Straw-decorated objects warrant more serious research. Sellers frequently describe them as Napoleonic straw work when with dedicated research it can be shown they are not. Many of the objects were produced many years after the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. In this article The Straw Shop researches one particular type of straw-decorated product. While initially looking like a box, it is a case containing a folder, the edge of which is decorated to look like a book’s spine. The folder contains a deck of miniature playing cards. Many examples so far found feature a mosaic-like decorative pattern on the outer case, but there are exceptions. Since the folder’s spine does represent a book, for simplicity it is described and referred to as a straw book throughout this article.
Together with a straw book in The Straw Shop Collection and the photo shown below research began with the straw work itself. In various references the type of mosaic straw work pattern may be referred to as petite-point, laid-work, or inlay. It is a technique that could be produced by a team of people thus permitting large-scale production. As much straw marquetry has been considered as produced by individuals, where could this type of work have been made and was it part of organized production?
Research led to discovery of two relevant references. The earliest was found in an 1869 article entitled “Straw Mosaic” that appeared in a popular British publication, “Cassell’s Household Guide Being a Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy and Forming a Guide to Every Department of Practical Life” (Volume 4).
“There have been recently imported into this country from Germany a variety of small fancy articles, decorated with a somewhat novel kind of ornamentation, known as straw mosaic. These articles, which consist of boxes, caskets, small cabinets, &c, are covered with bands and tesserae of variously tinted straw. In general design and principle the work somewhat resembles Tunbridge-ware; but, owing to the glossy surface of the material employed, it is much more beautiful. The objects seen in our shops, are, we believe, almost wholly manufactured by forced labour in the Bavarian prisons where the hands of the convicts are assisted in carrying it out by machinery and steam power. The straw used is brought from Florence – no straw of such good quality, or so finely tinted, being procured in Northern Europe. At a large model-prison near Anspach, in Bavaria, this work forms the chief occupation of the prisoners. When first admitted, they are set to attend to the machines which split and divide the straw into lengths, and afterwards, as they become habituated to this kind of labour, they are set to cement the straw upon paper, to form the tesserae; into patterns, and to decorate the different articles.” Anspach is now known as Ansbach.
One of the drawings from the Cassell’s article
A tesserae is “one of the small pieces used in mosaic work” according to Dictionary dot com. The Cassell’s article goes into great detail about the work and includes drawings of straw work designs being produced. The style of straw work on this object comprises narrow lengths and tiny squares of dyed or natural straw. Pieces are first assembled as strips that are then arranged into the final pattern in the way described in the article.
It is reasonable to assume that if the article describes a variety of products being exported from Germany into the United Kingdom, they may have been made for some time prior to 1869. The detailed account of prison production provides interesting insight. Mention of steam power and machinery indicates some importance is attached to the enterprise and that the account states, “forced labour in the Bavarian prisons”, prisons being in plural, appears to indicate the work was being undertaken in other parts of Germany beyond the cited model prison. More research is required.
An 1872 article entitled “Straw” appeared in “Good Words”. It was written by John R. Jackson who was an author and curator at the Museum of Economic Botany, Kew, London. He also describes in some detail production of straw work in a prison near Anspach (Ansbach). Did the earlier article inspire Jackson’s or was this type of product still enjoying a commercial market and interest three years after the original article that was sufficient to arouse his interest? His article adds more detailed information and perhaps most importantly for The Straw Shop’s research mentions straw work patterns comprising flowers as the straw books shown here display flowers.
