Yesterday I came across an interesting description in Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics, April, 1812, about coquilla nuts, which a certain Mr. R. Ackermann displayed at his Repository, No 101, Strand (having purchased a considerable quantity of this fruit).
From whence the Portuguese obtained it, is so little known, that even the botanical library of Sir Joseph Banks cannot ascertain the circumstance. The probable conjecture, however, is, that it is the produce of the Portuguese possessions in Africa. It is, in a great measure, unknown in this country, nor can it be otherwise, as it is near sixty years since the custom-house entries mention an importation of it…”
The coquilla nut is in fact the fruit of the Brazilian Palm, which is closely related to the coconut palm. The nut is 3-4 inches long, and has a very hard, richly streaked brown shell that is capable of taking a fine polish. It is a source of palm oil. The tree also offers up a stiff, wiry leaf fiber that is used for making brooms and rope. Coquilla nuts were routinely converted into a variety of highly ornamental articles:
The uncommonly pleasing colour of the shell, the hardness and the native mottle which appears when it is highly polished, renders it capable of being employed, with the most agreeable effect, as it is susceptible of the most tasteful forms — on the writing-table, in wafer-boxes and seals, pounce, sand-boxes, &c. — on the ladies’ work-table, in needle-cases and thimble-cases, cotton-boxes, pincushions, &c. — or on the toilette and dressing-table, in boxes for lip-salve, rouge, scented sponges, and every kind of pomade. In the form of egg-cups, the nuts will be found to decorate the eating ‘table. As bell-pulls, they are very elegant.
Coquilla nuts were also made into umbrella handles, candlesticks, and dice cups. The carved product was combined with ivory, or in the case of jewelry, with jade. I could find no examples of jewelry, and wonder it the nut was widely used for such a use.
As they appear to great advantage when worked up into beads, rosaries, and crosses, they will, doubtless, give a pleasing variety to personal decoration, when shaped into necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings, and other trinkets. Little useful pocket articles, as nutmeg-graters, cases for smelling-bottles, and other similar portable conveniences ; in short, whatever has been formed from ivory, may be produced from the shell of the Coquilla, whose beauty will not fail to attract, while the price of the article will satisfy the purchaser.”
Antique coquilla nut items are still quite reasonably priced, as this nutmeg grater from Historic Cookery attests. The Ackermann’s description indicated that the item was carried in the owner’s pocket, in order to season food ordered at a chopping house or club, no doubt.
The most interesting coquilla nut item is this one: a flea trap.
It is easy to forget the squalor, poor hygiene, stench and infestations which our forefathers endured. In the 18th and 19th century flea traps were filled with a few drops of blood and honey or resin, depending on your financial means. Supposedly, fleas attracted by the blood would enter the trap and get stuck to the honey or resin. They were hung around the neck, worn in ladies clothes or kept in bed. - Physick.com
This coquilla nut flask seems a relatively simple item (One wonders how much liquid such a small flask would contain, unless it was whiskey or laudanum, or some other potent substance). Examining it closely, one can read inscribed on its top:
’In the West Indies, I did grow upon a tree so high a negro come and cut me down a soldger…did me buy.., H. Neal, 35, Royal Sussex’. – Millers Antiques Guide
Some coquilla nut items were larger and more elaborate. One surmises that a series of nut carvings were joined and glued together to create these beautiful candlesticks carved by Indian artisans in Bengal, who worked from designs supplied by locally based European tradesmen.
…these candlesticks typical of the Murshidabad workshops delicately carved decoration, may have stood on an ivory ‘teapoy’, whose form was directly taken from a European candlestand.” – The Antique Portal
More about the featured items:
- Candlesticks at Online Galleries: The Antique Portal
- Ink stand @Antiques Atlas http://www.antiques-atlas.com/antique/18thcearly_19thc_finely_carved_coquilla_nut/as304a057
- Christie’s Coquilla Nut Pomander and Nutmeg Grater