Friday, September 30, 2011

It's Time Again for 'Downton Abbey' - The Silly Video Version, That Is

Friday, September 30, 2011

Susan reporting:

While the second season of Downton Abbey, the immensely popular PBS dramatic series, won't be shown in the US until January, it has already made its debut in the UK, and viewers there are happily engrossed. Spoilers, too, are already all over the internet – but we promise you won't find a single one in this video sketch, created as a fundraiser for the BBC's Red Nose Day. What you will find in it, however, are some very familiar faces in very different roles. Look for Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley (still Absolutely Fabulous), Harry Enfield, Victoria Wood, and is that really Kim Cattrall as the countess? Even screenwriter-novelist Julian Fellowes makes an appearance. And if this isn't enough, there's a second part, too, here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Habitations for the labouring poor 1817

Thursday, September 29, 2011
Loretta reports:
The habitations of the labouring poor may be rendered ornamental, and the comforts of them increased, at a very trifling charge beyond the cost of common buildings . . . the annexed plate is designed for four cottages, connected with each other, and under one roof; a mode of building that admits a considerable saving of expense . . .   The public attention is now so fully called to consider the condition of the labouring classes of mankind . . . on the means of increasing their comforts, and on lessening the demands for parochial and other aid . . . [T]he following  . . . proves the advantages which result from giving the labourer the means of employing his surplus time.

A commonable land belonging to a parish was inclosed, and an allotment, containing twenty-five acres, set out for the use of such of the poor as rented less than ten pounds a year, to be stocked in common. Previous to the inclosure, there were some few cottages that had land let with them, to the amount of six or seven pounds a year each. The occupiers of those cottages with land annexed to them, were remarkable for bringing up their families in a more neat and decent manner than those . . . without land . . . [I]t was this circumstance that led to the laying out of a plot of lands . . . to other of the cottages, and to add a small building sufficient to contain a horse or cow; and likewise grafting stocks to raise orchards. In some instances small sums of money were lent to these cottagers for the purchase of a cow, a mare, or a pig.

[T]his proceeding . . . has not in one instance failed in giving an industrious turn even to some of those who were before idle and profligate; their attention in nursing up the young trees has been so much beyond what a farmer . . . could bestow, that the value of the orchard increased to double its usual rent, and the poor's rate fell from half-a-crown to four-pence in the pound, when in some of the adjoining parishes they were at length so high as five shillings in the pound; and it has also been the means of bringing a much larger supply of poultry to the market.
Ackermann’s Repository, September 1817

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Researching in the (Battle) Field: Mount Harmon Revolutionary War Reenactment Festival

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Susan reporting:

This past weekend, I had the chance to do some of my favorite kind of research: I stepped backwards in time to the 18th century, thanks to the Revolutionary War Reenactment Festival, held at Mount Harmon Plantation, Earleville, MD on the Chesapeake Bay.

(As always, please click on the photographs to enlarge them.)

Military reenactments are popular with history-lovers throughout the country. There are dedicated groups of re-enactors on every scale and covering just about every action that took place on American soil. The Mount Harmon event was a large one. I'm not adept at estimating crowds, but I heard that the organizers were expecting over 1,000 re-enactors and colonial-style vendors and sutlers who camped for three nights in the surrounding fields. Soldiers by the hundred represented scores of different re-enacting units, including several cavalry groups with their mounts.

Their variety reflected the diversity of the original Continental Army and militia, with a wide assortment of uniforms and weapons. The British were represented as well, in equally varied uniforms, as well as German light troops. There were a good number of women and children in colonial dress, too, reflecting not only the soldiers' families, but also the cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, and other women (as well as a few dogs!) who would have travelled with an 18th c. army.

The Mount Harmon event wasn't recreating a specific battle, but staging a representative skirmish as well artillery demonstrations and musket drills. And, as the brochure warned, "Tactical operations (people shooting) will be occurring throughout the site." Even we lowly spectators had to keep our wits about us.

