What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?

Lover's Eye Victorian mourning buckle motif ring Lover's Eye Victorian mourning buckle motif ring, sold for $1,159 via Toomey & Co. Auctioneers (February 2016).

In part due to the period’s affinity for unusual objects, Victorian antiques are often considered “odd” or even “creepy” by modern definition. In literature and film, Victorian relics are commonly used to increase suspense and mystery: a sepia-tone portrait in a dusty gold frame or an abandoned glassy-eyed doll effectively sets a bone-chilling cinematic scene. Victorian architecture is also used to create a haunting atmosphere: the iconic “Addams Family” mansion is eternally shrouded in an eerie mist, and the spooky manors depicted in the “Scooby Doo” television series are packed with dusty nineteenth century furniture – and monsters. Many of today’s Victorian antiques, cherished in their time, would be common finds in a cabinet of curiosities.

What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?

A cabinet of curiosities, also known as a wunderkammer or “kunstkammer,” is the equivalent of a zoo full of exotic animals in the world of antiquing. A practice that began in the 13th century, a kunstkammer was a place for collectors to house miscellaneous trinkets, oddities, and museum-worthy specimens. A cabinet of curiosities was especially popular among collectors in the Victorian era to display trophies from travel and gifts from faraway lands.

So what can you find in a cabinet of curiosities? Art lovers and collectors know there is nothing sinister lurking beneath the surface of antiques, but it seems that the words “Victorian” and “frightening” have become synonymous over the years. To help dispel those off-putting associations, explore our virtual kunstkammer of Victorian novelties and discover the history behind some of the most peculiar objects from the era. From there it’s up to you to decide whether these curiosities tickle your fancy or send a shiver up your spine.

Miniatures, Mourning and Memory

Charles Shirreff, “Portrait miniature of Mrs. Smith” (Chiswick Auctions, October 2017).

Queen Victoria of England is credited for setting a number of trends in fashion, including the convention of brides wearing white to their weddings. After the death of King Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria revived the practice of wearing woven hair as a form of mourning – a tradition that can be traced back to the 16th century. Designs ranged from single plaits to ornately woven pieces. It was commonly believed that hair contained the essence of the deceased, so preserving a few strands was a sentimental way to hold on to departed loved ones. Over the forty years she spent grieving, the Queen was occasionally seen wearing a locket containing a lock of her husband’s hair.

Left: Lover’s Eye, 19th century ring (Treadway Toomey Auctions, August 2016). Right: Lover’s Eye, 19th century pin (Treadway Toomey Auctions, February 2016).

Though the trend was short-lived, “lover’s eye” miniatures became popular among the European upper class around the turn of the eighteenth century. A scintillating branch of the history of miniatures, lover’s eyes were tiny portraits concealed in a locket or ring. With a lover’s eye miniature, Men and women could carry the likeness of a lover as a token of their affection without divulging their identity. References to lover’s eyes appear sporadically in Victorian era literature such as newspapers, diaries, and even in Charles Dickens’s novel “Dombey and Son (1846).


Daguerreotype of Woman (John McInnis Auctioneers, April 2016)

In 1839, Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre created a stable and lasting form of  photography known as the Daguerreotype. Daguerreotypes soon gained popularity as a quick and inexpensive alternative to commissioning a painted portrait. Despite its ingenuity, sitters had to remain still for extended periods (estimated between one to three minutes) to avoid a blurry finished product. The resulting stoic and occasionally ghostly expressions are part of the reason that daguerreotypes are highly collectible today.

Medicine and Health

As a safeguard against accidental poisoning during the nineteenth century, bottles containing poisonous substances were often stored in colored glass. These amber, green, blue, and black glass bottles featured raised lettering like “POISON” or “DEATH” with patterns and deep grooves to further indicate that there was a dangerous substance inside.

7 Amber Poison Bottles (Rachel Davis Fine Arts, August 2015).

With the power to cure comes the power to poison. One misused serum from an apothecary case could kill someone as easily as it could cure a toothache. Common remedies during the Victorian era included mandrake for sleep, licorice for a cough, and “dragon’s blood” (Dracaena draco) for an antiseptic. Be kind to the apothecary and his drug will be quick. If you don’t believe it, just ask Juliet.

Antique apothecary cabinet (Profiles in History, October 2017).

Without plastic, early doctors and nurses turned to sterling silver, porcelain, or other non-porous materials for medical tools. Pap boats were specifically designed with a spout to feed infants or bedridden patients a mixture of bread, flour and water, butter or sugar, called “pap.”

“Bleeding” a patient was one of the most common cures for ailments in the nineteenth century. A patient experiencing any number of symptoms including inflammationseizures, and respiratory distress would be subjected to blood-letting. Similar to pap boats, bleeding bowls were made from a variety of materials ranging from cast iron to sterling silver. Designed with a deep pot and sturdy handle, bleeding bowls were essential to a doctor’s toolkit. The practice stemmed from a belief that sickness was a result of unbalanced “humors.”

Poured Wax Dolls

Left: Poured Wax Shoulder Head Doll (Bonhams, November 2014). Right: British Poured Wax Doll, c. 1870 (Vectis Auctions Ltd., November 2015).

British poured wax dolls were common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The method dictated that the upper body of the doll was formed in a mold and details like glass eyes, wigs, and clothing would be added later. Before plastic was invented, wax was one of the most malleable mediums available for doll makers to use; however, wax dolls could be damaged in warm temperatures and often cracked upon cooling, resulting in deformed facial features or hands.

Preserved Specimens

Preserved blue butterfly, (Alaska Auction Co., May 2010).

By the nineteenth century, it had become common to collect and display rare animal species. Forever frozen behind glass, butterflies were a popularly collected specimen. This practice extended into the twentieth century, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was counted among avid avid butterfly collectors and traveled to India, Cuba, and South Africa chasing winged prey. Today, contemporary artist Damien Hirst notoriously draws inspiration from preserved species such as butterflies, insects, and mammals.

Intriguing or eerie, a cabinet of curiosities lives up to its reputation as outlandish. With a cabinet full of treasures like these, it might be best to lock it at night, just to be safe.

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