Really?! Do get your mind out of the gutter! Though these lovely little objects do have their secrets, they are not at all what you think they are! And once you know more about them, you may well want one of your very own. Sadly, they are quite scarce and very rare today, thus making them almost impossible to find. However, Dear Regency Authors, in the pages of an upcoming Regency romance, you can provide any of your fictional characters with one or more of these charming medallions. Of course, if you insist, they can be given quite a naughty purpose, instead of a purely patriotic one.
Screw medallions in the Regency . . .
What came to be known as screw medallions have their origins the sixteenth century, in the Germanic states of Europe. Initially, they seem to have been large silver coins, known as thalers (or talers), which were first minted in the early 1500s. These large coins were sometimes hollowed out in order to hide something small and precious inside. But by the end of the sixteenth century, a Schraubthaler (box thaler) was rather more like a locket. A large coin was cut in half, each half was hollowed out, then the edges were milled with corresponding grooves so that they could be screwed together to make what looked like a complete, solid coin. Once the two halves of the coin were fully screwed together, it was nearly impossible to tell that the coin was hollow and could be opened. These early Schraubthalers typically concealed a very small enamel portrait, often of a saint, an admired royal personage or public official, though some may have contained the portrait of a loved one. Schraubthalers soon became fashionable and sought-after toys among affluent Germans. At the height of their popularity, in the seventeenth century, the Bavarian city of Augsburg had become a major center of production. It was not long before Schraubthalers became so popular they were made by some of the mints in the Germanic states.
As the seventeenth century came to a close, the contents of Schraubthalers began to expand. No longer did these small box thalers hide a single enamel painting. Instead, these coins or medallions were made to conceal a set of miniature inserts printed in fine detail on a sturdy high-quality paper stock. Quite a number of the images were hand-painted as well. In some cases, the diminutive prints were simply a set of loose images in circular shape which could be enclosed in the coin or medallion when it was screwed closed. But there were others which held sets of tiny prints which were linked together by short lengths of ribbon in order to ensure that a series of images was viewed in the correct order. Many of these miniscule print series had religious themes or commemorated an important event such as a royal birth or coronation. A couple of fine examples of Schraubthalers with their contents intact, from the early eighteenth century, can be seen in the Coins as Containers post at the Box Vox blog.
Another example of a Schraubthaler can be seen in this blog post. The post is in German, but near the bottom is a photograph of Ernst Preßler, a collector, holding open one of his Schraubthalers, which contains a series of prints that honors Frederick the Great. By the mid-eighteenth century, for example, during the Seven Years’ War, a number of these Schraubthalers were issued to commemorate the significant people and events of the period. The tiny prints which they concealed might be a set of portraits of the top military men in the army of the country where the medallion was issued. Or, they could be a set of views of the major battles in which a given country’s army was engaged over the course of the war. Many medal makers were able to supplement their incomes making patriotic box thalers which were popular with the more affluent members of the European public. Some of these Schraubthalers were made with the addition of a small loop on the edge, through which could be threaded a ribbon or fine chain so that these intriguing novelties could be worn as personal adornment.
In November of 1814, the Congress of Vienna was called. It was a conference to which most of the ambassadors of the major European nations were invited, with its primary aim to negotiate a long-term peace for the entire Continent, after the defeat and abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. This was the first time in history that such diplomacy was conducted by delegates from all of the interested parties working together, face to face, in the same city, instead of sending written messages back and forth to one another over long distances from their home countries. And it was not just ambassadors and other diplomats who gathered in Vienna during the Congress. A number of the sovereigns whose countries had been allied with one another in fighting the French came to Vienna in person. It was a heady and exhilarating time in the Austrian capital.
With Napoleon in exile, thousands of tourists, from Britain and across the Continent, also flocked to the beautiful and sophisticated city on the banks of the Danube River. Nor were these many visitors at all bored, for it was not just politics and diplomacy which held sway in Vienna as 1814 gave way to 1815. Austria went all out to ensure their many guests had a favorable opinion of their country and their capital city. There were dozens of grand public spectacles and hundreds of elegant private social events where nearly anyone who was anyone could find amusement, day or night. Certainly the diplomatic delegates did not hide away behind closed doors. They, along with their sovereigns, made it a point to enjoy the many delights of Vienna in peace-time. Visitors to Vienna during those months never knew when they might catch sight of a famous foreign diplomat or a crowned head while they were out and about in the splendid city.
Just as travelers and tourists have done since time immemorial, most of those visitors to Vienna wanted a memento or souvenir of their Austrian experience. The Allied sovereigns who had come to the city were particularly popular and their portraits were in high demand. Not only could one find thousands of prints for sale with their portraits all over the city, their famous visages could be seen gracing porcelain plates and bowls, drinking glasses, snuff boxes and even embroidered items. Some periodicals offered a series of portraits, with a subscription. A number of medal makers also produced medallions carrying the portraits of many of the famous people who were attending the Congress. These medallions, like the printed portraits, could be purchased singly, or in a series. And some of these medallionists chose to hark back to their rich Germanic history and began to produce new Schraubthalers for those who wanted something special. It seems to be at this time that the old German name was construed into the more obvious, if less elegant, term, "screw medallion."
The majority of the screw medallions on offer in Vienna during the Congress were made to serve as pendants for the necklaces of ladies. As with any other medallion, these pendants had images and inscriptions related to the events taking place in Vienna on both the obverse and reverse. But unlike a simple medallion, they opened to reveal a cunning surprise inside. Quite a number of these screw medallions had images and inscriptions which celebrated peace and/or the victory over Napoleon on the outside. Inside, they held a series of portraits of all of the Allied Sovereigns, sometimes with brief biographies of each ruler and/or their contribution to the victory. Other screw medallions contained a series of portraits of the notable generals who had contributed to the French defeat. Still others held scenes of the significant battles which had resulted in Bonaparte’s downfall. There were also screw medallions which held portraits of the senior diplomats from all of the major powers who had attended the Congress, sometimes singly, in others, as a wide group portrait which was folded accordion-style to fit into the medallion. Some sets included acrostic puzzles for the amusement of their owners. For example, one set of cards which contained portraits and biographies of all of the Allied Sovereigns had a single letter on each card, which, if put in the correct order, spelled out "UNION OF PRINCES." Perhaps in an effort to showcase Viennese grandeur and hospitality, there were some screw medallions in which were found scenes of some of the most prominent and sumptuous of the public celebrations which the government had sponsored to honor their august visitors. However, as the Congress dragged on, some of the later screw medallions concealed a series of clever caricatures lampooning the diplomats and their seeming lack of cooperation or action.
None of these souvenir screw medallions were cheap, but they were available in a wide range of prices. The most expensive were made of silver, or silver gilt, and they typically had the largest number of miniature prints inside, all of which were usually fully hand-painted in rich, bright colors. Brass or bronze screw medallions were also available, the most expensive having a touch of gilt. Some of the bronze medallions were enameled in bright colors on the exterior. The bronze or brass screw medallions were usually less costly, in part because they also tended to hold fewer miniature prints, and those prints were not always painted. The least expensive of the screw medallions were made of tin or iron and the tiny prints they enclosed were typically printed on lesser grade paper, with low-quality inks, and they were very seldom colored.
The concept of the screw medallion must have travelled back to Britain with at least some of those tourists who visited Vienna during the months of the Congress. A handful of bronze or brass "box medals" appeared in England at this time. For example, a bronze box medal was made in 1815 to honor the Duke of Wellington. On the exterior, the obverse bears a profile portrait of the Duke, with the inscription: "England’s Great Captain, Arthur, Duke of Wellington." The reverse side depicts an image of Victory seated on a bench under a tree, writing on a tablet. This side bears the inscription: "Picture Medal." However, this particular object does not have any type of loop for hanging, so it seems unlikely that it was made with the intent of adorning a lady’s necklace. Inside, the box medal holds a series of thirteen round aquatint scenes of the Peninsular battles won by Wellington. Since such box medals are extremely rare in Britain today, it is difficult to know how many of these were made. Of course, it could be that they still survive, but their owners assume they are simple commemorative medals and have no idea of the tiny sets of prints which they conceal.
As with so many forms of art over the centuries, there were a few Schraubthalers and screw medallions which were created to conceal erotic images. Inside these small coin boxes could be found any number of scenes of lovers in various stages of undress and intimate relations. But some of these miniature picture galleries were made as a kind of visual joke for the viewer. In one example, a picture of what appears to be a nun in full habit converts to that of nude woman when the prints are unfolded. In another, a couple sitting on a bench opens out into a view of that same couple in bed, vigorously consummating their attraction for one another.
Sadly, though Schraubthalers and screw medallions are no longer made today, and those that have survived are very rare, they were made and sold during the second half of the Regency in significant numbers. Therefore, Dear Regency Authors, though you may not be able to possess a Schraubthaler or screw medallion yourself, there is nothing to stop you from giving one, or more, to characters in your next Regency romance. Will your hero or heroine travel to Vienna for the great Congress held there and bring one or more home as souvenirs for friends and/or family members? Could it be that a diplomatic incident is created in Vienna when a screw medallion appears which includes a series of caricatures and lampoons against one of the delegations of a major power? Perhaps it is first seen as a medallion suspended from the necklace of the wife of the senior delegate from a rival power? Of course, screw medallions could also be used to pass secret messages, mayhap during the crucial period of the build-up to Waterloo? Then again, how might a screw medallion which conceals a series of erotic images serve the plot of a steamy Regency romance? Though Schraubthalers and screw medallions have been very nearly lost to history, there is nothing to prevent a Regency author from reviving their existence, if only fictitiously, in the pages of a Regency tale.