It's all a wonderful, evocative experience for a historical fiction writer. No, I'm not giving up my primary sources, but no book can capture the smell of an open fire or the sharp, acrid smell of gunpowder, or how the resulting smoke stings your eyes. A flintlock musket makes a distinctive sound as it is fired, and the artillery is another sound altogether. You really can feel the hoofbeats of the light cavalry's horses through the ground. And though it's obviously "pretend" - at the end of the day, all the casualties stand up, get in their cars, and drive away - it still goes a long way towards capturing the speed, efficiency, and confusion of an 18th c. battle. You never know where it will all turn up in a book....

Top: British infantry from the Sunday skirmish.
Top left: Continental officers
Top right: Mounted dragoons engage in the skirmish.
Lower left: Women use the time in camp to drape a new bodice (These two knowledgable ladies - Cate Crown and Becky Fifield - are not only members of the Brigade of the American Revolution, but readers of the TNHG, too.)
Lower right: The wide variety of colonial uniforms, from the Continental infantry to the riflemen in fringed hunting shirts.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

American Crisis—a fascinating piece of history

Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Loretta reports:

“'You cannot conceive the uneasiness which arises from the total want of so essential an Article as Money.’”

So wrote General Washington to the governors of the United States in January 1782.  He was pleading for pay for the officers and soldiers who’d fought in the American Revolution—which wasn’t over yet, by the way.

This may be news to the vast majority who believe that the revolution ended with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781.  In fact, the war didn’t officially end until November 1783, and the U.S.’s future cohesion and strength was by no means as inevitable as we’re often led to believe.

The army, which hadn’t been paid, was in real danger of mutiny.  In the South, General Greene reported “‘the distress of the Officers are great and many of them have drained every private resource in their power.  Many bear their sufferings to a certain degree beyond which it is dangerous to push them nay ruinous.’”  A similar discontent prevailed in the Army of the North.  Meanwhile, an ineffectual and nearly bankrupt Congress made the long-suffering military promises it couldn’t keep.

This was only one of the daunting problems the new nation faced.  In fact, given the difficulties and dangers—not to mention some extremely bad behavior on all sides—it’s astounding that our forefathers ever managed to forge a nation.

I was never a big fan of U.S. history or any Politics & Wars kind of history.  So when Walker & Company sent me  William M. Fowler Jr.'s American Crisis:  George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown 1781-83,* I wasn't all that excited, I admit.

Then I started reading, and found a fascinating, suspenseful story, just chock full of the exhaustive detail Nerdy History Persons hunger for: yes, lots of quotations from original sources, all beautifully footnoted.

Even better, it’s a terrific example of history’s relevance, offering insights into today’s battling factions in Congress, power struggles between the legislative and executive branch, issues of big vs. small government—and, of course that essential Article, Money.

*Unlike the majority of books referred to in this blog, which Susan and I buy with our own actual money, this one came gratis.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

For the Gentlemen, Part II: A Chintz & Silk Banyan, c. 1770-1810

Sunday, September 25, 2011
Susan reporting:

I promised I'd return to the subject of an 18th c. gentleman's "undress" – the garments he wore to relax, to keep cool, or for less formal moments at home in the morning or evening before bed. My last post was about wrapping gowns, and this one is about banyans. The two are close cousins, and the terms are often used interchangeably, not only by modern costume historians, but in 18th c primary sources, too. (Here are several 18th c. portraits of gentlemen in their wrapping gowns and banyans.)

As always, please click on the pictures to enlarge them for details.
According to Mark Hutter, tailor, historic trades, Colonial Williamsburg, (and a very good friend to this blog!), a banyan is the more closely fit garment, tailored with set-in sleeves, fastenings, and often a collar. Banyans can be unlined and made from light fabrics for warm-weather wear, or lined and quilted for extra warmth.

Because of their structure, banyans are closer to coats, and in their role as a bridge between dress and undress, some banyans have matching waistcoats of the same fabric. While a banyan would be "casual" for an 18th c. gentlemen, he would still be wearing it with a shirt, cap, breeches, waistcoat, stockings, and shoes or slippers; informality is historically relative. Here's a gorgeous example of a matching banyan and waistcoat  from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and another - my personal favorite - that was fashioned from a Chinese dragon robe.

