Tuesday, August 12, 2014

An Illuminating Artifact Revealed!

We had a few guesses for our most recent Mystery Artifact.  Jess C. was probably closest in her comment that "their main characteristics are they're small, adorable, highly reflective in a warm brassy way, and non-flammable. These qualities make for a delightful housewarming gift - you put a little tea-light there in front and the flame reflects from both surfaces to create a touch of symbolic warmth (as well as some mood lighting to heat things up in a more figurative sense)."

The non-flammable aspect of these little brass boots is a clue to their function.  These are a matched set of spill holders.  Before matches were available and affordable for everyone, people used spill holders like these to help transfer flame.  The vessels contained rolled papers or thin sticks, called spills, used to transfer fire from the fireplace to candles and lamps or vice-versa. Spill holders come in all different shapes and materials.  Here are just a few examples:

The first is from our collection:

This hollowed-out section of birch log had a handle attached, and -- as you can see -- is still full of spills.  The word spill comes from spile, a word used to describe the spigot or plug used as a stopper in a barrel or cask of liquid.  It is now used to describe the spout used when drawing sap off a maple tree.  The word originally meant "splinter or peg" in earlier Dutch and German dialects, which became spyl or speil in the East Frisain and German dialects.  Borrowed to English, these little firelighters became spills.

Here is another lovely example of a spill holder, this one in pewter:

Most spill holders, like the ones above, resembled vases in form.  However, a few were made to be wall-mounted. 

This one is allegedly made of paper mache! 

There are many beautiful examples of spill holders out there, but the brass booties in our collection remain my favorite.  Having just finished the run of CUTC's Mary Poppins, I think our matched set of spill holders are "practically perfect in every way!"



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