An ultimate valentine
A rare mangle from 1789 tells its own unique story
MARY JO THORSHEIM
Norway Art, Minneapolis
A gift from the heart from J.C.S. to M.L.D
In the historic year 1789 when the French Revolution began and George Washington was elected the first U.S. president, J.C.S. (Jes Christensen) was a sailor on the British ship HMS Saturn. He was one of the Norwegian/Danish men who were recruited to join the crew of the Saturn. (The union of Norway and Denmark was in effect and lasted until 1814.)
In May 1789, J.C.S. finished creating a very special gift while sailing on the Saturn: a beautiful mangle board. It may be thought of as an exceptional valentine, although we do not know whether it was presented on St. Valentine’s Day. He had carved initials and names into an ornate mangle board that he would give to his sweetheart, M.L.D (Margarete Larsdatter).
By creating this work of art, the sailor expressed his feelings for the woman who would receive his special “labor of love” after he completed the ship’s voyage. His design also included references of honor to God and country. We know this because the mangle, now at Norway Art in Minneapolis, bears inscriptions to that effect, and reading the carved words of J.C.S. takes us back in time. All four edges are carved with the story, incised along and around the 26.25-inch length and 5.5-inch width.
The HMS Saturn
The history of the ship is fascinating. HMS Saturn was a 74-gun ship of the British Royal Navy launched in 1786. The vessel served during the Napoleonic Wars, taking part in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 and the War of 1812.
The hazards of sailing at that time included the weather conditions that could develop, difficult ocean navigation, battle engagements, and illness. Something like our coronavirus news bulletins of today, the website threedecks.org records the following from 10 years after J.C.S. was on board: “11.5.1799 A lurking, lingering kind of fever has broke out in the Saturn, 74 guns…The first lieutenant, boatswain, and 140 seamen, and marines, are now in the Royal Hospital for cure.” The capacity of the Saturn was 550 men.
We know that carving, in general, was a popular pastime among seamen who decorated whalebone and other materials. It is not known how many of the 550 men on the Saturn were interested in carving, or how common it was to construct and decorate mangles.
Use and design of mangles
Mangle boards (mangles) were used to press clothing; they were essential household items in Scandinavia and Europe for centuries. Moreover, when handsomely carved, they were often used as engagement or wedding gifts. When a crown motif was included in the design, as in our 1789 mangle, this definitely designated the purpose as a wedding or engagement gift.
While the crown and 1789 date are primary design elements, the entire surface is heavily decorated with richly detailed flowers, grapes, vines, and a vase. A wonderful 3-D horse figure of almost contemporary design stands at one end. Handles in the shape of a horse were often used on antique mangles, but the 8.75-inch-long horse on the 1789 mangle has finer detail in its mane, tail, and perky ears than is usually seen. It is a wooden sculpture of handsome and unusual design.
What was the origin of the mangle’s dense, heavy wood, and what type of wood is it: linden? teak? oak? mahogany? A talented Danish-American woodcarver suggests that the wood may not be any of the above, but may have come from rare trees in exotic forests, for example in Africa. He observed that the exquisite carving would have required the skill and experience of a very skilled artisan.
A sailor’s labor of love
One can picture J.C.S. on deck in his free time, maybe sitting on a coiled rope, thinking of the day when he could see Margarete again and present her with his romantic, finely crafted gift of the mangle. The ship, without stabilizers at the time, would have rocked and rolled in the waves of the ocean all day and all night. (I remember my experience sailing on the Stavangerfjord!)
Just imagine carving hardwood with sharp tools while the ship moved continuously. Also, consider the time required to complete the object, never mind the attention to detail and craftsmanship. Maybe he could have been found nearly every day for a year or so, pouring his heart and feelings into the effort, while he carved the fine details into dense wood that would be difficult material to carve. And he was a master woodcarver, member of a guild of artisans, as recorded on the mangle.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.