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By Selina Hurley on

Napoleonic Wares

Working in a museum presents all sorts of opportunities you never thought possible. But I imagine few curators have uttered the sentence: “I’m just off to Holland to pick up Napoleon’s toothbrush.” This is exactly my task next week. It’s been on loan to the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden and is normally on display at the Wellcome Collection.

Napoleon's toothbrush, 1790-1821 ( Science Museum, London )

Regular readers of this blog will know we like an anniversary and it just so happens that Napoleon died on 5th May 1821, 190 years ago today. Perhaps a spooky coincidence but it set me on the hunt for more Napoleon memorabilia.

Leave from a wreath sent by Napoleon, 1814-1815 ( Science Museum, London )

It may not look like much but this piece of leaf is reputedly from a wreath Napoleon sent to his supporters to hint at which season he would try and escape Elba – the island off the coast of Italy, he was exiled to in 1814. After successfully escaping Elba, he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic.

Keen to build an empire, Napoleon set about conquering Europe through the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815). But with the immortal words of Abba, we know how that ended.

Pair of muzzle loading flintlock pistols belonging to Napoleon (© Science Museum / Science & Society )

The official cause of Napoleon’s death while on St Helena is recorded as stomach cancer. But theories about arsenic poisoning have circulated for many years. Tests carried out on samples of his hair showed that Napoleon was exposed to high levels of the toxic element throughout his life. 

Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena.
Napoleon’s hair taken while on St Helena, 1815-1821 (Science Museum)

His first resting place was in St Helena, although Napoleon’s remains were later returned to Paris in 1840 and interred at Les Invalides in 1861.

Napoleon's tomb on St Helena ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )