Tuesday, May 31, 2011

High speed travel in 1801

Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Loretta reports:

As often happens, while looking for something else, I made an unexpected discovery.  Since I’m not a sports aficionado, I’d never expected to find early 19th century sporting magazines terribly useful or interesting, and certainly not entertaining.  I was wrong.  Yes, they’re filled with reports of sporting events (races are covered at length and in detail), as you’d expect.  But the writing tends to be crisp and direct, and they offer funny little stories, dumb jokes, gossip, and wonderful insights into the male world of the era.

CAPTAIN Newland, of the Sussex Militia, having betted a considerable sum that he would ride one hundred and forty miles in twelve successive hours, he started on Long-down Hill, on Thursday morning, April the 2d, and handsomely performed the distance in seven hours and thirty-four minutes, (principally on hack-horses from the Swan at Chichester) to the astonishment of a very great assemblage of sporting Gentlemen.

The 1st hour he rode 21-1/3 Miles.
2d       -       18
3d       -       20
4th       -      18
5th       -      20
6th       -      16-1/2
7th       -      17-1/2
34 minutes   -   8-1/2
                     - 140
N. B. He rode the hundred miles in five hours and five minutes, in which he met with a fall, was once obliged to change his horse, as he became restive, and was once run away with a considerable distance out of the course.—The posts were placed on the admeasured line of the two miles, and he went very considerably without them, so that he certainly went a much greater distance than one hundred and forty miles; which is looked on as a most extraordinary performance.
The Sporting Magazine, Volume 18, 1801

Illustration:  Horses & Riders, from Henry Alken scrapbook, 1821, courtesy Ancestry Images

Monday, May 30, 2011

Remembering Memorial Day, in 1868 and Today

Monday, May 30, 2011
Susan reporting:

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. For most Americans, it's the unofficial first day of summer, the day to head to the pool or fire up the grill. Somewhere in the middle of all that fun, we hope you'll pause to recall the original purpose of the holiday as a day of remembrance for all of those who died in our nation's service.

Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) was first observed on 30 May 1868 as one of the tortuous attempts towards healing the country after the Civil War, and flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederates soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. This excerpt is from the General Order No. 11 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  The words still resonate today.

"We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose... "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic....

"Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan."

Above: Unidentified girl in mourning dress holding framed photograph of her father as a cavalryman (from her dress, jewelry, & mourning ribbons, it is assumed her father died in the Civil War), photographer unknown, taken between 1861-1870. Collection, Library of Congress
Click here for more from this extraordinary collection of Civil War-related photographs.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of May 23, 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011
Since this is a holiday weekend for many of you, we're serving up our Breakfast Links a bit early so you can enjoy them at a more leisurely pace. Lots to explore here in our customary collection of historical this-and-that, gathered up from other web sites, blogs, and news stories from around the Twitterverse. Please enjoy!

In honor of Queen Victoria's birthday this week - a rare photo of Her Majesty smiling: http://bit.ly/iKPSII
A stylish grate at Fairfax House was key to keeping Georgian Englishmen warm. http://bit.ly/lAtWMo
• Love plaid? So did these guys: http://ht.ly/50B1S
• The full list of England's historic buildings is now online & fully searchable - a fantastic resource! http://deck.ly/~8aHoV
• Love this "futuristic mechanised toilette": An 1899 view of female cosmetics in year 2000. http://twitpic.com/51icz3
• A five-guinea gold coin in your pocket? That's substantial jingle, even in 1791: http://bit.ly/iVIki3
• Robert Louis Stevenson gets revenge on sneaky literary agent 120 years later : http://bit.ly/iVbdOd
• If the Founding Fathers wanted to visit Body Worlds. . . http://bit.ly/kd6fMF
• Shades of purple & plum: Check out this elegant 2-piece Worth dress c.1890 http://bit.ly/m5ZHeb
• Colorful names for questionable meals; food aboard ship c 1820 http://bit.ly/jMtphV
• Buckingham Palace and State Banquets http://bit.ly/m9RnZp
• Eerie - yet formal - display of children's clothes from the windows of Lord & Taylor, NYC, 1935: http://bit.ly/mQybcB
• Jane Austen Film Locations: The Hunsford Rectory,BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice: http://wp.me/pGJsu-1EA
• ‘The Somnambulist' by Pre-Raphaelite J.E.Millais on the auction block; did it inspire Wilkie Collins? http://bit.ly/kXIIBj
• The Bearded Lady:The Legend of Saint Wilgefortis http://goo.gl/O9VMS
• On this day in 1969, John & Yoko launch their bed-in wearing Le Château jumpsuits: http://natpo.st/ctZ6n9
• A conversation and a game of tennis from an Elizabethan English/Italian phrasebook: http://bit.ly/kNPWtp
• Go Baroque! Create your own 17th century still life: http://bit.ly/9Htspc
• 18th Century Umbrellas: http://t.co/gl9
• Show to every kid who complains how bored he/she is: American Child Labour c.1900-1937 http://tinyurl.com/3va7eh4
• Wickedly delicious: 'Sinners Grand Tour':10 sexy places the guidebooks won't tell you about http://huff.to/lo4GwO

Friday, May 27, 2011

Existential Star Wars

Friday, May 27, 2011
Loretta reports:

For your Friday educational viewing, since we haven't done much with existentialism lately.

