Show & Tell: A 19th Century Chatelaine


Chatelaine (USA), ca. 1860; silver, gold wash, ivory, enamel, glass. Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Institution

This is an unusual example of a Victorian chatelaine, a fashionable accessory that allowed women to hang a group of small tools on their bodies for convenience’s sake. This chatelaine, held by the Cooper Hewitt Museum, could be affixed to a woman’s waist, like most chatelaines were. It could also be worn around the wrist, like a charm bracelet, offering its wearer a decorative accent as well as some use value in the form of a small chain purse, a mirror, and a locket.

"'Chatelaine,'" writes historian Monica F. Cohen, “derives from the medieval word for a castellan, or a keeper of the castle or chateau who wore at his or her waist the key to the castle’s various rooms.” The chatelaine’s popularity as an accessory in the 1860s, Cohen argues, was due to a growing Victorian belief in the importance of rational housekeeping in a woman’s life. Besides being beautiful and ornamental, and convenient to wear, the chatelaine told the world that a woman had domestic responsibilities, and that she took those responsibilities seriously.

A wide variety of items hung from the waists and wrists of Victorian chatelaine-wearers.  In a Collectors’ Weekly interview with Genevieve Cummins, who wrote a book on the subject of the chatelaine, Cummins outlines the many types of chatelaines she has found in her research: sewing chatelaines with pincushions, scissors, and needle cases; chatelaines for artists, with paint boxes and containers for brushes; mourning chatelaines, with space to carry reflective reminders of a loved one’s loss.

The chatelaine was so popular that it showed up in cartoons in London’s Punch magazine, which gently mocked the accessory’s ubiquity among women, imagining chatelaines that would chain children to a mother, or chatelaines that would be so large as to drag a woman’s entire body forward slightly from the waist. Cummins told Collectors’ Weekly that the chatelaine wearer accepted a certain amount of encumbrance, in exchange for fashion: “Certainly, they clanked; when they moved, the chatelaine would’ve made a lot of noise … It’s a very characteristic noise, and I think that was part of your status.”

The example above was made a couple decades into the chatelaine’s popularity. Margaret Flower finds mention of chatelaines in World of Fashion in 1839; the items fell out of favor a few decades later, but came back into style in 1863, when Britain’s Prince Albert Edward (later Edward VII) married a fashionable young Danish princess who wore a chatelaine in public. But by 1887, Jeanenne Bell writes in a book about Victorian jewelry, “the Young Ladies’ Journal felt it necessary to explain to the younger generation what a chatelaine was.”