“Latterly small articles veneered with straw in imitation of Tunbridge-ware have appeared in the fancy shops of London. These are the produce of forced labour in Bavarian prisons, and are imported from thence to this country. Various designs are produced, floral and otherwise, some in imitation of Berlin wool patterns. Details as to the production are furnished by a dealer of the finished goods. According to the account, “a contractor enters into an agreement with the prison authorities for the use of the hand of each man and pays about 12 kreutzers (5D.) per day to each man. Of this the prisoner gets, according to his work and behaviour from 1/2d. to 1 1/2d., with a certain remuneration for extra work is handed over to him at his dismissal. The regular times of work is fourteen hours per day, from 5 a.m. to 7p.m., including three rests, eleven hours thus being employed in labour. The first work given to a convict is very simple, and consists of putting the straw through a machine to cut and flatten it. Another easy task is the splitting of the straw done by another machine. If straw is put in properly the machine sends it out cut in small strips from four to twenty in number. If the convict has some idea of the manufacture of straw goods, he is put to work which requires a little more attention and practice – the so called “placard making” which means fixing a number of the same coloured straw strips on paper. Another occupation consists in putting the straw bands or strips on the boxes or caskets. Each man has a separate colour to affix, and a box sometimes goes through fifty pairs of hands before it is finished. The most difficult and artistic work is the formation of flowers. The convict has a sample or pattern before him, and a box with subdivisions on each side of him. One of the boxes contains a hundred subdivisions, with little straw squares of a hundred different tints. The other box contains fifty divisions for white, brown, and black straw bands of fifty different lengths. With this material, he makes in a very short time a complete ornament of flowers, which consists often of fifteen hundred squares, and as many straw bands. Of these bouquets or flower arrangements, about twenty thousand are made every day, which are corrected and pressed by other prisoners. In connection with this manufacture, there is an establishment for book- binding, carpentry and tin goods. The number of men employed in this manufacture is about three hundred.”
German wool work or Berlin wool work is mentioned in both references. Originating in Germany in the early 1800’s, this form of needlework spread to England and then to America by the mid-1800’s. It was among the first amateur needlework techniques to become all the rage for the middle-class women in Victorian England. It is directly related to counted cross stitch. The mosaic-like patterns of the straw work items are very similar to the needlework patterns. The Cassell’s article also mentions Tunbridge-ware. The Straw Shop must urge caution to prevent the reader from making too many connections to the wooden objects from that town. While the completed pattern may be similar in appearance, the method of production and plant material used is entirely different from that used in Tunbridge-ware. Neither is this form of straw work known to have been produced in Tunbridge, Kent, England.
Of the work itself, the Cassell’s article states, “the straw mosaic does not necessarily require machinery for its execution; and the facility in which it may be done, and its beauty when accomplished, render it a desirable addition to the list of decorative arts, which are especially suited to ladies.” While this may indicate the work was undertaken outside prisons it is more likely to indicate the article, which featured in the volume’s “Household Decorative Art” section was being aimed at women to provide them with a gentile occupation and some of the information does seem to have been written to be accessible to homeworking rather than commercial production. Both articles explain that straw is imported from Tuscany where the very best wheat straw is available. Florence is the capital of Italy’s region of Tuscany which has a long association with straw work.
As to production methods, Good Words offers: “Some prisoners were in charge of making the strip, some were in charge of dying the straw if not procured already dyed from Italy, others were responsible for meticulously cutting each little square exactly the same size not larger than the head of a pin. The little coloured squares of straw were then divided into boxes and were then individually affixed to the paper backing or directly onto the wooden piece one square at a time.” Pieces affixed to paper were later pieced together in the production of goods, as seen in the straw outlined area framing the pieced cut to size floral strip shown in the picture of the book.
Straw book of Cards,The Straw Shop Collection
Looking to our straw book, its size is: 1 inch wide, 2 1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch deep. (2.54cm x 6.35cm x 1.27cm). This example is lined with a dark red patterned paper. The straw pattern has been applied to a pale blue paper which has then been assembled onto the pasteboard outer case.
The Straw Shop’s Collection provided an ideal opportunity for examination of the spine as the inner folder could be removed. This inner folder of decorative paper is, 4 1/4 inches long by 2 1/2 inches wide (11.43cm x 6.35cm). One side of the paper is smooth and a solid light yellow color. When folded around the card deck this is the inner side The obverse is a mottled texture and solid black in color. Approximately 3 inches (7.6cm) from one end of the black paper side, a 1/4 inch wide strip of straw has been added across the width of the paper. When folded around the cards this acts as a spine. Comparing the two pieces shown so far, both books’ “spines” are similarly decorated with comparable colors and designs. The two spines may be similar but there are variations on the decoration of the cases.