The Force, French style.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Roman Pearls": Faux Jewels for the 18th c. Lady

Thursday, May 26, 2011
Susan reporting:

Pearls are one jewel that never seems to go out of fashion, with the earliest mentions found 4,000 years ago in China. Pearls were worn as jewelry in ancient Rome, and Cleopatra was said to be particularly partial to them. But until the development of cultured pearls in the early 20th c., however, all true pearls were made by nature and an irritated bivalve, with the result that pearls were exceptionally rare. Considered the most costly of gemstones, they were reserved for kings, queens, and others with the deepest of pockets.

Still, European ladies yearned for the look of pearls, even if they couldn't afford the real thing, and ingenious craftsmen were creating look-alikes from the middle ages onward. By the 18th c. – an era when pearls were the perfect accessory to flowing, pastel Rococo fashions – the very best faux pearls were known as "Roman pearls." These were hollow beads of blown glass, whose interior surfaces were coated with an iridescent derivative of fish scales. Once lined, the beads were then filled with wax to give them the proper weight. Despite the Roman name, the process is credited to a Frenchman, M. Jaquin, and Roman pearls were made by his family for over two hundred years. The luxury-craft is described in Denis Diederot's famous Encyclopedie, which includes illustrations of women making the beads.

Just as modern socialites wear c.z. replicas of their diamonds and keep the originals in their safe deposit boxes, 18th c. ladies often wore copies of their pearl necklaces and earrings. Sometimes, too, they would mix faux pearls with their real diamonds and other jewels. The only caveat was to keep away from the fireplace, for the center wax core of a Roman pearl was known to melt and leak on the neck of an unfortunate wearer.

Roman pearls were also the choice when fashion demanded an extravagance that no mere oyster could ever provide. Given the size and quantity of the pearls worn by these two ladies, it's likely they're wearing Roman pearls, or other similar pearly glass beads.

Mrs. Andrew Lindington, right, clearly followed the trendy motto of "more is more" when it came to accessories, and wears not only enormous pearl beads around her throat, but also edges her wired headdress with more pearls. It's possible that her earrings and the jewel on her headdress are real, but it's the glass pearls that really steal the show. Young Eliza Shrewsbury of Charleston, South Carolina, left, is also stylishly dressed with huge pearls around her throat, plus more hanging from her ears and trimming the bandeau in her hair. While the open book in her lap proves that she's as true a lady of leisure as the new American republic can boast, it's almost certain that her pearls, too, are glass – and no less lovely for being pretend.

Top: Detail of Portrait of Mrs. William Mills (Rebecca Pritchard) and her daughter Eliza Shrewsbury, by James Earl, 1794-96, Winterthur
Below: Detail of Portrait of Mrs. Andrew Lindington, by Joseph Wright of Derby, c. 1761-63, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Double Elopement in 1823

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Loretta reports:

This story was interesting, partly because of girls’ ages, and partly because it was a double elopement.  The bit in parentheses, I think, tells us something about what was going on, and makes the tale more poignant than it seems at first glance.  If we bear in mind, too, that an elopement left a girl without the financial protection that marriage settlements provided, we’re left with plenty to ponder regarding the back story as well as the couples' futures.
Elopement.—The elopement of the two Miss W——'s from Staffordshire, has excited a strong sensation in that and the adjoining counties. These ladies being nearly connected with the first families in England and Wales, and the youngest only sixteen years of age. It seems, that being at Bath last winter for the completion of their education, (having lately lost their mother) they were closely beset by two young sons of Mars, and to avert the threatened danger, were sent to the house of their aunt, Mrs. A—, who is separated from her husband, and resides in the neighbourhood of Stafford. Here, as it was more than suspected, an attempt would be made to carry them off, they were accompanied by two trusty female servants; but all the eyes of Argus were wanting ; for watching an opportunity, they got out of the drawing-room window, and ran for two miles into the turnpike road, where a coach and four, with their happy swains, awaited their arrival. Their aunt followed them as soon as she could procure four post-horses, but relinquished the pursuit at Newcastle; the lovers having got two hours a head of her in their road to Gretna Green. We understand the parties are safe returned, properly linked in the bands of wedlock.—Globe and Traveller.

