As an avid, life-long needle-worker, I became enamored of needlework tools soon after I picked up my first needle. As an historian, I have enjoyed researching the various needlework tools which our fore-mothers have employed across the centuries in their own needlework projects. Naturally, I have concentrated my research on the needlework tools which were used in England during the early nineteenth century, particularly during the Regency. The very finest and most beautiful of those needlework tools were to be found in the elegant work-boxes which were sold exclusively at the grand shopping arcade of the Palais Royal in the heart of Paris.
Just what was so special about the work-boxes and needlework tools sold at the Palais Royal? And, why did so many Regency needlewomen long to own a set of them?
The Palais-Royal had been built in the seventeenth century, in central Paris, as the private home of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu. Upon his death, in 1642, it passed into the possession of Louis XIII, at which time it acquired the name by which it is still known today, Palais-Royal. The palace was handed down in a cadet branch of the family, eventually becoming the property of the Dukes of Orléans by the end of the seventeenth century. In 1784, Duke Louis Philippe II opened to the public a newly completed arcade situated in the gardens of the Palais Royal as what was essentially an eighteenth-century shopping mall. Along the arcade one could find nearly 150 shops and boutiques, cafés and other eating and drinking establishments, as well as salons and museums. There was even a theatre. The arcade of the Palais Royal was patronized by both the nobility and the gentry, but also by those of the middle and lower classes. All classes mixed freely here, soon making it one of the most important marketplaces and social venues in all Paris. Everything was on offer at the Palais Royal, including gambling and prostitution, for which reason it gained a reputation for unbridled dissipation. And yet, in a few exclusive shops along the arcade, one could also purchase exquisitely designed, precision-made needlework tools, typically presented in elaborate and luxuriously fitted work-boxes.
Not long after the shopping arcade of the Palais Royal was opened, there grew up in the surrounding area a number of workshops where master-craftsmen specialized in the production of small and elaborate, but functional, works of art. These craftsmen worked in the finest materials, including gold and silver, enamel and precious stones, mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell. Their work was sold only in a few select shops and boutiques in the Palais Royal. Because their style was so distinctive, these diminutive works of art soon came to be identified by the name of the only place where they could be obtained. Two of the hallmarks seen on Palais Royal tools were small diamonds or shields in copper, steel or silver. But the most recognized hallmark to be found on Palais Royal implements was a small gold oval which contained a tiny purplish-blue enameled pansy, above equally tiny green enamel leaves, an example of which can be seen here, in detail, on a mother-of-pearl needle-case. The French word for pansy is pensée. But that same French word also means "remembrance" or "thought," which, in the language of flowers, made the pansy one of the most romantic of blooms. A gift of a posy of pansies, or even a single blossom, to a lady from her lover was a floral message which assured her that he would remember her when they were apart.
As the reputation of these ornate and finely-made needlework tools began to spread, needlewomen throughout Europe, and across the English Channel, came to covet these beautiful, but delicate, needlework implements. Because of their fragility, the Palais Royal stitchery tools were suited only to fine needlework, such as embroidery, tambour-work or tatting. They were not appropriate for the heavier work of every-day "plain" sewing, coarse knot-work or knitting. Any Regency lady who regularly enjoyed fine needlework would have been quite delighted with a gift of a Palais Royal work-box or even one or two Palais Royal needlework implements. There were certainly any number of Regency gentlemen who made points with their ladies by presenting them with gifts of Palais Royal work-boxes and stitchery tools. And, if any of the tools which were part of that gift were marked with the tiny gold and enamel pansy hallmark, thereby providing a tangible token of the giver’s remembrance of the recipient, so much the better.
A very lovely Palais Royal work box, dated circa 1810, can be seen on this page at the Le Curieux web site. The work-box is in the sarcophagus shape popular at the time, with a steel bail handle, a steel lock escutcheon and studded with decorative steel beads on what appears to be a burl-wood veneered surface. Inside, as was typical with most Palais Royal work-boxes, could be found an upper tray, fitted with compartments precisely shaped for each tool. This tray is lined with dove grey silk velvet and has white ribbon tabs which can be used to lift it out. At the center of the top can be seen an embroidered basket of flowers, worked in both silk and silk ribbon embroidery, adding a delicate touch to the upper tray in keeping with the elegant tools it contains. Note the tiny pansy hallmark on both the needle-case and the thimble. When the upper tray is lifted out, the lower section of the work-box, lined with white satin, is revealed. This could be used for storing additional sewing notions, silk threads or a small piece of embroidery work in progress. Many ladies kept a work-box like this on their dressing or writing tables when they were not using it in the drawing room or morning room for stitchery, as such boxes might include small crystal phials of scent or vinaigrette, ear-wax spoons, ivory tooth-picks and/or fine writing implements such as small pen knives, pounce pots, ink bottles, pencils and quills. During the Regency, these work-boxes were often referred to necessaires because they contained many things which were necessary to a lady.
