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Napoleon III Letter Holder

Napoleon III Letter Holder, ca. 1860, Metal
Unknown Artist


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Thomas W. Evans Collection

This gilded-lead holder for letters or cards demonstrates the showy taste for which the Second Empire was renowned. A large initial “N” for Napoleon III, crowned and mounted on a leather base with the spring mechanism to open and close, would have formed part of an elaborate set of desk accessories. In an era when personal and professional correspondence took up much of one’s day, objects not only served the writer, but they also adorned the surface of the desk. 

This clever object “speaks” on multiple levels: it objectifies the Napoleonic insignia, making it a actual fact of the material world; it connects all those who have received a similar item from the Emperor, establishing a circle of possessors of the Napoleonic “N” and including the Emperor himself; and finally, it posits Evans not just as the receiver of Napoleonic correspondence, but as part of those who see in that “N” the very center of language and rule itself. When Evans placed a letter into it, the golden “N” stood out against the white background of paper-- political ideology taking a haptic, intensely precious form, beautified both as a miniaturized worldview and perhaps the very context of all meaning, material and otherwise.