As you've probably noticed, we've been very quiet (ok, silent) on the blog and on Twitter these last few days. While Loretta has been wowing the crowds of book-folk in New York at Book Expo, I've been up in Cambridge, MA to see my daughter receive her Master in Urban Planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
How many graduations we all sit through over the years! There are all of our own as well as those honoring friends, spouses, neighbors, children and grandchildren, from nursery school through university, academies, special programs, and training schools. Whenever and wherever they occur, graduations are always occasions for looking back and looking forward, for happiness for all that's been accomplished and anticipation for the next step, for joy and pride and relief and a few tears, and also, perhaps, a bit of silliness. (Yes, it was my kid who smuggled the beach balls into the high school graduation.)
Congratulations and good luck to all the 2014 graduates, and a great big thank you to all the families, friends, and teachers who helped them get there.
A bonus: Only at Harvard would the unidentified soloist listed in the program turn out to be Aretha Franklin singing the National Anthem. Here's her performance, and it's just amazing.
Look for Breakfast Links to return next Sunday. Promise.
Whenever the word "corset" is mentioned in a historical context, it's almost always described as being "whalebone." Yet this is something of a misnomer: corsets – or stays, as 18th c. corsets were called – weren't stiffened with whalebone, but with another part of the whale called baleen.
Baleen is the feathery, comb-like feature in the mouths of whales, screening and trapping food as they swim through the water. Baleen is made of keratin, a flexible material that's more akin to cartilage and fingernails than bone. But in the past, the definition - and the whale's anatomy - was blurred, and baleen and whalebone were used interchangeably. Baleen was harvested by whalers, and sold in strips such as those above left, on display in the milliner's shop in Colonial Williamsburg.
As a material, baleen is strong and stiff but yielding, and can be cut, filed, and shaped. Many things that are today fashioned from plastic were made from baleen in the 18th c., including eyeglass frames, the spokes of umbrellas and parasols, and the blades of folding fans.
And stays. As soon as fitted, stiffened corsets
became the fashion in 16th c. France and Italy, baleen was the stylish choice for the boning, or stays - the long, narrow pieces that were forced into the corset's vertical channels, and gave the garment its name. Baleen didn't crack like reeds or wood splints (other popular and less expensive options.) Baleen was strong and pliable, and it could be split to make the very thin stays that were necessary for sophisticated shaping.
There could be dozens of baleen pieces in a single pair of stays, each carefully cut, tailored, and finished to size. Nearly all stay makers were men, simply because few women possessed the hand strength necessary to force the baleen into the narrow channels. Of course, this also led to lots of salacious prints from the era, such as this one, lower right, with the leering corset maker fitting the young woman while another gentleman watches. Why do I doubt it's her husband?
But by the middle of 19th c., steel boning began to replace baleen in corsets. Steel was equally flexible, but far easier to manufacture and use, and considerably less expensive than baleen. Just as the development of oil drilling and the petroleum industry in the 1850s spelled the end of the whale oil market, so, too, did metal corset stays do the same for baleen.
Fortunately for whales, the days of Captain Ahab are as long gone as corsets. Today the harvesting of baleen and all other by-products of American whale fishing is strictly regulated by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and profits from the sale of baleen are limited to Alaskan Aleuts, Indians, and Eskimos (which is the source of the baleen used at Colonial Williamsburg.)
For more information (and lots of photographs) about the sociology as well as the history of corsets, I recommend The Corset: A Cultural History by Valerie Steele.
In public is not where I usually hang out. Though I’ve lived here and there in the last year or so, mostly what I’ve been doing here and there is writing.
But Vixen in Velvet, my newest Dressmakers book, will be out in a matter of weeks, and it’s time to come out of hibernation and show the world my face, or at least hold one of my books up in front of it, and invite readers and those I hope will become readers to meet me and/or find out things about me.
The meeting part this time around will happen at Book Expo America in NYC.
As you’ll see when you click on the link, it’s a Very Big Deal, with writer megastars and celebrities in attendance, and of course I’m excited (and a little alarmed—this thing is huge!) about my part in the bookish festivities. With sister historical romance writer Sarah MacLean, I’ll be signing books, answering questions, and engaging in other authorial activities on Thursday and Friday.
For this and other reasons, we’ll be posting some Return Engagements—historical gems you might have missed the first time around—then return to our regularly scheduled blogging next week. Expect June fashions and Dickens, for starters.
When I was young, back in the last century before video games and feminism were invented, a popular board game was The Barbie "Queen of the Prom" Game, below right. Described as "a fun game with real-life appeal for all girls," it was pretty much what you'd expect: the pursuit of boyfriends and fancy dresses, with the ultimate goal to land one of the hot guys – Bob, Tom, or Ken, and avoiding poor ginger Poindexter with his ink-dot eyes – as your date for the prom, where you hoped to be crowned QUEEN. My friends and I thought it was way cool.
The board game, above, is apparently the late 18th c. version of The Barbie Game. Called Hymen's Advice to the Ladies: A New Invented & Entertaining Game of Courtship & Matrimony, it does in fact offer some entertaining possibilities (probably more exciting than most parents would have wanted, too) for those ladies on the quest for a husband. This game is featured in the current Justin Croft Antiquarian Books sale catalogue(page 12, item 25):
A rare and interesting board game for young women, taking the players on a journey through courtship, engagement, and, finally, marriage. On the way are a first kiss, a first argument (over money), a duel, a visit to the vicar, a short-cut to Gretna Green, breaking off, and so on.
I've also spotted spaces on the board labeled The Ring, The Bann, The Licence, An Offer, Mutual Passion, An Answer, A Settlement, A Love Letter, and A Wounded Heart. No mention of avoiding Lord Poindexter, however.
Certainly it's all much more thrilling than Barbie's prom, and much more expensive, too. A vintage 1961 copy of The Barbie Game can be had on eBay for under $100, while the asking price for the one-of-a-kind Advice to the Ladies is £1800. Hope that Settlement is a good one!
Many thanks to friend of the blog Mitch Fraas, Scholar in Residence, Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania, for sharing this game first on Twitter. Mitch has assisted us with blogs before - see here and here.
Many U.S. holidays have become associated with long weekends, sales, and parties. This is not necessarily a bad thing—in the case of Memorial Day, for instance. Men and women died fighting to keep the USA going. As well as remembering the dead, we’re celebrating what they fought for, and the commercialism is part of who we are, warts & all.
However, the holiday commenced, originally not as an excuse for sales or barbecues or the date after which white shoes may be donned. It started out as Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for the Civil War dead.
In 1920, when this poem was published, the Civil War was vividly within people’s direct experience as well as their memories. The poetry in the book is of its time, and bound to be sentimental and sad, not so appealing to the ironic 21st century sensibility.
We're back from our work-hiatus with a fresh collection of breakfast links for you - links to our fav web sites, blogs, articles, & images from around the Twitterverse.
• Rare collection: daguerreotype class photos of Class of 1852, Amherst College.
• Handwritten note by Jane Austen "hidden" for 150 years on the back of a fragment of paper has been rediscovered.
• Self-control and the manly body, 1760-1860.
• Image: Female standard bearer, 15th c. Germany.
• Famous paintings photoshopped to today's beauty standards.
• Regency London's age of improvement: new streets, a park, a canal, docks, a railway, and omnibuses.
• Awkward early team photos.
• Chess will destroy your mind - or so Scientific American declared in 1859.
• Boss Tweed's brazen escape from a city jail.
• Wouldn't you love to receive a letter like this one decorated with green apples from EdouardManet?
• Image: "Is College Bad for Girls?": cautionary pamphlet, 1905.
• Pineapples, guns, and wine: the forgotten heroine of the Battle of Louisburg, 1758.
• The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, executed this week in 1536.
• The smelly snail: a 17th c. scent case.
• The gypsies of Georgian England.
• Reading in restraint: the last chained libraries.
• A modern family goes to war over Napoleon's nightshirt.
• How 18th c. pleasure gardens in New York City evolved from simple mead houses into extravagant entertainments.
• Image: Koreshan Annie Ray Andrews modeling a hat at Washington Park in Albany, NY, 1910.
• Who was Wellington's favorite niece?
• The Caribbean colony that brought down Scotland, c 1690.
• What did poor English boys wear in and out of prison, c 1840?
• Metropolitan Museum of Art initiative provides free access to over 400,000 digital images.
