What you see: A carved driftwood mangling board, created in Iceland in 1742. Bonhams estimates it at £10,000 to £15,000, or $12,000 to $19,000.
The expert: David Houlston, specialist for the sale of the Brookwell Collection of Smoothing Implements at Bonhams Oxford.
What is a “mangling board,” and how was it used? It’s the forerunner of the mangle. It comes in two parts–most have been separated. It comes with what looks like a rolling pin [called a roller] that’s the length of the mangling board itself. You’d roll cloth or linen or bedlinen around the roller and rub it back and forth [on the mangling board] to smooth it out. That’s how you’d get the nice, neat straight lines [in the cloth]. There was no heat involved. It was all manual labor.
I realize this mangling board has long since lost its roller, but what would the roller have looked like? Would it have been as elaborately decorated as the mangling board? No. It would be totally plain, plain Jane. It had to be completely smooth.
How effective was it to smooth out clothes and linens with a roller and a mangling board? It was quite questionable. I think the majority of mangling boards were love tokens.
And that’s why these mangling boards are elaborately carved–they are meant as love tokens? Probably, yes. If someone gave you an iron, you’d wrap it around their neck, but I assume this was different. These mangling boards were a huge amount of work.
This mangling board is described as “very rare”. What makes it very rare? It’s Icelandic. You don’t get trees growing in Iceland. Any timber they would get would be driftwood that washed ashore. You’d literally have to wait to find a piece of driftwood [good enough to create a mangling board like this one]. And it’s dated. It’s an early date for a mangling board.
Is it rare to find a mangling board with a date on it, regardless? Quite a lot in the sale are dated, but that’s probably because the collection was formed over 60 years. They [the collectors] went for the better pieces. Maybe one in ten are dated [in general].
If this was a love token, does that mean that it wouldn’t have been used as a mangling board? Yes.
What clues point to it being created as a love token? The hand might symbolize the hand at home–his hand [the husband, who would also be the carver] at the end. If she used it, she would “hold his hand” as he worked in the fields, or at sea. The hand at the end is the part you hold [when using the mangling board to smooth fabric].
There’s a heart framed by scrolls at the top that have writing on them. Is that another clue? The heart was typical of giving your heart away, that sort of thing. The writing is typical of it. That’s how we know it’s Icelandic. The writing is a form of Höfdaletur, which is their script.
Yeah, when I requested images I was also sent a grid of letters with the letters A, B, E, K, R… It shows you how to write those letters in their script.
And it shows you how the letters show up on the board? Yes. It makes them difficult to read. [Additional lot notes sent later explain “depending on the shape of the driftwood the carver would either have to expand or contract the font to fit the available space.”]
They’re the same letters, in different forms on the board? Yes, absolutely. That’s why many people can’t read it.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this mangling board would have been to carve? It’s one piece of wood. It was exceptionally difficult to carve. It’s not just the quality of the relief carving–it’s got cut-away carving.
And I imagine, seeing as the 18th-century Icelandic carver had to hunt down driftwood, he didn’t have many opportunities to practice… There probably weren’t. This is one big piece. [It measures 23 inches long by two and a half inches wide by one and a half inches deep.]
Does the mangling board show signs of wear? The underside and the ends of it are worn. But it’s 250 years old. It’s going to have signs of wear whether it was used or not.
Have you handled it? Yes.
What was that like? Is it heavy? Not particularly heavy, no. It is tactile.
The mangling board bears this inscription: “Gudrun Bjarnesdatter is the legal owner of this mangling board and has obtained it in an honest way.” Why would she have felt the need to inscribe the board with this language? Standard ownership, really. It’s a way of saying, “This is mine, I’m the legal owner.” That’s not rare.
What would it have meant in 18th century Iceland to have obtained a mangling board in an “honest way”? I don’t know. To put a name on it and say “that’s mine” is not unusual. But obtaining it in an “honest way”? I don’t know.
What’s your favorite detail of this mangling board? Probably the hand. It is quite rare to get a carved hand. I like the idea of clasping the hand when you use it. It makes sense. The rest [other mangling boards] have rounded ends. It makes you feel a connection to the person who is using it.
Why will this mangling board stick in your memory? Because personally, I wasn’t very familiar with Icelandic text. And it’s a different form. A lot of mangling boards are chip carving–that’s much more the norm. To have different Celtic motifs and cutaway carving makes it stand out.
How to bid: The 18th century Icelandic carved driftwood mangling board is lot 968 in the auction of the Brookwell Collection of Smoothing Implements, taking place on October 2, 2019 at Bonhams Oxford.
Images are courtesy of Bonhams.
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