Monday, May 23, 2016

What to Learn from Miss May, 1781

Monday, May 23, 2016
Isabella reporting,

Last month Loretta and I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual conference of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America. Ostensibly our topic was busting a few historical myths that turn up all too often in historical romances, but because it was us and we like to talk, we made several other points about research as well. Two of our favorites: popular prints can be great sources of historical information, and, conversely, don't take everything you see (or read) at face value.

This print, right, would've made a perfect example. Pretty young women seem to have always been used to illustrate the calendar months, and this lady coyly glancing over her shoulder represents May, 1781. She's one of a set of twelve prints that could have been purchased together or individually. Hand-colored prints like this were increasingly popular in the 18thc, whether framed or simply pinned to the wall, where they added a touch of fashionable gentility in homes and businesses that couldn't necessarily afford paintings.

Miss May is dressed so elegantly and so on-trend that she could almost be considered a fashion plate. Strewn with woven flowers, her silk dress was called an Italian gown, with a close-fitting bodice, long narrow sleeves, and a great deal of fullness in the back. Open in the front, the gown would have been worn over a matching petticoat. She's also wearing a sheer embroidered apron that's purely decorative, as well as a ruffled kerchief. Her silk-trimmed straw hat is tipped forward over a pleated cap, and hanging beside her is her hooded cloak, also trimmed with lace.

So what about her appearance and attire is a faithful representation of women's dress in 1781, and what's exaggerated? It's safe to say that her tiny little foot in its tiny little shoe wasn't really that tiny; surviving shoes from the period prove that English women's feet were in proportion to the rest of them. Her dramatic hairstyle was accurate (see our earlier posts here and here on 18thc big hair), but to make her hair and hat more stylishly impressive by comparison, the artist seems to have shrunk her face. And that ample posterior? That, perhaps surprisingly, is accurate, and would have been achieved with the help of a false bum or rump - pillow-like enhancements that were tied around the waist to support the skirts and give a come-hither wiggle to the walk. (See more about false bums here.)

But there are other things to learn from this print, too. Because it's May and spring is here, the lady has not only put aside her cloak, but opened the windows in her house, too. Of course those windows have no screens; wire screens don't become affordable and widely used until the 19thc, and even then they're much more common in America than in Europe (they still are.) The window behind the lady appears to be tall enough to be used as a doorway when raised, leading to a path through the park.

There's also another indication that May has arrived. The scene in the street that the lady is watching is a May Day (the first of May) celebration called the "Milkmaid's Garland", which is also illustrated in the painting, right. To quote the Victoria & Albert Museum's caption:

"One of the ancient customs observed on May Day that persisted until the early 19thc was the 'Milkmaid's Garland.' The milkmaids would dress in their best clothes and dance in the streets for their customers. A donation from the customers and from passers-by was expected. A 'garland' - a pyramid of borrowed silver tankards, plates, and flagons decorated with flowers - was paraded by the milkmaids or carried, as in this painting, by a porter."

I'm sure that the grotesque figures also dancing in the street - probably with oversized masks - have something to do with an 18thc May Day as well, but I haven't discovered exactly what. Does anyone among our scholarly readers have the answer?

Left: May/The Twelve Months, published by Carrington Bowles after Robert Dighton, London, 1781. The British Museum.
Right: Detail, The Milkmaid's Garland, or the Humours of May Day, by Francis Hayman, 1741-1742, Victoria & Albert Museum.


G-Cis said...

As a foreigner I am a little bit confused about the passage describing the windows. What do you mean by saying the windows have no screens? Do you mean there is no glass pane in between the wooden frames? And what's a wire screen?

Yve said...

What sort of May Day processions of grotesque figures and oversized masks are you referring to, do you have any photos? There was a huge revival of old pagan Beltane and "assumed" folk celebrations across Europe in the 18th century. In Britain, our popular ideas of National Costume for Scotland and Wales in particular were cemented at that point, in some cases quite fancifully. There is a very unusual parade in Padstow, Cornwall, at that time of year, Ossy day I think it's called:

Sarah said...

English windows don't have screens! we don't have the same mosquito problem America does and any other bugs are just bugs to be ignored.
The May Day celebrations in many rural places still included the figures set in the Medieval versions of the Pagan Beltane celebrations, which include the King [sometimes King Richard, sometimes King Arthur, sometimes King Edward], St George, who is a stand in for Sir Gawaine of earlier times, The Moor or Saracen, the hobby horse and sometimes a green man. This is the origin of the Moorish, or nowadays, Morris dances. The Moor is a poorly understood representation of winter, who is killed by the green man/Sir Gawaine/St George. Some representations also include a doctor who heals all fatal wounds inflicted on all but the Moor. This symbology would still have been understood at the time, despite Oliver Cromwell's efforts to stamp it out. However, the loss of continuity during the Commonwealth did its part in distancing the ceremony from its roots even more than time did, and by 1800 very few villages were still celebrating on May Day and the Winter Solstice, which was the other Medieval time for the Mummers to show up.

Sarah said...

The judge there does appear in a few, sentencing the Moor to death

Dorothea said...

Re your question about the grotesque mask in the Calendar picture for May: May day was - and in places still is - a day for the performance of traditional Morris dances, by men dressed in bizarre and sometimes grotesque fashion. These were performed by men only, and their origins are lost in the mist of time. They vary from place to place.