• Victorian technical education prepared young Englishmen being trained as engineers for careers in India.
• Image: Truly strange: a well-endowed Victorian "Science Fairy."
• A recipe for highly destructive Georgian sugar-plums.
• Leave your rings at home and don't fear repairs: 1909 advice for lady motorists in pictures.
• Eighteenth century trade cards on line: the Banks Collection, British Museum.
• Image: A pile of books by the bed taken to a whole new level.
• "Do you have any provisions for the road? I do not like my provisions": 10th c. Chinese/Khotanese phrasebook for Silk Road travelers.
• Queen Victoria's bookplate.
• An English country house transformed into an auxiliary hospitalfor wounded soldiers: Dunham Massey during World War One. Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Earlier this year we shared a then-and-now video of London scenes by Simon Smith. Mr. Smith has just created another video, this time with the old scenes cleverly overlapping with the new. His description:
"In 1924, Harry B. Parkingson and Frank Miller documented London in a fantastic series of short films, known as 'Wonderful London.' Over the last few months I have stood in their foot-steps, recapturing their shots exactly, and have blended the two together creating a window through time."
Fascinating to see how many things have changed – and how many more haven't.
During my recent re-enactment of sickbed scenes from La Bohème—with less fatal results, in that I did not, actually, die—I whiled away the time reading, among other things, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, his last complete novel and one of my favorites.
Seeking an edition for my eBook reader led me to a review claiming Dickens had been paid by the word. This concept makes sense to people who (a) never read a reputable biography of Dickens, (b) never had to read Victorian literature in general, and/or (c) can’t imagine a world in which television and radio—let alone the Internet—didn’t exist, and where entertainment was something you read, heard read, went to see/hear, or made for yourself.
Some people have trouble with Victorian writing because it’s …wordy. It had to be. People needed detail. Many had never seen the scenes or people novelists described. Many lived in a world so small we can’t imagine it. There were Londoners who’d never seen the sea and knew next to nothing about places outside their immediate neighborhoods.
They probably knew what a hair-guard was, though.
“Bradley Headstone,* in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent young man of six-and-twenty.” —Our Mutual Friend
Though I’ve studied fashion, the finer points of Victorian male attire are not in my repertoire. Hair-guard? Try Googling it. Yikes.
My OED merely listed it, without definition. My copy of The Dickens Index said: “superfine neck-cord made of hair for ensuring the safety of pocket watches, spectacles, etc.” Having found occasional mistakes in this book, I proceeded to Google. Filtering to 19th C Books led me to many examples, (here, here, here, here, here - item 71- and here) whose context offered clues, i.e., it is a sort of chain or rope. But changing my search terms showed me it wasn't necessarily "superfine," as this page of examples demonstrates.
Now we all know.
*Pictured above, courtesy The Victorian Web. Please click on the caption for a larger image in which the hair-guard is easier to see, and to learn more about the image. The Doré illustration, "The Organ in the Court," of street children's entertainment, is scanned from my copy of Doré's London, edited by Valerie Purton.
As leisure time increased for English ladies in the 18th-19th centuries, so did the variety of genteel pastimes. In addition to traditional music and needlework, ladies industriously painted watercolors, collected and catalogued natural specimens, decorated porcelain, and made shell-covered grottoes in their gardens. This, however, was one new to me: recovering dilapidated books with printed cloth.
Called "Cottonian Bindings", the process is exactly what it sounds like. A worn book is covered with a remnant of printed cotton fabric, with the title and the author's name neatly hand-lettered on a paper label pasted to the spine. It seems to have been a way of giving new life to a battered book, a thrifty craft much like patchwork quilt-tops.
The name "cottonian bindings" is closely connected to the English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843), whose extensive private library contained as many as 1400 books bound in this manner by his daughters and friends. Southey's friend and fellow-poet William Wordsworth also had books with cottonian bindings. Some were believed to have been bound by his sister Dorothy Wordsworth, while another example, believed to be the handiwork of his wife Mary, is now in the British Library. Few others survive today.
The three books, above, are thought to have been bound by Dorothy Wordsworth for her brother and for Southey. Earlier this week, they were sold at auction for £5800, a sum that would have no doubt astonished both Dorothy and her brother. Not bad for three old books recovered at home!
