A Spark of Genius

“I cannot live without books.”

LC ArchCara/Andrea
here, musing today about Thomas Jefferson, a fascinating “Renaissance Man” of the Regency era, whose love of books left America with one of its great treasures—The Library of Congress. (Honestly, how can you not feel kindred spirits with a man who uttered the above words! Definitely a man after my own heart.)

TJeffPolitical philosopher—he was the main author of our Declaration of Independence—Enlightenment intellectual, a leading Founding Father and third President of the United States, as well as an architect, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia, Jefferson was a man of extraordinary talents and achievements, one of which was being one of the guiding forces behind the establishment of a national library, and the ideals it stands for. The Library of Congress website says it succinctly: “The Jeffersonian concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress. Jefferson's belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library's philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.”
LC 2The Library of Congress, which is the oldest federal cultural institution in the country, was officially established in 1800 by President John Adams, who approved a bill authorizing a budget of $5,000 to purchase "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." An order was sent across the pond to London for 740 books and three maps, which were first housed n the U.S. Capitol. After Jefferson took office as the third President of the United States in 1801, he took an active involvement in the development of the Library, personally recommending books for the collection. His intellectual curiosity and belief that a library should have a wide range of subjects, languages, and ideas in order to provoke thought and challenge one’s own preconceptions shaped the Library’s early mission and continues to do so today. As the website says, “The Jeffersonian concept of universality is the rationale for the comprehensive collecting policies of today's Library of Congress. Jefferson's belief in the power of knowledge and the direct link between knowledge and democracy shaped the Library's philosophy of sharing its collections and services as widely as possible.” (Huzzah for Mr. Jefferson!)

LC 1

T Jefferson His influence didn’t end when he left office. In fact, perhaps his greatest gift to the Library came in 1815, in the aftermath of the 1814 British invasion of Washington DC, during which their troops burned the Capitol building and all of the 3,000 books of the Library of Congress. (We forgive you, Jo and Nicola!) On hearing of the loss, Jefferson offered his own personal library to the Congress for whatever price they wished to set. The offer was accepted, and the Library of Congress more than doubled its original holding in one transaction, not to speak of acquiring one of the finest collections of books in America.

TJ BooksAn avid bibliophile from an early age, Jefferson had spent over 50 putting together his private library. The range of its holdings was impressive, and included works of philosophy, science, literature, architecture—even cookbooks!—as well as many in foreign languages. In the end, Congress paid him $23,950. for 6487 books. (The price was based on the measurements of the actual book sizes!)
Jefferson set to work cataloguing and packing the collection for the journey from Monticello to Washington DC. While many book collections of the time were arranged alphabetically, he chose to order them by subject. (I love the Headings, which include The Hierarchy of Memory for History, and Imagination for Fine Arts.)

TJ Books 2Alas, another fire in 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the Library of Congress’s books, including a number of Jefferson’s original volumes. Today, however, the Library is slowly replacing the lost ones with editions from the same era. The Jefferson Library is on permanent display in a special space, and green ribbons sticking up from the spine mark originals, while white ribbons mark the replacements. As for its size, today the Library of Congress and the British Library are the two biggest libraries in the world.

For those who haven’t visited the main Jefferson Building in Washington DC, it’s a fabulous experience that shouldn’t be missed. The building itself is breathtakingly beautiful (as befits Jefferson’s architectural skills) featuring majestic classical columns, stained glass skylights and magnificent murals celebrating art, authors and books. The changing exhibits showcase material from the extensive holdings (up now is a fascinating exhibit on the Civil War.)

Columns 2

LC 3To give a feeling of the breath and scope of the Library’s treasures, I’ll let its own description speak for itself: “The diversity of the Library of Congress is startling. Simultaneously it serves as: a legislative library and the major research arm of the U.S. Congress; the copyright agency of the United States; a center for scholarship that collects research materials in many media and in most subjects from throughout the world in more that 450 languages; a public institution that is open to everyone over high school age and serves readers in twenty-two reading rooms; a government library that is heavily used by the executive
branch and the judiciary; a national library for the blind and physically handicapped; an outstanding law library; one of the world's largest providers of bibliographic data and products; a center for the commissioning and performance of chamber music; the home of the nation's poet laureate; the sponsor of exhibitions and of musical, literary, and cultural programs that reach across the nation and the world; a research center for the preservation and conservation of library materials; and the world's largest repository of maps, atlases, printed and recorded music, motion pictures and television programs.” I hope that you, like me, are now smiling.

