Monday, January 31, 2011

Welcome, Little Stranger: The Well-Dressed Baby, 1775

Monday, January 31, 2011
Susan reporting:

Throughout history, some things never change. No matter the time, place, or circumstance, most new babies are welcomed into the world with love and indulgence. While baby showers are a modern invention, women have always enjoyed preparing for their baby's arrival.

Mothers in the 18th c. were no different. Obviously babies were outfitted according to the family's means, with poorer mothers re-cutting and recycling worn garments for the newcomer. The basic baby wardrobe consisted of a clout or napkin (a diaper to us, and like all 18th c. clothing, these were kept in place with straight pins), a shirt, waistcoat, cap, and gown.

From there the industry and creativity of the mother, her friends, and sisters and the purse of the father were the only limits. Baby clothes could be exquisite examples of the most refined handwork, featuring fine linen, embroidery, and lace trimmings. For mothers whose tastes exceeded their needlework skills, milliners' shops supplied baby things as well.

Shown here is a selection of things for some special 18th c. baby, recreated by the mantua-makers from the Margaret Hunter Shop of Colonial Williamsburg. Above left is a small silk pillow, c. 1770, with the happy message spelled out in glass beads. This would have hung on the door as a birth announcement to the neighborhood.

The open-front christening gown, right, c. 1765, is made from heavy silk satin, lined with more silk. For everyday wear, gowns were more commonly made from linen or cotton. But for this indulged baby, a silk gown is only the beginning. The baby shoes are embroidered over a woven striped fabric (in the detail, left, the zigzag stitches can be seen between the stripes) with leather soles.

Below right is an elegant hooded baby cape, cut in a similar style to capes worn by ladies. The peach-colored outer fabric is silk, while the lining is a soft, warm, brushed wool flannel.

Finishing off the fashionable baby ensemble would be these tiny fingerless mitts, below left. Again mimicking adult dress, the mitts are made from linen with a lace edging. Given how often babies put their hands in their mouths, I'm guessing that these often had a short life - but how stylish the baby must have looked for that first ten minutes!

And while all this silk and lace may seem impractical and formal for babies, it was comfortable ease compared with what was to come. Advertisement of the time show a ready market for tiny stays, or corsets, for both boys and girls, to begin to train the proper genteel posture. The age when these stays were first worn? Three months.

As always, please click on the photos for a larger version.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of January 24, 2011

Sunday, January 30, 2011
Now that we've joined Twitter, we're discovering dozens of interesting blogs and sites, news stories and announcements, that delight us as Nerdy History Girls. We're sure you'd enjoy them as well – here's a selection of our favorites from the past week.

• Mr. Darcy: How Colin Firth's triumph has fuelled Jane Austen fever
Death attacks! The Nightingale monument at Westminster Abbey:
• Rare books with beautiful fore-edge paintings. Esp. like all the ice skaters.
• Some we like, some...not so much. Royal wedding dresses from Queen Victoria to 2010.
• Pretty little ring: Souvenir from the wedding of Queen Victoria in 1840
• A heart-breaking letter from a condemned father to his son: Charles I to the future Charles II:
• Excellent online exhibition from British Library: Ephemera: adverts & posters from Victorian Life.
• Society and Scandal in Edwardian England
• A day for doomed lovers. Rare love letter from John Keats to Fanny Brawne up for sale:
• Exciting rediscovery: locket commemorating affair between Lady Hamilton & Lord Nelson:
• An 1844 photograph of Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington
• Francis Wheatley's lovely "Cries of London" pictures show street vendors of 1785:
• Wonder if these will ever come back in fashion? Spectacular ruffs, 16-17th c.:
• Crimson silk, gold lamé, silver leather & diamanté.Great bespoke shoes from the 1920s:
• Napoleon congratulates Josephine on her (perhaps imaginary?) pregnancy
• Useful for bewildered Americans: How to address a duke:
• More about Victorian-Edwardian gas lighting, so new-fangled in the PBS show “Downton Abbey”:
• A glimpse inside this private club - and it's gorgeous: the Athenaeum, London -
Accents and Dialects of the UK at the British Library. Hear the differences!  

