Friday, November 30, 2007

Taking the Reins

Marissa’s post on carriages brought back some great memories. I’ve actually had the privilege of driving a coach, thanks to some creative friends who gave me an unforgettable birthday present a few years ago.

They rented an open carriage and coachman to drive me through our little town’s equivalent of Hyde Park, which runs along the placid green-gray waters of the Columbia River. It was a white carriage with red trim and seats, pulled by two prancing black horses. What a thrill to feel the breeze caress my face, hear the clop of hooves against pavement (okay, blacktop, but go with me here!), adjust to the bounce of the springs and sway of the seat beneath me, watch the joggers stop and stare. Easy to imagine how it must have felt to tool through the real Hyde Park during the Season. Only it would have been Colin Firth and Matthew MacFayden staring. (I said go with me!)

We reached the end of the park road, and the coachman turned the horses. Then he looked at me with a grin and asked, “Would you like to take the reins?”

Would I? Oh, would I!

So there I sat, up on the box (that’s the seat up front for the driver), reins in one hand, just like a member of the Four-In-Hand-Club. The best young drivers (or at least the ones who liked to think they were the best) in nineteenth century England belonged to that club, meaning they could hold the four reins threaded through the fingers of one hand and remain in control of the horses even on turns, in bad weather, and during races.

It was thrilling and a little scary. The horses seemed massive and powerful. I swear one looked back with a smirk as if to say, “Bring it on, honey.” Could I really control them with those long, thin strips of leather? Young ladies and gentlemen in nineteenth century England did.

So did I. It was an amazing experience: setting them trotting, feeling the horses move to my commands. The flick of my wrist told them volumes. What a rush! If you get the chance to take the reins, I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Horsing Around, Part I: Tilburys, Broughams, Cabriolets, Curricles, Landaus, Phaetons, and Barouches

During most of the nineteenth century, everyone horsed around.

And I mean that quite literally. If you wanted to go somewhere, chances were you used a horse to either ride or to draw a cart or carriage of some sort.

Relying on horses for transportation meant several things. It meant you had to have a place for them to live (stables and a paddock). You had to have people to take care of them (grooms and stable boys) and appropriate food and care (proper shoeing and veterinary care when necessary). And you had to have means to actually use them, like saddles and tack or a carriage…which in turn necessitated having coachmen and other staff.

As you might guess, having your own horses and carriage meant you were probably at least semi-wealthy--and the more horses and carriages you owned, the wealthier you were. Having an elegant carriage and matched horses to draw it (grays were the most popular carriage horses) was the nineteenth century version of having a Lexus or a Mercedes in the garage. Those who couldn’t afford to keep their own horse and carriage could rent one when necessary, usually from a local inn or a livery stable.

Relying on horses to get around also meant that you didn’t just up and hop on your horse to go to the mall or out for pizza on a whim…because it takes a while to get a horse saddled or hitched up to a carriage. It also meant that if you were traveling a long distance with your own horses, you could only go as far and as fast in a day as the road conditions would allow…and stop for the night when the horses were tired. Alternately, you could travel longer distances more quickly on the system of stage coaches that traveled between most of the major cities and towns of England, stopping at special coaching inns to change horses periodically.

Carriages came in many forms, and different styles went in and out of fashion over the years. They could seat as few as two or as many as six, could have two or four wheels, be drawn by one, two, or four horses, be open to the air or completely enclosed. A wealthy young man in the 1820s trying to impress the girls might drive a curricle, a small open two-wheeled, two-horse vehicle, or a tilbury (similar but drawn by one horse). His parents would have a handsomely-painted barouche, a closed carriage with four wheels that seated four passengers plus a footman or two hanging on in the back and perhaps also a cabriolet or phaeton that they could drive themselves.

Coaching was also something of a hobby for wealthy young men. Someone who was skilled in the “noble art of handling the ribbons” wasn’t doing his sisters’ hair wraps, but was an exceptionally skilled coachman ("ribbons" was slang for reins). Young men being remarkably unchanged over the centuries, coaching generally meant racing…and, of course, betting on those races. The Prince of Wales himself was known in his younger days as a keen coachman, frequently trying to shave precious minutes off his record traveling between Brighton and London.

By the 1840s rail transport began to boom and eventually replaced the stage coaches, and later on in the 1890s inventors tinkered with engine-driven cars, but the horse was pretty much it for most of the nineteenth century.

