Buckles & Bits

“One, two, buckle my shoe…” – English Nursery Rhyme

“Toys” in the 18th century sense of the word, are any small items for personal use and not, as today, children’s playthings. Holland and Hunt, in their Treatise on the Progressive Improvement and Present State of the Manufactures in Metal  divide “toys” into “heavy toys” – which are “miscellaneous cheap and useful wares, and “light steel toys” – which are “an endless variety of steel trinkets”, presumably those of a more decorative, rather than smaller, form.  Luckily, this distinction does not seem to have been widely taken and the authors, at a later point in their book, observe that “it would be useless, not to say impossible, to enumerate all the articles of a useful or ornamental nature which are composed of polished steel, from … buckles … to small beads”.

The characteristic of cut steel jewelry is the use of faceted steel studs set into a backing plate.  The items now most readily found, and originally produced in the greatest numbers, are shoe buckles.  Steel jewelry was not a cheap substitute for precious stones and certainly not for the paste imitations which were widely used in the late 18th century.  Although steel jewelry was available in a number of price points it was fashionable and prized in its own right – and it could be a very expensive consumer choice.

Why buckles? —  Following the Restoration of the British Monarch in the mid 17th century, buckled shoes started to replace tied shoes amongst the fashionable British:  London diarist Samuel Pepys wrote for 22 January 1660 “This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes, which I have bought yesterday of Mr. Wotton.”  Separate buckles remained fashionable until they were abandoned along with high-heeled footwear and other fashions in the years after the American Revolution, though would have continued to have been seen on the streets of Richmond by those mature individuals who preferred to “dress in the old style” into the early years of the 19th century.

Among the collections of the Valentine Richmond History Center are several examples of “toys” including a pair of late 18th c. cut and faceted steel lady’s shoe buckles (V.73.216) which were donated by Mrs. John T. Farrar in 1973.