The concept of an all-purpose, at your fingertips device or container, is instantly comprehensible to our modern mindset. Whether a purse or handbag, the not-so-popular as it once was fanny-pack, a briefcase, backpacks, or simply deep pockets in one’s garments, the desire for a secure place on one’s person to stow essential items are universal. For men, in particular, multi-use objects like a Swiss Army Knife are prized possessions. Stepping into the past, the answer was the chatelaine.
Essentially a piece of jewelry as well as a utilitarian object, this versatile item has been worn by women of nearly every culture down through the ages. Or rather, some version or incarnation of the chatelaine since the object we are most familiar with rose to heights of popularity in the 1860s. The image to the right, dated 1880, is an excellent visual of a Victorian Era chatelaine.
The basic chatelaine is a simple pin or brooch fastened to the bodice or waistband of a lady’s dress with a pin or a hook, any number of small dangling chains suspended to hold some useful or necessary item. Women in ancient Rome wore chatelaines with ear scoops, nail cleaners, and tweezers. In Roman Britain, women wore chatelaine brooches, and 16th-century Dutch ladies wore them as watch chains.
No two women kept the same items on their chatelaine. A seamstress, for example, would attach small scissors, a needle case, thimble, pin cushion, and the like. The lady of the house may have a key or two, but her accessories more often included a watch, a vinaigrette, a fan, a tiny purse, quizzing glasses, personal wax seal, and a basic étui. The housekeeper, on the other hand, would carry a wide assortment of keys for the important household rooms on her chatelaine, amongst a vast array of useful items as well.
Historian Monica F. Cohen, in writing about the term itself, notes, “Chatelaine derives from the medieval word for a castellan, or a keeper of the castle or chateau, who wore at his or her waist the key to the castle’s various rooms.”
Interestingly, as familiar as the term chatelaine is to those of us who read and write Regency novels, it was not used until 1828. A London magazine called The World of Fashion reported on this “new” accessory, dubbing it la chatelaine from the medieval connection, and the ladies who wore them as “The Lady Chatelaine” of their chateau. The chatelaine quickly became a symbol of status, so much so that the following year, The World of Fashion published three fashion plates of ladies wearing chatelaines. The term rapidly became the standard and was applied to earlier examples, although technically pre-1830 chatelaines should be called equipages.
An excellent article in the May 2013 edition of Collector’s Weekly contains an interview with collector Genevieve Cummins, co-author of the 1996 published book Chatelaines: Utility to Glorious Extravagance. The book is listed on Amazon, but not currently in print. Something to keep your eyes peeled for in used bookstores! The article/interview can be read at the below link in its entirety.
The slideshow below is of various chatelaines dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. I do have more examples on my Georgian Miscellany Pinterest Board.