Next week: Horsing Around, Part II: Good Habits

Friday, November 23, 2007

Shop 'Til You Drop

That’s what some of you were doing today, admit it. Those sales sound so good I was tempted to get up before 4:00am.

I said tempted. I didn’t give in.

Young ladies in nineteenth century England had fewer temptations when it came to shopping. A village might have nothing more than an all-purpose store with a few bolts of serviceable fabric and some ribbon. A larger town would have some linen drapers (fabric stores), seamstresses, and tailors as well as furniture makers, jewelers, haberdasheries (ribbons, lace, and the like), and print makers. Only in a large city like London would you find a wealth of choice.

One of the premier shopping districts in London was Bond Street. There you were sure to find anything your heart desired. A 1794 directory of the street shows confectioners, an optician, a stationer, several watch makers and jewelers, a few toy makers, two music shops, four booksellers, several upholsterers, a shoe warehouse, a few perfumers, no less than a dozen linen drapers, and assorted tea dealers, upholsterers, embroiderers, wine merchants, and cheesemongers.

Bond Street was also where you might find businesses that were patronized by the Royal Family. You’ve seen the ads on television today: “Official sports car of the NBA,” “Official soft drink of the Olympics.” The Royal gun maker, Royal trunk maker, and Royal watch maker were on Bond Street.

Today, Bond Street remains the shopping district of the wealthy and privileged, boasting such names as Armani, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Chanel, Gucci, Yves St. Laurent, De Beers, Cartier, and Tiffany.

I’m going to see them, in February. Did I mention that? And I'd get up before 4:00am to do it!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Queen Victoria Part III: Poor Little (not very) Rich Girl

In Part II I told you about the Great Matrimonial Race to beget the next heir to the British throne. So now let’s look more closely at the winner of the race and her earliest days.

Victoria’s dad was Edward, Duke of Kent, George III’s fourth son. He was a professional soldier, serving in various commanding positions in various places, including Canada. It was there that he met a young woman who became his “best friend” for the next twenty-seven years. But when the starting gun of the GMR (Great Matrimonial Race) sounded, that long-term relationship was ended and Edward went off to find someone to actually marry.

He eventually found Victoire, the widowed Duchess of Leiningen. Leiningen was one of the dozens of tiny principalities of Germany that existed in those days. Victoire was in her early thirties and reasonably good-looking, sister-in-law of the late Princess Charlotte whose death had stated the whole GMR…but most importantly she’d had two healthy children with her first husband--an important point in the GMR. Edward convinced her to marry him, then settled down with her in Germany because it was much cheaper to live there than in England and he had enormous debts (and a lot of angry creditors). But when Victoire found she was pregnant, Edward decided it was time to return to England for his child’s birth. They just squeaked in, arriving on April 24, 1819 and exactly one month later, on May 24, a fat, healthy baby girl was born. The proud papa told visitors to “take care of her for she will be Queen of England.” The baby was christened Alexandrina Victoria (Drina for short), named for one of her godfathers, the Czar of Russia, and for her mother. Amazingly, she managed to escape being named George, unlike most of her cousins.

Unfortunately, the proud papa wouldn’t even live to see little Drina’s first birthday: he caught a chill and died of pneumonia when she was only eight months old. His Duchess found herself in a strange land, able to speak only the barest amount of English, with an infant and her daughter from her first marriage. Fortunately, her brother Leopold, husband of the late Princess Charlotte, was absolutely loaded and helped support her (remember, the Duke of Kent had been in debt up to his eyeballs). So little Drina and her mother and half-sister Feodore settled in the Duke’s apartment in Kensington Palace, and would remain there until Drina became queen at age eighteen.

The Duchess wasn’t completely alone, of course. She had her domestic (maids and footmen and so on) and household staff: a nanny for baby Drina and a governess for Feodore named Fraulein Lehzen…and her household Comptroller, a former aide to the Duke, named John Conroy. His job was to manage her household and her money, but in time he would do much more than that...and earn little Drina’s undying hatred. We’ll hear more about Fraulein Lehzen, John Conroy, and Vic and her mom in Part IV: Prisoner of Kensington Palace.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Such Language!

