Victorian-era Aide Memoire – Solid Ivory

A recent discovery of mine, and one I never thought that I would ever be lucky enough to own! But here we are.

I love anything old which is connected to writing. Pens, pencils, desks, writing slopes, desk accessories, writing accessories…the list is almost endless. And for a long time I’d wanted one of these things. But I never got the chance. That is, until now…

This thing is pocket-sized. It’s almost exactly the same size as a Zippo cigarette lighter. It’s the same width and the same height, and half the thickness. But what is it?

Manufactured from the mid-1800s to the turn of the century, this is called an Aide Memoire. They are meant to be pocket-sized weekly planners. The majority of the really old ones are made of ivory, such as this one…tortoise shell…or in later models…celluloid, which was much cheaper.

The average aide memoire is comprised of a front and back cover, and six or seven sheets of ivory, all riveted together through one pivot-point, and held shut by a clasp at the top. The sheets inside are headed with the days of the week, usually Monday through Saturday (although examples did exist with Sunday included).

Aide Memoires are fairly rare. One reason is their fragility. The sheets of ivory are sliced extremely thinly, and this makes them prone to cracking, chipping and breaking. The leaves of ivory in this example are perfect and are without any serious damage or defect, but they’re so thin that light passes through them!

Aide memoires came in a variety of styles. What you see here is kind of the basic style. There were other variations which had silver plaques on the front (for engraving initials), pencil-slots down the side, for holding the pencil, ones with tortoise-shell or sterling silver covers and ones with rings or hooks added to the pivot-point rivets, so that they could be attached to chatelaines worn by women.

How Do You Use an Aide Memoire?

You never write on an aide memoire in ink. The ink stains the ivory and it cannot be easily washed off. Aide memoires are designed for use with pencils. In an age before a portable, self-filling writing instrument (a fountain pen) was available, people used dip-pens. As these needed their own external ink-supplies (inkwells or ink bottles) they couldn’t be used on the move. Pencils, with their own interior supplies of graphite, could be used anywhere.

To prevent wasting paper, people who could afford it, carried aide memoires around. Notes and to-do lists could be written inside the aide memoire in pencil, and then at the end of the week, the graphite marks could be easily erased using a damp cloth.

Aide Memoires varied in size. Some were larger than this, some were smaller. This one’s probably approaching the smallest practical size. I did see one smaller one in an antique shop once, which about half the size of this, which is absolutely insane!

The Aide Memoire opened and fanned out, on the right. On the left, a standard ZIPPO cigarette lighter.

The largest aide memoire I’ve ever seen was at a flea-market. It was about the size of a pack of playing cards. It was something I’d dearly love to own, but the price was just out of my reach…that, and one of the ivory sheets was cracked and chipped! If I was going to spend that kind of money, then I expect things perfect!!

Anyway, just wanted to share this little gem :)



Posted by on June 11, 2015 in Antiques


S. Mordan & Co. Sterling Silver Dip Pen & Pencil Set w/Original Box. Ca. 1880.

You do find the craziest things when you have to run errands on terrible days…

In preparation for a family reunion, I’d been running myself ragged for two weeks, buying food and cooking ingredients and all other manner of things to prepare for the big day ahead. It didn’t help that the weather lately has been absolutely GHASTLY. Raining nonstop, blowing a hurricane and freezing cold almost incessantly.

I had to go to another suburb to pick up a fresh gas-cylinder for my home-carbonation kit, along with a whole heap of other things. The weather was patchy and rainy all day…Oh God…

To make the most of a bad situation, I stopped in at one of the several charity shops in the area (there’s three or four of them, all within a few blocks of each other) to look around.

In one of these shops was a very dark case inside a display-cabinet. Inside the case were something long and thin and shiny.

At once my interest was piqued.

I thought the items to be not worth much – items in charity shops rarely are. Anyway, I asked to have a look. They were removed from the cabinet and presented to me…

…inside the case was…

“Are they silver?”
“Maybe…I dunno. There’s no hallmarks on it”.

I had a look and sure enough…no hallmarks.

But there was a name. A manufacturer’s name. Hidden in amongst the forest of engraving.

“S. Mordan & Co”.

My heart went flitty-flutter…

I’d heard a friend of mine talk of this company, once or twice, a few years back. But I couldn’t quite remember why she found it so interesting. I suspected the set might be worth something…they thought it was junk. Cheap stuff not worth bothering about…but I decided to take a chance.

They were on sale, anyway, I noticed. There were two prices on the tag. And I got a bit confused, until the guy who showed me the set explained that the second price meant that they’d been reduced. I snapped up the set and carried it home. Today, I sent an email to my aforementioned friend and she sent a reply, dating the set to the 1880s or 1890s (which lines up with the research I did) and said that they were almost certainly sterling silver, since S. Mordan & Co didn’t start making silver-plate pens and pencils until the 1910s.

