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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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"A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone, A piece of glass abraded by the beach"
My mother gave me two treasures yesterday. I don't think either's very valuable, but their treasureliness lies in their interest to me.

First, a Victorian baby's rattle, which was given to my mother by a friend on the occasion of my birth. It's not only a rattle, notice - it's also got a stick for teething, and an integrated whistle. What a handy multipurpose gadget for the modern Miss or Master, circa 1850! On the downside, the elaborate decoration, though entrancing, is also an excellent hiding place for germs.


Those us who live in the grounds of Victorian orphanages should probably make a point of avoiding mysterious antique whistles, and this is never more true than when the gewgaw is accompanied by an oriental ivory dagger, from which the bloodstains (possibly) haven't quite been removed.



I was surprised to find this at my mother's yesterday, as I'd thought it lost. My father brought it home from the War, but I never quite knew how he came by it. I remember that as a small child I imagined it was standard-issue weaponry for Japanese soldiers, and that he had wrested it from an enemy in hand-to-hand combat. I suppose it's rather more likely that he bought it somewhere, but it's still a mystery. The carvings on the ivory look, to my untutored eye, more Chinese than Japanese - but my father was as far as I know only ever in Burma and then Malaya. Still, objects have been known to travel - witness its appearance on my desk in Bristol, where I'm delighted to have it.

Your rattle looks pretty much exactly as I imagine Dickie's "Tinkler" to do, in E. Nesbit's Harding's Luck (apart from the bit for teething on being ivory on his). How gratifying!

Actually, I'm not sure what it's made of on mine. If it were a 20th-century object, I'd assume it was some kind of plastic, but as it is I suppose I'd guess... horn?

I've looked on Google Images, and most of the similar examples are made of silver. This must be a humbler instance of the type - some kind of brassy alloy.

Isn't it coral? That's a traditional thing for teethers to be made of, I believe. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/child-s-whistle-and-bells-with-coral-teether-43027

I defer to your knowledge. The question hadn't occurred to me until dorianegray asked it.

And in fact, in Nesbit's book, she gives as an alternative name for the item, a "coral and bells".

Even though his was in fact made of ivory? So it had assumed a generic status, then - like pencil lead or a telephone hook.

Actually, upon checking the text just now (hooray for Project Gutenberg!), it doesn't say that it's ivory - I just assumed that from the description: "a blackened stick about five inches long, with little blackened bells to it like the bells on dogs' collars. Also a rather crooked bit of something whitish and very hard, good to suck, or to stroke with your fingers, or to dig holes in the soap with." I suppose it could have been white coral.

The name comes in the next paragraph: "He had the treasure, and he had not the least idea what it was, with its bells that jangled such pretty music, and its white spike so hard and smooth. He did not know—but I know. It was a rattle—a baby's old-fashioned rattle—or, if you would rather call it that, a 'coral and bells.'" Although it's not stated there, I get the impression that "coral and bells" is as old-fashioned a term as the item itself is said to be. Harding's Luck, incidentally, was first published in 1910.

Here's what the OED has to say about "coral" used in this sense:

3. A toy made of polished coral, given to infants to assist them in cutting their teeth. The name has been extended to toys of glass, bone, etc. used for the same purpose

a1625 F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Captaine iii. v, in Comedies & Trag. (1647) sig. Hh3/2, Art thou not breeding Teeth..I'le..get a Corall for thee.
1642 Milton Apol. Smectymnuus in Wks. (1851) III. 293 Some sucking Satir, who might have done better to have us'd his corall.
1711 J. Addison Spectator No. 1. ¶2, I..would not make use of my Coral 'till they had taken away the Bells from it.
1750 Johnson Rambler No. 82. ⁋2 Of all the toys with which children are delighted, I valued only my coral.
1840 T. Hood Miss Kilmansegg i, in New Monthly Mag. 60 91 Cutting her first little toothy-peg With a fifty guinea coral.
1856 E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh i. 3 Which things are corals to cut life upon.

I was also wondering if that was coral. It was a traditional thing to have around babies in one form of another as it was thought to have talismanic properties.

Was it? How interesting!

In my 17th century study period and others images of children will often show them wearing a bracelet or necklace (sometimes a crucifix) of coral or, indeed, with a rattle or some other toy made of it.

Protection from devils and all that, apparently.

I wonder if Neil Gaiman was thinking of that when he named Coraline?

I went to an exhibit on PB Shelley, last year, at the NYC library. The exhibit was a loan from England I think. PBS had a rattle just like that, with a coral teether. It also had a little bell, attached very insecurely. It was the perfect size to come off and provide something for a tiny baby to choke on! Really it is amazing any of them lived to grow up!

Those things are really lovely.

Too good for children, really! Luckily all my bells are still attached, so there's no reason to think it's Cursed.

The association must have stayed for a long time. Coral was also considered proper for a young girl's first jewelry in the nineteenth century.

Fascinating - all this coral lore is new to me.

Sinister and gorgeous examples of their kind.

And another absolutely perfect title.


Edited at 2013-03-26 03:14 am (UTC)

There are some beauties there!

Malaya is not an improbable place for Chinese work. I had a Malaysian friend in the 1970s and her family had been in Malacca for well over 200 years (and that's current Malaysia, not Malaya before Singapore broke off with its Chinese majority). I don't know anything about the carvings or the dagger itself, though (just a small amount about the hsitory of my region).

PS Also, there's been much trading between the southern bits of China and this whole region for a lot longer than 200 years. And there were Chinese pirates in the Straits. And...

I'm not sure exactly when he was in Malaya, but that does seem the more likely place for him to have come by it. I wish I knew exactly how it happened.

Work backwards, perhaps. Get an expert to identify the knife and find out where it might have travelled. Then work out where he and it might have met.

Yes, good idea - I may take it along to the local auction house. It's not in a good state, unfortunately - not that this matters for identification purposes. The hilt is loose, and I'm fairly sure there's a piece missing from it. It was not so of yore.