Friday, February 28, 2020

Need a Picnic Hamper? Think Fortnum and Mason

Fortnum and Mason is an upscale department store, beloved by millions today. But its roots date back to before the Regency period, and our ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century would have been sure to make use of its offerings, especially the famous picnic hamper.

Established in 1707, when an enterprising footman from the household of Queen Anne and his landlord agreed to start a small shop in St. James’s Market, Fortnum and Mason catered to those travelling. One of their earliest innovations was the Scotch egg in 1738. The culinary delight consisted of a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and coated with deep fried breadcrumbs. I must admit I had never heard of it before researching for this blog post, but you can be sure it will find its way into one of my stories in the future!

One of the greatest needs was from the wealthy who had to travel long distances between their country estates and London. They also needed sustenance when travelling to horse races or out on their pleasure craft. Fortnum and Mason met these needs by stocking hampers with luxury travelling food like poultry in aspic jelly, game pie, cheeses, and fruit cake.

But their efforts extended beyond the wealthy. Fortnum and Mason had a soft spot for the military. They sent dried fruit and other preserves to the British army during the war with Napoleon. And they gave soldiers and sailors discounts on letterboxes—places to send and receive mail.

Fortnum and Mason is located on Piccadilly in London, as it has been since the late 1700s. Charles Dickens even shopped there. You can learn more about the amazing shop on their website

(Picture of the shop courtesy of Michel Wal and hampers courtesy of Matt Brown.)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Swiss Miss and Sailor Moon?

Well, well. Just when I think I’ve seen everything La Belle Assemblée has to offer, it surpasses itself yet gain. But I’m not sure it can get any better than this. May I present, from the August 1830 issue, some Fancy Ball Dresses...and hoo boy, are they fancy or what?

Here are the descriptions:

Costume of a Swiss Peasant

Over a short but extremely wide petticoat of dark grey silk, with a shaded silk border, is another petticoat somewhat shorter, composed of blue and white striped silk, and ornamented nearly half-way to the waist, with a double row of narrow trimming, of the lozenge form: they are a mixture of dark blue and brown. Low boddice [sic] of flowered silk, over which is a high one, made perfectly tight to the shape, but open on each side of the front, so as partially to display the upper part of the bust, and the under-boddice; a trimming disposed on each side of the bust partially shades it. The boddice is composed of tawny yellow, plain gros de Naples; the arm hole and upper part of the sleeve are ornamented with black silk braiding; a nœud [a knot or bow] of dark blue ribbon is attached on each shoulder; a band passes from it down each side of the boddice, and finishes with a nœud. The sleeve, which sits as close as possible to the arm, terminates below the elbow. The hair is combed back from each side of the face, and arranged in two plaits, mingled with ribbons; a long end of ribbon descends from each nearly as low as the bottom of the dress. The coiffeure is a cap of wrought whalebone, which is a perfect imitation of black lace. The caul is almost flat to the head; two ornaments resembling rings [I think this is a typo for wings] stand up round the face on each side, and a full nœud of ribbon is placed on the summit of the head between the wings; two bands of ribbon descend from the nœud on each side to the middle of each braid, where they are attached by bows. A black velvet collar is fastened in front by a silver buckle. A lappet of the same material as the cap, and very richly wrought, hangs pendant from the collar to the knee. Stockings of vermillion-coloured silk, with white clocks. Sabots of black gros de Naples.

The very short length of the skirt is...well, very short! I’m used to seeing ball dresses a bit above the ankle in length, which only makes sense: tripping over one’s own dress in the middle of a lively dance is the last thing any lady wants to happen. But this is quite a bit above that. And the large headdress would seem to discourage one’s dance partner from looking anywhere but at the dancer’s face, don’t you think? I suspect the “wrought whalebone” part is a carven headband, to which the wings attach.

And then we get to the truly surprising part...ladies wearing what look like culottes—to a ball!

A Lady in Sailor’s Costume

This is one of those travestissements which are not unusually adopted in French fancy balls. At those splendid ones given in the winter at the French Opera House, there were many ladies of rank and fashion in similar dresses. We have selected one of the prettiest of them as the subject of our print.

Striped silk trowsers, made en matelot [sailor-style], but extremely wide, and finished at the bottom by knots of ponçeau [“poppy-colored”, en Français] ribbon. A plain, tight corsage, cut rather high behind, and very low in front of the bust, is attached to the trowsers. Veste of ponçeau gros de Naples, forming the shape of a heart in front; it is cut out on each side in bands, which resemble braiding, while the open spaces shew the under corsage. A row of rich brandebourgs [the loopy, ribbon-y ornaments seen on military coats] finish it in the hussar style on each side of the front. The jacket, which is exactly in the form of a sailor’s, is of bright blue gros de Naples. Manchettes [frilled cuffs] of embroidered cambric. A cambric frill of the pelerine form, but disposed in full plaits, falls over round the bust; and the throat is encircled with a small black silk cravate à la coquette. Black silk hat, turned up on one side, and ornamented with a black esprit and a knot of ribbon. Ponçeau sash. Black shoes with small gold buckles.

