A Hierarchy of 18th century Jewelry

Let's suppose you are an 18th c woman, and of the middling sorts, neither poor nor affluent. Money is tight. Do you have jewelry?

To answer that question, it helps to take an 18th c perspective on what constitutes "jewelry." For this purpose, jewelry could be defined as any non-textile supplement to the clothing that adds a decorative element.

Poor women, "the lower sorts", would have had nothing that even resembled jewelry. They wore no clothing accessories to speak of, fastening their garments entirely with strings and straight pins.

An 18th c middling woman with some discretionary funds would own a few useful objects, items that are valuable and ornamental, made of precious materials, but which are also functional in her wardrobe. Shoe buckles. Sleeve buttons for her shift. These are frequently made of silver, and sometimes set with expensive pastes. However, they do a job-they fasten the shoes, or the shift cuffs. These jobs could be done just as easily by strings, so these buckles and buttons are both decorative and functional, but not really "necessary." They are the first pieces of ornamental hardware ("jewelry") a woman was likely to acquire.

It should be said that it's difficult to determine in 18th c artwork imagery whether a woman has ties or buttons fastening her shift sleeves. Most of the time, there simply is no way to tell. We can say this much-any time a woman is shown with tied cuffs to her shift sleeves, she is a woman depicted with no other evidence of finery whatsoever. But the sample size is admittedly small.

Next on the hierarchy of "useful" jewelry are brooches. These are sort of semi-functional, they are used to fasten one's neckerchief. But a straight pin works just as well. A brooch is probably slightly less necessary than shoe buckles or sleeve buttons, so we'll rank it second. Obviously there is a wide range of brooches, from tiny plain silver ones to enormous objects dripping with faceted stones. So these might be worn by middling women to extremely wealthy women, depending. Also in the category of semi-useful are watches. Watches do something functional, they tell time. However, most eighteenth century women didn't have any pressing practical need for a timepiece; a watch was more decorative than it was a necessity.

Lastly come the items that serve no function at all except ornament. These include earrings, finger rings, hair ornaments, necklaces, bracelets. They don't do anything useful, they're just pretty. A woman on a budget would probably acquire these last, or not at all. Most women did not even wear a wedding ring. A woman with only a bit of discretionary funds also could choose a ribbon as the least expensive object of pure ornament that she could acquire, to decorate her cap or hat, or even worn at the neck instead of a necklace. Such a ribbon is ornamental yes, but jewelry, no.

By the time we ascend to the ranks of women who wear earrings, hair ornaments, etc., we are in the ranks of those who can also afford to buy lace. Some women even seem to prefer lace to jewelry. Bear in mind that handmade bobbin lace was extremely expensive, priced on a par with jewelry. Lace rightfully ought to be considered in 18th c terms as an inessential monetary expense which is equivalent to jewelry as a form of personal ornament and conspicuous consumption.

For men, jewelry choices were almost exclusively functional or semi functional. Men could own and wear sleeve buttons on their shirts, knee buckles on their breeches, shoe buckles, stock buckles, and bosom brooches for the shirt front slash. They could wear watches. The only non-functional jewelry for the typical 18th c man was a finger ring, although earrings are seen very rarely.

This hierarchy should not be viewed as absolute. Exceptions might be made for those individuals of small means who craved showy trinkets, for example such a woman could have inexpensive things like sealing-wax beads, not real jewelry. Exception must also be made for French and Italian women, who are shown as more likely to wear a religious neck pendant than others of equivalent social class. But it can be viewed as something of a guideline-who is your persona, what jewelry items would she have, and in what order should you acquire them? Thinking in these terms will help you put together a more coherent and plausible set of accessories.

So, in accessorizing your 18th c clothing, think hierarchically before you pile on the bling. Do you have the basics-shoe buckles and shift/shirt sleeve buttons? Is your persona likely to own more than that? If not, stop there! Also, of course, consider your persona in other, more specific, ways. A man or woman in the fashion trades, such as a haberdasher or milliner, might wear more finery than others of their social station, as advertising. Prostitutes might have worn more jewelry than women in other trades, in order to attract the male gaze. There are also considerations of personal preference-modest gold sleeve buttons are more expensive but less showy than ones of a lesser metal set with pastes. Which would your persona have preferred? Some wealthy women wore lace for their portraits but no jewelry whatsoever. If you are accessorizing a person of means, bear in mind that no jewelry at all is still an appropriate choice. For 18th c use, it's better to wear too little than too much.

Ballad seller, detail from The Enraged Musician, William Hogarth, 1741.
This woman is essentially a beggar, she has no ornaments and not even sufficient clothing.

The Jersey Nanny, John Greenwood 1738.
Working class, lower sorts. Her clothing is held together with straight pins.
Her only ornament is a ribbon on her cap.

Fish mongers, detail from Beer Alley, William Hogarth 1750.
Lower sorts, no ornaments.

Milkmaid, detail from The Enraged Musician, William Hogarth, 1741.
Lower sorts, shoes and shift sleeves fastened with tapes or ribbons. No ornaments.

Milkmaid and housewife, detail from The Distrest Poet, William Hogarth 1737.
Both women are lower sorts. The poet's wife has no ornaments at all, the milkmaid has ribbons fastening her shoes and shift sleeves, a ribbon on her cap, a ribbon worn as a necklace, and what appear to be fresh flowers on her hat.

Girl by the Stile, Henry Walton 1777.
A posed image supposedly representing the lower sorts, but this girl has shoe buckles at least.

Milliner, detail from A Rake's Progress 1735.
Middling sort, the milliner has access to finery, she wears a ribbon on her cap and a necklace of some sort of beads.

Detail from Spring, John Collett 1779.
Middling sorts, or maybe lower/middling, the girl has shoe buckles as well as ribbons on her cap and at her kerchief.

Anglais et Anglaise fashion plate 1786.
Middling, fashionable, but she has no ornaments except ribbons, even in her shoes.

A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen, Henry Robert Moreland 1765.
Middling. An upper servant dressed well, this one has a ribbon for a necklace and also a cap with ribbon and an edging of coarse lace.

Sophia Galloway, John Hessalius 1764.
Upper class. No visible jewelry or ornament except gold sleeve buttons on her shift


Anne Catherine Hoof Green, Charles Willson Peale 1769
Upper class. No visible jewelry, but she is wearing ribbons and lace.

Margaret Stites Manning, Cosmo Alexander 1770.
Upper class. She wears a ring on her finger and a necklace of what appears to be multiple strands of garnets.

Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop, John Singleton Copley 1773.
Upper class. She wears lace and elaborate ribbons, also a finger ring and a necklace of multiple strands of pearls.


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