Reading room
The original fire got me to thinking about building a library from scratch. So, let’s have some fun! What books would you pick as essential for its collection? A few that immediately come to my mind are the complete works of Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice, The Old and New Testament and Newton’s Principia. What about you? What “greats” would you include? Please share!

A New Slant on Writing

Book-cover-pride-and-prejudiceIn the Matthew Macfadyen / Keira Knightley 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice, there's a scene where Mr. Darcy is writing a letter, despite Miss Bingley's determination he shall pay attention to her instead.  It reads, in part:

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in unison with her opinion of each.

"How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!"

He made no answer.

"You write uncommonly fast."

"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly."

"How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!"

"It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours."

In that scFashionable letter 2 writer troy ny merrian moore 1850eHenry wallis dr johnson at cave's the publisherne, we see Mr. Darcy writing his letter using a "writing slope''.  Go ahead.  Rent the film and see. 

This 'writing slope' is a wood box with an angled surface, elevated a couple inches above the desk or table, slanted and padded with felt or leather.  See the folks at the left using these.  The man in the wig is Samuel Johnson. 

Pole In the Library 1805This writing slope might be a heavy object, made for use in the comfort of the library or study.  It might stay at home, perfectly content, and never go adventuring.  Or the writing slant might lead a very exciting life indeed … 


Toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, the writing slope shrank in size, sprouted handles, and transformed itself into a sort of traveling desk.  Jefferson's desk wiki2 Lap_desk_interior_view wiki

It was now both a a writing surface and a sturdy wood box for transporting and storing the impedimenta.  Like the stay-at-home writing slopes, these traveling desks or 'lap desks' were angled to provide that optimal slanted writing experience. 

That writing desk on the far right, by the way, is said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  

The lap desk was hinged in the middle and opened to reveal the felted or leather writing surface.  Underneath each half were compartments for storing writing paper and letters half completed.  Maybe there'd be a slim drawer at the end, especially in the early examples.  In any case, you'd have your ingenious cubbies to hold ink bottles and quill pens, sealing wax, silver sand, blotters, penwipes and so on.  Some of the most elaborate lap desks had sneaky little compartments lurking behind the drawers or opening with clever, secret levers and slides.

A man's penmanship is an unfailing index of his character, moral and mental, and a criterion by which to judge his peculiarities of taste and sentiments.
                 Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield

Portable writing desk c18
This sturdy, portable writing desk was the computer laptap of the Regency, encouraging literacy and correspondence on shipboard and battlefield, at any stray country inn or during the occasional stint in prison. 

From the name 'lap desk' you'd think you could use them in your lap.  But they folded in the middle, you see, so I feel a certain skepticism.  On the other hand, computer laptops aren't used in laps either, most generally, so it is a lesson not to be so literal.

Gd writing box 2

Seeing Mr. Darcy engage in writing on his writing slope sent me to hauling out a lap desk that belonged to my grandfather.  It's about a century old, I would think, and an inexpe nsive example of theLetter breed.  The felted writing surface is worn and torn.  Some of the wood's stained.  But it got a lot of use, writing letters home.    

Gd writing desk 11aThis one for instance, on the left.  I like to think it was written using that writing desk.

Looking at all this collection of images across the centuries, I spent a while considering why folks liked to write at a slant, did it for so long, and then just seemed to lose the desire.  Slanted writing surfaces seem to peter out in the Twentieth Century. 

In what was a flash of insight for me, but may be obvious to everybody else, I decided ink flows more easily if the downward stroke is laid across paper at a slant.  On flat paper the writing is more likely to pool and blot when the ink flows with unruly haste. 
When we gave up quill pens and fountain pens, we also gave up the leisurely application of pen to gracefully slanted paper.  

… the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting.
                 George Bernard Shaw

I see artists working on a huge slanted surface.  Anybody here use a slant for writing or drawing?  For calligraphy?

The Glorious Fourth

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

Happy birthday, USA! 

All nations have their celebrations, and July 4th, 1776 is our day to honor our Declaration of Independence from Britain.

The date:

Of course, history is often fuzzy.  July 2, 1776, is actually the day that the Continental Congress approved a resolution of independence, so that was the official separation.

The Declaration:

But a proper document was needed, to explain why the colonies were taking such a drastic step, so after the resolution was approved, the congress studied the declaration that explained their momentous decision.  The draft declaration was produced by a Committee of Five, with Thomas Jefferson the principal writer.  After debate, it was approved on the Fourth of July.

Declaration_independence, Trumbull 

John Adams by Asher Durand It’s likely that not everyone signed the document on the Fourth, (a lot of historians think August 2nd was the day), though Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all later wrote that they signed on July 4th.  (Jefferson and Adams were the only signers who later became president, and they died on exactly the same day: July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.)  But the exact date is less important than the significance of the event. 

The celebration:

John Adams said in a letter to his beloved Abigail,

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp Abigail Adams by Blythe and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Actually, he was talking about July 2nd, but he was right about celebrating with devotion, illuminations, sports, etc.  We still do. 


A community project:

One of my favorite celebration stories is a piece of local history.  On July 4th, 1827, the 500 or so citizens of Boonsboro, Maryland, gathered and in one  day (with a break for lunch), they built a memorial dedicated to George Washington.  It was the first monument to Washington to be completed.  It looks like Maryland's Washington Monument a stone jug. <g>  As a popular celebration of our nation and a great hero, it’s wonderful.  I think of it as rather like a barn raising.

The words:

The words of the Declaration resonate today:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

 Jefferson could write! When I visit the Jefferson memorial in Washington, reading his words carved on the walls bring tears to my eyes.  (The Lincoln memorial has the same effect.  Both illustrate the incredible power of words.) 

Jefferson Memorial Since this is a holiday, I imagine many of you are off doing things with friends and family, so I’ll keep this short.  But it’s worth remembering that the American revolution was a unique and quite amazing event.  As a nation, we’re a work in progress, doing some things well and others badly.  The same is true of all nations. 

So happy birthday, USA! Let's keep working on getting it right!

Mary Jo, happy to see not only Wenches Jo, Joanna, Andrea/Cara, and Anne in NY at the RWA Fireworks, Washington Monument in DC conference, but several of our valued regulars: Maggie Robinson, Louisa Cornell, and Susana Fraser.  If I missed anyone, my apologies.  It was a very busy week!

What a pity it isn’t illegal . . . Regency Ice Cream.

Ice cream is exquisite. 
What a pity it isn't illegal. 

Joanna here, ruminating on Regency ice cream.
There's a certain perversity to Mother Nature. 

Strawberry_ice_cream 4 Take  strawberry ice cream. 
Here we have an obvious Good Thing.  Combine fresh strawberries, something sweet, and milk.  Cradle the mixture in ice and harden it. 
Voilà — you're going to end up with something tasty.

But it's not so straightforward. 


When you've got the ice handy –  when the wind is howling through the shutters and there's icicles on the eaves, you are shivering in your fur-lined mukluks, without strawberries, and without milk   because the cowBrown cow2 is dry, it being — well — the dead of winter, and she's huddled in the hut with you trying to eat the mattresses.  Nobody's in the mood for a frozen desert. 

On the other hand, when strawberries are springing up red and juicy about the lilting fields, just begging for poets to compare them to some young girl's lips, the nearest actual ice is at a five-thousand-foot elevation. 

In the ancient world, if you happened to have teams of runners fetching snow from distant mountain peaks — who doesn't? — you could bring together the disparate elements of summer and winter.  The Chinese, millennia ago, made a dish of sweetened, flavored milk and rice hardened by packing it in snoRemorse of nero after murder of his mother 1878 waterhouse detailw. 

Nero, who is famous for  a number of indulgences, indulged in ice cream.

The Persians enjoyed their complicated fruit drinks cooled with snow from Mount Damavand.  Sort of a Twelfth Century smoothie.  
I'll jDamavand-wiki ccust interject an author personal note here. 
I lived for a while at the foot of picturesque, snow-capped Mount Damavand and used to come out my front door in the morning and watch the goat boys driving their particolored herds down the dusty trails of the mountain side. 
The Persian word for snow is 'barf'. 

The story of Regency ice cream is not so much 'when ice cream came to Europe' or 'who invented it up' — I'd argue the Cro-Magnons had the concept — it's about how ice cream stopped being the Neiman Marcus conspicuous consumption of the fabulously powerful and slid down the social scale till ordinary folk could have a bite.

It's all about the ice.
The technology that brought ice cream to the Georgian and Regency table was  the ice house. 

An icehouse is a glorified root cellar.  A Schwarzenegger of a root cellar.  It was The-ice-house-at-tapeley-gardens-attrib rog frost an underground excavation lined with brick or stone and insulated with boards and straw.  Eglintonicehouse





The bottom curved to hold ice melt.  The roof was domed.  The door typically faced north.  Strategically planted trees provided shade. 
Sawing ice
In the dead of winter, men cut blocks of ice from nearby lakes and  ponds,  brought it back in horse-drawn carts and stacked the great blocks  inside.  Ice  stayed snug, frozen through the height of the summer. 

These ice houses could be huge.  The interior of one Georgian ice house,  Parlington Hall in Yorkshire, measured sixteen feet in diameter by twenty feet deep.  And they could be efficient.  In the warm climate of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson noted that his ice supply at Monticello could last till October. 

It was a miracle of rare device,
a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The idea of the ice house probably piggybacked home with English travelers to Italy.  It went viral in England in the mid Seventeenth Century.  In 1682, Charles II had his own ice house built in St. James park.  Owners of the great estates all climbed onto the ice house bandwagon.  Ice cream became almost democratic. 

 Well . . . maybe not quite for the masses just yet.  In the early 19th Century ice cream was still a rich man'sGodmersham-rear treat.  In 1808, when Jane Austen went to stay with her rich brother Edward, who had an ice house at his home Godmersham in Kent, she could write her sister Cassandra;
 "In the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ices and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy."
Gunters2 in berkeley_square-1813 In town, shops like Negri’s, (which became  Gunter's in 1799,) at the Sign of the Pineapple in Berkeley Square and dozens of confectioners along Bond Street served ice creams and water ices.  In Paris, fashionable Parisians ate ices in cafés at the Rodeo Drive of the day, the Palais Royale. 
  Pemberley icesWhen it didn't snow, or just to keep up with demand, London imported ice. 

Two or three mild winters, of late, in succession, have brought a new article of foreign trade into England.  Ice, for the use of the confectioners, comes now to us all the way from Norway  . . .

This imported ice, (jealous of sunshine) is foremost in our streets now of mornings, moving along, in huge cart-loads, from the below-bridge wharfs ; and looking, as it lies in bulk, like so much conglutinated Epsom salts.
Blackwood's Magazine in 1823

I now want to call someone a conglutinated Epsom salt, but I doubt I will have the opportunity.

We dare not trust our wit for making our house pleasant to our friend, so we buy ice cream.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Here's a 1769 recipe for making ice cream.  Apricot ice cream:
Pare, stonSevres-ice-cream-cups cite historic foods ivan daye and scald twelve ripe Apricots,
 beat them fine in a Marble  Mortar,
put to them six Ounces of double refined Sugar, a Pint of scalding Cream, work it through a Hair Sieve, put it into a Tin that has a close Cover, set it in a Tub of Ice broken small, and a large Quantity of Salt put amongst it,
when you see your Cream grow thick round the Edges of your Tin, stir it and set it in again ’till it all grows quite thick,
when your Cream is all Froze up, take it out of your Tin, and put it in the Mould you intend it to be turned out of.

The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald

Sorbetiere or sorbetiere c18  joseph gillier book
The freezing apparatus looked something like this.  The ice that  chilled the ice cream was mixed with salt to make it colder and put in an outer tub.  The salt was used because a brine of salt water can reach a colder temperature than plain water.   An inner container, called a sabotiere, held the ice cream mixture.  That sabotiere might be made of pewter or — oh dear — lead.  A sort of scraper moved the newly formed ice crystals from the inner wall of the sabotiere.  


Ice cream was originally called 'iced cream'.  After the 1770s, the words, 'ice cream', began to appear.  That's the term that gradually took over.  A 'water ice' was what we'd now call a sherbet or Italian ice.
Just to be confusing, 'sherbet', in this period, meant a sweetened, dilute fruit drink. 

How was ice cream served?

Soft ice cream might be placed in a mold, as the recipe above suggests, hardened, and turned out onto a plate.  Or the ice cream at a formal dinner might be put into a special ice cream server, a seau à glace. 
Seau-a-glace cite historic foods ivan dalyIcecreamcooler sevres 1778 perm wallace collection
This was a three-piece rig, some of them just beautifully decorated.  The outer bowl held the ice, probably salted.  An inner bowl containing the actual ice cream sits within that.  Then the lid comes down over the ice cream.  You then pile a tasteful collection of ice cubes on the lid to chill tSeau-a-glace cite ivan day historic foods2he last side of the ice cream.   
  Seau-a-glace-en-porcelaine-tendre-de-vienne-vers-1770 abbaye de belleperche detail2
At Gunter's Tea Shop or in a Paris Café, our Georgian or Regency heroine licked her ice cream mounded up in a cone-shaped glass, or ate it more delicately with a little spoon, from glass or from  a tasse à glace — an ice cream cup — like those Sèvres cups pictured above.  

Le Bon Genre La Belle Limonadiere cream

. 1796mangeursdeglacejourlt detail

  Parisiennes_au_cafe-paqueau 1886 detail 






John bull and his family at an ice cafe detail









In this last picture, we see the waiter with a menu card . . . doubtless listing all the sorts of ice cream on offer.1796mangeursdeglacejourlt9

Sometimes, one over-indulges.  For instance, from Adelaide and Theodore, a novel  by Genlis, in 1796:

Adelaide was silent and melancholy; I asked her the reason of it; she told me she had a pain in her head. It is, says I, because you have surfeited yourself.

—Me, mamma ?

—Yes; you have eat ten tartlets, six biscuits, and taken two glasses of ice cream, therefore it is not at all surprising that you should be sick.


The temperature of ice cream would have been a novelty and a shock in an era without refrigerators and freezers.  Here's a caricature of a vulgar cockney's first encounter with ice cream.  It's an exaggeration, of course . . .

"Lauk ! its all in a freezed lump, I declare,'' cried she, directing a most immoderate spoonful into her gaping mouth, with the intention of setting both jaws to work, when giving a violent shriek, she dropped the glass, which broke in a thousand shivers; and, with a sudden effort, spit out the offending mouthful plump on the counter.
. . .
"'Drot all ice-creams, say I. How could you be such an ignorant creature to persuade me to eat such stuff . . . I'll tell ye what, my girl, (turning to the shop-woman) that there sort of stuff ought to be cried down. It may be a fashionable way of freezing your quality folks to death, but I'd sooner be burnt up alive in a brandy cag."

That great idea, the ice cream cone, is probably a late Victorian invention.  Cone wiki cc There's no wrIcecream fork whitingitten reference to waffle cookies being used to serve ice cream before the 1880s.  The ice cream fork, not such a great idea, is a strange spork-like thingum that marches in the array of Victorian silverware.  It also seems Victorian.  At least, I can't find a Regency reference.  

JeffersonRecipe-fragment for vanilla ice cream Here's the first American recipe for ice cream, in Thomas Jefferson's handwriting.  He brought it back from France.  It calls for vanilla bean, not available in America at that time.  He used to cajole them from friends traveling to Europe.

Ice Cream.
2. bottles of good cream.
6. yolks of eggs.
1/2 lb. sugar

Just a lovely start to a recipe, IMHO.


Photocredits: The icehouse at Tapeley Gardens is cc attrib Rog Frost.  The top left and top right seaux à glace and the six ice cream cups are copyright Ivan Day, historic foods. com .  Sorbetiere from Joseph Giller.


For me, the ultimate ice cream is pistachio.  From a sugar cone.  Outside under a blue sky full of sun.  I feel quite certain Jane Austen would agree with me.

What's your significant ice cream, and what literary character do you share it with?   

One person in the comment trail will win a copy of Forbidden Rose or the trade edition of Spymaster's Lady, your choice.