Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Brilliant Starry Messenger, 1783

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Isabella reporting,

The night sky is unfamiliar territory to most modern Westerners. A sky filled with stars and planets that was once so familiar for telling time and location is today lost in the brightness of electric lights. Rare celestial events like comets, meteors, and fireballs are relegated to a passing notice on the Weather Channel (or worse, in a song by Pitbull.)

But to our ancestors, the sight of an unexpected ball of fire shooting across the heavens was a strange and unsettling thing, a divine portent of a coming war or the downfall of a king. Starry Messengers: Signs and Science from the Skies is the name of a wonderful exhibition currently on display at Harvard University's Houghton Library, and features examples of how early modern scientists, artists, and writers tried to explain and understand the stars and skies above. The exhibition runs through May 2, and is free and open to the public; click here for more information, and also watch the excellent short video here.

I was particularly fascinated by the story that accompanied these two images on the exhibition caption:

"On the evening of August 18, 1783, a fireball streaked across the British night sky, breaking up in the atmosphere and vanishing over the course of a minute. The summer heat meant there were a number of observers outside at the right moment. Remarkably, a gathering on the terrace of Windsor Palace included both the physicist Tiberious Cavallo and the artist Thomas Sandby, each of whom recorded the event in his own way; Cavallo in the pages of the premier scientific journal of the time, and Sandby in a beautifully atmospheric painting of the event, turned into a hand-colored etching by his brother Paul."

The illustration, right, that accompanied Cavallo's scholarly account in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1784 no doubt explained the stages of the fireball's self-destruction to his learned readers. However, the Sandby painting, above, (click on the image to enlarge it) captures the magic of the event, showing a group of party-goers turned celestial observers gazing up into the sky from the terrace. Unlike some of the earlier illustrations in the exhibition that show people recoiling in fear from comets, these individuals are calmly regarding the fireball with true Age of Reason solemnity.

I like that Sandby included two well-dressed women in the group, and that they are watching solemnly, too, without any signs of female hysterics or fear. What did they make of the sight, I wonder? They certainly weren't going to report their reaction to the Royal Society; women were not admitted as Fellows to that august group until 1945. Did they rush to tell their friends and family and mantua-maker the next day? Did they write letters describing what they'd witnessed? Did they rely on the men around them for explanation(that one fellow pointing his hand was probably a know-it-all), or were they sufficiently educated themselves to understand what they were seeing?

Alas, no one knows. But don't be surprised if a heroine in one of my next books happens to be walking on the terrace of Windsor Palace on a warm August night....

Many thanks to John Overholt and Andrea Cawelti for their assistance with this post, and for my tour of Houghton Library; I am still in a blissful Nerdy History Girl daze.

Above: To Sir Joseph Bankes, President of the Royal Society, London, this plate, from motives of respect and esteem, is inscrib'd. London: P. Sandby, 1783.
Right: Royal Society (Great Britain), Philosophical transactions, 1784.
Both from the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Images via Houghton Library.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

From the Archives: Fake Beards & Face-Paint: the Dreadnought Hoax, 1910

Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Isabella reporting,

With today being April Fools Day, it seems appropriate to mention one of the most outlandish pranks of the Edwardian era. (Remember this earlier hoax from 1809?) In our time of hyper-security and identity checks, it's impossible to imagine a group of artists and writers in cheesy costumes bluffing their way onto a royal  navy ship – but that's exactly what happened in what became known as the "Dreadnought Hoax."

On February 7, 1910, six members of the Bloomsbury Group planned an elaborate lark.  Dressed in improvised costumes and with fake beards pasted on their faces, they presented themselves as a party of Abyssinian princes with their Foreign Office guides to the crew of the HMS Dreadnought, flagship of the home fleet. The costumes were not particularly good - see the photograph above - and one fake beard even disguised a woman, the writer Virginia Woolf (far left in the photo).

Yet they succeeded in fooling not only the captain and crew of the Dreadnought, but an admiral as well. They were welcomed on board the ship with full honors, marines at attention, the band playing, and African flags flying. The ship's officers invited the visitors to dine with them, which the visitors politely declined, claiming the food and drink would be inappropriately prepared for their diets. In reality, they feared the glue holding their beards in place would not survive a meal.

The mastermind of the plot, infamous practical joker Horace de Vere Cole, described the hoax in a letter to a friend:

"It was glorious! Shriekingly funny – I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter....

"I was so amused at being just myself in a tall hat [Cole played the part of one of the English guides] – I had no disguise whatever and talked in an ordinary friendly way to everyone – the others talked nonsense. We had all learned some Swahili: I said they were "jolly savages" but that I didn't understand much of what they said...It began to rain slightly on the ship and we only just got the princes under cover in time, another moment and their complexions would have been running – Are you amused? I am...Yesterday was a day worth living."

But while Cole was amused, many others were not. Within days the details of the hoax became widely known, with the newspapers devoting much page-space to the story as well as printing cartoons like the one, right, that are appalling to us now. The Edwardians may have been elegant, but they could also be audaciously arrogant, racist, and insensitive - imagine the international incident that this "hoax" would cause today!

Even in 1910, parliament demanded answers about the lack of security, while the navy was forced to endure the humiliation of being the butt of the entire affair. Even Cole was almost (almost) sorry about that, noting that the officers "were tremendously polite and nice – couldn't have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality."

