How to Throw a Party in Regency London

When one imagines a party in London during the Regency era – like the soiree at which the Duke of Wellington learns of Napoleon’s escape in Napoleon in America – one tends to think of lavish rooms, pretty gowns and fancy dancing. Less thought is given to the work the hostess had to do to get her house ready for the party, which was considerable, even if she did have servants to help her.

Quae Genus gives a grand party, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1822

Quae Genus gives a grand party, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1822

Types of parties

Regency evening parties came in various guises, which “differ[ed] from each other rather in the amusements than in the manner of conducting them.”

They consist of balls, at which…dancing alone is the amusement: – routs, which comprehend a crowd of persons in full dress assembled to pay their respects to the lady of the house, and to converse, occasionally, with such of their acquaintance as they may chance to encounter in the throng; – conversaziones, in which, as the term implies, conversation has the lead, but the tedium which this might occasion to some of the guests, by its unvaried continuance, is prevented by the occasional introduction of music and dancing: and card parties, which should be composed solely of those who take an interest in the only amusement they afford. (1)

Party preparations

Regardless of the type of party, a lot had to be done to get the house ready.

Early in the day, the sofas, chairs, and tables should be removed, as well as every other piece of furniture which is likely either to be in the way or to be injured: forms [benches] should be placed around the walls of the room, as occupying less space than chairs, and accommodating more persons with seats. A ball room should be brilliantly lighted, and this is done in the best style by a chandelier suspended from the centre of the ceiling, which besides adds much to the elegant appearance of the room. Lustres placed on the mantelpiece, and branches on tripods in the corners of the room, are also extremely ornamental. (2)

If there was going to be dancing, the carpet had to be removed and (ideally) the floor decorated with a design in chalk. This prevented people from slipping; it also disguised an old or ill-coloured floor. The house had to be decorated with plants and flowers; music had to be arranged; a “retiring room” put in readiness “for ladies who may wish to disburthen themselves of shawls and cloaks.” Refreshments had to be prepared, including – in the case of a ball – a supper, “to be announced at half-past twelve or at one o’clock, never later.” Dinner parties had their own separate requirements. If conversation was the focus of the party, “the tables should be spread with the newest publications, prints, and drawings: shells, fossils, and other natural productions should also be introduced to excite attention and promote remark.” If games were to be played, tables had to be furnished with cards and counters. (3)

Behind the scenes

Lady Morgan provides a peek at what went on in one London house just before a big Regency party.

It is no joke [to give a party] even in London, where every thing is to be hired, from the chairs to the company; where ‘society to let,’ has been a sign set up by more than one leader of ton, ready to fill the house of any Mrs. Thompson, or Mrs. Johnson, upon the understood terms of no meddling on the part of the hostess, and no obligation to make a due return on the part of the guests. What is strange in all this toil of pleasure is that not only the good sort of people have a great deal to do, in getting up a party, but that the great themselves (such of the great as do not live in the ‘houses’ modelled on a French hotel), have nearly as much trouble to make ‘ample room and verge enough’ to suffocate their friends commodiously, as the twaddles in Bloomsbury, the tabbies of Finsbury, or the dwellers in any other terra-incognita of Mr. Croker’s topographical map of fashion.

I once caught a certain ‘bonnie duchess’ up to her eyes in lamps and loungers, garlands and wax lights, and the rest of the materiel for a party, an hour before the throwing open of her rooms to that ‘world,’ which her talent and pleasantry so long governed and cheered. As I was a Missy, her good-natured grace had bid me come very early, that she might see how I was dressed: for she took a kind interest in me, for no other reason that I know of, except that I stood in need of it. Early, therefore, I went, but so early, that all the behind-the-scenes bustle was still in its fullest activity.

The Duchess of — then resided in Lord A—st’s house, which afforded quarters much too circumscribed to hold her legions of fashion; and all her ingenuity was applied in order to make crushing room for five hundred particular friends. What a hurry-scurry! Footmen, still in their jackets, running about with lights to place and replace, like the clerical scene shifters in Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome, on a Christmas eve, – the porter, half-liveried, the page half bedizened, and the French femme-de-chambre, with her hands in the pocket of her silk apron, chattering to every body, and helping nobody!

All this was very striking, but very comfortless; so I sauntered out of one room into another, and had just drawn near to the only fire I met with in the suite, when a loud hammering behind me induced me to look back; and there, mounted on a step-ladder, stood a bulky, elderly lady, in a dimity wrapper, and a round-eared cap, knocking up a garland of laurel over the picture of some great captain of that day, military or political (I forget which), while an argand lamp burned brightly before it, – a votive offering to the idol of the moment!

As I took the elderly lady for a housekeeper, I asked her if the duchess was still in her dressing-room? ‘No child,’ said the elderly lady, ‘the duchess is here, telle que vous la voyez, doing that which she can get none of her awkward squad to do for her:’ and down sprang the active lady of seventy, with a deep inspiration of fatigue, ejaculating, ‘Gude God, but this pleasure is a toilsome thing.’

So saying, she bustled off, and in less time than could be imagined, re-appeared in the brightest spirits and the brightest diamonds, – I had almost said the brightest looks that illumined her own brilliant circle. Hers was what Horace Walpole calls ‘the true huckaback of human nature;’ and to the last it showed the strength and beauty of the web. (4)

According to Lady Morgan, the party turned into “one of the most agreeable” she ever attended. But if a party didn’t turn out as well as one hoped, there was apparently no need to worry.

Few expect any gratification from the rout itself; but the whole pleasure consists in the anticipation of the following days’ gossip, which the faintings, tearing of dresses, and elbowings which have occurred, are likely to afford. (5)

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  1. William Parkes, Domestic Duties; or, Instructions to Young Married Ladies, on the Management of their Households, and the Regulation of their Conduct in the Various Relations and Duties of Married Life (London, 1825), p. 81.
  2. Ibid., p. 82.
  3. Ibid., pp. 83-88.
  4. Sydney, Lady Morgan, The Book of the Boudoir, Vol. I (London, 1829), pp. 170-173.
  5. Domestic Duties, p. 87.

5 Easter Traditions No Longer Practiced

The Sun upon an Easter Day, The Atchinson Daily Globe (Kansas), March 31, 1888. Watching the sun dance is one of many abandoned Easter traditions.

The Sun upon an Easter Day, The Atchinson Daily Globe (Kansas), March 31, 1888

Will you be going to church for Easter? Decorating Easter eggs? Eating hot cross buns? These are old Easter traditions that are still common today. But how about watching the sun dance? Heaving someone into the air? Rolling down a hill? Here are five Easter traditions that have generally been abandoned.

1. Watching the sun dance

The Bath Chronicle reported in 1832:

On the Easter-morn it was formerly a custom for the people to rise early and walk into the fields to see the sun dance, a superstition then firmly believed in, and which, by looking at it steadfastly for a time, it might be fancied to do. (1)

According to a late 19th century Milwaukee paper, this Easter tradition also existed in the United States.

