Usually there is a lot going on at Kiwi North, from live tuatara and kiwi viewing to new and exciting temporary museum exhibitions.

There is also another display that gets changed regularly which is the museum's "Mystery Object". The artefact in this curiosity cabinet is replaced monthly and entices visitors to correctly guess the item displayed.

February showcased a small, delicate metal object from the Victorian period. Rather an obscure treasure used by ladies of the era, the nature of this mystery object proved somewhat elusive to most observers willing to guess its function.

Many entries received included suggestions of a domestic nature such as paper embosser, candle extinguisher, sugar tongs, button press and a typewriter ribbon installer. Other ideas proposed were of a more personal kind like a nose peg, tattoo design tool, ear piercer and tooth extractor as submitted by a visitor from Western Australia.


Although these responses are as unique as the gadget itself, there was only two correct entries. One was submitted by B Laverick of Maunu, and the other by Lisa Hansen on the Kiwi North Facebook page, who both rightly identified the item as a ladies "skirt lifter".

Though the Victorian era is well known for its ingenious inventions, this particularly clever gadget served a practical sartorial purpose. Also known as a "dress holder" or "page", this was an accessory specifically designed to manage long skirts or dresses.

Skirt lifters were possibly worn as early as 1846 to pull the dress up while walking, but the trend reached its peak of popularity during the 1860s to 1880s.

Resembling a pair of small tongs or scissors with circular cushioned grips, this device was suspended just below the waist by a cord, ribbon or chain attached to the ring at the top of the appendage. The padded or felted grips like the one in the museum's collection, protected delicate fabrics from wear, natural hand oils, or from soiled gloves which were often worn outdoors in this period.

In the later nineteenth century, as more women participated in open –air activities such as promenading, croquet and archery, a serviceable dress holder became more indispensable. As well as keeping skirts clear of dirt, ladies would also use them when riding, bicycling, climbing stairs or dancing being cautious not to expose ankles which was most undesirable.

There was also a resurgence of the polonaise dress during the Victorian period, an ensemble consisting of an overdress gathered up in elegant drapes to expose a decorative petticoat. The skirt lifter both pulled the dress up to avoid soiling the hem and created the fashionable gathered drapes of the polonaise.

Popular patterns of flowers and lucky horseshoes were incorporated into their designs, while hands, butterflies, hearts or fans were other common motifs.

Nowadays, one can only imagine the hazards faced by women in 19th century New Zealand, who didn't possess one of these functional yet elegant fashion accessories.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.