Like wrapping gowns, banyans entered Western European fashion through merchant trading with the East. While wrapping gowns reflect a Japanese influence, banyans are more closely linked to traditional dress from India, and the first appearance of banyans on English gentlemen in the early 18th c. is tied to the growing impact of the East India Company.

When I last visited Colonial Williamsburg this summer, tailor Neal Hurst was completing an exact copy of an original banyan (c. 1770-1810) currently in CW's collection. Both original and copy are cut to fit a very slender man, perhaps even an adolescent, and while there was no one in the shop who could model the banyan, Mark did point out several of its features. This banyan was unlined and probably intended for summer wear. The fabric is a light Indian cotton chintz, mordant painted and dyed, that would have been imported to England. The bright pink facings are ribbed cherry silk, and the same silk is used to pipe the sleeve cuffs and pocket openings. Self-covered buttons close the cuffs. While the replica banyan in my photograph wasn't quite finished, it would be closed across the front with three sets of narrow self-cords that would tie with bows (see the original), highlighting the off-center, Indian-inspired front.
Many thanks to Mark for once again sharing his expertise and knowledge, and complements to Neal on his beautiful tailoring.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of September 19, 2011

Saturday, September 24, 2011
Here’s a fresh offering of this week’s Breatkfast Links, noteworthy tidbits gathered from other blogs, web sites, news stories, and museums that we've discovered wandering around the Twitterverse:
The contents of a woman's bag, 1940 edition:
The over-the-top 1901 NY Yacht Club, with galleon windows, sea monsters, & stone waves:
• Fascinating medieval ring incorporates a wolf’s tooth & charms against toothache & storms:
Barbara Bush once criticised The Simpsons as "the dumbest thing [she'd] ever seen." Marge replied:
• News from the Dead': The Execution & Resuscitation of Anne Green' -
• Gibson Girls in love! From the Museum of the City of NY:
• Young Queen Victoria had a difficult childhood -learn more in this video featuring Chief Curator Lucy Worsley:
• Fantastic statue of her on the Cape: Mercy Otis Warren 1728-1814 Revolutionary War chronicler:
• What do a 1940s Adrian blouse and a 1970s Halston dress have in common?
• Dublin Front Doors - Flickr slideshow -
• In 1671 Colonel Blood tried & failed to steal the Crown Jewels. How did he survive such a treasonous act?
• Great photos: The Brighton Pavilion and the Dress for Excess Exhibition,
• Clearly all careers require corsets: Women of the Future, 1902 -
• Coronation of King George III, this day 1761. Read all about it! http://post.l
• Advice for Am. & British tourists to Paris 1869: Avoiding "the uncouth boldness of the streetwalker", other dangers:
• Looking at an eighteenth-century pistol acquired for Ham House:
• Meet William Innys: book-seller, rabble-rouser, & the 18th c Centenary Club's most loveable drunk:
• A Necklace Jane Austen May Have Coveted (and Liz Taylor wore)
• Embroidered velvet coat, Marshall & Snelgrove Ltd (retailers), 1895-1900:
Above: At Breakfast, by Laurits Andersen Ring, 1898

Friday, September 23, 2011

The seamstress's lot is not an easy one

Friday, September 23, 2011
Loretta reports:

Since starting my Dressmakers series, I've been fascinated by haute couture seamstresses, since their work comes closest to that of early 19th century dressmakers: every stitch by hand, no paper patterns, expensive fabrics cut with an expert eye.  Yes, today's high-level seamstresses work with modern tools as well as their trusty needles, pins, and scissors—as you'll see in the embroidery work in this Chanel documentary.  But even with the advanced technology, the work is astounding.

Don't know about you, but I couldn't stop with one episode. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

For the Gentlemen, Part I: A Silk Wrapping Gown, c. 1770

Thursday, September 22, 2011
Susan reporting:

I've written here before about banyans and wrapping gowns, the garments that 18th century gentlemen turned to for their "undress" - what they wore informally at home and among family and close friends. Thanks to Mark Hutter, tailor, historic trades, Colonial Williamsburg, I have more to contribute on the topic - plus these photographs of Mark himself wearing an 18th century-style gentleman's dressing gown. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

A wrapping gown is a loose-fitting, flared garment, made in a T shape with wide sleeves (as opposed to a banyan, which is more tailored and fitted - more about those next week.) Wrapping gowns had no fastenings or buttons, and were usually worn in place of a coat or jacket, over breeches and a shirt. They could be lined or unlined, depending on the season and whether more warmth was needed. The goal was comfort.

