The shawl of beauty and grace

Madame-recamier-by-francois-gerard 1802

An old familiar friend of a painting, but do we ever look at the shawl?

Joanna here, talking about that fashion accessory of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the shawl.

Why shawls? We wear form-fitted, sleeved outer garments mostly — coats and sweaters and parkas and anoraks and Macintoshes — in the Twenty-first Century and feel pleased and practical doing so. Why did folks spend centuries throwing loose garments around themselves that didn’t button up and had to be draped and fidgeted with in a manner that may strike us as awkward?

I think an ideal of feminine beauty was at the root of it. The drape and swirl of a shawl, the varied possibilities with all their minute adjustments were alluring to the watcher. Displaying the shawl was an art, and this length of silk or wool might well be the most expensive object a woman wore.

So let’s talk paisley, since we’re talking shawls.

Paisley is based on a repeated, teardrop-shaped design pattern called a bota or boteh – a word that means  “shrub” or “cluster of leaves” in Persian.

Wenches star shaped tile from iran 1262

A decorative Persian tile from 1262. The boteh design comes from such roots

 This boteh is an ancient pattern, widespread in rugs, paintings, and tiles. It's an abstract shape that probably comes from the simplification of many sorts of feathers, fruit, flowers and so on in older designs. That is, there's no one origin. It's derived from many complexities that lost detail as they were copied and recopied.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the East India Company imported these Indian designs to Europe where they became immensely popular. Soldiers returning from service in the East brought back lovely, expensive scarves of silk and soft Kashmir (cashmere) wool to their sweethearts and family. The British version of the scarves might cost more than 20 pounds. Sir Walter Scott’s French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau that cost 50 guineas, a huge sum in those days.


A fine shawl wrapping up mother and child 1825

Period portraits are full of these Kashmiri scarves gracefully swirled round the shoulders of women in flimsy low cut, high-waisted dresses. The survival of generations of scantily clad British beauties doubtless depended on these lengths of wool.

Wench british hand loom wool asilk 1810

British wool and silk paisley shawl showing boteh 1810

Almost as soon as the imported scarves arrived, they were copied enthusiastically by European weavers, among them the craftsmen of the Scottish city of Paisley, so much so that the Persian design ended up named "paisley" after that city in Renfrewshire, Scotland, far, far from the exotic mountains and plains of the East.

The handlooms and, after 1820, Jacquard looms, of the misty north produced quite a good imitation of the original Indian product. But it was  not a perfect likeness.

Throughout the import period, imported Kashmiri shawls were more expensive and preferred over the British version. The colors were more varied. Even at the height of Scots weaving they were using a mere 15 colors as opposed to the more than 40 colors used in the Eastern imports. The quality of foreign weaving superior, and the fabric itself was lighter. British shawls were made from sheep’s wool. Kashmiri scarves, from softer, more supple, more lustrous goat’s hair. And Kashmiri weavers used the “twill tapestry technique”.

Those of you in the know about weaving technique will recognize that this means the horizontal (weft) threads of the pattern do not run all the way across the fabric but are woven back and forth around the vertical (warp) threads to where the color is needed again. This is the way Europeans weave tapestries. And no, I knew nothing about weaving technique before I looked this up.

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The Ritual of Tea …


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.


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 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.

Selling the Regency Vegetable

Joanna here:

This is sort of a pictorial posting today . . . Looking at some pictures of what a vegetable market would have looked like in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

We can start with this Scharf painting of Covent Garden in 1825.  Covent Garden was the huge central martet of London.  By the Eighteenth Century it was sort of a combination open-air market, red light district, and raffish hang-out, which must have been interesting for everybody concerned. 

Anyhow, glancing at the picture, you'll see if contains all the elements of a fine city vegetable market.

First off, there's protection from the rain, or the occasional sun. Look up at the top of the painting.  These substantial market vendors at Covent Garden have a wooden stall with a fine, permanent substantial roof. Awnings stretch out to shelter their customers. Those are wood frames with cloth stretched across them.Abusivefruitwoman late c18

Here to the right, a simpler shelter covers this fruit seller. She's set up shop under a cloth awning. 

Old-Covent-Garden-Market,-1825 detail table
Display tables are another most desirable market feature. Tables get the goods up off the ground and present them enticingly.  Apples and green beans are where they can be seen and handled.

To the right, our fruit seller has a simple but permanent-looking and useful bench. 

That table in the substantial booth in Covern Garden seems to be long boards set up on a variety of blocks and barrels that probably double as storage.

Old-Covent-Garden-Market,-1825 detail scalesAnother notable event going on at Covent Gardens . . . we got weighing.

See the man on the left, wearing an apron, using scales. He's selling his vegetables by the pound, which is obviously an upscale approach. Notice how the market vendors in these other pictures below aren't weighing the produce. They'll be offering, "Penny for a fine apple. Tuppence for three.' and selling carrots by the bunch.

