Sunday, March 9, 2014
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Contemporary Americans are not the only ones who purchase expensive exercise equipment in the hope of achieving physical fitness. Eighteenth-century English gentlemen (and likely a few ladies as well) used this peculiar-looking device, left, to help burn off the effects of those infamously lengthy Georgian dinners. Called a chamber horse, it was designed to replicate the up-and-down motion of horseback riding.
How did it work? The "rider" sat on the seat with his feet on the floor or step (some models like this one featured a step that pulled out, like a drawer) and his hands on the side arms. Inside the bellows-like leather portion were tiers of metal springs, divided by wooden boards. When the rider pressed down, the springs gave way with a certain resistance, then bounced the rider back up again. This bouncing was supposed to mimic horseback riding, and was considered excellent exercise as well as a cure and preventative for everything from nervous diseases to that all-purpose catch-all ailment, the "spleen."
Henry Marsh of Clare Market claimed to be the inventor of the chamber horse, and he was advertising them for sale in 1739. They became very popular in the later 18th c. with exactly the same kind of people who buy treadmills today: affluent people who are too busy for outdoor exercise, or who don't like to work out in bad weather, or don't really feel up to anything more strenuous. Surviving examples vary in the details. The more expensive ones masquerade as fine furniture, with mahogany frames, Moroccan leather, and brass nail heads. Even the cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton showed them in his catalogues.
The bouncing must have been fun, too, since a version was made as a nursery ride for the children of King George III. Considering how the King and Queen Charlotte had fifteen children, the vigorous action of the chamber horse might have been popular in the palace as a way to wear out all those little princes and princesses.
But like modern exercise equipment, the fad for chamber horses passed, and by the late 18th c., they were falling were out of fashion. Also like modern equipment, there were likely many chamber horses that were purchased, used for a few weeks or months, and then abandoned to the attic or lumber room. Used ones appear frequently in auction catalogues; Jane Austen mentions them in her unfinished 1817 novel Sandition: "And I have told Mrs. Whitby that if anybody inquires for a chamber-horse, they may be supplied at a fair rate – poor Mr. Hollis's chamber-horse, as good as new – and what can people want for more?"
Those of you who have read my new book, A Wicked Pursuit, will remember how Harry Fitzroy's physician recommended a chamber horse for rehabilitation after a broken leg. Harry, however, found other, more imaginative uses for it....
To see an antique chamber horse in action (at least what action there is), fast-forward this video clip to about the 1:15 mark.
Left: Regency Mahogany Chamber Horse, courtesy Christie's Auctions.
Many thanks to all of you who are enjoying my new book, A Wicked Pursuit - I appreciate your support!
Some of the characters in A Wicked Pursuit also appear in my first three books for Ballantine/Random House, which feature the romantic adventures of the Wylder Sisters in 18th c. England. These three novels have been recently released as an ebook "bundle" – an inelegant publishing term for a collection of books at a lower price than if purchased individually.
Included in the bundle: When You Wish Upon a Duke, When the Duchess Said Yes, and When the Duke Found Love. It's a great way to catch up with the series, and it's a bargain, too. Huzzah!
Here's the link to the Wylder Sisters bundle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and it's also available through the iTunes store.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Saturday, March 8, 2014
• The unexpected allure of the 18th c. castrato.
• "One of the damnedest trampling matches you ever saw": when early 20th c. archaeologists talked trash.
• Antebellum splendor vs. the brutality of slavery: thoughtful article about the narrow interpretations of slavery at Southern Plantation Museums.
• Image: The consequences of war in The Crimea 160 years ago: Florence Nightingale visits the wounded at Scutari Military Hospital.
• "A great many pretty caps in the windows of Cranbourn Alley. I hope when you come we shall both be tempted": Jane Austen writes to her sister Cassandra, 1814.
• 18th c. fencing: the humble petition of Peter Renaud.
• The staircases of Old London, as seen in glass slides once used for magic-lantern shows.
• Irene Castle on how the Tango led the world to dress reform, 1914.
• Image: Dancing on a tumbling world, divided between love and scholarship.
• The intriguing story of Dido Belle, daughter of a slave, at Kenwood in 18th c. England.
• Up in the air, in the margins, on stilts.
• When John met Sarah: convict courtship in 19th c. Australia.
• Image: A male momento mori figure used for spiritual contemplation, c 1800. One half is flesh, the other a skeletal.
• Debunking the myths surrounding Zelda Fitzgerald.
• Cringe or starve: as cold as regimented Victorian charity?
• Fashion myths: the connection between the hobble skirt and Coca-cola.
• Image: Unusually long knitting needles & a large ball of yarn in a fashion plate, c. 1801.
• Among the perils of drinking water in the 17th c.: 255 frogs.
• "Our hero is a sportsman": British domestic interiors in 19th c. India.
• "Successful marriages start in the kitchen": mid 20th c. sexist advertising at its finest.
• Amazing photographs of the murmurations of starlings.
• Intriguing photos from the 1860s show a Paris that no longer exists.
• The poignant story of a 1918 parlour-maid turned munitions-worker, making shells during the Great War.
• Image: "She didn't like seven sample husbands" that commercial Cupid sent, 1914.
• The return of the monocle: one part hipster, one part Mr. Peanut.
• That's a-maze-ing: garden mazes and labyrinths.
• How do you treat a woman in 1715 who thinks she's already dead?
• Scottish poet Robert Burns and 18th c. oatcakes.
• Image: Perhaps the best Penguin ever for World Book Day?
• Traveling for suffrage: two women, a car, a cat, and a mission.
• Chawton House Library appeals for funds to help fight floods that put collection at risk.
• "He called him old Roague and old Pedler and old Pimpe": rough words from 17th c. sailors.
• The tales of Darab, a beautifully illustrated medieval Persian prose romance.
• Photographs of a lovely spring day in London's Hyde Park, 1951.
• A shimmering cream silk dress, 1920s.
• Historical pancake recipes for Shrove Tuesday.
• Cock Lane and Cockspur Street: London streets with interesting histories.
• Wealthy NYC women form the Colony Club in 1900 - not because they wanted a club, but because they wanted a clubhouse.
• Margery Kempe, author of a medieval autobiography.
• Time-traveling celebrities.
• Image: "Plymouth Dockyard", by James Tissot, 1877.
• Why are all these 16th-18th c. ladies dressed as Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt?
• The sad lot of syphilitic whores of Georgian London.
• How the great wheels for spinning survived.
• An awful fire of 1797: thousands of sacks of grain at Albion Mills were destroyed by fire with the smell of burnt toast.
• From the key to the Bastile to George Washington's false teeth: the top ten objects in the collection of Mount Vernon.
• Image: If other professions were paid like writers, artists, & musicians.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Friday, March 7, 2014
Accents have always fascinated me, often as a mystery to be solved. Where is this person from? In Florida, I had occasion to hear Midwestern U.S. accents frequently—but about the closest I could come to identification was “Midwestern,” and this covered a large swath of territory, since I couldn’t distinguish Illinois from Wisconsin, let alone pinpoint cities. Clearly, our language is not entirely homogenized yet.
Great Britain is a smaller place, yet the regional accents have managed to survive there, too, along with the mystery of their origin. “Hmm. Is that Cornwall or Devon?” London I can identify fairly well, and I’ve a general sense of the north of England. I can understand people in Glasgow, while in Edinburgh they might as well be speaking Ancient Egyptian. It’s truly fun to hear the different ways English is spoken (another time, we can talk about regional usage and word choices) so I was delighted to come upon this short, canny sampling of accents. This time I have to thank whoever posted it on Facebook, because due to a brain freeze, I failed to note the source.
Also, due to the technical limitations of my brain, I am offering a link rather than an embedded video.
You can listen here.
Illustration from Gray's New Book of Roads, 1824
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Pearls are one jewel that never seems to go out of fashion, with the earliest mentions found 4,000 years ago in China. Pearls were worn as jewelry in ancient Rome, and Cleopatra was said to be particularly partial to them. But until the development of cultured pearls in the early 20th c., however, all true pearls were made by nature and an irritated bivalve, with the result that pearls were exceptionally rare. Considered the most costly of gemstones, they were reserved for kings, queens, and others with the deepest of pockets.
Still, European ladies yearned for the look of pearls, even if they couldn't afford the real thing, and ingenious craftsmen were creating look-alikes from the middle ages onward. By the 18th c. – an era when pearls were the perfect accessory to flowing, pastel Rococo fashions – the very best faux pearls were known as "Roman pearls." These were hollow beads of blown glass, whose interior surfaces were coated with an iridescent derivative of fish scales. Once lined, the beads were then filled with wax to give them the proper weight. Despite the Roman name, the process is credited to a Frenchman, M. Jaquin, and Roman pearls were made by his family for over two hundred years. The luxury-craft is described in Denis Diederot's famous Encyclopedie, which includes illustrations of women making the beads.
Roman pearls were also the choice when fashion demanded an extravagance that no mere oyster could ever provide. Given the size and quantity of the pearls worn by these two ladies, it's likely they're wearing Roman pearls, or other similar pearly glass beads.
Mrs. Andrew Lindington, right, clearly followed the trendy motto of "more is more" when it came to accessories, and wears not only enormous pearl beads around her throat, but also edges her wired headdress with more pearls. It's possible that her earrings and the jewel on her headdress are real, but it's the glass pearls that really steal the show. Young Eliza Shrewsbury of Charleston, South Carolina, left, is also stylishly dressed with huge pearls around her throat, plus more hanging from her ears and trimming the bandeau in her hair. While the open book in her lap proves that she's as true a lady of leisure as the new American republic can boast, it's almost certain that her pearls, too, are glass – and no less lovely for being pretend.
Top: Detail of Portrait of Mrs. William Mills (Rebecca Pritchard) and her daughter Eliza Shrewsbury, by James Earl, 1794-96, Winterthur
Below: Detail of Portrait of Mrs. Andrew Lindington, by Joseph Wright of Derby, c. 1761-63, Philadelphia Museum of Art.