Love Tokens in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries
As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, many of us eagerly anticipate tokens of affection from our loved ones. These may take the form of a simple Valentine card, flowers or perhaps, chocolates. The luckier among us may receive something more expensive and lasting, such as a piece of jewelry. Jewelry presented as an expression of love has a long historical precedent and is well represented in the collections of The Henry Ford.
The most fascinating form of jewelry created as a love token started as what we would describe as a “fad” in the late 18th century. Today we might consider these disembodied eye portraits as bizarre or jarring. But they get at the heart of the very private nature of the intensity of feelings between two people, by means of an individualized portrait of a beloved’s eye. The idea was that a sweetheart would be reminded of their lover’s watchfulness. Throughout human history eyes have always symbolized mirrors to the soul. They are as intimate a token as two people could find.
The story begins with British royalty. In 1784, George, the Prince of Wales, son of George III, later to become the Prince Regent, eventually George IV, became enamored of a young Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, whom he was forbidden to marry, both by law and by his father. Against her wishes, he pursued her. Recognizing the impossibility of the match, she fled to France for a year, believing that her absence would lessen the Prince’s amorous feelings. To the contrary, the Prince became more infatuated and more determined to marry Mrs. Fitzherbert. At the end of the year he sent her a marriage proposal. Instead of including a ring, he sent a miniature portrait of his eye. Apparently, she was so taken with his gift that she immediately returned and married the Prince in a secret ceremony, late in 1785. Shortly after the marriage, Maria commissioned the same miniature artist to paint a portrait of her eye for her new husband. This created a fashion among British aristocrats for eye portraiture. Of course, when King George III discovered the illegal marriage, he immediately annulled it. Thus, the eye portraits became even more important as symbols of intimacy and perhaps, forbidden love. As a coda to the story, although forced to marry another, George remained in contact with Maria for the rest of his life. It is said that George is buried with Maria’s eye portrait.
The popularity of eye portraits extended beyond the shores of the British Isles. In France, they took on political connotations and were said to function as discreet symbols for meetings of revolutionaries. Few eye portraits were made for Americans – they were associated with the hated British monarchy in the decades following the Revolution. Today, scholars estimate that there are no more than 1,000 of these tiny pins extant.
This eye portrait, when magnified, appears to be a male. The carelessly drooping hair of the eyebrow appears to be a characteristic associated with a man. A lady would have presented herself in a much more genteel manner. We will never know the identity of this person. That is the essential enigma of the piece – and of eye portraits in general.
The Henry Ford jewelry collection holds a number of other, less obvious love tokens. Roughly contemporaneous with the eye portrait, these tokens were likely shared between lovers while alive, and after the death of one likely served as a memorial pin. This oval pin portrays a young lady carrying a wreath, a symbol of eternity, to an altar with the inscription “To Love.” On the altar are two cups, perhaps loving cups. Above, two birds hold a loosely knotted ribbon or string binding them together. Perhaps the most telling element of the piece is the inscription on the back reading “My love is true to none but you.”
The imagery on these pins also seems to relate to love tokens, visually suggesting that “my heart burns for you.” They are painted in different styles; the image at the left is much more finished. The image at the right has the inscription “Sincerity” on the altar.
In the centuries before the development of modern medicine, death came quickly and often. Because of this fact, the line between tokens of affection and mourning pieces became blurred. In most cases, love tokens hold signs and symbols legible only to the couple. We will never fully understand the meaning of these pieces. Unlike mourning jewelry, they do not give us names, initials or dates of the deceased.
Moving somewhat forward in time, snake motifs were popular with Victorians and are often seen on bracelets. Like wreaths, the snake was a symbol for eternity. The fact that this piece holds a plaited snippet of human hair indicates that it may have served as a memorial. The red cut stone, perhaps a garnet, was a favorite of the Victorians in both mourning and non-mourning jewelry. Consequently, it is likely that the piece was produced as gift and continued as a memorial piece.
In all, The Henry Ford’s jewelry collection holds some remarkable tokens of affection, most notably the eye portrait, but also several enigmatic pieces of the early 19th century.