Friday, January 28, 2011

Laundry never ends...continued

Friday, January 28, 2011
Loretta reports:

A reader asked about bleaching yards in urban areas.  Not a good idea.  Beau Brummell used to send his laundry out to the country (bear in mind that "country" could mean Kensington in his day).  I did find another approach, although I'm still puzzled about where, exactly, the linens were hung to dry.
In large towns, where linen cannot be exposed to the air and sun upon the grass, let it be steeped, for some time before it is washed, in a solution of oxymuriate of lime Let it then be boiled in an alkaline ley.* Linen or cotton thus treated will not become yellow by age.
--From The complete servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams, 1825

As to the fine fabrics another reader asked about. . .
When the pile of velvet requires to be raised, it is only necessary to warm a smoothing iron, cover it with a wet cloth, and hold it under the velvet; the vapour arising from the wet cloth will raise the pile of the velvet, with the assistance of a whisk gently passed over it.  For spots and stains in velvet, bruise some of the plant called soap-wort, strain out the juice, and add to it a small quantity of black soap.  Wash the stain with this liquor, and repeat it several times after it has been allowed to dry.  To take wax out of velvet, rub it frequently with hot toasted bread.
--from The New Female Instructor
You 'll find a whole chapter on “The Art of Laundering and Scouring” in Frances Grimble's The Lady’s Stratagem: A Repository of 1820s Directions for the Toilet, Mantua-Making, Stay-Making, Millinery, & Etiquette. It covers every kind of material and specific solutions for cleaning various colors and “reviving” colors.

For more, check out Susan’s blog about an old-time dry cleaning method.

*Ley could mean lye or it could be used more generally to refer to a cleansing agent.  I saw some examples of ash-ley in receipts for cleaning.

Illustration: Mulberry velvet Evening Dress & Plaid Swiss Gingham morning dress from The Court magazine & monthly critic and lady's magazine, Volume 8, 1836 (fashions for January).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sore Throat? Try Hannah Woolley's Sirrop of Violets, 1675

Thursday, January 27, 2011
Susan reporting:

Like many, many people in the northern hemisphere, I have a cold, which is probably why I've found the new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC so intriguing. Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, & Science is running now through May 14. While women of every rank have traditionally been the family medical caretakers, dispensing home-made remedies and folk wisdom, this exhibition shows their early recipe and housekeeping books instead as the precursors to modern medicine, and stresses the female contributions to the growth of scientific learning. 

One of the books on display is The queen-like closet, or Rich cabinet , above, by Hannah Woolley (1622-c.1675), published in 1675. Hannah came from a family where both her mother and her sisters were skilled in "physick and chirurgery," and her books on household management were among the first to be written by a woman for a female audience.  Below is her recipe for syrup of violet, a popular remedy for soothing a sore throat. Yet this same simple syrup was also employed in experiments on color conducted by philosopher and chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691). The Folger's site has a fascinating short video explaining these experiments, as well as how Hannah's concoctions, being made by a woman, would never merit the same attention as those of Boyle's, an educated gentleman and the son of an earl. 

Meanwhile, if you, too, are suffering from a malady of the throat, here is Hannah's recipe transcribed – though good luck gathering fresh violets in January.

To make Sirrop of Violets
Pick your Violets very clean, and beat them well in a Mortar, then strain them, and to one pint of the juyce take one quarter of a pint of Spring-water; put it into the Mortar with the stamped Violets which you have strained, stamp them together a while, and strain the Water well from them, and mix them with your other juyce; then put it into a long Gally-pot, and to each pint of juyce put in one pound of double Refined Sugar; let it stand close covered for the space of twelve hours; then put in a little quantity of Juyce of Lemmon, that will make it look purely transparent; then set your Gally-pot into a Kettle of seething-water covered, till you find it to be thick enough; then set it by till it is cold, then put it up.

Above: The queen-like closet, or Rich cabinet, by Hannah Woolley, London, 1675
Thanks to Michael Robinson for suggesting this exhibition to us.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Laundry never ends

Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Loretta reports:

In connection with Susan’s blog about an 1800 white muslin gown,  a reader asked us a lot of questions about hygiene and laundry.
How often did they bathe?
How often did they wash their clothes?
How did they?
How would they have laundered one of those huge silk or velvet dresses?
How many dresses did they have?

The answers would take up many blogs.  We’ve already written a bunch about bathing (click the bathing label at right).

Today and Friday I’ll offer a few paragraphs of the dissertation one could write about laundry.

As Bill Bryson points out in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “Because there were no detergents before the 1850s, most laundry loads had to be soaked in soapy water or lye for hours, then pounded and scrubbed with vigor, boiled for an hour or more, rinsed repeatedly, wrung out by hand or (after about 1850) fed through a roller, and carried outside to be draped over a hedge or spread on a lawn to dry.”  By the 19th century, what had once been a seasonal, then monthly job, became a weekly one.

This offers a clue why Christina Hardyment, in Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses, says our idea of Monday as washday is misleading.  That was the day the washing was started—otherwise it might not get done by the end of the week, when people wanted to put on their Sunday best.

According to The Complete Servant,  “The foul linen is given out to [the laundry maid] on Monday morning, and returned clean, on Friday night or Saturday morning.—Wages from £8. to £15. a year.”

