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Spectacle case

Spectacle case

  • Place of origin:

    England (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1850-1875 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Lacquered papier mâché inlaid with mother of pearl

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This case for spectacles (reading glasses) was acquired in 1875 for the Museum's 'Animal Products' collection, illustrating the use of mother-of-pearl as a decoration. Mother-of-pearl is the smooth, lustrous interior lining of a variety of shells, particularly pearl oysters, often used for jewellery and decoration. It matches the mirror, Museum Number AP.95-1875.

The Animal Products collection was begun in 1853 at the suggestion of Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. He advised on the formation of the South Kensington Museum and suggested a collection of manufactured items made from natural raw materials, divided into animal, vegetable and mineral categories. In the end the Animal Products collection was the only one of the three to be formed. It was one of the original collections displayed at the branch museum in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, when it opened in 1872.

Physical description

Black papier mâché inlaid with a border of mother of pearl. Hinged end.

Place of Origin

England (probably, made)


1850-1875 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Lacquered papier mâché inlaid with mother of pearl

Object history note

This formed part of the Animal Products collection which was one of the original collections displayed at Bethnal Green when the Museum opened in 1872. Much of the material came from the Great Exhibition, and the collections continued to be added to until 1917. Less than half of the Animal Products Collection survived by 2000. Half had been transferred to different departments and half remained at Bethnal Green. In 2000 departments at the V&A were offered suitable items. Another quarter of the original collection was trasferred, the remainder was offered to the Archive of Art and Design, at Blythe House, along with the original registers. BGMC kept a small selection of other items for display in conjunction with the History of the Museum information panel.

Descriptive line

Spectacle case from Animal Products Collection, papier mâché japanned black and mother of pearl, ca. 1850-1875.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

The following excerpt is taken from Jones, Yvonne, Japanned Papier-Mâché and Tinware c. 1740-1940. Woodbridge, Antique Collectors' Club, 2012 (ISBN 978 1 85149 686 0), p.23-27:

‘Paper is believed to have been invented in China in the second century AD, and the Chinese art of making papier mâché objects is almost as ancient, but knowledge of paper-making spread only very slowly and it not reach Europe until the 12th century. Paper-mills were established in France in the late 15th century and soon after, French craftsmen began using paper pulp to make architectural ornaments, snuff boxes and other small articles. There were few paper mills in England until the late 17th century, so there was little pulp from which to make comparable articles, the paper imported from France being far too expensive to be pulped for the purpose.
By the 18th century, however, there were two quite distinct branches of paper mâché manufacture in England. One was allied to the making of paper hangings, and the other, to the japanning industry. Both branches took their lead from France and this, together with the name, has not only perpetuated the myth that papier mâché was French in origin, but also overshadowed its ancient eastern history.
Not only was the term papier mâché not recognised in 18th century French dictionaries, but the Journal de l’Agriculture du Commerce (1778) sourced it to England and to the first edition of Dossie’s book, The Handmaid to the Arts (1758). Its occurrence, much later in the French edition of the Paris Exhibition catalogue of 1855, may simply have been the result of the translation of texts supplied by English manufacturers. The term is, however, currently used in France today.
It has been suggested that the term derives from problems of communication between English employers and French émigré workers in the 17th century when papier mâché was probably taken to mean ‘mashed paper’ (or chewed paper)…. The crux was the cachet of a French sounding name and the penchant in some quarters if fashionable society in the late 18th century to look upon anything French as highly sophisticated.

Some of the advantages of papier mâché, gleaned from contemporary records, partly explain its attractions and may have been sufficient, at least until the mid-19th century, to outweigh what will be seen as its long and labour intensive production processes. Foremost was its suitability for japanning, which was much in vogue in the 18th century.
Furthermore, because it could be moulded into various forms, it required no joinery and was thus incredibly strong. As solid as wood, though less hard than most, it was said to blunt tools sooner, and although heavier in mass, its strength allowed it to be used in thin sections, rendering it perfect for small light objects….By the mid-19th century, it was found that it could be steam-moulded into any curve without fear of splitting. In short, it was considered superior to both wood and metal for being lighter, sounder, and admitting of a more beautiful finish’.


Lacquer; Mother of pearl; Papier mâché




Clothing; Household objects


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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