Wowza! It’s amazing what carte blanche a costume ball could lend: ladies “of rank and fashion” appearing in public in silk trousers, no matter how wide?! I love the bright poppy-red military-inspired vest and the jacket “exactly in the form of a sailor’s”, feminized with embroidered cuffs and the wide, flouncing collar of the under-blouse. It’s as cute as anything...but still kind of mind-blowing. Think of how scandalized many people would be by Amelia Bloomer and her very baggy “bloomers” which were as unrevealing as any skirt. Can you just see some daring young woman, set on wearing her sailor costume to show off her shapely attributes, pooh-poohing her scandalized family by saying, “Oh, Mama, it’s French! And after all, it’s only a fancy dress ball! Nobody will care about that!”

So what do you think of this week’s Swiss Miss and Sailor Moon?

Friday, February 21, 2020

A Tale of Writing Spaces

I love that laptops and tablets have made it easy to write anywhere. That wasn’t always the case. Jane Austen may have written some of her novels at a little table. Gentlemen might have a lap desk to carry with them when travelling and much larger desks at their homes. This lady philosopher is said to have gone into raptures after solving a knotty problem at her desk. 

Mine is a different tale. I didn’t have a desk at home growing up. We did our homework and wrote our papers on the kitchen table. I scribbled in notebooks and journals. Sometime in high school, I figured out how to take two particle-board bookcases, turn them side by side, put a plank across one end, and make my own desk. Surrounded by books, I typed stories on an ancient Remington that had belonged to my grandmother. My parents were convinced to purchase me an electric typewriter when I started college.

That funky little make-shift desk followed me from home to my first apartment to a better apartment in another part of the state. A slightly bigger version held the massive electronic typewriter that showed a full sentence at a time—imagine!—and then an actual word processor.

It wasn’t until my sons were in elementary school that my wonderful husband insisted on a real desk for me, oak, with a hutch over the top to store books and room for a printer as well as a computer. And we added three floor-to-ceiling oak bookcases to match. Oh, the luxury. My office grew from a corner of the bedroom to a bedroom of its own—first the smallest, then the mid-size as one son went off to college and finally the largest room when they both left home.

Five and a half years ago, we moved across the state to a smaller house and a fixer-upper at that. I took the smallest room for my office, but it is a very nice size with plenty of room for desk and bookcases. But immediately we ran into problems. My lovely bookcases wouldn’t fit through the door upright, and the turning radius was too narrow to allow them to be angled in, from any angle. We ended up bringing them in through the window, with a burly mover inside and out. They will not be moving until other burly movers appear.

Next, my floor plan was stymied by a defunct baseboard heater. It sticks out six inches from the wall under the window. We should have removed it before bringing in the furnishings, but there were those handy burly movers about. So, a second desk now presses up against it, and the floor plan mostly works.

The third problem we have yet to master. You see, the room used to belong to a teenager with a vivid imagination and an indulgent father. She painted two of the walls teal, two turquoise, and added random hot pink circles of various sizes wherever she fancied. And she painted all the wood trim and the defunct heater purple. (I did mention the house was a fixer-upper.) I fully intended to paint it (a nice Wedgwood blue, perhaps?), but I realized I would have to empty and re-position those bookcases again.

The décor is growing on me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Universal Advertising Sheet, Part 5

Let’s see what interesting shreds of personal and social history we can read about, courtesy this week of the Monthly Compendium of Literary, Fashionable, and Domestic Advertisements from the August 1810 edition of La Belle Assemblée...


JOHN FELL, sole inventor of the PORTABLE WIND-UP SHOWER BATHS, respectfully informs the Public that he has ready for Sale, a number of the above universally approved Machines, at his Warehouse, 161, High Holborn, near Broad-street. This invention has received, as it is undoubtedly entitled to, unlimited Patronage. There is a Moveable Cylinder, so admirably contrived as to furnish the utmost facility in filling, and afterwards by gradually elevating it, to produce a shock in such proportion as the feelings, age, or habits of Bathers may require. It is, moreover, made to take to pieces, and pack up most conveniently.—Price from Five to Seven Guineas.—N.B. J.F. is Inventor and Vender of the Corking Machines so much in present use.

Showers weren’t so much used for getting clean as they were for a sort of do-it-yourself  health treatment, rather like sea-bathing was done for curative, not recreational, purposes. Interestingly, when I went to look for more information on Mr. Fell, I found mention in 1887 of a John Fell and Co., suppliers of bath and lavatory valves and beer machines and bar fittings—which covers both his shower baths and the Corking Machines mentioned in the ad. 


