Collecting Suffrage: Suffragette Jewellery And ‘The Antiques Trade Gazette’

This week’s issue of the Antiques Trade Gazette contains a letter from me protesting against the mis-describing of random pieces of Victorian/Edwardian jewellery that have a combination of metals and/or stones approximating to the purple, white and green of the WSPU, as ‘suffragette’.

ATG

Here is the text of the letter:

‘As a long-established dealer in suffragette memorabilia I must try once again to take a stand against the mis-labelling as ‘suffragette’ of any pieces of jewellery that contain stones approximating to some shade of purple (or pink or red), white and green.

I see on page 32 of this week’s ATG that two auction houses so described 3 brooches/pendants. I have no idea if the intrinsic value of the items was commensurate with the sale price achieved, but of one thing I am certain – there was nothing in the lot descriptions that convinced me that these pieces had any association with the suffragette movement. I only hope that those bidding were not doing so with any thought that they were acquiring a piece of suffragette history. It should be obvious to anyone with any historical sense that it is necessary to have a much more detailed provenance – a documented history – other than some woolly description about ‘purple, white and green’.  

The ‘colours’ were the invention of one of the leaders of the WSPU, Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, as a way of creating a ‘brand’ for the WSPU and were first used in June 1908 at a grand rally held by the WSPU in Hyde Park.‘The Public Meeting Act’ of December 1908, mentioned in the ATG piece, was intended, although notably unsuccessful, to prevent suffragettes from heckling ministers – not to prevent suffragettes themselves from holding meetings. It was not until years later – in April 1913 – that there was any prohibition on the WSPU holding meetings in public parks. Moreover, Britain was never such a repressive country that suffragettes found it necessary to wear jewellery ‘in the colours’ as a secret token of allegiance. Quite the reverse; women wore their badges (also now very collectable) proudly –advertising the WSPU and many other suffrage societies.

Since each of these societies followed the WSPU lead and adopted an individual combination of colours of their own I am surprised that auction houses and dealers have not yet leaped onto that bandwagon. For instance, the colours of the main suffrage society – the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – were red, white and green. Just think how many pieces of jewellery with stones in those colours could be described as ‘suffragette’ if we were seriously to follow the ‘purple, white and green’ rule.

I have studied the suffragette movement in depth – in all its manifestations – and can report that there is no evidence that ‘suffragette’ jewellery was made in anything like the quantity flooding the auction houses and, of course, Ebay. Moreover the only commercial company known to have made and retailed ‘suffragette jewellery’ as such was Mappin and Webb (Stanley Mappin was a convinced supporter of the WSPU – joining in the suffrage boycott of the 1911 census). I would be interested to learn of any documentation citing any other commercial company as maker of ‘suffragette jewellery’.  

 Other jewellery was made by individual artist craftswomen- such as the well-known enameller Ernestine Mills – to sell at fund-raising suffragette bazaars and may well have included references to suffragette colours and motifs. On occasion one can find pieces that demonstrate clearly their suffragette provenance. One such is a pendant made – in purple, white and green enamel – from a design by Sylvia Pankhurst. The pendant is long since sold but I use the  image of it as the identifier on my website – womanandhersphere.com – on which those who really want to know about ‘suffragette’ jewellery can find more information – as they can in the entry under ‘Jewellery and Badges’ in my The Women’s Suffrage Movement; a reference guide, published by Routledge. Ignorance should not be a reason for allowing auction houses and dealers to perpetuate the ‘suffragette jewellery’ myth. As I say, I specialize in suffragette memorabilia but could not possibly bring myself to sell something as ‘suffragette’ if I was not certain that it had an authentic provenance.’

I don’t suppose this will make a jot of difference – but I try. A suffrage collector told me recently that, after buying an item on Ebay and then doing a little research, he realised that the item was not of original suffragette provenance. When he protested to the Ebay seller, he was told,  ‘Prove it’. That was not a valuable item, so it was not worth the trouble of engaging in a prolonged battle with a seller who lacked both historical knowledge and a conscience.  However, I am sure there are cases, particularly of jewellery, where sales are made that would not have been without the spurious ‘suffragette’ description.

Caveat Emptor 

Buy only from a reputable dealer.

 

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  1. #1 by Eileen Luscombe on May 17, 2013 - 12:21 pm

    Indeed buyer beware! Another concerning development on Ebay are vendors selling ‘rare defaced Votes for Women Pennies’ Up to 99 pound. So very easy to stamp into a Penny from the era.

    • #2 by womanandhersphere on May 17, 2013 - 1:44 pm

      Quite agree. But who is so daft as to buy them, I wonder? Those pennies were the currency for the first (dare I reveal it) 25 years of my life – and I never once encountered a ‘Votes for Women’ one. At the rate they are now appearing on Ebay I think I might have expected to have seen at least one in all that time!

  2. #3 by Howard (@user24) on April 15, 2014 - 1:52 pm

    Many thanks for a very valuable article. I had an inkling that the label might be a modern fantasy and am very glad to have found a professional confirming it. It makes the decision whether to buy the prettier pendant or the one labelled ‘suffragette’ much easier now!

  3. #4 by corrinestreetly on July 15, 2016 - 5:58 pm

    Could I ask you if you know of any specialist books that document original British suffragette jewellery, do you know? I have an old paste brooch in the shape of a large question mark (‘The Woman Question’ shape of it exactly the same as seen on old postcards.

    • #5 by womanandhersphere on July 19, 2016 - 8:23 am

      There is no book specifically on British Suffragette jewellery. I have a section on ‘Jewellery’ in my Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide – but that deals only with jewellery produced by the various suffrage societies not with whatever may – or may not – have been produced by commercial jewellers I do say, however, that if there were commercial jewellers making any fraction of the pieces that flood the auction houses/ebay etc – why did they never advertise their wares to their obvious audience – readers of the suffrage papers?? ‘The Woman Question’ postcard that I know was actually published by a US postcard company – and doubt that there is much of a link to your brooch – other than Life being the eternal Question!!
      Elizabeth

  4. #6 by womanandhersphere on June 2, 2013 - 2:57 pm

    Many thanks for link re suffragette jewellery. It won’t make the slightest impression on auction houses and dealers – but at least we try. Amusingly enough the only trade response I had to the letter in the trade newspaper was an offer of a blatantly un- suffragette item (but purplish, greenish, whiteish). It was quite obvious that the dealer hadn’t understood at all the content of my letter! What does one do?
    Elizabeth

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