Above: Photograph of the participants in the Dreadnought Hoax, 1910. From collection of Horace de Vere Cole.
Below: "Once Bitten, Twice Shy", cartoon from the Daily Mirror, February, 1910.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

George Washington's Rules for Gentlemanly Behavior, 1748

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Recently Loretta shared an 1873 guide to etiquette for a Victorian gentleman. Suggested rules for good manners weren't new then, however. From Baldassare Castiglone's The Book of the Courtier, first published in 1508, through Emily Post and Miss Manners, advice has been available for those who wish to improve their manners, and aspire to appear as well-bred gentlemen or ladies.

Long before George Washington became America's first president and the Father of Our Country, he was a sixteen-year-old Virginian acutely aware of his lack of the formal education and cultured manners that he observed in the wealthiest planters and other English gentleman of the Georgian era. At some point, young George must have come across Youths Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Among Men, a 17th c. English translation of a guidebook first published by French Jesuits in 1595. The maxims in Youths Behaviour covered not only basic manners and general courtesies, but also larger issues of character and moral judgement, with suggestions for how a gentleman should respect others and conduct himself in the world.

The numbered maxims must have struck a chord with George, because around 1748 he carefully copied them into the back of a notebook - his commonplace book - for future reference. Titled The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, he referred to them throughout his life, and they formed the backbone of his own personal code of behavior. There are 110 rules in his list; here are only the first seven of them. Although centuries old, most of the rules are still quite applicable. Modern sixteen-year-olds should take note.

1st. Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

2nd. When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.

3rd.  Show Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.

4th.  In the Presence of Others, Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.

5th.  If you Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud, but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your Handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside.

6th.  Sleep not while others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.

7th.  Put not off your Clothes in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Dressed....

The original handwritten version George Washington's Rules of Civility is now in the Library of Congress. If you enjoy the challenge of 18th c. penmanship, you can read it in its entirety online here, or transcribed here.

Left: Colonel George Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale, c. 1772.
Right: The first manuscript page of George Washington's Rules of Civility, Library of Congress.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Family Tea Party in Earthenware

Monday, March 30, 2015
Tee Total Family Group
Loretta reports:

A recent visit to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta  offered disappointment on one hand and delightful surprises on the other.  The disappointment was in discovering that the one floor I wished to visit was closed for refurbishing.  From the ramp, we had tantalizing glimpses of 19th C European works as well as boxes filled with paintings and other items under wraps.

The delightful surprise was a charming collection of18th and 19th C ceramic works, which included this family party.

The card information was sparse, and I know next to nothing about Staffordshire work, but diligent searching led me to a similar group at Case Antiques
The latter has sustained some damage while the High Museum’s “Tee total” seemed to be in pristine condition (but obviously we were not examining it under a black light, so it might have been repainted)—as were some other pieces I will show at another time.

Here it is again at the V& A.

For an entertaining and informative overview of Staffordshire figures (including this charming scene), I recommend you spend a few minutes reading Touching the Past: Staffordshire Figures 1780 to 1840.

*"Figural Group, ca. 1820**, Earthenware, Staffordshire Factory, Staffordshire, England.  Bequest of Mrs. Norman Powell Pendley, 1988.148.1"

**Other sites cite an 1830s date or "early 19th century."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Breakfast Links: Week of March 22, 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015
Fresh for your weekend browsing - our weekly round-up of fav links to other blogs, web sites, images, and articles via Twitter.
• 18th c. Masquerade balls.
• Shocking! "Leading actresses in men's togs": it's a 1903 issue of Vanity Fair's Bifurcated Girls!
• About those infamous 18th c. mouse-skin eyebrows: maybe not.
• DIY: how to knit your own ancient Egyptian Coptic socks.
• John Ruskin's romantic mid-19th c. daguerreotypes of Venice.
Image: The early 14th c. architecture at Wells Cathedral was a high-point of civilization. You search for words.
• In 1777, Abigail Adams wrote to John about "Rout and Noise in the Town": the female food riots of the American Revolutions
• Imagine "accidentally" inheriting a 500-year-old manor with a 50-room mansion.
• Goethe's Theory of Colors: The 1810 treatise that inspired Kandinsky and early abstract painting.
Image: Painted stockings, c. 1920.
• New museums to discover in Washington, DC: the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum opened this weekend.
• Self-control and the manly body, 1760-1860.
• The suffocation death of an orphaned chimney sweep in Somers Town, 1788.
• Early 19th c. cheating valets and the tricks of the trade.
• The tragic story of the last UK men hung for gay sex. Dickens wrote about them.
• The turbulent reign of Henry IV.
Image: After the Great Reform Act, Wellington was lampooned for being out of touch with the mood of the era.
• Beware of goblins bearing gifts: the Morristown Ghost.
• Not so prim Pilgrims: Sexual propositions in the Plymouth Colony Court Records, 1633-86.
Bedlam burial ground dig in London could unearth more than 3,000 bodies.
• The growing legend of Lydia Taft: did she really vote in an Uxbridge town meeting in 1756?
• Startling portraits of early English Royals.
• Meet Doris Raymond, the fairy godmother of vintage clothing.
Image: Exquisite wedding bonnet of silk net and blonde lace, c1825-29.
Women, plumbers, and doctors: Advice for American housewives regarding sanitation in the home, 1885.
• For lovers of historical maps: beautiful 17th c. Speed maps of Great Britian.
• Revolutionary women artists, 15th-19th c.
• Hunting for - and finding - medieval people of color in paintings at the Gemaldgalerie, Berlin.
Image: A delicate sight over Greenwich: the young Moon and Venus meet in the west.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily!
Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket