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Monday, 2 April 2012

Links to The Past: Cuff Links

Links to the Past

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‘Batchelor buttons’, ‘sleeve links’ or ‘boutons de manchette’  - cuff links (by whatever name they have been known), have long been a favoured gift for male relatives. And the value of these small, decorative items to you now might be more than purely financial. Indeed cuff links can give many clues to aspects of your ancestor’s life in the past.

Like other items of inherited jewellery, cuff links are, of course, most useful to family history when there is paperwork connected with them; a letter or a will, for example, in which particular pieces are described and perhaps even valued. Alternatively, there might be a family story that explains how certain cuff links came into the possession of your great-grandfather or uncle. They were often given, for example, as gifts for weddings and – particularly – graduations. But even without this supporting evidence, there are a number of ways in which the items themselves can point us to aspects of our ancestors’ lives.

There is, for example, the matter of class. ‘Double sided’ (‘double panelled’ or ‘double-faced’) cuff links are traditionally of the highest quality and may indicate the wealth or elevated social status of an ancestor. From the late nineteenth-century, ‘single-faced’ cuff links (consisting of a one piece, ‘button-back’ design with decoration on the crown at one end and a smaller, plain metal head at the other) became popular with the masses. These, together with ‘dumbbell’ or ‘shank style’ cufflinks (with a gently curved but rigid shank) which came to fashion in the early 1900s, may also denote an ancestor of lower social status. As a brief rule of thumb - the more difficult a cufflink is to fasten, the higher the class to which your ancestor probably belonged!

And then there is the matter of identity. In the late nineteenth century, cuff links became increasingly more personalised. Some were engraved with initials or dates, and these are a genealogist’s delight, of course. Monograms of men’s names tend to have all three initials in the right order and at the same size. On some cufflinks the initials of the owner are on the reverse of the decorated face. Be careful, however, not to confuse monograms with the maker’s mark which may also be made up of initials.

Cuff links might also signal membership of an association. Some clubs, societies and military regiments issued cuff links to their members. In 2008, a single cuff link dating back to the late eighteenth century was found in the mud on the banks of the River Thames. It was dicovered that this was one of a limited number of such items which were presented to the officers serving Admiral Adam Duncan of Lundie to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Camperdown (11th Oct 1779), against the combined Dutch and French Fleets. Be careful, however, of ascribing your cuff links to one organisation or another in the past. There are many modern novelty cuff links with occupational or military themes.

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Cuff Links Timeline

Your cuff links may provide you with a taste of the era and social circumstances in which your ancestor lived. If you have an unidentified pair of cuff links, this brief timeline may help you to date them.

17th century. First cuff buttons (made of glass) appear linked with a chain. These will gradually replace the ribbons or pieces of string that have traditionally been used to fasten cuffs.

18th century. Cuff links are still seen as precious objects and remain the provenance of the very wealthy. They are handmade and comprise gold or silver with precious jewels as decoration.

1840s The ‘French cuff’, or ‘double cuff’ shirt becomes stylish and produces a higher demand for cuff links. The middle classes start to wear cuff links using cheaper materials such as gold-coloured alloys and fake diamonds.

1850 Cuff links are becoming much more popular. A variety of fastening mechanisms are devised but the most popular are those which have one decorative panel with a swivel bar mechanism at the back to secure the cuff link in place once it has been pushed through the button holes. 

1860 Electroplating (which combines gold and silver with other metals) helps the large-scale manufacture and distribution of gold- and silver- plated cuff links. Mourning cuff links made from black jet were very popular, particularly after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Another method of displaying grief was to wear glass cuff links which framed a lock of an ancestor’s hair.

1887 The Parisian Boyer establishment – specialising in collar studs and removable shirt fronts -  is founded. Cuff links are created in mother-of-pearl, pearls, enamel, miniature mosaic work and precious or semi-precious stones. Tiffany, Cartier and Faberge start to design different cuff links to suit different occasions and mood.

1880 American George Kermentz begins mass-producing single-sided cufflinks from a converted, Civil War-era cartridge shell machine. This technology combined with the earlier invention of electroplating enables much cheaper cufflinks to be produced

1900 Cuff links appear with Art Nouveau motifs including garland, foliage and irises and the profiles of women. Women start to wear cuff links.

1900-1910 Shirt companies started mass-producing shirts that already have buttons attached to their cuffs and consequently the trade in cuff links declines somewhat.

1920-1930 The Art Deco movement gives rise to abstract geometic motifs and enamel work. Eventually, top fashion precursors like Cartier, Chaumet, Mellerio and Boucheron pursue this trend and produce more Art Deco inspired cuff links.

1924 The Boyer establishment creates the ‘rolling button’ or ‘rod-type’ cuff link made up of a stud linked to a rod that swivels along its whole length between two stems

1930 ‘Press stud’ or ‘snap style’ cuff links come into fashion. These consist of two identical studs often in bakelite, mother-of-pearl or enamel which lock together via a small projection on one end and a matching depression on the other end.

As well as alerting you to the historical period in which they were acquired, cuff links may also tell you something about your ancestor’s interests or character. The predilections of the owner of a pair of ‘fox head hunting horn’ cuff links (made 1900) speak for themselves. The superstitious Charles Dickens always wore the same pair of dented cuff links for luck when he gave public readings. At times in history when there were few other fashion accessories available by which a man could show his individuality, the diamond or decorated cuff link peeking out from his sleeve was a rare opportunity for self-expression. Flamboyant or conservative, gadfly or company man – the chances are that you may glimpse your ancestor’s personality in the cuff links he left behind.

Useful Websites links-Came-About&id=3247913 Article on the history of cuff links by Mary Michaels For more about the cuff link belonging to Admiral Duncan of Lundie’s officer. For a gallery of interesting and unusual cuff links in a variety of designs and from a variety of periods.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Books

Flusser, Alan. Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion. HarperCollins, 2002

Pizzin Bertrand and Liaut Jean-Noel, Cuff Links, Assouline, 2002

Jonas, Susan, and Marilyn Nissenson, Cuff Links, Harry N. Abrams, 1991

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Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, fashion, men, male, clothing

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