Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

Category: Victorian

Swooning, A Victorian Fad?

“Beware of fainting-fits… though at the time they may be refreshing and agreeable, yet believe me: they will, in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your constitution.”

~Jane Austen, Love and Friendship

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As a lover of all things classic and bookish, I find it fascinating that women in 19th century novels were commonly portrayed fainting. They faint when anything scary, shocking or surprising happens. They faint at moments of emotional intensity. They faint whenever they try any hard physical work.

In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers female characters swoon repeatedly. And who can forget Jane Austen’s portrayal of Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (you knew I’d work that one in if I could) keeping to her rooms for fear of fainting under the stress of her daughter’s elopement with the dastardly Mr. Wickham.

Some historians suggest that fashion may have played a part.

child-corsetCorsets were very common among the upper classes. Worn around the torso, corsets were made of a durable tightly woven fabric or leather, fashioned with channels running throughout them in which vertical ribs were inserted, called boning because they were often made with whale bone. The entire device was held together, and tightened, sometimes to extremes, by a system of lacing. Girls were started in corsets at a very young age and, for them and ladies after childbirth, waist training, to shrink the side of the waist, via super tight lacing, was common. Over time, corset-wearers’ bodies changed—their ribs were displaced, their lungs were squashed, some organs were compressed against the spine and others were shoved down into the lower abdomen. In addition to making it hard to breathe, hearts struggled to pump and, stomachs struggled to digest what little food they could get down. As one Victorian lady reported, “I had only eaten two bites of my biscuit there was no room beneath my corset for a third.”

Another fashion-based theory is that a well dressed woman of this era wore an enormous amount of clothing. In addition to her corset, such a lady would undergarments, a bustle pad, a full skirt supported by crinoline petticoats, sometimes lined with steel hoops, and a bonnet. Some may have fainted from overheating, while others may have collapsed under the sheer weight of their garments and their tightly cinched corsets.

Another possible explanation for some of the swooning could have been chronic poisoning. During the 19th century, while people knew that arsenic was poisonous, they didn’t understand that external exposure from its fumes could also be harmful. The toxin was widely used in the manufacture of everything from fabrics to paints to the paper in which food was wrapped; in fact, by the end of the 1800s, 80% of all wallpaper was arsenic-laced. Arsenic poisoning has a variety of symptoms including headaches, cold sweats, and fainting.

In addition, arsenic, along with lead, mercury and other such toxic substances, were commonly found in makeup during the Victorian era. Lead was also a common ingredient in hair dyes and was frequently found in wine, along with arsenic and copper. Together, these toxins contributed to more wealthy Victorians suffering from seizures, and theoretically swooning, when compared with their poorer neighbors who couldn’t afford such luxuries.

Was Swooning a Fad?

Even more curious is that the phenomenon appeared to be more common among middle and upper class women, or so literature would have you believe. Upper-class women, especially young women, were expected to be more delicate, more emotional, and more easily distressed as opposed to women of the working classes. Leaving many social historians to believe that all swooning was nothing more than a put on. Besides potential side effects from tightly laced corsets or the exposure to toxins, fainting became expected and downright ladylike. Women of particularly of high station were expected to act the role of a delicate flower, while men were expected to be hard as nails. Swooning was simply one method for a woman to demonstrate her femininity. Well-to-do women often had something called a “fainting room,” a special location where she could recover a fainting spell in private.

In Bleak House, Dickens’ character, Lady Dedlock, swoons at the first hint her hidden past, a secret affair and child, may be revealed. Dickens also ridicules characters who swoon as part of a social performance. Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit is portrayed as manipulating those around her by “wilting on demand.”

Lady Revivers

Smelling salts, also known as “lady revivers,” were the most common method used for rousing a fainting damsel. However there is no salt in smelling salts at all. The active ingredient is ammonium carbonate, a solid compound that when mixed with water releases an ammonia gas that irritates the lining of the nose and the windpipe, heightening a person’s alertness.

While fashionable Victorian ladies might have a “fainting room” inside in case a sudden fit befell them, if a woman was overcome while out and about the situation might prove more perilous. Police constables of the era were equipped with small vials of smelling salts to assist afflicted women in the streets.

So what do you think? Was the sudden surge in fainting spells among Victorian upper-class women a result of tight corsets and arsenic-laced cosmetics, or was it a social fad, a way to prove your delicate femininity?

 

Will the Real Sherlock Holmes Please Stand Up?

My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.”  ~The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

Perhaps one of the most recognized characters in all of literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has captured the imagination of generations around the world. Doyle’s brilliant private detective became known for his signature prowess at using logic and his keen powers of observation to solve cases. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short-stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. Almost all were narrated by Holmes’ friend, Dr. Watson. Doyle’s work gained popularity as serialized stories published in The Strand Magazine over a period of forty years.