The Rambler's magazine, Volume 2, 1823.
Illustration:  Richard Dagley, Taking Amiss, 1821, courtesy Ancestry Images.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Spectacular Tiara of Hannah de Rothschild Primrose, Countess of Rosebery, 1874

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Susan reporting:

Thanks to the recent Royal Wedding, tiaras are much in the spotlight these days. This spectacular tiara left, is receiving even more press. Not only is it a spectacular (and rarely seen) Victorian concoction of diamonds and freshwater pearls, complete with a matching bracelet, but it's up for auction next month. Christie's expects it to bring at least a £1.5 million ($2,433,000), and likely more.

Yet the original owner of this tiara wasn't royalty, or even born into the British nobility. She was, however, from a family that often outshone those aristocrats. Hannah de Rothschild (1851-1890), right, was the only child of London banker Meyer de Rothschild. Hannah was raised on the vast estate of Mentmore Towers, insulated by the immense wealth and luxurious life of her close extended family. When her father died, she became at 24 the wealthiest heiress in Britain, with a fortune that included houses, property, and more than £2 million in sterling. The rest of the Rothschilds expected her to marry within the English Jewish community, preferably one of her Rothschild cousins. Her final choice was much more unexpected.

Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), left, was a prize bachelor in his own right. At 28, he was considered handsome, intelligent, and fantastically wealthy in his own right, with an annual income of around £30,000. He had two great interests: liberal politics and horse-racing. Hannah soon became the third. Introduced to her by Lady Beaconsfield, the wife of Benjamin Disraeli, Rosebery was impressed. He told a friend that he found Hannah "very simple, very unspoilt, very clever, very warm-hearted and very shy...I never knew such a beautiful character." Hannah was equally attracted, and an engagement was hinted between the two in 1876.

But despite their mutual attraction, there were sizable obstacles. The Jewish world was appalled that she would abandon her faith for marriage; a British aristocracy that was openly anti-Semitic could not believe that a peer with so much promise would make such a match. Hannah was ridiculed for her appearance, her weight (she was plump even by Victorian standards), her demeanor, but most of all her family and her religion. But Hannah and Rosebery persevered, and were wed in 1878. All of Hannah's male Rothschild relatives boycotted the ceremony. Disraeli gave her away, and having the Prince of Wales among the guests must have eased the tensions. The tiara was made at the time of their wedding, an extravagant sign that Hannah was now proudly Countess of Rosebery.

To outsiders, their marriage appeared complicated. Hannah proved to be the perfect political wife, a skillful counterpoint to the more high-strung - some said childish - Rosebery, and with her behind the scenes his career blossomed. He relied on her judgement and ability to run their home and their family as well (they had four children), and though his tongue could be sharp there was no doubt that they cared deeply for one another. When Hannah died of typhoid fever at thirty-nine in 1890, Rosebery was distraught with grief, and mourned her for years. He never remarried. Though he became prime minister - a triumph that would have delighted Hannah - Rosebery no longer had the heart for politics, either. Without Hannah at his side, his life became murky with melancholia and sordid scandals, and in the end, his political career was considered a disappointment. Ahh, if only Hannah had lived to wear that splendid tiara a little longer....

Top: Tiara by R&S Garrard & Co., Haymarket, London, 1878
Above right: Hannah de Rothschild Primrose by Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton
Lower left: Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, by John Everett Millais

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Sluice-house at Highbury

Monday, May 23, 2011
Loretta reports:

Here's where London's Compleat Anglers went to fish.
Ye who with rod and line aspire to catch
Leviathans that swim within the stream
Of this fam'd River, now no longer New,
Yet still so call'd, come hither to the Sluice-house!
Here, largest gudgeons live, and fattest roach
Resort, and even barbel have been found.
Here too doth sometimes prey the rav'ning shark
Of streams like this, that is to say, a jack.
If fortune aid ye, ye perchance shall find
Upon an average within one day,
At least a fish, or two; if ye do not,
This will I promise ye, that ye shall have
Most glorious nibbles: come then, haste ye here.
And with ye bring large stock of baits and patience.
 . . .
The Sluice-house is a small wooden building, distant about half a mile beyond Highbury, just before the river angles off towards Newington. With London anglers it has always been a house of celebrity, because it is the nearest spot wherein they have hope of tolerable sport. Within it is now placed a machine for forcing water into the pipes that supply the inhabitants of Holloway and other parts adjacent. Just beyond is the Eel-pie house, which many who angle thereabouts mistake for the Sluice-house. To instruct the uninformed, and to gratify the eye of some who remember the spot they frequented in their youth, the preceding view, taken in May 1825, has been engraved.
—William Hone, The Every-day Book. —May 23.

