Saturday, December 1, 2012

Christmas Crackers and Gingerbread

Christmas Cracker

The Christmas Cracker was invented by a London confectioner named Tom Smith around 1847. Mr. Smith had fallen in love with the French Bon-Bon, a sugared almond candy twisted in waxed paper. He brought the idea back to England and toyed around with ever more elaborate models for several years. 

Eventually he settled on a cardboard tube wrapped in paper with a twist of saltpeter on each end. When pulled apart, it created a spark and a loud bang. People called them cosaques after the sound of a Russian Cossack whip makes. We know them today as crackers.


The word gingerbread is a corruption of the Old French word gingebras which means "preserved ginger." The spice was introduced into Europe in the 11th Century by Crusaders. But like so many Eastern spices, only the wealthy could afford it.

During the Middles Ages in Germany, only members of the gingerbread bakers guild -- Lebkucher -- were allowed to make it. The City of Nuremberg became known as the gingerbread capitol of the world. Ladies gave gingerbread cakes to their favorites knights. Queen Elizabeth I gave gingerbread made in the image of the recipient as Christmas gifts. 

The Grimm Brothers' tales about Hanzel and Gretel popularizzed gingerbread in the 19th Century.


Ten Ages of Christmas, BBC History
London Christmas Past: The Invention of the Christmas Cracker; Londonist
The History of Gingerbread; WWWiz Magazine
Gingerbread Throughout History, A Sweet Holiday Retrospective; Eat, Drink and Really Be Merry
Lady Barbara Fleming's Gingerbreads 1673; Historic Food

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Trafalgar Day

On this date in 1805, the inimitable Admiral Lord Nelson signaled from his ship the Victory those famous words, "England expects that every man will do his duty," then proceeded to annihilate the combined French and Spanish fleet off Spain's Cape Trafalgar. Click here to watch an animated video of the battle.

Battle of Trafalgar
Battle of Trafalgar
Portsmouth Battle of Trafalgar Procession, BBC News Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Great Conduit

By the 13th Century, London's population of forty thousand was crammed behind the city walls on the north side of the Thames River. Residents relied on natural wells, streams and rivers for their daily water. In the year 1237, the City decided to build a piping system that became knows as the Great Conduit. Water wheels were constructed beneath London Bridge and a reservoir was built at Tyburn from which Thames water was gravity fed to cisterns in the city. Pipes buried in the center of London's streets carried the water to private buildings.

While the poor continued to draw from the river, public cisterns and fountains, the wealthy paid a fee for the privilege of tapping into The Great Conduit. Wardens were appointed to prevent illegal usage and to maintain the system. But the reliance on elm and lead pipes was a major disadvantage. While elm wood didn't decay once soaked (London Bridge's pilings were made of elm) wood and lead pipes were no match for the Great Fire of 1666. (Click here to see what these wood pipes looked like, and here for a views of the lead ones.)

By the middle of the 16th Century, iron pipes had replaced the wood and lead ones. Before the turn of the century, Mr. Watt patented his steam engine. Steam power quickly replaced horsepower to lift water from the Thames and its tributaries.

Typical of the water companies of the time was Chelsea Waterworks. Established in 1723, it pumped water from the Thames north of what later became Victoria Station to supply the City of Westminster and Kensington Palace. 

In 1725, two ponds in Green Park served as Chelsea Waterworks reservoirs. (Click here to view people promenading around one Green Park reservoir and fountain in 1824, and here for a view of Chelsea Waterworks from the reservoir.) Another was built in the circle of Walnut Tree Walk in Hyde Park. Another was construction in the park opposite Mount Street. (Click on the map to see location.) The Dolphin Foundation is said to sit on an old reservoir site. 

The Abbey of Westminster once owned sole rights to the water of the springs and rivers of Hyde Park through a charter signed by Edward the Confessor.  In 1830, Queen Caroline ordered the Westbourne River dammed to create the Serpentine. Chelsea Waterworks was paid hefty compensation for the loss of it water rights.

