Friday, January 28, 2011

Whistful Wonderings

If I were a young (or not so young) lady at a ball at the nineteenth century, you can bet you’d find me dancing. But not everyone was so inclined. That’s why many hostesses also offered a card room at balls and soirees. At other times, the entire party consisted of card games. And the most likely game to be played was whist.

Whist started out as a gentleman’s game, played in clubs for money, but quickly gained popularity. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, ladies and gentlemen were expected to know how to play, and the better you played, the more respect you earned (although most home card parties did not feature playing for money). An outstanding whist player was a coveted partner. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were clubs just for playing whist as well as championships played in major cities. The famous Edmond Hoyle (“According to Hoyle”) even wrote instructions on how to play well.

Whist is similar to bridge or pinochle, with four players in two partnerships. Partners sit across from each other at a table. The dealer deals out all of the 52 cards; the dealer’s final card indicates which suit will be trump. Aces are the high card, two the low. Trump cards beat all cards regardless of rank.

The game proceeds in tricks, starting with the player at the dealer’s left. That player leads with any card, and play progresses clockwise. Each player must play a card in the same suit if she has it, trying to beat the card that was led. If she does not have a card in the same suit, she can play a trump card or play any other card. Either the player with the highest trump card in that trick or, if there is no trump card, the player with the highest card in that trick wins the trick (and keeps those cards in a pile) and gets to start the next one. When all thirteen tricks have been played, partners add up the cards in the tricks they took. The team with the most tricks wins one point for every tick in excess of six. The first team to five points wins the game.

Whist was not for the fainthearted. You needed to be able to remember which cards had been played in a trick to know what cards were still in someone’s hand. You needed to be able to watch your partner’s play so you could pick up tricks or not waste your high cards. Gentlemen, and some ladies for that matter, were known to be scathing of the poor partner who could not keep up. On the other hand, a lady who played well, and played at a house party where coin was exchanged for points taken, could do very well for herself.

I think I’d better stick to dancing. What about you?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Prince Regent, Part 2: The Most Accomplished Gentleman?

At the age of eight, like most other well-born lads of the age, George left the nursery and the kindly and sensible Lady Charlotte, and was set up in a separate household where his brothers would eventually join him. There they would be taught to be humble, virtuous, devoted and obedient to their parents and to their religion, and fond of simple living.

It didn’t work out that way.

As I said in the last part, George was intelligent and seems to have worked hard at his studies. Unfortunately, he was also a high-spirited boy, and his tutors had been commanded by the King not to tolerate any laziness or schoolboy silliness on the part of George or his brothers. Any of that met with immediate—and generally harsh—punishment. King George became concerned by the reports of his son’s governor Lord Holdernesse, who seems to have been as earnest and as ineffectual and clueless as the King. This resulted in a steady diet of parental lectures and thrashings, administered in the presence of George’s younger sisters—hardly treatment for a warm-hearted but highly-strung boy.

To make matters worse, in-fighting among young George’s various tutors led to a high turn-over and a lack of continuity. And to top it off, the King continued to make no secret of the fact that he was much fonder of George’s younger brother Fred. It was something of a miracle that the two boys remained devoted to each other, when any scrapes the pair got into were always blamed on the elder.

All of George’s younger brothers eventually got shipped off to join the army (or navy, in William’s case) and therefore had something to do, some focus and outlet. That route was not open to the heir to the throne—yet the King refused to start tutoring George in how to be a king and thereby give him some purpose in life. George had so little knowledge of his future kingly duties that when be became Prince Regent, he even had to be shown how to sign royal documents.

Is there really any wonder, then, that pretty soon there was a full-scale rebellion in the palace?

Though George was forced to remain living with his parents until he was 21, by age 16 he was already figuring out how to sneak out to go partying and how to get other people to cover for him. At 17 he became violently infatuated with the actress Mary Robinson, whom he called “Perdita” after the Shakespearean role in which he first saw her. Affairs with other women soon followed, to his parents’ dismay (and to the cost of their purses, buying these women off). Nor was womanizing the only problem; according to his (almost) lifelong friend, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, George spend most of the 1780s “frequently drunk”, and his friendship with the rather disreputable Sir John Lade led to daredevil exploits in his phaeton, including driving to Brighton from London and back in under ten hours. Other boon companions in partying too hard were the Dukes of Cumberland and Gloucester, George’s uncles and the King’s brothers, who had also suffered from too much restriction at the King’s hands.

