D.S. sends me a silver dresser set that was a gift to her grandparents in 1900 from the Sturtevant Family of Framingham, Mass., a famous, indeed giant, name in the history of agriculture. Edward Lewis Sturtevant (1842-1898), with his brothers, on a farm of 200 acres in Framingham, developed a study farm, from which resulted his book, “Edible Plants of the World” of 1919; his daughter, whom, I suspect, was the gifter of D.S.’s grandparent’s set, Gracie, was herself a notable artist and botanist who specialized in the bearded iris. (The family archives are in the Missouri Botanic Garden Library.)
Why a dresser set for a wedding? This is because it was de rigueur for any real lady’s dresser. And the number of implements indicated just how aristocratic a lady was. These days, when I take out my plastic, tangled Conair brush and plastic comb, and fish for a tooth brush each morning, I am reminded of the great days when a vanity contained such splendor that a plastic comb, if there was plastic in those days, would have been despised.
What did a dresser set entail? The heyday of the dresser set was the turn of the last century when you could gift your child a dresser set, your wife, or a newly married lady such a thing. It contained almost everything for grooming: a nail buffer, a brush or two, combs with tortoise shell teeth, a grand mirror with repoussé design containing a beveled mirror and “silvered” glass (difficult to replace these days), a few sizes of powder jars that were made of cut crystal with sterling lids, two sizes of lint brushes; one for cotton, with a flat head, one rounded for wool; perfume bottles with sterling topper, a cuticle knife, and a few nail files, trinket boxes, and a pin box, and sometimes a hat pin stand. So, the entire wonderful gleaming set could be spread out quite effectively on the dresser and what might be better, on your own sit–down vanity, but nowadays, to find one that is fairly complete is RARE. So, D.S. has a nice little treasure.
D.S.’s set is almost complete, and she asks, “Now that I don’t have the bandwidth to display this a treasure, what can I do with the set?” I responded that perhaps she could invest in a customer framer’s craft piece of a Lucite shadow box that had a sleeve so she could polish the set once a year. She responded by asking, “If I can’t do that, how should I store the set?” I replied, “D.S.!!! NOT in BAGGIES or any kind of plastic, as that will severely harm the silver. Those felt bags that we used to have for our silver tableware are the best for storage.”
Kings and noble people had massive dresser sets, and I mentioned that the rare Tiffany dresser set that sold in 2017 at Rago auctions which was 24 karat gold, and consisted of body powder cylinders, a few scent bottles, a soap dish, and the above “ingredients” of brushes, mirror, combs, cuticle knife, files and so on; it sold for over $20,000.
Kings and queens and those that thought that they should be kings and queens had dresser sets that included a standing mirror around which may be clustered gold or silver candle wicks for those inevitable night make-up sessions before the ball, along with a little coffee pot, a creamer and sugar bowl, and a little dish for a small snack, along with the “ingredients” previously mentioned. Usually these grand sets were “crested” with the family insignia; D.S.’s is monogrammed.
D.S. writes that her grandmother was a nurse and grandfather a salesman, and I am wondering about the connection to the Sturtevant family: I am thinking that her grandmother must at one point have studied with biologist Grace Sturtevant, as Grace would have been D.S.’s grandmother’s contemporary. If only the dresser set could speak! If her grandmother studied biology to be a nurse, then maybe they did meet in college?
The value of such a set is $1,000, and if it needs at one point to be repaired, the repair (such as to the mirror, the tortoise shell comb, the pounding out of dents) could be JUST as expensive, but I would consider it worthwhile. The finest sets, in my opinion, are the Art Nouveau sets, which usually feature a semi naked woman with flowing hair, a mixture of naturalism and erotica, peculiar to the Art Nouveau period (1901-1925).
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s column appears every week in the Salon & Style section. Her new book, “Collect Value Divest: The Savvy Appraiser,” is available at local bookstores and at amazon.com. Send questions and photos to Ask the Gold Digger, c/o News-Press, P.O. Box 1359, Santa Barbara 93102-1359, or email ElizabethApprasals@gmail.com