Although both have flower designs on top and bottom the short ends of the straw books are different. Even if these were produced on a large-scale the individuality of straw-made items again becomes apparent. Why should this be? If they were once part of a large production run it could be these are rare surviving examples of different runs, or they could have been produced at different locations. Straw can be delicate if repeatedly used, and the fact these straw objects are applied to a card base makes it vulnerable.
Could The Straw Shop piece be linked to the two articles cited? The straw work pattern and method of application matches the description provided in the Cassell’s and Good Words articles and this type of pattern is quite different from those found on many other decorative straw work pieces. However, just as the Cassell’s article lists a wide range of items produced in the prisons there are a wide-range of surviving articles decorated with this type of mosaic pattern reminiscent of Tunbridge-ware patterns. The straw on the examples has been dyed with a man-made dye rather than natural dyes, indicating a production date later than the 1860s. Perhaps dedicated research of the papers and card or pasteboard used in their construction could provide more information.
Straw Book, The Straw Shop Collection
Straw book reverse side, The Straw Shop Collection
Straw Book, Interior and paper, The Straw Shop Collection
Straw Book, Spine, The Straw Shop Collection
Straw book spine view, The Straw Shop Collection
Straw book playing cards, The Straw Shop Collection
The final element to examine is the contents.The tiny thin paper cards enclosed are wonderful lithograph-like single full-length drawn figures representing the court cards; Jack, Queen and King. All the suits are identifiable as Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades.There are no Jokers.The cards are approximately 2 1/4 inches long and 1 inch wide (35x24mm). The reverse side is a red colored paper with a repeating pattern. As playing cards and their history is not our expertise, in 2014 The Straw Shop first contacted The World of Playing Cards (WOPC) for assistance and met expert Simon Wintle in the United Kingdom. Mr. Wintle is the curator and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. A fine resource with valuable information about playing cards. Upon examination of our cards, the 4 of Spades has a stamp that reads “C.L. Wüst, Frankfurt &M.” The C.L. Wüst Company, in Frankfurt, Germany, specialized in producing all kinds of cards; fortune telling cards, tarot cards, playing cards, alphabet cards and others from 1811-1927. C.L. Wüst Company also won an award for their cards at the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893.The Straw Shop and Mr. Wintle identified our deck of cards as “Theater”. This deck of cards was released circa 1890 meaning this specific item would not have existed earlier than the card deck it contains. The Straw Shop gratefully acknowledges his assistance in identifying and dating the playing card deck.
In 2022, The Straw Shop met a Wüst card specialist, Paul Symons, also of WOPC, who said in his experience, he has seen no other Wüst deck presented in straw book form. He owns the straw book that is on the WOPC website seen below. Referring to the deck, “It is usually found in the small straw box and the date is c.1890. Wüst made miniature packs until 1927, when it was absorbed into VASS, a major German card maker.” That may very well be, but the miniature cards sold up until the 1920s were not presented in this manner were they? At the time of this writing, when it comes to the C.L. Wüst Company, it appears the Theater deck may be the only deck offered in a straw book. We also learned the artwork shown on a playing card deck was specific and only produced for that card size; meaning the Theater deck found here would not be found in a standard sized deck of playing cards.
Mr. Symons generously permitted The Straw Shop to include his straw book from the Symons Playing Card Collection (SPCC) appearing on the WOPC website, as seen below. Notice the spine of the book. What little is visible, it appears to be similar in design and color as the other two examples on this page. His book is interesting as it is floral decorated on each end unlike our book.
In two of the three straw books shown, two have the same deck, both Wüst’s “Theater “. The contents of the straw book presented as this article’s first image is unknown.
Straw book with Theater deck, Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Just as this article was reaching a conclusion, another straw book example was located. It is the same product with a card deck of decidedly different artwork. Mottled black paper, green on one side, matching the book interior featuring the same style of straw work. Here is the image:
Straw book with playing cards not Theater, Courtesy eBay UK and Pinterest
Posing the question of origin of the newly found straw book deck to Mr. Symons, he shared an article written about the deck in 2000 by Peter Endebrock, also of WOPC.
