Locks, Smocks and Two Choking Corals

Superstitions surrounding the legend and lore of the power of coral for the protection of teething babies takes its roots from ancient history. The superstition goes further back in history where a child’s teething time has been a source of great angst; and coral has been used for millenia to craft jewelry and other ornaments. Surviving Sumerian tablets more than 3000 years old record their use of coral for teething rings. The Egyptians believed coral would ease their babies’ pain during teething and they had coral rings inscribed with the head of Bes, a god known to protect children. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that coral would ward off the falling sickness and a number of other infantile ailments and diseases; and hung pieces of polished red coral around the necks of their babies to keep away evil influences..

But it was during the British Regency (1795-1837) and Victorian period (1837-1901) that this superstition remained popular amongst the wealthy. For Regency and Victorian parents, their child’s teething time was a period not only of great anxiety, but of intense fear. As had been the case in many centuries before, teething was believed to be responsible for at least 10% of infant deaths. Therefore, many wealthy families believed the best protection for their teething child was a coral necklace, which was received as a special christening gift to protect their child against any harm or illness.

As well as coral, the Precious Metals of silver and gold, were considered to have mystical properties. Silver was believed not only to have purifying effects, but offered protection from all things evil and supernatural in origin. Thus, beginning in the early 18th Century, an expensive special silver (or sometimes gold) ornate teether/rattle was made as a christening gift for the infants of wealthy families. The rattles were fitted at the lower end with a bright red coral gum stick, which was considered to be symbolic of youth, health and vibrancy. Many of these lavish rattles were fitted with a loop through which a ribbon could be threaded, in order to suspend the rattle from the baby’s neck, or tie it at their waist. These affluent family rattles became heirlooms which were handed down through the generations.

  • Although painted only within a year of each other, the images above show three infants, The Portrait of Jane Tyler (by Joseph Whiting Stock, ca 1845), and The Portrait of Alfred Openshaw (by R. Hunt, 1846). The black and white image ‘A Child with a Coral‘ (with silver and coral rattle) is by an unknown artist, and painted around the same time period. It is the property of Mr and Mrs Michael Reeves.

Joseph Whiting Stock was an American painter known for his portraits, miniatures, and landscape paintings, many of which he did on commission. He was born on January 30, 1815 in Springfield, Massachusetts. From the mid 1830s, Stock accepted commissions for the following two decades, for portraits around New England, working in Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Middletown, Goshen, and Port Jervis, New York. In 1855, 40 year old Stock died of tuberculosis in Springfield.

The Portrait of Alfred Openshaw by American artist R. Hunt, is part of the American Museum collection in Bath, England. The museum stands as a fine memorial to its original joint founders in 1961, Dr Dallas Pratt and John Judkyn, (1913-1963) (a British born antiques dealer, who had become a United States citizen). Judkyn was Pratt’s companion of 24 years. Sadly, Judkyn’s death, at the age of 50, in a car crash in France soon after the museum’s opening, was the first of a series of bereavements that changed the course of Pratt’s life. Dallas Pratt (1914-1994), was an American psychologist, collector and philanthropist, born in New York. Pratt presented his Keats collection to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome in 1971. He also gave many rare books and manuscripts to Columbia University library.

  • Together, Pratt and Judkyn acquired furniture and domestic objects (including more than 100 quilts and coverlets) over a period of years, representing a selection of quality craftsmanship and folk art of America through the centuries.
  • Known as the American Collection, it is housed at Claverton Manor, set high on one side of the Avon valley near Bath, England. They purchased it in 1958 from the descendants of John Vivian a barrister and solicitor, who had purchased it in 1816. Many decades on, the American Museum remains the only museum outside the United States to showcase the decorative arts of America.

Coral is good to be hanged about … ” (Plato)

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Source: Ayres, James. English Naive Painting (1750-1900) Thames & Hudson: London, 1980.
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