Who can forget the story learned at mother’s knee of the dance of the sun on Easter morn? And how many can remember the excursion to a neighboring hill to verify the tale? Somehow the conditions were never just right – you were just a little late, the sun rose in a mist, or you were negligent at the precise moment when all attention should have been given – and so far as your experience goes the question of the dancing sun is still an unsolved problem. You will think of it this Easter, and the memories it revives will do you good. (2)

In England, the custom survived into the 20th century. London’s Daily Mail reported in 1919:

There are even now peasantry in Derbyshire and Yorkshire who go to watch the sun dance on certain hills there, where the tradition still holds strong. (3)

2. Lifting or heaving

The custom called ‘Lifting,’ and in some counties ‘Heaving,’ was one of the sports formerly in use at Easter, and is not yet laid aside in some of our distant provinces. At Warrington, Bolton and Manchester, on Easter-Monday the women, forming parties of six or eight each, still continue to surround such of the opposite sex as they meet, and either with or without their consent, lift them thrice above their heads into the air, with loud shouts at each elevation. On Easter-Tuesday the men in similar parties do the same to the women. By both parties it is converted into a pretence for fining or extorting a small sum of money. (4)

This Easter tradition, which had died out by the early 20th century, has been revived by the Blackheath Morris in Greenwich, London.

3. Taking off shoes and buckles

If lifting sounds too energetic, you can try this Easter tradition instead.

In Yorkshire, on Easter Sunday, it is said to be a custom for the young men in the villages…to take off the young girls’ buckles, and on Easter Monday the young men’s shoes and buckles are taken off by the young women. On the Wednesday they are redeemed by little pecuniary forfeits, out of which an entertainment, called a tansy cake, is made, and the jollity concluded with dancing. At Rippon, some years ago, where this custom prevailed, it is reported no traveller could pass the town without being stopped, and if a horseman, having his spurs taken away, unless redeemed by a little money, which was the only means to get them returned. (5)

4. Rolling down the hill

Speaking of lower extremities, the tradition of rolling down Greenwich hill on Easter Monday prevailed in the 18th century. The Times in 1790 suggested why this was popular.

The diversion of the day has not varied for many years – the young people rolling down the hill, and the girls consequently showing their legs, which made the company laugh. (6)

5. Egg dancing

The Egg Dance by Pieter Aertson, 1552

The Egg Dance by Pieter Aertson, 1552

There were many variants of the egg dance, in which the goal was to dance among eggs while damaging as few as possible. You can still sometimes see Morris dancers doing an egg dance blindfolded. If you would like to attempt an Easter egg dance, here are instructions from the late 19th century.

The egg dance is an old Easter game. To prepare for this particular frolic, take 13 eggs, blow the contents from the shells, color eight shells red, gilt four and leave one white. Hard-boiled eggs can, of course, be used, if one first takes the precaution to cover the carpet with linen crash.

Now, for the dance, place the 13 eggs on the floor, in two circles, one within the other. The outer circle, formed of the red eggs, placed at equal distance apart, should measure about eight feet in diameter, the inner circle, formed of the gilded eggs, should be four feet in diameter, and the white egg must be placed in the center of the inner circle.

The eggs having been arranged, the company is divided into couples and each in turn try the dance.

The first couple take position within the outer circle, that is, between the red eggs and the gilded ones, and to waltz music they dance around the circle three times, keeping within the space between the two circles. Entering the inner circle, they waltz three times around the central egg, and all this must be done without breaking or greatly disturbing any of the shells.

When an egg is broken or knocked more than 12 inches from its position, the dancers give place to the next couple. The broken eggs are not replaced, but the displaced ones are set in order. When each couple has had a turn and none has accomplished the feat of dancing without breaking any eggs, all change partners and the trial begins again.

The first couple who go through the dance without breaking or disturbing the eggs win a first prize, possibly a dainty bon-bon box, shaped like an egg; the second successful couple receiving second prizes, and the third are rewarded with coloured eggs. (7)

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  1. The Bath Chronicle (Bath, England), April 26, 1832, p. 4.
  2. Yenowine’s Illustrated News (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), April 1, 1893, p. 6.
  3. Daily Mail (London, England), April 17, 1919, p. 4.
  4. The Bath Chronicle, April 26, 1832, p. 4.
  5. The Sunday Times (London, England), March 30, 1823, p. 1.
  6. The Times (London, England), April 6, 1790, p. 3.
  7. Eleanor Lexington, “Easter Frolics,” Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), April 5, 1896, p. 12.

Charades with the Duke of Wellington

A game of charades in Vanity Fair

A game of charades in Vanity Fair

Have you ever played charades? Charades began in France in the late 18th century as a type of riddle. In a charade, each syllable of the answer (a word or short phrase) was described enigmatically as a separate word, then the answer as a whole was described in similar cryptic fashion. A charade could be given in prose or in verse. Here are some examples.

My first I hope you are; my second I see you are; and my whole I know you are. (Welcome)

My first is equally friendly to the thief and the lover: my second is light’s opposite; yet they are frequently seen hand in hand, and their union, if judicious, gives much pleasure. My whole is tempting to the touch, grateful to the sight, but fatal to the taste. (Nightshade)

My first is something rather lean;
My second is your wife:
My whole is on your table seen,
Beneath the carving-knife. (Spare-rib)

My first is the lot that is destin’d by fate
For my second to meet with in every state;
My whole is by many philosophers reckon’d
To bring very often my first to my second. (Woman)

My first brave Nelson yielded, midst the jar
Of angry battle, and the din of war;
My second, when from labour we retreat,
Far from polite, yet offers us a seat:
My whole is but my second more complete. (Armchair) (1)

Acting charades

In the early 19th century, people began to act out charades as a parlour game.

The players divide themselves into two parties, who take it in turn to act and to guess the word…. The actors go out of the room and choose a word of two or more syllables, each syllable or division of the word having a separate meaning. For instance: Improbability, Imp-Rob-Ability, Rail-Way, Ram-pant, Miss-Fortune. After having arranged the part that every person is to take, they return to the company, and represent each syllable in its turn, and lastly the entire word. (2)

Props and costumes were common, actors were allowed to speak (as long they didn’t mention the answer), and the scenes could be quite elaborate. Becky Sharp acted out this type of charade for the Prince Regent in Chapter 51 of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848).

The Duke of Wellington plays charades

Napoleon reportedly played charades with his wife Josephine and others at her home of Malmaison. While we have no specific account of such a game, we do have a description of a game of charades played by the Duke of Wellington in January 1821. The players included fellow Napoleon in America character Dorothea Lieven, as well as Harriet Leveson-Gower (Countess Granville), Granville Leveson-GowerCharles Greville, George Agar-Ellis, Edward Montagu (later Baron Rokeby), Philipp von Neumann, the Marquess of Worcester, and Georgiana, Lady Worcester (Wellington’s favourite niece, who died a few months later). The description appears in a letter written by Countess Granville.

