Monday, February 28, 2011

Intrepid Women: Lady Harriet Acland

Monday, February 28, 2011
Susan reporting:

One of the best parts of this blog for us is how we have the chance to "meet" readers around the world. Recently we were contacted by Gwen Yarker, a fellow Nerdy History Girl at heart, who is also exhibition curator of the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.

The museum is currently hosting an exhibition of 70 extraordinary portraits called Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County. Included in the exhibition will be works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, William Hogarth, and many others. Since most of our readers (including us, alas) won't be able to travel to Dorset, Gwen generously offered to share one of the paintings from the exhibition with us.

The charming portrait, left, shows Lady Elizabeth Fox-Strangways (1773-1844), eldest daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester, standing beside her older cousin, Elizabeth Kitty Acland (1772-1813), known as Kitty. The picture is representative of the new fashion for representing children as children, informally and comfortably dressed, rather than as stiff-laced, miniature adults. They probably sat for Dorset-born artist Thomas Beach (1738-1806) in 1777, at the Ilchesters' family home Redlynch, in Somerset. During this period, the Ilchesters were caring for Kitty while her parents were away in North America.

Kitty was the only daughter of Major John Dyke Acland, 7th Baronet. (1746-1778) and Lady (Christian) Harriet Caroline Fox-Strangways Acland (1749-1815), and it is Lady Harriet who is our Intrepid Woman. Colonel Acland was a major in the 20th foot, fighting in the American War of Independence. Unwilling to be left behind in England, Lady Harriet sailed to join her husband with her mother, a valet, lady's maid, and a dog. Obviously Lady Harriet was no ordinary camp wife; as she followed her husband's expeditions, she kept a detailed diary recording her impressions of the American landscape and native customs that was later published.

But Lady Harriet is best remembered today for her role in a far more dramatic event. In October 1777, Colonel Acland was badly wounded and taken prisoner by the Americans at the second Battle of Saratoga (Bemis Heights.) At once the pregnant Lady Harriet decided to go to him. Accompanied by her maid, a military chaplain, and Acland's valet, she crossed the Hudson River in an open boat and made her way into enemy territory. While there are varying accounts of her night-time crossing, all agree that she was treated courteously by American General Horatio Gates, and permitted to join her husband in captivity to nurse him. The Aclands were released and allowed to return to England (and to their daughter Kitty) in January, 1778, with Lady Harriet still nursing her convalescing husband. Their son John was born on the voyage.

After such perilous adventure, Lady Harriet and Colonel Acland deserved a long and happy life together. Unfortunately, Colonel Acland died later in 1778 from complications after a duel – fought in defense of the American cause.

The dramatic story of Lady Harriet's loyalty and courage made her a much-praised heroine to 18th c. England. Artist Robert Pollard painted his version of her river crossing (right), which he later turned into a popular print. We're guessing that, in real life, the intrepid Lady Harriet and her little party had enough sense not to stand upright with a too-large flag in a too-small boat to challenge the enemy's armed sentries.

Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County continues through 30 April 2011. If you're fortunate enough to be able to visit, here is more information about the show.  Many thanks to Gwen Yarker for all her assistance with this post!

(And as a minor note, proving once again that everything in history really is linked together: Kitty Acland married Henry George Herbert, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, in 1796. Their son, the 3rd Earl, is responsible for building the family's country house, Highclere Castle – the grand house that stars in the PBS series, Downton Abbey.)

Above left: Lady Elizabeth Theresa Fox-Strangways and Elizabeth Kitty Acland, by Thomas Beach (1738-1806) oil on canvas, 1777. Private collection. Photograph courtesy of Dorset County Museum.
Above right: Lady Harriet Ackland, intaglio print, drawn & engraved by Robert Pollard, London, 1784, Library of Congress.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of February 21, 2011

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Happy Sunday! Here's this week's serving of the freshest Breakfast Links, a selection of noteworthy tidbits gathered from other blogs, web sites, news stories, and other curiosities that we've discovered wandering around the Twitterverse:

Charles II may have loved the ladies, but perhaps not writing poetry in their honor:
• Yes! New cartoons at Hark! a Vagrant:
• Is this the best ATM site in London? Machines are on the right. Lloyds-TSB, Fleet Street.
• Tracing the history of an evening gown c1900 A detective story, brought to you by the FIDM Museum
• Fabre d’Églantine’s symbolic choices for the French Republican calendar
• American Depicted As a Woman Before Revolution Evolves into National Symbol Lady Liberty:
• Another tale of love and lust that ended in sadness from Petworth House:
• Unnamed Triangle Waist Company Victims Identified - - proof of what one genealogist can do.
• Eltham Palace - - Wonderful 1930s interiors. The Dining Room ceiling was leafed in aluminium.
• Cheery versions of forgotten trades & hawkers in "Player's Cries of London" cards, 1916:
• Secret life of a dress curator at the Museum of London:
• TeddyRoosevelt challenged ambassadors to swim naked in RockCreekPark:
• The Handel House - Flickr slideshow - Click on 'Show Info' for a commentary
• One more B-day post for Pres. George:  Brother Washington’s apron: a Masonic mystery
• Book us a room, please! 1808 house in Bath (now B&B) where 'Persuasion' was filmed: #JaneAustenfilms
• Peculiarly creative: Crocheted periwig for George & tall hat for Abe adorn fence posts at Harvard for Presidents Day:
• Today in 1716: Jacobite leader Lord Nithsdale's daring escape from the Tower:
• A sad side to Edwardian England in the faces of public drunkards:
• In Honour of London Fashion Week, a look at the father of modern fashion Charles Worth, and his muse