By 1856 there were nine water companies serving London. Click here for a map of their districts.

London Bridge: 1666-1825, Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide
Reservoir of the Chelsea Water-Works; Historical Recollections of Hyde Park by Thomas Smith; published 1836; p.26

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


The following is a guest post by Charae on the topic of Michaelmas. Charae and her sisters, Lynnae, Leisel and Kayleen blog about Regency and Victorian life at The Crossroad of Time.

Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week. ~Pride and Prejudice~ 

The Crofts were to have possession at Michaelmas; and as Sir Walter proposed removing to Bath in the course of the preceding month, there was no time to be lost in making every dependent arrangement. ~Persuasion ~

Michaelmas was a day of celebration and religious observance which also served to mark the onset of a new season. When Michaelmas arrived the warm days of summer were already giving place to the cooler breezes of autumn and the sun was setting at an earlier hour every evening. The English year was conveniently divided into quarters each of which marked the change from one season to the next and was celebrated by a feast day. Christmas on December 25 marked the onset of winter, Lady Day on March 25 celebrated the coming of spring, the Feast of St. John on June 24 heralded the arrival of summer, and Michaelmas on September 29 announced the coming of autumn.

Michaelmas (along with the other three feast days) was originally a religious event. It served to commemorate the archangel Michael, who was seen as the great warrior angel of heaven, and it celebrated the day on which Michael threw Satan out of heaven. Legendary St. George and his slaying of the dragon were also commemorated upon this day for it was said that St. George was granted his heroic power from the archangel Michael. Reenactments of this brave feat were an enjoyable past time for young men.

As with many English holidays, Michaelmas was accompanied by its own special superstitions and traditions. A popular superstition was that, when the devil fell from heaven, he landed in a blackberry bush. Getting up from the thorny branches, he turned and cursed the prickly fruit and, as a result, the English refrained from picking any more blackberries after Michaelmas. Perhaps the fact the berries are already past their prime and usually sour by then served as a stronger deterrent than belief in an ancient superstition. During that season of the year the Michaelmas Daisy comes into bloom. Its light blue, pink, or white petals added a splash of color to the gardens which were becoming barren in the colder weather; the delicate flowers proved a pretty farewell to the warmer months. No doubt many young lovesick lads or lasses sat alone and secretly plucked the petals repeating the age old refrain "S/He loves me, S/He loves me not."

Another tradition associated with the day was the eating of a goose. The proverb associated with this tradition was “If you eat goose on Michaelmas Day, you will not be short of money all year round.” The origin of the tradition of eating goose is uncertain. One common explanation was that Queen Elizabeth was feasting on goose when she received the news of the glorious victory of England over the Spanish Armada. As a result she proclaimed that geese should henceforth be eaten on that day. The theory, however, seems to fall apart when you compare dates and realize that the Armada was actually defeated on August 8 and it is unlikely that Elizabeth would have heard such blessed tiding almost two months after the fact on September 29. I know that news traveled slowly in those days, but for good news such as that to take so long the messenger would have had to set out on hands and knees and crawled to England.

Since Michaelmas was the day when rents became due, often the tenants of an estate would gather for a feast at the home of their landlord. Tradition for some was to bring a goose fattened on stubble hay which some perceived as a bribe to discourage the landlord from raising the rent (after all, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach). This was also the day set apart for townsfolk to elect magistrates, for children to begin a new school year, and for tenants to lease properties.

Mr. Bingley takes possession of Netherfield at Michaelmas, the traditional time of year for securing a lease. The Crofts also take possession of Kellynch by Michaelmas. No doubt the desire to get settled in a place before the onset of winter contributed to the popularity of settling in by this particular date.

The feast days, therefore, not only proved a handy way of dividing up a long year but also gave the English, who need no excuse to celebrate, several days of feasting and fellowship rich in tradition and old fashioned fun. What better way is there to celebrate the coming of a new season and bid farewell to another?