No doubt Holmes is perhaps the most famous fictional detective, and indeed one of the best known and most universally recognizable literary character, but did you know that Doyle based the his famous character on real people?

Dr. Joseph Bell, photo courtesy of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate

Joseph Bell (1837–1911) was a professor at the University of Edinburgh in 1877 where the young Doyle enrolled in medical school. Bell captivated Doyle and his classmates with his amazing deductive skills and often immediate conclusions regarding patient diagnoses, occupation and other personal details just by studying their appearance and mannerisms. In addition to taking Bell’s classes, Doyle served for a time as his clerk at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where he got a further look at the older man’s diagnostic methods. In addition to using his deductive powers to diagnose diseases, he occasionally assisted the police as a forensic doctor.

Years later, Conan Doyle wrote to Bell: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes and though in the stories I have the advantage of being able to place him in all sorts of dramatic positions, I do not think that his analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some effects which I have seen you produce in the outpatient ward.”

Henry Littlejohn – Photo courtesy of
Edinburgh University Library

Henry Littlejohn (1826-1914)  Joseph Bell was not the sole inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Doyle also credits famed Scottish forensic scientist, public health inspector, and dissector of human bodies, Henry Littlejohn, for giving Holmes some of his personality. Part of Littlejohn’s job as Surgeon of Police and Medical Officer of Health in Edinburgh was to consult with police when they needed medical expertise. Littlejohn investigated accidents, tragic deaths, or murders that took place in the city. He revolutionized the way cases were solved at the same time as Doyle was writing his master slueth’s adventures. Littlejohn is credited with pioneering the use of fingerprinting and photographic evidence in criminal investigations.

During the time Doyle was writing “The Final Problem” in 1893, Littlejohn was called as an expert witness in the trial of Alfred John Monson who had been accused of shooting his twenty year old student, Cecil Hambrough, during a hunting trip. The defense claimed that Hambrough had “accidentally” shot himself in the head. According to the Edinburgh News, Littlejohn testified that the position of the wound, the scorch marks from the bullet, the damage to the victim’s skull, and even the smell of the victim indicated that the victim had been murdered.

William Gillette portraying Sherlock Holmes

William Gillette (1853–1937) This one is a bit of a stretch. Although William Gillette wasn’t an inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes character, as one of the first actors to portray Holmes (which Gillette did more than 1,000 times), he has influenced the development of the Holmes character tremendously to the public. Gillette was the first to wear Holmes’s signature deerstalker hat, the first to replace Holmes’s straight pipe with a curved one, and the first (while helping Conan Doyle to write the first official Sherlock Holmes stage play) to pen the line, “elementary, my dear fellow,” which would eventually be turned by later writers into, “elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette had his own Homes-like qualities. He was an inventor, earning patents for a variety of items including a timestamp device and a system for making more realistic sound effects on stage.

Tidbits & Trivia

  • The name “Sherlock Holmes” is believed to have been taken from two sources–“Sherlock” from Doyle’s favorite musician, Alfred Sherlock, and “Holmes” from the prominent, Oliver Wendell Holmes.
  • By the late 1890s, Dr. Bell had earned quite a reputation as an investigator. So much so, in fact, that when a series of murders of “ladies of the night” went down, the police called in Bell to help. This became the infamous Jack the Ripper case.
  • Doyle continued to write adventures for Sherlock Holmes until 1927 and would pass away from a heart attack in 1930.

Which is your favorite Sherlock Holmes mystery?

 

Mapping Your Way to Matrimony

Have you ever wondered why relationships with the opposite sex were so difficult? Have you ever wished for an easier way to navigate the uncertain waters of romance? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a map or App to bypass disappointment and broken hearts and get right to the “happily ever after?”

Complete with land masses, oceans, islands, cities & towns, as well as a key for the lost, Matrimonial Maps were a huge fad in the nineteenth century. Once again, we can shake our heads at those spirited Victorians who managed to diagram the perilous journey from first blush to matrimony while avoiding the pitfalls that might lead to “Divorce Island” where one would be banished and isolated from all good society. Acknowledging that lovers would suffer agonies of confusion as they tried to navigate romantic relationships, these drawing room novelties represented emotional struggles like treachery, jealousy, pity and prudence as insurmountable mountains or hazardous caverns.

“Map of Matrimony” (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

This undated “Map of Matrimony” above was probably published in the 19th century and is part of the national collection in the Library of Congress. Promoting itself as a succinct guide for “timid lovers,” promising to help them navigate the “the orbit of affection” in order to find their way to the “true haven of conjugal happiness.” This particular map offers such geographical parodies as a “Coast of Doubt”, a “Whirlpool of Reflection,”  and “Shoals of Fickleness.” Most matrimonial maps relied heavily on the imaginative mind of its creator,  this map sports a real world location in its use of the “Cape of Good Hope.” Note the reference in the bottom right, as the ship references its longitude east from “common sense.”

