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She Holds the Keys to the Castle: Chatelaines

She Holds the Keys to the Castle: Chatelaines

In the great houses of long ago there was always a strict chain of command. At the top of this chain was presumably the lord or gentleman of the estate but in truth, the real control lay in the hands of a woman. The lady of the house held the keys to every lock whether on a bedroom door, a desk safe, or on the kitchen pantry. With the keys came great responsibility. One only locks away the things one values or fears most afterall. A lady in such a position needed to be prepared for every possible task, armed with the tools to stitch a hem, inspect a document up close, snip a stray leaf from a carefully arranged bouquet, and, of course, unlock every door. A lady must be well equipped. 

Enter the chatelaine.

Named after the French word for "a lady who controls a great house," a chatelaine was the precursor to the keychain, the swiss army knife, the multitool, the tool belt even, and it's for ladies only.

I found this painting on a feminist website. It was labeled, "Another Unambitious Woman." She is, in fact, Mrs. James Guthrie by the Victorian artist Lord Frederick Leighton. I cannot speak to her ambition.

I found this painting on a feminist website. It was labeled, "Another Unambitious Woman." She is, in fact, Mrs. James Guthrie by the Victorian artist Lord Frederick Leighton. I cannot speak to her ambition.

Attached to the waist of your dress, a chatelaine consisted of a series of chains from which hung keys, scissors, pen and paper, eyeglasses, whatever tools a lady deemed necessary. And? They tended to be amazing pieces of jewelry. 

The piece above has a pen and paper, a pocket watch, a pocket knife and, my favorite, a small bottle for perfume or smelling salts. A lady must smell heavenly at all times and stay conscious whenever possible, wouldn't you agree? Those crushing corsets surely restricted your breathing and, let's be honest, life was pretty damn restrictive all around. Your place in society was largely set by your birth and your marriage which was often decided by your station, your dowery, your parents, rarely by you. If the keys to the god damned house were all you got, well then ladies understandably clung to them with a grip of steel. The responsibility of "lady of the house" could be taken from you, however:

"The woman with the keys to all the many desks, chest of drawers, food hampers, pantries, storage containers, and many other locked cabinets was 'the woman of the household.' As such, she was the one who would direct the servants, housemaids, cooks and delivery servicemen and would open or lock the access to the valuables of the house, possessing total authority over who had access to what. Frequently, this hostess was the senior woman of the house. When a woman married a son and moved into his father's house, the son's mother would usually hold on to the keys. However, if the mother became a widow, the keys and their responsibilities and status were often passed to the oldest son's wife. Younger women and daughters in the house often wanted the appearance of this responsibility, and would often wear decorative chatelaines with a variety of small objects in the place of keys, especially bright and glittering objects that could be used to start a conversation. In the case of the absence of a woman of the house, the controller of the keys was often a hired housekeeper."

So think Mrs. Hughes in Downton Abbey as the kind and efficient housekeeper. We love Mrs. Hughes. Think the evil sister in Crimson Peak for the in law angle. We don't like her one bit. If your husband died, you had to give the keys to your daughter in law? And you had to wait for your father in law to die to get any control of your home? Seems like a recipe for family discord to me.

Best case. Worst case.

There were more decorative versions of chatelaines, of course. In fact, most of the well respected jewelers of the time were making chatelaines. Genevieve Cummins, co-author of the book, Chatelaines: Utility to Glorious Extravagance explains in a recent interview in Collector's Weekly,

"Most major jewelers made or sold chatelaines, including Tiffany, Liberty, H.W. Dee, Samson Mordan, Thornhill, Boucheron, Faberge, Lalique, and many more. It absolutely stunned me when I looked at a book called The Master Jewelers, and saw that almost every major and famous jeweler in the later 19th century, at some stretch, had made a chatelaine."
 

Often a chatelaine was created as a matching set all at once. The more showy ones were jeweled, enameled, or hand painted and were worn to formal events only vs the more utilitarian ones which were often only worn at home. The examples below are some that were likely worn to more formal events.

Most of the chatelaines that are still in existence are the more common utilitarian variety, made of simpler materials and worn at home like this one below which contains scissors, a pincushion, a locket, a tape measure, a needle book, a thimble holder etc. and clearly belonged to a lady who enjoyed her sewing.  

Chatelaines were quickly adopted by nurses and professional seamstresses who needed their tools handy. Purses were tiny at the time and could barely hold a handkerchief and most dresses didn't have pockets. When pocket watches became all the rage, many chatelaines started out as watch chains with added accessories. Carrying your tools at your waist assured you were prepared for what lay ahead of you, whatever it may be. Whistles, pocket knives, you name it.

Behold these badass nurses. Oh I need a bone saw? It's here on my chatelaine. Heroin? Right here, got it. 

I love the cartoons from Punch Magazine below showing how very useful these devices can be to the homebound mother of yesteryear.

Women of all social statuses would have worn them by the way, even nuns. 

"Certainly, they clanked; when they moved, the chatelaine would’ve made a lot of noise. Nuns wore an equivalent device, and they got used to holding the chains when they were approaching the children, so the children couldn’t hear they were coming."
 

A little like putting a bell on a cat, no? 

Here's a collection of some lovely examples. I especially like the octopus one. If you'd like to learn more, there's a great article in The Art of Mourning that discusses the sentimentality of some of the items that can be found on chatelaines and their relationship to mourning. You can also visit our Pinterest page for all the chatelaines your heart could wish for. Let's bring them back. My ideal chatelaine would have my keys of course. I lose them several times a day. I'd also need tweezers, mirror, a pair of hedge clippers, a ball full of catnip, deodorant, eyeliner, hand lotion and sanitizer, business card holder, pen and paper, my cel phone, snacks, advil, some tampons...nail file...dental floss...a taser...mints...a GPS...tissues...credit cards...lipstick...

...bandaids, clear nail polish, perfume...an umbrella...I'm off to scour auction houses for one of my very own. xoxo

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