The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study

Moira Vincentelli

  Objects and Stories


But she was very fond of a little pair of pearlised miniature vases with a print of a 'Welsh spinners party' applied to the side. This is the story she told in relation to these.

Now it was customary when a man married he was given a present of the bible and Dad was given a present from his Sunday school class. We lived here and it used to be the methodist manse next door but one. And Mr and Mrs J. they weren't just our minister and his wife they were great friends of ours... Well anyway Mrs J. was very fond of my mother and felt it wasn't fair that daddy had a present but not mum so she gave those out of her own seld to my mother. From her own seld... On condition that they weren't put down with her list of wedding presents because as minister's wife she could offend other young couples getting married.




Miniature pearlised vases, made in Czechoslovakia with a transfer print of women in Welsh costume.

This story in passing down has preserved a number of points. Firstly it was a personal gift 'from her own seld', the more personal because it was not bought from a shop directly. Secondly the dresser was a place where women could have a surplus of disposable goods which could, on appropriate occasions, be used as presents. The story also underlines my point about the public nature of this gift giving. She did not want her present to be recorded on the wedding list because, as a minister's wife, it would immediately put her under obligation to every young bride. Lastly it allows me to bring in the form and decoration of these vases. The fineness and iridescent effect, like mother-of-pearl, was particularly admired by E.. They were made in Czechoslovakia and decorated with a transfer print (a relatively inexpensive technique) of the 'Welsh Spinners Party' appropriate for a Welsh market. This motif is a variation of the Welsh tea-party we saw earlier and it indicates clearly that the Welsh were consuming this image of themselves; it was not just created for tourists. The cultural traditions and language that were undoubtedly disappearing under the impact of the dominant anglophile culture were being substituted by this kind of picturesque Welshness. In fact E. had a number of photographs of her mother and her sisters in Welsh costume which they hired from the photographer. She was sure her mother had never worn or owned Welsh costume. Clearly in 1924 this was still prevalent but by 1949, when the interviewee was married, there were no examples of this kind of china and the photographic tradition of women in Welsh costume had died out.




Women dressed in Welsh costume in the French centenary procession at Fishguard, 1897.

But such imagery has not entirely lost its appeal although it is now mainly for the consumption of the 'outsider'. Among the wedding presents was a set of egg cups, also with a 'Welsh lady' design, given by nieces and nephews of the bride, as children. When one of them, now emigrated to Canada, came back to visit about ten years ago she chose an egg cup to take back to Canada as a memento. It had additional significance because it came from the 'seld'.

In another case a little Japanese cup and saucer of a kind widely imported into Britain which had been given to the bride not as a wedding present but as a souvenir by the fiancé of one of her sisters, a sailor on an oil tanker. This is an unusual example of a male giver. When, soon after, the oil tanker was lost with all its crew the cup and saucer was placed in the dresser, and took on a special significance as a memory of the young man who had died.

Although many of these things were given as gifts and were not strictly 'collected' there are some stories that suggest such an impulse. One concerns a teaset bought with wedding money on their honeymoon, to match a cake-stand and cruet set that had been given. When they got home it was found not to be an exact match. But in the telling of this story you sense the excitement of shopping, selecting and finding matching sets.

Another aspect of collecting which is intimately connected with Welsh dressers is the lustre jug. These were not given as wedding presents, it seems, in 1924 probably because they were not seen as 'modern'. However they were collected with great enthusiasm in Wales, their shiny metallic quality contrasts well with blue and white china and they could be found in sets with different designs and in different sizes which makes them eminently collectable.

E. recounted that her mother and all her sisters had had a lustre jug in return for collecting horsehair. Once a year the horsehair merchant visited Fishguard, on Fishguard Fair Day, and offered different sized lustre jugs in exchange for quantities of horse hair. Their father worked with horses and each year one of his daughters was given the task or the opportunity to collect the horsehair. Clearly lustre jugs were seen as an appropriate and desirable object for a young girl to collect in the second decade of this century.

In another tale of lustre jugs she recorded how her aunt had a wonderful collection bought at auction sales in the 1930s when crockery from house clearances was piled together in big baskets and sold as job lots. She had then given her nieces and nephews one each in her lifetime thus handing on a tradition and creating a memento whereby she herself might be remembered.18

When asked to compare her own wedding presents with those of her mother she said:

It was the end of the war and china was scarce.... We got a lot of Pyrex things - we had a horrible lot of Pyrex things which I don't like at all... and lots of bed clothes... but nobody gave us anything to compare with the china in the seld at all.

Then she remembered almost as an afterthought:

We have a china cabinet next door with presents - little silver things that we never use like jam dishes and cottages. We have a lot of those.

She maintained she did not like any of these things much and did not appear to care about them, nor did her daughter. However they were there on display in a cabinet largely hidden by a chair. They did not appear to have taken on any symbolic value.

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18. It is not possible in this article to discuss recent writing on the theory of collecting but Susan Pearce offers an extensive discussion of the psychological spur for collecting: S. Pearce, Museum Objects and Collections: a Cultural Study, Leicester University Press, 1992, 36-67 and this is further elaborated by Mieke Bal, 'Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting', in J.Elsner and R.Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting, London, Reaktion Books, 1994, 97-116. back to article

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Women and Welsh identity

The Dresser in Wales

Dresser and Seld

The Wedding presents

Objects and Stories

Tradition and Innovation in Display



Appendix 1


The Welsh Dresser: A Case Study • Issue 1