Georgiana, the famous Duchess of Devonshire, left a perceptive word portrait of the twenty-year-old George:

“The Prince of Wales is rather tall, and has a figure which, although striking is not perfect. He is inclined to be too fat and looks too much like a woman in men’s clothes, but the gracefulness of his manner and his height certainly make him a pleasing figure. His face is very handsome, and he is fond of dress even to a tawdry degree, which young as he is will soon wear off. His person, his dress and the admiration he has met with…take up his thoughts chiefly. He is good-natur’d and rather extravagant…but he certainly does not want for understanding, and his jokes sometimes have the appearance of wit….”

So here we have it…a son who turned out to be the exact opposite of what his parents intended. The King tried to curb George by keeping him on a tight allowance; in retaliation, George became an outrageous spendthrift. Once he turned 21, the King could no longer force him to stay living at home, and George acquired his own homes—Carlton House in London (that's it at right), and a seaside villa in the village of Brighton. If the King had been despondent before, George’s next action would push him beyond despair.

Young George got married.

Stay tuned for The Prince Regent, Part 3: Mrs. Fitzherbert

Friday, January 21, 2011

Where the Boys Are: Betting at White's

The nineteenth century saw the rising popularity of gentlemen’s clubs in London. There were clubs for military men, a club for men of Scottish descent, a club for men who had travelled outside England by at least 500 miles. But one of the most famous was the club for the fashionable: White’s.

White’s started out as a chocolate house, a place where one went to drink hot chocolate and chat with one’s equals (not too different from coffee houses today). In the late 1700s, the establishment took up rooms on St. James’s and limited membership to a certain number of male subscribers (300 at the beginning of the nineteenth century; 500 by 1814).

As a young man, you could only hope to breath the rarified air of White’s. You were allowed to visit as a guest of another member, say an older brother or father. To become a member, you needed a current member or two to vouch for you. All current members voted on whether to accept you, dropping a small white ball into a box to indicate favor and a small black ball to indicate disfavor. A single black ball was enough to bar you entrance to that hallowed hall. (Anyone heard of being "blackballed"?)

But if you were so lucky as to be invited to join, you had to pay a yearly subscription (11 guineas in 1814) and agree to abide by a set of rules. Once inside those doors, you might play cards to all hours, eat a good supper at precisely 10 each night, and read the Times in peace. But one of the most entertaining things about White’s was its infamous betting book.

Any member could bet any other member anything, at any time. The bet was recorded in the book for all members to ogle and gossip about, and the loser had better pay promptly or risk the wrath of his fellow members (including being removed from membership). Bets ranged all over the place, but generally covered events taking place (or not), people getting married or having children (or not), and, early in the century, the movements and defeat of Napoleon.

Some bets were easily identified, even in the shorthand used in the book: “Mr. G. Talbot bets Mr. Blackford five guineas that Mr. Walsh is transported.” Apparently Mr. Walsh was vindicated, for Mr. Talbot paid his wager.

Others were far more secretive. “Mr. B. Craven bets Lord Forbes 100 gs to 5 that an event between them understood takes place before another which was named. March 11, 1821.” So what event was that important to them both? Hm.

But this one caught my attention: “Mr. Bouverie bets Ld. Yarmouth a hundred to fifty that H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence has not a legitimate child within 2 years of this day (November 18, 1817).”

Mr. Bouverie must have won, as the Duke of Clarence, who became William IV, had no legitimate children, opening the way for Victoria to become Queen after him. I would be willing to bet that Marissa knew that.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fashion Forecast: 1819

What was the well-dressed young lady wearing in 1819?

In January, the Court was still in mourning for the death of Queen Charlotte the previous November…but after a certain amount of time clothing went from full mourning to “half-mourning”, when white as well as black were allowed. You can see examples in Ackermann’s Repository with this Half Mourning Walking Dress and Half Mourning Evening Dress, both from the January issue: By February, though, all mourning was off, as is shown by this exuberantly cheerful cherry-red Ball Dress from La Belle Assemblee. No guess as to the fabric, but it was obviously elaborately embroidered:March saw an event that should be celebrated by mall-lovers everywhere: the opening of London's Burlington Arcade, a covered walkway onto which opened 72 upscale shops. I wonder if a young lady might have worn this smart Walking Dress to examine the delights for sale there? There’s quite a garden blooming on the top of that bonnet, though I like the pink and green combination (Ackermann’s Repository): I wish I had the original description of this Evening Dress from the March edition of Ackermann’s Repository, as it’s quite stunning: note the purple embroidered sheer overdress on top of a mustard-yellow underdress. The hat is, um, quite original, and the expression on the young lady’s face as she strums her guitar is priceless. I can’t help thinking she might be worried about that rose in her headdress, just above her forehead: As can be seen from both this Walking Dress and the previous one from March, the spencer was still in fashion. This one sets off an elaborately embroidered dress (that looks like eyelet embroidery to me) and ruff, with a matching green hat. May 1819, by the way, is a special month in my calendar—it saw the birth of a sturdy baby girl in Kensington Palace who would, in a few weeks time, be christened Alexandrina Victoria…and come to the throne 18 years later as Queen Victoria. (Ackermann’s Repository): Isn’t this wonderful? It’s “A Danish fancy dress worn at the Prince Regent’s Fete” in August 1819—for his birthday, perhaps? I have no idea if it actually resembles Danish fashions, or if Mrs. Bell, the dress’s “inventor” was just having fun…but it certainly is eye candy, isn’t it? (La Belle Assemblee): Though not particularly eye-candyish, I thought this dress from La Belle Assemblee of interest. It is labeled “Parisian Evening Bridal Dress”, and includes the original description:
Round dress of white watered gros-de-Naples, flounced in a festoon of very broad lace of a rich pattern, surmounted by full-blown blush roses and orange-flower blossoms. The hair is arranged in full curls, and bound round with pearls and ears of ripe corn. Bouquet of orange flowers on the left side of the bust. Necklace of pearls, fastened before with a cameo à-l’Antique. Earrings à-l’Etoile. Short sleeves, white kid gloves, white satin shoes, and carved cedar fan.

The above dress is the faithful representation of the bridal attire of a lady of rank, for returning her congratulatory visits on her late marriage.

This hearkens back to an exchange that occurred in a past Fashion Forecast about bridal attire; here we can see that white as a color didn’t originate with Queen Victoria (nor did wearing orange blossoms as a wedding flower), and that one’s gown was usually worn to make post-wedding calls in: Several of the Ackermann prints from this year have wonderful “props” and settings to add visual interest; I thought this Walking Dress from the November issue was charming on both counts. The pale yellow with pink ruffles is just sweet, and her oversized bonnet looks like a valentine (though it must have been an absolute bear to actually wear). I wonder why she’s gazing out to sea with such interest? Maybe to catch a glimpse of one of the new trans-atlantic steamships, which had made their maiden voyage in June: What do you think of 1819's fashions?

Friday, January 14, 2011

It's in the Bag

I nearly hit a wall with my work in progress this week. My hero (you remember the baronet of Blackcliff?) has traveled on horseback in September of 1811 up to an estate he has recently been awarded in the Lakes District. He didn’t intend to stay more than a few days, but circumstances conspire to keep him there a few weeks. During that time, he climbs a mountain, attends services at the local church, and even sweeps the heroine off to the local assembly for dancing. The problem? His suitcase.

When you don’t have a large traveling carriage, your options for packing are limited. English saddles don’t have horns like Western saddles. Saddle bags were more often put on pack horses (which my hero does not own) than riding horses. But the cavalry had some sort of cases that connected to saddles (the picture is of an American one).

Kind of puny, isn’t it?

His problem would be the problem of any young man or lady traveling by horseback or even on the mail coach, where you could only bring so much luggage. And this was still a time when most clothing and footwear were custom-made; not so easy to borrow or buy when you get to your destination, at least immediately. I’m pretty good at packing light, but there’s no way I could fit enough clothes, even with today’s modern packable fabrics, for a variety of activities spanning two or more weeks into a case that size.

So, what did he bring with him?

He’s wearing stockings and boots, trousers, a greatcoat, jacket, waistcoat, shirt, cravat, and hat. He needs a shaving kit. Though it’s a little outside our period (early 1900s), I liked this one made from elephant hide. And he’d have to bring some traveling money with him, which means piles of gold coin (bank drafts aren’t going to work in the wilds of Cumberland). Doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for much else, does it?

The necessities, as I see them, are a nightshirt and a spare shirt, pair of trousers, and a couple cravats so the maid can wash the ones he’s wearing. A spare jacket and waistcoat so he can change up his look a bit would be nice, but that may be straining credibility. But dancing shoes? Not making the cut. Nicer outfit for church? Not going to happen. Spare boots to climb that mountain? Nah.

