Contributor: Beverley A. Straube
Senior Archeological Curator
This object is especially noteworthy for its archaeological context in America’s birthplace. Archaeologists working on the site of James Fort, the initial English settlement on Jamestown Island, Virginia, found a silver teething stick in a well that had been backfilled in June 1610. As such, the artifact represents the material culture of the very first English children who arrived in the colony in August 1609. Women and children are rarely documented in the historical records and few artifacts can be ascribed with certainty to use by these minorities. The teething stick, once belonging to a child between the ages of six months and two years is therefore a singular find of the type of object that continues to be used by children to the present day, although in different forms and substances.
Incorporating a whistle, the teething stick is constructed of sheet silver that has been soldered together to form a tube. The whistle section is decorated and contains two rings of spiraled silver wire that would jingle when the object was shaken. Fastened into the non-whistle end of the stick is a piece of red coral. Obtained from the shallow coastal waters of the Mediterranean this substance was believed since Roman times to have magical properties. The Roman naturalist Pliny wrote that “the branches of coral hanged about the neckes of infants and young children are thought to be a sufficient preservative against all witchcraft and sorcerie.” The sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus confirmed the power of coral, and well into the nineteenth century, the smooth hard substance was used as a comfort for teething children.
Historically, teething was thought to be a cause of illness and death. “Among the many Diseases that do threaten for the life of Infants, there is none that produceth so many grievous Symptoms as their laborious and difficult breeding of Teeth,” wrote Walter Harris, physician to King William and Queen Mary, in 1694. In seventeenth century England more than twelve percent of children were likely to die within the first year of life, when children are teething or about to cut teeth. The pain of teething and the associated process of weaning with its dietary changes and increased exposure to pathogens lurking on wooden spoons and bowls added stress to an already weakened child, which could contribute to his death.
The Jamestown teething stick must have been among the first toys of a child who ventured with his mother from England in 1609, perhaps only to die by the next year when the object was discarded. History has not recorded the child’s name, but the silver teether, an object given status by its metal, is a poignant reminder of the dangers facing all who ventured to Jamestown, young or old, rich or poor.
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