I'm not a scholar - just interested in history - so I can't tell you a lot about this: only that most of today's Morris Dances are traditional country dances that were performed in ballrooms up to the 19th Century, and have been preserved in patches. But there are many genuine Morris groups around the country, preserving the traditions even though the meaning is often lost. The theme is always a celebration of the return of warmth, light and growth after the long dark winter.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Yve, Dorothea, Sarah - I've replaced a better cropped image to include the "grotesque" dancing figures, which do sound as if they're related to Morris dancers. Thank you for the extra info - Loretta and I can always count on our readers to jump into the history fray!

G-Cis - As Sarah mentioned, in America there are many more mosquitos than in Europe, and with mosquitos there's also a higher risk of mosquito-born diseases such as malaria and, more recently, West Nile Virus. In response, window screens were developed in the mid-19thc - they're a panel of wire mesh that fits into the window to keep out insects. Most American houses have them, and they're so much a part of American life in the summer that it seems odd to many Americans to see windows without them. :)

Sarah said...

Oh that's a much better picture, thanks. You can clearly see Hobby in the background, the cone shaped figure, not all hobby horses were representational. In many places they would try to catch unwed females and pass them between their legs as a fertility ritual, which was more popular with some young lasses than others. In the foreground it looks to me as though there's an affray between the judge and a figure I think may be the doctor; these rituals often contained a lot of horseplay [in fact I think the word horseplay derived from hobby] and farce, so a comic fight between the judge, who may be said to represent death, and the doctor, who may be said to represent life, would not be out of keeping. Like I said, it got a long way from any original Beltane rituals, warped with time, the insertion of Christian saints and ideas, and abandonment for a decade or so, and the usual Chinese Whispers of passing on oral tradition in a largely illiterate society.
European malaria is still nasty - I've had it, in Romania - but not like tropical malaria. In England it tended to be confined to the fenlands ['let fever and the ague eat them up', as Shakespeare put it] and decreased further when they were drained beginning in the 16th century. The strewing of alder [not elder, alder] leaves in the strewing herbs helped to decrease them, being an insect repellent, until the use of rushes or straw on the floor went entirely out of fashion which more or less coincided with the fen draining.

Lynn Symborski said...

Pottsgrove Manor celebrates May every year with a traditional 18th entury May Fair on the first Saturday of the month. Although May Day is past, Pottsgrove Manor has revived the custom of the "Milkmaids' Garland" with ladies dancing around two gentlemen 'Porters' holding high a tray of silver pieces, flowers and streamers. Look in some of the online Facebook albums to see this custom inpractice!

Barbara Wells Sarudy said...

For those figures, see

Katie KofeMug said...

Flies and the ick they carry were the reason screens were so successful [and essential] across America. Food contamination/ spoilage as a result of those nasty insects was an ongoing battle for all. The mosquito born disease areas are not all across the country but flies ... dear gawd, they are everywhere ::shudder::

Sarah said...

I think in Britain the solution was the zinc-screened meat safe, and before that the late medieval/stuart solution of having a cupboard with turned spindles instead of panels in the doors, behind which was mounted muslin of the finest. We have a fine example in our local museum. The finer examples have a drawer below this which is lined with lead, into which ice may be put [or, I suppose, water with saltpetre in] to keep meat cold as well as fly-free. Flies are nasty dirty critters and especially in the days before proper drains, one had to be careful.

Yve said...

Sarah - When I was a child (and bear in mind I'm talking about North Wales in the 1970's, not 1870's!) there was a shop in my home town locally known as the "Old Maid's". They sold sweets and packaged/tinned food goods at the front, and the back of the shop was laid out more like an old parlour, but with a small 'meat safe' cupboard and the table laid out as though for dinner. All the jugs and bowls had little muslim doilies over, held down at the edges with beads, to keep the flies out, and a big ham shank was often centre table with a mesh dome over it for the same purpose. Buying ham meant they would cut off a few slices, wrap them in grease proof paper and put the dome back. Both the ancient ladies who ran the shop dressed in long dark Edwardian dresses with aprons over and refused to touch money, preferring that place your coins on a little wooden shovel (similar to those they measured sweets out of the jars with) and they would then transport it to the til... 1970's... I kid you not!

Sarah said...

there were a few anachronisms like that in Beccles on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, not quite as extreme, they had reached the 1920s by the 1970s, the wool shop and the pharmacy ... we had a domed meatsafe like that until my brother dropped some grease on the floor of the pantry from the plate of covered cooked meat he was carrying for mother, went head over tip and sat on the meat safe, crushing it beyond repair. We got a square wooden one with zinc mesh as a replacement which I still have.... we called it the no-bunny hutch, because it looks a bit like a rabbit hutch , but for keeping no bunnies in [well unless there was rabbit stew in it]. I still use a muslin doily with beads on my milk jug and on home made lemonade .... crocheted round the edge to hold the beads and add to the weight. Thank you for that step back! I'd forgotten our meat dome.... I don't think anything was the worse for ingenious rather than technological with eggs preserved in isinglas and beans in salt, we had a big walk in larder, which alas had to go for my dad to have a shower when he became paralysed. [and I wouldn't mind turning it back.]

Unknown said...

The 18th century has been referred to as "The Age of Caricature." It's possible the artist has represented the two wigged characters as members of a dance troupe but perhaps more likely the artist is taking a pot-shot at the establishment. The masked character might be George lll.

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket