The Disappointment of Regency Towels

Wench washing basin gilroy 1810
Joanna here, talking about one of my historical disappointments.

As you're climbing out of the bathtub or stepping out of a shower, how often have you asked yourself – "What did my Regency heroine used to dry her lithe and adventurous body at a similar moment?"

It was not a length of fluffy cotton like I have here. No. Nothing like this here in my hand.

The English and French gentry did a reasonably good job of major bathing, considering they were probably plunging into lukewarm water that had been carted up from the stove in the basement kitchen to their second-floor bedroom. But no Countess or Ladyship dried off with a towel one tenth as lovely and soft as mine.

The mundane washing of hands and face in a basin was practiced all up and down the social scale first thing in the morning and before and after a meal. But that didn’t call forth the soft and fuzzy either.

Even the masters of the bath in that era the Turks didn’t fare as well as I do.

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

There's a bath towel ready over the edge of the tub

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

Jean-Jacques-Francois Lebarbier-A Female Turkish Bath or…1785

Here she is tucked up in her hammam towel

The Turks knew bathing luxury. Not for them the English noble’s portable tub in the bedroom or the common man’s rapid splash in front of the kitchen fire. For them the hammam, a communal bath house of gleaming tile and heated pools. And for them the pleasure of rising from the water to be enfolded in the latest technology of towels.

The children's bath 1495

The Children's Bath 1495, with towel and very patient woman

The Turkish bath towel of the period was huge three by five feet big enough to surround the whole body in such bath towel luxury as was available. It would have been made of linen or cotton. In the Eighteenth Century in both the Ottoman Empire and across Europe, cotton was displacing linen as the affordable luxury fabric of choice, so if we want, we can grant our characters towels of the softest, silkiest cotton.

But the towels were flat woven. Smooth cloth. No loops sucking up the excess water. No fluffiness. Even the best of Turkish bath towels of 1810 would be the texture of the tea towels you may have hanging in the kitchen

No soft, thick terrycloth for my Regency heroine.
Quel disappointment.

The towels were maybe plain white in the English bedroom. Time out of mind the Turks had decorated their bath towels with splendid embroidered designs. 

1792 drying hands

Wiping his hands on a white towel

The British, on the other hand, seem to have kept embroidery for bed linens and chair cushions. British hand towels were sometimes embroidered, but the larger bath towels seem to have been plain.

You’re asking yourself, "Why didn’t the English have lovely fluffy towels? What were they thinking?"
It’s the terrycloth technology problem.

Baigneuse aux roseax  1770 france

Bath towels before terrycloth
Degas woman with a towel 1894

Bath towels after terrycloth











Terrycloth has loops that stand up from the surface of the weave. This requires special loom techniques. (They're called Dobby looms, which strikes me as appropriate somehow.) The word terrycloth may be derived from French terre, meaning high, from the elevation of the loop above the warp and weft.

The Turks started making this looped terrycloth on hand looms sometime in the Eighteenth Century. Henry Christy observed this on a visit there in 1833 and brought the technology back to Europe. Terrycloth of silk was made in France in 1841 and the first cotton terrycloth in England soon followed. It went into mass production in 1850 and soon became cheap enough to revolutionize the comfort of washing.

Queen Victoria approved. As do I.

What do you like best about the bath? Is it towels, like me? (Mine are primary RED.) Or those bath salts that foam up? Or just very hot water.

Or are you more of a shower person?

A book of your choice from me goes to some lucky commenter.

Meeting new fruits

Wench  John Sherrin (1819-1896)- Still lifeJoanna here. I was eating a kiwi fruit the other day. It showed up coyly snuggled next to a breakfast sandwich sold to me by the delightful ladies who run the catering and breakfast bar at the Rockfish Gap Community Center. I found myself trying to remember when I’d first seen kiwi. I was young and they showed up in the grocery store one day and my mother, who was a wild woman in her own way, brought them home and figured out how to serve them. They were just mind-bogglingly exotic to me. Furry fruits. I rather distrusted them.

Wench fruit 2

There are many different kinds of kiwi fruits, not just the ones in US supermarkets

Kiwis apparently came from China and were originally called “Chinese gooseberries” as they spread around the world. The Chinese called them "macaque peaches" but that didn't catch on so much. The fruit was popularized in the US by WWII servicemen who’d met them while stationed in New Zealand. And they seem to come to the store from California, not New Zealand. Life is a rich pageant of happenstance, isn't it?

“Hmmm,” I hmmed to myself while I was feeding much of my breakfast sandwich to the dog Mandy but eating all the kiwis, “What did my Georgian and Regency heroine encounter as new and exciting fruit as she went about her adventures?” Kiwis and avocados hadn’t arrived in her world. Apples and apricots and even dates were known from Roman times and before.

I thought of two possibles.

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Peat Fires and the English Regency

Feu_de_tourbeJoanna here, philosophising for a minute.

One of the ironies that strikes me from time to time is the realization that a somebody living in a simple suburban rambler or a condo in Cincinnati in 2013 is probably more physically comfortable than a duchess in 1780.  

Your Georgian dowager duchess warmed her tootsies at an open hearth.  She used a fire screen to shield her face from the direct heat of the fire.  She had a wing-back chair, maybe, to wrap the heat around her before it dissipated in the balmy 48 degrees of the rest of the room.  That chill whistle at the back of her neck was the cold air rushing in
to run up the chimney, taking much of the heat of the fire with it. 
That's why the 'drafty old manor house' in a Romance book is drafty.

What was the dowager burning on that hearth?  Into the Eighteenth Century, well-to-do Englishmen burned wood — and didn't they have a lovely open hearth with logs and firedogs and pokers on the side that were handy for fighting off unwanted advances. 

By the Regency, most
William bigg 1793 English city houses, and a goodly proportion of houses in the country, had refitted their chimneys to burn coal.  The firedogs on that open hearth were replaced with a cast iron basket for coal — still on an open hearth.  Oddly, the 'efficient and pretty tiled stove in the parlor' concept remained the property of Germans and Russians and those Americans in
their wild, snowy north.
That was the Dowager and the vulgar City merchant and the vicar's wife in Little Tweeting, Hamps.  The country poor weren't nearly as well off.  They burned what wood they could gather, what coal they could afford.  Where peat was available, the countryfolk burned peat.  Denmark peat digging

Today, we think of peat fires as Scottish and Irish.  Writers in the Regency period felt the same way.  Peat fires — turf fires, they were called — were treated as a Scots and Irish specialty.  They were deplored as a product of dire poverty by some writers and lauded as picturesque by others.  But to get to the Scots and Irish peat fires, those writers must have bowled right past any number of English cottages in Lincolnshire, Somerset, and Northamptonshire busily burning peat. 

There's not much said about these English peat fires.  A Regency couple fleeing villains might well have found the kindly old farm couple who took them in sitting by a thoroughly English peat fire. 

Loading the peat cart westhay somerset 1905So we turn to the question — What is peat and how come we can burn dirt?
In what may be the first description of European peat fires, Pliny says the natives of north Germany ". . . form mud with their
hands, which, when dried in the wind rather than in the sun, is burned
to cook their food, and warm their bodies chilled by the cold north

     Pliny, Natural History

Despite Pliny, good peat is not 'mud'.  It's decayed vegetable matter, compreessed and concentrated over thousands of years. 

When a lowland is so waterlogged you can't farm it, so marshy it won't Turfsteker_Peat-cutter wikigrow trees, so spongy you can't build a road across it, so mushy you can't graze animals on it — you may have yourself a peat bog.

s a video about how you cut peat.  The guy makes it look easy.  I suspect it is not. 

The very general idea behind peat cutting is you slice yer waterlogged peat, which is sitting in its bog as it has been for millennia, and lift it out .  You get largish bricks which are 95% water and not, in this condition, inclined to burn.  Then:

"They cut it out in long pieces, they lay them in a regular order carefully, in rows upon the ground, to be dried by the sun and wind. … As the peat dries, and is turned by persons appointed for that purpose, to dry it the better, it breaks into smaller lengths, and then it serves not only the poor but many other persons, for firing, and gives a good  heat."
      Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, VolumScotish Peat Gathereres 50-51, 1758.

After a week or two, when the bricks have shed most of their water, you stack them up in piles and let them dry some more, because you do not generally want to be carting all that water home.

Along the right here are various interesting photos of Victorians cutting peat, pretty much the way their ancestors did it centuries ago, I should think.
Click on the photograph for a better view.

When your peat is well dried and hard, you bring it home.  You might pile it in a simple heap, or store it in an outbuilding, or maybe make a neat little stack and thatch it on top to keep the rain off. Folks also took it off and sold it in town.  It was a fuel for the urban poor in some places.Peat farmer heinrich jessen before 1866

"It is sold for about ten shillings a waggonload, delivered at their
houses in the town. The ashes also prove very good manure for both grass
and arable land and the farmers give from four pence to fix pence a
bushel for th
em, which renders this firing very cheap."
      Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Volumes 50-51, 1758.

There's a good bit written, now and in the Regency, about the particular pungent, intriguing, and characteristic odor of a peat fire.  My own experience is that peat fires just smell like fires.  There's also some mention made of 'roaring' or 'blazing' peat fires — generally in advertising brochures.  I've found peat fires to be low and slow and pleasantly warm. 
I am ready to be persuaded by other folks' experiences.

Considering the antiquity of peat cutting, I can't find much on interesting folk customs associated with peat fires or cutting peat.  That does feel strange to me.  

I miss having peat-gathering songs and maybe maypole dances to open the 'turfing season'.

If you had to choose between a wood fire or a peat fire, which would you pick?  You don't have to cook on it or anything.  And you don't have to go out and dig the peat or cut the trees.  The fireplace fairy does all that.

Turf or wood . . . or maybe something else.  What would you want in your fireplace?

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