Friday, January 30, 2009

Not the Usual Line Up

So, I’m going to talk about dancing, but I truly think nineteenth century dancing is something you have to see, and, preferably, do! So, some sleuthing on YouTube revealed the following wonderful video, from our friends at the Oregon Regency Society (waves wildly!):

You’ll notice several things here. Many of the dances in the early nineteenth century were line dances, meaning that partners stood across from each other in long lines, women on one side and men on the other. In addition, many tunes had specific dances that went with them, and as a young lady you would be expected to know those steps. In the video, you’ll hear someone calling the steps, but that wasn’t actually done at balls. Instead, if you were unsure, you watched the lead dancers in the set.

You’ll also notice that the dancers move around a lot. It may look simple and stately, but, believe me, at the end of the dance, you’re winded! The partners are together a lot in this dance, but often you exchanged partners or danced with others near you for part of each dance, so conversation came in little snippets and couldn’t be lengthy, contrary to the dance scene between Elizabeth and Darcy in the most recent Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

The one exception is when a couple “stood out.” You’ll notice that too in the video. At one point the couple closest to the camera does nothing while others are dancing. Sometimes the figure of the dance and the number of dancers made for poor combination, and a couple at the top of the room (closest to the musicians) or the bottom of the room (farthest away from the musicians) wouldn’t have a role for a short while. Then, you could make conversation, and have a reasonable assurance that those dancing closest to you might not overhear. Perfect time to pass on gossip, arrange an assignation for later, or merely comment on the weather.

The dances may look sedate, but they were fraught with opportunities for young couples. Perhaps your partner holds your hand a microsecond longer than he’s supposed to. Heavens, could he like you more than you thought? Perhaps his thumb caresses the back of your fingers as you turn. My word, but you’re blushing now! And then there is “the look.”

Those of you who have been following this blog know that I dress up once a year as a Regency dandy for a soiree held by my colleagues in the Beau Monde, Romance Writers of America’s (RWA)special interest chapter for those who write early nineteenth century books. It started as a joke, but Sir Reginald has quickly become more popular than I ever was. I do get a kick out of teasing my friends by flirting outrageously. So, I’ve had my fair share of dances. I thought I’d mastered the manner of intensely gazing at a lady across the line until her cheeks heat and her eyes lower and you can tell her heart is beating faster.

And then I met Baronda Bradley.

Baronda is a member of the Jane Austen Society of America, North Texas Chapter. She kindly shared her knowledge of nineteenth-century costuming at the 2007 RWA national conference. Here she’s in a day dress she designed. However, for the Soiree, she came in a lovely ball gown, hair in ringlets, and she very kindly consented to honor Sir Reginald with a dance.

Baronda knows the early nineteenth century. Every movement, every smile said confidence and composure. She was graceful, she was demure, she was everything a well-bred young lady of nineteenth century England should be. But when she gazed at me across the line, eyes sultry and deep. . . well, I had to remind myself that I’m a happily married WOMAN and not the Regency buck I was pretending to be.

Now, where are my smelling salts?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Having A Ball

Please excuse my tardiness in posting—due to the weather in the northeast, we’re having anything but a ball. I hope everyone who’s been affected by this latest ice storm is safe and warm, or will be very soon.

What is the first image that comes to your mind when you think of the 19th century? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a young lady dressed to the nines, ready to go to a ball, like this one at right.

Balls were probably THE most talked-about and enthusiastically attended social events…which hardly seems surprising. Wearing beautiful dresses that in some decades showed off a nicely-turned pair of ankles (as does our young lady from 1811 at left), having the opportunity to spend focused yet limited amounts of time with multiple gentleman over the course of an evening and thereby getting to check them out in a slightly more up close and personal manner, and of course, dancing! I personally can’t help wondering if nineteenth century teen girls loved balls so much because they provided one of the few chances they had, while in London for the social season, to move freely and actively. No gyms or Jazzercize classes were available, don’t forget!

I’ve talked in general about what happened at balls; over the next week or two Regina and I will get a little more specific describing actual dances and other bits of ballroom lore, and I’ll discuss and post some pictures of dance cards from my collection.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sarcenet, Lustring, and Bombazine

[Disclaimer: I’m posting this on travel, and I’ve put in over 10 hours today. My brain is mush. Please forgive and/or ignore any typos, poor grammar, or nxblcs. What? Oh, sorry, dozed off there a second. Anyway, be kind! Thanks! Regina—who will get home tomorrow after another 9 + hour day.]
Marissa’s post on money last week got me thinking. One of the other areas where it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the terminology used in the nineteenth century is textiles, particularly in women’s clothing. The fabrics we’re used to today don’t exactly match up, for a variety of reasons.

