This small sombrero pen wiper once perched on the desk below the painting of Saint Engracia by Barolomé Bermejo in the Tapestry Room. The hat, now faded to gray, is made of a rich, dark green felt matching the color of the Saint Engracia painting hanging above it. In the Nineteenth century, people wrote letters with quills or dip pens. Inside the sombrero is a chamois cloth, where writers would remove excess ink from their writing utensils before committing pen to paper. Typically pen wipers this elaborate were souvenirs for tourists.
While we do not know how the pen wiper arrived in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection, we do know that Isabella traveled to Mexico with her husband, Jack, in 1881. Jack visited the country again in 1885. Isabella’s friends were as well-traveled as she was, and several acquaintances visited Mexico, writing letters back to her. Among these friends were the Norwegian ethnographer Carl Lumholtz, painter Dodge Macknight, and painter Denman Ross. Perhaps the pen wiper was a gift to Isabella from one of these friends. Whatever its source, the sombrero added a bit of whimsy to the formal setting of the Tapestry Room.