The State of Matrimony, GE Moray, 1909. (Photo courtesy of Barron Maps)

Matrimonial maps survived into the 20th century like the one above designed by New York restaurant owner, George Edward Moray in 1909 as an advertising card. Moray’s map instructs the reader to “enter the State of Matrimony from either the State of Innocence, the State of Single Blessedness, or the Ocean of Love.” If you desire a quick trip to your ultimate destination, he advises you to purchase transportation on one of three railroads: “The Ceremony R.R., The Elopement R.R., or the Common Law R.R.” The only way out, according to Moray’s map, was to ride the “Divorce Rapid Transit R.R. into the State of Irresponsibility.” A unique feature of this map is that the vast majority of locations are real place names.

Victorian Valentine, “Map of Matrimony” by George Skaife Beeching, c1880. (Photo: Courtesy Barron Maps)

While many maps of matrimony were intended for wall display,  others were found on Victorian valentines like the one pictured directly above. Unlike “vinegar valentines,” These humorous cards delicately satirized courtship, offering a little social commentary on the rituals of courtship. A bachelor’s perilous journey might lead him to the “Rocks of Disappointment” or require him to  traverse the “Falls of Doubt” or crossover the turbulent waters of the “Sea of Propriety” before happily arriving in the “Land of Matrimony.” Meanwhile a hopeful female will have to avoid the “Land of Spinsters” and navigate uncharted waters in the “Sea of Introduction” before finally sailing triumphantly into the “Bay of Engagement.” But her journey rarely ends there, as she will no doubt need to visit the “Provence of Jewellers & Millners” or “Wedding Cake Land” before happily entering into the “Region of Rejoicing.”

With choices like the “Lake of Content” or “Disappointment Harbor,” these entertaining parodies on love and courtship in the nineteenth century revealed the fine nuances as well as the dangerous pitfalls that lovers can still relate to today.

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, you may want to consider designing a Map of Matrimony for your beloved relating the journey your relationship took to wedded bliss. My journey to the “Land of Matrimony” would begin at “Chance Encounter Cove” with a long journey through the “Gulf of Flirtation” and the “Region of Exclusive Relationship” before taking a sudden, sharp detour through the “Bay of Broken Hearts.” But not to worry, my resourceful bachelor found his way to “Restoration Island” then sailed with me to the “Land of Happily Ever After.”

What geographical feature would you put on your Map of Matrimony?

 

Victorian Mourning Etiquette

Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert's death from his death in 1861 until her own in 1901.

Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert’s death from his death in 1861 until her own in 1901.

Upon the death of a loved one, both men and women during the Victorian era were expected to follow stringent rules on how society expected them to act, dress and conduct themselves during a rather extensive period of mourning. From lavish funerals and horse-drawn carriages to elaborate graveside monuments, it seems the Victorians were obsessed with mourning.

So what precipitated this culture of mourning?

Quite simply, the death of Prince Albert. Widowed at age forty-two, Queen Victoria fell deep into the throws of grief and mourning and proceeded to wear mourning garb for the next forty years of her life. She required that her court do the same. The aristocracy followed suit and new mourning rituals filtered down through all classes of British society.

Adherence to these new mores was seen as essential for showcasing the wealth and class of  Victorian families. Ladies’ magazines such as Cassell’s contained articles with tips for proper mourning including stopping clocks at the moment of death, drawing curtains, and covering mirrors to prevent the spirit of the deceased becoming trapped in its reflective glass. It was not uncommon for the lady of the house to dress her servants in black as a demonstration of an entire household in mourning.

Notice the crape details on her mourning gown.

Notice the crape details on her mourning gown.

According to the Victorian etiquette manual Polite Society at Home and Abroad, upon the death of a husband, a widow was expected to go into a period of Full Mourning, also called First Mourning, for one year. During this time she was only allowed to wear black, symbolizing spiritual darkness, and could not appear in public without it. Neither was she allowed out in public without a black mourning veil, commonly known as a weeping veil, covering  her face. Considered callous and even immoral, luxurious fabrics like furs, satin or velvet were strictly forbidden. Mourning dresses were usually trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy silk fabric with a distinctively crisp, crimped appearance.

If the woman did not have black attire nor the means to acquire any, she would die a lighter dress. Women from the lower classes or with children to support, were allowed to look for a new husband after this period of Full Mourning. If, however, she had no dependents or serious need for money, she would then enter a period of Second Mourning, which lasted for nine more months. Second Mourning meant a relaxation of the rules, or “slighting the mourning.” The veil, while still worn, could now at least  be raised when out in public, but mourning etiquette dictated that black was still the only color that was permissible for clothing. She could also exchange the uncomfortable crape from her gown for a few subtle lacy embellishments.