Above: At Breakfast, by Laurits Andersen Ring, 1898

Friday, February 25, 2011

For a beautiful head of hair...

Friday, February 25, 2011
Loretta reports:
And adopted at the Toilettes of most Ladies of Fashion.

A PREPARATION of balsamic vegetable ingredients, stands unrivalled for beautifying and nourishing the hair, gives it a gloss equal to the finest silk, and conveys, even to the weakest hair, such a tone of strength and elasticity, that it will retain its curl in exercise or in damp weather: it eradicates the scurf, &c.; and by its subtle, nutritive qualities, it gives such stimulus to the natural moisture which nourishes the hair, as occasions it to grow on Eye-brows, Whiskers, and Mustachios, with the most beautiful luxuriance; it preserves the hair from ever changing colour, or falling off, to the latest period of life; and where the head is actually bald, it will, in most cases, regenerate it in all its pristine youth and beauty. Sold in bottles 3s. 6d.; 6s.; and one Guinea each, by the Proprietor, Jas. Atkinson, Perfumer, 43, Gerard-street, Soho-sq. London; and, by appointment, by Mr. Smyth, perfumer to his Majesty, New Bond-street; Bayley and Blew, Cockspur-street; Rigge, 63, Cheapside; Davison, 59, Fleet-street; and by most Perfumers, Hair-Dressers, and Medicine Venders in the United Kingdom.

The only innocent and effectual article ever invented, for changing the colour of the Hair on the Head or Whiskers, from a Red or Grey, to a permanent and beautiful Auburn or Black. Price 5s; 10s 6d. ; and one Guinea.
    *** Inclosed with each Bottle of the Fluid and Dye, is "An Essay on the Hair," describing its nature, and pointing out the means to recover and preserve it to the latest period of life, &c. with numerous respectable testimonies of the efficacy of the Curling Fluid, and various information relative to the Hair, well worth the attention of all who value the ornament of a " fine head of Hair."
     Caution.—Ask for Atkinson's Fluid or Dye, and observe the Signature, as there are various servile Imitations, of a most noxious quality.
The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics, Advertisements for February 1814, Rudolph Ackermann

Illustration:  Mrs. Isaac Cuthbert, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1816.  courtesy WikiGallery.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Seeing Eye to Eye with Artist Samuel Palmer, c. 1824

Thursday, February 24, 2011
Susan reporting:

Because Loretta and I write books that are set in the historical past, we're always looking for ways to make that past real – not just for our readers, but for ourselves, too. Sometimes it's a little thing (a silver nutmeg grater) or a great big thing (a coaching map.) Sometimes it's a daguerrotype or a fashion print that cuts through the centuries.

And sometimes it's a portrait, like this extraordinary self-portrait, left, of English artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881.) Palmer is considered one of the most important 19th c. British romantic painters. The vibrant colors of many of his landscapes are appealingly fresh, and he shares an other-worldly quality with his good friend William Blake. See here for more about Palmer, and here for a slideshow of his work.

But when I recently came across this picture, I didn't know much about Palmer's life, or his vaunted place in British painting, either. Instead I responded to it simply as a face – and what a face it is! Self-portraits are often the most revealing of portraits, and this one is almost shockingly modern. There's not a hint of artful flattery here, and none of the beautiful, glossy, self-content here that beams from the contemporary portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

With his carefully tied cravat and his tousled hair, this young man already appears weary of the world. His gaze is so direct and revealing that it almost looks like a contemporary mug-shot, and with all of a police camera's honesty, too. If there's ever a face that makes a direct connection to late Regency/early Victorian England, then this is it. He's a character just begging for a writer to claim him and bring him to life.

Many thanks to D.C. Read for sharing this portrait and inspiring this post with his own blog on self-portraits.

Above: Self-Portrait by Samuel Palmer, c. 1824-25, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pleasures & perils of skating

Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Loretta reports:

SKATING, a species of exercise upon the ice, performed by means of skates, or wooden soles shod with iron, resembling in shape the keel of a ship : the whole is fastened to the feet, by means of straps.