One is that the nineteenth century saw the birth of the industrial revolution, which meant that cloth could be woven and knit by machines rather than people. Up until then, fabric was woven, dyed, and even the thread was spun by hand, giving each bolt of fabric a unique look and feel. If you’d like a fascinating, in-depth look at this process, try Elizabeth C. Bunce’s paranormal historical YA, A Curse Dark as Gold.

In the nineteenth century, clothing care was also vastly different from today. Those with money could hire a laundress, but she generally washed underthings and night clothes. Clothes worn during the day were kept as clean as possible with aprons, tear-away trim, and overskirts because getting them clean was difficult and time-consuming.

All that said, here’s a few of fabric names you see most often in historical novels:

Bombazine. The governess, aging spinster auntie, poor relation, or grieving widow is often dressed in this fabric, probably because it’s usually black. The warp (the longitudinal threads in fabric) is silk; the weft (the other threads) is wool. The combination tends to make an all-season material with very little shine. Our washable wool today might be a good approximation.

Lustring or Lutestring. A very fine, glossy silk with a bit of stiffness. Think our taffeta.

Sarcenet, Sarsenet or Sarsnet. A thin silk, often for linings and underdresses (or for those who like draping gowns that, ahem, show more than they hide). Think nylon slip, only nicer.

Spitalfields silk. Silk made in the east end of London. During the Napoleonic Wars it was considered very patriotic to wear because bringing silk from the Orient was difficult and dangerous. I have a scarf of today’s equivalent of Spitalfields silk. It’s light and floaty, and it takes color well, but it’s a bit stiffer than other silks I’ve purchased.

Want some pretty pictures and a great deal more detail? Try Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion. Bless you, Jessamyn!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

With this Ring (and your ₤25,000), I Thee Wed

Last week I posted about the intricacies of 19th century England’s monetary system…okay, who remembers what a groat is?

This week, we’ll look at a related topic, one of great importance to a lot of teen girls in the 19th century: dowries.

So what is a dowry?

A dowry (also referred to as a “marriage portion” or just “portion”) is the money or property that a bride brought into her marriage. Families of wealth and property usually started putting aside money for a daughter’s dowry as soon as she was born (it could later be used to support her if she chose not to marry). Often it represented her share of what she would inherit from her parents on their death, but given to her upon her marriage rather than later.

Usually some part of a bride’s dowry was designated to be her settlement, an amount of money or other assets like an allowance allotted to her for her own personal use so that she would have some independent means…because her dowry pretty much became her husband’s property upon their marriage. Until a series of legal bills over the course of the middle and later century changed it, women had almost no rights in marriage—in fact, they had no separate legal existence, had no legal right to money they earned or inherited, could not sign a contract or make a will. The marriage settlement was intended to give her some independent means in case her husband should die unexpectedly or go bankrupt (assets listed in a marriage settlement could not be seized by her husband’s creditors); and she was able to make a will to designate who would inherit those assets (often younger sons, who wouldn’t inherit much otherwise.)

Okay, I know this is getting kind of dry…so let’s talk about the fun part: what having a good dowry meant.

What it meant, of course, was that a girl whose family had money could pretty much marry whom she pleased. Among the aristocracy, a standard dowry between families of equal importance usually ran between ₤10,000 and ₤30,000. If the potential bride and groom were of different social classes and backgrounds, this could change: a dowry for a girl whose father was, say, a factory owner who’d risen from the lower classes and made his fortune could range as high as ₤60,000 or more if she wanted to marry into the aristocracy…and a lot of aristocrats, especially later in the 19th century, were quite willing to “buy” a wealthy wife to shore up shaky family fortunes or provide for a younger son. Even Queen Victoria wasn’t immune to this…she was quite interested in securing an heiress named Daisy Maynard for her son Leopold, but the girl had other ideas and went on to become the Countess of Warwick (and mistress to one of Victoria’s other sons, the Prince of Wales!) By the end of the 19th century, poverty-stricken aristocrats were eagerly seeking out wealthy American brides who might bring as much as ₤500,000 in exchange for a title.

And dowries weren’t necessarily in cash; they could include houses and other real estate, jewelry, art, or pretty much any other asset agreed upon between the two families. Among the working classes a girl’s dowry could simply be the household linens and crockery she’d need to set up house, or perhaps a sewing machine so that she could earn money at home.

Friday, January 16, 2009

How Much Would You Shiver for Fashion?

So, I’m a sucker for makeover shows, and I love wearing my rummage sale designer outfits. But I’m pretty good about looking at a fashion and ruling it out if it doesn’t fit my style. In the early nineteenth century, I think I’d have had a very hard time. Quite simply, I would have froze.

I came across this illustration while doing research this week. The title is “A Timid Pupil.” Look at that girl. She’s wearing muslin with a red shawl and a swan’s down tippet, barely covering her upper half in weather that was cold enough to turn a decent-sized body of water into a skating rink. She’s not hesitating with maidenly virtue. She’s frozen stiff!

Even in winter, the style early in the century was for sheer fabrics, low necks and cap sleeves, and little underneath (comparatively). And this was at a time when every room had to have a fire of some kind to warm it in winter. Even then the heat was often very uneven. Snuggle up to it, and you may have to use a fire screen like this one to keep from roasting. Sit too far away, and once again you’re shivering!

Teens then and now seem to require less clothing to function. A shame I was never that way. Layers, you say? Ah, that’s the ticket. Flannel petticoats, merino wool gowns with cashmere shawls, fine kid gloves. To my elbows. Yeah, maybe. I think I might have been able to get by with something like this February 1814 dinner dress: tightly woven fabric, long sleeves and higher neck, and enough room to stuff a petticoat or two.

Of course the farther you go into the century, the more layers you get. Who knows? By 1880, I might have been warm!

So, how much would you shiver to be considered fashionable?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Balsam, Blunt, the Lour, Mint-sauce, and the Ready Rhino that you’re thoroughly confused about the topic of today’s post…

Believe it or not, these five terms all mean the same thing: money. I’m not sure of the origin of most of them (how did “rhino” come to be slang for cash?) but I love their color and creativity.

The English monetary system, up until 1971 (we’ll talk about that date in a few minutes), was as eccentric to modern eyes as the above slang terms. Our 19th century misses knew about farthings, pennies (pence), shillings, pounds, crowns, sovereigns, guineas…so what was what?

Pounds, shillings, and pence were the main units of value. There were 12 pence to a shilling, and 20 shillings to a pound. The symbol for pound was written ₤, s. was shilling, and d. meant pence…so, say, a bonnet costing 5 pounds, 8 shillings, and 9 pence would have a price tag marked ₤5.8.9. A box of candy costing 4 shillings and sixpence would be marked 4/6. A penny stamp would set you back 1d. Okay so far?

The actual coinage was slightly different. In the 19th century, the one pound coin didn’t exist under that name: a coin worth one pound was called a sovereign. They and half-sovereigns (worth half a pound) were gold. A crown was made of silver and was worth 5 shillings, or a quarter of a pound (and there were also half-crowns, worth, of course, 2 1/2 shillings). A florin was worth 2 shillings and was also silver, and a shilling was worth—yes, you guessed it—a shilling.

Are you still with me?

Then there were the penny-related coins, some made from silver, others copper and later bronze. There was the sixpence (I don’t need to explain that, do I?), the fourpence, threepence, twopence (known as “tuppence”), and the penny. The first three of these were silver, the rest copper or bronze.

Even the lowly penny had its divisions. There was the halfpenny coin (a “ha’pence”), the farthing (worth a quarter of a penny), and the half farthing (worth an eighth of a penny).

And what about guineas? This gets even odder…the guinea coin was worth 21 shillings (one shilling more than a pound). Although they were no longer made after about 1817 the existing ones remained in circulation and became, in a way, the coinage of the wealthy—expensive items were usually valued in guineas, not pounds.

In addition to all this, each coin had various nicknames, as did values…for example, if you hear about Lord Whatchamacallit betting Sir Whosit a monkey on the outcome of a wager, they weren’t exchanging wildlife—a “monkey” was slang for ₤500. A coachwheel was a crown, a half-borde was sixpence, a groat fourpence….

Phew! I think I begin to understand why in 1971 they decimalized the English monetary system and went to the plain and simple, if far less colorful, 100 pence to a pound!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Muff's the Word!

Here it’s turned unseasonably warm (nearly 60 degrees F!), and our rivers runneth over. I’ve been able to don my sweater coat instead of my usual ski parka (I don’t ski, I just parka). But about this time in nineteenth century England, young ladies of fashion would be sporting that essential fashion accessory, the muff.

They certainly look warm enough! Muffs might be made of fur such as fox, mink, or ermine; feathers like swan’s down; or shirred silk, lined with satin or flannel and liberally padded. The idea was that you slipped your hands inside to keep them toasty. And not just when you were outside. Muffs could be carried anywhere—from the family sitting room to the opera.

