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.

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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Regency Pyrotechnics

Catherine wheels wikiJoanna here.

What do Vauxhall, the court of Queen Elizabeth, Cuper's Gardens, (which is described intriguingly as "the scene of low dissipation . . . and the great resort of the profligate of both sexes" — rather like our local mall,) thFurttenbach_Feuerwerk1644e celebration of the wedding of George III, and Kensington Gardens have in common?

Fireworks.  Big, bright rockets and Catherine wheels and crackers.  Fireworks were the sound and light show of the Eighteenth Century.  The extravaganza that marked all great and festive events.

Sometimes there was music.  You can listen to Handel's Fireworks Music, for instance, here.  I'll admit I was expecting something with more booms in it.

 

“…. fireworks had for her a direct and magical appeal. Their attraction was more complex than that of any other form of art. They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty.”
Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver

 

Fireworks came out of China, like printing, dim sum and Bruce Lee.  The original fireworks date back to the Ninth Century or so.  They, were firecrackers made of gunpowder, stuffed into thin bamboo shoots.  Oddly enough, the original use of pyrotechnics was not warfare.  All this gunpowder was set off at the new year to scare away evil spirits.  It probably worked.

Knowledge of gunpowder arrived in the Middle East and Europe in the 1200s.  Marco Polo sometimes gets the credit, and why shouldn't he? 

 

“You're much better than fireworks. They're all over in a moment, and you're going to stay for a fortnight. Besides, fireworks are noisy, and they make too much smoke.”
Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick

One of the first mentions of fireworks is in Roger Bacon's Opus Majus.  Roger-bacon-wiki

"… that children's toy which is made in many diverse parts of the world, a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpetre, together with sulphur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder, so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, with no more than a bit of parchment containing it, that we find the ear assaulted by a noise exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning."
 
Early English fireworks specialists were — it's not surprising — military gunners.  The same men who used gunpowder to send an iron ball shooting out of a cannon, used that knowledge to create and explode fireworks.  They formed craft guilds across Europe, traveled, exchanged information, and wrote long treatises on the formulas and methods.    

Fireworks 2 and illuminations 1749This here is a vast fireworks display over the Thames in 1748 at the Duke of Richmond to celebrate the ending of the War of the Austrian Succession.  This is the shindig for which Handel wrote that music linked above.  

See there in the middle of the Thames?  Those rockets going up and letting off a globe and lights falling out were called 'stars'. 

To make falling stars —
"… the stuffe which is to be put into the Rocket for to flame and give crackes is made of twelve partes of Saltpeeter refind, of Citrine Brimstone nine partes, of grosse gunpowder five partes and 1/4 of a part mingled togeather with your hand."

That mixture was moistened and formed into small pieces, then packed into a ball and wound tightly Fireworks wikiround with packthread, given a fuse, and placed in the head of a rocket.  When the rocket exploded, the stars would stream down in the air.

One observer said it seemed "as if the sky has opened … as if all the air in the world is filled with fireworks and all the stars in the heavens are falling to earth …  a thing truly stupendous and marvelous to behold."

 

"We were ready for the apocalypse and when it didn't come we were very disappointed. So we drank more absinthe and set off fireworks."
Marilyn Manson

 

Black powderWhat our Regency folks would have called 'gun powder', what we might call 'black powder' today, was made from three main ingredients.  There were some other additives, but thee were the Big Three.

Ground charcoal.  The best charcoal, the sort used for fireworks — was made from willow, alder or black dogwood. 

Sulphur, which had to be perfectly clean and free from sulfuric acid. 

And saltpeter. Saltpeter is interesting stuff.  It's mainly potassium nitrate.  The name, sal petrae, 'salt of rock' is because it's found as an incrustation on rocks.  Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century folks mined it in dungheaps and farmyards and caves favored by bats for many years. Or they cultivated it deliberately by composting manure for a year, adding additional urine.  It was the urea in urine that bacteria broke down to the useful nitrates.

I haven't found any Regency reference to the idea that saltpeter suppresses sexual desire.  Either I just haven't found it or they hadn't thought that up yet.

Back to the ingredients for fireworks.
It's somewhat a matter of what they didn't have. Iron filings might be added to make a brighter and more intense flame, but fireworks were white and yellow.  They didn't have color.  It wasn't till the 1830s that folks started adding the metals that give color to fireworks.  All our red, blues and greens, the Regency folks never saw.

The rockets that launched all this display looked something like these Congreve rockets — military rockets — from 1805. Congreve_rocket pub dom 1805
  Rockets for firework displays were made of paper, filled with powder.  The height of accent and the timing of the explosion was carefully controlled by the tightness of the packing, the size of the case and the length of the cotton fuse.  A long stick fixed the rocket to the ground, setting the flight at the proper angle.

And they had Catherine wheels.  As early as 1540, Florence and Siena in Italy erected huge wood and papier mache wheels set in motion by rockets and fire tubes.  Fireworks 2 display for muhammad shah

Fixed designs like modern fire fountains shot streams of lit powder into the air from rolls of pasteboard filled with gunpowder. I'm particularly impressed with this picture from the mid-Eighteenth Century that shows these fire fountains and the court ladies of Mohammad Shah playing with fireworks.  Brave ladies.

Another fixed display was a spherical 'sun'.
Sun firework 2 public dom
"In the centre of the block of the sun drive a spindle on which put a small hexagonal wheel whose cases must be  filled with the same charge as the cases of the sun…a sun thus made is called a Brilliant Sun because the wood work is intierly covered with fire from the wheel to the middle so there appears nothing but sparks of a brilliant fire."

For the entry of Louis XIII into Lyon in 1623, fireworkers constructed a huge artificial lion with fire bursting from its jaw.

Fireworks were spectacle, display, public celebration.  In 1814, in a jubilee in celebration of peace in London —


"The senses were next astoniFireworks_1856 wikished and enchanted with a pacific exhibition of those tremendous instruments of destruction invented by colonel Congreve. Some notion even of their terrible power might be formed from the display of the night, and their exceeding beauty could be contemplated, divested of its usual awful associations. Each rocket contains in itself a world of smaller rockets: as soon as it is discharged from the gun it bursts, and flings aloft in the air innumerable parcels of flame, brilliant as the brightest stars: the whole atmosphere was illuminated by a delicate blue light, which threw an air of inchantment over the trees and lawns, and made even the motley groups of universal London become interesting as an assembly in romance."

 

What's the most memorable fireworks you've ever seen or participated in?  Anything from Black Hawkbackyard sparklers to the aurora borealis or australis.  

One lucky commenter will win their choice of Black Hawk or Forbidden Rose.

 

 

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.