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Seen But Not Heard: Jewelry for Children

Children’s jewelry is often both decorative and practical. In addition to the smaller forms, such as necklaces, bracelets, and rings, there are many types of jewelry in Historic New England’s collection that were made expressly for children. These pieces were usually used as fastening devices and include armlets and clips for holding up sleeves, and a variety of specialized pins for diapers and clothing. Coral jewelry is often associated with children. Before the discovery of antibiotics, pasteurization, and inoculation, the child mortality rate was extremely high in America. Most families experienced the loss of one or more child, and in a hopeful attempt to ward off the constant threat of death, children were given jewelry made of coral, a material which was believed to have special properties that repelled disease and evil spirits.


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Rattle
Probably United States, before 1839
Silver
Gift of Miss Grace Gilbert
1932.225

Pendant / Brooch
United States, 1839
Gold, miniature on ivory, glass
H. 1 ¾, W. 1 5/16, D. 3/8 in.
Gift of Miss Grace Gilbert
1932.224
Inscription: “E. W. Gilbert Aged 10 mos 1839”

Jewelry sets with painted miniature portraits were popular until the invention of the photograph in the mid nineteenth century. This combination brooch and pendant features a miniature on ivory of E.W. Gilbert at the age of ten months. The baby is holding a silver rattle, which is also in Historic New England’s collection. The rattle was most likely once set with a piece of coral; however, it is apparent from the brooch that the coral was missing even before the miniature was painted. Coral was used not only to protect the child from evil spirits and disease, but was also deemed an appropriate material for teething toddlers.

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Coral Necklace and Armlets
Probably Italy, 1840-1880
Coral, gold
Necklace: L. 9 13/16, W. 3/16 in.
Armlets: L. 3, W. 3/8 (A); L. 3, W. 3/16(B) in.
Estate of Miss Una Dunbar
1933.262-263 a,b
Two Girls in an Interior
Artist Unknown
1815-1825
Oil on canvas
Gift of Nina Fletcher Little
1987.1001

American portraits of children from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries illustrate that strands of small carved cylindrical and polished branch coral beads were extremely common. These beads were imported from Italy, which has a large supply of coral off the coasts of Naples and Sicily. Coral was often given as a gift after the birth of a child and passed down through generations.

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Child’s Armlets
United States or Europe, c. 1858
Gold
L. 3 ¾, W. 3/16, D. 1/8 in.
Gift of the Estate of Maxim Karolik
1964.175 a,b
Inscription: “M.C.C.”

Wealthy New Englanders were not opposed to using fine and conspicuous materials in their children’s jewelry. These gold armlets were originally owned by Martha Catherine Codman and are engraved with her initials, “MCC.”. Martha was a cousin of Ogden Codman, Jr., and a great granddaughter of Elias Haskett Derby of Salem, Massachusetts, who is considered the first American millionaire. In 1928, at the age of 70, Martha married the performer Maxim Karolik who was 35 years her junior. The Karoliks were major collectors of American decorative and fine arts and donated much of their collections to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Child’s Ring
Probably United States, 1870-1890
Jet
Diam. 11/16, W. ¼ in.
Gift of Mrs. Inez M. Pierce
1938.1111
Child’s Ring
Probably United States, 1870-1900
18 karat gold, enamel
Diam. 9/16, W. 1/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. Charles D. Gowing
1974.195 b
Child’s Ring
Probably United States, 1850-1900
Amber
Diam. 11/16, W. 1/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. William Whitman, Jr.
1936.164 c
Child’s Signet Ring
Probably United States, 1909-1915
Gold, enamel
Diam. 9/16, W. 5/16 in.
Gift of Mrs. Chester R. Taylor
1932.869

Rings were another common form of jewelry for children. These pieces were usually smaller replicas of adult versions and reflected whatever the current jewelry fashions were at that time. Name rings and signet rings were very popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. Jewelry retailers carried large stocks of blank rings, which could be quickly personalized with a name or initials.

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Baby Clips
Probably United States, 1880-1900
Gold
H. 3/8, L. 1 3/8 in.
Gift of Miss Mary Alden Thayer
1923.514 a,b
Inscription: “Baby”
Child’s Pin Set
Probably United States, c. 1900
Gold, enamel
H. 1/8, W. 5/16, D. 3/16 in.
Gift of Miss Ruth Tinkham
1974.416

Small lozenge-shaped bar pins and clips were advertised by jewelry retailers and wholesalers as cuff or baby pins indicating that they could be worn by either an adult or child. The donor of the pin set related that these were used instead of buttons on a child’s dress.

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Seen But Not Heard: Jewelry for Children