Mind you, we’re not talking the little bunny fur purse-size muffs some of us remember from childhood. From 1800 to about 1812, they were huge! You can get an idea of size from the pictures. The only specific dimensions I’ve seen so far indicate that the minimum size would have been about 3 feet wide and 4 feet long. Try lugging that around with you!

Now, immediately my devious mind starts dishing up delightful ways in which one might use a muff. Marissa’s first-ever post on this blog talked about how young ladies could whap annoying gentlemen with their fans. I think you’d get better umph from a muff. And where else could you stash those love letters from the handsome young lordling where no one else would find them? Need to scream in vexation that your brother gambled away your dowry but don’t want anyone to hear you? Shout in a muff! Need to hide a pistol? Need to hide a body?

How would you use a muff?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Winter Fun, 1814 Style

Once upon a time (well, before 1831), two interesting facts were true: London Bridge was located somewhat further downstream on the Thames than it is now, and a climatic bump in the road called the Little Ice Age (ca. 1300-1900 AD) held most of Europe in its chilly grip.

So what do these facts have to do with each other?

Plenty, as it turns out! These two circumstances resulted in rare but wonderful phenomena known to Londoners as Frost Fairs. Especially hard winters would freeze the Thames hard enough so that it would support foot traffic…and of course, London’s citizens rushed to enjoy the novelty of strolling across the river wherever they chose to, rather than being forced to use bridges or boats…and where curious and excited Londoners thronged, other Londoners determined to make a fast shilling or two followed. Enterprising tradesmen opened stalls on the ice selling everything from warming (or intoxicating!) beverages to food to books and toys, while others opened games stalls, rather like a country fair.

Frost Fairs were recorded in 1564, 1608, 1634, 1715, 1739, and 1789. The last and probably best known Frost Fair happened in February of 1814. A cold and very snowy January gradually closed the Thames’ flow, and by February 1st hardy souls were venturing out onto it. The inevitable crowds followed and within a few days drinks stalls, printing presses selling souvenirs cards with “Printed on the Thames” on them, and stalls selling any other item that could be similarly labeled (and sold for inflated prices!) were doing a brisk business. One stall built a roaring fire and roasted a sheep on it (spectators were charged admission just to watch it cook!) then sold it by the slice as “Lapland mutton”. Swings (see them in the middle right of the picture above?), skittles, merry-go-rounds, donkey rides, and even an elephant added to the festival air.

Of course, a thaw was inevitable. By February 7 the river was once again flowing and the Fair a thing of the past. In 1823 London Bridge was re-built further upstream and in 1831 the old London Bridge torn down, causing the Thames to flow more swiftly, so that it never froze over again.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Figure Nines, Anyone?

2008 is gone, and we are about to embark on a fine 2009. While many of us are taking down our holiday finery, the young ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century would likely have kept theirs up until January 6 (Epiphany or Twelfth Night). But some years at this point England gets a cold snap, and ice begins to form on ponds and rivers. And you know what that means.

Ice skating!

Ice skating was very popular in the nineteenth century, practiced from the farmlands to the city alike. These folks are having a high time in near Kensington Palace in London.

In 1809, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in a magazine:

The lower lake is now all alive with skaters, and by ladies driven onward by them in their ice-cars . . . In skating there are three pleasing circumstances: the infinitely subtle particles of ice which the skate cuts up, and which creep and run before the skate like a low mist, and in sunrise or sunset become colored; second, the shadow of the skater in the water, seen through the transparent ice; and third the melancholy undulating sound from the skate, not without variety; and when very many are skating together, the sounds and noises give an impulse that the icy trees and the woods all around the lake tinkle.

There’s a reason he’s called a poet.

Americans started the trend of figure skating; exhibition skaters from America toured England and Europe in the middle to late nineteenth century, performing acrobatics on ice to music. The Dutch are credited with speed skating, but the first skating race was held in England in 1814. Some places had skating clubs. To join you had to be able to perform a specific feat, such as skating a complete circle on one foot or jumping over obstacles on the ice. The first artificial rink was built in Chelsea in 1876.

The skates themselves were blades that strapped over shoes as opposed to being separate boots. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the curve of the blade only allowed the skater to go forward, not back. To stop, you had to lean back on your heel with your toes pointing in the air. (Oh, the things I wish I’d learned before writing that skating scene in My True Love Gave to Me!)

But ice is also the prerequisite for another amazing activity, which I believe Marissa will discuss soon. Stay tuned!