Example of Victorian Third Mourning dress.

Example of Victorian Third Mourning dress.

The final stage of traditional Victorian mourning was Third Mourning, or Half-mourning, and lasted anywhere from three to six months.  The color of cloth lightened now to grey tones of blue, green and purple. If she was a woman of means, now was the time that society considered it acceptable for her to start looking for a new husband.

Mourning traditions for men were similar to women in that they were expected to wear dark suits with black hat and or arm bands. A widower who had lost his wife was expected to mourn for two years, however as with women with dependents, if a man had children to care for, society did allow for him to end mourning sooner and go back to conducting business or work. An unmarried man who had lost a close relation such as a mother, sister or cousin, might carry out the full three stages of mourning, same as widows did, lasting the full two to two-and-a-half years. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes.

 Although jewelry was prohibited during deep mourning, Second Mourning allowed for commemorative jewelry or mourning jewelry to be worn. Victorians revived the art of eye miniatures, tiny portraits of an eye of departed loved one painted on brooches, bracelets, lockets and rings. Another popular form of mourning jewelry popularized by Queen Victoria combined jet, a hard, black coal-like material with woven hair of the deceased.  It was already common practice for people to keep a lock of a loved one’s hair after their death and preserve it as a memento of their deceased relatives. Depending on the amount of hair taken from the corpse, the memento might be sent to hair weavers who would design intricate braided ropes used to make watch-chains or necklaces. Mourning lockets and rings had tiny compartments where a lock of hair or even a tooth could be stored as a remembrance.

mourningring jethairmourningjewelry mourninglocket mourningbrooch_photo hairrope

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The strict compliance to the rules of bereavement meant appropriate clothing needed to be readily available to mourners. Many shops catered to the trade. The largest and best known of them in London was Jay’s of Regent Street. Known as a kind of warehouse for mourners, Jay’s provided every conceivable item of clothing a proper Victorian family could need. Considering Victorians found it bad luck to keep mourning clothes, especially crape, in the house after mourning ended, businesses like Jay’s were a lucrative business.

With the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901, much of the world left deep mourning behind but for the Victorians, strict adherence to the rituals of mourning brought constant awareness of the fragility of life. A reminder that death was an ever-present possibility and that he or she should lead a good life because death could strike without warning.

Clandestine Eye Jewelry

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Eye Miniature brooch, circa 1800

Not too long ago, a friend shared a post about Victorian Lover’s Eye jewelry on her Facebook page. I clicked on the link and quickly became fascinated by what I learned.

Eye miniatures, as they were originally known, were small portraits of the human eye painted on brooches, rings, lockets and bracelets. But not just anyone’s eye, these clandestine gifts were exchanged in secret between paramours and effectively concealed the giver’s identity. Only someone with intimate acquaintance — a lover, a spouse, a close family member — would recognize an individual’s eye, thus allowing the gift to be worn in public.

But how did this odd custom become a fad?

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George !V of Wales

Maria Fitzherbert and Prince George IV of Wales

According to legend, the origin of eye miniatures can be traced to the prince of Wales, who later became King George IV. Young George became smitten with the beautiful, twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert, who was six years his senior. But according to British law, the prince could not marry Maria, a Catholic. Fearing scandal, she fled to the continent. George, however, was not to be deterred and secretly pursued Maria. On Nov. 3, 1785, the prince sent Maria a written declaration of his love, including a proposal of marriage. To demonstrate his undying affection, he sent a miniature portrait of his own eye, set in a locket, painted by the miniaturist Richard Cosway, one of the celebrated artists of the day. Shortly after, Maria returned to England and married the prince in a secret ceremony on Dec. 15, 1785. The bride, not to be outdone by her prince, commissioned Cosway to paint her own eye in order that she might secretly give a token of her affection. Soon, other British nobility followed the couple’s lead and the fad spread throughout Europe, taking the contintent by storm until about 1820.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817. .© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature in an Ivory Case with a Mirrored Lid c.1817.
.© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

lovers-eye-ring

Eye Ring, circa1816

Queen Victoria revived the eye miniature fad when she commissioned Sir William Charles Ross to paint portraits of her children and many of her friends and other relatives. A modest resurgence of the art form existed through the the early part of the twentieth century by a few devoted followers of the style, mostly members of the royal family or the aristocracy. Attempts were made by artists at the time to bring the fashion to America with little success.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Eye Miniature with Tears Set in a Brooch with Pearl Frame c.1800.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In the early nineteenth century eye miniatures were adapted as a form of mourning jewelry sometimes referred to as ‘tear jewelry.’ The purpose of the eye portrait was refocused from romance to remembrance. Portrayed with a tear or depicted as gazing through clouds, these miniatures were seen as tributes to loved ones and friends and often evoked powerful emotions. Mourning eye miniatures included symbolism of the gemstones used to surround the painting. Pearls often represented tears when they surrounded an eye portrait. Diamonds portrayed strength and longevity. Garnets indicated true friendship and turquoise was believed to bring good fortune for the deceased in the after life.