Skating is a healthy and elegant amusement, well calculated for the severity of winter; as it contributes to promote both insensible perspiration, and the circulation of the blood. Hence, a Society has even been formed in Edinburgh, under the name of the Skating-club ; the avowed object of which is the improvement of this recreation, so as to reduce it to the rules of art.—

Excellence, however, can be attained only by observing the motions of a skilful skater. Let it, therefore, suffice to observe, that this innocent pursuit, especially in the South of Britain, where the winters are generally mild, is highly dangerous ; and ought not to be encouraged, unless the ice be of considerable thickness: at the same time, great precaution is necessary to retire from such enticing diversion in proper time ; because the body, being thrown into sensible perspiration, is thus rendered more susceptible of cold ; and, unless due attention be paid to this circumstance, a fatal CATARRH*  will probably be the consequence.
The Domestic Encyclopaedia, Volume 4, 1802

The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) by Gilbert Stuart, 1782, from the National Gallery, 
Washington, DC

*Inflammation of mucous membrane, especially of nose and throat.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Plenty of Warmth & Style in a Thrummed Cap, c.1770

Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Susan reporting:

Most surviving examples of clothing from the past belonged to the wealthy upper classes.  The clothes worn by ordinary folk were usually worn out, not preserved for posterity. There aren't many written descriptions of how milkmaids or blacksmiths dressed, either, especially not compared to the detailed reports of this duke's waistcoat or that princess's gown.

So since we've already discussed a cocked hat of an 18th c. gentleman, today we're featuring a hat popular with men who worked hard for their livings. This woolly hat (worn left by Andrew De Lisle, a journeyman wheelwright with Colonial Williamsburg) is called a thrum, or thrummed, cap, and in a cold winter wind, it couldn't be beat. The base was knitted of wool, and extra pieces of yarn or fleece were thrummed into the surface – either knitted in or woven in afterwards – to make the shaggy surface. Then the whole thing was fulled (much like felting) in hot water to shrink the knitted stitches, secure the thrums, and lock the wool's fibers together. The result was a dense, sturdy, windproof hat that resembles fur (or the 18th c. version of dreads.)

The same technique was also used inside mittens and carriage blankets when extra warmth was needed. The more a thrummed piece is used, the more dense and warmer it becomes; thrummed goods are sturdy, and can stand up to hard use. There are surviving examples of gauntlet-style thrummed mittens that were worn by 19th c. stage drivers who likely also welcomed the wind-proof warmth.

Thrummed caps were especially popular with English sailors from Elizabethan times onward (see the fellow to the right), and working men in general. They also made a wild-man fashion statement that must have had a certain appeal to men like sailors who proudly lived on the edges of respectable society. Personally, we think it's a style worth reviving, and not only because it's the warmest had imaginable. To this end, here's a link to download directions for knitting one for yourself, or any other wild-man of your acquaintance.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Woodyard.
Below: Detail of an English sailor, illustration from Habiti Antichi e Moderni by Cesare Vecelli, 1600.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Breakfast in February

Monday, February 21, 2011
Loretta reports:

February 21.

"Here it is," says the "Indicator,''  "ready laid. Imprimis, tea and coffee ; secondly, dry toast; thirdly, butter; fourthly, eggs; fifthly, ham; sixthly, something potted ; seventhly, bread, salt, mustard, knives and forks, &c. One of the first things that belong to a breakfast is a good fire. There is a delightful mixture of the lively and the snug in coming down into one's breakfast-room of a cold morning, and seeing every thing prepared for us; a blazing grate, a clean table-cloth and tea-things, the newly-washed faces and combed heads of a set of good-humoured urchins, and the sole empty chair at its accustomed corner, ready for occupation. When we lived alone, we could not help reading at meals: and it is certainly a delicious thing to resume an entertaining book at a particularly interesting passage, with a hot cup of tea at one's elbow, and a piece of buttered toast in one's hand. The first look at the page, accompanied by a coexistent bite of the toast, comes under the head of intensities."

The weather is now cold and mild alternately. In our variable climate we one day experience the severity of winter, and a genial warmth prevails the next; and, indeed, such changes are not unfrequently felt in the same day. Winter, however, at this time breaks apace, and we have presages of the genial season.

The Every-day Book, or, The Guide to the Year, by William Hone, 1825.

Illustration: Pavel Andrejewitsch Fedotov (1815–1852), Breakfast of an aristocrat, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of February 14, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011
As befits the week that includes Valentine's Day, this serving of Breakfast Links is heavy on historical love and romance. Not that we're complaining! Our weekly selection of noteworthy tidbits gathered from other blogs, web sites, news stories, and announcements that we've discovered wandering around the Twitterverse: 