Court cards, Courtesy WOPC
Mr. Endebrock’s article, “Miniature Pack from Germany” says, these cards were produced c.1850 by an unknown maker, most probably in Germany. A good guess might be by Steinberger in Frankfurt/Main,…”
According to Mr. Symons, Steinberger “worked for 4 years at the Wüst company before setting up his own playing card company in 1816. After his death in 1860 his widow soon sold it to I.Muller who carried on until the 1870’s. Quite a few of his decks were almost the same as those made by Wüst.”
Johan Anton Steinberger of Frankfurt was a playing card maker and contemporary business rival to C.L. Wüst. Whoever the actual makers of the cards were, they are the second company selling miniature playing cards housed within a straw-decorated book. It seems possible there are others waiting to be found and recorded.
The Straw Shop learned the cards in our book are referred to as Patience cards and during research the word “Patience” has multiple meanings within playing card specialism. Patience is a card game. Wikipedia describes the card game’s aim is to “arrange the cards in some systematic order, or in a few cases to pair them off or discard them”. In Europe the card game is called Patience while in the United States and Canada the game is known as Solitaire. Continuing with the Patience game’s description, “Most are intended for play by a single player, but there are also “excellent games of patience for two or more players.” Patience cards are normally smaller than standard playing cards measuring 1.77 inches long x 1.26 inches wide (45mm x 32mm). According to Mr. Symons, “Patience was very popular in the mid to late 1800’s, even up to WW2 (pre-television), and was seen as a pastime for ladies (very sexist). The cards were small sized and easy to carry around and you could fit them on a small table. The packs often carried the text ‘Cartes pour Dames’ (Ladies Cards) on the boxes. They came in all sizes in single or double packs.” That statement was a shock, they also came in double packs?
Mr. Symons kindly shared information and images of two items from his personal playing card collection (SPCC). Each case contains double packs. He wrote, “I have looked in my collection and found two more straw work boxes containing patience (small size) playing cards. In this case they were both made by Jegel of Nurnberg. I have made photos of the boxes but not the cards. Both are larger than the ones you have seen before, the first being about 6.5 cm x 4.5 cm (2.55′′ x 1.77′′), while the other is approximately 6 x 4cm (2.36′′ x1.57′′). They both have book like holders for 2 packs of cards.” Again, The Straw Shop book is 1 inch wide, 2 1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch deep. (2.54cm x 6.35cm x 1.27cm). The two double pack straw books are both identified as having decks made by Jegel company revealing another playing card company ordering straw books to package their products. Same product, just a different size. Third playing card company using a straw book presentation identified in this article.
“The first being the larger one with a picture of a small castle on the front. 6.5 cm x 4.5cm. (approx. 2.5 inches x 1 3/4 inches) Date about 1860.
Large double mosaic straw box for 2 decks of playing cards, front. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Large double mosaic straw box for 2 decks of playing cards, top. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Large double mosaic straw box for 2 decks of playing cards back side. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
“The second is the smaller box with a more detailed picture of a large house. This design looks more sophisticated and has some lines indented to create texture and an impression of flowers. It has birds on the ends and probably dates to about 1840 according to some literature, but could be a bit later.” The straw marquetry house is a complete creative straw departure in style on one side of the book, while the remaining sides reflect the straw mosaic technique shown throughout this article.
Smaller double mosaic straw box for 2 decks of playing cards, front. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Smaller double mosaic straw box for 2 decks of playing cards, top view with bird. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Smaller double mosaic straw box for 2 decks of playing cards, back vie. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Straw book case buildings. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Straw book case spines. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Straw book cases base. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Straw book case interiors and green and black floral paper. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
The smaller double deck case has a bird on both ends of the case and the larger case has a floral motif on both short ends. The base is decorated with a different pattern; however, the green paper lining of the outer case appears the same as the outer case containing the thought to be Steinberger deck of cards. The dates of that company coincide with the assumed dates for these two straw books.
