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1820 - 1850

Restrained Elegance.

Large horn and tortoiseshell hair combs were popular in the second quarter of the 19th century. Diantha Atwood Gordon of Fairfield, Maine, wears a pair of oversized hair combs in her c. 1832 portrait.
  • 1820 Missouri Compromise forbids slavery above 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude.
  • 1826 Thomas Jefferson and John Adams die on July 4th, the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
  • 1828 Baltimore & Ohio railroad, the first designed for passengers & freight.
  • 1830 Louis A. Godey begins publishing his Lady’s Book, the first widespread American woman’s periodical.
  • 1837 Victoria crowned Queen of England.
  • 1837 Charles Lewis Tiffany opens his first shop in New York.
  • 1839 Daguerreotype invented by Louis Daguerre and J. N. Niepce.
  • 1839 Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber.
  • 1840 Queen Victoria marries Prince Albert.
  • 1841 True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture published by A.W.N. Pugin.
  • 1842 Andrew Jackson Downing publishes Cottage Residences.
  • 1846-1848 Mexican-American War.
  • 1849 California Gold Rush begins.
Since sitting for a painted portrait was likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, women frequently wore their best jewelry, often piling on many pieces at once. Sarah Prince McArthur wore a paste hair comb, banded agate brooch, gold watch chain and pocket watch, enameled waist buckle and a gold ring for her 1836 portrait by Royal Brewster Smith.

American jewelers began to build the foundations of a bustling and successful industry in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The simple workshops located on ground floor rooms in the goldsmiths’ homes now grew into spacious, beautifully appointed jewelry shops. Simple gold pieces including wedding bands and bead necklaces continued to be the mainstay of most small jewelers. However, larger urban jewelry shops employed a talented workforce that executed detailed, elegant designs in gold for the wealthy men and women of Boston, New York, and other metropolitan centers.

During the Federal period, American jewelry began to demonstrate sophisticated techniques such as cannetille that twisted coils of gold into decorative patterns. As American artisans grew more established, they employed a number of different techniques, many of which were adapted from the decoration of silver hollowware. Motifs enhanced with repoussé or delicate engraving was popular throughout this period.

As the fashion for mourning and sentimental jewelry continued into the mid-nineteenth century, ornamented gold-work made a striking contrast against woven human hair. Hair could be used in a variety of ways. The hair of a single loved one or that of a loving couple could be tightly plaited and set in a plaque behind glass. These plaques were then used in numerous types of jewelry, including brooches, pendants, or earring drops. Beginning in the Federal period, hair was also woven into tightly braided coils that were formed into bracelets and necklaces. Hair jewelry of all types continued to grow in popularity throughout the nineteenth century.

Captain Samuel H. Howes wears a carnelian seal fob in his 1828 portrait.

Engraving, chasing, and repoussé also decorated utilitarian gold items for men and women. Beginning in the previous century, men wore ornamented gold seals as fobs for their watches. This fashion for seals continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. A single fob, set with carved hardstone seal, dangled at the waist from a man’s watch chain. Delicately detailed watches on chains also became popular for women. They were hung on long gold chains and tucked into a fashionably wide waistbands or belts. By the 1840s, the majority of American women wore some sort of gold accessory on a long chain or cord, either a gold watch or slim gold pen. 

Seed pearl brooches, Europe or United States, c. 1823, seed pearls and mother of pearl.

As gold-work grew more sophisticated, pearl jewelry also reached new heights of technique and beauty during the first half of the nineteenth century. Tiny seed pearls, less than a quarter of a grain in size, were strung on pale horse hair and then woven into openwork patterns or sewn onto a pierced mother-of-pearl plaques. The delicacy of the pearls perfectly suited the prevailing stylized shapes, particularly flowers, leaves, simple crosses, or decorative flourishes. Colored gems, especially the popular golden topaz and wine red garnet, were striking when set in seed pearl pieces. The combination of topaz and pearl was a delicate, feminine way for a Federal woman to wear the neoclassical color combination of gold and white. Woven seed pearl jewelry fell out of favor in Europe by the 1840s, but remained fashionable in America until the end of the nineteenth century, likely aided by the discovery of domestic pearl sources in the 1850s.

Fashion plates from England gave American women a tantalizing glimpse into the newest European styles. This British fashion plate, dated 1821, illustrates how jewelry was worn with the new style: a lorgnette on a long chain dangles over the waist while the ubiquitous gold watch is tucked into the belt on the side.

Shoe buckles became obsolete with the introduction of shoe laces in the early nineteenth century, but the belt buckle enjoyed a revival when the women’s silhouette changed. The raised Empire waist of the 1810s gradually lowered to the natural waist during the 1820s and 30s. Women often accentuated their waist with a wide silk belt, clasped in the front or slightly to the side with a tall rectangular buckle. These buckles were often worked in silver and featured simple enameling in pastel colors. Dressier buckles were also produced in carved and pierced mother-of-pearl.



1820 - 1850