One of the things I love about nineteenth century England is the language. A young gentleman might be spatter his speech with “cant,” words patterned after those used by coachmen. Servants might talk with accents that remind you of the streets of Liverpool or Dublin. But even the more proper words spoken by young ladies were interesting. Here are a few tidbits:

Reticule: sounds like something the doctor might take out to examine you, doesn’t it? It’s a handbag closed with a draw string. There’s some speculation that the name itself derived from the word ridicule, as in “How can you possibly stuff so much into that little thing?”

Morone: a fancy pasta? No, a peony red color popular in fabric around 1811.

Nonpareil: A kind of sugar-free candy? Sort of — it was a gentlemen who was without equal (you know, really yummy!)

Curricle: a copper-colored seashell? No, a two-wheeled, open carriage, just right for two passengers.

Tool: something your dad has to go buy because he can never find the right one for the job? Perhaps, but also what you did in that lovely curricle built for two, by driving about.

Spencer: Princess Di’s maiden name? Well, yes, but also a short jacket (sort of like a shrug today). Legend has it that an ancestor of Princess Di, Earl Spencer, was standing before the fire and singed off his coat tails. He liked the short coat so well he brought it into style, first for men and later for the ladies.

Maggot: Ew, those squiggly little worms. In the nineteenth century, it also meant a whim, a sudden idea, as in “What maggot’s gotten into your brain that you’re staring at that handsome fellow so fixedly?”

Now, if you would be so good as to pardon me, I’ve gotten a maggot in my head to go fetch my reticule and morone Spencer and tool through the park in my curricle with my favorite nonpareil. Ta!

Oh, and if you get a moment on Sunday, November 18, stop by Risky Regencies and visit us! Marissa and I will be guest blogging.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

If Music be the Food of Love, Pass the Antacids

Looking at this picture (it's from Ackermann's Repository, March 1819), can't you just tell by the way she's gazing up at the ceiling that she's singing waaaay out of tune? And maybe fat-fingering those chords as well? I just love this print.

But Regina's post a few weeks back on music as a required accomplishment for a nineteenth century miss made me think about something else...the fact that if you wanted to hear music, you pretty much had to make it yourself. There were no iPods, no downloads, no CDs, no radio. The first sound-recording device wasn't invented until 1877 by Thomas Edison, and widespread consumer use of the earliest recorded sound machines wasn't until well into the 1890s.

So there was a reason that an "accomplished" young lady learned to play pianoforte, or harp, or guitar like this girl: unless you went to a concert, doing it yourself was the only source of music there was.

For example...have you seen the A&E mini-series of Pride and Prejudice? You know, Colin Firth and all that? Remember that whenever there was a party, like the ones at Meryton or at Netherfield, a group of actual musicians was hired to provide music for dancing--no DJs or sound systems. And when people got together at someone's house, Mary Bennet always got dragged into playing music on her beloved piano that she obviously loathed so that everyone else could dance.

So our friend here strumming away on her rather squared-off guitar was probably entertaining friends after dinner or whiling away an evening around the drawing room fire with Mama and Papa. Because if you wanted to hear some music, that's how you did it.

(This is a repost of a previous posting that we had to take down because for some reason, it turned into utter unreadability when viewed on a Mac. We still don't know why. Dontcha love technology?)

Friday, November 9, 2007

It's What's on Top That Counts

I’m working in Washington D.C. this week, and the weather has turned chill. All around me, hats are popping up like daffodils in the spring. Most look snug and warm. I imagine that the beaver or silk top hats worn by young men in the nineteenth century might have offered some warmth as well.

I’m not so sure about these lovelies, from 1818. While these bonnets might offer protection from the sun, they were more likely worn for show. As you can see, the basic shape was the same, but the feathers, flowers, lace, and ribbon used made each bonnet a work of art. And the more fashionable you were, the more original the item covering your head.

I’ve often read of a chip bonnet, which I assumed was a small little thing. But books from the 1800s talk about “tremendous” and “huge” chip bonnets, so I admit I’m a bit mystified.

For evening, you had turbans, caps, and the perennial favorite, ostrich plumes. One young lady in this picture from 1808 even has a top hat trimmed in ermine, matching the ermine lining of her evening cloak. Now she looks warm!

I wonder if they still sell those here in D.C.?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

I'm posting a day early (I usually do Tuesdays) because today is an interesting date in British history, and one that somehow seemed to end up being celebrated mostly by teens for no very good reason except that it involves bonfires, fireworks, and similar fun stuff that most adults generally disapprove of. Here's why you should remember The Fifth of November.