If you had two small bags for a young nineteenth century gentleman, what would you put in them?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Prince Regent, Part 1: Enter the Prince, Stage Left

When reading English history, I’ve always felt sorry for the children of kings. They have to deal with not only parental scrutiny, but the attention of an entire nation focused on them…and invariably, it seems that they disappoint for some reason or other (Edward VII comes to mind here). Even more unfortunately, it seems that a lot of royal parents and their children just haven’t gotten along—bad enough in a regular father-son relationship, but often nearly disastrous between a King and his heir. The Hanoverian kings, who ruled England beginning in 1714, were notorious for this.

King George III was quite sure matters wouldn’t work that way for him when his first child was born on August 12, 1762. Young Prince George Augustus Frederick was greeted rapturously on his arrival, and so proud of him were his parents that the new Prince of Wales was actually put on public display for several afternoons, snoozing in his cradle or being fed by his nurse while the fashionable of London filed by to gawk. Being on display eventually became something of a habit with the lad, as we shall see (that's him in Roman general costume with mom Queen Charlotte, little brother Fred, and a canine friend).

He wasn’t an only child for long; over the next 20 years he accumulated fourteen more brothers and sisters. The King and Queen were, unusual for the time, complete homebodies (or at least the King was…poor Queen Charlotte might have liked a slightly livelier life, but she didn’t get it) and were Victorian in their habits and outlook long before their grand-daughter, Victoria, was even thought of. The King preferred simple clothes, simple food, simple entertainments…which of course bored his court to tears.

This love of simplicity extended to how they raised their children. The King frequently got down onto the floor to play with his children when toddlers, and the Queen supervised their 6:00 am baths. Later on, their diets were strict (no meat on certain days of the week, and crusts to be removed from fruit tarts) and education stricter: the boys of the family were not spared the rod if they didn't learn their lessons.

So what kind of a child was little George? By all accounts, a remarkably precocious and charming one; his governess during his early years (and governess to all his siblings as well), Lady Charlotte Finch, had dozens of anecdotes about his clever sayings and doings. But alas, true to history and despite his resolutions, King George was not charmed by his eldest son, much preferring his more straightforward and manly if less clever and sensitive brother Frederick. Even thought the Queen would adore her eldest all her life and much prefer him to the rest of her brood, the stage was already set for family conflict.

Little George, of course, received an excellent education. He was good at languages, studying Greek and Latin and speaking French, German, and Italian with great fluency, enjoyed music (Johann Sebastian Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian, worked for the Royal Family), and studied history and literature extensively. He played the cello, drew, fenced with the greatest fencing master of the day, the great Henry Angelo. What he didn't learn, it seemed, was anything about real life. King George made an especial effort to keep his children secluded from from the evil influences of anyone outside the royal family and staff. What effect that had will be seen in Prince Regent, Part 2: The Most Polished Gentleman.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Match Made in . . . Stockton-on-Tees?

I live in a surprisingly sunny place for Washington State. We have 300 days of sun a year, and almost all of the 60 rainy days come between November and February. I hate these dark, dreary, drizzly days and tend to turn on far too many lights and crank up the heat to levels that would cause the more environmentally conscious to swoon. But if I’d been a nineteenth century miss, it would not have been nearly this easy to light a house or warm a room.

We’ve talked about the candles needed to brighten spaces and fireplaces needed to warm them. What was trickier was to actually light those candles and fireplaces. Early in the century, many households were still using some form of tinderbox. These metal boxes held a stone (often flint) and a piece of metal to strike against it to make a spark. They also held some form of tinder, such as fabric or small pieces of wood. The idea was to use the spark from the flint and steel to catch a piece of tinder on fire, then use it to light the candle or fireplace.

Tinderboxes gradually gave way to more mechanical methods of lighting tinder, such as strike-a-lights, which looked like a pistol. You inserted the tinder in the cylinder and pulled the trigger and the flint inside struck a spark and ignited the tinder. There were even smaller sizes to carry in your pocket so you could use them wherever you went. The biggest problems with tinderboxes were keeping them stocked with tinder and keeping that tinder dry enough to take the spark.