Hillman, Michael. "September 29th." Chambers' Book of Days. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jun 2012
"Michaelmas." Historic UK. Historic UK , 2012. Web. 19 Jun 2012
Broomfield, Andrea. Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.
"Feast of St. Michael (Michaelmas)." N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jun 2012.
"Trinity Season." Harper's Magazine. 1869: 70-71. Print.
Melton, Gordon. Religious Celebrations. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011. 579-580.
Garrett Mattingly, . "Defeat of the Spanish Armanda." Oracle think quest. Oracle, 2004. Web. 19 Jun 2012,
Ban Breathnach, Sarah. "Michaelmas." simpleabundance. N.p., 2001. Web. 19 Jun 2012.
"MICHAELMAS: YOUR GOOSE IS COOKED." Agecroft Hall. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jun 2012.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Rules of the Road

a poem by Henry Erskine
The rule of the road is a paradox quite,
If you drive with whip or a thong,
If you go to the left
you are sure to be right,
If you go to the right you are wrong.

In 1300 A.D. Pope Boniface VII issued the first traffic ordinance when he instructed pilgrims on the way to Rome to keep to the left side of the road. By then, the custom of riding on the left was well established in Europe. (Old Roman roads excavated in England are rutted on the left.) 

Most men were right-handed and wore their swords on the left hip. Riding on the left side of the road allowed them to respond more efficiently to threats from passersby. And with a scabbard bouncing on the left hip, the most comfortable way to mount and dismount was on the horse's left side. Furthermore, if a rider had to dismount on the road, doing so away from traffic was safest.

By 1771, one thousand hackney coaches traversed the narrow streets of London. By 1815, one and a half million people called that city home--most of them pedestrians. As the population and street traffic grew, accidents became the norm. Something had to be done to regulate the chaos.

Parliament passed a law in 1756 directing traffic on London Bridge to keep left. In 1771-72, it applied the rule to Scotland and added a fine of 20 shillings for disobedience. Lancashire passed a law on August 6, 1795 stipulating that carriages keep left.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Americans were also driving on the left side of the road. That changed with the Revolution. In 1792, Pennsylvania passed a law directing traffic on its turnpike to keep right. New York followed in 1804 and New Jersey in 1813. Canada was a mix of right and left hand driving according to province until the 1920s.

In 1794, France changed from left to right hand travel. Until then, the carriages of aristocrats bore left, while peasant foot traffic kept to the right. After the Bastille, that changed. Napoleon imposed the right hand rule on every country he conquered.

As for Britain, Parliament codified the "keep left" rule in 1835 and applied to all its colonies. Many of them--like India and Australia--still drive on the left side of the road.


Laissez-faire and Government Interference, Addresses on Educational and Economical Subjects; p. 67-68

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Art of the Calling Card

The calling card was an essential social tool during the Regency. As soon as a lady arrived in town, or prepared to leave it, she dropped off a card at the homes of her acquaintances to let them know. Cards were placed on a silver salver and presented to the mistress of the house who then decided whether she was "at home" to the caller.

A turned down corner indicated the card had been delivered in person. Sometimes abbreviated messages were penciled on them in French. For example, "p.f." meant congratulations (pour feliciter) "p.r." (pour remercier) was a thank you and "p.p.c" (pour prendre conge) notified the recipient that the caller was leaving town. Or the card holder had each corner on the reverse side printed with the words visite, felicitation, affaires and adieu. The pertinent corner was then turned down on the front side to let the recipient know the purpose of the call.

A lady's calling card was roughly 2 x 3 inches, smaller than a gentleman's. It was carried in a card case like the one below.

Historical and classical motifs were popular on calling cards in the 18th century (see Mr. Chase's card). But by the 19th century plain cards with just the sender's name and title were popular. However, special attention was given to typeface.

