Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is it Okay? No, but it's OK

Over the course of doing research for our vocabulary posts, I ran across a fascinating fact about one of the most common casual expressions in use in modern times—“okay”. Or should I say “OK”?

If I want to be 19th century, it has to be OK. “Okay” is a later form of the word, not recorded till 1919...but OK dates back to—are you ready?—1839. (Note the 1839 fashions at right):

There are dozens of explanations of the origin of OK, some more far-fetched than others (no, it didn’t come from Aux Cayes, a port in Haiti known for its rum!) The generally accepted view is that it originated in the United States in the 1830s.

It seems that in the late 1830s and ‘40s, there was a bit of a fad for creating comical abbreviations, which began in Boston in 1838 and spread across the young country. Newspapers in Boston used expressions like “OFM” (Our Finest Men) for local bigwigs and abbreviations like “NG” and “SP” (that’s “no go” and “small potatoes”, respectively.)

And then there was OK, which first appeared in print in March 1839. It was the result of the abbreviation fad combined with a concurrent fad—that of comical mispellings. Abbreviated phrases like “KY” (“know yuse”—no use) and NS (“nuff said”—which still persists today) were common…as was OW “oll wright” (all right) and its cousin, OK (“oll korrect”).

Like most fads, this one slipped into oblivion…except for OK, which for some reason caught on. Its use became widespread when it was adopted by Democratic supporters of presidential candidate Martin Van Buren as a name for their club—OK gained the additional meaning “Old Kinderhook”, the town in New York where Van Buren was born. Tammany toughs used it as their battle cry in street fights in New York City.

But Van Buren’s opponents could play that game too, and soon found unflattering meanings for OK, like “Out of Kash, Out of Kredit, and Out of Klothes” and “Orfully Konfused”, among others. It became something of a game for anti-Van Buren newspapers around the country to find new versions…and thus “OK” spread across the country.

Kind of puts our "LOL" and "OMG" and other textspeak into perspective, doesn't it?

Now, to bring this back to 19th century England, I’ve got some pretty OK news: my next book has a name and release date! Look for Courtship and Curses to be hitting shelves some time in spring of 2012!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Picture Makes Perfect, Part 2

Oh, those lips, those eyes, that hair! Pick a feature! In the days before photography, how did one memorialize the beauty of your one true love? If you couldn’t afford a formal portrait or you wanted something to carry next to your heart, you had a couple of options.

One was the miniature. As the name implies, this was a small picture, anywhere from the size of a paperback book to the oval that fit into a jeweled setting. Artists specialized in capturing a loved one’s likeness in tiny lines in watercolor or gouache on ivory or enamel on copper. Children, sweethearts, and even your favorite pet were painted. You might also purchase a miniature to remember visiting some far off sight: sets showing features of Greece, Italy, and Venice were popular. The miniatures might be mounted in larger frames, tucked into lockets, or set in brooches, pendants, or rings.

But sometimes, it wasn’t appropriate for you to be carrying around someone else’s likeness, or carrying that likeness was bitter sweet. Perhaps you couldn’t marry your love, or your dear husband had died young on the battlefield. You could commission a painting of just your lover’s eye. Hidden in a locket, no one would know but you. And even if they saw the picture, they would be hard pressed to prove who it portrayed.

Legend has it when the Prince of Wales was in love with Maria Fitzherbert and forbidden from legally marrying her without forfeiting the crown, he commissioned a painting of his eye for her and her eye for him. This he could wear against his heart without anyone being the wiser. He must have shown it about sufficiently, however, for “lover’s eyes” as they are now called, became quite the rage. Later people chose them to remember someone who had died.

So, here are a couple of eye miniatures of two writers you happen to know. See if you can tell which is which.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Trooping the Colour, or Happy Birthday, Your Majesty!

Today is Queen Victoria’s birthday! One hundred and ninety-two candles would make for a very bright cake, don’t you think?

We last celebrated Victoria’s birthday here, but did you know that for centuries, the Queen’s (or King’s) Birthday has been marked by a ceremonial parade known as Trooping the Colour? It was first celebrated in 1748 and periodically after that, and in 1820 became an annual event, cancelled only by bad weather or other extraordinary events (such as World Wars I and II)—leave it to Prinny to formalize the celebration of his birthday with an enormous parade!