Map courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Scan of Sluice-house, from Hone, courtesy me.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of May 16, 2011

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Another week, another collection of our favorite links to blogs, news stories, slide shows, and photographs that we've collected via Twitter. Click away!
Gorgeous views of church ceilings, more: Early Bird Slideshow: Looking up to the Heavens - http://ow.ly/4Vevs
• About the once- radical "English Hymn": Jerusalem http://bit.ly/l4KEEP
• Fantastic 18th c shoes with matching velvet clogs: Heights of Fashion : http://bit.ly/mFgBVm
• Hairwork jewelry: fascinating and/or slightly unnerving? http://fb.me/I9pFWm9Y
• Have you been on the National Jukebox website yet? Amazing archive of pre-1925 music now available: http://lat.ms/l75wxv
• Do you ever wish you could wear the Hope Diamond? Meet one woman who did: http://ow.ly/4WFVa
• Solving the real mystery lurking in the chapel where Dan Brown set The Da Vinci Code http://j.mp/jGwuAt
• "Order of the Pug": 1740s Porcelain pug snuffbox , details of strange secret society that inspired it: http://bit.ly/isXmlY
• Mary, Queen of Scots, prayer book returns to Scotland - http://bbc.in/lCNnj3
• Jim Henson died 21 years ago today. Saddest pic you'll see http://twitpic.com/4z7lhu
• Tiara of Empress Eugenie fetches world record $12.76 million http://bit.ly/kKXVSJ
• A nod to the wink men: http://esotericlondon.com/
• Da Vinci iPhone: http://tinyurl.com/3cfotlu
• Amazing film of Henry VIII's tapestries as they would have appeared to him over 500 years ago. http://is.gd/bFjOlz
• True 19th c couture: Historic Dress of the Day: Charles Frederick Worth, evening dress, circa 1883 http://bit.ly/iSreze
• War-time fashion dolls offered Parisian couture in miniature: Théâtre de la Mode' c.1944 -http://tinyurl.com/3qsz3vp
Jane Austen rare manuscript up for sale http://bit.ly/kf892O
• What are the origins of the modern cult of celebrity? Medieval knights as the first superstars http://bit.ly/jttWVO
• She wears it well: 98-year-old woman wears her 1938 wedding dress at church fashion show: http://bit.ly/jqzlsA

Friday, May 20, 2011

Margaret Nicholson Attacks the King with a Dessert Knife, 1786

Friday, May 20, 2011
Susan reporting:

Assassination is a constant concern for any monarch. Queen Victoria was particularly fearful of being killed, and with good reason, too, after surviving numerous attempts on her life. In the days before high-tech security, English kings and queens were much more accessible to their people, and often moved freely among them.

On August 2, 1786, King George III was climbing from his carriage before St. James's Palace when a neatly dressed, middle-aged woman approached him with a scrolled paper. Assuming she posed no threat and that the paper was simply a petition, the king accepted her offering. As he did, the woman lunged at him, stabbing at him twice with a pearl-handled dessert knife. The assailant's jabs were ineffectual and the blade too blunt to cause any injury, and the king's guards quickly drew her away.

Margaret Nicholson (c.1750-1828) would hardly fit anyone's image of a royal assassin. A woman of a respectable working-class family who had been a servant in genteel households, Margaret was earning her living as a mantua-maker at the time of the attack. Newspapers reported that she had been dismissed from her last position after an unhappy love affair with a fellow-servant; as is often declared with women, a broken heart supposedly unhinged her mind. While no one who knew her had seen any earlier evidence of madness, a search of her rooms after the attack discovered delusional letters that made many wild claims, including that she was the rightful heir to the throne. In custody she protested that she'd only wished to frighten the king, not hurt him.

The king himself believed her. He spoke in her defense even as she was captured: "The poor creature is mad," he famously said. "Do not hurt her, for she has not hurt me." His words were viewed as a sign of wondrous mercy coming from a king, and they likely saved Margaret's life as well. (It's tempting to see the king's mercy as a kind of empathetic premonition, since two years later in 1788 he, too, would be wrestling with his own "madness".) Even an unsuccessful regicide was high treason, and carried a sentence of death. But thanks to the king's intercession, Margaret was declared too insane to stand trial, and was instead committed to live out her life at Bedlam Hospital.

The reaction to the decision was curiously mixed. Even as some newspapers congratulated the king on his escape from death and praised his forgiveness, other critics in this revolutionary age (the Americans had recently won their rebellion, and within a decade the French would have a revolution, too), viewed the king's clemency as fishy royal finagling, a tyrant bypassing the rightful due process of law. By the end of the century, Margaret's case had set the precedent for the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800, which introduced the concept of "not guilty by reason of insanity." The attempted assassination also inspired the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. While still a university student in 1810, Shelley collaborated with a friend on a collection of political poems, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, that purported to be written by Margaret and only published after her death.

But in 1810, Margaret was still alive in Bedlam Hospital. Margaret spent the final forty-two years – nearly half of her long life – as an inmate there. Consider William Hogarth's depiction of Bedlam, above right, from 1734, where the ill-treated, manacled patients are treated as amusing diversions by visiting spectators, and it almost makes execution appear the more merciful choice.

Top: Margaret Nicholson attempting to assassinate his Majesty King George III by Carington Bowles, published 1786.
Bottom: "The Rake in Bedlam": from The Rake's Progress by William Hogarth, 1734.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fashions for May 1820

Thursday, May 19, 2011
Loretta reports:

A pretty lilac spencer & bonnet & an alarming lowering of the waistline in Paris.