Another way to spark a light was to use a chemical process. Instantaneous light boxes and phosphorous boxes used vitriol and phosphorous, respectively. A stick of wood was inserted in the chemical and then struck against a surface to create friction. No more need to strictly dry tinder! Unfortunately, the chemicals could get quite messy, not to mention dangerous, if their bottles were broken.

In 1826, John Walker of Stockton-on-Tees, England, invented friction matches. A chemist and apothecary, he coated sticks with antimony sulfide, potassium, chlorate, gum, and starch. No more need to carry bottles! No more worries about wet tinder! The sticks would burst into flame when struck against anything. There lay the benefit and the danger. Now you could start a fire anywhere, anytime, even if the matches rubbed against fabric, say the inside of your pocket!

Still, friction matches were popular enough that silversmiths and other artisans rushed to create match safes, metal boxes and cylinders to keep the matches from igniting until you were ready. The safes were still used to protect matches when safety matches came until widespread use in Britain, after 1862. Don’t you love this one from 1895 in the head of a gentleman’s cane?

Makes you appreciate that light switch on the wall, eh?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy 200th, Prinny!

Happy New Year, dear readers! Regina and I hope your end-of-year holidays were full of fun and light, and that you’re ready for a new year full of history geekiness, new books, and general merriment.

Speaking of new years, 2011 marks an important anniversary to those of us with an obsession with interest in early 19th century history—tomorrow, January 5, is the 200th anniversary of the start of the Regency.

When we hear the word Regency most of us think of graceful, high-waisted dresses and exquisitely tied cravats and coats (preferably worn by a Colin Firth look-alike), classically-inspired furniture, brilliant and witty society, and Jane Austen. The Regency period is synonymous with a certain elegance and grace in the decorative arts, in manners, in fashion, and in literature--more sophisticated and somehow more modern-feeling than the Victorian period that followed it.

It is all those things...but most importantly, the Regency was the period from 1811 to 1820 when King George III still sat on the British throne but due to insanity and ill health was unable to rule. Instead, his eldest son the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) reigned in his name as Prince Regent.

So how did the Regency happen, anyway? Hmm…I think I feel a history lesson coming on…

King George III came to the throne in 1760 at the age of 22, succeeding his grandfather, George II (his father, Prince Frederick, was already dead). Young George was nothing if not dutiful, and one of his first duties as king, as he saw it, was to marry and provide for the succession. So within a year of becoming king, he married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (a German province north of Berlin), and within a year of marrying, was the proud papa of a bouncing boy. So dutiful was King George, in fact, that fourteen more children followed (and oh my goodness, don’t you feel sorry for poor Queen Charlotte?)

George’s reign was, of course, not a quiet one: the 1770s and early 1780s saw the American Revolution and the start of years of war with France which would run, on and off, until 1815. And despite his fondness for his large family, he was not the most effective parent: his sons ran wild and were incredibly spendthrift, while his daughters were forced to live an almost nun-like existence (the first of them allowed to marry didn’t do so till her late thirties). But 1788 saw an event unprecedented in English history: the King went mad.

It’s now thought that George III was not insane but suffered from a (possibly) inherited metabolic disease called porphyria, a disorder of the body’s ability to regulate hemoglobin levels (it’s also suspected that mercury poisoning—mercury was commonly used in everyday remedies—may have exacerbated the condition). But what his family and ministers saw was increasingly erratic and manic behavior from him in the late summer and fall of 1788; despite a visit to the resort town of Cheltenham to drink its waters, he grew worse. When by November the poor man had to be forcibly restrained, a political crisis ensued: Parliament could not officially begin its business until the King formally opened it, which meant that virtually nothing could happen. The possibility of appointing a regent to rule for him was discussed, but the King’s recovery early the following spring made a regency unnecessary.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the last episode of madness the poor King suffered. Other brief periods of illness occurred, especially in 1804; in addition, encroaching old age and cataracts troubled George’s health and comfort. But he managed to hold on until November 1810, when tragedy struck: his youngest and favorite daughter, the Princess Amelia, died of consumption after a lingering and painful final illness. For the poor old King, it was the last straw: all his old symptoms returned with a vengeance and this time, did not subside. He remained ill until his death in January of 1820, at which time the Prince Regent ("Prinny" to his friends) became king in name as well as fact.

So who is this Prinny guy, anyway? Next week we'll begin a multi-part series on the man whom his tutor once predicted would be "either the most polished gentleman, or the most accomplished blackguard in Europe--possibly an admixture of both."