Morning and Evening Calls, Gaskell's Compendium of Forms
Cards and Visits, Etiquette in Society by Emily Post 
Paying Social Calls, The Jane Austen Centre
Calling Cards and the Etiquette of Paying Calls, by Michelle Hoppe
Visiting Cards of the 18th Century, Chambers' Book of Days 1869
#27 After Luncheon, Morning Calls and Visits; Chapter 1: Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management; items 27-32
The Etiquette of Using Calling Cards, Jane Austen's World; May 21, 2007
The Gentleman's Guide to the Calling Card, The Art of Manliness
Calling Card Cases by Marni Andrews

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Cork Rump

This blog is a repost of the one I wrote for Joan Lane's All Dressed Up at

In the first decade of the Georgian Era, bell-shaped skirts were all the rage. This silhouette was accomplished with hoops of whalebone or wood that were tied together in a cage around the waist. By mid-18th Century oblong or fan hoops called panniers (French for basket) spread a lady's skirts out at the sides. Proponents claimed this style made for ease of walking and kept importunate gentlemen at a distance. As always, however, such fashion came at a price; women were forced to turn sideways when they passed through doorways, and climbing into a coach was logistical nightmare. So in the last quarter of the century, the emphasis shifted from the hips to the rump.

Pads filled with fabric or cork were tied at the waist and draped over the derrière, poofing the skirt in the back. Cartoonists were quick to lambast this new "bum roll" or "cork rump" trend. (See the  above 1787 print by S.F. Fores called A Milliner's Shop. A bum roll is hanging on the wall to the right of the mirror.) Typical of the ridicule was this print by Matthew Darly from 1777 entitled Chloe’s Cushion or The Cork Rump. (Notice the puppy perched on the back!) 

Satirists like Peter Pindar composed poems about the style. In 1815 he published The Cork Rump, or Queen and Maids of Honour. He’d already offered a backhanded criticism of the fashion when he extolled the virtues of the common maid in his 1794 poem, The Louisad:

“With Nature’s hips, she sighs not for cork rumps,
“And scorns the pride of pinching stays and jumps;
“But, pleas’d from whalebone prisons to escape,
“She trusts to simple nature for a shape…”
Cork rumps were a popular subject in newspapers and broadsheets as well. One gentleman observed in the December 16, 1776 issue of The Weekly Miscellany:

       “A most ingenious author has made it a question, whether a man marrying a woman…may not lawfully sue for divorce on the grounds that she is not the same person? What with the enormous false head-dress—painting—and this newfangled cork substitute—it would be almost impossible for a man to know his bride the morning of his nuptials. If the ladies look on this invention as an ornament to their symmetry, I will engage they shall be excelled by almost any Dutch market-woman or fat landlady in this kingdom.” 

     There is an account in History of the Westminster Election of a riot on May 10, 1784 in Covent Garden between proponents of the three candidates standing for Parliament. The Guards were called and subsequently fired upon the crowd. Two ladies lost portions of their wigs, several were “deprived of their eye-brows” and one woman had her cork rump shot off.

      But perhaps no story was more outrageous than the one which appeared on October 4, 1785 in The Morning Post. A lady reportedly fell into the Thames and was saved from drowning by—you guessed it—her cork rump. (You can read the entire article at Prinny's Taylor.) 

      Eventually, the cork rump faded in popularity, replaced by the Grecian silhouette and empire gowns of the Regency. (Check out Two Nerdy History Girls for their blog about Those Bumless Beauties, 1788.)

      But as the saying goes, you can’t keep a good thing down. The exaggerated tush returned mid-19th Century in the form of the Victorian bustle.

The Works of Peter Pindar Esq. Vol I; The Louisiad Canto II; London;1794; p.252
The Observer; The Town and Country Magazine VIII for the Year 1776; London, p.650
Anecdotes of theManners and Customs of London during the Eighteen Century Vol II; by James Peller Malcolm, F.S.A.;London; 1810; p.353-354
Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray; by Thomas Wright, ESQ, F.S.A. and R. H. Evans, Esq; London; 1851;p.408-409