MAY, 1820.
FRENCH. No 1.—Ball Dress. Frock of tulle over white satin, elegantly ornamented with blond and full blown roses. The hair adorned with silver ears of corn, full blown red roses, and rows of pearl. White satin zone. Necklace formed of two rows of large pearls. White satin sandal slippers, white kid gloves, and carved ivory fan.

ENGLISH. No. 2.—Walking Dress. Round dress of fine cambric, ornamented round the border with three distinct rows of rich embroidery let in in scollops. Spencer of lilac gros-de-Naples, ornamented in a most tasteful manner with narrow rouleaux of white satin; the collar standing out, and the vacancy filled up by a Spanish collar of fine blond. Bonnet of figured white satin in the village shape, trimmed at the edge with lilac Italian gauze, in bias puffs, each puff confined by a narrow rouleau of white satin, and the crown ornamented with a full bouquet of lilacs.

By a Parisian Correspondent.
I Am sorry to have to record the still immoderate length of the fashionable waists; every drawing I can make that has the least modish appearance, gives such a disproportion to the human shape divine, that I tear more than I finish: the little figure in the ball dress sent herewith, is a portrait of a young lady who sets all fashions that are really monstrous at defiance, and makes use of her own taste and good sense in wearing what cannot be termed ridiculous in either way, as she would not wish to appear wholly different from others: this portrait has appeared in Le Journal des Dames, in hopes to give a check to the frightful mania of long waists; but they continue as usual, and, indeed, are so lengthened that they are arrived at the worst, and therefore will, I hope, according to the proverb, mend of themselves.

—La Belle assemblée, 1820

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Men Behaving Badly: The Duke of Devonshire is Thoughtlessly Clumsy, 1782

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Susan reporting:

One of the lessons of history is that being born to a dukedom doesn't guarantee nice-guy status. Despite being graced with a string of titles, an immense fortune, one of the most beautiful British houses (Chatsworth) for his country place, and one of the most charming ladies of the Georgian era as his duchess (Georgianna Spencer Cavendish), William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811) was, by all reports, something of a boor.

Perhaps because he came into his title at sixteen, the Duke seemed mired in a life-long, self-centered adolescence. Observed the famous letter-writer Mrs. Mary Delaney: "The Duke's intimate friends say he has sense, and does not want merit...[but] to be sure the jewell has not been well polished: had he fallen under the tuition of the late Lord Chesterfield he might have possessed les graces, but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him."

The following anecdote of the Duke's behavior dates from 1782. It was recorded by the novelist Fanny Burney, who apparently agreed with Mrs. Delaney's appraisal of His Grace. (FYI, a glass lustre was an elaborate and costly form of candle stand, often decorated with cut-crystal drops. Here's an example of an 18th c. pair.)

"Miss Monckton...told us one story extremely well worth recording. The Duke of Devonshire was standing near a very fine glass lustre in a corner of a room, at an assembly, and in a house of people who, Miss Monckton said, were by no means in a style of life to hold expense as immaterial, and, by carelessly lolling back, the Duke threw the lustre down, and it was broke. He showed not, however, the smallest concern or confusion at the accident, but coolly said, 'I wonder how I did that!' He then removed to the opposite corner, and to show, I suppose, that he had forgotten what he had done, he leaned his head in the same manner, and down came the opposite lustre! He looked at it very calmly, and, with a philosophical dryness, merely said, 'This is singular enough!' and walked to another part of the room, without either distress or apology."

Above: William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, by Pompeo Batoni, 1768

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NHG Library: Needlemaking

Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Loretta reports:

Today I had to hem a pair of pants.  The process involves a measuring tape, pins, swearing, iron and ironing board, needle and thread.

Such an ordinary thing, a needle.  I ply the same sort of needle my grandmother used, and her grandmother.  And that’s what got me to peruse my shelves for a little volume Shire Books sent me a while ago, titled, aptly enough, Needlemaking.

It includes pictures of bone needles that look pretty much the same, albeit a bit rougher, than what I use.  The needle is one of those very simple, brilliant inventions that don’t need to change—and needles haven’t, except in what they’re made of:  over time that changed from thorn to wood to bone to metal.

Needles have to be made from a material that’s pliable to work with, but the finished product has to be hard as well as flexible.  Because steel was considered too hard to work, the metal of choice until the 1500s was iron—certain types of iron, preferably from hematite.  As the illustration, with its numerous steps and tools, indicates, making needles was hard, exacting work.  Yet women engaged in the trade as well as men.

In the Tudor period, Spanish needlemakers who’d fled religious persecution brought to England the Arabs' secret method for making steel needles.  Called Sprior needles, they were highly prized.

