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The Sweet History of The Antique Compass

Victorian, Edwardian or vintage, there is nothing quite like the characterful beauty of compasses, especially antique compasses. One of the most popular finds on our website at Lillicoco, compasses are steeped in history. Each and every antique pocket compass that we find is completely unique, whether encased in glittering Goldstone or set into a charming ship's wheel. Yet you cannot deny that an ornate antique compass offers a sweet unusual addition to a necklace stack. Not to mention, it is an added bonus if they are still fully working. Because, if you ever lose your way, you might be able to find your way home!

If you are googling “antique compass for sale” or you have recently bought an antique compass from us, this blog has been completely crafted with YOU in mind. Let’s find out together about the enchanting history of the compass. 


From the Iodestone “South Pointing Fish” to the Antique Compass Rose, the Early Iterations of the Compass

Compasses are one of the many perfect examples of man’s ingenuity. In fact, the first compass was crafted in Ancient China more than 2000 years ago! 

The first compass was originally made of Iodestone. Iodestone is a naturally magnetised mineral, which attracts ion. Iodestone was such an important mineral in the history of mankind as it first taught people about magnetism in the first place. 

Iodestone, as a compass, was first made in China’s Han Dynasty (20BC-20AD), and was actually originally called the “south pointing fish”! Although, it is believed that these compasses were not used for navigation, and were actually used for ancient artistic rituals like geomancy, fortune telling and feng shui. Of course, it wasn’t long before the “south pointing fish” was adapted to becoming an antique ship compass during the Chinese Song Dynasty in the 11th century. 

Model of the "Si Nan" Spoon Compass from the Han Dynasty, Source - Wikimedia Commons

 

So when did compasses originate in Europe? From records, the English Theologian Alexander Neckam (1157-1217AD) was one of the first scholars to describe magnetised needles and compasses. But, navigational compasses weren’t used extensively really until the 1300s. That being said, Neckhams records cast doubt as to how the compass first came to be in Europe. Many historians believe that the compass was a gift from China to the west. 

 In the Ottoman empire, antique nautical compasses were first recorded in the Persian talebook of 1232, with the successful navigation of the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. The shape and statue of these early ship compasses were very similar to the Chinese designs, which shaped the belief that the Ottomans were first exposed to compasses through the Silk Route trade with China. 

Astrolabe of ‘Umar ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari, c.1291 AD, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is also evidence that ship compasses were used in 11th to 14th century in both India and Africa. 

At first, the design and shape of the compasses were very rudimentary, but they quickly became more illustrated and beautifully intricate as the years passed. Many of the designs incorporated the compass rose. The compass rose was often widely used on maps and nautical charts, with the design showing the way the wind would blow. Compass roses were used in ancient Greek meteorological studies, and they were a must-have for medieval navigation in the 11th to 14th century. In medieval cartography, these roses were works of art in themselves, painted in a range of colours, symbolic for the different types of wind, and with eccleciastical and fleur de lys symbols. 

Astronomical Compendium, c.1617, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Development Of The Antique Nautical Compass and Antique Pocket Compass

Before compasses, geographical exploration was limited to the warmer months of April to September. This is because the better weather promised clearer seas, so it was far easier to see noticeable landmarks, celestial bodies, and sun-dials. Not to mention, the warmer climate allowed for smoother journeys rather than rough seas. That being said the development of navigational compasses were instrumental in the growth of trade; compasses allowed for the “Age of Discovery” (1400-1700), in Europe and the west. 

German Folding Compass by Georg Hartmann, c.1562, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

German Compass Attributed to Hans Reimann II, c.1600-1625, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

As compasses sophisticated, it was natural that different types of compasses started to emerge. The early forms of compasses can be classed as “Dry compasses”.  This is a freely moving magnetised needle which was fastened in line with the kernel of a ship and over a compass card. A “wet compass” which is more commonly used today, is where a magnetised needle is stabilised in fluid like lamp oil, mineral oil, white spirits, kerosene, or pure alcohol. Even though wet compasses were first created at the end of the 17th century (by Sir Edmund Halley no less!), it wasn’t until the early 19th century that they were officially patented.  In fact, wet compasses were originally heavy and cumbersome, so they were often fastened to ships, rather than antique portable compasses. 

French Sundial & Compass, c.1680-1699, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Navigational compasses eventually became sophisticated to bearing compasses, which were in common usage by the 18th century. Essentially, bearing compasses allowed people to take bearings by aligning the compass with lubber lines, a fixed line on the centre of the compass. Combined with the compass rose, this completely shaped how compasses look today, with the North, South, East and West. In 1885, a patent was granted for a hand compass with a viewing prism and lens, and in 1902, the patent of the official Bézard compass was granted. The Bézard compass had a mounted mirror that allowed the user to align the compass with an object, whilst also checking its bearing in the mirror. 

During the first and second world war, compasses were integral to military operations. This is where the transition to wet compasses became the norm. These compasses, although portable, were quite heavy, and primarily utilitarian in their design. These were largely antique metal compasses, crafted from heavy-duty robust materials. 

But what about decorative compasses? 

As illustrated from our antique collection, there clearly was a range of beautiful Victorian pieces that were also being made. From marble, solid Gold, and Gold cased, to Goldstone and gem-set compasses, these beautiful compasses were likely commissioned for pure status purposes, not to mention, Google Maps did not exist during this time!

You can shop our antique compasses here!

Molly Chatterton

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