The Secret Behind the 18th Century Hot Chocolate Pot

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“The Early Breakfast” by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1753. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve read my books, you know that most of my heroines prefer to drink chocolate the first thing in the morning instead of tea. Drinking chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spanish and by the late seventeenth century it was a popular morning beverage. It was served warm, like it is today, however it was not as sweet as the hot chocolate we’re accustomed to. The painting above shows a servant girl presenting a cup of chocolate and a glass of water to a young French noblewoman as part of her breakfast.

One of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction is picturing how things looked two hundred years ago. Going antique hunting and visiting museums plays a big part in helping me step back in time. Since there were special pots designed for fixing hot chocolate, I thought I’d give you a glimpse at what they looked like.

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Chocolate pot made by Joseph-Theodore Van Cauwenbergh. 1774. Photo courtesy of Walters Art Museum and Wikimedia Commons.

A chocolate pot is taller than a tea pot and looks similar to a coffee pot. You can tell the difference between a coffee pot and a chocolate pot by the finial. A chocolate pot’s finial is either removable or it slides to the side. Chocolate needed to be stirred often in order to prevent it from settling to the bottom of the pot. This removable finial would allow you to stir the chocolate with a long swizzle stick without having to open the lid which would cause the heat to escape.

Some chocolate pots had straight handles, like the one in the photo above. Chocolate was an expensive commodity in the 17th and 18th centuries and associated with expensive things, so the pots were either made of silver or porcelain. You can usually tell something about the location of where the pot was made by what it was made out of. In Austria and Germany, the courts favored porcelain pots. In France the pots were either made of porcelain or silver. The American colonists began their love affair with drinking chocolate in the mid 17th century when England acquired Jamaica in 1655, an area where chocolate was grown. Chocolate pots weren’t produced in the colonies though, and pots made overseas were sold in the colonies at a very high price.

The chocolate pot above was made out of silver and amaranth wood by Joseph-Theodore Van Cauwenbergh in 1774 in Paris, France. The records at the Walters Art Museum show that this pot was owned by John Alfonse Walter who lived in Haiti. John and his wife Susan brought this pot with them when they moved from Haiti to Baltimore, Maryland sometime after 1793.

In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houton invented the cocoa press, which removed the fat from cacao beans and turned the beans into cocoa powder, the basis for most hot chocolate produced today. Chocolate prices fell, and soon chocolate became a luxury most people could afford. With the development of cocoa powder the design of the chocolate pot changed. Chocolate powder eliminated the need for constant stirring of the pot, therefore pots made after 1828 have their finials permanently affixed to the lid of the pot.

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This mid-18th century enamel and glazed porcelain chocolate pot was made by the Meissen Porcelain Factory in Germany. Photo courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Drinking chocolate was so popular that not only was it depicted in paintings, but also in decorative items like this lovely Meissen porcelain couple created by Johann Joachim Kandler in 1775 that are sharing a cup of chocolate.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

In An Unexpected Countess my heroine, Sarah, enjoys a cup of chocolate with her breakfast.

Nominated for Harlequin's 2017 Hero of the Year!-3

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to pick up a copy of this Regency romance today.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

 

A Regency Era Christmas Parlor Game You Might NOT Want to Try at Home

Discovering the Christmas traditions of the early 19th century is one of the fun things about writing a Regency Christmas story. While I was looking into ways families would entertain themselves on Christmas Eve, I discovered one game that took me by surprise. It’s called Snapdragon and was a winter parlor game played around Christmas.

Snapdragon was played between the 16th and 19th centuries, first in England and eventually in the United States, as well. In Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755, Snapdragon is described as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. This was not a game for the faint of heart and it took a brave person to participate.

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Christmas celebration with people playing Snapdragon in the lower right corner. Engraving by T. Hollis after R.W. Buss, curtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

To play Snapdragon, you fill a large shallow bowl with brandy and place it in the middle of a table. Then you toss in raisins and light the brandy on fire. The effect is similar to burning brandy over a Christmas pudding. The brandy does not burn at a high enough temperature to turn the raisins to ash, and they almost appear as small wicks. The raisins were called snapdragons, giving the game its name.

The object of Snapdragon is to snatch a raisin out of the flaming bowl and pop it into your mouth. Back then, all the candles in the room would be snuffed out, so you could easily see the blue flame burning in the bowl. If raisins weren’t available, you could use almonds, currants, figs, grapes, or plums. It was believed that the brave soul who took the most snapdragons out of the burning brandy would meet their true love within a year. What really surprised me was that in almost all of the illustrations I found of the game, small children were taking part. Just looking at the illustration below, with the little boy reaching into the bowl, makes me nervous that his sleeve is going to catch on fire.

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Snapdragon by Charles Keene, 1858. This illustration appeared in the Illustrated London News.

The game of Snapdragon is mentioned in Old Christmas by Washington Irving, and Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In my book An Unexpected Countess, both my hero and heroine are very daring people and have a highly competitive relationship. I could just picture Hart and Sarah challenging each other to a game of Snapdragon.

Nominated for Harlequin's 2017 Hero of the Year!-3

 

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to pick up a copy of this Regency romance today.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iBooks
Kobo

 

 

The Evolution of Men’s Fashion in the 18th Century

When I was writing An Uncommon Duke, I had fun playing with a character quirk of my hero, Gabriel Pearce the Duke of Winterbourne. Gabriel heads up an undercover group of operatives that protect King George and the Prince Regent. His work is dangerous and much of what occurs protecting the crown is out of his control. One of the things he can control is his wardrobe and because of that, Gabriel is a bit obsessed with his clothes. Someone referred to him as the Regency version of a sharp dressed man. Researching men’s fashion in the Regency era was fun and I spent many hours on Pinterest and museum sites looking for inspiration for Gabriel’s wardrobe.

Recently I had the opportunity to see the fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Masterwork: Unpacking Fashion. I knew I’d enjoy taking a look back at 300 years of fashion history and I’d learn some new things. I was disappointed to find it did not include men’s fashion from the Regency era, however it did include 18th century men’s fashion and some of those styles did carry over into the Regency era. The collection highlighted garments from France and Great Britian reflecting the roles these nations played as centers of textile production and as styles leaders in Europe and America. Fashions from the 18th century are from an era shaped by political and industrial revolutions as well as expanding global trade. The examples given in this exhibition reflected that.

So sit back and enjoy this peek at what fashionable men wore in the 18th century.

Banyan

Beginning in the 18th century, British gentlemen wore loose, informal gowns in the privacy of their homes as a comfortable alternative to the stiff and physically restrictive suits they wore in public. These gowns were made of imported materials from the European East India companies and went by various names such nightgowns, morning gowns, India gowns, and banyans. This banyan is made of Chinese silk that was quilted for warmth and has a fitted cut which became popular in the mid-18th century. The fitted banyan combined Persian, Turkish, and Indian influences but followed the silhouette of contemporary European coats, making them well suited to wear informally when receiving guests at home. The banyan was an essential garment for fashionable men and suggested sophisticated, worldly masculinity. This banyan was made in England in 1760-1770, and is made of blue diamond-quilted silk satin.

A Gentleman’s Suit

The suit above was made of red wool-silk poplin in England between 1770 and 1780. It is an example of the relative simplicity in appearance of 18th century English menswear, which influenced fashionable men’s style throughout Europe in the latter half of the century. The plain style was an alternative to the elaborately embroidered and ornately patterned men’s wear in France. This reserved style of dress became linked with broader political values and greater personal liberty that French philosophers, such as Voltaire, associated with England. Just like the banyan above, this garment has a slim silhouette which was fashionable in the 1770s. English tailors were expert in making these tailcoats appear simple, while actually doing an excellent job emphasizing a man’s physique. The fine details of this coat include a gracefully curved front, narrow sleeves, and side seams that arch toward the center of the back, creating the impression of a tapered waistline. While the suit appears simple, the color shows a lingering taste for bold color.