• Read about the women of Tiffany Studios:Clara Driscoll & the Tiffany Girls
• Smooch! 1940 love letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera ends with a pink lipstick SWAK:
• What could be more perfect? Cast iron cow legs support the shelves in dairy at Ham:
OK, so we really like this: How 'OK' took over the world (via BBC)
• Because it IS the Year of the Rabbit: "The symbolism of rabbits and hares": html
Hugh Thomson's Illustrations for Sense and Sensibility:
• For those already sick of nuptial excess: RoyalWedding Sickbag anyone?
• You have our attention: Pearls, jade, gold, & gems in every color—the delectable jewelry of the Met:
• 1527: A letter from King Henry VIII to his future wife, Anne Boleyn,
• Let them eat cake - and wear paper wigs. Making 1780s style wig from paper for Fashioning Fashion show
• On this day in 1907 Suffragettes Storm Westminster
• Cold weather got you down? This video of 1920s cuties in swimwear is sure to cheer you up
• Horatio Nelson at home in Merton:
• Have you seen the V&A's great online wedding dress database?
• A fruitcake is forever: could this be the world's oldest wedding cake?
• The Sailor's Valentine
• A mudlark's love tokens found in the Thames.
• Love letters through history
• So St Val's day is done. Now let's celebrate the wolfish, pagan, Roman holiday of Lupercalia. Howl! #holidays
• We've always wondered about this: The Lamb & Flag symbol in London: Agnus Dei:
• Historical horses: return to draft horses instead of tractors for forest work on NT properties:
Above: At Breakfast, by Laurits Andersen Ring, 1898

Friday, February 18, 2011

Golden Elephants & Spinning Rubies: More Amazing Automata c. 1770

Friday, February 18, 2011

Susan reporting:

Recently we wrote of the gorgeous swimming Silver Swan, a life-sized 18th c. automaton that has been a popular museum attraction since it was created nearly 250 years ago. A masterpiece of clockwork mechanics as well as the highest level of silver work, the swan was created by John-Joseph Merlin for James Cox's Spring Gardens Museum, a favorite attraction in London from 1774-1782. 

Automata were a special fascination of the Age of Enlightenment. They combined cutting-edge technology, extravagant displays of material wealth (most were made from or plated with gold and silver, and embellished with precious gems), and artful replication of nature in the form of exotic birds and animals. Their movement depended entirely on clockworks; they contain no motors, engines, or batteries. While Cox described himself as a goldsmith, he was more of an entrepreneur, employing hundreds of other skilled craftsmen to produce elaborate luxury pieces like the Silver Swan. While some of these pieces were displayed in the Museum, most were intended for the burgeoning trade with India and the Far East, and as costly diplomatic gifts to faraway emperors. 

Further research by us has revealed than many of these 18th c. marvels from Cox's Museum still do exist, with the largest collection in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The pair of bronze patina elephant clocks featured in the above video, however, remain a sizable (each clock stands approximately ten feet tall!) mystery. While still in excellent condition, their history has been lost, and their present owners have even created a website, hoping that someone can provide more information.

Continuing our elephantine theme, here are videos of two more 18th c. automaton bearing Cox's mark:

Elephant Clock #11

Elephant Clock #8

Thursday, February 17, 2011

London's Crossing Sweepers

Thursday, February 17, 2011
Loretta reports:

As was the case with so many bygone figures of the London Streets (blogs here and here), I first encountered a crossing sweeper in Dickens (Bleak House). A quick scan of Google Books offered a number of opinions about the profession, some favorable, but the majority not.  Mr. Grant, who seemed careful of his facts in discussing begging letter writers, gets so wacky on this subject that I began to doubt his "facts" elsewhere.

But here’s Dickens in non-fiction mode, in one of his magazines:
A CORRESPONDENT of the Standard has taken up his parable against the crossing-sweepers, whom he pronounces to be a nuisance, and whom he proposes to replace by the adoption by the Vestries of some "uniform plan of sweeping the crossings where really needed."

"WHERE really needed" means, in wet weather, everywhere, and all day long, for a crossing, once swept, cannot be expected to remain clean for any length of time. What sort of a staff of sweepers would the London Vestries have to employ, I wonder, with any sort of hope of carrying out this Augean labour effectually? Crossing-sweepers are undoubtedly a nuisance, sometimes, but I am afraid they are among the minor troubles which we must be content to set against the many advantages of living in a city, and we must make up our minds that there must always be some detail or another with which it is impossible for our rulers and governors to deal.

THE Standard's correspondent goes back to an old superstition in one of his arguments against crossing-sweepers, whom he accuses of earning considerably more than hard-working artizans. Thackeray once wrote a story the hero of which was a crossing sweeper who lived like a gentleman on the profits of his crossing opposite the Bank, and on the strength of this legend it has been very generally though vaguely assumed that the profession is a very remunerative one. So far as facts have ever come out I do not think that this idea has ever been justified, although, no doubt, there have been exceptional cases of sweepers doing very well. And, even if they do, there is not much to grumble at. The life cannot be one of many charms.
—Excerpt from Household words: a weekly journal, Volume 4, Charles Dickens.

There's more, from others, here and here.

Photograph of a Crossing Sweeper, holding broom in right hand,"  by RL Sirus, 1884.
"Sweepers cleared roadways for pedestrians in the hope of tips"—courtesy UK National Archives  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Intrepid Women: Helen Vincent, Viscountess D'Abernon

Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Susan reporting:

I've always been intrigued by the elegant fin-de-siecle portraits of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925. While it's easy to dismiss his sitters as empty Edwardian society ladies, not all of them fall into this category. One of the most beautiful was also one of the more interesting: Helen Venetia Duncombe Vincent, Vicountess D'Abernon (1866-1954).