Yesterday we acted charades and you have no idea how amusing it is. I will give you an idea of it. The society divides itself into two parts. Granville, Agar, myself and Mr. Montagu, as audience, had to guess the following which we did. First they put a row of cushions to represent a river, over which Charles Greville handed Madame de Lieven, in a hat and pelisse, with great difficult. Next came the Duke, happier than when he won his battles, with Lady Worcester equipped like Madame de Lieven, in his arms to carry her across. Next hobbled Neumann and fell, Worcester then, rubbing him dry and wringing his clothes.

This was gué [ford].

Next they came in dressed like Turks with turbans, and Neumann with a muff on his head, and they sit in a circle cross-legged.

This is riz [rice].

Then Madame de Lieven, sick, in a bedgown, is led to one couch, Worcester with a swelled face in agonies with the toothache to another. Charles comes in, feels her pulse and gives her pills and a draught. He then goes to Worcester and in the most masterly manner draws his tooth. They both jump up from the immediate effect of his remedies and dance about.

Guéris [cured]. (3)

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How to Throw a Party in Regency London

  1. W. Jones, Riddles, Charades, and Conundrums (London, 1822), pp. 117, 133, 139, 142.
  2. Julia Charlotte Maitland, Historical Charades (London, 1847), p. 2.
  3. Edward Frederick Leveson-Gower (ed.), Letters of Harriet Countess Granville, 1810-1845, Vol. I (London, 1894), pp. 202-203.

The flavour of a 19th century Christmas

A Merry ChristmasIn researching my novels, I spend a lot of time immersed in newspapers, letters, diaries and memoirs from the first half of the 1800s. Here’s a selection of extracts to give you the flavour of Christmas in 1824, including some puzzles to amuse you during the holiday.

Christmas reflections

“Whatever may be said of the dissipation of Christmas, we think its recurrence is attended with many excellent effects. In a commercial country like England, where the merchant during the entire year is glued to his desk, and wholly intent on his selfish schemes, his feelings are apt to be frozen over by the palsying power of interest. In counting over his gains, he forgets that others, connected with him, and his equals in rank, and character, may claim a right to share his coffers or his society; and hence the impulse of avarice too often disserves the links in the chain of the family bond, and which go far to injure the strength and durability of the greater chain of society. But when all the members of the family once assemble under the same roof – to commemorate the Nativity of Him who came to destroy all fictitious distinctions, and to partake anew of that festive mirth which delighted their early years, there is a mingling of affection, and a re-union of sympathy, the effect of which is to render men better when they emerge anew into the troubled waters of busy life.” (1)

Christmas customs – US style

“The twenty-fifth of December is the reputed birth-day of our religion (for there are doubts among the chronologers) and should receive that degree of reverence which its grave nature demands. Religion, however, not consisting only in the punctual attention to times and outward observances, but in the purity of the heart, and propriety of the conduct, this day is observed in many sections of our country with different degrees of reverence and attention. Christmas day in the south presents the appearance of a Sunday, while Boston is as full of life and activity as any other day. The customs of our Puritan ancestors have survived in New England…. Every observance that had the remotest resemblance to the pomp of the Romish religion was indignantly banished from their calendar, while the feasts of the English Episcopal Church were cherished in the many of the middle and southern states, and continue at the present day to form a distinctive mark between those different sections of the country.” (2)

Christmas presents – UK style

“It were idle to tell our readers that at this merry and joyous season of the year, when the spirits are all on the wing, and when the imagination is caught be every glittering appearance, it is the customs of reviving and refreshing friendships by some trivial yet suitable offerings. Children receive their wooden horses, their penny trumpets, and Dutch dolls – the charming fair-one luxuriates over her ‘Forget me Not,’ and her ‘Hommage aux Dames’ – and grave and potent Signiors procure their works of edification and instruction. Of what these latter consist it may not be unprofitable to inquire; and as we have been favoured with a list of the presents which are in course of preparation for some of the ennobled of the land, we shall devote a small portion of our columns for conveying this very seasonable piece of information:”

His Most Gracious Majesty [George IV] receives an Imperial Edition of the Holy Scriptures, with notes critical and explanatory on the Seventh and Tenth Commandments, by William Hone, Esquire.’

The Marquis of Conyngham [husband of the King’s mistress] receives West’s superb picture of the spaniel having its ears cropped, and bearing the marks of the lash on its sides.’

His Noble Marchioness [the King’s mistress] receives the last edition of Horne’s Art of Love; printed on Crown paper, 1820. (3)

Christmas cake – New York style

“To make a cake or a comedy is equally an arduous task. To be intimately acquainted with the consistence of flour, the fragrance of fruit, and the intensity of fire, is as necessary for the first purpose as to know the human heart, the colouring of the feelings, or the shafts of wit or ridicule, is necessary for the second. Again the successful writer of comedy receives the praise of critics and the admiration of pretty blue stockings; and there is no reason in nature that the victorious hero in flour, fruit, and firing, should not be crowned with laurel, or powdered from Richmond brand.

“Good cake-makers are more scarce than comedy writers; and whenever a Napoleon among the confectioners appears, we should smack our lips in approbation as the delicious morsel from his oven slides in between them. What are kisses, or nuts, or sugared almonds, or corianders crusted over with the juice of the cane, compared with a mammoth Christmas cake, containing 63 pounds of flour from Utica, 270 pounds of currants from the weeping Grecian isles, 750 eggs from the cackling fowls of Duchess county, besides citron from the east, sugar from the west, and a confectioner of splendid talents and unrivalled genius to blend the productions of different climates together, and from the apparent confusion make the celebrated La Fayette Cake, of 530 pounds, avoirdupois, start into existence.

“In these tranquil times of peace, we are glad to put on the records of history a celebrated action, whether in cake or comedy, in flour or feeling. New York, thy celebrity is great among thy sisters in this western Republic. In this distinguished spot are to be found the fleetest horses, the swiftest boats, the longest canals, the wittiest editors, and the largest Christmas cakes.” (4)

Christmas Day in Paris

“We are requested to state (from authority) that there will be Divine Service and Sacrament tomorrow (Christmas Day), at his Excellency’s the British Ambassador’s, at the usual hour of half-past eleven; and, in consequence of the present limited accommodation, there will also be a Sacrament on the day following. Divine Service will be celebrated at the Oratoire at three o’clock on Christmas Day, and the Sacrament administered at ten o’clock on the same morning….

“[A] grand Mass in Music of the composition of M. Desvignes will be performed with full orchestra at the Cathedral of Notre Dame at ten o’clock in the morning. The Archbishop of Paris will officiate pontifically.

