Friday, April 4, 2014

Hemming and Hawing . . . Mystery Artifact Revealed!

This lovely little artifact inspired quite a few guesses (and at least one discrete comment from a reader I'm sure knew the answer.  Thanks for letting others have a chance to make their guess, Cailin!)

Most of you were in the right ballpark, in that most of the guesses were sewing-related.  Many of you correctly identified the areas of green fabric as pincushions, and realized that the bird would be attached to the edge of a sewing table to hold pins at the ready.  Steve H. was closest in suggesting, "a pincushion, with the clampy part just to hold onto something useful."

Exactly!  This artifact is a sewing bird or hemming clamp.  The clampy part of the beak was used by 19th-century seamstresses to hold fabric and act as a "third hand" (which is another name by which these artifacts are known).  While hemming clamps reached the height of their popularity in the late 19th-century, modern-day versions can still be found, like this image from
As the earlier post noted, our bird is stamped on its left wing with PATENTED and its right wing with FEB 15, 1853.  This makes our bird one of a special breed called "Waterman Birds."  Charles Waterman patented his design on that date, although documentary evidence in the form of newspaper advertisements shows that Waterman had been selling the birds for almost a year before receiving the patent.  The advertisement also notes the "health preserving properties" of the sewing bird, because women could maintain good posture by using the sewing bird, rather than having to hunch over their work.  This webpage from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History not only gives more detail about the Waterman birds, but also allows you to click through to an interactive image of the many sewing birds in their collections:

As you can see from the Smithsonian image, many variations of sewing bird clamps exist!  Some seem a bit worse for the wear, but that highlights what beautiful condition our little bird is in, with the green velvet pincushions not only intact, but also retaining much of their vibrant color!  Our artifact is likely made of bronze or brass with silver plating, as the wear on the base of the bottom pincushion plate shows. 

These materials were very common in the production of hemming clamps, although they could also be produced with steel, iron, tin, pewter, solid silver, base metal, or other types of plated metals.  As the birds were produced using molds and a die-casting process, small details and decorative embellishments could easily be varied.

While birds were by far the most popular animal form in which the clamps were produced, there are also examples of clamps made to resemble fish, butterflies, dolphins, and mythical creatures.  I think my personal favorite from the examples shown below is the stag with the ivory threadspool by either ear!

Much like the busks in an earlier post (see "Death by Corset?" at ), sewing birds were often a gift from well-to-do suitors to be used by the bride-to-be as she sewed a trousseau.  Illustrations of the time show them being used by young girls as they learned to stitch and embroider, as well.  While this image is very sweet . . .

 . . . I think this one, with the caption "A Helper" and text that reads "every good child who sews with a will should have a wee birdie to help with his bill" might be my favorite!

If you are eager to learn more about sewing bird clamps and other sewing accessories and notions from the past, I would highly recommend Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing, by archaeologist Mary Carolyn Beaudry.  Many of the facts listed above were researched with the help of Beaudry's excellent book.

And speaking of archaeology, the Museum will be hosting the first of our archaeology lectures on Sunday, April 6th, at 2pm.  The lecture is titled "The Myth and Mystery of the Piasa Petrograph," and our presenter is Dr. Duane Esarey of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.  We hope you'll join us to learn more about the origins of this fascinating image originally documented near present-day Alton, Illinois, by early European explorers.  Hope to see you there!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this fascinating history on the sewing bird. I recently purchased a Junker & Ruh German sewing machine with a sewing bird attached to it. Just love it.