Without an inscription, the identity of those painted eyes on these much sought after heirlooms remains a mystery to this day.

What do you think of the lover’s eye jewelry? Creepy, romantic, or just plain weird?

 

Life in the Victorian Era, Fact or Fiction?

VictorianCouple

Despite the image of lavender sachets, lace doilies, and strict rules of social etiquette, not everything we’ve come to believe about life in the nineteenth century is true. Compare these facts to your assumptions and see  if those clever Victorians have you fooled.

Victorian women married young. False. Although the legal age to marry was lowered from twenty-one to twelve years of age in 1823, most women of the Victorian era married between eighteen and twenty-three. Upper class families actually preferred their daughters not to marry before reaching the age of twenty and it became increasingly popular for wealthy women to wait until their mid-twenties to wed.

Pink was a masculine color in Victorian England. True. The Victorians viewed their children as small adults and often expected adult-like behavior from their little charges. So its no wonder they favored lighter shades of the colors favored by themselves. Red was considered a strong, virile, masculine color and dressing boys in pink was commonplace. Blue was considered dainty and feminine. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 40s that blue became universally associated with boys and pink with girls.

Men wore corsets. True. As early as the seventeenth century, upper class males wore corsets or body belts to give their masculine physique the smooth lines that men’s fashions demanded at the time. Like their feminine counterpart, the body belt laced in the back. However nineteenth century men weren’t burdened by stiff whalebone supports. Instead, their corsets were made of lightweight cotton and often sported side buckles to prevent a pudgy tummy from escaping.

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Victorians married their cousins. True. More than one marriage in ten was between first or second cousins among the Victorian upper class. Most notably, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were first cousins. The arrangement was seen as beneficial to ensure that both power and wealth remained concentrated among the landed gentry especially at a time when the Industrial Revolution rapidly created a new generations of wealthy individuals. Ironically, the evolutionist Charles Darwin, who himself was married to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, was one of the first scientists to raise concern that consanguineous marriages had “injurious results to man”. By the late 19th century, physicians noticed an increased number of birth defects among families where marriage occurred between close relatives. The practice was discouraged and eventually fell out of fashion eventually becoming illegal in the early twentieth century.

Emma Brownlow, “The Foundling Restored to its Mother” (1858)

Emma Brownlow, “The Foundling Restored to its Mother” (1858)

 The notion of the “fallen woman” preoccupied Victorians. True. Victorian art and literature often revolved around the theme of a virtuous woman corrupted by the vices of sexual misconduct or alcohol abuse. The fallen woman was often led to desperate measures to survive such as thievery or prostitution. Others were driven to suicide. Offspring conceived in such immorality were commonly admitted to Foundling Hospitals where the illegitimate children became wards of the state. Mothers’ names were rarely recorded and children were often left with only a ribbon, swaddling blanket, or some other trinket to identify them with the hope of a future reunion.

Victorian women removed ribs to make their waists smaller. False. Although late nineteenth century fashion favored tiny hour glass figures, Victorian women did not have their lower ribs removed to create that highly desired wasp-like physique. Vanity aside, Victorian surgery commonly left more patients dead than alive so it would have been absurd to consider such a risky procedure. However, from a young age females were wrestled into the restrictive garments as they were considered conducive to good posture and believed to keep internal organs in proper alignment.

mort-safeObsessed with Gothic tales of vampires and other monsters, Victorians protected the graves of loved ones with iron cages. False. As the demand for corpses for use in anatomical dissection rose, it became an increasingly lucrative business to steal newly interred bodies for sale to medical schools. But in nineteenth century England and Scotland, it was a commonly held belief that the dead could not be resurrected if their bodies were not fully intact. The mortsafe was invented to protect the newly deceased from grave robbing. They came in many different styles but the one thing they held in common was their weight which prevented the interred body from being snatched.

Which fact about Victorian life surprised you the most?

 

 

 

 

And the Bride Wore…Black?

My great-grandmother, Agnes Theresa Burger on her wedding day to John Porta, October, 22, 1907.

My great-grandmother, Agnes Theresa Burger on her wedding day to John Porta, October, 22, 1907.

Since June is a popular month for brides, I got to thinking about popular bridal fashions over the years. I remember the first time I saw this picture of my great-grandmother in this lovely dark gown. I asked mom if she was in mourning. I thought it odd she would have her picture taken if she was. I was shocked when mom replied that it was her wedding photo.

Intrigued, I researched the black wedding dress (and in those days it meant a trip to a library not surfing the web, LOL!)

But it actually makes sense. Throughout history, brides have dressed in a manner befitting their social status.  Weddings were usually more about political alliances and transfers of wealth than they were about romance, and so the wedding dress was just another excuse to show the wealth of the bride’s family. Brides in some parts of Renaissance Italy wore their dowry sewn onto their dress as jewels. Fabrics were also an important means to display wealth, and the more elaborate the weave of the material and the rarer the color, the better the demonstration of wealth.  Before the invention of effective bleaching techniques, white was a valued color: it was both difficult to achieve, and hard to maintain.

Blackweddingdress2You may be surprised to learn that it was common for brides from poorer families to wear everyday colors such as blue, green, brown, burgundy and, yes, even black, rather than white and ivory. Black was especially popular among brides with Scandinavian ancestry.

Prudent brides planned ahead – a wedding gown could be worn for many occasions, not just on their “special day.” The wedding gown was a lady’s “best dress” after the ceremony and it was much more reasonable to have a darker colored dress than a white or ivory dress. Light fabrics, were not practical for women from lower class families who could not afford to purchase garments that could soil too easily. Can you imagine the time and effort involved in keeping the hemline of a white gown clean? Laundering was a big consideration, unless, of course, the lady was from a prominent family who had servants available to handle the laundry.

So when did the white wedding dress come into fashion?

Queen Victoria on her wedding day, February 10, 1840.

Queen Victoria on her wedding day, February 10, 1840.

You can credit Queen Victoria for the trend that has lasted 176 years when she decided against wearing the traditional royal silver bridal gown during her marriage ceremony to her beloved Prince Albert. Instead, Queen Victoria chose a simple dress, made of white satin, trimmed with Honiton lace and a Hontion long veil. She chose a wreath of orange blossoms to represent purity instead of the more traditional royal crown.

Just a few years after her wedding, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular lady’s monthly stated that white was “the most fitting hue” for a bride, “an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.” In the years that followed, white became the dominant, traditional choice, symbolizing purity and maidenhood.

 

 

Wedding Fashion, Did You Know…?

  • The first documented instance of a princess who wore a white wedding gown for a royal wedding ceremony is that of Philippa of England, who wore a tunic with a cloak in white silk bordered with grey squirrel and ermine in 1406.
  • White wedding garments were not originally intended to symbolize virginity. Blue was the color traditionally connected to purity. It was only at the beginning of the 1920’s, as white wedding fashions became popular among middle and lower classes, that white became equated with the purity of the bride
  • The lifting of the veil is an ancient wedding ritual symbolizing the groom taking possession of the wife or the revelation of the bride by her parents to the groom for his approval. An opulent veil was supposed to enwrap the bride like a precious present.
  • Hand made lace was extremely expensive and few brides could afford a veil. As the 19th century progressed and machine made laces became more readily available, the bridal veil became more prevalent at weddings.

Although brides today can choose from a myriad of colors and styles, the traditional white and ivory dresses are still most popular, as many today view white not so much as a symbol of wealth but rather one of purity and virtue.

Have you been to a wedding where the bride wore a color other than white or ivory?

 

 

Penny Dreadful’s Legacy

“To her and none other. Swear to give the girl to me to do with as I please, and I will agree that for every person now in yonder town, a death notch shall be made.”

“Red Hatchet agrees. When he can count the death notches of all his sworn enemies, and is free to go back to his once pretty village, he will deliver Siska to the Devil Dwarf to do with as he pleases.”

“Then call the girl. We will tap a vein in her arm, and seal this compact with a draught of her blood!” the avenger said.

~~Excerpt from Deadwood Dick’s Doom (or Calamity Jane’s Last Adventure)

Sweeney Todd, 1842

Sweeney Todd, 1842


If you love to read like I do, you may be surprised to learn that stories like Deadwood Dick’s Doom (above) paved the way for your favorite author today. These stories, originally known as Penny Dreadfuls, were the first successful mass market paperbacks. First popularized in Victorian Britain, Penny Dreadfuls, sometimes referred to as Penny Bloods, were lurid serial fiction stories published in weekly eight or sixteen page installments, with each part costing one penny. The term quickly became applied to any publication featuring sensational fiction such as story papers and booklet libraries.

Also known in Britain as Shilling Shockers, these stories could best be described in one word, melodramatic. Filled with what today’s editor’s would gleefully strike through as purple prose, these tintillating stories drew readers by romanticizing danger and hardship with larger-than-life heroes defeating villains and rescuing damsels in distress. Rambling plot lines emphasized heinous acts of poisoning, strangling, burglary and narrow escapes from sexual assault that by today’s standards would be considered racist and misogynistic.