Wrapping gowns were usually available ready-made in shops and warehouses. Because their simple shape did not require the complicated piecing and tailoring of most 18th c. men's clothes, wrapping gowns could make use of the most extravagant fabrics of the era: bold stripes in silk or linen, or large-scale damasks, and printed cottons imported from the East Indies. Colors were often bold as well, and a gentleman who only wore somber suits in public might wear a flamboyant cherry-red silk wrapping gown at home. Some wrapping gowns were made from outdated women's gowns, unpicked, cut, and sewn to recycle a costly piece of fabric. Here is a wrapping gown in a bright worsted-silk tartan, worn in Great Britain between 1770-1800. Here is another, c. 1730, in two different patterns of cotton chintz, and yet another here, c. 1700-1750, that makes the most of a bordered, resist-print cotton from India

Inspiration for "new" fashions in Western European dress often come by way of international trade, and wrapping gowns are no exception. Mark noted how wrapping gowns first appear in Holland in the mid-17th century, about the same time that Dutch merchants were making their first trading voyages to Japan. Certainly the distinctive shape and cut of the wrapping gown is very similar to the Japanese kimono, and there are references to "Japanese coats" worn by the Dutch traders.

Mark made the wrapping gown that he is wearing in these pictures based on 18th c examples. The fabric is a silk woven stripe, unlined for wear in Virginia summers. Note how the flaring shape makes the most of the stripes, particularly in how the stripes match and miter handsomely at the side seams.
Many thanks to Mark for sharing his expertise and knowledge as well as posing for my camera!

Coming Monday: For the Gentlemen, Part II: A Silk Banyan, c. 1770

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Those rebellious Victorians

Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Loretta reports:

One of the many wonders of the Victorians is their propensity for decorating everything to death.  I was intrigued to learn that places like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral were a good deal plainer in the days of my early 19th C characters than they are now.  The differences struck me forcibly in the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I could compare furnishings almost side by side.

While the two cabinet-like objects in my photographs are made for different purposes, they demonstrate the differences clearly.  Above at left is a bookcase made for Carlton House  (home of the Prince of Wales/Prince Regent) in 1806. 

Below right is a washstand made in 1879 by William Bruges, who thought 18th C & Regency era furniture was icky.  In this he was not unlike most of his Victorian contemporaries, who held their predecessors and predecessors’ tastes in low regard.  In Bleak House, for instance, Dickens creates a devastating caricature of a Regency beau in old Mr. Turveydrop.

Yes, those Victorians, like teenagers, were rebelling against what went before.  If they could time travel to today, a great many of them would be scratching their heads over our interest in and affection for that icky Regency era.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Sad Civil War Story of Jennie Wade, 1863

Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Susan reporting:

This blog was suggested by a schoolmate of my daughter's, a girl who saw the little leather purse, left, and thought the story behind it might make a good TNHG post.  She's right – and what intrigued me the most is that she's just about the same age as the young woman who originally owned that purse.

Born in Gettysburg, PA, Jenny Wade (1843-1863), below, was a seamstress employed by her mother. A fervent Union supporter, she was likely engaged to marry Johnston Hastings "Jack" Skelly, a corporal in the 87th Pennsylvania. In one of those terrible coincidences of history, Jenny, her mother, and her younger siblings left their home on the first of July, 1863, for the house of her sister, Georgia McClellan, which they believed to be in a safer location in the center of town. The war had suddenly become inescapable, with nearly 160,000 Confederate and Unions soldiers converging on their small Pennsylvania town. As the battle raged nearby, Jennie and her sister made loaves of bread, running out to the street to give them to the Union troops marching past on their way to join the fighting.

With gunfire ringing throughout their neighborhood (more than 150 bullets have been found in the walls of the McClellan house), the women struggled to keep life as normal as possible. Early on the warm Friday morning of July 3, Jennie was standing in her sister's kitchen, kneading dough for more bread. The small leather purse, above, was in her pocket while she worked.

As she bent over the dough, a Confederate sharpshooter's bullet entered the kitchen and struck Jennie. The ball pierced her left shoulder and passed through her heart, finally burying itself against the bones of her corset. Jennie died instantly. Her body was discovered by Union soldiers, and she was buried in the back yard of the house. Legend says that her grief-stricken mother went on to finish the bread that Jennie had been kneading, giving the loaves to Union soldiers along with the story of her daughter's death.

When the horrific Battle of Gettysburg was finally over, the casualties on both sides were estimated at between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers – the highest number for any Civil War battle. Yet only one civilian was killed: Jennie Wade. Within a week, her sweetheart, Jack Skelly, was also dead, perishing from wounds received at the Battle of Winchester. Looking at that remarkably ordinary little leather purse, it's hard not to think of Jennie and Jack, and all the hopes and dreams that must have ended for so many young couples in that hot July of 1863.

Above: Jennie Wade purse, Christian C. Sanderson Museum, Chadd's Ford, PA
Below: Jennie Wade, detail, Wade Family daguerreotype
Many thanks to Hannah Boettcher for suggesting this post! 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fashions for September 1813

Monday, September 19, 2011
Loretta reports:

Though I try not to inundate readers with fashion illustrations, the artistry and the dresses in these plates are so beautiful, I had to share them.
A ROUND robe of white Venetian crape, worn over a white gossamer satin slip, appliqued with lace in front of the bosom; full slashed sleeve and demi-bodice, of amber or other coloured, satin, confined at regular distances and at the bottom of the waist with bows of correspondent ribband. The bottom of the dress finished with treble rows of lace, put on very full. Head-dress, à la Parisienne, composed of a small bandeau of diamonds, white roses, and folds of silk the colour of the bodice; over which is disposed fancifully a large transparent Mechlin veil. Ear-rings, necklace, cross, and studs of brilliants or pearl. Slippers of amber satin, with silver rosettes and trimming. Gloves of; French kid, and fan of carved ivory.
A white jaconot muslin high dress, with long sleeves and collar of needle-work; treble flounces of plaited muslin round the bottom; wrist and collar confined with a silk cord and tassel. The hair disposed in the Eastern style, with a fancy flower in front or on one side. A Vittoria cloak, or Pyrennean mantle, of pomona green sarsnet, trimmed with Spanish fringe of a correspondent shade, and confined in graceful folds on the left shoulder. A white lace veil thrown over the head-dress. A large Eastern parasol, the colour of the mantle, with deep Chinese awning. Roman shoe, or Spanish slipper, of pomona green kid, or jean.  Gloves of primrose or amber-coloured kid.

Ackermann's Repository, 1813

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of September 12, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Served up fresh for you: our weekly offering of Breakfast Links, featuring loads of favorite links to other blogs, web sites, pictures, and articles, collected from around the Twitterverse
‘United forever’: Queen Victoria’s ring has a diamond and ruby heart, crowned with diamonds, linked her with half-sister:
• Video of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F Kennedy's wedding celebrated on 12 September 1953
• Stripes of yellow,purple, & white - in an 18th c. gown?
• "London Melodies": marvelous illustrations of street cries from 1823:
• The Iron Duke in a Black Glass Cameo:
• A love note from Johnny Cash to his wife, June: "The ring of fire still burns around you and I"
• Did you know that Amelia Earhart designed fashion?
• Unreal! When it comes to jaw-dropping settings, few castles come close to Dunnottar in Scotland:
• The strange wax effigy of 18th c spinster Sarah Hare:
• The Importance of 19th c Time-Balls - & why was NYC so slow to get one?
• The Life of Condemned Massachusetts Witch Rebecca Nurse 1621-1692 -
• Who painted these boys with bats and ball in the late 1700s?
• Sightseeing guide to Paris for English & Am. visitors 1869:
• Extraordinary C17th jewelled toothpick in the V&A: a skull & sickle, symbols of death:
• Do not glare upon thy snot - advice to gentlemen from 1576
• On June 13th, 1920, the U.S. Postal Service ruled that children may not be sent via parcel post
• The most consumed 18th century fruit? Apples beat out gooseberries, cherries by a longshot:
• In the Name of Fashion: Feathers, Carnage, & Protest in Victorian England:
• Handsome 18th c miniature of Col. Stewart by Charles Wilson Peale, orig intended for wife's bracelet:
• Morgan mansion on Madison Ave, NYC, rare 1854 gem survived onslaughts by progress & Lutherans:
Above: At Breakfast, by Laurits Andersen Ring, 1898