The tables in the Schraf painting — see up there at the top — serve another purpose.  A line of tables separates the sellers from the buyers. The sellers are on our side of the pictures; the buyers on the other side of that line of tables.  See how the row of long tables gives these prosperous market sellers their own 'space'? A private space.  A child plays in the foreground. A young woman vender sits in a comfortable chair nursing her baby. 
Market by Charles Henry Turner c 1880 detail with bench

When a table separates vendo from buyer and there's a wall behind, the sellers can keep an eye on the merchandise.  They never have to turn their back to a potential customer . . . or a thief.

See to the right here, where a vendor has no stall, but nonetheless, creates a private space for herself with a long bench.


This sketch of Swansea MarSketch of Swansea market by E. Hull, 1871 detailket in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century is a good view of vegetable market basics. No booths or stalls. No tables.

These folks are in the vegetable business with only vegetables and something to sit on, burlap bags for the mangel wuzels, and baskets for the lettuces.

And what baskets — take a look at the beauty and variety of these baskets . . . every one of them purpose-made for the cargo. 
We've lost something, putting everything in plastic bins.

Basket 1
Basket 2
Basket 3




I spent most of my adult life shopping in open-air markets like those of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century England.  What about you?  Have you ever done exciting shopping out in open air, face to face with the vendor, bargaining …?

Some lucky commentor in the trail will be drawn to take her pick of my books.

The Well-dressed Maid.

Joanna here:  Most of us have a picture of what a historical housemaid should look like.  
E. Phillips FOX - Déjeuner, 1911 

She'll wear black with a crisp white apron pinned to her bodice and a little cap on her head.  A Downton Abbey maid; an Upstairs Downstairs maid; a Victorian or Edwardian maid.  And for Victorian era maids, this is an accurate picture.
The maid would buy her own clothing, with the type and style stipulated by the mistress. 

A housemaid's dress is of some importance. When engaged in her morning work, washable materials are the best; a wide holland apron should always be worn over [an apron] of white material whenever house-cleaning is going on. If the servant be required to appear at the front door, or wait upon the family whilst at dirty work, by casting aside the outer apron she is able to appear at a moment's notice in a presentable manner. For afternoon wear in the winter, very dark or black French twill dresses are suitable, inexpensive, and easily washed. In the summer light cotton materials look best. At all seasons a neat white crochet cap is the best head-gear.
      Cassells Household Guide, c.1880s

George-kilburne 1Where heavy work was required, the maid would try to get that done in the morning and change to better and cleaner clothing after the worst of it.  This is not just for neatness sake.  The maid is representing the household.

If the parlour-maid answers the door, she should be neatly attired, and ready at a moment's notice to present herself creditably before strangers. A servant of good address at a professional man's door, is as much a matter of personal recommendation of the employer as the situation of his residence. Some amount of forethought on the part of the mistress is necessary to ensure cleanly appearance in a door-servant; but the attempt is worth making, if only for the sake of favourable first impressions on the part of strangers.
      Cassells Household Guide

One purpose of the Victorian maid's clothing is to establish her position in the social hierarchy.  The servant's clothing is this era is a sort of uniform that show she is a servant.   How embarrassing for all concerned if she were unmistaken for a lady of the house or a guest.

Thus the lady's maid, even when she has the perquisite of cast-off dresses, would not wear them going about her duties.  If she wears them on her day off, she'd best nip out of the house smart and not be seen.  "As a general rule, ladies do not like to see their maids dressed in the clothes they themselves have worn – except in wearing a black or a dark-coloured silk – the difference in the social scale of mistress and maid renders this unpleasing." Cassells Household Guide

Taking just a moment to talk about the nanny's clothing. 
Maidservant carrying breakfast tray albert goodwin 1893This is more likely to be light colored and easily washable, with black saved for 'best' when she brought the children out to meet guests and the family after dinner.

The dress of a nurse needs some words of comment. Long skirts should not be worn, tripping little children up, as they are liable to do. Gowns made of washable materials are most suitable. These are easily cleansed if soiled by nursery duties, and cost but little to renew. A waterproof apron worn under the ordinary white apron will be found a great comfort to a nurse, and might be supplied with advantage at the cost of the employer. Every nurse should also be furnished with a long, loose, warm wrapper, made like a dressing-gown, for night wear, when her duties require her to rise from her bed to take a baby to and from the mother's room. This garment should be purchased by the mistress, and kept for the use of any nurse who may succeed to the situation.
     Cassells Household Guide

Leslie,_George_Dunlop_-_Her_first_place before 1921But what about the Regency?
Moving a couple generations back in time and looking at the clothing of a Georgian or Regency maidservant, we discover an entirely different situation.  In 1760 or 1800, a maidservant wore essentially the same clothing as others of her class.  She wasn't required to buy special clothing to suit her job. 

Perhaps the maid dressed better than her cousins back home because she might have access to her mistress' castoffs.  Contemporary journals and letters complain of maids wearing clothing unsuitable to their station and their work.  But whether the maid wore her lady's silks to sashay about the parlor, dusting, or saved it for her day off, or thriftily sold it to the used clothing dealer, it must have presented a continual temptation to finery. 

There was no distinctive 'uniform' required for the Regency maid.  No necessity for drab and black.  No regimentation.  When the maidservant opened the door to the Regency hero she was as likely to be wearing flowered muslin as black serge.

The housemaid by william henry pyne 1827

Gilroy the stays

The chocolate girl jean ettienne liotard
Joseph Caraud - The Levee













What about you?  Have you ever had to wear a uniform?  Was it good, reasonable, proper to wear one … or just a pain in the neck?

Did it make you feel differently?
Do you treat people differently because they're wearing a uniform?

One lucky commenter wins a copy of one of my books, your choice.

It’s a Magic Lantern

SANDBY, Paul The Laterna Magica c 1760Joanna here …

Before moving pictures.  Before silent film.  Before black and white.  Before Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin.  

There was the Magic Lantern.

Let's say you're a Regency thrillseeker, out to squeeze all possible enjoyment from an evening.  You might go to a Magic Lantern show at a friend's house. You might put one on yourself.

Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_019People had known more or less forever that light shining through colored glass carried that color to where the light fell.  Every stained glass window in Europe, even every translucent leaf in the sunlight, every light source shining through colored glass cast an image.

The beauty of that.  A picture painted in light.

Magic lantern alphabet late C19

Or it can be educational

Being the inventive species we are, we wanted to do that at will, casting the image we chose.  The earliest technology for doing this dates to the Seventeenth Century.  Shine candlelight through a demon or ghost thinly painted on glass; let your image fall onto a gauze screen or a column of smoke; and presto! 

You got magic in your magic show.

You're a hit with the locals whom you have just terrified. 

 In the Eighteenth Century, itinerant 'lanternists' travelled the countryside carrying the cabinet that held their slides and their lantern, giving shows at country inns and fairs.

Organ player

A lanternist, looking disgruntled

One disgusted contemporary writer remarks,
"These showmen were not romantic troubadours, but often as unwholesome and grotesque in appearance as the images they cast onto the white sheet."

The Magic Lantern became sort of a parlor amusement and novelty.  Samuel Pepys bought one in 1666,"to make strange things on a wall."

You can think of it as a Georgian slide projector.  
(Though a slide projector is getting to be a n antiquated piece of technology itself.)  

How did it work?
(You can skip this bit if you want.)

The anatomy of tInstrumentarium_LaternaMagicahe Magic Lantern is:

(a) An oil lamp making light.  It's inside the casing on the left of this picture where you can't see it, but it has that little stack for the heat to come out of. 

(b) A condensing lens — which you also can't see because it is inside that casing — sending all the lamp light through a slot, which you can see.

(c) Painted glass plates fit into that slot. The top picture is without a glass


attrib Lokilech and TimDrury

slide.  The lower picture has a glass slide.

(d) And then you have a barrel on the right end with a lens that enlarges the image as it emerges and heads toward whatever wall or sheet is being used as a screen. 

You see the limiting factor here, don't you?  It's the light source.  An oil lamp is just not very strong. The Argand lamp, after 1780, went a ways toward creating that powerful and beautiful image you wanted to project.


Argand lamp in use

The Argand produced a light of six or eight candlepower.

<sound of crickets>

Okay.  I can see you are bowled over by the blazing beacon of six or eight candlepower.  But this was a significant advance.  Trust me on this.

And just as a side note, oil lamps you see in Regency portraits are like as not Argand lamps.  They were the halogen bulbs of their day.

But let us leave mere apparatus.  The Magic Lantern was all about The Show.

Aviation slides c 1900

four pictures painted on glass

Your traveling lanternist in the inn parlor or tent at the fair could be projecting "Ogres, grinning skulls, bloody battle scenes, shipwrecks" or pictures of distant lands, or scenes from folk tales and bible stories.
Often, he'd insert a long strip of glass with  four or five images painted on it and draw that through the slot in the magic lantern, changing scenes as he lay down his experienced patter.  His exciting story.  He might even have an assistant providing music. 
Then he'd pass the hat.  

Glass plate 2 half c19 louvre

here's your ship at sea image

Particularly skilled practitioners of the art of the Magic Lantern might have several slides in the slot at once, one in front of the other. 
Perhaps a sky with clouds and a sea.  The other slide would have boats.

A contemporary expert advises:
"You are then to pass the glass slowly through the groove; and when you come to that part where the storm begins, you are to move the glass gently up and down, which will give it the appearance of a sea that begins to be agitated: and so increase the motion till you come to the height of the storm.  At the same lime you are to introduce the other glass with the ships, and moving that in like manner, you will have a natural representation of the sea, and of ships in a calm and in a storm."Auguste edouart 1826-61 the magic lantern

Wild times in Regency England.  It's a  Magic Lantern show in the Squire's drawing room.  Cummon, Regency dandy, grab some popcorn and hold your sweetie close.
(Okay.  Maybe not the anachronistic popcorn.)

But this Magic Lantern is the Olduvai ancestor of the Saturday Matinee, of Star Wars and The Avengers, of iMax 3D.  Look at it there, smack in the middle of Georgian and Regency times.

Our Regency characters would always remember going to a Magic Lantern show. 

Pulling on that thread … What's your most treasured memory of going to the movies?

For me it's heading down to the Saturday morning early show in the summer,
because the movies were Air Conditioned! — and the house wasn't.
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