Below are links to a selection of web pages with pictures and details of other Palais Royal work-boxes:
- Small Square Red Leather Sewing Set, c. 1780-1810
- Grand Tour Souvenir Work-box, c. 1810
- Small Burl Walnut Box, c. 1810
- Small Wood and Brass Necessaire, c. 1815
- Sarcophagus-shaped Work-box, c. 1820
- Bombé Wooden Work-box, c. 1820
- Satinwood Necessaire, c. 1840
But not all Palais Royal work-boxes were square-ish, nor were they all quiet. Some even hid secrets. And some were so small they could easily fit into a pocket or reticule. There were work-boxes made with hexagonal, oval, concave or convex sides. There were even tiny work-boxes made in the shapes of eggs or nuts that could be easily hidden from prying eyes. Many French work-boxes, including those from the Palais Royal, included a hidden compartment, usually somewhere in the base, which was released by some type of spring catch. It was usually easier to disguise a hidden compartment in a shaped work-box, though many square work-boxes had them as well. Particularly popular shapes for Palais Royal work-boxes were diminutive harpsichords or square pianos. The larger Palais Royal work-boxes might be fitted with a music box mechanism in their base, enabling the lady who used the box to listen to a lively tune while she was stitching. The work-boxes which were most likely to include a music box feature were those made in the shape of musical instruments, but such musical movements could also be found in the larger work-boxes of more common shapes. Larger work-boxes had the advantage that they could be fitted with larger musical movements, which were able to play multiple tunes.
Below are links to a selection of web pages with pictures and information about these unique Palais Royal work-boxes:
- Hexagonal Embroidered Work-box
- Work-box with Convex Sides
- Double-circle Work-box
- Mahogany Piano-forte Non-musical Work-box
- Sarcophagus-shaped Musical Work-box
- Harpsichord-shaped Musical Work-box
- Tortoise-shell Musical Work-box
- Wooden Piano-forte Musical Work-box (Item #6677)
- Mahogany, Ebony and Ivory Piano-shaped Musical Work-box
- Tortoise-Shell Egg Sewing Set
- Tortoise-shell Egg-shaped Perfume Box
- Mother-of-Pearl Egg-shaped Sewing Box
- Gold Egg-Basket Sewing Box
- Tiny Walnut Sewing Case
Some of the egg-shaped Palais Royal boxes were made from actual large egg-shells, many more were made with mother-of-pearl or tortoise-shell to look very like real eggs. Both types were very popular during the Regency, particularly as souvenirs of a visit to Paris. Another very popular type of souvenir work-box were walnuts which contained miniature needlework tools. However, these boxes were all made of real walnut shells which had been carefully opened to preserve each half, then the empty shell was embellished with gold fittings. Their interiors were furnished with silk satin or velvet-lined fitted trays into which were placed diminutive stitchery tools. As you might imagine, most ladies were quite charmed to receive such a tiny but elegant gift. Larger, but equally elegant, were the work-boxes shaped as harpsichords, clavichords, piano-fortes and other musical instruments. Those which included a music-box movement were, of course, the most popular, and those which played multiple tunes were the most sought-after.
There were some political and physical difficulties with regard to the acquisition and maintenance of any Palais Royal work-box for those living during the Regency. The prime political difficulty, of course, was that for the first half of the Regency, Paris was not accessible to the British, which meant they were not able to shop personally at the Palais Royal. Regardless of that fact, it was still possible for a gentleman to acquire a Palais Royal work-box for his lady, if he had the right contacts. There were many men involved in commerce who had agents in various European countries who could transact business for them. These business agents would be able to pass freely in and out of France and would have had no problem executing a commission to acquire a work-box from the arcade at the Palais Royal. The other difficulty with Palais Royal work-boxes was the feature which made them most attractive to many, the fitted tool tray. All the compartments in a fitted tray were made to precisely fit the tool intended for them. Thus, if any tool were to be lost or broken it was unlikely another tool could be found to replace it that would fit the compartment for it in the work-box. The only solution would be to acquire an identical tool from the Palais Royal, not an easy task with a war on. After Waterloo, once Paris was again open to the British, it would have then been possible to get replacement tools.
There was always the possibility that an Englishman engaged in covert or under-cover operations in Paris might have an opportunity to purchase a work-box for a very special lady at the Palais Royal. More than likely, in such a situation, he would have chosen a small box, perhaps an egg or walnut, which would be easy to conceal and transport with his other possessions when he departed France. Then again, he might have chosen a large work-box, with a secret compartment, in which he could hide the information he was trying to smuggle out of the country. And, perhaps he handed that large work-box off to a lady confederate, in whose possession such a work-box would cause less comment, should her baggage be searched. A Palais Royal work-box might be just the thing when a gentleman has seriously offended an important needle-working lady in his life, his mother or grandmother, perhaps. When Paris is once again open to the English, after the defeat of Napoleon, a spoiled and imperious woman demands that she be allowed to travel to Paris to replace a broken stitchery tool for her Palais Royal work-box. What adventures might ensue while in pursuit of a new pair of scissors, a bodkin or a thimble? A young lady, fallen on hard times, might inherit a Palais Royal work-box from a beloved relative. Regardless of her circumstances, her attachment to her relative prevents her from selling the box to raise much-needed funds. Will her reward be that, one day, she discovers the hidden compartment in the box, which contains a powerful secret that will secure her future?
As beautiful and elegant as were the work-boxes sold at the Palais Royal in Paris, the various needlework tools and stitchery implements which they contained were just as beautiful and elegant, if not more so. Next week, tales of the needlework tools of Palais Royal, in which will be revealed some of their more delightful secrets.