Straw book case ends showing pattern. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Straw book case ends, opposite short ends. Courtesy and Copyright SPCC
Between the examples found there are similarities of the straw work patterns and there is the blue paper base, but there is also the remarkably different non-floral incorporation of a castle, house, and bird. When these early examples are closely examined the straw work is still mosaic, but it has been executed differently from the later examples. The straw does not appear to have been dyed with man-made dyes indicating an earlier production date. Mr. Symons dates these to 1840 and 1860 which considerably extends the length of production of this type of straw book containing a deck of cards.
The Straw Shop thanks Mr. Symons for sharing the next two photographs showing the two known straw book sizes for visual comparison. It is possible the two straw book package styles may have been from the same facility at different times or different locations all together. We will just never know for certain.
Straw books on an angle. Courtesy SPCC
The spine of each example is remarkably similar each with three insets representing a screw head, or in the earlier straw books rivet heads. What is the significance of these? Exactly where and for how long did this production occur? Were they made in many centers and in other countries? How many straw books containing playing cards were made? How many playing card companies sold their decks and presented them in a straw work case? Were items produced for ladies to use as a pastime, or for children, or for dollhouses? Their market is uncertain as all three uses could apply. Many questions remain unanswered.
Straw books spines on display. Courtesy SPCC
Is The Straw Shop’s straw book prisoner straw work? The detailed description provided by the Cassell’s and Good Words articles certainly seem to link the straw books to the type of work being made in German prisons and the date of the card decks also tallies. We can be certain they are not from Napoleon’s era and should not be described as such. We learned at minimum, three German playing card companies sold single miniature card decks in this straw book form, at least as late as our 1890 deck. The straw books may have been made in Germany at non-prison locations and it is possible they may also have been made in other countries, although no similar examples are known at this writing. Without the popularity of playing cards and the game of Patience/Solitaire, and a portable miniature deck of playing cards, the articles shown here would not exist. The straw books, shown in the photo above, mimic the appearance of small book(s) are pretty, and would have been “especially suited to ladies” who played Patience/Solitaire in the mid to late 1800’s as a pastime.The playing cards in The Straw Shop Collection are of very thin small paper. The fragility of the deck’s cards may have rendered this straw book item useless and disposable once a card disappeared, which may additionally account for the few numbers of straw book survivors found more than a century later. Without these playing cards would straw books have been created? This article may not have been able to answer many questions, but the details it provides now gives the reader a better understanding and appreciation of these objects.
As always,The Straw Shop welcomes additional information on this subject.
The Straw Shop acknowledges the World of Playing Cards Simon Wintle in Spain, Ken Lodge in United Kingdom, Paul Symons in Netherlands and Paul Endebrock in Germany for their collective and invaluable assistance in our research about our straw book and it’s playing card deck. Additional thanks to Paul Symons for answering playing card questions and for generously sharing so many photographs of his collection SPCC. Additionally Veronica Main MBE is thanked for her important research assistance and collaboration.
Without this village of experts sharing, this article would not have been possible.
Copyright 2022 Jan Huss and Veronica Main MBE
Post Script update. Our readers are invited to share images of their straw books to enrich this subject. Mr. Peter Endebrock has graciously shared the next few images which have been part of his collection at one time.
The first photo of two double book cases demonstrating the noticeable differences in card sizes sold in this manner. The border on the larger book box is a pleasant surprise.
Straw double books 2 sizes Courtesy Peter Endebrock
Another double book once available on eBay once from Mr. Endebrock’s collection is shown:
Straw book double case; Courtesy eBay.
The final image shared is a single straw book. Gratefully the front and back of the book are shown. The playing cards it contains is the Theater deck by Wüst. The Straw Shop is pleased Mr. Endebrock has shared this example from his collection. This is the third Wüst Theater deck in this straw presentation style.
Straw book with one side shown which contains the Theater deck, Courtesy Peter Endebrock
Straw book, opposite side, which contains the Theater deck, Courtesy Peter Endebrock
The Straw Shop welcomes additional straw book examples to be added.