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National Preservation Month: Treasure Hunting Black Victorian Antiques

Tanzy Ward

This month for National Historic Preservation Month, it is important to highlight the growing market of highly sought after Black Victorian collectibles. When collecting Victorian antiques, it is rather rare to find sentimental mourning accessories that may feature woven hair strands belonging to a Black Victorian or an engraved locket with an African American portrait inside of its compartment. However, these historically significant items do exist, and are intricate artifacts that are important to preserve. 
Victorian Portrait of An Unidentified African American Woman (Personal Collection). Antique Victorian Era Aventurine Beaded Necklace, From the Zanathia Jewelry Collection 


History books have often excluded just how prevalent the Black Victorian presence was in both Britain and America. Of course, there are documented information and images that showcase African descendants, but disparity and suffering has always been associated with those of the African diaspora. Yet, there is another portrayal of the Black Victorian that involves dignity, poise, elegance, and triumph stories in emerging Middle Class societies. The antique market has a considerable amount of tintypes and cabinet cards that showcases Black Victorians dressed in elegant quality garments, many smiling with pride and dignity in their eyes. Many of these portraits were also used for stickpin accessories, a sentimental gesture to honor a dearly departed loved one's memory. 

Antique Victorian Era Mourning Stick Pin Featuring An Unidentified African American Victorian Woman Personal Collection


While I've come across lovely examples of mourning stickpins that feature Black Victorians, I have yet to find an example of hair work jewelry that is recorded as belonging to an African descendant. However, that does not indicate the items are not presently preserved. Many of these important accessories may be hidden away in a treasured family heirloom collection, or ambiguously preserved without public knowledge of its African heritage. The question is not whether Black Victorians practiced some of the same sentimental 19th century trends as their white counterparts, but where are these significant collectibles? Why they are not emphasized or acknowledged as much as other antiques is an important question.

Early 20th century antique portrait of two unidentified African American women family members. Personal Collection


In recent years, there has been a rise and heightened interest in Black Victorian portraits. In today's antique market, a daguerreotype of an unidentified Black Victorian is deemed as rarer, and may sale for thousands of dollars. It is a common misconception that Black Victorians did not routinely sit for portraits, but this is far from the truth. There were several photography studios that catered to Black Victorians as well, which includes black-owned studio photographer Augustus Washington (1820-1875). In many of the studio portraits, the details are very captivating and intriguing. Hand beaded embroidery on Victorian dresses, Jet brooches and earrings, scarf pins, and gold tinted accessories were routinely worn by Black Victorians as well. When examining these pieces, one can come to the conclusion that many of these lovely pieces were likely preserved. Why? Who is to say that quality 19th century brooches, necklaces, and sweetheart bracelets in present day collections did not once belong to a Black Victorian? While many of these accessories were passed down from generation to generation in heirloom collections, there are also a substantial amount of antiques that has an unknown past or providence. Therefore, when collecting and curating Victorian jewelry pieces, the possibility is endless and diverse in range. 

Antique Victorian Era Tintype of Woman with Creole Ancestry. Gold-tinted jewelry accents. Personal Collection


Many antique jewelry pieces may have a name or initials engraved somewhere on the item, but there are plenty who do not have any hallmarks at all. The preservation of these historical items are very important and helps us see a glimpse into past lives from eras gone by. National Historic Preservation Month celebrates the people, places, and objects that tell stories about history. We must include the memories, stories, and people that were often misrepresented in our history books. Whenever I am lucky enough to find a Black Victorian image or connection in Victorian antiques, I am excited and delighted. I stare at the item, ponder on their experiences, their personal story, and treasured memories.

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