A present from Lerwick?

Some artefacts are interesting for what they tell us, and others are simply nice to look at. Here's one that's both.

A trinket box from the 1900s

On the face of it, it looks straightforward; a ceramic box that's a souvenir of Lerwick. But if you know even a little traditional British costume you'll see this Shetland souvenir is a bit bonkers! The outfit is traditional Welsh dress, the giveaway being the distinctive tall hat. As is often the case, we need to understand the context to explain things...

Around 1900, when this was made, Shetland was buzzing with the energy of the herring industry, and every summer thousands of workers came north to catch or process fish. Half of them were women who gutted and packed herring, living for the summer months in barracks. Lerwick's shops were mobbed, and merchants were quick to corner the market for these shoppers who weren't well-off but keen to buy souvenirs to take home to Scotland or East Anglia. Shops targeted female buyers, who were considered to be interested in improving their homes with ornament, and little vases or plates were popular (our Welsh/Lerwick item is a trinket box, for jewellery).

As today, souvenirs were mass-produced generics that businesses could get localised with their desired text to attract customers. Thus, we saw a postcard of a mountainous Highland scene and caption like "A Present from Shetland". At that time, ceramic factories in southern Germany were hugely productive and most of the pieces Lerwick's shopkeepers ordered came from there, complete with their "Present from Lerwick" text. The range was vast, and I suspect each supplied order comprised assorted pieces, with the localised text.

It was great to receive this item last week. Bavaria. Wales. Lerwick. East Anglia. Has it actually come home?

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