As the product of two antiques-dealing parents and having grown up in New England surrounded by antiques, perhaps it was inevitable that Katie Kierstead end up a collector and purveyor of heirlooms, curios, and olde-timey objets d’art. But it wasn’t until she discovered the dazzling literary works of Oscar Wilde that she internalized what it meant to be an aesthete, to cultivate an intrinsic sense of beauty for herself, and to be one’s own work of art. She rapidly began accumulating whatever late 19th century odds and ends she could afford, eager to place herself in his world.
Katie’s antique shop, Roses & Rue, is inspired by an early poem of Wilde’s (one that keenly resonated with her, though not a particularly good poem, she notes) and offers us a glorious glimpse into another era– via a meticulously curated treasure trove of gems from the past, with a focus on sentimental items like mourning jewelry, hair work, and love tokens. She take a fastidious, curatorial approach to collecting, choosing items for their quality, uniqueness, and beauty. These timeless qualities are the hallmark of the items in Katie’s personal collection as well–from which she is sharing ten of her beautiful, beloved favorites with us for this month’s installment of Ten Things!
1. Victorian figural hand-shaped paperweights
Hands were a very popular design motif during the 19th century and served a variety of functions, from the cold porcelain hands that held salt cellars and vases on dinner tables, to hands clasped in love or friendship in sentimental jewelry. To the modern eye, they smack strongly of the surreal: Disembodied, suggestive; strange. I can’t quite place where my own attraction to these hands began, but I suspect it has something to do with the enchanted household objects in Cocteau’s La belle et la bête.
I have many Victorian hands in my collection- vessels, ex votos, jewelry, and even a wedding cake topper made of wax with a real cloth cuff. However, these two paperweights, one cast iron and the other an unknown metal, stand out as favorites. I cherish them especially because I found them both by chance. That’s often how it goes: Online searches for “Victorian hands” usually turn up a maddening number of results that are neither Victorian nor hand-shaped. Look out for reproductions of these metal hands: Real Victorian pieces will have very lifelike, fine details, and no seams.
2. Victorian silver locket
This silver locket, which dates to around the 1880s, is the most recent acquisition on the list. I acquired it only last December, and I’m including it simply because it’s just one of those things I have wanted for eons. There are always plenty of Victorian lockets around, but it took me literally years to find one large enough and extravagant enough to suit my tastes. I am no dainty damsel- neither in personality nor in bust circumference, so I just can’t do tiny jewelry: It makes me feel like a bus. At 2 inches long, this is the locket of my dreams.
3. Floral Forget Me Not, 1853.
I am fortunate enough to have many beautiful antiquarian books in my collection, and I particularly love books from the 1840s-1860s with covers blindstamped in gold. Perhaps this is the book that inspired the obsession? Both of my parents were antique dealers, and this book has been in my mother’s collection for as long as I can remember… At least, until it became a part of mine! (Read: I totally stole this from my mom.) The symbolism of flowers was very important to the Victorians, so collections of verses that correspond to various flowers and their meanings were popular gifts.
4. Mid-19th century hair album.
During the 19th century, women and young girls arranged locks of hair into elaborate patterns, exchanged them with classmates, family members, and friends, and collected them in scrapbook albums. Paper was still relatively expensive during the mid 19th century, so many of these albums were made from ordinary scrap paper, like mine. This album measures about 3.5” squared, and the hair works inside are roughly the size of a penny.
5. Victorian miniature hair work on mother of pearl in velvet case
This piece combines two of my favorite things to collect: Victorian hair work and decorative objects made from mother of pearl. Just 2 inches tall, this miniature love token is made from palette worked hair on a disc of mother of pearl inside a purple velvet case, the sort that more commonly held photographs. The forget-me-not raises the possibility that this is a mourning memento, but it could also be simply a remembrance from a loved one who is far away. There seems to be tendency to presume that any Victorian item that involves human hair belongs in the “mourning” bucket, but the truth is that many of these objects are love tokens or family pieces. Unless there is clear language or unmistakable symbolism like a willow or urn, it’s not fair to make a definitive statement one way or the other. Beware of sellers throwing around the word “mourning” willy nilly.
6. 1860s casket plate
I’ve bought and sold many antique casket plates over the years, but only ever kept one. Its highly detailed imagery with angels, a tombstone, willows, and an urn are more typical of the black and white funeral cards that were popular during this era. Those are my favorite mourning cards to collect, but I had never seen that imagery on a casket plate before. My gut-feeling about its rarity was correct: I’ve been in touch with an archaeologist who collects and catalogs images of casket plates, and in all his years of research he has only seen 7 with this design, all dating from 1859 to 1865.
7. 19th century German memorial
I’m not really the kind of collector who needs to have a large quantity of the same thing: I have one very nice Victorian hair wreath in a shadowbox, and that’s enough for me. After all, one hair wreath is very like another, and I would rather spend my money on something different and unique. When I stumbled across this piece, I smashed the “Buy It Now” button without even thinking twice.
This shadow box contains a memorial for a pair of siblings who died during the 1860s. Their names and dates of birth and death are written on a paper heart surrounded by a wreath of pink cloth flowers, above which are forget-me-nots made from their blond hair. Blue and pink are colors that are traditionally associated with the Madonna, so this shadowbox displays beautifully beside my Marian relics and sacred hearts.
8. Victorian shellwork wallpaper box
Victorian shellwork runs the gamut from “sailor’s valentines” assembled by women in Barbados for tourists passing through the port, to unusual folk art treasures like this. It’s unusual to see a wallpaper box painted black, which suggests this may be a mourning piece. I had admired it in a favorite shop for months before it suddenly disappeared. After several more weeks of cursing myself for not buying it when I had the chance, it reappeared at 50% off! I like to think I was meant to have it, but I certainly learned my lesson about procrastinating on a purchase. In the antiques trade we like to tell people, “The time to buy it is when you see it.”
9. Victorian swordfish bill sword
There’s nothing worse than walking into an antiques shop only to find a homogeneous hodge-podge of milk painted furniture, mid-century knick knacks, reproduction “hearth and home” stuff, and yard sale fodder instead of actual antiques. But sometimes I find the most amazing things in places like that: Where the selection is not closely curated or where true antiques are not the focus, oftentimes there are gems hiding in plain sight.
This piece was propped up against a bookshelf in a crowded corner and labeled “vintage wooden toy sword.” The handle is wood, but the blade is actually a swordfish bill. These were made by sailors during the late 19th century and are usually found in coastal towns.
10. 19th century French hair work heart
Judging by the quantity of hair and the image of the Christ child at the center, this is likely a devotional piece made by a Catholic nun: Hair cutting is part of a nun’s investiture ceremony, representing the woman’s renunciation of the secular world and its vanities.
Also! Roses & Rue is teaming up with Seance Perfumes for a giveaway! We’re not hosting it at Unquiet Things, but it definitely bears mentioning as it’s a wonderful opportunity that is no doubt relevant to many readers here. One lucky winner will win a Pre-release of Seance’s newest product, an Eau De Parfum spray of Dearly Departed adorned in a vintage style spritzer bottle with atomizer, as well as an Embalming Oil body lotion. You will also receive a Victorian lay down perfume bottle as well as a deadstock memorial print from the turn of the century from Roses & Rue! Details for this giveaway are on both Roses & Rue’s instagram account as well as Seance Perfumes instagram!