Three books with cottonian bindings, believed to be bound by Dorothy Wordsworth, c 1820. Photograph via Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions.
Yes, dear reader, you have read the date correctly. After all this time of dissing Victorian fashions, I’ve decided to rethink the matter. Partly because sticking to the first 37 years of the 19th century (pre-Victoria) has grown a little … boring. Partly because I’ve been reading Dickens again. Partly because I truly believe that every fashion period has certain bright points. And partly because a great many more historical romance authors are now setting their stories in the Victorian era, and their ladies, too, deserve attention.
So I present for your consideration what’s always been one of my least favorite fashion eras—the mid-nineteenth century. Although it’s hard to escape the “woman in a cage” or "bell-shaped female" image, I’m ready to reinterpret, and see what's pretty about the styles. Are you? I think we can agree that this plate is quite beautifully done, in any case.
The fashions, as indicated, are from Godey’s Lady’s Book, courtesy the Internet Archive. (If you decide to look up the magazine on Wikipedia, please be aware that the article contains the usual legend about Queen Victoria being the first bride to wear white, a fashion myth the 2NHG have politely disproved on numerous occasions.)
Clicking on the images will allow you to enlarge them. Clicking on the captions will take you to the source, where you can enlarge further, for easier viewing/reading.
One of our recent Friday Videos featuring an unidentified woman dancing along a precariously high-wire far above the streets of an equally unidentified city. Our astute Nerdy History readers were quickly able to spot the buildings in the background and identify the city as New York. Some readers also thought the video was a clever fake, filmed before a backdrop, but thanks to one – Elise Daniel – we now know that the film was very likely real, and the name of the high-wire artist in the sky: Bird Millman O'Day.
Or maybe not. Read on!
A hundred years ago, we all would have recognized her. Bird Millman (1890-1940) was one of the most celebrated performers of her time, a favorite of circus audiences around the world. Born Jennadean Engleman in Canon City, CO, she began her career as a precocious child performer, and worked her way up from small-town traveling circuses to the big-time vaudeville circuit, playing to packed houses in around America.
In 1913, she signed with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, right, and became a center-ring performer and major attraction, both with Barnum & Bailey and with the Ringling Brothers. In the off-season, she continued to play on Broadway as a featured star in the Ziegfeld Follies and Frolics, and toured Europe as well, where she famously gave a command performance for Kaiser Wilheim II.
"Every girl aught to walk a tightrope," Bird declared to the Milwaukee News in 1913. "It develops a rare set of muscles and self-confidence and teaches one how to walk properly on the street."
She was famous not only for her daring, but for making her performances look graceful and deceptively easy, with a light-hearted personality that charmed audiences. She was compared to a dainty bird (which gave her her theatrical nickname) and a fairy, and while most female circus performers wore provocatively close-fitting and skimpy (for the time!) costumes, hers featuring flowing, feather-trimmed skirts that made her look even more ethereal.
Sadly, while her public persona was that of a merry sprite, her private life was not as carefree. Her first two marriages were short-lived and ended in divorce. Her third marriage to Joseph Francis O'Day sounds like a Jazz Age match in a short story by F.Scott Fitzgerald: the high-wire dancer and the Harvard-educated millionaire. Bird happily retired from performing, determined to make this marriage work.
But O'Day lost his entire fortune - and Bird's - in the stock market crash of 1929. He died shortly afterwards, and the devastated and now-destitute Bird returned to Colorado to live with family. Her health deteriorated, and she died in great pain from uterine cancer in 1940, shortly before her fiftieth birthday.
Learning all this, however, only raises more questions about the silent film clip. British Pathe, which owns the film, has it catalogued as 1931 - which would have been years after Bird retired from performing.
However, soon after the U.S. entered World War One in 1917, Bird had indeed made a special patriotic performance in New York to help raise support for the war effort and for a Liberty Loan drive. She danced along a high-wire strung twenty-five stories over the Broadway where she was a star, and, according the newspaper reports, drew crowds and stopped traffic. I wonder if this performance is the one shown in the film. In one scene, she is shown with the Woolworth Building (the tall, angular skyscraper, identified by reader Thane Floreth) in the background, a scene that is also depicted on the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine.
But if this film features a performer as well-known as Bird, then why wasn't she identified on the caption-cards? Was it old footage, recycled in 1931, and was her fame already so diminished that the filmmaker didn't bother to identify her? Or was this a recreation of Bird's famous feat by an unknown performer and using camera trickery? As another reader, Karen Anne, pointed out, no one on the ground is looking up - which would hardly be the case for the original well-publicized stunt.
So, readers: what do you think?
Top left: Bird Millman, c. 1905, Cannon City Historical Society. Top right: Barnum & Bailey Circus poster, c. 1915. Lower left: Autographed publicity photograph of Bird Millman, c. 1920, The Blondin Memorial Trust. Lower right: Cover, Popular Mechanics magazine, July, 1917.
Once in a while, we have to take a little break from blogging, tweeting, pinning, and general social-networking. We'd like to say that we're going on glorious vacations, but this time we'll be tackling edits and other book-writing-tasks - which can be every bit as daunting as this lady's catch.
See you back here next week!
Left: Mrs. A.W. (Pauline) Barrett and boatman Jim Gardner and the black sea bass she caught, 1901. The fish weighed 461 pounds, and she caught it with a rod and reel off Catalina Island, CA. Photo courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum.
For just-past-May Day, we offer this silent clip of a stylish dare-devil, dancing on a high-wire 300 feet over some unidentified American city in 1931. Her performance must have been part of some now-forgotten publicity stunt, or perhaps advertising an upcoming circus performance. We give her major props for both her balance and her courage - not to mention that fur-trimmed skirt and fabulous little cloche hat.
The folks at British Pathé have just put this online, along with thousands of other fantastic newsreel film clips from their archives. (Last week's fashion show is another from their collection.) They didn't identify either the lady or the city. Several of the buildings in the background are so distinctive that surely they'd be recognizable - if they still exist. Anyone make a guess?
This blog was suggested by a schoolmate of my daughter's, a girl who saw the little leather purse, left, and thought the story behind it might make a good TNHG post. She's right – and what intrigued me the most is that she's just about the same age as the young woman who originally owned that purse.
Born in Gettysburg, PA, Jenny Wade (1843-1863), below, was a seamstress employed by her mother. A fervent Union supporter, she was likely engaged to marry Johnston Hastings "Jack" Skelly, a corporal in the 87th Pennsylvania. In one of those terrible coincidences of history, Jenny, her mother, and her younger siblings left their home on the first of July, 1863, for the house of her sister, Georgia McClellan, which they believed to be in a safer location in the center of town. The war had suddenly become inescapable, with nearly 160,000 Confederate and Unions soldiers converging on their small Pennsylvania town. As the battle raged nearby, Jennie and her sister made loaves of bread, running out to the street to give them to the Union troops marching past on their way to join the fighting.
With gunfire ringing throughout their neighborhood (more than 150 bullets have been found in the walls of the McClellan house), the women struggled to keep life as normal as possible. Early on the warm Friday morning of July 3, Jennie was standing in her sister's kitchen, kneading dough for more bread. The small leather purse, above, was in her pocket while she worked.
As she bent over the dough, a Confederate sharpshooter's bullet entered the kitchen and struck Jennie. The ball pierced her left shoulder and passed through her heart, finally burying itself against the bones of her corset. Jennie died instantly. Her body was discovered by Union soldiers, and she was buried in the back yard of the house. Legend says that her grief-stricken mother went on to finish the bread that Jennie had been kneading, giving the loaves to Union soldiers along with the story of her daughter's death.
When the horrific Battle of Gettysburg was finally over, the casualties on both sides were estimated at between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers – the highest number for any Civil War battle. Yet only one civilian was killed: Jennie Wade. Within a week, her sweetheart, Jack Skelly, was also dead, perishing from wounds received at the Battle of Winchester. Looking at that remarkably ordinary little leather purse, it's hard not to think of Jennie and Jack, and all the hopes and dreams that must have ended for so many young couples in that hot July of 1863.
Above: Jennie Wade purse, Christian C. Sanderson Museum, Chadd's Ford, PA Below: Jennie Wade, detail, Wade Family daguerreotype Many thanks to Hannah Boettcher for suggesting this post!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.