Artifact Corner: 19th Century Earrings


Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at some beautiful earrings that we have in our collections. All of these earrings are from the 19th Century. All of the earrings are a dangle style, as opposed to a small stud earring. They are all quite stunning and dramatic. All of these earrings are also for pierced ears, which was incredibly common for the Victorian era. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of earrings.

We can say with certainty that people have been piercing their ears as far back as 5,000 years ago. In September of 1991 a mummy was discovered in the Alps near the border between Austria and Italy. The man, dubbed Otzi, was determined to be around 5,000 years old, and he had pierced ears. The Egyptians also pierced theirs ears. In King Tutankhamen’s tomb they discovered earrings, and his mummy had pierced ears. In ancient Turkey, Africa and even some parts of South America it was believed that evil spirits can infiltrate humans through their ears. Metal was seen as a repellent to evil spirits, and therefore ear piercing was a common practice.  The trend continued, and was brought to Rome by none other than Julius Caesar himself. In Roman society, the custom or trend of piercing ones ears was far more common in men than in women. In the early Middle Ages, earring were quite popular amongst all the classes of society for both men and women. This trend quickly shifted though, and the popularity of pierced ears fell very much out of favor. There are two possible causes for this. The first reason is fashion. Women’s heads were mostly covered during this time period. If you were a married women, you would wear some form of hair cover, and this also obscured your ears. Therefore, why would you wear earrings? The second reason was religious. In the 13th Century, the Catholic Church condemned any kind of body modification, and ear piercing was considered just that.

All of that changed during the Renaissance. As both women’s and men’s fashions became more flamboyant, and women’s head wear no longer obscured the ears. Both men and women fully embraced the trend and the styles of earrings were very elaborate. Of course if you were wealthy, that meant you could afford to adorn yourself with jewels, and that’s just what people during this period did. With the increase in shipping and trade, and the discovery of America, this meant that there was a new class of wealthy people, the nouveau riche merchant class. One of the ways they liked to display their new found prosperity was with their clothing and jewelry. Both fabric and metals were expensive, and to adorn yourself with lots of luxurious materials was not only a fashion statement, but also a status statement. People continued to wear earrings right through the 18th and 19th Centuries with women, but began to fall out of favor with men. The earrings were often dangle earrings, and used a variety of metals, jewels, wood, ivory, and bone. In the late Victorian/early Edwardian period, ear piercing began to fall out of fashion. Whether it was due to the strict morals of the time period, or the outright racism against immigrants with pierced ears, it’s hard to pinpoint just one reason why the popularity dwindled. That’s not to say that women didn’t still want to wear earring, they did. This began the rise in popularity of the clip on or screw back earring. The clip on saw it’s heyday in the early to mid 20th Century, and was an alternative for women who wanted the fashionable look, without having to have their ears pierced. Pierced ears came back into fashion in the swinging 1960’s, and has grown in popularity. It is estimated that between 80 to 90 percent of women in America have their ears pierced, and that the trend is increasing in men as well.

The earrings that we have in our collection are in beautiful condition, and could be worn very easily today, with no one guessing they are well over 100 years old. They are such a lovely reminder of women’s fashions in the early to mid Victorian period and we are so lucky to have them in our collections. Thank so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,