Friday, September 16, 2011

Just a Small Rewrite...of 'Hamlet' (Friday Silly Video)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Susan reporting:

The most disheartening suggestions that editors make to writers usually begin with "Just": just a little tweaking, just a few changes, just a bit of tightening. It's the editorial version of the doctor's "This won't hurt a bit." If this comedy skit featuring William Shakespeare (yes, that's Hugh Laurie, Dr. House in Elizabethan costume) and his editor (the incomparable Rowan Atkinson) discussing "just" a small rewrite of Hamlet, then things haven't changed a bit in the last few hundred years. This sketch was performed live in London as part of a Comic Relief benefit.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

King George IV & the paparazzi of his day

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Loretta reports:

My recent blogs about King George IV and Lady Worsley got me thinking about the media’s influence on our attitude toward historical figures.  Sir Richard Worsley tried to make a life for himself after the crim. con. case, but it haunted him for the rest of his life, thanks to the caricatures.  Displayed in print shop windows and print sellers’ umbrellas, these reached a great many more people, from all walks of life, than did newspapers and printed reports of legal proceedings.

King George IV had a similar problem.  He “had the great misfortune to live through the golden age of English caricature from 1780 to 1830 when the high and mighty were not spared.”*

“No account betrays the impact of satirical iconography on memory and hence on verbal caricature more obviously than Thackeray’s”**  (Beerbohm’s essay tackles Thackeray’s version of history.)

“Even now Gillray’s and Cruikshank’s prints more deeply influence our sense of the prince than any contemporary textual description.  Modern attempts to rehabilitate George IV’s reputation as connoisseur or statesman in effect still do battle with the caricatures.”**

The years I’ve spent researching his world lead me to the same conclusion.  I keep finding myself comparing and contrasting.  That nasty divorce case, for instance.  So I wonder why Henry VIII, who went through six wives, isn’t a bigger villain.  He executed two—and their bad conduct was mild compared to Caroline’s, as England belatedly discovered.

As to libertines, I reflect on Charles II.   He had a harem of mistresses, yet frequented brothels.  He showered his favorites with riches.  (Susan can tell you how many ships it took to carry the Duchess of Portland’s stuff back to France).  He begat many bastards, and gave most of the males dukedoms or earldoms.  He got the nickname the Merry Monarch.

Edward VII was a serial adulterer, too.  But “Punch never hinted at his philandering.  It was left to the French magazines, which did not circulate in Britain, to show him frequenting brothels, fondling naked prostitutes, smoking and drinking to excess.”*

“Unlike George IV, Charles II and Edward VII left behind them no enduring monuments for which the nation could be grateful.”*

They didn’t leave behind so many caricatures, either.

*Kenneth Baker, George IV A Life in Caricature.
** Vic Gattrell, City of Laughter.

Illustrations:  George, Cruikshank, Merry making on the regents birth day, 1812.
(Published by W Benbow) The Kremlin in commotion - or - the Grand Lama sick of the horn cholic, 1820. Both prints courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Essential Busk, Whether for Bodies, Stays, or Corset

Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Susan reporting: 

If you're not a re-enactor or costume historian, you'll likely be puzzled by exactly what these photographs show. Not quite underwear, not quite an accessory, these would be instantly recognized by a wide range of women from the past, from ladies at Queen Elizabeth I's 16th c. court to sailors' sweethearts in 19th c. New England. 

They're called busks. Varying in length from between approximately 12"-16" and an inch or two wide, their purpose was to offer an additional reinforcement to the shaping garment of the day - whether a pair of bodies (16th c.), stays (17th-18th c.), or corset (19th c.)

