Scotland was the center in the mid 19th century of what we call The Cottage Industry: people are always amused when that old paisley shawl really did come from a crofter’s cottage in Paisley, Scotland. Likewise a reader (I will give his name here because no doubt with this name he is also a Scot: Laughlin) sends me a Mauchlin Ware eyeglass case and a pair of late 19th C. spectacles.
Mauchlin Ware is a Scottish collectible, with transfer scenes of tourist sights mounted on sycamore wood, almost all exclusively made by one family in one cottage industry: the Smiths of Mauchline, Ayrshire, now Strathclyde, Scotland. The Smith family graduated into a business called W. & A. Smith of Mauchlin, which employed at its peak nearly the whole of the town at 400 people, and produced vast numbers of souvenirs like this eyeglass case, of not only Scottish views but also views of North America, Australia and even South Africa.
A little bedridden chappie, named John Sandy, in Alyth, Perthshire, now called Tayside, invented the hidden hinged snuff box, where the teeth of the hinge were carved in the top and the side of the box and connected with a metal rod which passed through the center. Because he was an invalid, this meant that someone else had to manufacture and market the box, which fell to Charles Stiven from Laurencekirk. The snuffbox became the RAGE in the late 18th century and developed the moniker the Laurencekirk box, which was then produced in Cummock, a few miles from Mauchline.
Scots are kind adventurers but they are also devious, and when someone brought William and Andrew Smith a Laurencekirk box to repair, they copied it, finding instant production success, and dropping there hitherto staple of razor hones, made from their house. So thus, the Smith family became W. & A. Smith Company.
The snuff as a fashion began to be ‘sneezed at’ by the mid 19th century, and the Smith family decided to make other wooden things like hidden hinge tea caddies and stamp boxes, but also branching out to eye glass cases and egg cups, and as we will see many more objects of virtue.
Now, in the late 19th century, the Smiths had a Scottish stoke of genius. What if they created decals, called transfers, of all the hot spots of tourism, and mounted them on these boxes (et. al.) of sycamore wood, and promised each seller of souvenirs in each of those tourist spots that THEY would have this HOT tourist item solely. Which they did! They had so many orders that they developed a speed varnish process which protected the decal as well as miraculously holding the flimsy sycamore wood together for a hundred years.
The most expensive of these had more than one view but these views were always related either by subject or geography. A case in point was the Burnsian Line, after Robert (Rabbie) Burns, the famous Scottish poet in which all things Burns were featured on a piece. The next most popular object was similar, woodenware decorated with all things Sir Walter Scott.
Another trait of the Scots is notoriously THRIFT. When the railway dominated the tourist market and then when later motor transport upset the tourism market, the Smith family declined to produce any NEW views (decals or transfers) with any of the modern transportation devices celebrated thereon. Which means for almost 80-years of producing these souvenirs they did not change ONE view.
The only concession to modernity was that the Smiths recognized that to produce a scene from the NEW medium of photography was cheaper than hiring drafters, they developed a new line of Mauchlin Ware which is today called by collectors “stick on” photograph ware.
Since the Scottish character tends towards engineering, one of the workers in the Smith production line began to fool around with those early cameras, and since he had none of the extensive decals used by the Smiths, Archibald Brown aligned himself with Scotland’s most famous early photographer George Washington Wilson, and began to compete with the Smiths making much the same Mauchlin Ware.
From 1860-1900 Brown’s Mauchlin Ware business and Smith’s Mauchlin Ware business produced needlework, cosmetic, stationary, food related objects, to mention only a few.
Laughlin, this collector of Mauchlin Ware who sends me the eyeglass case, writes that he has collar cases, containers for pins and needles, holders for pencils, holders for string, novelty inkwells, shot glass holders for whiskey, stamp boxes, and quite a few napkin rings.
By now, the world was noticing Mauchlin Ware, and Coates and Clarks, to mention a few sewing items companies, commissioned the makers of Mauchlin Ware to make custom spools for their companies, and other sewing related objects.
The two most obviously Scottish forms of this ware, to my mind, sum up the Scottish-ness of this ware. One is called a “go to beds,” which is a Mauchlin Ware tiny candleholder with one slot for ONE matchstick, enough to light one small candle for getting up to you bedroom. Notice I ONE match, speaking to the thriftiness of the Scots. The other telling object is the Mauchlin Ware trick moneybox, in which you may never see those coins you squirrel away within.
The value of Laughlin’s eyeglass case with period steel spectacles is $400.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter