Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pre-Victorians Becoming Posture Perfect

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

C.E. Drummond, Scene at Scotsbridge 1830
Loretta reports:
“A horrible instrument was devised which I had to wear while doing my lessons.  It was a steel rod which ran down my spine and was strapped at my waist and over my shoulders—another strap went around my forehead to the rod. I had to hold my book high when reading, and it was almost impossible to write in so uncomfortable a position. However, I probably owe my straight back to those many hours of discomfort.”—Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold
C.E. Drummond, watercolour drawing 1828-1830

This sort of thing fit the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, when everything seems to have become so very strict: divisions between classes, excruciatingly complicated etiquette, and fashion.

But I had not thought about posture devices for the earlier period. After all, Susan and I are well aware that acutely straight posture was the order of the day in the 18th and 19th centuries. Women’s shoulder blades were supposed to come as close as possible to meeting in the back, and dress designs reflected this. The corset and especially the busk were all part of maintaining elegant posture.

Then, thanks to Susan's alerting me to an image, I bought and started reading Susan Lasdun’s Making Victorians: The Drummond Children’s World 1827-1832. It has proved enlightening on a number of counts, not least the posture devices used on girls in the pre-Victorian era.

An especially poignant image, a watercolor by Cecile Elizabeth Drummond (at top), brought the point home forcibly—as it evidently did to the errant child. At her feet lies her backboard, which she’s apparently abandoned. And there is Mama, holding a birch rod—a bundle of twigs with which the little girl will be punished for her misbehavior.
C.E. Drummond, watercolour drawing 1828-1830

Lady Lasdun describes the backboard as a “painful” device, yet I’ve seen images of modern children wearing such backboards, in re-enactments (here, here, and here, for example). If it truly were painful, would the re-enactment have been allowed? And would someone be selling them as "only suitable for use by children."?

No doubt the backboard wasn’t comfortable—in the book are several images of children who’ve discarded their backboards and are anticipating a whipping—but it was probably less painful than the whipping, and certainly more comfortable than the iron monstrosity Consuelo Vanderbilt endured. Frankly, I suspect this sort of thing would have benefited my posture enough to compensate for the unpleasantness…though of course I wouldn’t have thought so at the time!

Images: watercolors by Cecil Elizabeth Drummond, 1828-30 (made); Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection; Given by Miss Barbara Drummond, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Those Now-Famous Strands of George Washington's Hair: The Backstory

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Susan reporting,

If you're reading this blog, you're most likely a history nerd, and proud of it, too. It also likely means that somewhere you've read this week's favorite history story in the mainstream media: how a few strands of George Washington's hair were discovered tucked inside a 200-year-old almanac in the rare book library of Union College. Partly because it's almost Washington's birthday, and partly because it IS an interesting discovery, the story has been everywhere, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, USAToday, Newsweek, Newsday, US News & World Report, and the Smithsonian's SmartNews, NPR, and network and cable outlets as well. Last time I checked, it had appeared in over 200 outlets.

In many versions of these stories, I'm quoted (along with professors of history and hair-experts), describing how hair was a common memento among friends and family in the past.  Which, of course, it was - but there's much more to the story than most journalists have space to tell. I don't have those constraints, and besides, I love all the nerdy-history details. There are even connections to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, the heroine of my historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton.

The almanac (shown above) - and the hair - were discovered during an inventory of the archival collections of Schaffer Library, Union College. Bound in red leather, Gaines Universal Register or American and British Kalendar for the year 1793 was a popular volume for gentlemen of the time, and contained useful, everyday knowledge such as population estimates for American cities and comparisons of various coins and monies. The almanac is inscribed "Philip Schuyler's a present from his friend Mr. Philip Ten Eycke New York April 20, 1793."

The first thought was that the almanac belonged to Gen. Philip Schuyler (1733-1804), a close friend of Gen. Washington who served under him during the American Revolution. Philip Schuyler was later active in Federalist politics and government as a U.S. senator from Albany, as well as one of the founders of Union College. He was also the father of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854), and father-in-law to Alexander Hamilton.

Tucked inside the almanac were several pages of handwritten notes and a business letter, which make the owner more likely General Schuyler's son, Philip Jeremiah Schuyler (1768-1835). Also inside the almanac was a slender yellowed envelope, upper right, with this written on one side: "Washington's hair, L.L.S. & (crossed out) GBS from James A. Hamilton given him by his mother, Aug.10, 1871." Inside the envelope were a few white hairs, tied together with a thread, left. Who were all these people, and could their identities help prove that the hair really had come from Washington?

A Google search by Phillip Wajda, Union's director of media and public relations brought him to my blog post about historic hair in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. (See the strands of Washington's hair, held together with red wax, that belong to MHS, lower right.) The handwriting accompanying that hair does appear to the be same as is on the envelope, belonging to James Alexander Hamilton (1788-1878.) James was the fourth child of Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton, and, like his mother, was very aware of both his father's legacy and his family's place in American history.

Locks and strands of hair were often exchanged, especially as tokens of a deceased loved one. While it's impossible to be absolutely certain without DNA testing, the hair's provenance makes a strong case for it having come from Washington. The Hamiltons were close to the Washingtons, and it's likely that Martha shared George's hair with Elizabeth after George's death, if not before. It therefore makes sense that James passed along the hair given to him by his mother, Eliza, as he wrote on the envelope.

He gave the hair to family members who would have appreciated it, too. Thanks to the assistance of Jessie Serfilippi, an interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, we determined that the initials refer to James's granddaughters, Louisa Lee Schuyler (1837-1926) and Georgina Schuyler (1841-1924.) The sisters continued the family interest in history through historic preservation - an idea growing in the late 19thc-early 20thc with a renewed appreciation for the country's early history. Together the sisters were instrumental in making Gen. Schuyler's grand colonial house in Albany into a New York historic site in 1917. At some point, the envelope with the hair must have been slipped into the almanac for safekeeping, forgotten, and then later donated to Union.

A digression into the complicated genealogy of Louisa and Georgina: Philip Jeremiah Schuyler (son of Gen. Schuyler, brother of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, and owner of the almanac) and his second wife, Mary Anne Sawyer, had a son, George Lee Schuyler. George Lee Schuyler married his cousin Eliza Schuyler, the daughter of James Alexander Hamilton (son of Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton.) George and Eliza became the parents of Louisa Lee and Georgia - who therefore were, through intermarriage, great-granddaughters to both Gen. Philip Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton. Whew!

What I find particularly fascinating about all this is that because Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton lived to be 97, she would have known both Louisa Lee and Georgina as girls. Think of that: they would have heard first-hand stories of the American Revolution from Elizabeth, and yet they themselves lived into the 1920s. It's understandable that Louisa Lee and Georgina would have wanted the Schuyler Mansion to be preserved since they remembered their great-grandmother, who in turn would have remembered when the mansion (then her family's new home, known as The Pastures) was built in the 1760s.

Could there be any better backstory than that?

Thanks to Phillip Wajda, Jessie Serfilippi, and Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts, Massachusetts Historical Society, for their assistance with this post.

Upper photos ©2018 Union College.
Lower right: Strands of hair belonging to George Washington, Massachusetts Historical Society, photo ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Breakfast Links: Week of February 12, 2018