Too modern eyes, they appear phenomenally uncomfortable.  The busk was inserted into a special narrow pocket in the front of the corset, and tied in place with ribbons.  Busks generally ran from the breasts to the top of the pubic bone. The busk was supposed to keep the posture straight and upright, as well as helping to keep the breasts elevated and the belly flat. The longest, most extreme, examples must also have made sitting a challenge.

Busks were made of wood, metal, ivory, or bone.  Some were purely functional, but others were beautifully decorated, a private luxury like lace-trimmed lingerie today. Given their intimate purpose - and where they lay on a woman's body - busks were also erotically charged, and could be a special gift between lovers. Hearts and cupids are favorite motifs.

Some of the most elaborate busks were created by 19th c. sailors on New England whaling ships for their sweethearts back home. These scrimshaw busks, made from carved whalebone, featured images drawn from the creator's imagination or from 19th c. magazine illustrations, and helped pass the long hours at sea, doubtless with pleasing thoughts of how the recipient would wear the gift.

Sometimes the connection to a lover is obvious.  A metal busk worn by the 17th c. French princess Anne-Marie-Louise d'Orleans, Duchesse de Montpensier, carried this message: "How I envy you the happiness that is yours, resting softly on her ivory white breast. Let us divide between us, if you please, this glory. You will be here the day and I shall be there the night."*  Please click on the images to enlarge them to see the detail.
*From The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele
Top: Busk, 18th c. France, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Middle: Busk, 17th c. France, ivory, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bottom: Busk, mid-1800s, America, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

18th Century Girls Gone Wild

Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Loretta reports:

Though I’ve blogged about Lady (Seymour) Worsley before (here and here), I only recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s book, The Lady in Red.  In it we find not only a more detailed picture of the lady, her strange marriage, and the sensational 1782 crim. con. trial, but insights into the world of the 18th century English aristocracy.  We're familiar with aristocratic Men Behaving Badly.  But in Rubenhold’s book you’ll find episodes of Girls Gone Wild. 

On 14 January 1779, Lady Worsley, age 21, and her friends, the two Misses Cramer, unable to persuade their host to lend them a coach for a trip to Leeds, rode off with his cart horses.

“En route the ladies ‘stopt at one of the inns and ordered the waiter to show them into such a room, which he told them he could not do, as it was kept for the officers of the Militia and their colours, etc., were there’.  Upon hearing this, Seymour and the Miss Cramers became ‘determined to go in and took the pokers and broke open the door, then they heated them red hot and pop’d them into the colours which set them in a blaze’ . . . ‘How do you think they quenched the flame their own fair selves had caused?  The did not call water!  Water!, it was more at hand . . .’  These three well-bred young ladies . . .lifted their silk skirts ‘and fairly pissed it out . . .’”

After which they had fun at the windows.  “One of their victims . . . had the misfortune of sauntering by in ‘his best coat & wig & laced waistcoat’.  As he passed beneath them ‘they threw some water,  I really don’t know what sort upon him, and immediately a large bag of soot which covered him entirely over’ . . . After they had thoroughly raised terror at the inn, the gang proceeded on their cart-horses to  . . . the home of Walter Spencer Stanhope, where ‘they broke upon his library, threw all his books about, and  . . . took away a pockett book full of Bank Notes’.”

The girls went on like this for three days.

Illustration:  Thomas Rowlandson. Two Girls Tippling.  Courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Monday, September 12, 2011

Intrepid Women: Janet Schaw Weathers a Hurricane at Sea, 1774

Monday, September 12, 2011
Susan reporting:

Those of us who live along the Atlantic Coast are well aware that we're in the thick of hurricane season now, and there's much anxious watching of the Weather Channel to see what may be heading our way next. But in the 18th century, there was no radar, Weather Channel, or computer predictions of "weather events." The Royal Navy had such respect for the destructive power of hurricanes that they preferred to send their Caribbean fleet home to England for the storm season rather than risk the catastrophic loss of vessels and lives.

