18th century shark skin razor case “left” in America by a Scottish Lord in 1772.

This unusual case was found at an antique show in Florida, and when found, had an old historical society sticker on the bottom. like 19th century old. The sticker reads, “Presented to the Fairfield County Historical Society of Connecticut by Misses Peck of Stratford, CT, 188?, Left by John Sterling in 177?”.

I originally believed it was a tool kit for a surveyor, since it’s very similar to one pictured in the book “Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860,” which had belonged to an early Kentucky surveyor. Then I started to believe maybe it belonged to the famous Sterling family of ship captains in Stratford, Connecticut, given the name and location. But they are all 19th century, and couldn’t have “left” anything behind in the 18th century. The dates didn’t match up. So I kept searching.

Unfortunately there was nothing inside….

Old sticker on the bottom of the case, from the Fairfield County, CT Historical Society

Then my google-fu came through, and I completely figured it out. This wasn’t a ship captain’s navigational tools. This wasn’t a surveyor’s tool kit. It was a travel shaving kit, and was at the center of a story straight out of a Jane Austen book.

Stratford is a town in Fairfield County, Connecticut, United States. It is situated on Long Island Sound along Connecticut’s “Gold Coast” at the mouth of the Housatonic River. Stratford is in the Bridgeport–Stamford–Norwalk Metropolitan Statistical Area. It was founded by Puritans in 1639.

Like other Puritan or Pilgrim towns founded during this time, early Stratford was a place where church leadership and town leadership were united under the pastor of the church, in this case Reverend Blakeman. The goal of these communities was to create perfect outposts of religious idealism where the wilderness would separate them from the interference of kings, parliaments, or any other secular authority.

In this religious and formal setting, on December 24, 1753, Gloriana Fulsom was born, the last of 9 children. As she grew up, she was said to have been the most beautiful young woman in Stratford. She is described as having light brown hair, bright sparkling blue eyes, a fine personal figure, and a “lively, entertaining manner.”

In the autumn of 1770, a mysterious stranger appeared in town, who had “a rather remarkable appearance.” The man stopped at Benjamin’s Tavern. He introduced himself as John Sterling, from Edinburgh, Scotland. Locals immediately were suspicious of him, since he appeared as a traveler, and not to be engaged in any worldly or religious business. However, in reality, he was the son of a Scottish Baronet, and had been sent on a trip by his father to tour America and Canada. It doesn’t sound as if he immediately disclosed this fact to the town. However, he was reportedly pleasant and entertaining.

He immediately fell in love with the young Gloriana Fulsom the first time he saw her in church. And apparently she to him, as well. He was smitten. He followed her around everywhere she went, and apparently convinced her father to let him marry her as soon as she turned 16. Perhaps he disclosed his true identity to her father – perhaps not. In any event, everyone else was opposed to the marriage, the close-knit town, Gloriana’s mother, and her oldest sister, Anna.

Nonetheless, John got his way, and married Gloriana on March 10, 1771. Apparently, he cancelled his tour of the Americas, content for the time being just to be the husband of Gloriana – just a regular couple in Stratford, Connecticut.

When John started to run out of his traveling money, he began to teach a local school – the “Old Pendleton House.” No doubt John had an impressive education. He did this for several months to a year. Not wasting time, they had their first child, Mary Gloriana Sterling, in December of 1771. Some say John sent home for money. Some say he didn’t. But in any event, his father, the Baronet of Edinburgh, became aware, possibly from mariners going back and forth from the coastal shipping town, that John had married. And married quite a beautiful woman. Some say that John had written his father directly, telling him of the marriage, and that he was staying in Connecticut.

In the autumn of 1772, the Baronet in Edinburgh became impatient, and wrote a “peremptory requirement” for his son to come home immediately, and to bring his new wife with him. John told Gloriana that he had to go immediately, but that he would send for her as soon as possible. This must have been late 1772 when he left, though I haven’t found an exact date. What we do know is that Gloriana had the couple’s second daughter, Maria Jane Sterling, on March 14, 1773, in John’s absence.

When John Sterling “left,” the entire town of Stratford, CT, “the whole town was musical with whisperings, suspicions and reports that the great Mr. Sterling had deserted his wife and that she would see and hear no more of him. However, shorty afterwards, a letter arrived from her husband informing her that a ship, “fitted to her special comfort,” would soon be in New York to carry her to Scotland, “in the best style possible.”

Along with the letter, John had sent her a “quantity of goods of elegant material,” to be made into custom-fitted fine clothing in New York, prior to her departure. This included the necessary silk for a silk dress to be crafted for use at her reception party for her arrival in Scotland. The letter and material had been delivered along with servants to attend to the necessary work and preparations for her journey. Supposedly Gloriana’s relatives kept some scraps of the silk, which was originally white embossed silk with colored flowers in small bouquets “scattered sparsely over it.”

After her wardrobe was completed in New York, the ship indeed arrived, and Gloriana sailed to Scotland with her two children, and two servants. Mr. Sterling had also formally invited Gloriana’s skeptical older sister, Anna, to travel with her to Scotland. However, their mother refused to consent because she couldn’t bear to lose both daughters, should the ship sink.

When Gloriana’s ship arrived in Scotland, while wearing her silk dress, there were so many carriages on the wharf that she was “at a great loss to know what it meant.” She was surprised to learn that they were all there to meet her. From that point forward, she lived as a Baroness. She never returned to America. She kept up correspondence with her family in Stratford, much of which were preserved by the local historical society.

In addition to the letters, the family preserved a beautiful doll, which was sent with a complete doll’s outfit, to Gloriana’s 6 year old niece, along with “a razor case left by Mr. Sterling….”

Who was the family who preserved the letters of correspondence, doll and razor case? My hunch proved correct when I learned it was “Misses Elizabeth and Maria Peck, still living in Stratford, whose mother was the daughter of Anna Fulsom, the eldest sister of Gloriana.”

Eureka! “Misses Peck” donated the razor case “left” by John Sterling in 1772 when he abruptly left for Scotland to the local historical society. And sure enough, the dividers in the case match another 18th century razor case I found, which shows what the actual contents would have been:

18th Century traveling shaving set, comprising: six tortoiseshell handles razors with inlaid pique work, a sharpening block, a glass bottle, a pair of scissors, a comb and a later penknife, in a fitted shagreen case, mounted with a silver plaque engraved with an armorial, height 18.2cm. ** The arms are those of Sir Henry Nelthorpe of Scawby Hall, Lincolnshire, who, aged 26, succeeded as 7th baronet in 1799. He married Margaret Duthie of Stirling in 1807 but died childless in 1830.

Note that the basic dividing geometry is identical, except the one pictured is a little fancier in that the dividers more closely tailor the items, whereas, the Sterling one has more rectangular edged divisions.

18th Century Shark Skin Razor Case

It’s always a rabbit hole researching items associated with a name, or a story. But this one was truly more interesting than I ever would have expected.

Primary Source: A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport, Part 1, By Samuel Orcutt: https://books.google.com/books?id=-fILAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage&cad=0#v=onepage&q=sterling&f=false

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