I think I need to sit down for a minute…

What’s the significance of S. Mordan & Co?

Well…S. Mordan is Sampson Mordan Snr. He lived from 1790 until 1843. He’s the man who invented the propelling pencil. The great-grandfather to every mechanical pnecil in existence today.

As a result, anything bearing his name in the writing world can carry a hefty value along with it…Wow!!


Posted by on May 14, 2015 in Antiques


10kt Gold Victorian-era Infant Ring. Ca. 1870-1890.

Sometimes, you find the niftiest stuff at charity shops! I picked up this little gem today:

I’ve researched it, and asked jewelers about it, and compared it with other examples online. It’s been tested by a reputable auction house and the conclusion of all, is that this is a stunning example of a Victorian era baby’s ring (probably a pinkie ring)!

It is intended for use by infants and toddlers. It is absolutely tiny! I can’t fit it onto my pinkie-finger, and my hands are pretty small. Something like this was probably a present to a newborn or to a baby on its first birthday. The ring is certified 10kt gold, and the star settings are red garnet, and seed pearls, as can be seen here:

The ring dates to the second half of the Victorian era, probably between 1870-1890. I’ve never seen one like it before, but examples online which closely resemble this ring all state that they are baby’s rings, and that they are usually 10kt gold. I consulted a jeweler friend of mine (if you’re reading this, you know who you are! Thanks!), and he said that it was common for 10 & 15kt gold to be unmarked in the period before Australian federation (which was 1901). Since this ring is Victorian in date, that makes a lot of sense.

I’m so amazed to own this thing! I just had to share it :)


Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Antiques


Restoring a Victorian-Era Double-Hinge Writing Slope

I’ve often been told that if you restore an antique, you ruin its value. Not a belief that I have ever wholeheartedly followed. Mostly because it varies significantly on a case-by-case basis. A slipshod, half-assed restoration can destroy an antique. A careful, loving restoration can increase an antique’s value significantly. The difference is knowing when to restore something, and whether your actions could damage the item irreparably.

Take for example, this item:

I purchased this during a day-trip down the coast. It’s a very, very battered late-19th century gentleman’s writing-box. I bought it because I’d never seen a box of this style with this type of metalwork on the lid before. As far as old writing-boxes go, it was very cheap, and I daresay if I hadn’t bought it, it would’ve been thrown out as a useless bit of old tat, sooner or later. I figured that if I did buy it, then I could restore it and use it as my own personal writing-slope. I didn’t want to use any of my nicer ones, in case I damaged them. This one was already in ‘rustic’ condition, shall we say – so I wouldn’t feel too guilty about using it, since there was very little of value left to damage!!

See what I mean?? This box’s list of ailments was impressive, to say the least. Let’s see now…

– No key.
– Torn accessories caddy.
– Broken organiser.
– Broken inkstand.
– Ink stains everywhere.
– Inkwell was falling apart, and leaking like a sieve.
– Scratches and grime all over the place.
– Broken divider between the inkwell and pen-rest.
– Completely devoid of writing accessories.
– Aide Memoire was shot to a million pieces.

Repairing the Inkstand The first and easiest repair was fixing the inkstand. This is just three or four pieces of wood which just slot together. Unfortunately, someone glued them together. Someone else then tried to pull it apart, and broke the wood at the glued joints. I pulled the wood apart and used a very sharp knife to cut away the glue and separate the wood. I glued back the broken parts as they were originally intended, and then slotted everything back together, without glue or nails or screws to hold it together (as it was originally designed to do).

The writing-slope with the inkstand disassembled. Removing this also allowed me to clean up a lot of the ink that you can see in the corner, from the leaking inkwell. I used extra-fine steel wool for that. It scrubs away the majority of the ink without seriously damaging the wood finish.

Once that was done, I had to measure and cut a new divider between the pen-rest and the inkwell. The old one was broken in half, and the removable pen-rest kept sliding back and forth, knocking against the inkwell. It was a simple repair and easily accomplished.

Repairing the Leather Not so easy was repairing the leather. The writing-slope had DEEP scratches, and many stains and blemishes, not to mention the fact that in areas, the leather was peeling off and in others, was gone completely! Fortunately the vast majority of the box was still leather-covered. I was able to glue down the loose bits, and then cleaned and polished the leather with dubbin and black shoe-polish. It removed some of the scratches and marks, but not all of them. Indeed, not even most of them. But it’s better than nothing! And far easier than ripping off all the leather and replacing it entirely!

Repairing the Organiser

Repairing the organiser (the two-slot space for storing papers), was significantly easier than trying to remove the blemishes from the leather. I had enough broken and loose bits of wood leftover in the box to trace, cut and stain extra parts of the correct size. I then glued them all back into place…

Replacing the Aide Memoire One of the biggest issues with this box was replacing the Aide Memoire. The two white shield-shaped panels on the lid. Really fancy writing-slopes have these made of sheets of purest ivory. Cheaper ones, they’re made of celluloid. And the really rock-bottom economy models (like this one!!) – they’re just cardboard! In fact they’re not even cardboard, they’re cardstock. The same stuff which Hallmark uses in all its fancy greetings-cards! The original aide memoire was so dilapidated it literally crumbled off on the way home. I scraped off the remainder with a knife…

…and then made tracings of the outlines. I cut two identical white, waxed cardstock templates and glued them into place. I measured and checked everything countless times, to ensure that they were as close to the originals as possible…

Gluing the Inkwell Back Together One of the biggest headaches about this writing-slope was the inkwell. After 100 years, it was falling apart in the most spectacular fashion, and I had no idea how to fix it. The inkwell is made up of three components: – A necked, glass bottle. – A threaded, brass collar that goes over the neck. – A threaded, brass cap that screws onto the collar. The collar is held onto the neck by some manner of filler-adhesive. Over 100 years or more, the adhesive had not only lost its grip, it had lost its integrity, too.

One good wiggle was all it needed to part neck from collar, in what was already a construct of the flimsiest condition. Fortunately, no element of the inkwell was broken when it came apart. I chipped, scraped and sanded off all the leftover adhesive-filler, and then I used two-part epoxy filler-adhesive, to glue the collar back onto the glass neck, and create a watertight seal. It was a bit messy, as glue is apt to be, but it got the job done with spectacular results! The inkwell is now whole again, leakproof and able to hold fluid without leaking everywhere!

Cutting a Key After all that came what was possibly the hardest task, which ironically, had been among the easiest in all my previous jobs! Finding a key for the lock! These old writing-boxes, generally, have very simple one-lever locks. A key with a barrel and head the right size is all that’s needed to turn the bolt. No fiddly teeth or notches required. Or at least, not normally. But this lock was proving more than cantankerous. It defied all my usual attempts to find a key for it.

I was on the verge of giving up and sending the whole damn thing to a locksmith, when I decided to give it all one last try. To send this to a locksmith would’ve cost me a prohibitive amount of money, and time, considering that a box of keys is only a few bucks. I purchased said box of keys, found one of an appropriate size, and then unscrewed the lock from the box, and then used a flat-head screwdriver to lever the plates apart…

Once sufficiently loosened, the entire thing fell apart. The lock is only made up of three components. The frontplate, the bolt, and the backplate, containing the lever and spring. This was just a one-lever lock. So I only had to file down a key to make it the right size to push against one item. Locks like this can have as many as three, five, or even eight levers, or more. After a lot of filing and testing, I got a key to fit the lock. I reassembled the lock…

…and then I hammered it back together, slotted it back into the box, screwed it down, and tied the key to the box-handle to stop it getting lost.

Finishing Touches After repairing the lock, the aide memoire, as much of the leather as I could, the inkstand and the inkwell, the organiser and wiping off a considerable amount of grime, all I hd left was the finishing touches. Cleaning it once more, and finding all the necessary bits and pieces to fill it up. Like all the bone and ivory to accessorize it with:

The ink-eraser knife, the letter-opener, and the page-turner (white thing on the pen-rest) are all ivory from the Victorian era. The dip-pen is bone. And here we have it. Is it perfect? Not really. But it’s the closest that we’re likely to get to ever seeing what the original condition of this box might’ve been, over 130 years ago.


Posted by on April 17, 2015 in Antiques


Antique Ivory – What is it? Where does it come from? How do you get it? Is it LEGAL?

I collect antiques.

I have done for quite a few years, now. And I consider myself to be at least reasonably knowledgeable about the items which, and the periods from when I collect.

My main area of collection is antique writing accessories and equipment, although I will collect anything that catches my fancy, so as a result, my collection can be rather eclectic. Over the years I’ve noticed that I’ve amassed a small collection of ivory. And this is what this post is about. Ivory. What is is, how to I.D. it, where to find it, how to get it and all that other good stuff.

Ivory is beautiful. Ivory is rare. Ivory is expensive. And ivory is fraught with legal, moral and other kinds of difficulties. So let’s get right into it!

What Is Ivory?

In simplest terms, ivory is teeth. It’s the enamel-like substance that makes up the core and exterior of tusks and teeth. It’s famed for its colour, texture, ease of carving and variety of size and shape.

Where does Ivory Come From?


Yes. But there are also a number of other sources. These include hippos, walruses, seals, narwhals, and the extinct mammoth. Mammoth ivory is legal to purchase and trade, as it does not harm living creatures, however, it is very expensive. It’s also legal to trade other ivory, provided that the ivory comes from a creature that died of natural causes. As poaching ivory-bearing animals is illegal, quantities of legal ivory are very small and the prices are, unsurprisingly, prohibitively expensive.

Is it Legal to Own Ivory?

Yes…with a ‘but’.

It IS legal to own, buy and sell antique ivory. The animal’s already dead, so there’s no issues surrounding poaching, or wondering where the ivory came from. Nobody cares about an elephant who died 150 years ago. You can’t be prosecuted for owning antique ivory (s’long as you didn’t steal it!). I own about a dozen pieces of antique ivory myself. All purchased quite legally from antiques shops and flea-markets, fairs and other such events.

Owning NEW ivory is fraught with ALL KINDS of issues. ‘New’ ivory basically means anything which was harvested, or processed in any way, after the Second World War, and especially, after the 1970s and 80s.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay sure. Whatever. But is it LEGAL to own new ivory?

YES. But owning new ivory comes with so many strings attached, you could strum it like a harp.

It IS legal to buy and own modern ivory, but when you see the hassle that goes into it…you might change your mind. Even expert antiques dealers and auctioneers who have been doing this for decades couldn’t tell you how hard it is. There’s more loopholes in this than the curtain wall on a castle. Don’t believe me? Here goes…

It is legal for Alaskan natives to sell ivory (walrus ivory, usually) to non-natives. BUT ONLY AFTER the animal (which was hunted) has been thoroughly used up, FIRST. Killing the walrus just for the ivory and discarding the rest of the animal is illegal.

It’s legal to sell MAMMOTH ivory, because mammoths are already dead, so no live animals are hurt in extracting the ivory. But it’s prohibitively expensive.

It’s legal to sell narwhal ivory. But again, you need paperwork.

It’s legal to sell ‘vintage ivory’ (that is, ivory that’s old, but which is still postwar), so long as you have full documentation.

Ivory, Bone and Plastic

For whatever reason – Perhaps you inherited it – perhaps you found it – perhaps you bought it at a flea-market or antiques shop – you have a piece of ivory.

Or at least, you think you do. But you have no idea if it is. How do you tell? Here is my guide to determining if something is, or is not ivory.

Here, we have a closeup of three different materials. One of them is ivory. Two of them are often mistaken for ivory. What’s the difference??

The items are a page-turner, a paper-folder, and the scales from a straight-razor. They all look roughly the same, but only one is the real McCoy. How do you tell which one of these three materials is ivory? Well, to help you with that, here is my own little guide:


…is a natural product. If it looks absolutely perfect, it ain’t ivory. Even the most perfect ivory will have flaws of some kind. Spots. Inclusions. Lines. Pitting. Stuff like that.
…is like wood. It has a grain that you can either see with your eyes, or feel with your fingernails. If you don’t see or feel some sort of grain – be suspicious!
…grain is never uniform. Like wood-grain, it’s random and goes all over the place. If the ‘grain’ is perfectly spaced out (see the straight razor at the bottom), then it is not ivory. It is plastic with a faux ‘grain’ on top to make it look like ivory.
…is normally very smooth, with minimal pitting and is usually an off-white cream or darker beige colour.
…does NOT have a whole heap of pitting and holes and black spots on it. Black spots and deep, frequent pitting (large enough to catch your fingernail in) means that the item is BONE, NOT IVORY. The black spots are marrow-flecks.
…can vary from piece to piece, depending on age, condition, and of course, the animal it’s taken from.

Beware of the term ‘French Ivory’. This is just a fancy way of saying ‘celluloid’, which itself was also called Xylonite and Parkesine (two early names for what later was called celluloid).

If the above guide doesn’t help, another way of testing for ivory is the ‘hot needle’ test. Heat up a needle until it’s really, really hot. Then stick it into the item which you think is ivory.

If it is ivory – nothing happens. If it isn’t ivory, then the item will melt, smoulder or the needle will sink into the item. Or the item might be bone.

If the item is celluloid, then DON’T TRY THIS!!! Antique celluloid is HIGHLY COMBUSTIBLE and it WILL burst into flames if it’s exposed to high enough heat. having seen what happens firsthand what happens when you set fire to celluloid (I did it as an experiment with a broken fountain pen) – I can assure you – you don’t want antique plastic flaring up and exploding in front of you!

Owning and Looking After Ivory

Owning ivory is legal, provided that it is ANTIQUE IVORY, or, if it’s modern ivory – if you have all the necessary documentation. With antique ivory, you don’t need documentation, so long as you can prove how old it is by some other means (maybe it’s part of a set, maybe it’s part of another antique, etc).

The only exception to this is the United States.

In the EU, Great Britain, and most countries of the former British Empire, it’s perfectly legal to own antique ivory – and you don’t need any supporting paperwork. Antiques dealers can sell it and trade it quite openly from their shops, market-stalls and elsewhere, and the discerning public can buy it, own it, use it and collect it as they wish.

But in America, laws were passed as recently as 2014 which state that ALL IVORY – including antique ivory – MUST come with certificates and paperwork from the relevant government departments stating that this ivory was legally purchased and accessed. There are NO exceptions to this.

The rest of the world doesn’t care – If it’s antique ivory, and it’s OBVIOUSLY antique ivory – then obviously, no animals in recent times died for it – so unless you stole it – it’s legal. This is the case in Britain, Europe, Australia and a number of other countries. But in the United States, all ivory, regardless of origin, provenance and history, must come with government documentation. Unsurprisingly, it’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way – especially antiques dealers, who have now essentially been branded criminals for things that they purchased quite legally.

If you are in the ‘States, or if you’re going there with ivory – watch out!!

But, for whatever reason – you have ivory. You inherited, or bought it, or found it. Now what do you do to keep it safe?

Ivory should be handled with care. If you touch it often enough, it will eventually turn yellow (like those antique piano-keys), and it can dry out and crack. So keep it away from heat and strong sunlight as much as possible. So long as it’s kept cool, away from heat and strong light, an item made of ivory should last for many, many, many years.

My Ivory Collection

This is my personal collection of ivory, amassed over a period of about five years. It’s comprised of page-turners (the two flat pieces, bottom left), paper-knives (two on bottom right), ink-erasers (inner left and inner right. Spearpoint blades). Letter-opener (top left, next to ink-eraser). Button-hook, hole-punch, crochet-hook and file, and at the top – a ruler made of ivory. All these pieces are at least 100 years old (in some cases at least 150 years old!), and are all in wonderful condition.

Every piece here is ivory – and you can see the subtle differences in shade, finish, and colour. No two pieces are exactly the same. That is because this is a natural product which, like wood – is always a little different from sample to sample. Colour also varies from sample to sample. Compare the two ink-knives – the left one is darker, the right one is lighter.

This is my 13th piece of ivory – another paper-knife/letter-opener (or doctor’s tongue-depressor, as a few have suggested).

Hopefully this guide has been useful and helpful to people who own, or want to own, pieces of antique ivory :)

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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Antiques


Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Pith Helmets – The Original Sun Hat!

One of the most popular postings I ever wrote for this blog was about hats. It continues to be searched, read, viewed and commented on, much to my disbelief and amazement.

Thanks to everyone who’s visited this blog and likes hats. I like hats too. Hats are neat.

I’m taking this opportunity to write about the fascinating and whimsical story behind one type of hat in particular. A hat which has generally fallen out of favour, ever since the late 20th century, and which has yet to undergo any sort of serious mainstream revival.

I am of course talking about the Pith Helmet.

Boaters, Panamas, Trilbies, Homburgs, Fedoras, flat-caps, panel-caps, Fez-caps, Greek fishing-caps, even the deerstalker hat made famous by Sherlock Holmes, and countless other items of headwear have all survived well into the 21st century. Most men and women would wear them anywhere and everywhere, and think absolutely nothing of it. And yet, the same freedom of movement has somehow never been afforded to the humble pith helmet, which I think is a shame, given its noble history and many excellent qualities.

This post aims to explain the wonders of the Pith Helmet. What makes it such an iconic and fascinating…well…hat…essentially, and why it lasted so long.

What Is a ‘Pith Helmet’?

The Pith Helmet is a hard-shell, high-crowned hat with a wide, sloping brim made of the ‘pith’ (soft heartwood) of the Sola plant. It’s for this reason they’re also called ‘Sola Topees’ or Sola hats. Other names include sun-hats or sun-helmets. Pith helmets are constructed thus: Soft pith from the Sola plant is placed on a mold and glued on, layer after layer, forming the shell of the helmet. The helmets are built up kind of like how you make papier-mache. Once the glue dries and a hard shell has been attained, the helmet is removed from the mold and is swathed in tight-fitting cotton to protect the shell.