“[T]he Exchange and other Public Establishments will be shut. All the theatres likewise will be closed, except Franconi’s Circus, where equestrian exercises will be performed; and the Theatre of M. Comte, Passage des Panoramas, whose performances are peculiarly adapted to the juvenile branch of society, who always reckon upon amusement at the present season.” (5)

Christmas fooleries

“If we except the great twelfth-night cake, there is no part of the Christmas festivities more attractive than the pantomimes. The relish for plum-pudding is soon gone, and the mistle-toe kiss is forgotten; nay, the last fragment of the cake itself is very seldom placed below the pillow; but the trickery of Columbine and Harlequin, with the buffoonery and grimace of the Clown, form the theme of half a year’s talk among the holyday folk, and are always remembered with pleasure. The managers of our theatres have piously resolved not to abridge this amusement, and old Drury, in the plenitude of his loving kindness, has actually been rehearsing his part ever since he opened his doors.  The Enchanted Courser and the Fire Worshippers were but preludes to the Christmas pantomime; and although both of them were booted from the stage (horses, men, and scenery together), yet this disaster was viewed with great complacency, from the expected glory which was to attend their successor. We are sorry to say that the means have not exactly quadrated with the end; for the pantomime of Monday evening was one piece of dullness and stupidity from beginning to end, and was heard to the close merely through the aid of the tiny voices and the clapping of little hands in the gallery. Notwithstanding, however, its utter insignificance, use and wont compel us to give it a brief notice. It is called Harlequin and the Talking Birds; or, the Singing Trees and Golden Waters, and owes its birth to that fruitful source of romance, the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.” (6)

Christmas caution

“Ladies, let us entreat ye not to forget the damp and cold nights of this season. Beware of balls and midnight parties – or rather, of the manner in which you quit them. ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’ Cover your throat, ears, legs, and feet well, before you tempt the keen blast or cold shower of two o’clock in the morning. Don’t be ashamed to draw a pair of worsted hose over your silk ones,  nor blush to wrap yourself up in a great coat, should your shawl be too flimsy – nay, spurn not a drop o’ brandy when the cock warns you of your departure from the merry meeting. These things – if you fear death or Doctor’s bill.” (7)

Christmas advertising

“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year are generally the congratulations at this festive season, and every auxiliary is eagerly sought for the embellishment of the person; the most prominent trait of beauty in either sex is a fine head of hair; its beautiful arrangement is aided and assisted by the wonderful energetic powers of Rowland’s Macassar Oil, which has, by its superior excellence, in promoting the elegance and durability of that grand ornament, gained the admiration of the whole world. Parents and Guardians cannot offer to those under their care a more acceptable present, as that useful adornment attended to in youth is of the highest importance. Conductors of Seminaries will find Rowland’s Macassar Oil indispensably necessary.” (8)

Christmas puzzles

The following puzzles appeared in the Liverpool Mercury, December 27, 1816.

  1. What question in the English language cannot be answered by any other word than ‘Yes’?
  2. Why is the letter S like a furnace for making red hot balls in a battery?
  3. Why is the letter T like an island?
  4. Inscription over the Ten Commandments in Amlwch Church, North Wales. By the repetition of one vowel, the letters will make two lines in verse.
    P r s v r y p r f c t m n
    V r k p t h s p r c p t s t n
  5. A riddle:
    Before creating nature will’d
    That atoms into form should jar,
    By me the boundless space was fill’d
    On me was built the first made star;
    For me the saint will break his word;
    By the proud atheist I’m revered;
    At me the coward draws his sword;
    And by the hero I am fear’d;
    Own’d by the meek and gentle mind,
    Yet ever by the vain possest;
    Heard by the deaf, seen by the blind,
    And to the troubled conscience rest;
    Than wisdom’s sacred self I’m wiser,
    And yet by every blockhead known;
    I’m freely given by the miser;
    Kept by the prodigal alone.
    As vice deform’d, as virtue fair,
    The statesman’s loss, the patriot’s gains,
    The poet’s purse, the coxcomb’s care;
    Read – and you’ll have me for your pains.
  6. It will be found not a little puzzling to repeat the words ‘Good blood, bad blood’ half a dozen times in quick succession.

Answers to Christmas puzzles

  1. What word do the letters Y E S form?
  2. Because it makes hot shot; that is, makes the word hot into the word shot.
  3. Because it is in the middle of WATER.
  4. Add the single vowel e, and it will read:
    ‘Persevere, ye perfect men,
    Ever keep the precepts ten.’
  5. Nothing (9)

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!

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How the 20 Questions game came to America

  1. The Sunday Times (London), December 26, 1824.
  2. The National Advocate (New York), December 25, 1824.
  3. The Sunday Times (London), December 26, 1824.
  4. The National Advocate (New York), December 28, 1824.
  5. Galignani’s Messenger (Paris), December 24 & 25, 1824.
  6. The Sunday Times (London), January 2, 1825.
  7. The Morning Post (London), December 25, 1824.
  8. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London), January 2, 1825.
  9. Liverpool Mercury, January 3, 1817.

Able was I ere I saw Elba: 19th century palindromes & anagrams

Napoleon on Elba by Horace Vernet. Napoleon did not say "Able was I ere I saw Elba."

Napoleon on Elba by Horace Vernet

Although attributed to him, Napoleon Bonaparte did not say, “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” This well-known palindrome – a word or phrase that reads the same backward and forward – first appeared in 1848, 27 years after Napoleon’s death. Someone named “J.T.R.” came up with the Elba line, along with “Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns.” (1)

According to a periodical published in 1821, the year Napoleon died, there was at the time only one known palindrome phrase in English. Even that was “only procured by a quaintness of spelling in one word, and the substitution of a figure for another: Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel.” (2)

Anagrams were more common. These are words or phrases formed by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase. In centuries past, anagrams were sometimes thought to have mystical significance. By the 19th century, they were primarily a form of word play. As folklorist H.B. Wheatley wrote,

though anagrams and all kinds of play upon words are in themselves trivial, there is no doubt that, on the presumption of recreation being necessary in a life of toil, the mind will at times find amusement and delight in trifles…. (3)

Georgians and Victorians particularly enjoyed cognate anagrams, in which the anagram is related in some way to the original word or phrase.

Napoleonic anagrams

A number of anagrams were made from well-known names of the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte – Bona rapta pone leno (Robber lay down thy stolen goods)

Napoleon Bonaparte, sera-t-il consul à vie? (Will he be consul for life?) – Le people bon reconnoissant votera oui (Recognizing good, the people will vote yes.)

Napoleon, Empereur des Français – Un pape serf a sacré le noir demon (A serf pope has crowned the black demon.)

