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Museum mystery: Did this artifact cut skin or cloth?

April 28, 2015

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life, Pennsylvania Treasures

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The State Museum acquired the object from the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1976. An inventory supplied by the museum with the accession paperwork referred to the item as an “18th century buttonholer?”

The State Museum acquired the object from the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1976. An inventory supplied by the museum with the accession paperwork referred to the item as an “18th century buttonholer?”

The Collections Advancement Project is helping to share with the public many previously unknown and forgotten Pennsylvania treasures. And one of those rarely exhibited artifacts still remains a mystery. This device resembles a modern day Swiss Army knife, complete with three retractable spade-shaped arms that fit into a brass sheath. The initials “F.S.” are etched onto the front of the sheath.

The State Museum acquired the object from the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1976. An inventory supplied by the museum with the accession paperwork referred to the item as an “18th century buttonholer?” Yes, with the question mark. The confusion became apparent during a search for images of other 18th century buttonholers.

A buttonholer was a device used to cut button holes in garments. Buttons were a rare commodity during the 18th century since they were often made of precious metals such as brass, silver or gold. During that time period, a buttonholer looked much like a chisel with a flat sharp blade at one end and a knob on top. The button hole was cut by hitting the top of the buttonholer with a mallet to cut through the fabric.

But, is this artifact a buttonholer or something different?

A lancet is another tool that existed during the 18th century. Belonging to an entirely different profession, a lancet was a medical tool used to cut the skin in bloodletting. Bloodletting was not performed by a doctor, but by a barber surgeon, the equivalent of a doctor in the 18th century. Barber surgeons not only cut hair, but also performed surgeries on people and animals. At a time when the understanding of germs was murky at best, bloodletting was believed to release ill “humors” from the body that made people sick. A lancet typically consisted of several retractable arms with pointed blades that collapsed into a sheath. Sound familiar?
It’s curious that our artifact appears to be a cross between a lancet – used in surgery – and a buttonholer – used in garment cutting. No additional information could be found on “F.S.”, the initials carved into the artifact. Was “F.S.” a barber-surgeon or a tailor? We may never know, but the search continues.

CAP curator Katie McGowan selected this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.

 

About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.