Originally, this cotton covering was white, but over time, most pith helmets were stained an earthy sand colour called Khaki. This was originally a form of camouflage in the sandy regions of Africa, India and the Middle East, but soon it became standard on most pith helmets. These days, pith helmets are typically manufactured in two colours – white, and khaki. There is no real distinction between one or the other, except that white pith helmets are used largely for ceremonial roles, and khaki pith helmets are used for more practical roles.

The word ‘Khaki’ comes from the Persian word ‘Khak’, which literally means ‘soil’. Therefore – Khaki-coloured helmets were helmets which were the colour of soil, or dust. Some people in Britain still use the slang-word ‘khak’ to this day, meaning general filth, grit, grime and mess.

What are Pith Helmets Made Of?

Traditionally, pith helmets were constructed of sola pith, although when pith wasn’t available, they were also made of cork. Today, helmets tend to be made out of one or the other, depending on local resources. Pith helmets made in Vietnam (where a lot of pith helmets are made for export) are still made of traditional pith.

What is the Purpose of a Pith Helmet?

OK, they look cool…but…what the hell do they DO??

The Pith Helmet’s design was taken from the German Pickelhaube helmet (Those fancy Prussian ones with the brass spikes on top), and came into being around the mid-1800s. The Pith Helmet was designed for use in hot, dry and humid climates, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and India. It has a number of features which make it ideal for these kinds of conditions. Let’s see what they are…

My own pith helmet, made of cork, lined in dark khaki cotton fabric with a neatly folded puggaree around the crown. Leather chin-strap and six riveted ventilation holes. French colonial style.

The pith helmet has a high crown. This keeps the top of the helmet away from your hair and prevents sweat-buildup. The hard shell made of pith means that no matter what happens, it won’t cave in and cause sweat to build up in your hair. The helmet comes with steel-reinforced ventilation holes. The number of vent-holes varies depending on the style of helmet you have. My helmet up above is the French colonial style. These traditionally came with six vent-holes – three on each side, arranged in a triangle. Wind blowing through the vent-holes cool the head down and wick away sweat.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the pith helmet is the wide, sloping brim. This is designed to keep the sun and rain off your face and neck. The leather belt across the front brim is actually meant to be a chin-strap, stored up there when not in use.

However, one of the most famous characteristics of the pith helmet is that it’s designed to get wet!

Soaking your Helmet

Pith helmets (Well-made ones, anyway), are designed to be soaking wet when they’re used. A good-quality cork, or pith helmet is designed to retain water. On a hot day, dunk the helmet in a bucket of water, or flip the crown upside down and fill it with water and let it soak in for a few hours. Drain off the excess water, shake the helmet to remove the runoff, and then put it on.

Out in the heat of the sun, the water evaporating from the helmet will keep you cool. The helmet’s rigid shape will stop the water getting all over you and the hard shell won’t collapse on top of your head. So long as the helmet is regularly re-hydrated, it’ll remain cool and comforting throughout the day. It was the pith helmet’s ability to act as your own personal cooling-device that made it so popular in hot and humid countries like India, Singapore, Vietnam and elsewhere.

The History of the Pith Helmet

Developed in the mid-1800s, the pith helmet was originally military-wear. It was modeled after the German Pickelhaube helmet and was issued to troops stationed in Africa, the Middle East and Asia from the 1850s up until after the Second World War. Apart from soldiers, they were also issued to police-officers in places like China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaya and Australia.

Helmets were originally white, but the whiteness made the soldiers which wore them a target to the enemy. To make them less conspicuous, they covered them in dust and sand. This stained them a sandy yellow-brown hue which was named ‘Khaki’, after the Persian ‘Khak’ (‘Dirt’). This led to the helmets being manufactured in both white and khaki. The colours of the helmets issued to soldiers varied according to the uniforms they wore and the ranks they held. Badges of rank were placed on the fronts of the helmets.

The pith helmet soon became popular with Western civilians living in hot climates and it was worn by both men and women. Europeans going to South America, Panama, the Caribbean, Africa, or Asia would buy a pith helmet before going. In fact for a time it was believed that if you were going to these places, you NEEDED a pith helmet because the paler Caucasian complexion was too fragile to bear up under such strong, equatorial sunbeams. A large, broad-brimmed helmet to provide defense against the rays was essential!

Pith helmets continued to be popular, and continued to be military-issued, right up until the 1950s. Due to the wide range of locales where they saw service, pith helmets gradually developed into about half a dozen different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation.

