October 20, 2014

The Oldest Thing I Own

I have already told you all about my day spent embroidering at Hampton Court Palace back when I was in England for my semester abroad in 2012. Well, to get to Hampton Court that morning I had to take the train of course, a short journey as Hampton Court is not far from London. In the morning I arrived early and tried to get my bearings so I could walk over to the palace grounds. On my walk around the train station to the main road, I noticed several little antique shops. I had to scurry past them in my haste to get to the palace, but their location was dully noted in my mind, in case they were still open when I got out of class that evening.

Class, as I have said before, was amazing. I had been to Hampton Court once before on a tour but it was even more fun to go past the other tourists up into the rooms of the Royal School of Needlework. As a bit of a royalty fan, it was not lost on me that these women were possibly the very people recently involved with the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding gown. The rooms were small, the walls of a castle are thick, but were modernized with layers of white paint and lighting. Still I never lost the feeling of traveling through time, sitting in those rooms where courtiers once used to roam.

At the end of the day I worried the antique shops would already be closed by the time I got back over from the palace. I was pleasantly surprised to find them open and eagerly went inside!

The thing about European antique shops as compared to American ones, is that most things on offer are considerably older. Here in Colorado, the oldest antiques are from the mid Victorian period. The first thing I noticed inside the shop I entered near Hampton Court was the 18th century furniture. The antiques ranged from the 1960's to the Victorian period but then beyond, to centuries I had only dreamed about.

It was at the second antique shop, more cluttered and overstuffed than the first (my favorite), where my eyes settled onto a relic so transporting that I had to pull out my coin purse. On a dusty glass shelf, amongst other items, was a small pile of 18th century carved mother of pearl gaming chips. I had seen them in museums before, but my first exposure to this style of gaming chip was in the film Marie Antoinette. In the film, during the gambling party scenes, the actors were playing with mother of pearl chips, which made the most magical clinking sound when tossed about.

I am no gambler, I cannot even play cards as I have never learned, but these gaming chips called out to me. They were carved, purchased, held and played with in the 18th century. A direct link back to a time which I had for so long admired and studied. The chips for sale in the shop were under 10 pounds each, so I chose three.

These carved gaming chips date anywhere between 1720 and 1840, I have determined mine are most likely late 18th century by comparing them with dated examples online. They are also worth more than I paid for them, not that it matters because I treasure them too much to ever sell them. 

Chips like these were made in China for export to Europe. Customers in England could commission sets of chips with their monogram or coat of arms engraved. Of course the commission would then travel by sea all the way to China, be completed and then sail all the way back so they wouldn't receive them until a few years later. The longest and thinnest of the chips I bought has a blank circular area where a monogram could be later applied, suggesting that perhaps blank sets were brought back and sold as well.

"Aristocrats often arranged to purchase exotic gaming chips through sea captains and agents of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC). As part of their salary, crew members were allocated a small area in the cargo hold in which to transport items to sell personally back in the motherland. The shipping companies themselves were primarily interested in major products such as tableware and tea rather than in small trinkets like mother-of-pearl gaming chips.

According to Derek Cowan of Lansdown, England, an internationally renowned collector, the earliest recorded gaming-chip purchase was cataloged by HEIC in 1716 and included three dozen fish counters (the fish being the Chinese symbol for luck) along with six dozen others, commissioned and purchased by Lady Griselle Baillie. Because transit time would customarily be two to three years, Lady Baillie would have received her gaming chips around 1718." (Betting on Antique Gaming Chips)

I don't have a proper place to display my chips yet, one day when I finally move out I will have a curiosity cabinet worthy of the task! They stay safely wrapped in tissue paper, in a box in my closet. I pull them out every so often to remember how amazed I was to get to have them that day back in England. They are my only real antique, though hopefully one day they will be joined by many others! They are the oldest thing I own.

So, tell me, what is the oldest thing you own?


  1. Beautifully, absorbingly written post, sweet dear. Avid history lover, I hung on every word and could feel your unbridled delight (most of Canada is very new, too, and anything older the the late-Victorian era is quite the historic relic around these parts) when you described seeing centuries old pieces for sale in person. Your chips are breathtaking and so full of elegant delight. What a special treasure to have brought home from across the pond. I don't have any 18th century items yet - hopefully one day!

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thanks Jessica! I never dreamed of owning anything from the 18th century so early in life, I thought perhaps one day when I had a saving to dip into perhaps I might manage something so it was quite the magical day when I took these home! I still feel lucky to have them


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