The tailcoat above is French and was made in the 1790s from dark brown, gray, and blue warp-printed plain weave silk with green ombré silk satin stripes. With its high turned down collar, narrow back and wide lapels, it’s typical of the exaggerated silhouette that was fashionable in post-revolutionary France. The museum curators placed it alongside the redingote (the dress) to show the harmony between men’s and women’s fashions during this period that extended to fabric as well as cut. For men, stripes were a decorative substitute for the ornate embroidery of earlier suits. It was interesting to find out that in centuries previous to the 18th, stripes had been associated with the clothing of socially marginalized groups. I think it’s worth noting that even though embroidered suits went out of fashion, embroidery on waistcoats was still popular.

 

The exhibition also included a suit of a French Incroyable (Incredible) that made me smile. The Incroyables were rakish men who lived in France following the French Revolution. They stood out among fashionable men of the time due to their tightly fitted clothing which took on extreme proportions. This coat was made in France of red wool broadcloth between 1787 and 1792, and predates the most exaggerated styles embraced by the Incryoyables in the late 1790s. As the decade progressed, the cut of their clothing became even tighter than this. The high, turned-down collar, narrow sleeves, and sharply curved coat front of this coat still manages to create the impression of an elongated figure. I think the high cut of the top of the waistcoat also helps.

The banyan featured in this exhibition is close to the one I put Gabriel in in An Uncommon Duke. It seems to be the perfect thing for a sharp dressed man to wear while lounging in the doorway of his wife’s bedchamber.

 

The Connection Between a Favorite Drink of Regency Era Gentlemen and the Great Comet of 1811.

I’m writing the third book in my Secrets of the Ton trilogy and my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, is a man who appreciates fine brandy. I love creating personal details about my characters and wanted to include the name of Hart’s favorite brandy in my story. When I started my research, I thought I’d simply get the name of a notable brandy from 1819. What I discovered, gave me insight into the cognac I drink today and I thought you might find it interesting as well.

First let me explain the difference between the terms brandy and cognac. Brandy is made by distilling wine and aging it in barrels. Cognac is brandy which comes from the Cognac region in France.

During the Regency era, the finest brandy was produced during 1811 in France. The interesting thing is, still to this day, that vintage is considered to be one of the greatest in history. And the reason behind it is tied to a comet.

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The Great Comet of 1811, as drawn by William Henry Smith. Curtesy of Wikimedia.

In March of 1811, the Flaugergues comet began its trek across the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Although the comet was visible to astronomers for 17 months, during September and October of  that year, it was visible to the naked eye. Accounts of the time describe the comet as illuminating the night sky and at one point it exceeded the diameter of the sun.

It’s believed the presence of the comet contributed to optimal growing conditions, particularly in France. The long hot summer and warm dry autumn of that year led to an abundant harvest of perfectly ripe grapes. People soon realized that the cognac, wine, and champagne of this vintage were exceptional. Even today, you can find bottles of cognac in your local liquor store that have stars on the labels. This isn’t a ranking. The stars are there as a tribute to the 1811 vintage, known as “The Comet Vintage”.

If you’re familiar with Courvoisier cognac, you’re probably aware it’s known as “Le Cognac de Napoleon”. According to the company’s website, not long after they were founded in 1809, the reputation of their cognac grew quickly among brandy connoisseurs and Napoleon visited their warehouse in Bercy to try it. He started giving a ration of cognac to his artillery companies to lift their morale during the Napoleonic Wars. When he was exiled to St. Helena, legend has it that he chose several casks of Courvoisier cognac to take with him as one of the luxury items he was granted by the British. The British officers on board the HMS Northumberland, who were tasked with transporting Napoleon, appreciated the cognac their prisoner shared with them and referred to it as “the brandy of Napoleon”.

And in case you’re curious which brandy the Earl of Hartwick favors in my upcoming book An Unexpected Countess, it’s an 1811 Croizet B. Léon cognac, which currently is selling for €25,000 for one bottle.

