The Story of a Fork

Wench fork circa 1600 mother of pearl and beads VandAIf you figger folks in ye olden days had it tougher than we do now, you don’t have to look further than the matter of forks. Oversimplifying like mad, one may say that Europe went from a state of no forks whatsoever, to the slightly more satisfying condition of two-pronged forks, to the multiply pronged jobbies we enjoy today.

Let us go back to the very beginning of fine dining in Europe. Here’s a Medieval feast. White cloth, pretty

Wench bosch wedding at cana crop

click for closeup

dishes, probably wonderful food  and wine or mead or whatever. But the guests were expected to manage the food with their knives and spoons, which they brought with them, and their fingers which they also brought with them and washed from time to time with fingerbowls and clean linen.

See how that table has knives set about here and there. There’s no soup or stew in evidence so folks

Wench 1656 maes crop

I don't know why the knife is pointed at her

haven’t taken their spoons out.

 

Here's another picture. Her dinner is soup and fish and maybe a veggie. She has a spoon, I think, in her bowl and a knife, but she has no fork. It's 1656. 

We are pre-fork.

Of course, there had been forks in the kitchen forever, poking roasts and holding meat down to be carved and fetching beets out of boiling water. Now the fork emerged into the culinary daylight and took a place at the table. It served two purposes there. It secured food so your knife could cut it. And the fork could be used to convey food to the mouth, a job that had heretofore been performed by the sharp point of a knife or the bowl of a spoon. Or, you know, fingers.

I have no doubt folks were nimble at this eating food off a razor-sharp knife tip. However, I’m glad I didn't have to teach a three-year-old the knack. Knives doubtless made food-fights in the nursery an altogether more deadly affair.

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The Ritual of Tea …

Mary_Cassatt_-_Afternoon_Tea_Party

Tea and conversation

One of the great ceremonies of Regency life, one that defined gentility, was the taking of tea.

The Regency is sorta midway in the story of tea in England. We’re past the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century with its careful, stingy measuring of tea by the mistress of the household, the leaves locked up safe in a decorative caddy. We haven’t reached the Victorian era where tea was the daily drink of every working man and city housewife.

John MacDonald, a footman in the last half of the Eighteenth Century, would negotiate a salary that included an allowance for tea and sugar. But when he writes:

“My master had always plenty of fine tea, of which I drank some in the afternoon, and with which I treated the maid, and the maid also at the next house.”

I’m pretty sure he’s helping himself to the household store. At this time, tea is still a particular treat belowstairs.

When we come to early Victorian times … Henry Mayhew, in London Labour and the London Poor, speaking of the 1840s, describes the street sellers.

Coffee and tea stall

Tea for sale, click for closeup

“There are, moreover, peculiar kinds of stalls — such as the hot eels and hot peas-soup stalls, having tin oval pots, with a small chafing-dish containing a charcoal fire underneath each, to keep the eels or soup hot. The early breakfast stall has two capacious tin cans filled with tea or coffee, kept hot by the means before described.”

In 1840, tea had ceased to be a servants’ perquisite, reluctantly granted by the employer and pilfered by the staff. Now it’s on the street. It’s Everyman’s drink.

But back to the parlor …

The taking of tea in the parlor meant slow, stylized ritual and unnecessary elaboration. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the hurried dipping tea out of a capacious tin can.

Consider this spread of tea complication.

Jean liotard still life tea set 1783

A pretty wild tea party, looks like

Going along from the left:

Teapot with its lid. Behind it, the tea caddy where the tea leaves live. In front of the tea pot, a cup, saucer, and silver spoon. The center spot on this tray is a shallow plate with orange slices. It might just as easily hold scones or muffins.

Working our way in from the right:

We have the slops bowl in back. That is a lovely useful thing to have, isn’t it? I kinda wish we had slops bowls for our lives where we could clear all the mess neatly away and go on with the tea party.

What else? There’s the bowl of sugar cubes. These cubes were not neatly square. They were nipped off the two-foot-high cone of sugar kept in the kitchen and came out irregular and all nobbly shaped. Over the sugar bowl are the sugar tongs. And here at the front of the sugar bowl is the milk jug.

Missing from this set is the strainer. About all the paintings I find of folks drinking tea,

Tea strainer 1780s V &A

Tea strainer

the tea strainer is nowhere in evidence. Yet they had them. They’re in museums. One would certainly have strained the tea leaves out of the drink at some point. Maybe they were considered too messy to put in the picture.

Also missing from this array is the kettle of hot water that sat over on the hearth

Tea kettle by the fire

The copper water kettle is by the fire click for closeup

keeping warm. The water would be used to warm up and dilute the tea in the teapot. You couldn’t hoist the teabags out of the water and put an end to the brewing, there not being any teabags yet. However long the tea party lasted, that was how long the tea steeped.

Here we have folks taking tea and the kettle is right there in evidence. One could also have a tea urn or samovar with coals under it, keeping warm, right there on the table.

 

Tea wter kettle on stand 1753

Silver kettle to heat water

This here is a silver tea kettle that would have had pride of place. The comment on this piece at the Victoria and Albert:

“The tea kettle and stand would have been the most expensive part of the tea service. For example, Mrs. Coke paid the goldsmith … £25 13s 1d for her kettle and lamp. Her teapot cost just £10 1s 8d.”

That comparative value is not set in stone. The best porcelain would cost more than uninspired silver,  but all things being equal, a silver tea service was the conspicuous consumption of the time. When the aged retainer staggers in with a tea tray full of silver teapots and silver slop bowls and what have you, it’s not just heavy. It’s (staggeringly) expensive.

But by the Regency, not all tea was drunk in the parlor with such magnificent display.

Monet_tea_set-

Be nice to have somebody bring this to your desk

We also have a cozier, more informal tea taking. One little pot of tea, prepared in the kitchen and brought up with a cup or two at the side. That was the tea laid down at the hero’s elbow while he worked on his accounts or the tea brought to the heroine and her sister as they put their heads together and plotted.

Making tea

Morning tea. Yellow and red tea caddies at the back
Chardin_ladytakingtea

Chardin 1735

This is my tea service there on the left. Rough and ready. But see that tea pot? It is of an ancient design. See it there in the painting by Chardin? And the little tea bowl is handmade by an artist in such things. I’m happy using this set. It makes me feel good, every time.

 

Do you have a tea set or a coffee service that is a joy to hold in your hands? Maybe something you inherited or bought at a special time of your life. Maybe a present.

Looking at the World Through Regency Glasses

Joanna here, talking about eyeglasses in the Regency period. Franklin6

The idea of eyeglasses isn't new.  Dipping into wayback history, folks were getting a close look at small stuff with a clear, curving crystal in ancient times.

Nimrud_2lens_British_MuseumHere's the Nimrud Stone, a piece of ground, polished rock crystal found in the excavation of a 3000-year-old Assyrian palace.  Lenses like this have turned up in Greek burial sites that are even older. 

These first magnifying glasses gave the users up to 10X enlargement, which is to say they compare favorably with the magnifying glass you have in your desk right now and use for reading the print in your OED or threading needles or staring in bemused enjoyment at the whorls and ridges of your thumbprint. 

Scholars figure these very early lenses were used by Greek and Sumerian craftsmen to produce the unbelievably fine detail in some of their art work.  Or gazing at the rings of Saturn.  Or, y'know, looking at their thumb.

What limited the number and quality of these first lenses — the reason Cleopatra didn't wear eyeglasses — Pectoral_of_Senusret_II_cc attrib John_Campanawas they hadn't got around to making cheap and clear glass yet.  High quality glass was precious. That's why Tutankhamun's hoard of jewels is made of gold, ivory, lapis lazuli, carnelian, turquoise, and . . . glass.  This must have come as a disappointment to the Victorian treasure-seekers in the Nile valley.  They'd open a tomb and pull out a fancy pectoral or amulet and it was brilliant, colorful glass, instead of, say, brilliant colorful emeralds.


Folks finally made reliably clear glass on a large scale in Italy. 

Thirteenth Century Italy was the hotbed of glass technHugh_specsology for its day.  Venice — the Medieval Silicon Valley of glasswork — turned out round, hand-held magnifiers on a regular basis.  About 1280 some bright lad, his name forever lost to history, mounted two of these glass disks in round frames and joined them together.  Presto.  Eyeglasses. 

And, lickety-split, as historical innovation goes, we get portraits of people with spectacles.  This 1352 portrait to the left may be the earliest representation of eyeglasses.


Friedrich_Herlin,_Reading_Saint_Peter_(1466)
Spectacle and spectacle case c mother or pearl painted totoiseshell silver glass 1700 vandAThere were two kinds.  Perch-on-the-nose glasses, for one.  Pince-nez we'd call them now.  That's a circa 1700 example on the left.  This picture to the right is from 1466.

Lorgnette the met We also get a scissors-type eyeglasses that joined together at a hinge and could be adjusted to fit.  This kind of glasses could be held up as we see to the left, or held up from below.  The scissors glasses seem awkward, but they appear in portraits right along to the Regency so they must have had hidden charm and utility.

Conrad_von_Soest,_'Brillenapostel'_(1403)
You can see the difficulty with both kinds.  They were always ready to fall off.  You had to tie a ribbon around your head or keep one hand on your glasses.  Tedious, to say the least. They'd be for reading and close work only.

In the early 1700s a London spectacles maker, Edward Scarlett, advertised a clever solution.  His glasses had folding hinged struts on the sides and two arms to hold the optics onto the head.  There were even loops, sometimes, to tie the glasses on.  Made in china before 1846 after C17 3rd quart british museum attribNow your spectacles didn't fall off every time you incautiously reached for a new sheet of paper. 

It became practical to walk around wearing the things.  All this improvement in eyeglass technology meant people could pay intelligent attention to where they were going. This lasted till the invention of the ipod.
Crome 1817 detail 2Benjamin Franklin, one of my favorite people — he's up at the top of the page — invented bifocals in 1784.
It was also in the Eighteenth Century that glasses met the masses.  They were no longer for scholars and artists.  This traveling glasses pedlar on the left argues that glasses were cheap enough that a country woman in a cottage was likely to buy a pair. This ragged tailor on the right can afford glasses to pursue his trade. Crussens mid c17
 
I haven't found examples of these Georgian and Regency glasses with a curve to fit neatly around the ear.  They seem to have hugged the head in a steely embrace, doubtless leading to many a Regency headache.  Some, intended to tuck intMusvisattrib 1750 wig spectacles spearshaped tipso the fashionable wigs of the time, had fierce and sharpish-looking points.

Now, with all this development of practical eyeglasses that gripped the head and stayed on and didn't require constant fidgeting, you'd think the old, precarious sort without side pieces would disappear. 
Not so much.  As the new utilitarian eyeglasses spread through the hoi polloi, the inconvenient older optics were now considered spiffy and upper-crust.

Quizzing glass closeup Quizzing glass 1820 britinsh museum attrib detail 2So, you had your quizzing glass. 
This was a single, hand-held lens, like a magnifying glass. 

Single lenses that you held had long since been replaced by spectacles for everyday use.  Round about 1790 the French, as the French will, turned this passe object into a fashion accessory.  If you needed glasses, or even if you didn't, you could walk around with a quizzing glass handy, maybe hanging it on a long chain worn around the neck. The you whipped it out to inspect something.
Fashionably.

 
The double-barreled version of the quizzing glass was the lorgnette, which is sort of glasses-on-a-stick.  Lorgnette after 1700 the met Like the quizzing glass, the lorgnette was a decorative social prop, capable of depressing pretension all the way across the ballroom. 

Quizzing glass 1801The word lorgnette, you will be pleased to know, comes from the French lorgner, 'to peer at', from Middle French lorgne, 'squint'.  The French, being contrary, call this instrument a face-a-main — a 'face-to-hand' — and then use the French word lorgnette to mean, not that, but a quizzing glass or small telescope.
The word English word 'lorgnette' appears in 1803 so you should probably not have your character raise her lorgnette to intimidate an encroaching mushroom before that.  Unless she is French.  In which case she is talking about a quizzing glass. 
Life is complex.

One thing you notice, when you're looking at paintings of Georgian and Regency crowd scenes, is how few people are wearing glasses.  When you do see glasses in a crowd, they're generally perched on the nose of a plump parson or peering, bent old woman.  I set aside the possibilities of Eighteenth Century Lasik surgery, contact lenses, and a general eagle-eyed-ness in the population and ask myself why.


Regency Romances portray glasses as a bit fuddy-duddy.  Our Regency heroines hide their spectacles in their reticules (and our Regency heroes have better eyesight than the average squad of fighter pilots.)  This is a Regency Romance convention that seems to have good evidence on its side. 

Nimrud stone and quizzling glass attrib British Museum. Scissor glasses and lorgnette attrib The Met. Pectoral of Senusret cc attrib John Compana. Glasses with wig points and glasses with loops Museum of Vision by permission. Spectacles and caseBlack Hawk attrib V&A.
 
 
So.  Thinking about the impact of eyeglasses on the world . . .  Imagine a life with no eyeglasses, and you with not-so-good eyes.  What would you miss most?
One lucky commenter will win a still-fairly-hot-off-the-presses copy of Black Hawk.