English literature students may be familiar with a play titled “Gammer Gurton’s Needle," about a village hunt for a missing needle.  (Think Marx Brothers go Tudor.) I remembered reading it, but not much about its significance, so I was charmed to learn that it was “the first comedy ever to be written in England”—and it was about a missing “goodly Sprior needle.”

This is just a sample of the fine Nerdy History Girl fare this book offers:  fascinating historical tidbits as well as detailed information about needlemaking throughout British history, lots of illustrations (b&w), a glossary, and the usual suggestions for further reading and places to visit—all the good stuff one expects from the Shire Library.

John G. Rollins (pictured on cover of book), Needlemaking, Shire Library

The Needlemaker by Jost Amman (1568), courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Scan of page from Needlemaking, courtesy me.

In accord with some FTC rule or other (which probably doesn’t apply to us, since we're not reviewers, but never mind),  you need to know that, unlike the majority of books referred to in this blog, which Susan and I buy with our own hard-earned cash, this little gem came gratis. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Riding Habits for More than Riding, c.1770

Sunday, May 15, 2011
Susan reporting:

With the weather finally beginning to shift towards summer, a Georgian lady might soon likewise shift from her red woolen riding habit from one of a lighter weight fabric for the season. This reproduction, left, made by the tailors of Colonial Williamsburg is fashioned from a white cotton twill jean. While this habit includes same traditional pieces as the more wintry wool variety – a jacket, petticoat, and contrasting buttoned waistcoat worn over a linen shirt – the style is simpler for summer, with self-covered buttons on the jacket and thread-wrapped buttons on the waistcoat, and no decorative cuffs or lacing. Best of all, the cotton fabric is cool and washable.

While it's often assumed that habits were worn exclusively for riding, there are plenty of 18th c. sources to prove that ladies often chose habits for other activities as well. Just as today there are many women wearing yoga pants who couldn't name a single pose, wearing a riding habit in the 18th c. didn't always involve a horse. The tailored style was a comfortable, less revealing option for any kind of traveling or informal activity. Caricatures of the ultra-fashionable Duchess of Devonshire even show her wearing a habit as she canvassed for votes (and kissed butchers) before the 1784 elections.

The two ladies in this detail of a family portrait, lower right, are wearing habits to a musical party on a river barge. While other ladies in the group are dressed in gowns and lacy bonnets, these two seem perfectly at ease in their plain habits and black plumed hats, and perfectly attired, too.

Of course, not everyone approved. Because habits were so closely inspired by men's wear, they were the only 18th c. women's garments made by male tailors instead of female mantua-makers, and some observers judged this all to be a bit too gender-bending. Writing in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1731, a male observer found that a lady in her "Hermaphroditical Riding Habit... is hardly known from a very pretty Fellow. Saw [one] lately at a Gaming Table, with her Hair in a Soldierly Manner, turned under her cockaded Hat, her Jacket resembled a Man's Coat, and she frequently sat Bare-Headed. The Ladies must have odd Opinions of the Men, to think they can be most agreeable when they most resemble the Male Sex."

But by the late 18th c., wearing habits for day was common. In his Reminiscences, the Rev. T. Mozley noted that "Till...1835, it was a very ordinary thing to meet with ladies who, to save the trouble and cost of following fashion, never wore anything but a close-fitting habit. It required a good figure and bearing, that is, beauty unadorned....The effect, however, was apt to be masculine, and when prolonged to middle age gave the lady a kind of epicene character, in which she could take what part she pleased."

Author Fanny Burney also noted habits being worn to a ball at Bath in 1782 - even as she, too, commented on their gender ambiguity: "The room was very thin, and almost half the ladies danced with one another, though there were men enough present, I believe, had they chosen such exertion...Some of the ladies were in riding habits, and they made admirable men. 'Tis tonnish to be so much undressed at the last ball."

Above: Summer riding habit, made by the tailors of Colonial Williamsburg
Below: Detail from The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany, 1779-81
Many thanks to Mark Hutter of Colonial Williamsburg for suggesting this post.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of May 9, 2011

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Much to our amazement and delight, we’ve just acquired our one thousandth follower on Twitter! Many, many thanks to all of you who’ve joined us there. But if tweeting isn’t your cup of tea, here are this week's favorites that we’ve discovered for you, gathered from from the far corners of the Twitterverse:
Dream, dream, dream....The beautiful Hanham Court is for sale – for £2,500,000: http://tiny.cc/ykxwt
Hilarious montage of men's underwear history: http://bit.ly/mhrHJZ
Mother & First Licensed Female Colonial Printer - Dinah Nuthead of Maryland - http://bit.ly/l6xFLj
• Slideshow tour of red front doors in Dublin: http://bit.ly/a1q2rh
• Why are pix of celebrities as nerdy adolescents so endlessly fascinating? Celebrity Yearbook - http://tinyurl.com/66hab8x
• Read1843 honeymoon diary of British couple who rode New Jersey’s 1st railroad http://bit.ly/kBv99p
• Primo yard sale, or 'deaccessioning' nightmare? "For Sale: 10,000+ Historic Clothing & Textiles": http://bit.ly/lr4URn
• Striving for Gainsborough? Gen Thomas & Margaret Gage have themselves repainted in the English style: http://bit.ly/lrUr5y
• Harriet Tubman, Union Spymaster: One of my favorite stories from the Civl War: http://bit.ly/kyCS5X
• Wartime romance captured: lovers in Hyde Park, 1944: http://bit.ly/jn03eH
• Historical May Mayhem! Celebrating Mr. Punch's birthday (w/ Judy, too) at the Covent Garden May Fayre: http://bit.ly/lezWvE
• Oof! The scales at Berry Bros, where Brummel, Byron, Fox, & many others weighed themselves: http://bit.ly/iXelLa
• Very fine virtual tour of 1850s Wilton's Music Hall in London here: http://bit.ly/dng6Ro
• "As much as would fit on the head of a silver penny" - which is exactly HOW much in 1818? http://bit.ly/iwNgO0
• Edward Ferrars, Napoleon and Nelson's Hair Jewellery as Memorials and Love Tokens: http://wp.me/pGJsu-1D2
• Pretty pocket trinket: Ivory card case by Tiffany and Company, 1860, from Museum of the City of New York. http://bit.ly/irAt6t
• Swoon! Red velvet heeled mules, embroidered in silver 17th c.:  http://bit.ly/mIAKpX
Photos of Edwardians playing dress-up in clothes from 18th-19th c, with mixed results: http://bit.ly/htrLGH
• History of Boston pyrate John Halsey who now rests "in a garden of watermelons":http://bit.ly/kqxhQE
• Darwin's mother & her miniature: story behind the portrait of Susannah Wedgwood: http://tinyurl.com/65tlkkl

Blogger Shenanigans

As much as we like exploring the past, there are times when modern life rudely intrudes, and that's what happened from early Thursday morning well into Friday.

This blog (and zillions of others) are posted via Blogger, and what apparently began as the dreaded "routine maintenance" for Blogger blossomed into something far worse. We don't begin to understand the technical explanations, but we do know that we couldn't post and you couldn't comment, that links went dead and followers were sent older posts in their morning mail.

Fortunately everything now seems to be back as it should be, and we're sorry for any confusion caused by the Blogger meltdown. We like to think that this drawing of famous Regency entertainer Joseph Grimaldi, left, pretty much sums up what must have happened somewhere deep in tech-land late Wednesday night.

Left: Joseph Grimaldi as Clown Joey, 1820

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Captain Francis Grose informs and advises

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Loretta reports:

On 12 May 1791 Captain Francis Grose, age fifty-two, died in Dublin of apoplexy.   He’s familiar to Regency researchers as the author of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), a sample page of which is at left.

This was all I knew about him.  I’d been unaware that he had written a number of other works, educational and satirical or that he was a hefty fellow whose friends included the poet Robert Burns.

Among his other writings were several works on British antiquities aimed at a general audience, Rules for drawing caricaturas (1788),  a history of the English army, A provincial glossary (1787), and  Advice to the officers of the British Army (1783).  An excerpt from the last-named seemed apropos, in light of our recent blogs about troublesome dueling army officers and class distinctions.
To General Officers, commanding in Chief.
. . .
As you probably did not rise to your present distinguished rank by your own merit, it cannot reasonably be expected that you should promote others on that score.

Above all, be careful never to promote an intelligent officer ; a brave, chuckle-headed fellow will do full as well to execute your orders. An officer, that has an iota of knowledge above the common run, you must consider as your personal enemy ; for you may be sure he laughs at you and your manœuvres.

 . . .In distributing justice, you must always incline a little to the strongest side. Thus, if a dispute happens between a field officer and a subaltern, you must, if possible, give it in favour of the former.—Force is, indeed, the ruling principle in military affairs ; in conformity to which the French term their cannon, the ratio ultima regum.*
And here, from another collection, is an excerpt from a Poetical Sketch of Grose by his friend Mr. Davis:
When to my house he deigns to pass
Through miry ways, to take a glass,
How gladly ent'ring in I see
His belly's vast rotundity!
But though so fat, he beats the leaner:
In ease, and bodily demeanour;
And in that mass of flesh so droll
Resides a social, gen'rous soul. 

The olio: being a collection of essays, dialogues, letters, biographical sketches, anecdotes, pieces of poetry, parodies, bon mots, epigrams, epitaphs, &c., chiefly original, 1792

*Last argument of kings; resort to arms; war.

Portrait of Francis Grose courtesy Wikipedia.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Detestable Duels & the Lower Class of Officers, 1750

Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Susan reporting:

Thanks to Loretta, we've explored many excerpts from early 19th c. ladies' magazines. Men had their own reading material, too. The Gentleman's Magazine was founded in 1731 and ran uninterrupted for nearly two more centuries, until 1922.

