Artifact of the Day for May 29th, 2018 — Cockatrice Black Glass Button

Today’s artifact of the day is quite interesting, I think, and provides opportunity for all sorts of musings. It’s part of a black glass button that was found beside the north wall of the structure in a layer that had other domestic refuse. We’re still trying to sort out how that layer of material got there, and how it relates to the structure, the basement addition, and the midden, but hold that thought and let’s dive into what this particular artifact can tell us.

Black glass button half. Black glass button half.

Glass is an amazing substance that is worthy of many posts itself, but in a nutshell:

  • Glass is made from a mixture of silica sand, soda, and limestone.
  • By heating and mixing these materials together, you end up with a smooth paste that can be molded and shaped into a variety of forms.
  • The natural colour of glass is a pale aqua colour. By adding metal oxides, the glassmaker can change the colour of glass.
  • While one goal was to develop a recipe that was truly colourless, another goal was the development of colour recipes that resulted in glass that could be cut to resemble gemstones.

One gemstone in particular that was much copied was Jet. Jet is the fossilised remains of a certain kind of pine tree that lived 150 to 180 million years ago in areas that are now Spain and the coast of England. These two coastlines used to be much closer together, separated only by a narrow band of water. Over time, trees were washed out to sea and were buried in iron-rich muck at the bottom of the ocean. The iron went into the wood, and eventually pressure and time compressed these layers of iron-soaked wood into a mineral known as Jet.

Seam of Whitby Jet in cliff face. Seam of Whitby Jet in cliff face.

English Jet is prized as the best kind of Jet, and it is also known as Whitby Jet, as it is mined near Whitby, UK. Monks at the Whitby Abbey adorned their crosses and rosaries with carved Jet. Commercial mining of jet from the cliffs began in the early 19th century, and it became very popular with fashionable women for jewelry and fashion.

Silk and wool dress circa 1870. Photo from theAmerican silk and wool dress circa 1870. Photo from the <a href= American silk and wool dress circa 1870. Photo from the Met Museum.

Another little tangent here, for backstory. Men’s clothing changed fits in the 19th century. Instead of the earlier looser, heavily embroidered or woven jackets or coats with large buttons, tailors performed their magic in shaping woolen cloth to closely conform to the body. Buttons became much smaller and were usually made of gilded metal.

Women’s clothing follows another pattern. Pre-1820, most fashionable women’s dresses didn’t have buttons. Think of Regency fashions and Jane Austen films. The waist was just under the bosom (Empire waist) and the dress fell straight to the ground. This form changed to a lower waist closer to the natural waist, and a much more constricted body. A fashionable woman would employ a lady’s maid to do up the dozens of tiny hook-and-eye fastenings of these dresses.

Post 1840, Queen Victoria set a new fashion in the adoption of more sombre colours like dark blue, black, brown, and green. She also popularised high-necked dresses, and two-piece dress sets where there was a bodice and separate jacket, and a long, wide, skirt. These bodices and jackets were fastened with tiny buttons.

Jet-beaded mourning cloak. Jet-beaded mourning cloak.

How does Jet enter into this fashion? Well, I mentioned above that Jet had been prized since medieval times as decoration and ornaments.

Intricate mourning customs and symbology meant black was a very popular colour.

The new fashion for buttoned dresses was another factor, and finally, Queen Victoria’s adoption of lavish jet mourning jewelry and jet beaded embroidered clothing, and carved jet buttons after the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861 catapulted jet into the stratosphere of fashion.

It was obligatory in court circles to wear black gem/Jet buttons, and as court set the fashions of the day, the masses would follow suit. Jet was very expensive, but some enterprising glassmakers tinkered with various black glass recipes floating around and developed something that looked quite a lot like Jet, but cost a fraction of the price. Even better, items could be industrially produced by moulding or casting, instead of laboriously hand-carving each individual piece of Jet, or making each individual glass button using lampwork techniques.

This is what our button would have looked like when it was new. This is what our button would have looked like when it was new.

So now we know why Jet buttons and black glass buttons were fashionable, let’s turn to what is on the button. Picture buttons date to approximately the 1860s onwards. Our button has what appears to be a cockatrice, and indeed, some judicious internet browsing meant I was able to find a match.

What is a cockatrice? Well, it’s a kind of dragon-like monster that hatched out of a seven-year-old rooster’s egg that had been hatched by a toad. This beast had the head, chest and legs of a rooster, a serpent tail with a poisoned barb and wings. It is usually represented as being covered in feathers or scales.

I did a little browsing and there are three main interpretations of this beast. One is that it represents the infidelity of Pride, and another possibility is to avert the evil eye. The heraldic interpretation means “terror to beholders”, which kind of parallels the evil-eye aversion meaning.

So by wearing buttons with the image of the cockatrice, was this chosen to remind a woman about the evils of Pride? Or was it a bit of a talisman, where the dress will avert the evil eye?

Heraldic cockatrice. Heraldic cockatrice.

Who knows, but it is fun to think about! I also looked to see in slang if cockatrice meant anything, and in a 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English which is abridged from a seven-volume(!) work by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, I found that cockatrice had this meaning: 1. A common prostitute ; also a mistress or ‘keep ‘ (1600). 2. A baby.

Unless there was some sort of secret uniform to denote prostitutes or a mistress, I find it unlikely that this meaning was secretly encoded into these buttons!

As I mentioned above, the peak production of black glass buttons came after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and lasted until the end of the Edwardian era (c. 1910). By the 1880s, the market was completely saturated with black glass buttons, and people began to get tired of the sombre dark colours and crave the new brightly coloured textiles available. As a result, brightly coloured glass buttons became increasingly popular, and black glass buttons steeply declined in production post-1910. So likely our button comes somewhere between 1860 and the early 1900s.

As a final note of interest, I am sure that our cockatrice image is referencing some famous painting or sculpture as I have found several other versions made of different materials. It’s as if it is a meme of the time. Anyone know what it is referencing?

Two other copies of our button. Two other copies of our button.Metal cockatrice button. Metal cockatrice button.

Today as we were washing more artifacts from that area, we did find at least three other black glass buttons, but none of them were picture buttons like this one, they just had faceted designs on them to catch the light and sparkle like real Jet.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.