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Turtle shell and mother of pearl box

Date: c 1910
Overall: 150 x 350 x 210 mm
Display dimensions: 360 x 345 x 280 mm
Medium: Turtle shell, pearl shell, wood, paper, metal, fabric
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Tools and equipment
Object Name: Box
Object No: 00030076
Place Manufactured:Torres Strait

User Terms

    This finely crafted inlaid box was made by a lighthouse keeper in Torres Strait, Queensland, about 1910. A silver gelatin print of a seated man holding a straw hat is framed by small conical shells at the centre of the lid. Above the photograph a bone and turtle shell rowing boat is suspended by two removable davits and a series of pulleys.
    SignificanceThe box is a unique object, a piece of maritime-related handcraft using locally found materials, painstakingly executed with fine craftsmanship and technical skill. It provides an insight into the life of the isolated lighthousekeeper.
    HistoryA card accompanying the box is inscribed:

    'This box and boat was made by an Austrian born, Torres Strait light house keeper about 1910. The silver rivets used in the construction were fashioned by him from links of his watch chain. This interesting example of patient craftsmanship was acquired by the present owner during the First World War 1914-1918.'

    There were only two lighthouses operating in Torres Straight in 1910, Booby Island and Good's Island. In 1910 Good's Island also housed a pilot station and a pearl shelling station, whereas Booby Island contained only a lighthouse, which was used primarily as a navigational outpost.

    The lighthouse keeper who made the box may have been Alex Baase at Goods Island in the Torres Strait, although Baase was German, not Austrian-born. Baase was born at Hanover in 1859. He migrated to Australia and was working at Sandy Cape Lighthouse on Fraser Island in December 1909, when he was promoted to Goods Island, where he was both lighthouse keeper and signalman with no other staff apart from island boatmen.

    For thousands of years, coastal Indigenous Australians collected pearl shell by combing the beach while the tide was out, and traded it with inland Aboriginal groups. The European-Australian pearling industry began in the 1850s and by the early 20th century pearlers from north Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and the Torres Strait were supplying 75 per cent of the world's pearl shell. A valuable material before the days of plastic, pearl shell sold for £150 per ton in Sydney in the 1860s.

    The abundant, versatile and decorative mother-of-pearl - the highly polished and shinny inner surface of a mollusc shell - had been used for centuries to make buttons, which were affordable for those with modest budgets. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were extremely rare and expensive and mother-of-pearl was used as an inexpensive alternative in a range of jewellery and accessories. It was also used to make buckles, cases and cutlery, and was used as inlay in watches, furniture, ornaments and instruments.

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