Ear Picker

Project details

  • Object number – 656-JR
  • Material – Silver
  • Place of Origin – Probably Germany, Italy, or Spain
  • Date – Late 16th or early 17th Century
  • Context – James Fort plowzone
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Health & Hygiene

A Jamestown colonist used this beautiful dolphin to scrape scale from teeth, clean dirt from fingernails, and scoop out earwax. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, gold and silver toiletry tools were fashionable dress accessories in Europe. This earpick belonged to someone of high status who would have worn it openly to display that high standing (the loop meant it could be hung around the neck or from a belt, as jewelry).

But earpicks and toothpicks were also frequently made of bone, ivory, and brass as purely utilitarian objects. Ear pickers were used by all levels of society in medieval and post-medieval England. The 17th-century English knew about plaque, which they called “scale” or “surf,” and they were encouraged by their doctors to scrape their teeth frequently. They also knew that a buildup of earwax could cause deafness.

The first settlers to Jamestown in 1607 included two men who could perform basic medical care. John Smith’s list of the settlers names Thomas Wotton as a “surgeon” and Thomas Couper as a barber (who did many of the same medical things a surgeon would do, from tooth removal to bloodletting). London surgeon John Woodall sent a fully furnished surgeon’s chest to Jamestown in 1609 and mentioned “eare-pickers” as part of the surgeon’s necessary “bundle of small instruments usually brought from Germanie.” Beyond everyday personal healthcare, these tools were also needed to treat sudden ailments, such as “a stone in the eare.”

The scoop found at Jamestown could also help with a valuable job at the fort. A tailor normally used beeswax to coat thread to make it stronger and easier to use, but with no bees available, earwax would do. As gross as that may seem to us today, earwax was worth saving in the harsh early days of James Fort.