The Types of Pith Helmets

Over time, the pith helmet developed into about six different distinct styles, each one associated with a specific country or organisation. They were, in no particular order…

Foreign Service Helmet

The Foreign Service Helmet is the quintessential Victorian-era British pith-helmet! It conjures up images of the colonial wars of the 1800s, of Safaris in Africa, of the British Raj, of the film ‘Zulu’, and the big game hunters of old. The Foreign Service Helmet has the highest crown. It also has a protruding, beak-like rim and sloping back. These are designed to keep sun and rain off the face and neck. They were available in both white and Khaki.

French-Style Pith Helmet

To protect them from the heat in such places as French North Africa, French Guiana and French Indochina, the French Army adopted this pith helmet. It’s got a low crown, it’s oval-shaped with a wide, turned-down brim. It has six vent-holes (three on each side) for cooling the head.

USMC Pith Helmet

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) adopted the pith helmet as part of its uniform starting in the early 1900s. At first-glance, it looks just like the French one, but it’s got a much higher crown and more vent-holes. Twelve, instead of six.

Bombay Bowler

Winston Churchill wearing a Bombay Bowler

Named after the Indian city of Bombay, this type of pith helmet was more ‘hat-like’ than other helmets and was designed more for civilian wear than military use, despite this, it still had the same characteristics as all the other helmets – it was lightweight and retained water for use in hot climates. While other helmets were more rounded, the Bombay Bowler has a flatter crown and straighter edges.

Vietnamese Pith Helmet

Worn by the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, this pith helmet is one of the most distinctive styles ever made. It is the only commonly-accepted version of the pith-helmet which isn’t white or khaki – but green, to go with classic Military Green of army uniforms. It’s also the most ‘bowl-like’ of the helmets, having a uniform dome-like crown and rim.

The Safari Helmet

The more generic ‘safari’ helmet


The last style of pith-helmet is the safari helmet. This varied significantly in size, crown-shape and height, and the number of ventilation holes. It doesn’t conform to any particular style previously mentioned. It most closely resembles the French-style pith helmet, but the positioning and number of the vent-holes does not always match the traditional three on each side, set out in an upright triangle.

These various styles of pith helmets remained common up until the mid-20th century but are now usually worn only for costumes, parade/ceremonial uniforms, or historical reenactments. That said, a well-made pith helmet is still one which will fulfill its original functions and capabilities as orginally intended. The next time you head out into the wilderness with a break-open shotgun and a yen for some big game, perhaps bring one along. If you go camping in the bush, the desert or the outback, one of these might prove useful. If nothing else, it’ll help hold a small amount of water if you turn it upside-down! They’re whimsical, useful, classic, charming and practical.


Posted by on March 15, 2015 in History of Clothing, Uncategorized


Double-Hinge Writing Slope (ca. 1875)

During the Australia Day Long Weekend (Australia Day is the 26th of January for those who don’t know), I headed up to the country for the annual Fryerstown Antiques Fair. A three-day antiques fair which takes place in the tiny hamlet of Fryerstown, which is virtually in the middle of nowhere. Been going there for a few years, now. And I’ve always found something nice whenever I go.

Last year it was a Singer Puzzle Box. The year before that, it was a clothes valet. This year, it was this:

The Little Black Box

I purchased this rather battered-looking writing-slope for what I consider to be a very good price, considering the fact that it was missing almost everything that made purchasing something like this worthwhile. But I considered it a good purchase because it was a style of writing-slope or writing-box which I did not yet own. And I decided that it would make a good restoration-project.

At any rate, I purchased the box and brought it home. I cleaned the leather with beeswax and scrubbed off all the grime. I opened the box and cleaned out the interior. The box came without inkwells, or key. The owner had no information on it other than that he’d purchased it at auction and kept it at home, half-opened, as a display-piece, until he decided that since he didn’t use it, he may as well just get rid of it for a low price. That’s where I came in!

Restoring the Writing Slope

The box is beautiful and more-or-less structurally sound, but it suffered from a number of issues.

– It had no inkwells.
– It had no key.
– The antique ‘Russia Leather’ covering was dry and filthy.
– The lining of black, textured paper was peeling away, and was too brittle to glue back down (so I removed it).
– The base of the box was structurally unsound. It was starting to crack and part. So I needed to reinforce it.

The first step in restoring the box to full functionality was fixing this whole issue with the inkwells. This was going to be a bloody nightmare. Antique writing-slope inkwells are damn near impossible to find, they’re expensive to buy, and they’re even MORE expensive to import from Europe. And what’s worse – this box needed TWO such inkwells!

Knowing my chances to finding two identical glass antique inkwells that precisely fitted the slots inside the box were very, very slim, I looked for suitable alternatives, and found one in small, 18ml flattop medicine-jars used for ointments, and which had tight-sealing metal lids with foam washers inside to prevent leaks. They fitted ideally into the slots, and were exactly the right height so that the box would always close securely. Wonderful!

To cover up the original brand-name on the bottle-lids, I glued on circles of red velvet. To make the bottles easier to pull out and unscrew for use, I put cut slits in the velvet and threaded some yellow ribbon through to act as little handles.

The two new inkwells in their slots

In case anyone else is restoring a writing-box like this and is struggling to find inkwells – I used 18ml ‘Tiger Balm’ jars. They’re little hexagonal glass jars with flat, brass screw-on lids. They were the perfect size. The closest thing I was likely to get, barring the purchase of actual inkwells.

To be clear, you CAN purchase reproduction glass and brass-topped, screw-down inkwells for writing-slopes. But they’re prohibitively expensive. For me, it would’ve cost at least the price I paid for the box, and more. I wasn’t willing or able to spend that kind of money on it.

After finding appropriate inkwell substitutes, the next step was to reinforce the base of the box. It was originally covered in a simple, paper backing, and this had peeled right off. The wood underneath had also started to split and part company from the rest of the box, to the extent that you could feel the wood moving when you picked up the box.

To fix this, I put on sheets of adhesive foam padding. The foam would be thicker than paper, and last longer than felt (which is what most vintage boxes were covered with, on their bases). The foam bottom would allow the box to be slid around smoothly, and not catch or scratch anything if it was moved around on a table or other smooth surface.

The next step in restoring the box was to put in a new lining.

Re-lining the Interior

The original lining of the box was black, textured paper. It was peeling right off and bubbling up, coming away from the wooden surface of the box. The original glue had long since dried out. Gluing the paper back down was not an option because of how fragile it was. It would simply crumble and crack into dust. It was only the layer of glue that held it together. I found out how weak it was when I tried vacuuming out the dust and it peeled right off.

The original black paper lining. You can see where it’s peeling away and bubbling up

I removed the original black paper and decided to line the box with red velvet. To make it easier, I used thin cardboard to cut out simple templates which I then glued onto sheets of velvet. Doing this means that the velvet can be placed more precisely and more neatly, into the interior of the writing-slope.

After gluing the cardboard templates to the velvet sheeting, I cut the velvet out, tracing around the cardboard backings. Then I glued the card and the velvet into the box, and then simply dropped in the velvet base, without gluing it to the floor of the box (it seemed pointless anyway – it’s not going anywhere!) I know for a fact that writing slopes were lined in velvet, so I felt that this was an entirely appropriate choice for a period-accurate restoration-material. The enormous quantity of velvet fabric which I had, originally came from a shop that sold huge rolls of curtaining-material!

Cleaning the Leather Exterior

Cleaning the exterior on this box was tricky. It’s covered in ‘Russia Leather’, that is to say, leather that’s been treated with oil from the birch tree after the original tanning process. It’s called ‘Russia Leather’ because this method of leather-treatment was developed in Russia. Treating the leather thus made it impervious to insect attack, rot, and also rendered it waterproof. An ideal material with which to cover a wooden box which would be transported all over the place.

But that was 130+ years ago. In that time the leather has become caked in dust and grime and has dried up. To prevent it peeling and cracking, I rubbed and scrubbed the whole surface over with dubbin (standard beeswax polish) to clean and soften the leather. This isn’t an easy or quick process. Dubbin is laid on, rubbed in, then wiped or brushed off and then the whole thing is rubbed over again. This moistens the leather and removes the grime at the same time. But it takes a while! The result, however, is that the leather will continue to endure

Filling out the Box

Having cleaned the box inside and out, having re-lined the interior and having found inkwells for it, my next step was to try and fill out the box with appropriate accessories which might’ve been found inside it during the heyday of its use. This was both easy and not so easy.

Some things are easier to find than others. Notepaper, envelopes and such, are easy to find. So are dip-pens, pencils, pen-holders, ink for the inkwells etc. The harder items to find were things like the ivory utensils that likely comprised part of this box’s equipment when it was new.

All kitted out. Pencil, pen, inkwells, an ivory page-turner and other stuff which isn’t visible

It took considerable searching and luck, but in the end, I did manage to find an authentic Victorian page-turner made of ivory, to put into the box’s front slot. I also included stuff like spare nibs, sealing-wax, a seal, and a bone-folder to finish off the look.

The last thing to do was to find a key for the box. This was essential, as the box would be impossible to carry without a key. After a trip to the local flea-market and considerable testing and measuring, I was able to find a key that operated the lock smoothly and easily.

The key is tied to the box by yellow ribbon, to prevent it being lost

How long did this whole process take?

From the day I bought the box until the day I found the final piece (the key), it was all over and done with, in about two weeks.

Not bad as far as time goes.


Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Antiques


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