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington – Let well foil’d Gaul secure thy renown

Arthur Wellesley – Truly he’ll see war

Field Marshal the Duke – The Duke shall arm the field

His Grace the Duke of Wellington – Well fought, K[night]! No disgrace in thee

Horatio Nelson – Honor est a Nilo (Honour is from the Nile)

Prince Regent – G.R. in pretence

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales – P.C., her august race is lost! O, fatal news

Patriotism – O, ’tis a Mr. Pit (William Pitt the Younger was a British Prime Minister during the Napoleonic Wars)

Opposition – O poison Pit

French Revolution – Violence run forth

“If we take the letters of the word veto (which was the precursor of the revolution) from La Revolution Française, we shall find that the remaining letters, when transposed, will form the sentence Un corse la finira.” (A Corsican will end it)

La Sainte Alliance (the Holy Alliance) – La Sainte Canaille (the Holy Rabble) (4)

Other 19th century anagrams

Alterations – Neat tailors

Astronomers – Moon-starers, or no more stars

Breakfast – Fat bakers

Catalogues – Got as a clue

Charades – Hard case

Constitution – It cut onion last

Democratical – Comical trade

Determination – I mean to rend it

Elegant – Neat leg

Gallantries – all great sins

Hysterics – His set cry

Ireland – Erin lad

Lawyers – Sly ware

Masquerade – Queer as mad

Matrimony – Into my arms

Melodrama – Made moral

Midshipman – Mind his map

Misanthrope – Spare him not

Mourning – O, grim nun

Old England – Golden Land

Paradise lost – Reap sad toils

Paradise regained – Dead respire again

Parishioners – I hire parsons

Parliament – Partial men

Penitentiary – May I repent it

Potentates – Ten tea pots

Prerogative – Rover eat pig

Punishment – Nine thumps

Soldiers – Lo! I dress

Solemnity – Yes, Milton

Sovereignty – ’Tis ye govern

Sweetheart – There we sat

Telegraph – Great help

Understanding – Red nuts and gin (5)

Napoleon’s puns

Napoleon wasn’t much given to word play, though he did enjoy naming Claude Victor Perrin (“beau soleil”) the Duke of Belluno. One of Napoleon’s companions in exile on St. Helena related the following anecdote.

It was stated by one of our people that the owner of one of the houses…on the island…said, ‘It is reported that you complain up yonder and consider yourselves unhappy (he spoke of Longwood), but we are at a loss to make it out; for it is said that you have beef every day, while we cannot get it but three or four times a year, and even then we pay for it at the rate of fifteen or twenty pence a pound.’ The Emperor, who laughed heartily…observed, ‘You ought to have assured him that it cost us several crowns.’ Crowns in English, and in several languages of the continent, means also a piece of money.

I observed latterly that it was the only pun I had till then heard from the Emperor’s mouth, but the person to whom I made the remark said he had heard of his having made a similar one, and on the same subject in the isle of Elba. A mason employed in some buildings which were to be constructed by the Emperor’s order had fallen and hurt himself; the Emperor wishing to encourage him assured him that it would be of no consequence. ‘I have had,’ said he, ‘a much worse fall than yours; but look at me, I am on my legs, and in good health.’ (6)

This resilience stands him in good stead in Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

Charades with the Duke of Wellington

How the 20 Questions game came to America

Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

  1. The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion, Vol. IX (New York, 1848), p. 30.
  2. “On Palindromes,” The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Vol. II (London, 1821), pp. 171-172.
  3. H. B. Wheatley, Of Anagrams (London, 1862), p. 142.
  4. Ibid., pp. 86, 96-97, 135-137.
  5. Ibid., pp. 140-141.
  6. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, The Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II (London, 1835), pp. 164-165.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in the 1800s

Thanksgiving humour from The Emporia Daily Gazette (Kansas), November 25, 1897

Thanksgiving humour from The Emporia Daily Gazette (Kansas), November 25, 1897

Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday in the United States until 1863. In the early 19th century, Thanksgiving was celebrated on a state by state basis, with each state scheduling its own holiday on dates that could range from October to January. What began as a New England tradition gradually spread to other states, although not without resistance.

A Yankee custom

A Philadelphia newspaper noted in 1841:

Thanksgiving was held in New York and New Jersey yesterday. It has been celebrated all over New England. Even Savannah, this year, held this public festival. We do not understand why Pennsylvania should decline this religious and social holiday. Surely the people have the same causes for gratitude, and the motives for its exercise exist with the same force here as elsewhere. In fact, there is such an infusion of eastern population into every profession and employment and order of society here, that it is matter of surprise the custom should not have secured a foothold long since in Pennsylvania.

The Journal of Commerce, in alluding to the anniversary, remarks: ‘This time-honoured festival is now observed by nearly half the population of the United States. If it were possible to overcome the repugnance of Pennsylvania to every thing of Yankee origin, we might soon hope to see the whole nation, after the ingathering of the harvest, bringing their annual tribute of Thanksgiving to the Giver, by a public and solemn act.’ (1)

You will not find Napoleon celebrating Thanksgiving when he lands in New Orleans in Napoleon in America, as Louisiana did not observe Thanksgiving until 1846.

Church-going and gluttony

Regardless of where and when Thanksgiving was celebrated, the primary holiday traditions in the 1800s were going to church and eating a big meal.

This is the day on which the saints and sinners of this great division of the Union are called on by the Governor to rest from their labors, feed on roast turkey, and doze away an hour in the house of God. We believe this is the only case in which the civil authorities intermeddle with that which belongs only to the priesthood – the religious observances of the people. We regard this – but after all what’s the use of discussing the point? So to your knees, ye saints – it will go hard with many of you, to offer as acceptable incense, as they who only stand afar off from the temple, and hardly venture to raise their eyes to heaven. That brief exclamation of the publican – ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ availed, when the long prayers, amid all the pomp and circumstance of the altar, brought down only reproof and indignation.

Faith – charity – the love of truth – and love of man – let these animate you, and every day will be one of thanksgiving and joy, as much as is permitted us in this uncelestial world. (2)

A long line of turkeys

In 1858, a clever statistician “after filling himself with turkey on Thanksgiving day, amused himself by estimating the devastation of the day in the twenty-three States that celebrated it, as follows”:

One million turkeys, 12,000,000 chickens, 30,000,000 pounds of pork, 30,000,000 pounds of beef, 6,000,000 pounds of raisins, 30,000,000 pounds of flour, 30,000,000 pounds of sugar, &c. The turkeys placed three feet apart in a straight line would reach from Massachusetts to Indiana. The chickens, one foot apart, would reach from New York to California. The pies, side by side, would reach across the Atlantic Ocean. It would require 25,000 cattle and 50,000 swine to furnish the beef and pork. The raisins would cost nearly a million of dollars, and the flour quite that sum. The sugar would cost about three millions, and the whole value of the items we have named would exceed $18,000,000! Our estimate gives one turkey to three families, four chickens to each family, also ten pies, ten pounds each of pork and beef, two pounds of raisins, ten pounds of flour and ten of sugar. The eggs, spices, lard, butter and ‘fixins’ generally, of which we have made no account, would raise the sum total to nearly twenty-five millions of dollars. (3)

Happy Thanksgiving!

You might also enjoy:

Valentine’s Day in early 19th century America

Celebrating July 4th in early 19th century New Orleans

Celebrating with Light: Illuminations and Transparencies

Drinking cold water & other 19th century causes of death

Remarkable cases of longevity in the 19th century

How the 20 Questions game came to America

  1. The North American and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), December 10, 1841.
  2. The New York Herald, December 14, 1843.
  3. Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, MA), December 4, 1858.

