Antique dealers call them by the workaday name of “smalls”. You see flea market (sorry antiques fair) stalls with glass-topped cases full of them, their custodians desperately hoping that the quirkiness of the objects will persuade some hapless collector to part with a couple of hundred quid for something that is essentially useless.
Auctioneers call the same things objet de vertu and their catalogues are full of colour pages littered with the things, their hapless owners all desperate that someone like them will find it hard to resist a gold pill box so small there’s barely room for half a dozen aspirin. Or a case for matches, smelling salts, thimbles, or needles.
They’re neither use nor ornament. No, rephrase that. They’re positively pointless, but they make charming ornaments and fascinating conversation pieces.
Call them what you like, but the huge variety of small, beautifully wrought and decorative items, often things of personal use, and generally with some precious semi-precious element or exotic material such as enamel incorporated, are also intriguing. It’s a field that offers endless social historical as well as aesthetic delight with prices starting from £50 and rising into the thousands.
Vinaigrettes, for example, were the personal air-fresheners persons of quality carried in the 18th and 19th centuries to ward off the foul smells that would be encountered in the cities.
These tiny containers held a sponge soaked in spice vinegar with a pierced grille to allow the reviving aroma to circulate.
At first they were small, starkly rectangular boxes relieved only by bright-cut scrollwork engraving, vinaigrette but they evolved into novelty miniature birds, snails, small fish and tiny books in the 1790s.
Card cases run a parallel with vinaigrettes, both in their design, and their eventual demise.
Just as there was a time when no man or woman about town would venture out of doors without his or her protection against the whiff of the open drains, similarly no one went anywhere without a ready supply of calling cards.
Etiquette among polite society demanded that leaving cards had to follow strict rules relating to their size, the number to be left on visiting someone at home and a carefully thought out code of messages that could be conveyed by folding the corners of the card in pre-arranged ways.
Similarly, the cases in which they were carried had to conform to the rules of the game – notably their size, which was three inches by four inches by half an inch deep, exactly.
Silver was the preferred medium for most early calling card cases and earliest examples are invariably plain and workmanlike in their design.
The nearer they got towards the middle of the 19th century, the more decorative, and sometimes flippant, the cases became.
Examples with topographical views such as Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace – so-called “castle-tops” – are especially popular but can be expensive at £4,000-6,000 for the very best. Knock off a nought for plain non-castle silver cases.
There was a time when no lady’s wardrobe was complete without a patch box. It held little black patches to cover facial smallpox scars, and thus “beauty spots” shaped like diamonds, crescent moons, stars or ships became a fashion.
Today the patch boxes of our ancestors are sometimes mistaken for pill boxes. The former had mirrors inside their lids.
Nutmeg, originally imported from India as a fancied protection against the plague, later had a more effective role as an integral ingredient of punch and toddy recipes.
Nutmeg graters appeared in suitable shapes such as eggs, hearts, barrels, boots, and vases. Sometimes they would also conceal a corkscrew.
The practice of inhaling powdered tobacco as snuff became common in Europe in the 17th century and was enjoyed by both men and women throughout the 18th.
The habit continued in the 19th century and there are, no doubt, still many adherents.
The result is a plethora of snuff boxes to suit pockets of all depths available for collectors to search out and hoard.
At first quite simple hinged boxes, they later became much grander, being made as a form conspicuous display. Later a rasp was incorporated, and over time they evolved into vesta cases.
These date from post-1833, marking the invention of the short sulphur-tipped vesta match.
Early vesta matches were unpredictable, and being highly flammable, likely to burst in to flames at the slightest encouragement.
As a result, they had to be kept in small metal boxes for safety. These little boxes were produced in many different materials, silver, brass, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, and, eventually, Bakelite. All are collected today.
Wine labels were introduced around 1660 to identify decanters and unmarked bottles. Usually two small eyelets or rings hold the silver label on a chain, which is decorated with the name of the wine in question and hung around the bottle’s neck.
Collectors seek out the unusual, such as shrub, Bronte or Marsala and Vidonia
Because large seashells were slipped into tea chests at export to be used for scooping out the tea leaves, caddy spoons were originally shell-shaped.
As the custom of adding sugar to tea took hold, sugar tongs followed in the shape of fire irons.
These, too, became more exuberant and rococo; in the 19th century wishbone and figured harlequin designs became popular.
Knife rests were often formed into the shapes of the quarry of the hunt: fox, hare, pheasant, or duck.
The dinner table would also be graced with silver napkin rings. These are, of course, still useful today, in a prolific variety of pretty, chased designs and fantastic forms.
Menu card holders later adapted to hold place cards for guests, were traditionally adorned with the family crest. Horseshoe shapes were popular, as were others, such as Punch and Judy figures.
Chatelaines are brooches or clips which attached to a woman’s the belt or loop in her clothing, and from which essential household instruments were suspended such as penknives, pill boxes or tiny notebooks.
Among them was sure to be one of the finest objects of vertu, the 18th century etui (pronounced aytwee) or necessaire.
These are small cases, often in gold or silver, intended to carry personal necessities such as spectacles, pencil, tweezers, penknife and so on.
Baby pacifiers – rattles, teething sticks and dummies – were made in the form of children or bunny rabbits in combinations of silver with coral or mother-of-pearl and are often highly decorated.
Sovereign holders, alas, are slightly too small to hold a pound coin but are collected all the same.
From the 1850s onwards, the “ever-pointed pencil” or the propelling pencil as we know it became popular.
Two men are credited with the invention of this clever little device: silversmith Samuel Mordan and his partner, businessman Gabriel Riddle. Whichever it was, the former patented a design in 1822.
A hundred years later, S. Mordan and Co., were selling smart and highly collectable examples ranging from the silver Centennial at 12 shillings and sixpence to the de luxe version in 15 carat gold that retailed at 130/-.
Propelling pencils followed the fashion for figurative curiosities and were shaped like frogs, pigs, owls, pistols, golf clubs and even ones with bridge markers for devotees of the card game. Sometimes the pencils also included miniature penknives and corkscrews.
They were made in their tens of thousands, in silver and silver plate, and may still be obtained for as little as £30.
There is a vigorous market too for smoking-related items of the late Victorian and Edwardian era: cigar cutters in silver or gold, cigarette cases and boxes, and ashtrays.
Silver table lighters began to appear in the last quarter of the 19th century and quickly assumed symbolic forms such as flintlock pistols, Aladdin lamps, even grenades.
Traditionalists will also find silver-backed brushes and mirrors for the dressing table, and inkstands and writing equipment for the well-appointed secretaire.
Other breeds of collectors concentrate on commemorative objects, and here the scope is truly vast. Silver teaspoons are particularly popular, often enamelled with motifs of sports or souvenirs of tourist visits to historic locations.
All you need is money!