Before the 20th century and the development of modern medicine, death came early and often. Maladies considered minor today were scourges in 18th and 19th centuries. Disease combined with complications of childbirth and exposure to harsh elements led to a high mortality rate. One way people coped was to wear memorials of loved ones in the form of mourning jewelry.
The Henry Ford holds a comprehensive collection of mourning jewelry dating from the early 18th century through the late 19th century. Recently, we took the opportunity to examine and conserve a group of approximately forty pendants and brooches dating from the late 18th century to the early 19th century
Fashions and forms of mourning jewelry varied significantly over time. The earliest American mourning jewelry pieces were rings, created in the 17th and early 18th centuries, inscribed with the name and usually the age of the deceased. In many instances epitaphs such as "gone but not forgotten" were included. Later in the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, pendants and brooches vied for popularity with rings. These pendants are some of the most enigmatic examples of mourning jewelry – they take form of pictorial miniatures, painted on ivory, meant to be worn or held as keepsakes with images of the dearly departed.
The images follow a standard formula, usually a landscape with a weeping figure standing in front of a monument with the name of the deceased, date of death and an epitaph, as in the rings. The figures are dressed in the Neoclassical fashions popular in the early days of the new Republic, when Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. These included design elements such as urns, plinths and geometric forms derived from Classical architecture. The figures were painted with sepia-colored ink, sometimes combined with dissolved human hair from the deceased. Backgrounds typically included landscapes featuring "weeping" willow trees and an inscribed monument to the deceased.
The pendant dedicated to Samuel Ralston, who died on 10 January 1795, might serve as a model mourning miniature – the front side shows the ubiquitous weeping woman holding a child by the hand. She mourns in front of a monument with a triangular top, surmounted by an urn. The monument base is inscribed, "How transient is human happyness [sic]." An angel floats in the sky above, carrying a scroll with the haunting epitaph, "Welcome to Bliss . . . . " The reverse side is equally revealing about the nature of these keepsakes. A glass-enclosed insert is filled with a woven snippet of the deceased's hair, another tangible remembrance. This was a common feature in many mourning pendants.
The use of hair as a keepsake reaches its peak in a pendant containing the hair of three members of the Potts family. This is an unusual example – the pictorial scene is absent, replaced with decorative and distinctively arranged samples of hair. From the inscriptions on the front, we know that the earliest was W.R. Potts, who died on 28 August 1779, at the tender age of 19 months. The second was Eliza. Potts, who died on 19 November 1787 at the age of 32. On the reverse is a woven section of hair from Benjamin Potts, a toddler, who died on 2 February 1797 at the age of 3 years, 11 months. The question is how were these people related? Were they several generations of the family?
The third example is perhaps the most enigmatic in our collection. The front of this unknown memorial is decorated in a typical landscape scene with two weeping figures in front of an urn-topped monument. An angel flutters in the sky, breaking up the epitaph, "Not Lost but Gone Before." Interestingly, a male figure is shown on the right, kneeling before a second monument. Who is this figure? The reverse image is extraordinary -- a detailed interior bedroom scene. We are viewing the deceased lying in a large poster-type bed next to a male figure holding a child. We can assume that his wife has died, leaving this gentleman with a motherless child. The interior is complete with windows, a decorative floor covering, rendered in an odd perspective, and a side chair supporting a coffin. The coffin is decorated with skulls, a motif intended to describe the transitory nature of life. What is the meaning of this scene? Was it to console, remind, or both? Is the figure on the front side a representation of the grieving father on the reverse? Perhaps. This piece raises questions about the individual who commissioned it and the rather ambitious artist who created it.
Mourning jewelry, especially those pieces with pictorial imagery, provides an insight into the trials of everyday life in the centuries before the advent of the modern world. It is difficult for us to imagine the level of mortality which led to the everyday use of such objects. To those who commissioned these mementos, they provided a tangible reminder of a beloved family member. Today, we view them as representations of a now vanished world.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford.
Over time, people have marked the deaths of their loved ones in many ways. One popular method in the 18th and 19th centuries was the wearing of mourning jewelry, which often incorporated the hair of the deceased. We’ve just added close to 50 more stunning examples of mourning jewelry and other memorial items to our digital collections, including the mourning brooch depicted here, a ring dating to 1716, and a doll’s coffin.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.