Infantry regiments had “colours”—usually a standard or flag—which served as a rallying point for the members of regiments in battle. As such, they were of great symbolic importance; to lose one in battle was unthinkable, while to capture an enemy’s colours was the ultimate glory. When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, three of his standards, or eagles, were sent post-haste to England, where they were presented to the Prince Regent at a dinner party to notify him of the Emperor’s final defeat.

So on the sovereign’s birthday, the Household infantry regiments who were permanently stationed in London to guard the royal family and perform other ceremonial functions, as well as any other regiments that happened to be in the vicinity, got gussied up and marched in procession on Horse Guards Parade near, flags waving, to be inspected by the King or Queen. As they still do--here's a clip from last year's Trooping:

If you'd like to know more, here's the official Trooping the Color website. This year's parade will take place on June 11, with the 1st Battalion Scots Guards. In the meanwhile, though, I'll be here celebrating another great Queen's birthday. Happy Birthday, Your Majesty!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Picture Makes Perfect, Part 1

I admit it: I am not a very good photographer. I never want to interrupt things to take a picture, and when I do, someone’s head, arm, foot, or other body part gets cut off or everything turns out entirely too fuzzy. I understand the value of documenting memories, of chronicling changes in height and weight and hair style and maturity (or lack thereof). I just can’t seem to use a camera for that purpose. But nineteenth century families had another way of capturing memories: portraits.

Let’s say that you had just married, and your husband was determined to memorialize the beauty of his young bride. You might hire a painter to come to your estate and create your likeness on canvas. Families would also have children painted at various ages, much as we take pictures today. And if a gentleman or lady had accomplished something of particular note, well that was cause for a celebratory painting as well.

More-famous artists had people come sit in their studios to be painted. You might sit for four hours or more, at different times, for the artist to capture you to his or her satisfaction. One of the more popular painters at the time was said to require 100 hours of your time! And forget about 1-hour photo: portraits could easily take up to a year to complete.

Most portrait painters in the nineteenth century were men for two main reasons. First, the more celebrated painters had been trained at the Royal Academy, which only admitted men because women were deemed too delicate to withstand the nude anatomy sessions where they learned to sketch and paint the human body. Supposedly when the Royal College of Art admitted women in 1837, the male models in the women’s anatomy sessions wore full suits of armor! Then too, a lady’s reputation was strained if she had to be alone with gentleman for hours at a time, studying them in the depth required for a good portrait.

The art of portraiture perhaps reached its zenith in the nineteenth century in England. Painters like Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Joshua Reynolds excelled at capturing not only likenesses reliably, but the person’s favorite pastimes. It was said a true artist captured the essence of the person, giving a view into the soul. I’m not sure what that says for this fellow.

But what if you couldn’t afford a portrait or you wanted something a little more portable than a wall-size masterpiece? I’ll explain about that next Friday.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Such Language! Part 7

Time for a fresh batch of old slang, from that wonderful compendium, The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

Quidnunc: An inquisitive gossip or newsmonger. (“Miss Wheedell is such a dreadful quidnunc, but I do enjoy it when she comes to tea!”)

Crack a whid: Tell a tale. (“My brother Harry cracked such a whid about giving all his pocket money to poor orphans that Grandmother gave him £5 when he went back to school…but who knows? Maybe all those poor racehorses lost their parents at an early age.”)

Ear-wigging: Pestering with private confidences, pleas, or admonitions. (“I simply will not go driving with Euphemia, no matter how handsome her phaeton, for she will only ear-wig me constantly about introducing her to Harry’s friend Lord Narcissumthorpe.”)

Grumbletonian: A discontented person; one who is always complaining at one thing or another. (“Uncle Homer was a dreadful grumbletonian until Aunt Lucy hired a new cook, and now he’s gentle as a lamb now that he’s no longer constantly bilious.”)

Jerrycummumble: To shake, towzle, or tumble about. (“Jane drove us so quickly down the Lady’s Mile that my new bonnet was completely jerrycummumbled.”)

Circumbendibus: To move in a roundabout way, or tell a meandering story. (“But even though Uncle Homer is in a better frame of mind, he still tells dreadfully circumbendibus anecdotes at dinner.”)

To milk the pigeon: To endeavor at impossibilities. (“George is attempting to grow two inches before the Duchess of Snobbish’s ball next month by hanging from his knees from an apple tree for five hours every day, even though Papa told him not to trying milking the pigeon.”)