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References:

http://courvoisier.com/us/history

http://www.forbes.com/sites/sethporges/2013/10/10/6-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-cognac/#3b2df53b7bf5

http://www.oldliquors.com/cognac-1811-croizet-b-léon-4837

The Daily Cognac: 1811 The Comet Vintage

 

London’s Albany: An Exclusive Address for the Regency Era Bachelor

One of my favorite parts in developing a character is trying to determine where they live. I’m currently writing An Unexpected Countess and my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, would rather chew glass than live under the same roof as his father. After looking at a number of options, I decided Hart would live in one of London’s most exclusive addresses during the Regency era for a fashionable bachelor, an apartment-type building known as Albany. One of the best things about this building is that it has survived and continues to be one of London’s most exclusive residences. It’s located on Piccadilly next to the Burlington Arcade and is set back from the street by a private courtyard. For over two hundred years a sense of privacy has been valued here. Today, I’d like to tell you a little bit about it.

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Greenwood’s Map of London, 1827

Albany was originally designed by Sir William Chambers in 1774 as a residence for the first Lord Melbourne and his wife. In 1791 the Duke of York and Albany proposed a house swap to Lord Melbourne and an agreement was reached. The Duke, who was the second son of George III, and his wife lived there until 1803, when compounding debt forced him to sell the house to a young developer named Alexander Copland for £37,000.

Copland recognized the need for small London residences for fashionable gentlemen who didn’t wish to live alone in large townhouses and wanted to be close to the clubs and shops of St. James, as well as the Houses of Parliament. He worked with the architect Henry Holland to convert the mansion into a subscription house with a small garden behind it. Holland added two parallel buildings to the mansion and divided the entire structure into 69 apartments (or sets as Albany residents refer to them). The sets in the attached buildings are accessed from a 100ft. passageway known as the Rope Walk.

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Drawing by Thomas H. Shepherd, c. 1830, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The sets were marketed exclusively to wealthy, well-connected gentlemen who were either bachelors or men who did not live with their wives. Some of the notable residents in the early nineteenth century include Matthew “Monk” Lewis, Lord Byron, and George Canning. Residents had an option to lease or buy a set. In 1814 Lord Byron took a seven-year lease at £110 per annum, with the option of purchasing the set for £1900 within one year.

Occupants were, and still are, subject to certain rules and regulations established by a group of Trustees who are elected from among the residents. Some of the original rules stipulated that residents could not alter any part of the building structure and owners could not rent or sell chambers without the consent of the Trustees. And it was understood that no women or children were permitted on the premises, although there is a rumor that Byron’s lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, managed to enter this forbidden land dressed as a page-boy. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the ban on women was finally lifted and beginning in the twentieth century women were permitted to reside there.

In the early nineteenth century a standard set contained an entrance hall, two main rooms in the front of the unit, and two or three smaller rooms in the back. Each set came with a wine and coal cellar in the basement and accommodations for a servant on the upper floor. In 1818 gaslights were installed in the building, and in June of 1820 the Trustees agreed that the parish should light the entrance from Piccadilly, the courtyard and the portico of the mansion.

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London’s Albany. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Regency history buffs might find it interesting to discover that in 1804 Henry Angelo’s fencing school was located in Albany’s courtyard, and in 1807 the pugilist John Jackson might have used the same apartment. For a short time Jane Austen’s brother Henry, of the banking firm Austen and Maunde, also had his office in the courtyard.

I love that this building has retained its sense of the past and hasn’t changed much in over two hundred years. According to one of its current residents, there is such a sense of decorum that uttering a friendly hello to a neighbor as you pass on the stone stairs or the Rope Walk is frowned upon. For the residents of Albany, a nod or a hat tip to a lady is the appropriate greeting.

References:

British History Online: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols31-2/pt2/pp367-389

Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, Jennifer Kloester. 2010. Print.

New York Times Magazine, London’s Best and Most Secretive Address. November 11, 2013. Print.

Five Links I Love About the Regency Era

Links I Love

This past month, I’ve been consumed with editing one of my books. For a historical romance writer, edits do not just include changes to sentences and the altering/addition of scenes. Frequently, they also include historical research to flush out a scene or ensure what you’re writing is accurate to the time period. With that in mind, I thought I’d share five links that I found helpful in my research this past month. I hope you find them as interesting as I do.

  1. Have you every wondered what the inside of a Georgian era townhouse looked like? Jane Austen’s World explains the layout of a typical London townhouse that can be found in Mayfair. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2009/06/03/characteristics-of-the-georgian-town-house/
  2. If you were staying in London during the Season and did not own a townhouse, you could lease one. Susanna Ives explains how one leased a house in London during the 18th century. http://susannaives.com/wordpress/2012/02/how-to-lease-a-home-in-18th-century-london/
  3. For those sunny days walking around Hyde Park or attending a garden party, a lady might choose to take her parasol along. But what color would it be? What would it look like? Geri Walton, who writes the fabulous History of the 18th & 19th Centuries blog, has all the info. http://18thcand19thc.blogspot.com/2014/11/parasol-fashions.html
  4. When I needed information about Parliament during the Regency era, I turned to Cheryl Bolen’s always helpful Regency Ramblings blog. https://cherylsregencyramblings.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/parliament-in-regency-england/
  5. And finally, there are times when I’m writing that I’ll use a common expression. I always try my best to search them out and check to see if they were used when my stories take place. This week, I was so happy to find out that you could indeed call someone a dog during the Regency era! http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/Why-being-called-a-dog-is-a-royal-insult/articleshow/4026729.cms
Portrait of the 3rd Earl of Grantham by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1816 from the Getty Museum

Portrait of the 3rdBaron Grantham by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1816 from the Getty Museum

I know I said I would share five links with you, but writers need inspiration, and this was one of mine this month. Consider him a bonus.

Why Regency Era Husbands Would Have Loved Online Shopping

I love when I run across bits of history that show me how similar we are to the people who lived two hundred years ago. Today, I’m writing about a select group of individuals that many of you may know. They are the husbands, boyfriends, and fathers of women who shop. You can easily spot them, sprawled out on the chairs and sofas in clothing stores. They are the ones looking thoroughly bored or completely engrossed with their phones. Some might even be asleep. I have a soft spot for these men, who think enough of the women in their lives to patiently endure such torture.

While I’m accustomed to seeing these poor souls in the stores I frequent, I was surprised to run across such men in a caricature that was printed in 1808. The etching, entitled Miseries of Human Life, is by Isaac Cruikshank and was printed in England. It illustrates the trials endured by husbands while they waited for their wives to finish shopping.

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

The caption reads:

During the endless time that you are kept waiting in a carriage while the ladies are shopping having your impatience soothed by the setting of a saw close to your ear.

So Regency era gentlemen had to endure the sound of the saw, and today’s gentlemen must contend with the music blaring in some of the shops they sit in. I suppose it’s true, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

*This post is dedicated to all the men who patiently sit in shops and wait for the women in their lives. Stay strong, my friends.

Would You Have Given Up Your Jewelry to Fight Napoleon?

If your country asked you to give up something to help fight the enemy, would you do it? Between 1803 and 1815, citizens of Prussia were called upon by members of the royal family to donate their gold and silver jewelry to help finance their country’s efforts in the Napoleonic Wars. In exchange for their precious jewelry, they were given jewelry cast in Berlin iron.

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Berlin iron is a metal that was produced in the Prussian royal foundry. It is a black-lacquered cast iron material that was originally used to make objects such as utensils, candlesticks, and medallions, as well as larger objects such as garden furniture, and fencing. The iron was coated with black lacquer to prevent it from rusting. It is that black appearance that gives Berlin ironwork the look of mourning jewelry. Ironwork jewelry was also produced by iron jewelers such as Johann Conrad Geiss.

Berlin Ironwork Bracelet, ca.1815

Berlin Ironwork Bracelet, ca.1815

Prussian citizen’s wore their ironwork jewelry with a sense of patriotic pride. Many pieces bore slogans like “I gave gold for iron” and “for the welfare of our homeland.” This gentleman’s ring features a center medallion with a pair of clasped hands. This symbol represents loyalty and solidarity. On the ring are inscribed the words “there is an echo in France when we say the words honor and Fatherland.”

19th Century Ironwork Men's Ring

Early Berlin ironwork followed fashion and was typically neo-classical in design. Many pieces included cameos and classical figures.

Berlin_Iron_Necklace_l early 19th century

Around 1815, the designs began to change to feature more natural elements.

 Berlin iron_necklace

By 1825, ironwork jewelry remained in favor and pieces were being designed in the gothic revival style.

Berlin Ironwork Bracelets from the V&AI wonder how many people today would give up their jewelry if their country asked them to?

Resources used:

 

 

Mourning Pictures – An Expression of Grief in the Georgian Era

Portrait of Catherine Lorillard, ca. 1810

I confess, I have a fascination with mourning customs of the Georgian era. I’m not sure how this interest developed, but I do know that I am drawn to objects that helped people express their grief at the loss of those they loved.

Recently, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see their exhibition entitled, “Death Becomes Her.” This exhibition focuses on the history of mourning attire from 1815 to 1915. There were a number of items that intrigued me. The portrait above was one.

This portrait is of Catherine Lorillard, who was the daughter of the New York City tobacco magnate Peter A. Lorillard. She was born in 1792 and, according to family history, died from cholera while in her teens. The portrait is dated ca. 1810.

Most early nineteenth century silk embroideries illustrate scenes from mythology or pastorals, copied from prints. Memorials, usually called mourning pictures, often included full-length figures standing at grave sites in landscapes appropriately featuring weeping willows. Catherine’s portrait is also a memorial, but in a different, possibly unique form.

It was almost certainly painted posthumously, because the drape over her head is a symbol of death. Her head and neck were painted by a professional artist, perhaps based on a portrait from life. The embroidery was probably by one of her female relatives.

Her expressive portrait, painted in oil on silk and embellished with silk and silk-chenille threads, is unlike any other needlework picture I have seen. What intrigued me most about this memorial, was that it focused on Catherine and not on the images of those she left behind, mourning her at her gravesite. I could understand her family wanting to have this piece as a way to keep Catherine close to their hearts. And for me, it gave me the opportunity to look into the eyes of the girl who must have been missed terribly by her family and friends.

Resources:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

A Shocking Way to Entertain Guests During the Regency Era

 

Electrifying Machine

When you’re entertaining, you want your guests to have a good time. While good conversation over a meal and then cocktails afterwards can be the makings of an ideal dinner party, sometimes we have an urge to do something a bit more memorable. Our Regency era counterparts were no different, and in the early nineteenth century one way you could make an impression on your guests was with a spark of electricity.

During the Georgian era electricity was a hot topic. Benjamin Franklin completed his famous experiment with lightning, and Luigi Galvani was studying the reactions of muscles to electricity. By the later half of the eighteenth century, friction machines were used for generating electric shocks to amuse spectators at public exhibitions. In England, popular interest in electricity led to arguments about the propriety of demonstrating these effects in public. A political controversy arose along party lines in Parliament, with the Whigs championing the scientific demonstrations and the High Tories claiming that it was blasphemy to expose God’s secret before an “ignorant populace.”

By the early nineteenth century, electrifying machines became hugely popular and eventually cheap enough to find their way into the homes of the gentry. Scientific experimentation was one of the few areas of Regency life in which women could participate on something approaching an equal footing with men. Therefore, using an electrifying machine was an ideal activity to entertain both the male and female guests during an evening at home.

The watercolor painting at the top of this post shows a fun glimpse of Regency life. It’s dated May 25th 1817 and was painted at Dynes Hall in Essex, England, by a young English woman named Diana Sperling. Diana enjoyed capturing scenes of everyday life. This painting depicts an evening after her brother-in-law, Henry Van Hagen, had purchased an electrifying machine, possibly to entertain his family and friends.

He is shown cranking the machine to create friction, which would carry an electric shock through the string. His wife is behind him, apparently having no desire to take part in the experiment. Henry’s mother starts the chain of guests and has the honor of holding the machine’s string. When enough friction was created, all the guests would receive a shock. I suppose this was considered a novel way to have fun. My favorite part of the painting shows Diana’s sister Isabella, leaning against the wall. It appears as if she is either swooning or cannot believe her family has convinced her to take part in this odd experiment.

I recently held a dinner party for a few friends, and I think they would have been shocked if I suggested we have a go at running electrical current through our bodies for amusement. I think enjoying cocktails and amusing conversations probably was entertaining enough.

References used include:

Longford, Elizabeth, Mrs. Hurst Dancing and Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823, (c. 1981)

Jago, Lucy, Regency House Party (c. 2004)