What are catchpennies, you ask? These are items that have instant appeal to buyers. They are made inexpensively and designed especially to sell quickly and easily. They were often made by Victorian women to raise money at charities and fairs.
They were also made or purchased as birthday or holiday
gifts when the famiiy's pocketbook was a bit tight. Some of these items could very well be used today as they were originally intended. Others could be used for other purposes, even if only as added decor to a table or dresser.
This article was found in a December, 1886 publication of Harper’s Bazaar. It has been edited for use on this site.
by Mary C. Hungerford
Even if a person registers a mental vow to give none of her valuable time to the construction
of articles of use or beauty to be sold at charity fairs, her
resolution is prone to weaken when a zealous committee waits upon her
with a fervent appeal for contributions. Donations
of money are good substitutes for manufactured articles, but not every
one has it in her power to be liberal. The benevolent causes supported
by fairs are generally excellent and well managed, so the girls who have
taste and expert fingers amiably push aside Christmas and other
seasonable work and busy themselves with fairings, to use an obsolescent
The troublesome question then is what to make that will be easy, attractive, and saleable. I have heard the question asked so often that this summer at a hotel fair I made a list for future reference of the various contributions from summer guests which filled the tables. Most of the articles given had to be made on the principle upon which the Israelites were expected to make bricks, i.e., without straw; for shopping facilities were entirely lacking, or only such as peddlers’ wagons and very small country stores afforded.
White linen sponge-bags were among the things that found a ready sale on this occasion. They were ornamented with a spray of flowers on each side worked solidly in white silk, and were finished at the top with a deep hem forming a frill when drawn up. The white silk braid used for strings passed through button-holes worked perpendicularly in the linen. An inner bag, the same size as the outer one, was slipped in and held in place by button-holes at the top, through which the braid was passed when threading it through the linen ones.
Pretty handkerchief-holders were made by tacking a colored Florence-silk lining upon the back of a thin embroidered batiste handkerchief, and laying in the center a six-inch square sachet made of the silk. The points of the handkerchief were brought up and turned over the sachet, which was stuffed firmly enough to afford support for the two or three folded handkerchiefs which might be confided to its keeping. The points, which were far enough from meeting to allow an opening in the centre, were caught together at the sides by narrow ribbon bows.
Another style of holder, which might answer for gloves, neck-ties, or
handkerchiefs, was a long, straight, folded-over piece of quilted,
perfumed satin, which served for the lining of an outside made of
bedticking in even, narrow stripes, of which the white ones were covered
with brier stitch done with silk. The dark stripes were decorated with
straight rows of tinsel wool invisibly couched down. Rainbow colors were
used for the brier-stitching, and the effect was quite Oriental. The
edge was finished with a cord made by loosely twisting silks of the
colors used in working, held down by whipping it over the tinsel.
Small flat needle-books were made with heart-shaped and circular covers of white linen, embellished with dainty painted wreaths of forget-me-nots, or arbutus, or holly with its berries, the blue, pink, or green of the depicted flower being repeated in the silk lining of the needle-book covers and in the ribbons which held the covers together.
A particularly pleasing contribution was a traveling work-holder — one
could hardly call it a work-bag — made of firm brown hollands, in a shape
that half suggested a photograph album. It was made by cutting a strip
of the material one yard long by eleven inches broad. This was doubled
into five folds, or leaves, one might say, as they were caught together
at the back to put them into book form. The top of each leaf was cut
into a flap or scallop three inches deep; this was to turn over the
pocket formed by turning up three inches and a half at the lower side of
the strip. The edge of this turned-up piece was finished with a narrow
hem held down by a line of brier stitching done with red silk. The long
piece was evenly folded into five leaves with lines of brier stitching
dividing them. A back strip an inch and a half wide was sewed on like
the spring-back of a book. This strip was made double and bound with
fine red mohair galloon. Lines running across it marked of spaces for
title, etc. On the upper space were the words, “A Friend in need,” the
letters being first distinctly written in two lines with a pointed
pencil, and then worked with sewing-silk in outline stitch. Between the
two thicknesses of the back piece was an opening into which to push a
pair of small scissors.
Each scallop or flap was provided with a button-hole to fasten it down upon a small button on the closed part which was intended to hold various useful articles. On each leaf upon the closed part was a word indicating its especial use. “Sewing-silk,” “Thread,” “Tape and Elastics,” “Buttons,” “Pins and Needles,” were the labels as I remember them on the five bags. The words were written in running hand and worked with red silk.
On one cover was the repetition of the title in larger text, “A Friend in Need”’ on the other was an industrious spider, worked in red silk and comfortably occupying a web of the same color. The covers gained firmness by being bound, like the back piece, with mohair braid, and strings of the same were sewed upon the front edge to tie across the leaves and keep the book closed.
For holding rinds and other bits of jewelry was a crocheted trifle that was intended to occupy a permanent position upon the bureau or dressing-table. It represented a cup and saucer firmly attached, although the join was not perceptible. The stitch was close crochet, done with the coarsest number of white spool cotton, with on both cup and saucer a narrow line of blue a little below a small blue scallop. The shape was made correct by fitting the work while in progress on a china cup and saucer. When finished the two parts were stiffly starched and stretched to dry over the model, and then joined with white glue.
One of the most attractive contributions to the fair was a pasteboard box containing a dozen pretty flower-like holders for grapefruit, or they might be successfully used as covers for the fluted paper cases, or “nappies,” in which various sweets are served at lunch or dinner. Not the least pleasing feature of the set was the verse in explanation, which was written upon a card that rested on the crossed baby-ribbon bands which held the delicate paper creations in their position in the box. Before I tell how the flower cups were made I will give the verse in question:
“The fruit of the grape
Should be halved in such shape
As enables it just to slip in. Now add sugar and ice,
With some rum – a device
Which makes tippling an aesthetic sin.”
In shape the holders suggest the flower of the night-blooming cereus,
except that the center is concealed when not in use, and even then the
inward lapping petals obscure the grape-fruit they hold.
To make them, cut five circles of tissue-paper, using graduated shades from darkest to nearly white. Cut the circles into nine deep petals, which should be lightly curled by drawing the round head of a hat-pin over each edge, making them bend inward. The five circles are kept in position by a drop of gum in the centre.
In making the holders the choice of the color could be governed by that used upon the other table decorations, or, as in this instance, greens and pinks may be used, there being six of each kind. The effect was beautiful when the holders were all in the box in which they were placed for sale. In arranging them for use they could be placed alternately on the table.
That any device is better than the old grandmotherly pin-cushion seems
to be an accepted dictum, but pin-trays and other receptacles are not in
favor with persons who like to find a pin standing upright, with its
head ready to be seized upon. Some of the cushion substitutes at this
fair fulfilled this requirement, and one kind in particular found a
To make one a block of pins was used. By a block one of those circular arrangements is meant when the pins are purchased stuck upon paper in the usual way, but instead of being left in rows the pin-filled paper is wound around and around till the form is almost pyramidal. From chamois-skin narrow strips are cut, and clipped on one edge into a fringe. Two or three rows of this were wound around the pin-block, and around the base was tied a green satin ribbon half an inch wide. The effect was quite that of a yellow aster with a green calyx.
Another pin-stand was a small wooden easel painted white and dotted with
forget-me-nots. The easel was broad enough to support a paper of pins
arranged, as they are sometimes, in pin-book form, the leaves holding a
variety of sizes for the user’s accommodation.
The pin-book had a stiffened cover of its own size, made of white linen embroidered with flower and leaf of forget-me-nots, and fastened to the easel by pale blue ribbon. The pin-filled leaves were tied in between the covers, and could be renewed when necessary.
A pretty convenience among the many things exhibited was a traveling-case for stick-pins. It was simply a strip of chamois leather eight inches long by four wide, with one end pointed. Down the middle of the strip was stitched a lining of thick white lamb’s wool cloth. This gave a place to stick the pins in securely. The chamois strip was bound all around with narrow ribbon, and a wider ribbon sewed on the pointed end to tie the case when it was rolled up. I should have said that on each side of the case, near the square end, inch-wide flaps of the leather were sewed to fold over the pins, and hinder their slipping out, if, after the deplorable habit of valuables, they are inclined to embrace every opportunity of escaping.
Birch bark being more pliable than other bark, served at this fair for
making very pretty photograph-frames. Those intended for holding single
pictures were made of two sheets of the unsplit bark, with the silvery
outside surface left on, the knots and inequalities serving to add to
the artistic effect. A piece of bent wire fastened on the back made an
The front had an oval, or in some cases, square opening to show the picture. One side of the frame was left open to afford facility for slipping in the picture, the other side being firmly glued together. A few of the frames had glass outside of the bark, like the engravings mounted in passé-partout. The glass and bark were bound together at the edges by a strip of brown paper, over which was a cord made of sweet-grass twisted with split straw.
A different variety of frame was made like the folding-screen picture-holders. The foundation was pasteboard, but in place of the usual India-silk covering, thin inside sheets of birch bark were used. Much has been said of the possibilities of birch bark as material for fancy-work, but in preparations for this fair it was more ingeniously used than I had ever seen it before.
There were small canoes made of it, with the square central opening filled with white horse-hair, held in place by white bobbinet. These were intended for hair-pin-holders, and were supplied with ribbons fastened to either end for hanging them up.
A very pretty portfolio was covered with plaited work made of half-inch-wide strips of birch bark woven in and out. Flaps or straight pockets on the insides of the cover, for holding envelopes, were made of plain sections of bark. Little pen-wipers for the desk were tubular cups of bark filled with a brush of chamois cut into fine strips.
Napkin-rings, boxes or cases for playing-cards, and round boxes for
holding gentlemen’s collars were a few among the any articles that were
successfully made of birch bark. The material seems so readily adaptable
to decorative purposes, that the persons who live where the birch-trees
grow may consider themselves fortunate in at least one particular.