Merchant ships, however, often continued to sail throughout the autumn season. Janet Schaw (c.1731-c.1801) was a genteel, unmarried Scotswoman who sailed on board the Jamaica Packet to the West Indies and North Carolina in October, 1774. Included in her party were several family members, servants, and three North Carolina children returning home after attending school in Scotland. While little is known today of Miss Schaw's personal history, she did leave behind a wonderful, readable diary of her voyage as well as her keen, detailed observations of life in the West Indies and North Carolina on the eve of the American Revolution. Her Journal of a Lady of Quality is available here, or here to read on-line. Highly recommended!

One of the most vivid passages captures the fear, desperation, and uncertainty of being a passenger on board a wooden sailing ship in the middle of a hurricane:

"On the fourth evening of the gale (as it was now termed) the whole elements seemed at war: horror, ruin and confusion raged thro' our unfortunate wooden kingdom, and made the stoutest heart despair of safety. Just after the midnight watch was set, it began to blow in such a manner, as made all that had gone before seem only a summer breeze. All hands, (a fearful sound) were now called; not only the Crew, but every man who could assist in this dreadful emergency. Every body was on deck, but my young friend [18-year-old Fanny Rutherford] and myself, who sat up in bed, patiently waited that fate, we sincerely believed unavoidable. The waves poured into the state-room, like a deluge, often wetting our bed-clothes, as they burst over the half door. The Vessel which had one moment mounted to the clouds and whirled on the pointed wave, descended with such violence as made her trembled for half a minute with the shock, and it appears to me wonderful how her planks struck together, considering how heavy she was loaded. Nine hogsheads of water which were lashed on the deck gave way, and broke from their Moorings, and falling backwards and forwards over our heads, at last went over board with a dreadful noise. Our hen-coops with all our poultry soon followed, as did the Cab-house or kitchen, and with it all our cooking-utensils, together with a barrel of fine pickled tongues and above a dozen hams. We heard our sails fluttering into rags. The helm no longer was able to command the Vessel, tho' four men were lash'd to it, to steer her. We were therefore resigned to the mercy of the winds and waves. At last we heard our fore-main mast split from top to bottom, a sound that might have appalled more experienced Mariners, but we heard all in silence, never opening our lips thro' the whole tremendous scene...."

Above: De Windstoot (The Gust) by Willem van de Velde II, 1680, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Breakfast Links: Week of September 5, 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Served up fresh for you, our weekly offering of Breakfast Links: our favorite links to other blogs, web sites, pictures, and articles, all collected for you from around the Twitterverse.
Ahh, ogling men never change! Lunchtime voyeurism at the Flatiron Building:
Now overlooked & truncated : 1913 Titanic Mermorial LIghthouse in NYC:
• One for the ladies! My Daguerreotype Boyfriend
• Predicting the weather, early modern style: Thunder on a Wednesday means the death of harlots.
• Looking at the mixing of Greek & Chinese Regency style at Castle Coole:
• Wonderful early 20th c carved wooden carousel figure of leaping cat with fish in its mouth:
• Fascinating on-line exhibition: Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature:
• The Right Stripe for the Right Job: 18th c gowns:
Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet & veil from the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire
• Thanks to the Museum of London, over 3,000 historic fashion photographs go online from the studios of Bassano Limited:
• The beautiful and incredibly rare Chinoiserie gilt leather panelled room investigated by color & paint specialist Patrick Baty:
• Death and Taxes, represented quite literally in these 'skull nickels' :
A Promise to Pay - the spread of banknotes in the 18th Century
Photo: How Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth will make her bow to Royalty
• Just for fun, check out the NYT bestseller list from the week you were born.
Melancholoy but fascinating site: Country Houses at Risk:
• Lovely. A letter from Harper Lee, author “To Kill a Mockingbird”:
• Importance of the Parlor & Hearth in 19th c American homes, interview w/ Old Sturbridge Village curator:
• A beacon from Armada days? Mystery of the Compton Pike, Warwickshire:
• Not a quick death in 18th c. ‘The Hangman's Fracture' -
• Women in uniform, World War I edition.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mysteries & rituals of marriage

Friday, September 9, 2011
Loretta reports:

King George IV might have learned something from this 1931 lighthearted look at marriage and mating rituals among various species: 

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