Daughter of the Earl of Feversham, Helen's beauty was extraordinary, and when she married the equally handsome financier and diplomat Sir Edgar Vincent (1857-1941) in 1890, she soon became a celebrated London hostess. To some she was "by reason of her outstanding beauty, intelligence and charm, one of the most resplendent figures" of her age; a far less flattering description by architect Edwin Lutyens called her "a lovely Easter egg with nothing inside, terribly dilettante and altogether superficial."

The truth must have been somewhere in between. As Sir Edgar rose both in the financial world as an international banker and as an ambassador in diplomatic corps, Helen helped further his position by serving as his hostess and as a patroness to English artists and museums. She also welcomed the leading intellectual figures to her salon, including American writers Henry James and Edith Wharton and prominent statesmen George Curzon and Arthur Balfour. She was also drawn to the romantic history of her namesake Venice, and at her urging the Vincents purchased the Palazzo Giustiniani on the Grand Canal. It was here, during an extended visit, that Sargent painted the bravura portrait, above left, in 1904, and made the sketch, right. As isn't always the case, the beauty in the portraits was real, as seen in the stylish photograph of Helen from 1906, lower right.

But when the glory days of Edwardian England collapsed with the onset of the First World War, Helen didn't retreat to the safety of her country estates. Instead she took the unusual step for an aristocratic lady of training as a nurse anaesthetist (anesthesiologist), and served with the Red Cross in Europe, often in risky makeshift circumstances close to the front. She acquired a reputation as the fearless, unflinching lady in the operating room, and treated thousands of patients.

Although she returned to civilian life at Sir Edgar's side after the war, traveling with him through Germany while he was the British Ambassador to the Weimar Republic, it was her own wartime contribution that she believed was her greatest personal accomplishment. In 1946, she published a book of her experiences drawn from her diary, Red Cross and Berlin Embassy, 1915-1926: Extracts from the Diaries of Viscountess D'Abernon. Fascinating reading!

(A random note: As I watched the last episode of this season's Downton Abbey on PBS with its cliff-hanger with the coming war, I wondered if the screenwriters for next season were already reading Lady Helen's diary. I suppose we'll know if Lady Diana turns up as a nurse anaesthetist in France with the Red Cross!)

Above left: Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess D'Abernon, John Singer Sargent, 1904, Birmingham Museum of Art
Right: Lady Helen Vincent, John Singer Sargent, 1905, York City Art Gallery
Lower left: Lady Helen Vincent, photograph by Lionel de Rothschild, c. 1906, copyright Solent News & Photo Agency

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Doctor's Report for January-February 1815

Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Loretta reports:
AN account of the practice of a physician from the 15th of January to the 15th February, 1815.
Peripneumony, 3 ... Pleurisy, 2 ... Catarrh, 10 ... Sore-throat, 4 ... Fever, 3 ... Rheumatism, 8 ... Head-ach, 2 ... Palsy, 2 ... Mania, 1 ... Hysteria, 1 ... Asthenia, 6 ... Asthma, 2 ... Cough and dyspnœa, 18 ... Consumption, 5 ... Measles, 3 ... Small-pox, 1 ... Dyspepsia, 4 ... Diarrhœa, 5 ... Gastrodynia, 2 ... Jaundice, 1 ... Dropsy, 3 ... Palpitation, 1 ... Ischuria, l ... Leucorrhœa, 2 ... Menorrhœa, 3 ... Cutaneous affections, 5 ... Diseases of infants, 8.

Although during the recent mild weather pulmonic disease has abated, some severe cases have occurred. In a case of obstinate and long-continued head-ach, unconnected with disorder of the primæ viæ, cupping afforded great relief. This affection, however, often depends upon the state of the stomach, and is much influenced by the biliary secretion. By attending to the functions of the liver and stomach, and inducing a healthy action in these organs, the pain in the head frequently ceases. But it occasionally depends on too great a determination of blood to the head, or an impeded circulation, or an altered state of the brain; and is even sometimes much influenced by the greater or less density of the atmosphere. Of all these causes, the most difficult to remove is the altered condition of the brain itself, of which as an organic substance, notwithstanding the researches of anatomists and the discoveries of physiologists, we yet know very little. So intimate is the connection between the mind and the brain, that what affects the one influences the other ; there is constant action and reaction. Intense thinking will occasion head-ach, and a slight pressure on the brain, as is often witnessed in accidents, as well as an increased flow of blood to the head, will destroy the power of thinking, in fact annihilate every faculty of the mind . . . Were it possible to obtain more frequent dissections of the organ, with accurate histories of the cases, much more light would be thrown on the mental aberrations, as well as the disorders of the brain, which at present are involved in considerable obscurity.
Rudolph Ackermann, The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics, 1815.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Finding Conjugal Bliss in Dr. Graham's Celestial Bed:1781

Monday, February 14, 2011
Susan reporting:

Exploiting the love-lives of the rich and famous is hardly a new pursuit. From ancient times, charlatans have offered exotic, expensive potions to increase flagging libidos and unusual regimes designed to restore the magic to chilly marriages. One of the most infamous of these is Dr. James Graham (1745-1794), a self-proclaimed physician, self-promoter, and inventor (Wikipedia luridly categorizes him as a "sexologist") who captured the imagination of English society in the 1780s – and a good deal of their money besides.

