But what is this unusual item, and what is its connection to the old saying?
It is very decorative, and shows scenes from the Bible. It was certainly made by a very skilful carver and it looks like it should be hung on the wall as a purely decorative item. It is surely meant to be hung up at some point, as it has a hole at the top for that purpose, but it does have a quite workaday use. It is a mangle board, made in the 17th century Netherlands. An essential piece of laundry equipment in its day, it was in common use long before the invention of the electric iron but serving a similar purpose. The laundered and still damp linen would be tightly wrapped around a roller then smoothed and flattened by the mangle board.
The mangle board was popularly given as a courtship or betrothal gift. The tradition was for the suitor to carve the board then hang it outside the house of the girl he wished to marry. The more elaborate and ornate the carving on the board was meant to show how well set up he was. If the intended bride then took the offering into her house, he could consider himself engaged. If she didn’t, her would-be suitor would have to start again with a new board to tempt someone else. After the marriage, perhaps the board acted as something nice to look at while engaged in the daily drudgery of doing the laundry!
Mangle boards were in widespread use from the 16th century. They were commonly found across the length and breadth of Europe from Scandinavia across to Russia and down to the Netherlands. They were known as a “bittle and pin” in northern England.
The inscription on the top of our board reads “HOV.T. / GEBODEN / GODTS” which means “Keep God’s Commandments” in Old Dutch. The item is dated at the bottom ANNO 1697, which indicates the owner’s betrothal date.
The scenes from the Bible depicted include Adam and Eve (Genesis 1 26-27); So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Christ with the Samaritan Woman (John 4 4-26); the story of Jesus resting at Jacob’s well on his way to Galilee and meeting the much-married Samaritan woman there.
Elijah fed by Ravens (1 Kings 17); a story of God’s providence. God told Elijah to go into the wilderness by a brook called Cherith. “You shall drink from the brook and I have commanded ravens to feed you”.
Tobias and the Angel (Book of Tobit, the Apocrypha). The archangel Raphael accompanied Tobias to Medea and back, showing him how to overcome the evil spirit which had carried off seven of his fiancée Sara’s previous betrothed lovers.
The scenes are enclosed within a vine leaf pattern winding its way around the outside of the panels to form a kind of frame. Together, these carvings form a wonderfully decorative item to adorn the home, with a beautiful form in addition to a useful function.