The Clubs met with great success in the last Lottery at HORNSBY and Co.’s, Cornhill; part of the 20,000 l. sold by them, was divided among Thirteen jolly Watermen of St. Catherine’s; besides Shares in the Borough, and many other places in the Metropolis; and also at Liverpool, Bath, Chester, Taunton, Leith, and Deal—Many Clubs are now forming from Gravesend to Richmond, and every other place in the Kingdom; and additional £20,000 in the present Lottery, to be drawn October the 19th, creates a strong desire of adventuring.

Lotteries were quite the thing at this time, as Regina once posted about here...but I love the “Thirteen Jolly Watermen of St. Catherine’s” touch in this particular ad.

Rational, Pleasing, and useful.
No. 14, Tavistock-street, Covent Garden.
Greatly Enlarged.

The Public are respectfully informed, that valuable and expensive Works, in every class of Literature, are daily added to this Library; which now consists of sixty thousand Volumes of modern Publications, really valuable, useful, and entertaining.

Catalogues and Cards of the terms may be had on application at the Library.

Books were expensive to purchase outright; a typical three-volume novel could run upward of several guineas for a heavily illustrated tome. Enter the subscription library, where for a fee books could be borrowed before the free public library became a fixture of philanthropic giving later in the century.  Even small towns and villages could often boast of at least one small one, and London and other cities were rife with them, and advertised their wares we can see here.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Enjoy the Day of Love!

Happy Valentine’s Day! I’ll be spending the evening with my favorite fellow. I have a candlelight dinner planned, ending in angel food cake and strawberries. I hope you have a chance to celebrate with those you love!

We’ve talked about Valentine’s Day in the nineteenth century a number of times, including here, here, here, and here. This year, I thought you might enjoy seeing some Valentines from the era. The one at the top is a lovely Kate Greenaway version. I think it's supposed to be depict medieval times, but aren't the dresses perfect for the Regency?

The one below is by Esther Howland, dating from about 1870. She truly had a knack.

This is from 1884. Such a demure young miss!

And this is certainly something, from 1862.

Oh, and one more Valentine, from me to you. The first book in my Lady Emily Capers, Secrets and Sensibilities, is on sale until the 21st for 99 cents. The boxed set of Secrets and Sensibilities, Art and Artifice, and a special short story not available elsewhere is two dollars off at $3.99.



Friday, February 7, 2020

In Which the Author Cobbles Together Tantalizing Snippets and Calls It a Blog Post

I have a cold. Not miserable. Yet. But I looked at what I had considered blogging about today and decided it was just too much to bear. Party for pity? Yes, please. One only. So, instead, I offer you some enticing tidbits sure to warm any fan of Regency-set fiction.

Author Regina Jeffers has an interesting post on her blog about letters during the Regency period, including information on franking (basically, using something to indicate you didn’t have to pay postage) and seals. 

Author Victoria Hinshaw has a fabulous post about Osterley Park on the Number One London blog. Osterley Park is the basis for Carrolton Park in Never Envy an Earl. The blog has awesome pictures!

And author Elaine Bach, on Caroline Warfield’s wonderful blog, shares the horrifying details about Regency-era medicine

I’m taking notes on that one. Book 3 of the Grace-by-the-Sea series features a hero who is the new spa physician. I found a great medical manual dating from the late 1700s, on Google Books. I can tell you, reading it is not for the faint of heart.

Makes a cold seem positively invigorating!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Fancy Mourning Dishabille, Of Course

Ah, La Belle Assemblée never fails to inform...and delight!

Behold this marvelous “invention” of Mrs. Bell in the January 1818 issue—a Fancy Mourning Dishabille!

The accompanying text reads “Morning slip of grey Merino crape, ornamented with black round the border in ranges of leaves; the slip made low, without sleeves, and worn over a cambric spencer, ornamented with fine muslin, embroidered at the edge with black, and finished at the throat with a triple ruff of muslin, tied in front with black love. Black sarsnet French apron, edged round with a newly invented trimming of black love. Cornette of fine muslin, crowned with a garland of black flowers. Black chamois slippers.

So... why mourning? A look at the date answers that: official mourning was still in effect for Princess Charlotte of Wales, Prinny’s daughter who died in childbirth the previous November. This dress moves into the half-mourning range, as the dress is of gray crepe rather than black and includes a white cambric undershirt, or spencer, and white muslin headdress.

And the “Fancy Dishabille” part? That title and the decorative apron suggest this was a dress to be worn “at home”...but not when one’s plans included giving the dog a bath and cleaning out the
lingerie drawer! Rather, it was for when one was expecting, say, friends and acquaintances to drop by—maybe to pay “thank you for your hospitality” calls after a dinner or party, as one did.

I’m intrigued by the references to the “ black love” trimming the French apron and the hat: it looks almost like a chenille trimming of some sort, or perhaps a pleated ribbon. The apron itself—I’m not sure what makes it French, but it’s certainly a fetching enough article. And the leaf decoration around the hem definitely presages the heavily decorated dress hems that were soon to be all the rage.

What do you think? Will this be your next lounging-about-at-home costume?