Back in the early seventeenth century, in 1605 to be exact, King James I was king of England and Scotland. England at this time was (just like most of Europe) in the throes of religious conflict as Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in various wars of religion and conquest. James was a Protestant, and the official church of England was Protestant, but there still remained a fair number of people with Catholic sympathies in the country, among them the family of a man named Guy Fawkes.

Guy spent a lot of his youth as a mercenary, a professional soldier who fought for whoever paid him. While fighting for Spain in the Netherlands he fell in with a crowd of English Catholics. Spain was a very Catholic country and a very military one, and it dreamed of some day conquering England and returning it to Catholicism. Whether or not it had anything directly to do with what follows isn't clear...but what happened was that this group of English Catholics decided it would blow up King James, his family, and the largely Protestant Parliament on Parliament's opening day at Westminster as a way to help restore Catholicism to England. Because of his experience with artillery (cannons and that sort of thing) as a soldier, Guy was made the leader of the plot, today known as The Gunpowder Plot.

So in the fall of 1605 he and his co-conspirators rented a cellar in the House of Lords at Westminster and managed to smuggle 36 barrels (about 1800 lbs.) of gunpowder into it. However, the lid got blown off the Gunpowder Plot when one of the conspirators, worried that Catholic members of Parliament might be harmed as well, sent a warning note to one who promptly alerted the Secretary of State. According to accounts, Guy was just about to light the fuse to detonate the powder when he was arrested. He and his co-conspirators were tortured and eventually executed, and the King and Parliament were saved.

In a way, the Gunpowder Plot was a godsend for James, who hadn't been terribly popular in England (he was Scottish) until someone threatened to blow him up. Spontaneous public celebrations in the form of bonfires sprang up everywhere, and straw-stuffed dummies meant to represent Guy Fawkes were tossed into them. And of course songs and poems were written about the Gunpowder Plot, including this one which begins,

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”

Guy Fawkes Night (also called Bonfire Night) is still celebrated today. Children and teens used to go house to house with their effigies of Guy Fawkes asking for pennies to buy fireworks (not done any more, as anyone under 18 is not allowed to possess fireworks. Most fireworks displays today are done by municipal authorities.) and between those and the bonfires, it's definitely a memorable night.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Losing Their Marbles

Like anyone on summer vacation, the young ladies and gentlemen let loose in nineteenth century London during the Season (see previous post) wanted to see the sights. Thrill seekers might visit the Tower Zoo, cringe through the feeding of the tigers at the Royal Menagerie in the Exeter ‘Change, or watch a balloon ascend over Hyde Park. For those of more historical or artistic pretensions, a visit to the Elgin Marbles was a must.

Before the marble sculptures even arrived in England, they were the center of controversy. Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, actually made off with them while serving as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Greece. He claimed these sculptures, which once decorated the Parthenon in Athens, could be better protected in England. Seems some people (not Greeks) were breaking off the noses of statues as souvenirs.

Unfortunately, Elgin didn’t do a very good job of protecting the sculptures. One of the pieces removed from the Parthenon fell and was crushed into dust. The first shipment sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean and had to be salvaged. Then Elgin and his family were kidnapped on the way home from Greece and held as political hostages for three years!

Meanwhile, the arrival of the marble sculptures in England between 1803 and 1812 helped ignite the passion for Greek designs. Woman piled up their hair like the hairstyles in Greek pottery. Dresses turned to classic lines and draperies. Columns and friezes decorated buildings. Artists from all over England and as far away as Italy and America came to ogle the pieces and weep that their own work was so pitiful in comparison.

Not everyone was so thrilled. Several members of Parliament expressed concerns about how the sculptures had come to be in Elgin’s possession. In his Childe Harold, one of the bestsellers of the period, Lord Byron attacked Elgin for plundering history.

Elgin had hoped the British Museum would purchase the collection, but the museum offered less than what he asked. When he had to move from his Park Lane home, he stashed the sculptures in the rear yard of palatial Burlington House, where they were stacked in and around the coal shed. They remained there until 1816, when the British Museum increased their offer. It was still lower than Elgin wanted, but he was getting desperate and Burlington House had been sold, so he accepted the offer.

Today, the Elgin Marbles are still the center of controversy. They remain on display at the British Museum, but Greek patriots and English supporters continue to lobby for their return to their homeland.

And Elgin? His nose rotted off. No lie.