Hardly a princely sum for a hot, stinking, exhausting job (laundry maids had muscles!).  In large households, the work kept a team of laundry maids busy all week.  Only consider what they’d be washing: a week’s worth of tablecloths, napkins, towels, sheets, pillowcases—IOW all the household linens used by family and servants—along with most of the clothing, including shirts, everybody’s underwear, caps, neckcloths, aprons.

And that’s only the washing.  What about the ironing?

More to come on Friday about those velvets and other things . . .

Above left:  Rowlandson, Washing Day.
Below right: Women at work in an unidentified laundry, possibly in Boston, c. 1905. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shoes, Glorious Shoes, from 1680-2010

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Susan reporting:

As you've likely noticed from our weekly Breakfast Links, we spend a good deal of time prowling the internet in the name of research. We're history nerds, and we can't help ourselves.

Every so often, though, we stumble across a site that absolutely stuns us. Combine a wealth of information with detailed photographs, and all devoted to one of our favorite topics – shoes! – and we HAVE to share this site with you.

Part of what makes this so exciting is that it doesn't come from one of the usual museums in London, Paris, Toronto, or New York. No, the Shoe Icons site is based in Moscow, and the owners are Shoe-icons Publishing. Their collection was launched in 2003, with the aim of supporting a series of books and other products on the history of shoes as well as creating this wonderful on-line shoe museum.

From the towering mules of the 18th c. to the spangled flats of the Regency, from Victorian half-boots to Jazz Age t-straps: they're all here. There are also sections devoted to modern shoes, searchable by designer, as well as ethnic shoes from around the world. Included, too, are shoe-related advertisements, fashion illustrations, catalogues, and accessories like button-hooks and buckles.

To be sure, there are a few quirks (captions that appear in Russian), but the detailed way that all the shoes are photographed makes comparisons (or browsing) a joy.

Think of it as a Zappos for historical shoes....

Top: Baroque mule with metallic embroidery and red leather heels. France, 1680-1720.
Middle: Flat silk slipper, decorated with floral embroidery and paillettes, 1795-1810.
Middle: Blue silk high-button boots, 1870.
Bottom: T-Strap brocade with gold leather applique shoes, 1920s, Laird, Schober & Co.
All photographs from the Shoe Icons site.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Court mourns...and mourns...and mourns

Monday, January 24, 2011
Loretta reports:

Some time ago I blogged about orders for mourning his royal highness the Duke of Kent (father of then Princess, later Queen Victoria), who died on 24 January 1820.

Court mourning was a profitable business for purveyors of things black, because the court was obliged to mourn the monarch’s numerous relations, minor and major, on the Continent. In 1835, they did it for the Emperor of Austria from March 17 to April 12, whereupon they promptly recommenced for another relative:

"Orders for the Court's going into mourning on Sunday next, the 12th instant, for his late Royal Highness the Prince Augustus of Portugal, Consort of her most faithful Majesty, viz., the ladies to wear black silk, fringed or plain linen, white gloves, necklaces, and ear-rings, black or white shoes, fans, and tippets. The gentlemen to wear black, full trimmed, fringed or plain linen, black swords and buckles. The Court to change the mourning on Sunday, the 19th instant, viz: The ladies to wear black silk or velvet, coloured ribbands, fans, and tippets, or plain white, or white and gold, or white and silver stuffs, with black ribbands. The gentlemen to wear black coats, and black or plain white, or white and gold, or white and silver stuff waistcoats, full trimmed, coloured swords and buckles. And on Sunday, the 26th instant, the Court to go out of mourning."
 —The court journal: court circular & fashionable gazette, Vol. 7, 1835

Here’s how an American explained court mourning to his countrymen in 1856:

"Court mourning, too, is a subject for the most serious consideration. The number of days it must be worn, the depth of the sorrow it indicates, the colors of the fans and the shoes, are all prescribed; and the presence-chamber of Her Majesty after a person of royal rank in Siam or Brazil has gone to receive his deserts in some other world, is lugubrious in the last degree. A black drawing-room, as it is called, would be unendurable were it not that all is so manifestly matter of form. The grief that court ladies feel on the death of the uncle of the Czar, or of some petty cousin of the Queen, whom even Her Majesty has seldom seen, can hardly be very profound. Besides, if the mourning lasts more than ten days, they are generally allowed to mitigate its sombreness with purple or red, and though their clothes must be as black as the court circular requires, they may go to as many balls as they please."
Aristocracy in England, by Adam Badeau, 1856

Illustration: Duchess of Kent with toddler Princess Victoria in 1821

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of January 17, 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011
Now that we've joined Twitter, we're discovering dozens of interesting blogs and sites, news stories and announcements, that delight us as Nerdy History Girls. We're sure you'd enjoy them as well – here's a selection of our favorites from the past week.

• Great news for us in the US: Amanda_Vickery: At Home with the Georgians on DVD to be released 3/11:
 • What's YOUR Regency name?: Regency Name Generator:
 • And now for The King's Overcoat: Interview with costume designer for 'The King's Speech':
 • In Philadelphia tour guides believe it's their right to tell wrong 18th c history to visitors, & wow, do they ever:
 • Children's clothing in the 18th century:
 • One for the Twitter historians: Seven Dials, London, circa 1780, by William Hodges
 • Download Jane Austen's will from National Archives, part of their searchable collection of wills
 • Oh, for a closet like this one at Ham House, complete with the paintings & north light:
 • Another test: Can you properly dress the Victorian lady?
 • More costumes - Read about Europe's largest costumier for films like Downton Abbey.
 • Happy birthday to Cézanne, born on this date in 1839! More on him and his paintings here- enjoy:
 • Accidents do happen: The Bishop and the Crossbow:
 • Can't resist 'serious' art scholarship: Who is more "ecstatic": St. Robert Plant or St. Theresa?
 • Start stitching - this is worth it. Make the quilt that Jane Austen made!
 • Bustle away! Beautiful 1872 day dress, black w/pink roses, at FIDM:
• Costume alert for 18th c Regency & beyond: searchable collection of 1780-1880 pix from British & Am. fashion magazines:
 • A new mobile app uses The National Archives' records to convert old money to present day values:
 • Costume Designers Guild nominations: Would you choose these as the best clothes on film last year?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Silver Swan, Swimming Sumptuously since 1774

Friday, January 21, 2011

Susan reporting:

"I watched a silver swan, which had a living grace about his movements, and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and as unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweler's shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through all the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...."
             – The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

We TNHG freely admit to a fascination with 18th c. automata. Whether made for a queen (like this one), or for the amusement of the general public in a museum, automata combine the beauty of fine jewelry, the intricate gears and clockwork of a music box, and the imagination of a master craftsman who dared to make things move long before batteries and computer chips.

Few of these gems remain today, their delicate mechanisms the victims of changing tastes and rust. The Silver Swan's survival is all the more amazing considering that it is, indeed, wrought almost entirely of silver, including 122 silver leaves in the base and 113 silver rings in the articulated neck.

Created by master clockmaker John-Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), the Swan first appeared as a featured attraction in James Cox's London Museum in the Spring Gardens between 1774 and 1782.  The Museum's collection included a peacock that spread its tail, jewel-studded elephants, and mechanized trumpets and drums playing God Save the King. Cox's Museum was a first-rate show (admission was a then-staggering 10s 6d), and Everyone went. The heroine of Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778) didn't think much of it, however: "This Museum is very astonishing and very superb, yet, it afforded me but little pleasure, for it is a mere show, though a wonderful one."

The attractions passed through several more owners and various museums over the next hundred years. Most of the pieces were eventually broken up or scattered. Miraculously the Swan escaped, continuing to charm viewers like Mark Twain. It was displayed at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867 before it was finally purchased in 1872 by collector John Bowes.  It became a favorite exhibit in the Bowes Museum, County Durham, England, where it remains to this day.

Recently cleaned, refurbished, and restored in 2008, the Silver Swan once again plays its original eight tunes, and continues to choose and swallow a silver fish from the shimmering pond of crystal rods. Although nearly 240 years old, the Swan still performs daily in the Bowes Museum, and, as this video proves, still possesses the power to amaze and delight.

 Here is an additional video about the Swan's restoration.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Lady in the Riding Habit & the Worsley Scandal

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Loretta reports:

Susan's recent blog about 18th C riding habits elicited some comments about the subject of the portrait she posted: Lady Worsley, who was at the center of a famous scandal in 1782.  I blogged on this subject a while ago, but it's such a funny scandal, I couldn't resist returning to it.

It was in all the newspapers and written up in pamphlets and zestfuly caricatured in satirical prints.

It seemed simple enough.  Sir Richard Worsley had sued Captain Bissett for "criminal conversation"* with his wife.   In times when divorce was insanely expensive, requiring an Act of Parliament, this was a common way for a cuckolded husband to get revenge.  In this case, though, it was one of those "What was he thinking?" incidents.

“The court heard that while [Sir Richard] Worsley was quartered in the military camp at Cox’s Heath, Lady Worsley had often used the nearby bathhouse at Maidstone. On one occasion her husband had tapped on the bathhouse door, saying ‘[Captain] Bissett is going to get up to look at you.’ Hoist Bissett up to the window Worsley duly did, for him to gaze on her nakedness.”

Worsley ended up with a one shilling reward from a disgusted court, and his wife became Society's big joke.  Horace Walpole, a great gossip and letter writer (about whom I've also blogged) wrote to his friends that "'thirty-four young men of the first quality had enjoyed her favours.'"  And one of them, the Marquis of Graham, had given her the clap.

Excerpts from Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London.

You can read the court proceedings here.

And more about Lady Worsley here. And here.

Here’s one of the satirical prints.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Ladies in the character of Diana": More on 18th c. Riding Habits & Hats

Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Susan reporting:

We've mentioned before the riding habits favored by fashionable 18th c. ladies, and the extravagant hats that accompanied them. But we recently came across this indignantly stuffy letter by a gentleman (at least I'm guessing it's a gentleman, hiding behind the nom de crankiness of Senex) writing in a ladies' magazine, who doesn't like the stylish military-inspired cut of these habits at all, especially not in church:

"With your permission, I will just hint at an impropriety which has lately been very visible amongst us, I mean the custom of the ladies wearing hats in church – I mean those riding-hats, with large bands of gold and tassels, which are part of the riding-habit. These appear to me to be very irreverent in a place of divine worship; for although long custom has established that the ladies' heads shall be covered with bonnets or hats in church as well as elsewhere, yet I do not conceive that this privilege extends to the wearing of riding-hats, which are part of the riding-habit....I am of the opinion...that we ought to keep fashion as much as possible out of the church; there are so many other places, indeed, such as the opera, the theatres, balls, concerts, ridottos, routs, drums, and hurricanes, where we may be as fashionable, and as properly fashionable as we please, that I would be for reserving a plain simplicity and a decency in garb for our places of religious worship.

"Of the riding-habits lately become so common with those who never ride, I shall only observe, that however befitting it may be to ladies in the character of Diana, it is still a masculine garb, and in our eyes does not add those graces to the female appearance which have been by some supposed peculiar to it. When first introduced into this country it was worn only by ladies when intending to go on horseback, and has many conveniences for that exercise, to put it on, therefore, when one pays a visit, or goes to church, is such a deviation from the original design, that I hope the ladies will take the matter into serious consideration."

Letter by Senex, from The Lady's Magazine, or Entertaining Companion for the FAIR SEX Appropriated solely for their USE and AMUSEMENT, London, 1790.  If you wish to read the entire letter and the magazine with it, it's here, thanks once again to Google books.

Many thanks to Karen H. ( for the inspiration for this post.

Above: Lady Worsley, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1778

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fashionable library table for January 1814

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Loretta reports:

Since they're usually rich and upper class, my characters tend to live in large houses.  I plant my dukes in a fictional version of Norfolk House or Northumberland House—buildings that occupied large chunks of London real estate.  In the country, their domiciles are the fictional counterparts of Derbyshire’s Chatsworth or Hardwick Hall.  If your library measures, say, 30 X 50 feet, with built-in shelves, you don’t have to worry all that much about where to put the books.  Nor do you fret about fitting in a set of the latest mode in furniture for reading or writing or staring into the fire thinking shallow or deep thoughts, according to your inclinations.

But a great many people, including celebrities like Beau Brummell and Lord Byron, lived in lodgings. For them and others living in smaller quarters, furniture designers exercised their ingenuity.

Above is s a piece of fashionable furniture from January 1814.
The chaste and elegant library table represented in the annexed engraving, is of a convenient form and moderate size, and is suited to an apartment of small dimensions:  at the same time it exhibits that breadth of parts and greatness of design, which characterize most articles of modern furniture, and give a dignity heretofore unknown.  The recess beneath renders it also extremely commodious for a writing table, which was not the case with the library tables formerly constructed.  The chair is designed with equal attention to elegance and convenience, and made to correspond.  They may both be formed of mahogany, with rings and ornaments of bronze; the shelves of the table will divide, so as to admit either a row of folios and octavos, or two rows of quartos.

Excerpt from Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics, for January 1814, Vol. XI, 1814.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Playing the Part of Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle

Monday, January 17, 2011
Susan reporting:

With the first two episodes of Downton Abbey now broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre (and also already available on DVD for the impatient), most American viewers have sorted out the ever-expanding cast and learned who's who. But there's one character that, though without any spoken lines, has appeared in almost every scene: Highclere Castle, the sprawling country house that plays the part of Downton Abbey itself. (Only the scenes in the servants' quarters were filmed on a constructed set.)

The home of the Carnavon family since 1679, the present castle is at least the third house to take advantage of the stunning location, a 6,000 acre estate in rural Berkshire. In 1839, the third Earl of Carnavon hired architect Sir Charles Barry to create a massive new home in the very latest style, known variously as English Renaissance Revival, or High Elizabethan. Barry knew all about grandeur – his most famous project was the Palace of Westminster, aka the Houses of Parliament – and he freely blended elements from architectural history for maximum impact in his design. Neither the third earl nor Sir Charles lived to see the house completed, and it wasn't until 1878, after nearly forty years of construction, that the fourth earl was finally able to declare Highclere Castle finished.

Yet like every noble hero, the Castle has weathered its share of drama. The fifth Earl of Carnavon and archaeologist Howard Carter famously discovered Tutankhamun's Tomb in 1922, and when the earl returned home with a priceless collection of Egyptian treasures, it was whispered that he'd brought the curse of the pharaoh back to Highclere, too. The Castle served as a hospital during World War I, and a home for evacuee children during World War II. More recently, it's become a popular site for destination and celebrity weddings, and has appeared as a setting in other films besides Downton Abbey.

But the economy that could support a massive Victorian estate has long vanished. The Castle's current owners, the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnavon, are open about the challenges facing their home, and the decay is as heartbreaking as it is staggering. (See here for pictures.) This is no simple contractor's trip to Home Depot; estimates for essential repairs are nearly £12 million.

While the fictional Downton Abbey could be rescued through an infusion of money from an American robber-baron's daughter, a modern suitor is much less appealing. Composer Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber has made an unsolicited offer of £100 million to buy Highclere and convert it into a museum to house his art collection. The Earl and Countess swiftly and pointedly rebuffed him ("We are not selling up to some rich man.") Instead they have applied for permission to develop a small portion of the estate for houses, a request that simultaneously has natural preservationists up in arms, while others with equally decaying historic estates watch closely for a precedent. (More about the controversy here.)

All of which we romantic Americans should probably consider as we watch Downton Abbey and wish we lived in the Castle. Ahh, it's not easy being grand....

See here for Highclere Castle's official website, with more photos, history, and information – including, if you're truly fortunate, arranging a wedding. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of January 10, 2011

Sunday, January 16, 2011
Now that we've joined Twitter, we're discovering dozens of interesting blogs and sites, news stories and announcements, that delight us as Nerdy History Girls. We're sure you'd enjoy them as well – here's a selection of our favorites from the past week.

• Whoa! Thomas Jefferson reports a UFO to American Philosophical Society in 1800:
 Creator of beehive hairdo honored & good thing, too:
 • Remember Hatch the #Tudor Terrier? Now she's fundraising for a new kennel:
 • From author Sara Linsey: more pix from LACMA “Fashioning Fashion”:
 Snow to shovel, again. Here's a far more attractive version from 19th c painter George Innes:
 Amazing dresses that once belonged to the Empresses of Russia.
 Join Lady Russell in her Winter Pleasures in Bath, Part One
 Eating Like an Edwardian:
 • Visit Bath instead of the snowy Northeast: Lady Russell's Winter Pleasure:The Ball-Room of the UpperRooms
 Paintings of Opulent European Interiors by American Walter Gay 1856-1937
 • Who wouldn't feel like a goddess in this 1925 Fortuny dress? #fashion
 Hair from Marie Antoinette, G. Washington, Byron, Poe, & Keats: RT @MchlRbnsnBlogs Hair today| Locks of ages ...
 Beautiful greens, beautiful room: Headfort House, Ireland restoration of Adam scheme
 Just come across this great collection of c18th trade cards:
 • How we nearly lost Charles Dickens Early: the Staplehurst Rail Crash of 1865
 Writing novels offered Victorian women 'advancement'. Lessons from 1895 on how to write fiction book are still relevant.
• Etiquette quiz: see how you'd do in Downton Abbey society in 1912:
 • Beautiful way to start the day: A slideshow of an Elizabethan Manor house in Sussex -

Above: At Breakfast, by Laurits Andersen Ring, 1898

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Update: The Mystery Sign from Colonial Williamsburg

Saturday, January 15, 2011
Susan reporting:

During our series of posts showing the Christmas decorations of Colonial Williamsburg last month, a reader asked an interesting question about one of the trade signs. Wrote Darla Vincent: "Can you please tell me what type of establishment this is? I cannot tell from the sign what the building is." The sign that puzzled her appears left (and check here for more about that dangling royal effigy.)

Often the images painted on 18th c. signs indicate the trade practiced within, or what the owner sells, such as shoes on the shoemaker's sign, and a waistcoat on the tailor's. But while this looks like the picture of a hay-rick, it seems unlikely that hay would be sold from a house-front shop in the middle of town. Because the building is not open to the public, no information about it appears on the historic area maps.

Mystified, we went straight to the ever-obliging experts at Colonial Williamsburg. Their explanation:

This house belonged to Dr. Peter Hay. The sign represents his apothecary shop, but is associated more with his personal name (the haystack) than with his trade. That's likely because, according to his 1766 obituary in both the Virginia and Maryland Gazettes, he was an especially well-known physician (especially when it came to midwifery skills), so people didn't need to know what he did, just where to find him. Incidentally, his wife Grissell operated a boarding house out of their home after the doctor died, so the sign could have continued in business (so to speak) after that. 

Many thanks to Darla for her question, and to Colonial Williamsburg for the answer. Now click here for a picture quiz: can you match the Williamsburg sign with the appropriate trade?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cleaning up Shakespeare

Friday, January 14, 2011
Loretta reports

The current controversy about Alan Gribben’s bowdlerization of the Mark Twain classic, Huckleberry Finn, lures NHGs to travel back in time to 1818 and visit the man who gave his name to the tidying up of great works of literature, Mr. Thomas Bowdler.

Here, in his own words, is Bowdler’s explanation:
That Shakspeare is the first of dramatic writers will be denied by few, and I doubt whether it will be denied by any who have really studied his works . . . It must, however, be acknowledged, by his warmest admirers, that some defects are to be found in the writings of our immortal bard. The language is not always faultless. Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased. Of these the greater part were evidently introduced to gratify the bad taste of the age in which he lived, and the rest may perhaps be ascribed to his own unbridled fancy. But neither the vicious taste of the age, nor the most brilliant effusions of wit, can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity; and if these could be obliterated, the transcendant genius of the poet would undoubtedly shine with more unclouded lustre. To banish every thing of this nature from the writings of Shakspeare is the object of the present undertaking. My earnest wish is to render his plays unsullied by any scene, by any speech, or, if possible, by any word that can give pain to the most chaste, or offence to the most religious of his readers.  . . . I flatter myself that every reader of the Family Shakspeare will be pleased at perceiving that what is so manifestly improper, is not permitted to be seen in it . . .

The full Preface  makes very interesting reading.  I'll leave you
to decide how you feel about it.

Excerpt from  The family Shakspeare, in ten volumes: in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family, Volume 1, Thomas Bowdler.

First edition cover of Huckleberry Finn , courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The W.P.A. Federal Theatre Negro Unit [presents] Macbeth by William Shakespeare , courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Crystal Palace in the Palm of Your Hand: 1851

Thursday, January 13, 2011
Susan reporting:

The concept behind the GPS – where am I, anyway? – is nothing new. Guidebooks and maps have been available for centuries to aid travelers. Few maps, however, are as unique as this one: a Victorian lady's glove that promised to keep the wearer from becoming lost by placing directions literally in the palm of her hand.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations that took place in Hyde Park, London, in the summer of 1851 was one of the first of the grand international exhibitions of the 19th c. Over six million people attended the Exhibition, streaming into London from every corner of the world. These gloves were created by George Shove as a fashionably discrete way for an out-of-towner to find her way about town. The map printed on the palm shows not only the famous Crystal Palace, the center of the Exhibition, but also other popular tourist destinations like Kensington Gardens, the British Museum, and St. Paul's Cathedral: an amusing, useful souvenir of London.

Those are the facts behind this handy map. But, being a writer with the usual writer's over-active imagination, I can't help but think of other, fictional purposes for such a glove. What about a pair for the hapless maidservant who, although fleet of foot while on errands for her mistress, could never quite recall directions to his destination? Or even more intriguing, why not for the young gentleman setting out on a night of entertainment, his gloves ready to guide him home again no matter how much he over-indulged?

Glove Map of London, George Shove, 1861, The National Archives of the United Kingdom

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Etiquette in the world of Downton Abbey

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Loretta reports:

As may be obvious by now, Downton Abbey has sent this NHG peering into the corners of the Edwardian era.  They sure had some complicated etiquette; the Regency era is positively freewheeling by comparison.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society.  If you want to make your head spin, turn to Chapter III, Leaving Cards.

“THE etiquette of card-leaving is a privilege which society places in the hands of ladies to govern and determine their acquaintanceships and intimacies, to regulate and decide whom they will, and whom they will not visit, whom they will admit into their friendship, and whom they will keep on the most distant footing, whose acquaintance they wish further to cultivate and whose to discontinue.”

If you want to time travel, this chapter is a wonderful door to the past.  On our early 21st century side of the door is Facebook and Twitter and texting.  On the early 20th century side are little pieces of cardboard printed in copperplate script.

Or try Chapter XLIII, Engaged.
It greatly depends upon the views held by parents as to the freedom of action accorded to a daughter during her engagement. Some entertain the strictest ideas on this head, and strenuously put them in force.

By ‘strict ideas’ is meant that an engaged couple, except in the presence of a chaperon, are never, under any circumstances, permitted to enjoy a tête-à-tête sit together, walk together, ride together, or meet during any part of the day.

Wisdom and common-sense dictate a middle course of action for the consideration of parents, neither granting too much nor withholding too much.
. . .
To dance with each other at a ball, or dance more than three or four times in succession, and when not dancing to sit out in tea-rooms and conservatories, renders an engaged couple conspicuous, and this is precisely what many mothers are most anxious that their daughters should avoid being, and would rather that they were overprudent than that they should run the gauntlet of general criticism.
I leave you to speculate why, exactly, a daughter’s being conspicuous was so abhorrent to a mother 100 years ago, and what form the general criticism would take. 

Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1911 ed.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Queen Victoria's Favorite: Sharp, the Border Collie

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Susan reporting:

It's difficult to imagine English monarchs without their dogs. Whether King Charles II surrounded by his scurrying spaniels or the current queen with her corgis, royalty and dogs seem inseparable. The connection makes sense, really. What human courtier could ever offer the complete and unquestioning loyalty of a canine counterpart?

Queen Victoria was no exception. With her love of all things Scottish, the little queen admired the collies bred by sheep farmers in the border lands between England and Scotland. The first of the Queen's favorites was named Sharp, acquired in 1866 soon after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, and the dog proved the perfect comfort to the grieving queen, even earning a place in royal photographs such as this one, upper left. He was also painted, right, by the queen's favorite animal portraitist, Charles Burton Barber. (This painting is soon to be sold at auction, where it is predicted to bring between $4,000-6,000 from either an art or dog lover.)

Border collies were still an unfamiliar breed to most 19th c. Englishmen, and many surrounding Her Majesty wished they had remained so. While Sharp was devoted to his mistress and to her personal servant, John Brown, others found the dog to be quarrelsome and badly trained. Wrote a contemporary:

One pet collie rejoiced in the name of Sharp. He had all his meals with his mistress, being seldom away from her. Though such a favorite...the popularity of the quadruped had limits. The households used to retreat before him, for Sharp not only barked with vigor, but could bite with spite. Even the Queen mentions that the pet was fond of fighting. Referring to him after a ramble, she mentions that the collie varied the monotony of the walk by numerous 'collie shangies'; it is the Highland phrase for a set-to between dogs of Sharp's breed.

Even after his death in 1879, Sharp continued to hold his place in the queen's affections. He was buried in her garden in Windsor Home Park, Berkshire, beneath the elaborate tomb, lower left, and immortalized as the "favourite and faithful Collie of Queen Victoria." What dog –– or queen –– could ask for more?

Above left: Queen Victoria with Sharp the Border Collie at Balmoral, 1867
Right: Sharp, Brother of Fern by Charles Burton Barber, 1877
Lower left: Monument to Sharp, Windsor Castle, Berkshire

Monday, January 10, 2011

Downton Abbey and the Edwardians

Monday, January 10, 2011
Loretta reports:

Though the new PBS Masterpiece program, Downton Abbey, is set in 1912, two years after King Edward VII (1841-1910) died, you won’t hear me complaining about descriptions calling it an “Edwardian era” drama.  George V might have been wearing England’s crown, but the Edwardian atmosphere lingered.  Like the Regency period about a century earlier, the term “Edwardian” is often stretched to include some time before and after the specific ruler whose name it bears.

There are some other interesting parallels to the Regency.  King Edward VII’s mother, Queen Victoria, had an interminable reign, like King George III, father of the Prince Regent (later George IV).  This mean that both heirs to the throne had a very long wait to wear the crown.  Both wore their crowns for a very short time—less than nine years for Edward VII, ten years for George IV.  Both were rebellious sons who had difficult relationships with their parents (Victoria blamed her eldest son for the death of her beloved Albert).  Both men were fashion plates, although Edward was more of a fashion leader.  The Prince Regent, when not under the guidance of Beau Brummell, had theatrical tendencies in dress, with sometimes unfortunate results. 

Both men had a lot of girlfriends, though I’m not sure either could compete with their ancestor King Charles II.  However, again unlike the Prince Regent, Edward VII was quite fond of his wife, Alexandra.  I blogged about one of his mistresses, Daisy, Countess of Warwick, a year ago, and plan to gossip about more of his girlfriends during the run of Downton Abbey.

For now, though, let's take look at fashion.  It’s interesting, isn't it? that both eras feature a vertical style of dress, and a reduction in underwear.  Between the time John Singer Sargent painted the splendid portrait of Daisy and her son, and the time of Downton Abbey, women's fashion underwent quite a change.  Instead of the S curves of the turn of the century, the shape of women’s fashion began slimming down, heading toward the boyish look of the Roaring Twenties.

As we all know, styles come and go and come again, and these two eras offer a good example.  Loyal readers of this blog may notice a similarity between the 1912 French fashion plate here and the winter promenade dress I showed for January 1815.
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