Friday, May 13, 2011

How to Become a Peer

We focus a great deal on the peerage: lords and ladies among the aristocracy of nineteenth century England. They had the power, they (generally) had the wealth, they were considered the Beau Monde, the good people. Title holders were considered peers (nobles); their wives (unless she had a title in her own right) and their children were considered commoners. So how exactly did one go about joining the peerage in the nineteenth century?

Some, of course, were born into it. The Baron le Despencer’s title, for example, dates back to 1264. The title Viscount Hereford goes back to 1550. The older your title, the more impressive your lineage. So, if you were the oldest son (or rarely, a daughter) of a title holder, you could virtually guarantee yourself a title when dear Papa passed to his just reward. If you were the oldest son of a duke, marquess, or earl, and dear Papa had a slew of titles, you were given one as a courtesy until you inherited them all. So you might be Viscount Victorious or Baron Beefcake (although they generally didn’t call anyone “baron”).

But let’s say you can’t inherit a title. You might instead do something sufficiently impressive that the ruler would grant you a title in gratitude. Earlier peers won mighty battles against foreign enemies, championed the poor and oppressed, and provided care and comfort to fleeing kings and queens. By the nineteenth century, sadly, many were created peers for far less glorious pursuits, such as the ability to steer politics in a certain direction. One exception was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who finally brought Napoleon to his knees. At various times in his illustrious career, he was made a baron, a viscount, an earl, a marquess (twice), and finally a duke.

But perhaps you aren’t in a position to save the nation from utter ruin. I was surprised to learn this week that you might buy yourself a peerage. Yes, I’ve heard of people who do so today. Certainly I can imagine wealthy families lobbying for peerages for their second sons and third sons. What I can across this week was something different: a doting father who bought a peerage for his daughter.

Henrietta Laura Pulteney was the only daughter of wealthy barrister and later Parliamentarian William Johnstone, who later changed the family name to Pulteney when his wife inherited the vast Pulteney fortune. You can see she was a happy child. Laura was only 16 when her mother died, and she in turn inherited the fortune. She led a sheltered life, attending a convent school in France and coming out in French society. Her father, however, was busy in the House of Commons. Several times he was approached about a peerage, but he decided instead to buy one for Laura. She was created Baroness Bath when she was 26 and elevated to Countess of Bath when she was 39. Sadly, she passed away three years later, very likely from consumption. As she had no children, her titles died with her. Her fortune at her death was valued at nearly 600,000 pounds (over $50 million in today’s dollars).

No ever said it was cheap to be a peer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Where the Boys Are: Watier’s Club

Our century was definitely the golden age of the men’s club, a place where gentlemen and the nobility went to hang out with each other, read the papers, gamble, and conduct what we today call “networking”…and one of the more interesting of these clubs was also one of the shortest-lived, being on operation for only twelve years. But for those twelve years, Watier’s was one of the most fashionable of masculine London hangouts, and one of the few clubs to lack a political slant. The nickname Watier’s was most known by was “the Dandy Club”, which should tell you everything about the interests of its members.

Its origins are lofty ones. According to Captain Rees Gronow, a fashionable man-about-town of the time whose diary makes fascinating reading, Watier’s was the brain-child of the Prince Regent himself. At a dinner one evening in 1807, Prinny asked his friends (members of White’s and Brooks’s, two of the premier clubs of London) about the dining at their clubs, and was told that the food was universally awful: "the eternal joints, or beef-steaks, the boiled fowl with oyster sauce, and an apple tart--this is what we have, sir, at our clubs, and very monotonous far it is". Then and there, Prinny (who as you might recall, was quite the gourmet) proposed that they start their own club, dedicated to the French art of “gastronomy.” His best friend, Beau Brummell, was appointed President in perpetuity, and Prinny’s own personal chef, Jean Baptiste Watier, was summoned from the kitchen to weigh in on the matter. Though he declined to be the new club’s cook (or Prinny didn’t want to lose his chef!), the club was named in his honor and another royal chef, Monsieur Labourie, became chef; one of Prinny’s pages, Madison, was named manager.

And the result? Though Watier’s was initially billed as a musical society and singing club, it soon became known as the finest dining establishment in London, with food unmatched even by the best Parisian cooks…but it also became known as a gambling house where the stakes were incredibly high (evidently the singing wasn’t enough!) Beau Brummell’s fine athletic figure suffered as a result of his presidency, and so did his pocketbook: too much fine dining and playing at high-stakes Macao saw the beginning of his ruin, which would be complete in 1816 when he and the Prince had a falling-out. After the Beau’s flight to France to avoid his creditors, Watier’s fell apart, and in 1819 it closed.