Like all good quacks, Dr. Graham had a splendid gimmick, and his was the Temple of Hymen in Shomberg House in Pall Mall, a kind of overwrought clinic for his unusual treatments. His most profitable speciality was improving conjugal sex and fertility, and he found a clamoring audience among the upper classes whose survival depended on producing healthy heirs. Many of his customers were weakened by venereal disease and general dissipation, but that didn't stop Dr. Graham from making the same outlandish guarantees that often appear today in spam folders. His celebrity clientele included politicians John Wilkes and Charles James Fox, aristocrats such as the Duchess of Devonshire and the Duke of Richmond, and courtesans like Elizabeth Armistead and Mary Robinson.

While his treatments varied from elixirs to mud baths, the centerpiece of the Temple of Hymen was the Celestial Bed. This over-sized bed (it measured nine by twelve feet) could be tilted for an optimum angle, and was supported by glass rods that could permit the bed and its occupants to become so charged with static electricity that it gave off a greenish glow. Decorative automata, a pair of live turtle doves, and lush bouquets of fresh flowers were also features of the bed. Adding to the ambiance was a mattress stuffed with a special mixture of sweet-smelling herbs and hair from the tails of the most rampant English stallions, while a special celestial pipe organ played music calculated to inspire love-making. For the next three years, until Dr. Graham's extravagance landed him in prison for debt and bankruptcy, there were plenty of couples eager for the experience.

The price of a magical night in the Celestial Bed? An astonishingly steep fifty pounds. Did it work? Perhaps – though who wanted to admit that it didn't?

In honor of Valentine's Day, the Museum of London is recreating Dr. Graham's Celestial Bed as a special adults-only exhibition. For more information about this, as well as more detailed descriptions of Dr. Graham's claims, see here – though be forewarned that this post, like the exhibition, is probably best not read at work.

Above: The Celestial Bed, with the Rosy Goddess of Health reposing thereon, 1782

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of February 7, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011
Happy Sunday! Here's this week's serving of the freshest Breakfast Links, a selection of noteworthy tidbits gathered from other blogs, web sites, news stories, and other curiosities that we've discovered wandering around the Twitterverse:
We've gone all hearts-and-flowers looking at the beautiful vintage Valentine’s Day cards from the  collection of the Beamish Museum:
 • What's inside an 1885 bustle (and we never would have guessed it looked like this!)
 • Royal marriage rules: The laws that bind William and Kate’s romance date to the 1772 Royal Marriages Act:
 • How to Farce a Cabbage, 18th c style. You do have one in the cellar, yes?
 • Take a virtual tour of No. 10 Downing Street:
 • Young Charles Dickens, in honor of his 199th birthday this week:
 • Art world agog as private hoard of an unlikely collector comes to light:
 • Revamped website for Viscount Fairfax's 18th c Georgian townhouse in York. Great photos show daily life as well as interiors :
 • Irish Traditional Music Archive, complete with 78 rpm crackle:
 • Tour Handel's House via a slideshow – and yes, Jimi Hendrix's there too: (click on 'Show Info' for a commentary)
 • Wonderful stylish sketch of Marie Antoinette c1785 (& an excellent fashion/art blog):
 • Amazing ladies in amazing hats, 1859-1927: RT@Visual_History From French Artist Paul Cesar Helleu:
• Astonishing transformation of 17th c Spitalfields, London, worker's house:
• This year's Oscar-worthy film costumes on display in LA, from The King’s Speech to Alice in Wonderland:
• Talk about Anglo-American history! This week in 1964,The Beatles debut on Ed Sullivan show: via @youtube
• A niche subject I admit, but for anyone interested: “A world of sallats:17th Century salads”:
• Hugh Thomson, the 19th c. illustrator of Jane Austen's six novels:
• London Lives 1690-1800, Searchable database of Londoners:
• For Gilded Age Millionaires, c. 1900: a nice "little" summer place in Maine w/ 35 rooms & battling footmen:
• The favorite color for Georgian gardens: “invisible green”:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Update: Eco-Fashion Exhibition Now On-line

Saturday, February 12, 2011
Susan reporting:

Last summer I wrote about a fascinating fashion exhibition that I'd seen at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. Eco-Fashion: Going Green not only featured a selection of clothes from the 18th c. to the present, but also posed many thoughtful questions about style-driven consumerism, the use and re-purposing of textiles, and the ever-increasing mark fashion has left on the environment.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when delicate fabrics are on display, cameras were forbidden in the galleries, and I wasn't able to include pictures with the blog. Now, however, FIT has put a detailed version of the exhibition on-line. Check it out here. It's a great resource that will make you think not only about fashion in an historical context, but also about what you'll be purchasing for your own wardrobe this spring.

