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Purple Reign

Tangentially to my recent post on Bagshaw’s patent diagrammeter, I was reminded of something that had always puzzled me, but until now had not seemed of any particular significance. As the title of this post alludes, I refer of course to the distinctive purple colour of the case’s silk lining.

For much of the nineteenth century, blue had been the customary hue of British mathematical instrument case upholstery, often with the manufacturer’s name gold blocked on the silk lid lining. It is unclear exactly when this fashion began or which of the major makers was the first to adopt it. Cases of the Georgian era had been noticeably more varied in colour, from the shaggy green silk velvet possibly influenced by French fashions and chinoiserie, to a range of reds, browns, teals and various shades of blue.

It seems that dark blue velvet began to dominate from the early 1800s, although makers such as William Elliott still occasionally used red to good effect. Elliott may also have been one of the earlier firms to routinely sign their cases with gold blocking, a practice first seen on the inside flap of William Elliott’s small black cases for pocket compasses and offset scales.

William Elliott case of four offset scales with gold blocked signature

Its later use by Elliott Bros with the more conventional gold on blue silk inside the lids of their instrument cases can be dated with reasonable confidence to at least the 1860s by this early Amsler fixed-scale planimeter (likely only retailed for a short period between 1857 and 1860).

Elliott Bros early Amsler fixed-scale planimeter probably sold between 1857 and 1860

From the 1860s blue became de rigueur and remained so for the remainder of the century and beyond. It was only towards the middle of the twentieth century that British firms started to deviate from this norm to a significant extent, typified by the black case interiors used by Thornton, Watts and Lee Guinness. Others such as Stanley, Halden, and Cooke, Troughton & Simms remained resolutely blue well into the 1960s.

For this reason, it is unusual to find an instrument case from the second half of the 19th century that departs from the ubiquitous blue. The Elliott-made Bagshaw was by no means the first such example to grab my attention – I had previously noticed a handful of different instrument cases with similarly coloured interiors and fortunately saved photos of most – but it was the first that I could confidently pin to a specific date range. Very likely manufactured in 1888, and certainly no later than the first month or two of 1889, it brought to mind an event that had recently dominated Britain’s cultural landscape.

1887 was the year of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, with ceremonies, tributes and events across the country, although not without the dissenting voices of some who felt it was an extravagance that the taxpayer could ill afford while poverty was still widespread in the cities. Moreover, the queen was still in mourning for her late husband Prince Albert, and apparently in little mood for a protracted celebration. Possibly for this reason Victoria eschewed tradition and began her jubilee year on the anniversary of her accession to the throne rather than the start of the year, meaning the jubilee celebrations proper only began during the summer of 1887. After the main pageantry of 20 and 21 June, including a procession through London and service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, further events took place over the following weeks. In an informal sense, the jubilee year could be considered to have come to an end the following summer on the 50th anniversary of the queen’s coronation, 28 June 1888.

Throughout these celebrations, the colours pink and purple figured heavily. Symbolically, pink represented the British Empire on maps, while purple was traditionally the imperial colour, reserved in ancient times for the sole use of the Roman emperor (it is worth noting that, from 1876, Victoria held the title Empress of India). Contemporary reports describe the colours being prominent in street decorations, interiors and even on the horses that pulled the royal coach. Purple bands were used on the invitations to the Westminster Abbey service.

Pink and purple were the predominant colours of the new postage stamps issued to coincide with the jubilee year. The Golden Jubilee (Police) Medal was presented in a case finished in deep pink silk and purple velvet, very much like that of Elliott’s Bagshaw diagrammeter.

Given the preponderance of regal symbols and insignia that appear on British drawing instrument cases of the 19th century, it is perhaps unsurprising that a major royal occasion would be likewise recognised in their design. For the 21st century collector of drawing instruments, it also raises the tantalising prospect that this particular colour scheme could be used to more precisely date sets that would otherwise be difficult to guess even to the nearest decade.

In order to test this hypothesis, I turned to my archived photos of pink/purple upholstered cases to see if any of them would more conclusively support or disprove the jubilee association. The first example that sprang to mind was an Elliott Bros set of scales, the case of which was possibly the closest to my Bagshaw diagrammeter’s in appearance.

Although marked with a previous owner’s name, H W Woodcock, there was unfortunately no obvious date-specific information that I could discern. However, the general style of the case and scales would appear to place it firmly in the 19th century.

More promising was a pair of Elliott devices, both Young’s patent speed indicators, with serial numbers 3876 and 4613. Patented in England on 7 October 1881, the speed indicator was being sold by Elliott Bros by the summer of 1882 when it appeared in The Engineer. It has been estimated that more than 30,000 were made by Elliott, with production continuing well into the 20th century, so it is quite plausible that this relatively narrow serial range may have coincided with the 1887/8 window, but I have no definitive evidence as yet. If the earlier serial number was produced in 1887, it would suggest an output of around 775 per annum, on the basis that production began in the summer of 1882. This production rate would comfortably allow the later serial number to be from 1888, assuming the jubilee case design to have been used for at least one year as suggested by the 1888 diagrammeter. Every other cased example of Young’s speed indicator that I have seen outside this range – both earlier (e.g. number 3644) and later (too numerous to mention) – has been of the usual blue silk variety.

The remaining instruments I had on record were by W F Stanley, once again including a boxed set of scale rules lined in purple silk.

Stanley set of 18-inch scales with patented brass inset and purple  silk lid lining

This 18-inch set was interesting for containing an early example of one of Stanley’s patented improvements, the small brass inset scales for taking off measurements by dividers. This places the set after 1886, when the patent application was made, making it another possible jubilee candidate.

Stanley 18-inch scale with patented brass inset detail

A similar purple-lined Stanley case, this time housing a set of small spring bows with needle points, appeared on ebay just a few weeks ago. These are always difficult to place chronologically, but there is nothing that obviously precludes a late 1880s date.

Finally, in the Drawing Instruments group photo albums – a highly recommended resource – there is a Stanley pocket case in Russia leather with purple silk lining, formerly part of the late Robert Tolson’s collection (reference RT1012). To my eyes this looked relatively modern and I fully expected it to torpedo my theory, but it turns out that Stanley had started to sell this design of case by at least 1888, when it was described and illustrated in the 6th edition of his Mathematical Drawing Instruments book.

It is also worth pointing out that the 1888 edition of Stanley’s catalogue was issued with a vivid purple cover, similar to the shade chosen for his cases (in contrast, Elliott’s silk lid lining was more towards the magenta end of the spectrum).

Stanley 1888 catalogue cover

As for other manufacturers, two of the major purveyors of blue-cased drawing instruments – A G Thornton and J Halden – were still in the relatively early days of their respective businesses, having dissolved their short-lived partnership in 1880. Evidence also suggests that for several years they were mostly importers and resellers of drawing instruments. W H Harling was well established as a retailer by the 1880s, but I have not seen any sign that he departed from the standard blue used from the earliest Hatton Garden days to the mid-20th century. 

In conclusion, all the purple instrument cases that I have been able to track down remain possible candidates for manufacture during the proposed 1887-88 timeframe, with none definitively earlier or later as things presently stand. Therefore it remains a possibility that this could be a potential way to more accurately date a particular group of cased instruments from these two manufacturers, Elliott Bros and Stanley. With that in mind, I will now be on the lookout for purple sets that might finally be able to corroborate this hypothesis with more concrete date information. As always, any observations both for and against the idea are more than welcome.

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