The contents of the 18th c. editions clearly catered to the tastes of a Georgian gentleman, including military, judicial, & political news, scientific observations, indignant letters, poetry in Latin, and round-ups of births, deaths, marriages, and executions.

But in light of Loretta's post yesterday outlining the classes & orders of English society, I found this excerpt from the May, 1750 issue particularly interesting. What begins as a general tirade against dueling quickly morphs into a tale of the just deserts served to duelists "of the lower class of officers." To this author, there was a world of difference between honorable, well-bred officers who had served abroad and those described as "pests of human society" – all of whom meet their well-deserved (and most convenient) fates by the end of the paragraph.

From OLD ENGLAND, May 12
Of Duelling...

The detestable practice of dueling calls aloud for restriction. It has been observed to prevail generally after a bad peace: immediately after that of Utrech, some of the lower class of officers, call'd Derby Captains*,  (McManus, McNeal, Hardiman, Scroggs, and Marriot) were the pests of human society, and obtruded themselves into company merely to quarrel; insomuch, that their brother officers took all opportunities of shunning them.
    Mr. McManus was sent to the West Indies as lieutenant of a company, where he continued his pestiferous quarrels, to the great annoyance of the plantation, 'till a stout planter, after the greatest provocation, gave him such a drubbing as put an end to his iniquity and his life together. McNeal, taking an opportunity to salute a gentleman in the road, finished his travels at the gallows. Hardiman, after making a havock among the Irish, of whom he had killed no less than five in duels, and not very fairly, died, to the surprize of all, in his bed. Scroggs and Marriot fortunately quarrelled together, and were artfully, and I think wisely, spirited up against one another, for the good of mankind, into a duel, and dy'd very gallantly by their own swords....

* Derby Captain: "There was a house in Covent Garden for many years remarkable for selling Derbyshire ale, which was cheap, and much drank at that time by the neighbours, and others who frequented the house. The long calm which succeeded the Peace of Utrecht, reduced a great number of officers who had been in the Duke of Marlborough's wars; and, as they had but a scanty provision to live on, those who settled in London...found great convenience in frequenting this house; which they did in time to the amount of such numbers, that they were called, by way of cant name, 'the Derby Captains.'" - Memoirs of Charles Macklin, 1804

Above: French Smallsword Duelists, c. 1740. 
I have no idea exactly why the two hot-tempered combatants in this illustration are being handed their swords by a motley-clad fool – though having a clown stand between duelists does seem appropriate.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Class in Great Britain circa 1814

Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Loretta reports:

Some nutty commentary during the recent royal wedding made it clear that the British class structure confuses most Yanks.  While the U.S. has socioeconomic classes and the associated prejudices, it's a different species.

Here’s the British social structure as Patrick Colquhoun analyzed it in 1814.  The figures at the end of each class indicate (1) total heads of families, and (2) total everyone else in the category.  Does anything here make you say, "Hmmmm"? 
1ST.  The Royal Family, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal the Great Officers of State, and all above the degree of a Baronet, with their families.....  
576 — 2,880

2nd.  Baronets, Knights, Country Gentlemen, and others having large incomes, with their families.....48,861— 234,305

3rd.  Dignified Clergy, Persons holding considerable employments in the state, elevated situations in the Law, eminent Practitioners in Physic, considerable Merchants, Manufacturer upon a large scale, and Bankers of the first order, with their families.....12,200 — 61,000

4th.  Persons holding inferior situations in Church and State, respectable Clergymen of different persuasions, Practitioners in Law and Physic, Teachers of Youth of the superior order, respectable Freeholders, Ship Owners, Merchants and Manufacturers of the second class, Warehousemen and respectable Shopkeepers, Artists, respectable Builders, Mechanics, and Persons living on moderate incomes, with their families.....233,650 — 1,168,250

5th.  Lesser Freeholders.  Shopkeepers of the second order, Innkeepers, Publican’s, and Persons engaged in miscellaneous occupations or living on moderate incomes, with their families.....     564,799 — 2,798,475

6th.  Working Mechanics, Artisans, Handicrafts, Agricultural Labourers, and others who subsist by labour in various employments, with their families.....                                                               2,126,095 — 8,792,800

7th.  Paupers and their families, Vagrants, Gipsies, Rogues, Vagabonds, and idle and disorderly persons, supported by criminal delinquency.....387,100 — 1,826,170

Officers of the Army, Navy, and Marines, including all Officers on half-pay and superannuated, with their families.....               10,500 — 69,000

Non-commissioned Officers in the Army, Navy, and Marines, Soldiers, Seamen, and Marines, including Pensioners of the Army, Navy, &c. and their families.....                                             120,000 — 862,000

—Patrick Colquhoun, A treatise on the wealth, power, and resources of the British empire, 1814.

Upper left:  Thomas Lawrence, The Prince Regent, 1816.
Lower right:  Thomas Rowlandson, Seaman.
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