Panoramas: 19th century virtual reality

Like transparencies, panoramas were extremely popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A panorama was a large circular painting that aimed to give the viewer the experience of being physically present in the scene being depicted, whether that was a landscape, a city, a battle or other historical event. Panoramas served as mass entertainment, popular education and propaganda. Visiting them was more like going to the theatre or the opera than to an art gallery. At their best, panoramas provided convincing illusions of the real, transporting the audience to another place and time.

Panoramic view of London. Aquatint by Henry Aston Barker, after Robert Barker, 1792

Panoramic view of London. Aquatint by Henry Aston Barker, after Robert Barker, 1792

An entirely new contrivance

The word panorama – from the Greek pan (all) and horama (view) – was first used by Robert Barker, an Irish-born painter living in Edinburgh. In 1787, Barker was granted a patent for his invention of “an entirely new contrivance or apparatus…for the purpose of displaying views of nature at large, by oil-painting, fresco, water-colours, crayons, or any other mode of painting or drawing.” (1)

My invention, called La nature à coup d’oeil [nature at a glance], is intended, by drawing and painting, and a proper disposition of the whole, to perfect an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round; to produce which effect, the painter or drawer must fix his station, and delineate correctly and connectedly every object which presents itself to his view as he turns round, concluding his drawing by a connection with where he began. He must observe the lights and shadows, how they fall, and perfect his piece to the best of his abilities. (2)

The goal was to make “observers, [in] whatever situation [the painter] may wish they should imagine themselves, feel as if really on the very spot.” (3)

According to the patent, Barker’s invention included a cylindrical painting, a circular building designed to exhibit the painting, a viewing platform in the centre of the building, and “interceptions” placed so that observers would be unable to see above or below the painting. More than just a large painting, the panorama was a carefully controlled experience. The platform placed spectators at a height, angle and distance calculated to maximize the three-dimensional illusion.

In 1788 Barker exhibited the world’s first full-circle panorama, a view of Edinburgh from the top of Calton Hill. Although the painting was shown in rooms not designed for the purpose, it was hailed by reviewers as something completely new.

The judicious observe that Mr. Barker’s improvement in painting, which his exhibition of Edinburgh in the Haymarket explains, must prove particularly interesting to their Majesties, the Heir Apparent, and several of the Royal Family, who rarely go abroad. To them views of distant countries will be brought not like descriptions from the pen of the traveller, geographer, or poet, which, while they inform, leave an anxious wish, a natural desire to behold the scene ungratified. This Artist brings the wished for scene before them, one entire uninterrupted circle, placing them in the centre, where they can see the same as those who travel; they can perfectly understand and be gratified with a thorough knowledge of the local situation of whatever country they desire, and having seen it personally, they can retain it perfectly in idea, the same as nature could impress….

The ideas which are entertained of Mr. Barker’s sketch being a model, transparent painting, or scenery, are erroneous; it is not to be understood till seen, being a scientific improvement and emancipation of the art of painting from restraint; the effect of which is easier felt than described, and meets the warmest approbation of the first nobility and connoisseurs. (4)

The Leicester Square panorama

Cross-section of the rotunda in Leicester Square in which panoramas were exhibited. Aquatint by Robert Mitchell, 1801

Cross-section of the rotunda in Leicester Square in which panoramas were exhibited. Aquatint by Robert Mitchell, 1801

Barker’s second panorama, a “View of the Cities of London and Westminster,” was also a hit. He displayed it in a purpose-built wooden structure in his back garden. Based on this success, Barker was able to raise the funds to build a brick panorama viewing rotunda in London, like the one described in his patent.

The Leicester Square panorama – located in Cranbourn Street, just off the north side of the square – opened on May 25, 1793. The rotunda contained two viewing chambers: a large circle at the bottom, able to display panoramas of 10,000 square feet; and a smaller one directly above, which could accommodate panoramas of 2,700 square feet. A partly glass roof provided light to both displays (an experiment with lamps for night-time viewing didn’t work and posed the risk of fire). Spectators stood on a raised platform in the centre of each circle. The admission charge was one shilling per painting. Visitors were given “descriptive sheets” (later pamphlets) that described the panorama they had come to see and included a diagram on which the main features were labelled. These saved on staff costs and served as souvenirs.

When Barker’s patent expired in 1802, other artists started painting panoramas. Louis Daguerre was working on panoramas when he launched the diorama in Paris in 1822. Exhibitors started putting props and fake terrain in front of their images, to add to the simulation of reality. Veterans offered guided tours of battle panoramas, and musicians played martial music. An industry grew up as the panoramas toured from place to place. Most European cities had more than one purpose-built structure for hosting panoramas. Panoramas also became popular in Canada and the United States, where – later in the 19th century – they were called cycloramas.

Though other panorama rotundas were built, the one in Leicester Square was thought to provide the most realistic displays. The building was designed to disorient people as they passed from the actual to the virtual world. Spectators had to walk down a long dark hallway and climb shadowy stairs before emerging onto the viewing platform. Some people felt sick as a result. More felt delighted, like this visitor to a panorama of Pompeii in 1824.

Panoramas are among the happiest contrivances for saving time and expense in this age of contrivances. What cost a couple of hundred pounds and half a year half a century ago, now costs a shilling and a quarter of an hour. Throwing out of the old account the innumerable miseries of travel, the insolence of public functionaries, the roguery of innkeepers, the visitations of banditti, charged to the muzzle with sabre, pistol, and scapulary, and the rascality of the custom-house officers, who plunder, passport in hand, the indescribable desagremens of Italian cookery, and the insufferable annoyances of that epitome of abomination, an Italian bed.

Now the affair is settled in a summary manner. The mountain or the sea, the classic vale or the ancient city, is transported to us on the wings of the wind. … We have seen Vesuvius in full roar and torrent, within a hundred yards of a hackney-coach stand with all its cattle, human and bestial, unmoved by the phenomenon. Constantinople, with its bearded and turbaned multitudes, quietly pitched beside a Christian thoroughfare, and offering neither persecution nor proselytism. Switzerland, with its lakes covered with sunset, and mountains capped and robed in storms…and now Pompeii, reposing in its slumber of two thousand years, in the very buzz of the Strand. There is no exaggeration in talking of those things as really existing…. The scene is absolutely alive, vivid, and true; we feel all but the breeze, and hear all but the dashing of the wave. (5)

Napoleonic War panoramas

Scenes from the Napoleonic Wars were a staple of early 19th century panoramas, including the Siege of Badajoz, the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Battle of Paris. Here is one observer’s account of the impression made upon her by the panorama of the Battle of Vitoria, which appeared in 1814-1815 in Leicester Square. The battle – fought in Spain on June 21, 1813 – is the one that Napoleon, in Napoleon in America, blames his brother Joseph for losing because he slept too long.

I went to see a panorama of Vittoria. It gave too faithful a representation of a scene of battle; and a stranger, a gentlemanlike looking person, who was there, with his arm in a sling; and had been at Vittoria the day after the battle was fought, said it was most exactly portrayed. The dead and the dying were lying strewn about; and yet, even in gazing at the representation, I sympathised with the enthusiasm of the living, and the glory of the conquerors, more than with the sufferings of the fallen. … The view, too, of Lord Wellington and the other generals, coolly gazing around and reconnoitring the evolution of thousands, although involved in smoke and dust and danger, gave a grand idea of the qualities necessary to a commander, and raised the scale of intellectual glory ten thousand times above that of mere personal valour. (6)

A “View of the Island of Elba and the Town of Porto-Ferrajo” opened in the large circle at Leicester Square in May 1815, just months after Napoleon’s escape from the island. That panorama was followed by a “View of the Battle of Waterloo,” which hung from March 1816 to May 1818, and again from October 1820 to May 1821. It was so popular that Barker had to construct an additional elevated stage so that the spectators in back could look over the heads of those in front.

The Leicester Square panorama closed in 1863. Its rotunda now forms part of the Church of Notre Dame de France. Though none of Barker’s panoramas survive, you can still visit some 19th century panoramas (listed here, along with some 20th century examples). The panorama of the Battle of Waterloo that hangs in the rotunda near the site of the actual battle in Belgium was completed in 1912.

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Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

  1. The Repertory of Arts and Manufactures, Vol. IV (London, 1796), p. 165.
  2. Ibid., pp. 165-166.
  3. Ibid., p. 167.
  4. Times (London), April 24, 1789, p. 4.
  5. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 15, April 1824, pp. 472-473.
  6. Charlotte Bury, Diary Illustrative of the Times of George the Fourth, Vol. II (Paris, 1838), p. 6.

Napoleon’s Ghost

Napoleon’s ghost pops up from time to time

Napoleon’s ghost pops up from time to time

Given the huge influence that Napoleon Bonaparte had during his lifetime, it’s not surprising that his ghost has popped up from time to time since his death. The Museum of The Black Watch has transcribed a letter describing a British soldier’s encounter with Napoleon’s ghost during the removal of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena to France in 1840. Albert Dieudonné, who played Napoleon in Abel Gance’s 1927 film of that name, talked about spooking a night watchman at the Château de Fontainebleau who claimed to be visited by Napoleon’s ghost. The following story about Napoleon’s ghost first appeared in British newspapers in January 1832.

The Ghost of Napoleon

At the Mansion House on Saturday, M. Pierre de Blois, a French gentleman who resides in chambers in Leadenhall Street, was summoned before the Lord Mayor for beating Rafael Spaglietti, an image seller, and breaking a very fine bust of Napoleon Buonaparte.

It appeared that the Italian went upstairs to the defendant’s room door, at the top of which there was a glass; he raised up the head of the image, which was made of pale clay, to the glass and said softly, ‘buy my ghost of Napoleon.’ M. de Blois, who had known the Emperor, thought he saw his ghost, and exclaiming ‘Oh, Christ, save us!’ fell on the floor in a fit. The Italian, seeing no chance of a sale that day, went away and returned the next. M. de Blois, in the meantime, had recovered from his fit, and hearing how his terror had been excited, felt so indignant that the moment he saw Spaglietti at his door the next day, he flew at him and tumbled him and the Emperor downstairs together.

It happened that a confectioner’s man was that moment coming upstairs with a giblet pie to a Mr. Wilson, who resided in the chambers, and the Emperor and the Italian, in their descent, alighted on his tray, which broke their fall and saved the Italian’s head, but could not save Napoleon’s, which was totally destroyed – the giblet pie also suffered so much from the collision that Mr. Wilson refused to have anything to do with it. After a good deal of explanation by the parties, and a good deal of laugher amongst the auditors, M. de Blois agreed to pay for the pie, and Mr. Wilson generously paid for the loss of the Emperor. (1)

Did Napoleon believe in ghosts?

For the answer, see my post about whether Napoleon was superstitious. Charlotte Brontë seemed to think so. She wrote a short story called “Napoleon and the Spectre” (published in The Green Dwarf, 1833), which you can read for free on Project Gutenberg.

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10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon scared children

What were Napoleon’s last words?

How was Napoleon’s death reported?

  1. Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island), March 28, 1832. British papers carried a longer account.

Drinking cold water & other 19th century causes of death

Death’s Dispensary, cartoon by George Pinwell in FUN Magazine, August 18, 1866, warning against cholera and other water-borne causes of death.

Death’s Dispensary, cartoon by George Pinwell in FUN Magazine, August 18, 1866

Given the rudimentary nature of medical care in the early 19th century, Napoleon is probably right when he complains to Dr. Formento in Napoleon in America that “you kill more men than you save.” Disease was thought to be caused by imbalances within the body. There was little understanding of how infections began and spread, or of the importance of hygiene. Treatments included bloodletting and mercury. Many people died young, and some causes of death were unusual.

Causes of death in American cities in 1820

In 1820, there were a total of 9,617 deaths reported in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. (1) These were the four largest cities in the United States, with a combined population of 293,544. (2) Approximately half of those who died (4,762) were under 20 years old. Of these, fully half (2,436) were children under the age of one.

The largest single causes of death were:

  • Consumption (tuberculosis) – 1,619 deaths (17%)
  • Stillbirth – 561 (6%)
  • Cholera – 480 (5%)
  • Dysentery – 439 (5%)
  • Typhus fever – 368 (4%).

The remaining deaths were ascribed to a great variety of causes, hinting at rather discretionary methods of investigation and categorization: e.g., affection of the stomach & head (2 deaths), indigestion (1 death), hydrophobia (1 death), hysteria (1 death). Forty-six deaths were pinned on “teething.” Ninety-seven were simply classified as “sudden.” The 106 deaths attributed to “unknown” causes presumably had less inventive reporters. What really stands out, though, are the 16 deaths blamed on “drinking cold water.”

How drinking cold water could kill you

Dr. Benjamin Rush was the first to write about the phenomenon of people in Philadelphia “being diseased by drinking cold water.”

This mortality falls chiefly upon the labouring part of the community, who seek to allay their thirst by drinking water from the pumps in the streets, and who are too impatient, or too ignorant, to use the necessary precautions for preventing its morbid or deadly effects upon them. These accidents seldom happen except when the mercury rises above 85° in Fahrenheit’s thermometer.

Three circumstances generally concur to produce disease or death from drinking cold water. 1. The patient is extremely warm. 2. The water is extremely cold. And 3. A large quantity of it is suddenly taken into the body. The danger from drinking the cold water is always in proportion to the degrees of combination which occur in the three circumstances that have been mentioned. The following symptoms generally follow….

