lace-maker, who just happened to deliver the lace for Bell’s birthday dress. Rosamond learns her lesson, and learns to praise her sister’s true generosity when the lace-girl returns to expose both Bell’s lies and Laura’s charity.

There are a lot of moral messages woven into the story- Edgeworth implies that Bell’s character has been affected by too much indulgence with birthday parties and also by too much time spent with servants! However, the central moral has to do with Rosamond’s lesson about generosity: truly generous acts are not done for selfish ends and are bestowed on deserving objects.  The filigree basket is depicted as a waste of time and money because of its useless fragility, its intended recipient’s bad manners, and its maker’s focus on the praise she will gain by giving it away. Rosamond’s basket contrasts both with Laura’s better use of her half-guinea and with the honest labour of the poor lace-maker.

Jane Austen doesn’t make Lucy Steele’s filigree basket carry quite so much moral weight, but there are interesting parallels. Lucy’s motives for making and giving the basket are as self-interested as Rosamond’s- she’s busy ingratiating herself with her wealthy, titled hosts, and indulging the children is the only thing that seems to please the insipid Lady Middleton. Lucy’s basket is destined for a child at least as spoiled as Bell. When Annamaria Middleton is accidentally scratched by a pin, Lady Middleton and both Miss Steeles focus all their attention on her:

With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying. She still screamed and sobbed lustily, kicked her two brothers for offering to touch her, and all their united soothings were ineffectual till Lady Middleton luckily remembering that in a scene of similar distress, last week, some apricot marmalade had been successfully applied for a bruised temple, the same remedy was eagerly proposed for this unfortunate scratch, and a slight intermission of screams in the young lady on hearing it, gave them reason to hope that it would not be rejected.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, chapter 21

I can’t be certain that Jane Austen was thinking of Rosamond and Bell when she chose to have Lucy Steele make a filigree basket for Annamaria. But Austen could have read The Parent’s Assistant any time after it was published in 1796, perhaps even before she started work in 1797 on the drafts that would eventually become Sense and Sensibility (finally published 1811).  Even without that certainty, it’s clear that Austen and Edgeworth both associate paper filigree with self-interested characters who value show over substance. I found an echo of this attitude in a very different piece of writing from about the same time. In The European Magazine and London Review, September 1801, the author of a series of “Essays After the Manner of Goldsmith” describes his visits to two different ladies’ seminaries:

The mistress of the first taught in her school, as she herself told me, every thing fashionable, filagree and straw work, the tambourine, and the new reel steps; and with great exultation produced her pupils as specimen of her ability : but it unfortunately happened, that every thing took a wrong turn ; I fancied in every infant face the outlines of pride, ill temper, vanity, and affectation ; and pictured to my imagination her misled children growing up in error, and sinking into vice and wretchedness.

– “Essays after the Manner of Goldsmith”, The European Magazine and London Review, Vol. 40, September 1801.

The curriculum of the second seminary is not described, but its “virtuous education” is a garden that produces “the dutiful daughter, the faithful wife, and the affectionate mother.”  There may be some satirical intention in this essay- Austen herself found Goldsmith an irresistable  target for satire in her “History of England”- but the concerns over moral education and fashionable accomplishments mirror other distinctly serious writings about female education. So while it may be an exaggeration to class filagree and straw-work with “vanities and follies suitable to the depravities of the age,”  it’s not a stretch for Jane Austen to link filagree and female folly.

Even though it may reflect badly on my character, I’d like to try some filigree as a change of pace from my more serious Accomplishments- I just need to get a hold of some instructions from Jane Austen’s era!

Paper filigree Links: