Unlike many other holiday decorations in shopping malls, the traditionally-inspired decorations in Colonial Williamsburg are different every year. While the ingredients vary -- a holly wreath one December is replaced the next by strawflowers or oyster shells – the "themes" are often the same. The decorations on the historic trade shops usually reflect the trade inside, with locks of hair woven into the wreath on the wigmaker's shop, and miniature fashion-dolls on the one outside the shop occupied by the tailors and mantua-makers.
It's also interesting to see how the decorations on specific buildings change each year. Shown here is the Dr. Peter Hay house (which has a fascinating history of its own.) In 2010, the Christmas decor had a political tone – at least the politics of 1776 – complete with a "Don't Tread On Me" warning on the front door and a hanging effigy of George III. In 2011, the decorations featured baskets, red and green apples, and a horse collar. This year the decorations have a decidedly sporting air, with horse shoes and deer antlers on the front door, left. The bay window, above, that once served as Dr. Hay's apothecary shop window is decorated with crossed wooden swords and stirrups holding apples.
Clearly I'm not the only one who's fascinated by this house's annual decorations, too. As you can see from the photographs, it almost always earns one of the decoration-contest blue ribbons.
The holiday decorations of Colonial Williamsburg have always been popular with visitors. There are special walking tours to view the wreathes, and the gift shops offer books and videos to help recreate the "Williamsburg look" back home. An annual contest judges the most creative displays, with separate divisions for professional decorators/artists and amateurs, and winners proudly display their blue ribbons pinned beside their doors.
Materials are restricted to things that would have been found in 18th c. Virginia, which eliminates electric lights, anything plastic or super-sparkly, Santa Claus and Christmas trees. As these examples show, however, there's still plenty of objects that meet the criteria. Tucked among the greenery, pinecones, and dried wildflowers are 18th c. style playing cards, a fiddle, clay pipes, flags, gentlemen's cocked hats and straw hats for ladies, fifes, and drums. (The modern plastic tankards beside the door, right, were temporarily left by visitors who weren't permitted to bring beverages inside the shop.)
While the decorations are indeed lovely, they're not accurate for 18th c. America. No colonial housewife would dream of sticking perfectly good (and expensive!) apples, oranges, and pineapples on her front door for the birds and squirrels to eat. Traditional decorations would have been a bit of greenery, and little else.
But when Colonial Williamsburg was still finding its focus in the 1930s, residents in the historic area were encouraged to decorate their houses with della Robbia-inspired wreathes of fruit instead of modern gaudy colored lights and reindeer. Visitors enjoyed the wreathes so much that they became a new tradition; they are historically inspired, just not inspired by the 1700s.
I'm fortunate to spend each Christmas with family in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. The restored area of 18th c. colonial homes and buildings is always decorated with festive interpretations of traditional decorations, and it's become a tradition here on the blog for me to share photographs of some of my favorites.
If you'd like to check out past years' images, see our Pinterest board here.
Tidewater Virginia seldom has a white Christmas, and this year was no exception. While there was plenty of rain in the beginning of my visit, the wet weather was soon replaced with brilliant blue skies,left. Perfect weather for balancing on steps and leaning over railings to take pictures of wreaths!
Whenever I post photographs from Colonial Williamsburg, readers who have also visited wonder how I manage to show empty streets, especially during the holiday season. I promise there's no Photoshop trickery at work; I'm simply there very, very early in the day, when most visitors are still in the local pancake houses.
So, maybe we seem a little lazy: It's been only a few weeks since our Thanksgiving break, and here we are, wandering away for Christmas. But Thanksgiving came late, and work on our books as well as holiday enjoyment with our families call us away a little early this year.
But we shall return to blogging promptly in 2014. In the meantime, look for our annual gallery of pictures from Colonial Williamsburg, decorated for the holidays, to help while away the hours until the next bout of nerdiness.
We wish you the best of holiday seasons and a splendid New Year, replete, we hope, with historical delights of all kinds.
1913 Puck Christmas issue courtesy
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
This is one of my favorite past blog posts, about one of my favorite local history-related events. The Commemoration of General Washington's March In is held every year at Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania. This year's free event is scheduled for December 19, from 6:00-8:00 pm; see here for more information.
On a cold Sunday evening when most people were finishing up their Christmas shopping at the nearby mall, we took a different path. We headed off across the moonlit fields of Valley Forge National Historical Park, and followed the path of General George Washington and the Continental Army as they marched into their winter encampment on 19 December, 1777.
Valley Forge is one of those rare historical names that almost all Americans recognize, a landmark in our war for independence. Yet despite how often the "battle" of Valley Forge may be invoked by confused politicians, there was no battle fought here. Eighteenth century armies followed the seasons, and hostilities ceased during the winter months. In 1777-78, the majority of the English army spent the cold months in the captured city of Philadelphia. The Continental army wintered about twenty miles west of the city on farmland near Valley Forge, building fortifications and thousands of small log cabins for shelter.
Though there were hardships at the encampment, park interpreters stress that the legendary "bloody footsteps in the snow" are later embellishments. These 12,000 men were enlisted soldiers, not militia, and 18th c. soldiers expected conditions to be primitive and food to come from foraging. The Continental forces included men from the thirteen colonies as well as European mercenaries. Many were experienced veterans, not only from recent battles, but from earlier colonial wars against the French and Indians. They came prepared and equipped, and instead of the traditional image of soldiers shivering in rags, most of these men wore full uniforms, and contemporary reports speak of a camp that was industrious and optimistic.
The real enemy at Valley Forge wasn't the British army, but disease. Nearly 2,000 men died during the encampment, with the majority dying not in the harshest winter months, but later in March, April, and May. The killers were the same diseases that ravaged all groups of 18th c. people: influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.
Yet there's no denying the importance of what happened here. Under the leadership of Washington and a former Prussian army officer, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, the men drilled and trained and came together not as a group of soldiers, but as a disciplined, professional army with a single goal. From many, one: E Pluribus Unum, the dictum chosen later in 1782 by Congress for the new Seal of the United States.
In the season of celebrations and shopping and Santas, it's good to take time to remember the past as well as the present. Standing there under full moon beside the replica log cabins (and doing a bit of replica shivering, too), we thought of those soldiers, and what they'd accomplished against such odds. And there, under the stars, we were most thankful that they had.
Above: Photo from the Annual March-In Commemoration of the Continental Army, 12/19/2010, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Valley Forge, PA. For more information about the Park, visit their website.
It’s hard not to be. The novella has been made into plays, films, musicals, radio plays, operas, and television specials. Scrooge has been a man, a woman, a duck, a Smurf, Mr. Magoo, Yosemite Sam, and Oscar the Grouch, among others.
But imagine Scrooge played by Dickens? How about Bob Cratchit played by Dickens? Or the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future?
Charles Dickens loved to perform, and one of the many ways he used his boundless energy was in giving public readings, and playing the different characters. His first public reading was A Christmas Carol.
If I could time travel, I’d like to be in the audience of one of those readings. The day after Thanksgiving, I came close. At Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA, on the same stage where Charles Dickens appeared in 1868, his great-great-grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens,* gave a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol.
Our lives are about technology. We’re used to super-duper special effects, enhancing and sometimes entirely usurping the place of humans in films and TV. Here was one man on a stage performing a work written 170 years ago. Minimal props and little in the way of costume changes. Yet I discerned no signs of restlessness or impatience. No ring tones playing. No audience chatter. There was laughter and tears (yes, I wept over Tiny Tim), but above all there was rapt attention. He had the audience captivated—much, I imagined, as his great-great grandfather must have done when buildings like the Mechanics Hall were brand new.
For Mr. Dickens’s angle on his performance, the venue, and the story of his great-great-grandfather’s 1868 appearance, please scroll down this entry of his blog.
One way I develop a a sense of place is by studying drawings, engraved illustrations, prints, and paintings. I see my early 19th century world, not through the eye of a camera but via an artist’s interpretation or a writer’s picture in words.
Vauxhall Royal Gardens, which no longer exist, except in some illustrations and a pair of photographs, is a case in point. Looking for images of the place, where important scenes of Vixen in Velvet are set, I came upon this illustration by Richard Doyle.
It’s fifteen years later than my story, but all one need do is mentally change the dress and allow for the artist’s humorous interpretation. Equally important for me, though was discovering this work of Richard Doyle’s, and his talent for drawing crowds in a comical way.
Apparently, there isn’t as much of Doyle’s work as there ought to be because he was notoriously unreliable about completing his assignments. However, he did complete his job for Manners and Customs of ye Englyshe, a delightful little comic picture of London done in the style of Samuel Pepys’s Diary.
I was particularly struck with the interpretation of Regent’s Street, which in 1849 bears a strong resemblance to the Regent Street I experienced in the late spring of 2012. My experience didn’t include lions or horses, but the sidewalks were equally jammed, as were the shops.
This lovely robe à la française is from the Think Pink exhibition (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) that I've written about previously here and here. Made of silk taffeta with lace, the gown features the serpentine self-trim, stomacher with bows and lace, and the deeply flounced petticoat and sleeve ruffles that all were the height of Parisian fashion c. 1760-70. Any European or colonial American lady would have loved to have worn such a gown – except that there's a slight problem with the size.
The gown is only about 15" tall.
While it's possible that the gown belonged to the treasured plaything of a wealthy child, it's far more likely that the gown was worn by a different kind of doll. Pandoras were doll-sized mannequins dressed in the latest fashions from Paris and London, and sent to shops and mantua-makers to show customers the new styles from the big cities. Unlike a printed fashion plate, a pandora could demonstrate fabrics and techniques as well as accessories like caps and mitts, and could also show the gown from all sides.
The rare surviving pandora, left, from the Victoria & Albert Museum is approximately the same age as the pink gown. Carved from wood, painted, and complete with a head of human hair, she wears not only an embroidered gown, but also the appropriate undergarments, mitts, stockings, shoes, and cap for a stylish Georgian lady. What's most amazing for a doll that's nearly 350 years old is that she is has worn these things the entire time; the dressmaker's original pins securing the clothes remain exactly where they were placed centuries ago.
Did pandoras actually influence women's decisions with their dressmakers? The MFA makes a good case for it by showing this portrait, right, from their collection near the miniature pink gown. Dorothy Quincy - married to wealthy Bostonian and patriot John Hancock - is shown wearing a similar pink silk gown with pinked bows. There is, of course, absolutely no documented connection between the portrait and the pandora's pink gown - but it is fun to imagine Dorothy with her mantua-maker and a pandora, discussing what the ladies in London were currently wearing....
Above: Doll's dress robe à la française, c.1750-1790, Europe, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Above left: Fashion doll, c. 1755-1760, England, V&A Museum. Below right:Dorothy Quincy (Mrs. John Hancock), by John Singleton Copley, c. 1772. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
After a week off for the holiday, we're back today with a bumper crop of Breakfast Links – our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, blogs, articles, and images, all gathered for you from around the Twitterverse.
• Mary Robinson - known as Perditia - a Georgian fashion icon and leading London celebrity of the 1780s.
• Retail therapy: what mannequins say about us.
• The remarkable life & times of Jeffery Hudson, Charles I's dwarf.
• Image: early handbills show the rage for talented animal sideshows include the "Most Astonishing" Learned Goose.
• Hypochondria in Jane Austen's England.
• Nine 19th c. books that will change your Victorian sex life.
• The burning of the "satanic" Albion Mills at Blackfriars, 1791.
• A glimmer of gold: a gorgeous 19th c. bonnet.
• Sensational assassination in the Adriondacks: 1903 murder of millionaire lawyer Orrando Perry Dexter.
• "Christmas pye, the invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon."
• For the first time, ancient Bibles and Biblical texts from the Bodleian and Vatican Libraries go on-line.
• Minding the farm: wives looking after family properties for their Tory husbands during the American Revolution.
• A century of vintage photographs of people building snowmen, 1850-1960.
• Image: Monday washing, New York City, 1900
• "To Make a Quarter Cask of Currant Wine": 18th c. recipe begins with eighty-six pounds of "the best Jamaica sugar."
• A video offering a closer look at a magnificent Charles James evening gown.
• Image: delightful photo of Edwardian domestic servants up to some "mischief."
• Happy Hanukkah! images of the Festival of Lights from medieval manuscripts in the British Library.
• Claxton's Patent Ear Cap, 1890s, to prevent baby from getting "ugly" ears.
• Browse through Charles Dickens' manuscript for A Christmas Carol.
• A dress to dye for: 1860s green dress colored with arsenic in the aniline dye.
• The Edwardian debutante.
• The tongues of rogues: how secret languages develop in closed societies like English con men, Parisian prostitutes, and German bandits.
• The history of green boughs and trees for Christmas.
• Teeny tiny medieval books.
• The British view of early American President John Adams.
• Turquoise with a story: the diadem of Empress Marie-Louise, Napoleon's second wife.
• French frolicking dog wallpaper, 1798.
• Quinine from cinchona bark as cheap and effective treatment for malaria in 19th c. India.
• "Dust, ho? Bring out your dust": early cries of London.
• Piss prophets and the Wheel of Urine: what urine revealed in the medieval world.
• Beware the girl with the wiggling walk and the boy eating pencils: vigilant Dr. Jackson lists the signs of a chronic masturbator, 1861.
• Of dirty books and bread.
• Heart-rending family stories in records of Royal Hospital School for children of lost seamen.
• In 1902, the Episcopal Women's Auxiliary in NYC sends lunch wagons out to keep workers and coachmen out of saloons.
• Quotes falsely (and repeatedly) attributed to George Washington.
• Nancy Dupree, a thoroughly intrepid woman in 20th c. Afghanistan. Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
One of Benjamin Franklin's most ingenious inventions was an unusual musical instrument he called the glass armonica, from the Italian word armonia, or harmony.
Most everyone has run his or her dampened finger along the rim of a crystal wineglass or goblet, producing an other-worldly, high-pitched echo (and often sending all pets scurrying from the room.) In 18th c. Europe, water-tuned wineglasses were combined in carefully tuned sets and "played" to the enchantment of audiences. Among those who enjoyed this eerie music was Franklin, visiting London in 1761. Franklin resolved to refine the concept of the water-tuned glasses into a more convenient instrument, and the result was the glass armonica. For more of the history, see this website devoted to the instrument.
While the new instrument was a great success with aristocratic audiences in the 18th c. – even Mozart composed for it – today there are only a handful of performers worldwide. One of them is William Zeitler, featured in the video here, who not only explains the armonica, but also plays several short pieces. If you're in the mood for more, here's a link to Mr. Zeitler playing the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - it's never sounded more wonderfully ethereal.
And if you're a fan of the paranormal/steampunk TV show SleepyHollow (yes, I've already admitted I'm a Sleepyhead, too), then you've already seen and heard a glass armonica. In the November 18 episode Necromancer, guests at Abraham's house were being entertained by a glass armonica performance. Could there be a more appropriate soundtrack?
Though I may not go into detail about the furnishings in a given scene in one of my stories, it's always helpful to have images. What, exactly, might be reflected in the pier glass? What's holding the candles? A sconce? A chandelier? A simple candlestick? Here's one pretty example of the latest thing in glass-making (according to its creators, at any rate). The illustration and description are from Ackermann's Repository for December 1821.
We’ve blogged before about the popularity of the little white dress (here and here) during the early 19th century. Interestingly, in December, the fashionable lady is wearing white cambric or muslin, warmed (not very much, I’d guess) by her silk-lined velvet coat. For evening it’s satin, and a pelerine trimmed in swansdown. And red shoes! This time you might find the General Observations also well worth your perusal.
“It is the fate of innovators to be misunderstood and misrepresented.” Do you agree? And what about anybody wearing any color?
You can view and read online, starting here, at the Internet Archive.
This is one of those odd little notes one comes across while looking for something else. “The Royal Dance of Torches,” performed at a royal wedding on this day in 1821, was all new to me, and precious little could I find about it online. The illustration is of a scene a few decades too early, and we see no torches, but it is a royal wedding in Berlin (of the Prince Royal's mother?). For the dance, we must exercise our imaginations.
Several weeks ago I posted this charmingly intimate portrait, left, on my Facebook page, and the discussion was so interesting - and so intriguing - that I decided it needed to appear here on the blog as well.
The lady in this portrait is Mrs. John Faber, painted by Thomas Hudson about 1750. Mr. Faber (1695?-1756) was an engraver who specialized in making mezzotint engravings of the paintings of other, more famous artists. Mrs. Faber is shown in elegantly provocative deshabille, ina silk dressing gown that is wrapped over her shift. She holds her scarf both as if to relish the sensual softness of the fur, and also to coyly expose her bare breast; she's clearly not wearing stays. The fur, the silk, and the pearls in her ears and around her throat attest to her husband's success and prosperity.
While mistresses and actresses were painted in this kind of provocative pose, it's unusual to find one of a respectable wife. Almost nothing is known of Mrs. Faber (not even her first name!), but if the 1750 date of the portrait is accurate, Faber himself was 55 when it was painted, making his wife much younger. Perhaps she was a Georgian "trophy wife," and he was sufficiently proud of her seductive beauty that he commissioned this portrait.
Or perhaps not. When I searched around the internet, I found another version of this same portrait, by the same artist, with nearly the same date. While the pose is the same, the dressing gown is not as revealing and the cap is less flirtatiously ruffled. It's also a less flattering portrait of Mrs. Faber's face.
So which portrait was done first? Was one deemed too unflattering, and a second one painted? Or was one version painted for private viewing, and another for a more public place? Could Mrs. Faber herself have asked for a portrait that showed her looking younger than she really was? Faber himself must have been reasonably pleased by the more severe portrait, for he made this mezzotint copy of it.
But more unsettling is this mezzotint engraving, right, that Mr. Faber did of the prettier version of his wife's portrait. It's a skillful trompe l'oeil version of the portrait, showing it as if the covering glass had been broken within a frame. But why would a husband choose to interpret his wife's portrait covered with jagged shards of broken glass? Is it simply a commentary on vanity, or something more ominous? (In fairness, I do have to note that some sources don't attribute this print to Faber, but to the ever-anonymous "English School.")
The explanations behind all these mysteries – as well as Mrs. Faber's side of the story – are lost now, or at least waiting to be rediscovered by some intrepid art historian. If there is one out there who has investigated these portraits, I hope she or he will comment. One fact about Mrs. Faber does remain, thanks to Horace Walpole: that after her husband's death in 1756, she remarried, to a lawyer named Smith. I can only hope she was happy.
Above: Mrs. John Faber, by Thomas Hudson, c. 1750. Private collection. Below: A trompe l'oeil with a portrait of Mrs. John Faber the younger, the engraver's wife, after Thomas Hudson. 18th c. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.