In the years between 1756 and 1815 thousands of French and Dutch prisoners were held in prisons from Cornwall to Scotland. So large were their numbers that some were held temporarily aboard ships docked at harbors. Each prison had a market day within their gates so that local farmers and tradesmen could sell goods to the high-ranking soldiers that had money sent to them by friends. N.C.O’s and the lower ranks had no income at all. Because of the long period of war little was agreed upon as to who should pay for the prisoners meals. A very small ration of food by the British Government supplied barely enough to live on. No clothes or medicine for wounds were given. As a result these Market Days came to include work that had been done by prisoners. Straw bonnet making and straw marquetry were among the most popular for the inmates to create and sell to town’s folk.
These represented some problems with local industry and soon straw plait and bonnet making was forbidden. Nevertheless many inmates smuggled out fine straw bonnets by bribing the prison guards and it was never, therefore, fully stopped.
A Powder Compact from the Napoleonic Prisoners of War 1756-1815
One of the most popular and long lived commodity that the prisoners created were straw boxes, cigar holders, playing card boxes, chests and other items of everyday use. According to Thomas James Walker in his book Prisoners-of-War at Norman Cross: The Inmates, dyes and tools were bought by prisoners from outside tradesmen. According to Walker prisoners would take straw out of their bedding and boil colored rags to dye the straw. Though this was probably true in the beginning, according to Jane Troller in her book Prisoners-of-War Work, outside straw and dye must certainly have been provided to the inmates at Market Day. So vast were the many objects created that no prison of straw beds could have possibly been enough to supply material for the great output that was to follow.
The Powder Compact in the picture above is an example of the prison work that is in the collection of the American Museum of Straw Art. Owing to its design, color and shape it is likely early in that period. The picture that shows the open compact displays the mirror and the compartment where rice powder was likely kept. Though it is clear that this compact was never used, it does represent some of a vast amount of straw work that was popular in Europe from the 17th century and beyond.Tags: American Museum of Straw Art, Napoleonic Prisoners of War, Straw Art, Straw Marquetry