The Victorian love of gadgets and bibelots coupled with a passion for all things Scottish fueled the development of tartanware. Made in Scotland, the souvenirs were decorated with Scottish plaids, or clan tartans. These charming 19th-century souvenirs–which range from snuff, boxes to thread winders–are prized by collectors in the United Kingdom and the United States. According to Sir Alasdair T. Munro, a Vermont-based collector and dealer of tartanware, aficionados are drawn to tartanware both for the delightful plaids–more than 60 patterns were used–as well as for the intriguing objects decorated with tartan.
Tartanware first appeared in the early 1800s as a decoration for wooden boxes used to hold snuff, or powdered tobacco. The Scots were particularly adept at creating boxes out of sycamore wood that would keep the snuff dry. One of the finest makers was the firm of John and James Smith, founded in 1810 in Mauchline, near Ayrshire. Over the next century, the Smith brothers came to be the dominant name in tartanware. (Tartanware falls under the umbrella name of Mauchlineware, which includes other small wooden objects decorated in different fashions.)
Like all good marketers, the Smiths wanted to make their product distinctive. Tartans, so classically Scottish, seemed the obvious choice. The first snuff boxes were ornamented with hand-painted tartan. To speed the process, the Smith brothers invented an ingenious machine of multiple inking pens that created tartan patterns on paper. The paper was glued to the wooden object. To hide the inevitable folds (or joins) in the papers, especially when they covered curves, artists would paint over the joins with gold wavy lines. The entire object was then coated with as many as 36 coats of varnish by teams of young boys. Just as the habit of taking snuff began to die out, Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, turned Scotland into a popular English holiday destination. In 1850, the couple bought Balmoral Castle and transformed tartans into a fashion statement. Where the royals led, the rest of English society followed.
The Smiths and other firms responded by making tartanware souvenirs for vacationers to bring home. Tartanware branched out to include clever sewing items–spool holders, needle cases, thimble boxes, and thread winders. "Go-to-beds"–match safes that would hold a single match to light the way to bed–also were common.
Many collectors seek out categories such as sewing objects, books, and games. Others search for particular shapes, such as whiskey bottles or eggs; some amass articles related to an activity such as writing, and search for blotters, pens, pen trays, and inkwells. Yet others collect specific tartans, a task made easier by makers who labeled the tartan name on each object. "Many people make a special effort to look for their family tartan," explains Alasdair Munro. Twenty percent of all Americans have Scottish ancestry. Although tartanware objects are generally small and only cost a few shillings when sold in the 1800s, they are no longer inexpensive.
Prices are determined by rarity as well as condition. Some objects are especially unusual, as are some tartans. Napkin rings are probably the most readily found. Patricia Funt, owner of Patricia Funt Antiques in New Canaan, Connecticut, sells tartanware napkin rings for $75; 10 years ago she sold them for $30. "There’s not much tartanware for under $100," she says.
"Needle cases and thimble holders– the next most common tartanware articles–cost between $200 and $400," says Munro. The most unusual tartanware objects claim prices in the thousands of dollars. Funt has a tartanware box filled with many smaller snuff boxes, each covered in a different tartan. "That would cost around $5,000," she says.
With prices like these, fakes are inevitable. True tartanware is hardy and well made. If you detect folds in the tartan paper over the object, it is probably not genuine tartanware. Many fakes are not finished with gold wavy lines. Look also for the toughness and patina that comes from countless coats of varnish.
"Most pieces were so well made and so well finished with varnish, they look new," says Munro. He once found a small, rectangular box with a hinged lid that had 116 tartan game counters (poker chips). "They had been used so much that it took me all day to clean off the finger grease," he recalls. "But not one of them was chipped."
There is no way of knowing the limit and kinds of the tartanware made. A devastating fire in 1933 destroyed the Smiths’ factory and all their records. "With most areas of collecting, there are documents that show exactly how many pieces were made and the different types," says Munro. "Not with tartan. No one knows how much is out there and what it all looks like." For many collectors, it’s a mystery worth pursuing.
Reference books about tartanware include: Tunbridge and Scottish Souvenir Woodware by Edward H. Pinto; London: G. Bell & Sons, 1970; and a softcover publication, Mauchline Ware by John Baker, Princess Risborough, England: Shire Publications, 1985. Both are out-of-print, but copies may be sought through art or hard-to-find book dealers, or through Internet bookfinders such as amazon.com, or alibris.com.