|A detail of the Shell Mania arrangement on our|
dining room mantel at Darlington House
When Boy and I are on vacation at the shore we often stop in at stores that stock and sell seashells and related curiosities, and we buy a few specimen to add to our collection at Darlington House, as a souvenir of our trip.
|This is how our dining room mantel looks most of the year,|
decorated with basalt vessels and a gilt Paris porcelain
reticulated basket on stand
Since we acquired Darlington in the late 1990s, we've displayed our collection of seashells on the fire-surround in our dining room, arranged by Boy in a most artistic fashion, reminiscent of how such collections were displayed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, here and abroad.
|The mantel denuded of the basalt and basket, awaiting its shell decoration|
We only display our seashells on the dining room mantel during the summer, when the weather is hot.
|Boy began the mantel's decoration with pieces of coral, for height|
Most of the rest of the year, with the exception of Christmas, we have a somber and severe arrangement of basalt vessels on the mantel.
|He then started adding shells, starfish, and more coral|
I used to arrange our seashells on the mantel, but I surrendered that role to Boy years ago (along with arranging flowers and decorating Christmas trees) because, well, he is so much better at these sort of things than I am.
|It is a careful, and carefully considered process of layering . . .|
The practice of collecting and displaying shells as we do became fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe when a mania swept the cultivated Western world for exotic seashells.
|. . . to create the desired effect of volume and intricacy|
Known as Shell Mania, or Shell Fever, or Conchylomania, it rivaled the earlier and more infamous Tulipomania.
|After a near-disastrous collapse, Boy rebuilds his arrangement|
Shell Mania was fueled (and made possible) by the colonial trade that was then exploding among European nations and the Far East and the West Indies.
|Additional layering creates a sumptuous arrangement|
|The finished arrangement, how beauteous to behold!|
In America, the fashion for collecting and displaying seashells was more usually referred to as "Shell Fever." According to Elizabeth Donaghy Garrett's At Home, the American Family 1750-1870 (a favorite and frequently consulted resource of ours), Shell Fever reached its height of popularity in America during the 1830s and 1840s, when "many a mantel was thus arrayed," as is seen in the following image taken from the book:
|South Parlor of Abraham Russell, New Bedford, Massachusetts|
Waltercolor by Joseph Shoemaker Russell, 1848
Old Dartmouth Historical Society, New Bedford, MA
More information about the history of Shell Mania can be found in a fascinating and scholarly post titled Conchylomania, written by James Grout, that appears on his fascinating blog, Encyclopædia Romana.
Another excellent source of information regarding this esoteric subject—the history of the collection and display of seashells—is an article written by Richard Conniff, "Mad About Seashells," that appeared in Smithsonian magazine in August, 2009.
Arranging seashells, as Boy did on our dining room mantel at Darlington House, is not without challenges. The shells are, in some cases, delicate, and when arranged in layers, as he does, can come tumbling down if the display is not oh-so-carefully assembled.
Isn't Boy's Shell Mania arrangement pretty, and summery, and enchanting, Dear Reader?
Tell me, do you also collect and display seashells at your house?
Photographs (and shell arrangement) by Boy Fenwick