October 2016 – Suffragette vesta case

Suffragette vesta case, 1910As part of the museum’s Voting for Change project, using funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, PHM has recently purchased a vesta case.  This small silver box, produced in Birmingham in 1910, was used to hold matches.  Pretty in its own right, it is the inscription and image, that make it of interest to the museum.  ‘All I wanted was the right to VOTE’ is in the inscription and above that an image of a woman behind bars.

Between 1905 and the outbreak of World War I, over 1,300 women were imprisoned as part of the votes for women campaign.  There was a public outcry, not least when women went on hunger strike as a stance against being treated as criminals.  This relationship between the suffragettes and prison – confinement as political prisoners rather than criminals – can be seen in the objects produced by the very act of being incarcerated.  Those women sent to prison were, on release, presented with a certificate or a badge.  As with soldiers returning from the battlefield, women who went to prison wore their honour in battle on the their chest.  The vesta case feels a little different however.  Perhaps a more personal item.  Suffragette vesta cases are not uncommon, but one which references prison much rarer.

‘A brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world’ wrote advertising legend John Hegarty, ‘a corner of someone’s mind.’  Often problematic is the relationship between politics, branding and the perception to change opinion.  Quickly thoughts drift to the propaganda of World War I and the rise of fascism.  But rarely do we consider the power of objects and images to change minds towards progress.  The suffragettes were a group who completely understood the power of images, the power of actions and the power of words to change the ‘corner of someone’s mind’.  Sashes, banners, badges and board games were all employed towards this end.  When studying protest, however, we can all too quickly turn thoughts to objects of mass protest; to the vision of mass rally.  Objecting can be far more Heritage Lottery Fundpersonal, and the objects of that objection can have a resonance far greater than the more familiar banners and posters.