Left: Two-piece day dress, green silk faille & chenille (dyed with arsenic-based green dyes) , c. 1865, USA, Museum purchase, FIT collection. Photograph courtesy FIT.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Florence Nightingale in Cairo

Friday, February 11, 2011
Loretta reports:

The Egyptians have a long history of despotic rulers—a situation 19th century Europeans deplored in nearly every journal and travel account I read while researching Mr. Impossible. Florence Nightingale grieves for the oppressed Egyptians, too, but the following passage is more typical of her vibrant writing in this fascinating book—a surprise when I stumbled on it.  As with Queen Victoria, one tends to see Florence Nightingale as an institution.  But here she is as a young woman of twenty-nine, discovering an exotic world.
No one ever talks about the beauty of Cairo, ever gives you the least idea of this surpassing city.  I thought it was a place to buy stores at and pass through on one’s way to India instead of being the rose of cities, the garden of the desert, the pearl of Moorish architecture, the fairest, really the fairest, place of earth below.  It reminds me always of Sirius I can’t tell why, except that Sirius has the silveriest light in heaven above, and Cairo has the same radiant look on earth below . . . Oh, could I but describe those Moorish streets, in red and white stripes of marble, the latticed balconies, with little octagonal shrines, also latticed, sticking out of them, for the ladies to look straight down through; the innumerable mosques and minarets; the arcades in the insides of houses you peep into ,the first stories meeting almost overhead, and yet the air with nothing but fragrance on it, in these narrowest of narrow wynds!...

We strode down again into the city, swarming with life . . . you cannot imagine how you will get through the streets; you expect to run over every child, and to be run over by every camel, who, gigantic animals! Loom round every sharp corner just as you are coming to it, and are the tallest creatures I ever saw: there does not appear standing room for a fly.  You address your ass in the tenderest terms, and in the purest Arabic; you adjure him by all the names of friendship to stop: but he understands no Arabic except his drivers, and on he goes, full trot, while you are making hairbreadth ‘scapes at every corner, yet receiving hardly a knock.
Florence Nightingale, Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849-50.

Illustrations:  David Roberts, Bazaar of the Coppersmiths
 Florence Nightingale about 1845

Courtesy wikimedia.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Alexander Hamilton Seeks a Wife: 1779

Thursday, February 10, 2011
Susan reporting:

No matter the time period, finding the perfect spouse seems to have been a constant challenge for men and women alike. Matchmaking today may have become one more internet transaction, but in the past, most people turned to friends and family to help them find a suitable mate. And in the past, just as today, the laundry-list of requirements in a potential spouse that the hopeful bride or groom sought must have sorely tried the patience of a good many friends.

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), left, was one of early America's Founding Fathers, and is most remembered today as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. But in April, 1779, he was an ambitious young lieutenant colonel serving in the Continental Army as an aide to General George Washington, and one of the ways he hoped to rise in the world was to make a favorable marriage. In a letter to his good friend and fellow officer John Laurens, he enlisted Laurens' assistance in finding just the right lady:

"Such a wife as I want will, I know, be difficult to be found, but if you succeed, it will be the stronger proof of your zeal and dexterity. Take her description – She must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape) sensible (a little learning will do), well bred (but she must have an aversion to the word ton) chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness) of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagant and an economist). In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of; I think I have arguments that will easily convert her to mine. As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in God and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. You know my temper and circumstances and will therefore pay special attention to this article in the treaty. Though I run no risk of going to Purgatory for my avarice; yet as  money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world – as I have not much of my own and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry; it must needs be, that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies."

Amazingly, Hamilton soon did find himself a wife who met nearly all of these stipulations. Elizabeth Schuyler (1757-1854), right, was the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, and a member of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in New York. Hamilton wed her in December, 1780, in her family's mansion. The marriage produced eight children and survived Hamilton's various scandals and a very public infidelity, and for the duration of Elizabeth's long life (she outlived her husband – killed in the famous duel with Aaron Burr – by fifty years), she defended Hamilton and refused to believe the gossip about him, no matter how true it might have been.

So perhaps despite the mercenary beginning, Alexander Hamilton really did get lucky and wed the girl of his dreams....

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Queen Victoria's Wedding Cake

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Loretta reports:

When Queen Victoria got married on 10 February 1840, she was not, as many believe, the first bride to wear a white wedding dress—though it was a new look for royals, who’d previously inclined toward silver.  Still, she did start a fashion for BIG royal weddings.  Previously, these had been relatively quiet, private affairs.  But then, hers was a big deal—the first wedding of a reigning queen since Queen Mary in 1554.

The wedding cake was a big deal, too. 

