SOAS University of London


15 October - 12 December 2003
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 10.30 – 1700

Steel in Daily Life

It is not possible to define with certainty the time when steel, replacing iron and brass, came to be used for purposes other than producing armaments. Creating luxury objects for the exclusive use of a privileged group preceded the widespread production of ordinary objects of daily life. Doors of houses began to be adorned with decorative plaques of openwork, placed where door knockers and knobs are usually positioned. Steel began to be used in different door closing mechanisms such as hinges, locks and padlocks. Furniture, chests in particular, were enhanced with chiselled, engraved and at times gold-plated steel ornaments. Finally, steel was used in tableware, kitchen utensils and household items, grooming and clothing accessories. Outside the domestic sphere, steel utensils were used in certain social practices associated with drinking coffee and smoking tobacco. Steel was not just used by urban populations. Nomads used steel not only for their horse harnesses and their domestic objects, but also for the tools they used to set up tents, such as pegs, which may have been decorated. In the 19th century, Persian artisans were subjected to competition from European industrial productions which were widely distributed in the Near and the Middle-East. These European exports were mainly in the domain of cutlery, hardware and arms manufacture. The cost of raw materials and the difficulties of transportation over long distances made the widespread commercialisation of Iranian products challenging. In contrast, at the local level workshops continued to flourish, perpetuating artisanal know-how with the support of the rulers of the Qajar dynasty (r. 1779-1924). Qajar rulers attempted to revive the Persian steel industry by despatching Iranian artisans to England in order for them to familiarize themselves with the latest technical developments.