Their authors, who might keep ten of these stories spinning simultaneously, were paid at the rate of a penny a line, which had a direct effect on the text. Skilled practitioners quickly learned that short staccato-like sentences not only were the most profitable but increased the dramatic effect as well.

Penny Dreadfuls were printed on cheap pulp paper and were aimed primarily at the working class who saw a sharp rise in literacy rates with new laws requiring mandatory education for all of Britain’s children through age nine. In addition, the proliferation of the railroad made the distribution of Penny Dreadfuls affordable to the masses at a time when traditional full-length novels by authors like Charles Dickens sold for a dollar each.

MalaeskaThe fad took hold on this side of the Atlantic as well when brothers Erastus and Irwin Beadle published Ann Stephens’ “Maleska the Indian Wife of the White Hunter” in 1860. Promoting the work as “a dollar book for a dime,” it was an instant success selling an estimated 300,000 copies in its first year. A feat any author today would would eagerly aspire to repeat.

Beadle’s early publications were printed in orange wrapper papers with no illustrations on the cover. Eventually cover art appeared enticing the curiosity of consumers with illustrations depicting scenes of mayhem and bloodshed.

Drawing on the Beadle’s success, other publishers quickly followed suit and it seemed the American reading public couldn’t get enough of their serialized fiction. Subjects in the early days were pioneer and revolutionary war stories but other adventure genres, such as pirate tales and trapper adventures, also appeared frequently. After the civil war, the focus of the novels turned to the wild west and the detective genres and remained popular through the 1950’s. In the twentieth century the genre became known as pulp fiction after the cheap paper they were printed on.

Early cover art for Beadle's Dime Novels

Early cover art for Beadle’s Dime Novels

Early full cover art for dime novels

Early full cover art for dime novels

1933 cover, still selling for ten cents

1933 cover, still selling for ten cents

Dime Westerns, as they became known in America, were often based on real people like Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and Calamity Jane. Although purely fiction, these stories helped create a new national identity of patriotism and adventure. In addition, they helped level the playing field between the social classes as people began to judge the ideal man by his actions rather than his wallet.

Just like violent video games and movies today, dime novels were blamed for an upsurge in violence in American society. PennyDreadfulcrime-briefs1The New York Tribune published this article in June, 1884, blaming societal ills on the popularity of “cheap” literature, particularly dime novels. People complained that the deviant characters in novels influenced real people, particularly young men, to behave aggressively. “The work of the dime novel is being performed with even more than usual success. The other day three boys robbed their parents and started off for the boundless West. More recently a lad in a Philadelphia public school drew a revolver on his teacher, and examination showed that seven other boys present were armed with revolvers and bowie-knives […] The class of literature which is mainly responsible for all this folly is distributed all over the country in immense quantities, and it is distinctly evil in its teachings and tendencies.”

While penny dreadfuls and dime novels focused on fantastic, escapist fiction for the general masses, there is no denying they encouraged the working class to read and influenced generations of authors and publishers. British bookseller, C.A. Stonehill, noted in 1935 that “It is highly probably that in its day more people read Thomas Prest’s “First False Step” or “The Maniac Father” than had ever heard of a book published in the same decade, entitled Jane Eyre.”

Although I may prefer to read of Jane’s trouble with the enigmatic Mr. Rochester over “Keetsea, Queen of the Plains,” or “Crack Skull Bob,” I think it would be fun to write a character who is secretly hooked on the scintillating stories with the melodrama pouring over into her own life as she suspects something heinous has occurred to a missing neighbor. In her novella, “The Husband Maneuver,” With This Ring?: A Novella Collection of Proposals Gone Awry, Karen Witemeyer (one of my favorites) created a hero whose adventures as a bounty hunter were immortalized as Dead-Eye Dan in a series of dime westerns. Talk about a fun read!

How would you incorporate a Penny Dreadful into a novel’s plot line?

Peculiar Courting Customs

Long before the automobile, telephone and the Friday night football game defined modern dating, there was courtship. A serious, exclusive commitment usually sanctioned by both sets of parents, that often implied the couple was intending to marry. But in times when the opposite sex didn’t mingle in public unless chaperoned, how did perspective beaus let a lady know she had captured his affections? Here’s some fun and quite unusual customs from the past that helped pave the wave to romance for our ancestors.

Antique Welsh Love Spoons

Antique Welsh Love Spoons

Carved from the Heart

In Wales, when a young man wanted to court, he carved his special lady a love spoon. Intricate in detail, these love offerings took hours to craft thereby demonstrating his devotion to his intended. If the young woman accepted the spoon, they were considered courting. Although this ritual has faded in modern Wales, love spoons are still given as gifts for weddings, anniversaries and Valentine’s day.

