Victorian Needle Case

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The object I have chosen to discuss is a Victorian needle case. This item was found about ten years ago in a box of old family photos belonging to my mother.

The case measures approximately 3 1/2″ across by 3/4″ thick. It was made from three hexagonal-shaped pieces of a rigid material (cardboard?) covered in burgundy velvet. Two of the pieces are sandwiched together with some type of soft material between, and edged in a strip of black velvet. A feather stitch pattern is embroidered along the edge in silk thread. The case in a closed position is shown in the first photo. On the back, there is a pocket made from black silk. It has a string gathering the top edge, with some type of bead on one side, as shown in the second photo.

The third hexagon is lined in off-white silk which is embroidered with green and pink flowers and the inscription: “Ruth Broadwell 1898” — obviously the signature of the maker. This section is stitched to the first double-hexagon piece along one edge, with three layers of fine wool fabric between the sections to hold needles; there are three needles and one straight pin still secured to the wool on the underside. Originally, there was a narrow black and red ribbon secured to both sections (which has frayed apart) so that the case would only open to the length of the ribbon.

The care in constructing this needle case indicates that it was a very special object; the stitches are nearly invisible, and the materials are fine velvet and silk, rather than muslin or homespun cotton. But by far the most intriguing aspect of the needle case is the small pencil note pinned to the wool swatches: “If I do not come back this is for Vern’s oldest daughter.” Vern is my great-grandfather, Lavern Buck Howe, and his oldest daughter is my grandmother, Nellie Estelle Howe. The fact that Ruth made the effort to bequeath this object to Nellie underscores the fact that this was, indeed, a precious item to her.

When I found the needle case, I was in the midst of a three-year obsessive genealogical search for my ancestry, and was aware that Ruth Broadwell was related in some way to my great-great grandmother, Amanda Lee Howe. When I chose the needle case for the first post assignment, I checked my database and Ruth was not included. I went online to rootsweb.com, and not only ascertained that Amanda and Ruth were sisters, but also discovered their parents and grandparents — and beyond — generations previously unknown to me! My research will continue for the next assignment in two directions: my own genealogy, as well as research into the history of needlework.

This assignment has reignited an interest in my own family history, a passion which has been on the back burner for ten years. In addition, I have decided to focus my BFA thesis on my ancestry/family tree and the significance of needlework as a connection between my foremothers and myself.

6 thoughts on “Victorian Needle Case

  1. Firstly, I am impressed with the level of description you used in this post. I feel like it truly accompanies the photos to give a deeper sense of the object. (Also, your photos are well-done!)

    The rich history that is behind this needle case is really fascinating! It makes me think that all objects should include names, dates, and inscriptions so that we can always trace it back in time. It also suggests a simpler time, where needle cases were objects more highly cherished, or at least enough to be passed on. Another mystery to me, is why Ruth would address it to Vern’s oldest daughter and not Amanda’s oldest daughter, if they were in fact sisters? Perhaps it comes from the male-centric values of the time, but maybe there is more to it?

    • I know it’s confusing, BUT: Amanda had 5 children, one of whom was Vern, so Nellie was Amanda’s granddaughter. Even so, Amanda also had daughters and other granddaughters. I have no idea why Ruth chose my grandmother specifically! Wish I had some old letters, diaries or something! Maybe Ruth knew Nellie? Maybe Ruth knew that Nellie was also a needleworker? (I have samples of her crochet & tatting work.)

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Although I really admire the vivid detail and description of the needle case, I am perplexed by the functionality of the embroidered work. I figure a needle case would store a needle, so if that is the case, where would the needle go? In the black pouch in the back, or is that for thread? Perhaps the rich, inner layers serve as cushion-like material to stick needles through? As you can probably already tell by my ignorance, I am horrible at thread-work, or anything craft-related. I am always in awe of people who can create with their hands, and your family seems to have a long history of such skill, as per the beauty and design of the pouch. I doubt research on functionality would help with your BFA thesis project–which sounds awesome–but perhaps it would not hurt in an effort to understand the Victorian era and the way needlework developed, in its function and social context, since then.

  3. I really loved reading about how your object has inspired you so much! I think its so amazing when a simple inanimate object can play such a large part in our lives and the way we live them. I think researching your family ancestry is really important, I have been thinking of doing it myself actually because mine is a bit of a mess and very interesting but I don’t know that much about it. Its so important to know where we come from and I am glad your object reminded you of this!

  4. Pingback: Reminiscence of an Old Needlebook: 1872 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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