But its legacy lived on, and ten years later Crockford’s Club was established, also dedicated to fine dining and featuring superstar chefs Louis Eustache Ude and Charles Francatelli, who went on to become Queen Victoria’s personal chef.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hunting for Bargains

I have any number of friends who live for sales. Around here, the semiannual sale at Nordstom’s Rack is big news, and there are those who rejoice at a 50% off coupon for Chico’s. Me—I eagerly await one day, the biggest shopping day of the year for me, the first Saturday in May: the Methodist Rummage Sale five dollar a bag special! You know where I’ll be this afternoon.

Ladies in nineteenth century London also looked for ways to extend their fashion budget. For a good part of the century, all clothes were handmade, specifically for you. You might go to a shop and have your measurements taken for a new gown, or a seamstress might come to your house and measure you. If the cost of a seamstress was too dear, you might purchase fabric and sew your own gown (very likely by hand, although home sewing machines became more common toward the end of the century). But if even that was beyond your budget, you had several alternatives.

You could remake an older dress, either one of yours or one belonging to a willing relative like your mother or older sister. Particularly as the fashions changed later in the century it was relatively easy to pull off bodices and reattach them to different skirts. Changing rickrack was equally easy and a quick way to change the look of an outfit. If the older dress had a lot of fabric and the newer style used less, you could pick apart the older dress and make a complexly new one.

You could also buy someone else’s gown. Wealthy mistresses often handed gowns that had fallen out of favor for one reason or another to their maids, who took them to second-hand shops in less prosperous parts of the city, such as near the docks. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, in fact, second-hand clothing was a lucrative export from England to America!

Oh, how they would have loved the Methodist Rummage Sale!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fashion Forecast: 1821

What was the well-dressed young woman wearing in 1821?

She certainly wouldn’t have been missed in this cheerful Promenade Dress, colored, according to its description in January’s Ackermann’s Repository, “between a ruby and a geranium”. On the chair behind her is a pelisse of the same poplin fabric, but showing its white sarsnet lining. And once again, there’s one of those amazing ermine muffs! Note also the quizzing glass hanging from a chain about her neck ):

This Morning Dress is of a new style we’ll be seeing a lot of this year—it’s described as “A wrapping dress composed of cachemire: the waist is the usual length; the body comes up to the throat in the back of the neck, but is a little sloped in front, and turns all over so as to form a pelerine; it wraps across before, and displays a little of the fichu worn underneath. The back has a little fulness; it is of a moderate breadth, and a good deal sloped at the sides. The sleeve is easy, but not wide; it is finished at the wrist by folds of gros de Naples, to correspond in color with the dress. The girdle is also of gros de Naples; it is rather broad, and fastens with a gold clasp at the side. The skirt is moderately wide; it wraps across to the left side, and is fastened up the front with bows to correspond. Head-dress, a cornette composed of full bands of net inserted between plain ones of letting-in lace; the crown is remarkably low; the ears are cut very narrow, and far back; and it fastens with a full bow of pale pink ribbon under the chin. Black kid shoes. (February, Ackermann’s Repository):
How’s this for a charming Fancy Ball Dress? The high bodice is a confection of lace and ribbons, but it’s the roses about the lower edge of the skirt that are especially striking (though I bet they made dancing difficult!) Notice the mask she’s holding hear her face! (May, Ackermann’s Repository):
Hats! This print, also from May’s Ackermann's, offers a view of some rather extraordinary headgear…ruffles and a lot of artificial flower trim were definitely “in”!

I love this Evening Dress from June’s Ackermann’s…notice the oak leaf trim around the lower hem, topped by more flowers. The pointed bodice is unusual, and hearkens forward to the fashions coming later in the decade:
For sheer frou-frou delight is a Court Dress from October’s Ackermann’s…note the obligatory feathers, lace lappets hanging down on either side of her face, and the court train in pale yellow with appliques… très élégant! This would have been worn at the court of the now King George IV, who had been crowned in July:

I told you we’d see this style again…in fact, I have four other Ackermann's prints from 1821 featuring a wrap-style dress with large bows up the front or side. This Promenade Dress from the December issue also features a rather overgrown bonnet —yikes! What do you think of 1821’s fashions?