FAN-tastic Flirting

With all their rules about the opposite sex mingling, those stodgy upper-class Victorians made the art of wooing a woman tricky indeed. Since a gentleman was not allowed to speak to a woman to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced, he needed some clue a lady was open to his attention. Thus the language of the fan was born.  When a lady caught a man staring from across the room, her swift moving fan indicated she was unattached while a slow flapping one signaled she was engaged. If she laid the fan against her right cheek, she was available and open to an introduction. However, if the lady rested the fan against her left cheek, the unlucky fellow learned of her disinterest and spared himself an awkward introduction.

Speak Up, I Can’t Hear You

Couple using a courting stick

Couple using a courting stick

In 17th century America, a young man had little opportunity to woo his love in private. How was he to convince the lady he fancied of his unending devotion when in cramped quarters with her father hovering closeby? The answer, the courting trumpet (also know as a whispering stick or courting tube). By placing one end of a hollow wooden tube in her ear while her beau whispered sweet nothings from the other side, the couple ensured their privacy no matter how many listening ears were nearby.

Seal the Deal with Fruit

If you thought a carved wooden spoon was practical, how about a slice of apple? In rural Austria, available young ladies would shove an apple wedge in their armpit during dances. At the conclusion of festivities, she offered it to the lucky young man she most admired. Now if you’re like me you’re already wrinkling your nose. But wait it gets even better. If he returns her affections, he eats the fruit!

If my hubby were required to eat this putrid offering, I can nearly guarantee I’d still be single! While this old-fashioned gal loves to keep old traditions alive, eating the apple wedge is one courting ritual that should stay buried in the past!

Another old-fashioned way lovers kept the romance alive in the not-so-distant past was letter writing. While living on opposite sides of the country, in the dark ages before email and texting, my hubby wooed me the old-fashioned way– hand-written letters. We kept the post office in business, often exchanging 3-5 letters every week. I still have them in a box in my mother’s hope chest at the foot of my bed.

How did your sweetie woo you?

Victorian Valentines

Although the celebration of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to ancient Rome, the trappings of the modern celebration–flowers, chocolates and gifts do not have such ancient lineage. As you troll the card section of your favorite super store agonizing over the perfect selection, you can thank those wonderful Victorians for popularizing the Valentine’s Day card.

Ornate Victorian Valentine circa 1850s

Ornate Victorian Valentine circa 1850s

Original Victorian Valentines were all about the bling, baby!

Victorians designed unique valentines on flat sheets of paper using such diverse embellishments as silk flowers, lace, seashells, ribbons, seeds, bows, and gold and silver foil appliqués. The sheets, when folded and sealed with wax, could be mailed. Some cards, like the one below, were so elaborate they had mechanical levers that made figures dance or bird wings flutter while others had dimensional pop-up features or unfolded like fans to impress their recipient.

However, the cost of postage made sending their undying affections very costly for the average British citizen, as much as a day’s wage for the working class. It wasn’t until the advent of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840 that Valentines flourished and a widespread tradition was born.

front of the card folds down to reveal details of the flowers and birds. Circa 1850s. Photograph by Michael Marx

Elaborate Mechanical Valentine circa 1850s Photograph by Michael Marx

Victorians overwhelmingly favored sending Valentine’s cards over Christmas cards. In fact, so many Valentine’s greetings were posted that letter carriers were given extra pay for the large sacks they hauled and delivered in the days preceding the holiday. The growing trend of sending Valentine’s is referenced in a popular poem of the time, by James Beaton.

The letters in St. Valentine so vastly will amount,
Postmen may judge them by the lot, they won’t have time to count;
They must bring round spades and measures, to poor love-sick souls
Deliver them by bushels, the same as they do coals.

Valentine cards were so fashionable that their production became a thriving business among London’s cheapjack printers. Clichéd verses like “Be Mine” and “Constant and True” were commonly printed inside. Despite their mass-production, commercially produced Valentines still typically featured dried flowers, bird feathers, ribbons and lace.

 

VinegarPoetOldMaid.jpg.CROP.article920-large

Vinegar Valentines

But the Victorians didn’t limit their Valentine’s Day felicitations to the objects of their affections. Through the mid-twentieth century, Vinegar Valentine’s were sent anonymously and ridiculed the recipient’s appearance, fashion sense, income or social status. Gender blind, the ill-wishes were as likely to mock a woman’s spinsterhood as a man’s occupation. Unlike their extravagant counterparts, these nasty tidings didn’t feature lavish ornamentation or elaborate trimmings, but rather were printed on very inexpensive paper and featured simple artwork and mean-spirited rhyming verses.

For the modern celebrant, exchanging Valentines is just one way to show your love and devotion to a spouse, sweetheart or infatuation.

What is your favorite Valentine’s tradition?

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