Saturday, February 17, 2018
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• Archaeologists think this spinning disk - at least 14,000 years old - may have been a child's toy. More about ancient toys and children here.
Tulipmania: the classic story of a 17thc Dutch financial bubble is mostly wrong.
• A grand piano bought by Queen Victoria as a gift to Prince Albert in 1854.
• The bloody world of Georgian female boxing.
• Filling in the 19thc history of pregnancy and dress.
Image: Believed to be the earliest identified sampler by an African American, this rare work from 1793 carries a beautiful message.
Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley: the real story.
• The earliest photographs of the Henry Clay Frick mansion before it became an art museum.
Image: A delicate mourning bonnet, c1870.
• The beautiful chaos of improvisational quilts: jazz with a needle.
• For author Mark Twain, it was love at first sight..
• Seven black nurses who changed medical history.
Image: The contents of President Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated.
Video: The only artifact in the collection of Fort Ticonderoga certain to have been used by a woman.
• Get your quills ready: a short guide to making a medieval manuscript.
• Now on-line: the commonplace books of Lady Augusta Murray, who married George III's son, the Duke of Sussex, and had his children, but then saw their marriage ruled invalid.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Marvelous Elephant Automaton, c1772

Friday, February 16, 2018

Susan reporting,

Everyone by now knows of the ongoing love affair that Loretta and I have for automata, those amazingly crafted and amazingly beautiful mechanized toys for their very wealthy. Somehow, I'd never come across this one before, and it's a stunner.

According to the information provided by Waddesdon Manor, the present owner of this automaton, this chased bronzed and bejeweled elephant was created in London around 1768-1772 by Hubert Martinet, described as a "businessman-entrepreneur" who likely oversaw a workshop of highly skilled French craftsmen. Many such automata were intended as gifts for Indian officials and rulers as part of the complicated trading protocol of the French and English East India Companies. For whatever reason, however, this elephant - glittering with gilt and paste jewels - was never sold for that purpose. Instead it was widely exhibited in London, Paris, and the Netherlands, passing through several owners. It was finally purchased by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild sometime before 1889, and added to his collection of treasures at Waddesdon.

Musical automaton, signed Hubert Martinet, 1768-1772, Waddesdon Manor.

If you receive this post by email, you may be seeing only a blank spot or black box where the video should be. Please click here to view the video.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thames Watermen & Their Wherries

Thursday, February 15, 2018
Thames Waterman—circa 1825
Loretta reports:

By 1833, the time of A Duke in Shining Armor, it would have been simple enough for my hero and heroine to get on a steamboat to continue upriver from Battersea Bridge. I decided to put them on a wherry instead. The chances of mishap on either vessel were good: Steamboats exploded, and wherries overturned or lost passengers overboard. And of course, I’m always looking for ways to make my characters’ lives difficult.

The wherries, about which I knew next to nothing, however, were aesthetically pleasing, and turned out to have a long history, while the watermen had a distinctive character.
“As may easily be imagined, they formed very much of a caste by themselves… They were a rough, saucy, and independent lot, if we may judge from allusions to them which occur in the novels, comedies, farces, and popular songs of the last century.”Old and New London Vol 3
Thames Wherries, Richmond 1829
As to their vessels:
Thames Wherries.—Of all wherries in the world, none are so beautifully modelled or so light and graceful as the "trim-built wherries" of the Thames. They are constructed upon the most scientific and approved lines; the numerous boatbuilders daily endeavouring to outvie each other. These boats are truly a pattern for all nations, and are the especial admiration of foreigners, particularly the smaller craft, adapted for a party of five or six. They have a beautiful sharp bow, with graceful proportions, carrying the beam well aft, or gradually flaring from the bows, and finishing with a neat tapering stern: a chair rail, for a support to the back, is prettily arranged round the stern-sheets, where the company sit.  —H.C. Folkard, Esq., The Sailing Boat 1863 3rd ed
Rowlandson, Thames Watermen 1807
Though I found images of wherries with a top covering, like the one described in the book, only recently did I come upon the term for these boats: “By a 'tilt' boat of course is meant a boat with a covering." —Old and New London Vol 3. Or, as the OED describes it: "tilt-boat n. [SE tilt-boat,] ‘a large rowing boat having a tilt or awning, formerly used on the Thames, esp. as a passenger boat between London and Gravesend."

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.
 
Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket