A Collection We Want: Antique Compasses

Once treasured by seafaring explorers, these globe-trotting tools are now prized for their craftsmanship and beauty. Long before Siri, satellites, or Google Earth, man’s most trusted navigational aid was the compass. The first of these tools date to as early as the 11th century, when a compass consisted of a shallow dish of water and a floating piece of wood or cork attached to a magnetized needle that moved according to the Earth’s magnetic pull.


Antique compasses

Image by Greg Dupree


As scientists began to learn more about the planet’s magnetism, compass makers started mounting the needle on a pivot and adding iron inside the instrument to counteract the pull of external objects. These advances made navigation more reliable, which paved the way for successful maritime trade and exploration.


Today, technology has rendered magnetic compasses virtually obsolete for nautical navigation, but they continue to captivate collectors. You can find an abundance available online through the retailers such as Boreal ArrowRuby Lane, and Etsy. Most date to between the 1800s and early 1900s, and cost anywhere from $100 to more than $1,000, depending on age, shape, and rarity.


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