The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study
On the list [appendix 1] it appears that the furniture was mainly given by male members of the family: the two fathers and the bride's older brother for whom she had kept house. The groom's mother gave a wash stand and dressing table.
What kinds of things can we draw out from this list? The list was made when the couple were on their honeymoon and it conveys a sense of satisfaction in what the couple have accumulated. The list is headed 'Our list of wedding presents'. According to my interviewee,
Around 1900 it was not unusual for newspapers to publish list of presents with their givers and the practice survived in some parts of Britain into the second half of the century. However the accounting for presents has a particular resonance within Welsh culture in the custom known as 'bidding'. A bidder went round before a wedding to invite people to the festivities and to make a contribution to the young couple's needs. It was a very formalised system of exchange where marriage was the moment of major inheritance when children were given their due but could not expect more. The presents, money or food gifts were recorded by a clerk and in some cases the food could then be auctioned off to raise further cash. The records would then oblige the recipient at some future date to repay equivalent amounts to the giver or members of their family. The remnants of this custom were still maintained at the beginning of this century.16 This wedding list, from 1924, seems to have been a public account of what had been received, thus not unrelated to the earlier tradition of bidding.
The dresser although it was a copy of the parent's dresser was a relatively modern design. Two glass doors with a fixed glass panel in the middle enclose the entire upper part shielding the contents from the grime and soot exuded from coal fires, even more important if things were not really for use but only display.
When it was created there was nothing on this dresser that had any pretensions of being antique or even traditional and in 1924 it would probably have represented modernity and prosperity, but for all that in this family it became a very important symbolic object that was carefully preserved by mother and then daughter. E.'s mother had died quite young just before E. herself married so E. had stayed on in the family home and had kept house for her father as well as her own husband and children. The dresser had undoubtedly assumed a special importance also for her father as a memory of his wife. Nothing in this dresser was ever used: the interviewee had never used any of it herself and did not recall her mother ever doing so. It was from the start an object of display but had taken on additional meaning because of particular family circumstances.17
I also wish to argue that the interest in ceramic collecting and display became very important to women at this time. The wedding present list indicates that the givers are predominantly women: forty-seven women, fifteen men and ten couples. This could be explained by the fact that the bride was one of ten of whom six were girls, and the groom one of three with two sisters, but I doubt if this could account for it entirely and it seems to me that what we see here is an elaborate system of gift exchange particularly focused around decorative ceramic and glass objects.
This is further substantiated by other items kept on display on the dresser including a collection of souvenir china, miniature vases stamped with place names avidly collected and exchanged between women as they began to travel more. There are also examples of pink cups and saucers, which seem to have been specifically gift china particularly characteristic of the period.
All of these were delicate and would have been difficult to use but in the case of one of them quite impossible as the cup had a frilled rim: a sure sign of its display and symbolic nature. This is what the interviewee said about them:
16. J.G. Jenkins, Life,137; D. Jenkins, The Agricultural Community of South-West Wales at the Turn of the Century, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1971; E.L. Barnwell, 'On Some Ancient Welsh Customs and Furniture', Archaeologia Cambrensis, 4th series, vol.12, 1872, 329-338. Published wedding lists can be found in the Cambrian News in 1900 but the practice was also prevalent in Lancashire and could still be found as late as the 1970s. back to article
17. Twiston Davies writing in 1950 also suggested that 'the dresser has remained in the Welsh farmhouse and cottage, essentially an object for show' originally with pewter and later, most typically with blue and white willow pattern plates and lustre jugs. back to article
|The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study Issue 1|