Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Poodle Skirts and Pet Rocks...Nineteenth Century Style

It’s easy to assume that crazes--mass obsessions with the same thing (bobbed hair, CB radios, Beatlemania, American Idol) are a modern phenomenon. But the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by no means have a monopoly on them. As far back as the middle ages there were dance crazes, religious fervor crazes (one of which led to the so-called “Children’s Crusade”), and even botanical crazes (the extravagant demand for tulip bulbs in 17th century Holland which led to a country-wide financial crisis).

The nineteenth century was by no means exempt from crazes. The world of fashion seemed especially craze-prone, though fashion crazes were often sparked by something quite unrelated to dress. For example, the publication in 1814 of Walter Scott’s first Scottish historical novel, Waverley (we talked about it a few weeks ago, if you recall) led to a passion for all things Scottish. Tartan fabrics were all the rage, as you can see from this young miss at the right.

But the Scottish craze didn’t end there. Especially smitten young female fans began to carry sporrans--the furry bags Scots wear in front of their kilts--instead of the dainty reticules that had previously been in vogue. So great was the demand for these bags, commonly made from badger fur, that Highland outfitters could hardly keep up and badgers were hunted mercilessly. Nor was that the only problem; the badger hides were often hurriedly and inadequately cured, and in time the Prince Regent banned them at court events because of the overwhelming stink that would arise in overheated ballrooms from be-sporraned guests.

Fashion wasn’t the only place where crazes arose. As the British Empire expanded, products from all over the world began to appear in British markets. India was a major source due to the spread of British rule and influence over the sub-continent, and curries, chutneys, and other foods slowly gained an enthusiastic audience. One short-lived but intense craze for an Indian import was betel-nuts. They took London by storm for a few months in mid-1838 after the attendance of two fabulously wealthy and be-jeweled maharajahs from the Princely States at Queen Victoria’s coronation. Betel-nuts are a mild stimulant (they give about the same buzz as a cup of coffee) and very popular in their native Asia, but their popularity was not long-lasting in England because of the need to spit out their chewed remains…and the fact that they stain the mouth red. However, legend attributes them with fertility-boosting powers--so perhaps the Queen’s brief flirtation with betel-nut chewing has something to do with her family of nine children.

3 comments:

Regina Scott said...

Hey, I chew betel-nuts! My whole family does. I'm all for historical re-enactment. When we get together for family reunions, it's just chew, chew, chew, SPIT. I hold the record for greatest distance standing on one leg and flapping my arms. Do you think Queen Victoria could beat me? What if I wore a sporran?

Marissa Doyle said...

From what I understand, Regina, Victoria's governess, Baroness Lehzen, could out-spit her quite handily. She was in the habit of chewing caraway seeds before the betel-nut craze hit, you see, so she'd had years of practice.

However, Victoria could out-spit both her uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, and her prime minister Lord Melborne. Some historians have posited that Melbourne let her win, though Cambridge used to get quite red in the face when she won (and not from the nuts) so I don't think he was holding back.

I'm not sure standing on one leg and flapping one's arm was practiced at court, however. Ladies' sleeves had grown rather snug and prohibited much extreme movement.

Amanda McCabe said...

LOL! You two April Fools-ers. I think you got us there. :)