Don Saltero’s was a coffee house in Chelsea, London, founded in 1695 by James Salter, a former servant of the collector, traveller, naturalist and antiquarian, Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane gave Salter some unwanted items from his collection to use as decorations for the coffee house. Here is a compelling description of the resulting ‘cabinet of curiosities’. This text formed the basis of an interesting childhood game in which we tried to remember as many items from the collection as possible, having had five minutes to read the ‘inventory’. From: ‘Chelsea’, Old and New London: Volume 5 (1878).
In the first glass were contained the model of the holy sepulchre, and a variety of curiosities of a similar character: such as “painted ribbands from Jerusalem, with a pillar to which our Saviour was tied when scourged, with a motto on each;” “boxes of relicks from Jerusalem;” “a piece of a saint’s bone in nun’s work;” several pieces of the holy cross in a frame, glazed; a rose of Jericho; dice of the Knights Templars; an Israelitish shekel; and the Lord’s Prayer in an ivory frame, glazed. There were also several specimens of carving on cherry-stones, representing the heads of the four Evangelists and effigies of saints; with some cups and baskets made out of the same minute materials. The same case also contained a number of fine coins and medals, both British and foreign, and “a model of Governor Pitt’s great diamond,” which was taken out of the sale. There were also a few natural curiosities, as “a bone of an angel-fish; a sea-horse; a petrified crab from China; a small pair of horns, and several legs of guinea-deer; a handkerchief made of the asbestus rock, which fire cannot consume; a piece of rotten wood not to be consumed by fire; the rattle of a rattlesnake with twenty-seven joints; a large worm that eats into the keels of ships in the West Indies; serpents’ tongues; the bark of a tree, which when drawn out appears like fine lace; a salamander; a fairy’s or elf’s arrow; a little skull, very curious.”
The most remarkable artificial rarities contained in the second glass were “a piece of Solomon’s temple; Queen Katherine’s wedding shoes; King Charles the Second’s band which he wore in disguise; and a piece of a coat of mail one hundred and fifty times doubled.” Of foreign productions this case contained “a Turkish almanack; a book in Chinese characters; letters in the Malabar language; the effigies and hand of an Egyptian mummy; forty eight cups, one in another; and an Indian hatchet used by them before iron was invented.” The natural curiosities included “a little whale; a giant’s tooth; a curious ball of fish-bones found near Plymouth; Job’s tears that grow on a tree, where with they make anodyne necklaces; a nut of the sand-box tree; several petrified plumes and olives; a young frog in a tobacco-stopper; and a piece of the caul of an elephant.”
The third glass comprised “black and white scorpions; animals in embryo; the worm that eats into the piles in Holland; the tarantula; a nest of snakes; the horns of a shamway; the back-bone of a rattlesnake.”
The fourth glass consisted of artificial curiosities, and included “a nun’s whip; a pair of garters from South Carolina; a Chinese dodgin, which they weigh their gold in; a little Sultaness; an Indian spoon of equal weight with gold; a Chinese nun, very curious; Dr. Durham’s paper made of nettles.”
The fifth glass contained “a Muscovy snuff-box, made of an elk’s hoof; a humming-bird’s nest, with two young ones in it; a starved swallow; the head of an Egyptian; a lock of hair of a Goa goat; belts of wampum; Indian money; the fruit of the horn-tree.”
The following curiosities were also disposed in various parts of the coffee-room, with many others less remarkable in their names and appearance—”King James’s coronation sword; King William’s coronation sword and shoes; Henry VIII.’s coat of mail, gloves, and spurs; Queen Elizabeth’s Prayer-book, stirrup, and strawberry dish; the Pope’s infallible candle; a set of beads, consecrated by Clement VII., made of the bones of St. Anthony of Padua; a piece of the royal oak; a petrified child, or the figure of death; a curious piece of metal, found in the ruins of Troy; a pair of Saxon stockings; William the Conqueror’s family sword; Oliver’s broad-sword; the King of Whiddaw’s staff; Bistreanier’s staff; a wooden shoe, put under the Speaker’s chair in James II.’s time; the Emperor of Morocco’s tobacco pipe; a curious flea-trap; an Indian prince’s crown; a starved cat, found between the walls of Westminster Abbey when the east end was repaired; the jaws of a wild boar that was starved to death by his tusks growing inward; a frog, fifteen inches long, found in the Isle of Dogs; the Staffordshire almanack, used when the Danes were in England; the lance of Captain TowHow-Sham, king of the Darien Indians, with which he killed six Spaniards, and took a tooth out of each head, and put in his lance as a trophy of his valour; a coffin of state for a friar’s bones; a cockatrice serpent; a large snake, seventeen feet long, taken in a pigeon-house in Sumatra—it had in its belly fifteen fowls and five pigeons; a dolphin with a flying-fish at his mouth; a gargulet, that Indians used to cool their water with; a whistling arrow, which the Indians use when they would treat of peace; a negro boy’s cap, made of a rat-skin; Mary Queen ofScots’ pin-cushion; a purse made of a spider from Antigua; manna from Canaan; a jaw of a skate, with 500 teeth; the mermaid fish; the wild man of the woods; the flying bull’s head; and, last of all, a snake’s skin, ten feet and a half long—a most excellent hydrometer.”It may be added that, if we may believe Pennant, the ex-Protector, Richard Cromwell, was one of the regular visitors at Don Saltero’s coffee-house in its earliest days. The place was one of the exhibitions which Benjamin Franklin went to see when working as a journeyman printer in London; and it is on record how that after leaving the house one day he swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars, performing sundry feats in the water as he went along.