What P.S. sends me is — or was — universal for many years: a ubiquitous pair of stirrups.
We can all imagine a time when cars were not in our “wheelhouse” (what a phrase) and we rode horses — or were pulled by them.
P.S. sends me a fascinating pair of South American stirrups, and they are SO SMALL that I suspect they are lady’s stirrups, from a time when lady-feet were prized only if they were dainty and small.
What a joke. When you think that at this time when these stirrups were made, most women had on an average of five kids. Whose feet were small after carrying such loads? But that is the idealization of women at the time. They must have had tiny little feet — and boy, do these little, tiny stirrups reflect that.
Let us see just how universal stirrups were in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how plentiful the relics of them are, because few stirrups are worth much in the marketplace “for equipage,” as that market is called.
First, let’s look at the encased foot form. The Spanish Colonial riding stirrups in the late 18th century have a curved toe, echoing the Moorish heritage of Spain, with a decorative ornate element — a beautiful, foliated band with a small slot to attach to the saddle.
Those will only set you back around $300 because so many existed. These are based (and here we see that in California, we do have a history of those kind of stirrups) – on Spanish solid brass stirrups.
And they have that form that shows the shape of the foot.
But other countries have their own forms.
For example, the Japanese stirrups of the late 19th century, called “Abumi,” which are also small, but are in form of a “C” shape (not encasing the foot, but resting the foot on the bottom of that “C” shape). They’re beautiful in their sparsity.
These are usually of both bronze and brass and can be worth at their most elegant at $1,500. If you find a pair of Abumi, which are cast iron lacquered over with a beautiful gold- gilt inlay, then you have something. But my bet is that you will think they are modern abstract works of art, and you might never recognize that they are stirrups from the 19th century.
They are just that beautiful and functional that you cannot imagine feet in them: just a wonderful curve in a C shape that is highly decorated, from the Meiji period 1868-1911, selling for upward of $2,000 the pair.
Now we come to 100% American stirrups of the 19th century/
Of course, we will find that not only is our underlying American consumerism at work, but stirrups were created to support political candidates! What a change from the elegant non-linear Japanese form and the ancient Spanish form that were so very functional.
In America of the 19th century, stirrups, if they were high-styled, had to support something other than the foot.
A case in point are the stirrups that were made for the candidacy of Henry Clay, the speaker of the house in the 19th century, who ran in the 1844 presidential campaign.
You might have guessed that he loved horses, as he was from Kentucky. He bred horses, so his campaign created stirrups which had (instead of a pretty foot support) an initial band which read “HCLAY” upon which you might rest your feet.
Here’s the fun part. Henry Clay, who lost for president, did something for the horse culture of the mid-19th century. These stirrups reflect this: He raised Old Henry Clay,the great horse of the 19th century, America’s National Thoroughbred Trotting Horse. His progeny sired the magnificent “Clay Line” of great trotting horses, so much so that after the great Henry Clay passed away peacefully in 1867 (the horse, not the candidate), the remains were exhumed, and his mandible was set up on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
P.S. did not want to know so much about the history of stirrups, but I will say that hers are indeed South American, Brazilian Britannica metal (not very much silver content at all). They’re in the style of conquistador stirrups from the third quarter of the 19th century, perhaps by the great Brazilian ironmonger Correa de Lima, Rio de Janeiro (1861-1873). A similar pair sold at New Orleans Auctions for $300.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.