“If taste of design only equal what appears to be intended for the actual dimensions, it will beat any bride-cake ever seen.”*

  5. THE ROYAL WEDDING CAKE. —A select few have been gratified with a sight of the royal wedding cake at the apartments of the confectionary in St. James's palace, but it is described as consisting of the most exquisite compounds of all the rich things with which the most expensive cakes can be composed, mingled and mixed together into delightful harmony by the most elaborate science of the confectioner. This royal cake weighs nearly 300 lb. weight. It is three yards in circumference, and about fourteen inches in depth or thickness. It is covered with sugar of the purest white; on the top is seen the figure of Britannia in the act of blessing the illustrious bride and bridegroom, who are dressed somewhat incongruously in the costume of ancient Rome. These figures are not quite a foot in height; at the feet of his serene highness is the effigy of a dog, said to denote fidelity; and at the feet of the queen is a pair of turtle doves, denoting the felicities of the marriage state. A cupid is writing in a volume expanded on his knees the date of the day of the marriage, and various other cupids are sporting and enjoying themselves as such interesting little individuals generally do. These little figures are well modelled. On the top of the cake are numerous bouquets of white flowers tied with true lovers' knots of white satin riband, intended for presents to the guests at the nuptial breakfast. This elegant emblem of the felicities of marriage will be placed on the breakfast table of the queen at Buckingham palace at the breakfast which is to succeed the ceremonies in the chapel royal.
1840 Annual Register.

*The Mirror of literature, amusement, and instruction, Volume 35, 1840.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Jazz Age Beauties: Color Motion Pictures from 1922

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Susan reporting:

As much as we Nerdy History Girls do love painted portraits, the connection that can be made to the sitter in an early photographed image can be undeniably more intense. The faces that stare out from daguerreotypes and ambrotypes seem like a more direct link to the past, a nifty trick to jump from one century to the next. These are genuine people of the past, not simply modern folk in costume, and while the distinction is impossible to explain, it's equally hard to deny. (Read here and here about other posts on this subject, and we're also certain fans of our Breakfast Links haven't forgotten this haunting 1844 image of the Duke of Wellington.)

Moving pictures in the late 19th and early 20th century make the past even more palpable, even if still-evolving technology resulted in starkly sunlit contrasts and jerky movements. More natural color movies don't come until much later, splashing into theaters with big productions like Gone with the Wind in 1939.

At least that's what we assumed –– until we stumbled across this rare short snippet, recently restored and preserved in the collection of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film.  It's a test of Kodachrome color film, shot in 1922, more than a decade before Hollywood first began to experiment with color.  The test was made at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, NJ, and features two popular silent film actresses, Mae Murray and Hope Hampton, plus an actress from the Ziegfeld Follies, Mary Eaton, and another unidentified woman with a child.

Beyond these women smiling beguilingly at the camera and fiddling with their elaborate hats (the film is silent), not much happens. It's the evocative power of these images themselves that's most striking. These are young women born in the 19th c., women considered beauties in their time. Their bobbed hair, uncorseted dresses, and painted bee-stung lips fix them forever in the first generation of truly modern American women, women who drove cars, held office jobs, voted – and became movie stars. They're F. Scott Fitzgerald heroines of the Jazz Age come to life, and in these fleeting few minutes, they stop time forever.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Men Behaving Badly: Sir John Riddle

Monday, February 7, 2011
Loretta reports:

The upper ranks were not renowned for good behavior.  Drunken "gentlemen" knocked over watch-boxes, broke windows, and assaulted women with impunity.  It was perilous to take action against a titled gentleman, as this story shows.

In 1797 a sentry named Thomas Davis arrested Sir John Riddle.  Here's Davis’s version of events:

“ . . . about half past ten, this gentleman came through the gate, into the Green-Park, he looked at me very hard, he turned up towards the Bason in the Green Park, he turned back, and looked at me again, I did not know what he meant; I was very dry, and I went up and asked the women if they would give me some clean water, or table beer; they gave me some, and that gentleman came up to the window, what conversation they had I do not know; I did not think it prudent for me to stop there; I went to my sentry-box, and laid down my firelock behind my box, and soon after that, the gentleman came up to me, and said, "soldier, should not you like to have connections with these girls?" I said, I should not mind it in the least, if I had one of them here, and he made no more to do than to take hold of my breeches, "sentinel," says he, "do your p-s stand?" no, says I, if I had them here, I don't know but they might; he opened the slap of my breeches, and took hold of my t-s in his hand, I had my firelock in my hand, I immediately seized hold of his coat, and said, what did he mean by that; I called out for assistance and then Sharman came up; I said, I insist upon your taking charge of this man, he accordingly took hold of him, he made a scusstle to get away; I called out again for assistance, and then there came up another man, and then Sir John was still, he put some money into my hand, and said, I will give you any thing before I will be detained; no, says I, I will take you a prisoner to the Guard-room . . . and I laid my charge, that this gentleman did so and so with me; I shewed the Colonel the money he gave me, and I was confined all night."

The baronet retaliated for being arrested by charging the soldier with robbing him.

Guess who was punished, and how severely.

You can read the full record of the case at Old Bailey Online.

Illustration: Anacreontick's in full song, by James Gillray, 1801. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
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