In a few minutes after the patient has swallowed the water, he is affected by a dimness of sight; he staggers in attempting to walk, and, unless supported, falls to the ground; he breathes with difficulty; a rattling is heard in his throat; his nostrils and cheeks expand and contract in every act of respiration; his face appears suffused with blood, and of a livid colour; his extremities become cold, and his pulse imperceptible; and unless relief be speedily obtained, the disease terminates in death, in four or five minutes. …

More frequently, patients are seized with acute spasms in the breast and stomach. These spasms are so painful as to produce syncope, and even asphyxia. They are sometimes of the tonic, but more frequently of the clonic kind. In the intervals of the spasms, the patient appears to be perfectly well. The intervals between each spasm become longer or shorter, according as the disease tends to life or death.

It may not be improper to take notice that punch, beer and even toddy, when drunken under the same circumstances as cold water, have all been known to produce the same morbid and fatal effects. (3)

Rush’s “one certain remedy” for the disease was liquid laudanum (tincture of opium). He also advised taking the following precautions before drinking a large quantity of cold liquid when one was overheated.

1. Grasp the vessel out of which you are about to drink for a minute or longer, with both your hands. This will abstract a portion of heat from the body, and impart it at the same time to the cold liquor, provided the vessel be made of metal, glass, or earth….

2. If you are not furnished with a cup, and are obliged to drink by bringing your mouth in contact with the stream which issues from a pump, or a spring, always wash your hands and face, previously to your drinking, with a little of the cold water. By receiving the shock of the water first upon those parts of the body, a portion of its heat is conveyed away, and the vital parts are thereby defended from the action of the cold.

By the use of these preventives, inculcated by advertisements pasted upon pumps by the Humane Society, death from drinking cold water has become a rare occurrence for many years past in Philadelphia. (4)

Dr. R. Tolifree later expanded Rush’s prescription.

Some maintain there is but one certain remedy, laudanum. This view is too contracted; for if laudanum be not at hand, we should give alcohol, essence of peppermint, &c. in doses much larger than usual. (5)

The drunkards’ disease?

Some people apparently took to using alcohol as a preventive measure, which “A. Physician” affiliated with the Temperance Union frowned upon.

I have observed, within a few days past, a number of deaths have been reported from ‘drinking cold water,’ accompanied in some of the newspapers by earnest cautions against drinking cold water when heated, as though this alone were the cause of death. These reports and cautions, there is reason to fear, have had a tendency to influence many to use ardent spirits in the water they drink in the present warm weather, more than one instance of which have fallen under my observation. And with the view of preventing such imprudence, it is fit that the facts of the case should be understood.

The instances of sudden death from drinking cold water almost universally occur among intemperate foreigners, or others who indulge habitually in the use of spirituous liquors. Such persons, after creating a thirst by the use of ardent spirits, which rum will not allay, go to a pump or spring of water and drink to satiate this morbid thirst, which is more owing to their intemperance than to labour and heat combined.

The effect of cold water, thus suddenly applied to the stomach, is supposed to be a paralysis, extending from that organ to the heart. That such examples of paralysis from drinking water, however cold, or however much the individual may be heated, ever did occur, except when the stomach had previously been impaired by intemperance or otherwise, remains to be proved. Hence such accidents proverbially occur among drunkards, to an extent which should serve as a warning to the intemperate and a salutary lesson to the sober.

Such persons, however, may avoid the mischief they dread in a much better way than by mixing aspiritous liquors with the water they drink. Let them wash the hands and face with cold water before drinking, or hold their mouths full a few moments before swallowing it, and they may then safely satiate their thirst, even with iced water, without harm. (6)

Perhaps one of the saddest cases of death from drinking cold water was this one, in 1834.

Very many deaths have happened from drinking cold water, but at New York, one of the sextons, becoming heated when digging a grave for a person that had so died, drank plentifully of cold water, and so died himself. (7)

So what was going on?

An article published in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology in 1999 notes a case of sudden cardiac death in a 12-year-old boy after rapid ingestion of a frozen slurry drink. After observing that ingestion of cold liquids has been associated with syncope (fainting), the authors conclude that “ingestion of cold liquids should be considered a potential trigger for fatal cardiac arrhythmias in patients with underlying heart disease.” (8)

Maybe this was behind some of the deaths caused by drinking cold water in the 19th century.

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Félix Formento and medicine in 19th century New Orleans

Remarkable cases of longevity in the 19th century

What were Napoleon’s last words?

Last words of famous people

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

A guillotine execution in Napoleonic times

  1. Eclectic Repertory and Analytical Review, Medical and Philosophical, Vol. XI (Philadelphia, 1821), pp. 133-140.
  2. “Population of the 61 Urban Places: 1820,” United States Census Bureau,, accessed October 14, 2016.
  3. Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations, Vol. 1, Second Edition (Philadelphia, 1805), pp. 183-185.
  4. Ibid., pp. 186-187.
  5. R. Tolifree, “Observations on Death from Drinking Cold Water when the Body is Heated,” Baltimore Medical and Surgical Journal and Review, edited by E. Geddings, Vol. 1 (Baltimore, 1833), p. 295.
  6. A. Physician, “Deaths from Cold Water,” Journal of the American Temperance Union, Vol. 2, No. 8 (Philadelphia, August 1838), p. 116.
  7. Niles’ Weekly Register, Vol. 46 (Baltimore, August 2, 1834), p. 379.
  8. P. Burke, M.N. Afzal, D.S. Barnett, R. Virmani, “Sudden death after a cold drink: case report,” American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, Vol. 20, No. 1 (March 1999), pp. 37-39.

Celebrating with Light: Illuminations and Transparencies

When the inhabitants of New Orleans hold a banquet in Napoleon’s honour in Napoleon in America, the site of the festivities is decorated with coloured lamps and transparencies. Illuminations, in the form of fireworks, bonfires and lanterns, had been part of public celebrations in France since at least the reign of Louis XIV. Citizens contributed to illuminations by placing candles in street-facing windows, often at the order of municipal authorities. In the late 18th century, transparencies began to enhance illuminations. Transparencies were scenes or inscriptions painted on a translucent substance, typically paper or lightweight cloth, such as silk, linen, calico or muslin. “[B]y means of artificial and brilliant lights placed behind them, they have a very gay and sprightly effect.” (1)

Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency, with its Effect upon Patriotic Feelings. Caricature of transparencies by James Gillray, 1799. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Exhibition of a Democratic Transparency, with its Effect upon Patriotic Feelings. Caricature by James Gillray, 1799. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

DIY transparencies

London bookseller Rudolph Ackermann published 109 transparent etchings between 1796 and 1802, along with a book entitled Instructions for Painting Transparencies (1799). British engraver and publisher Edward Orme encouraged the fad for transparencies in both England and France with his bilingual manual, An Essay on Transparent Prints and on Transparencies in General (1807). Orme provided detailed instructions on how to turn an etching or engraving into a transparency. This involved painting large areas of color on the back of the print (corresponding with the outlines of the illustration), and then adding varnish to specific areas to give the paper a see-through effect when held up to light. Scraping or cutting away small sections of the surface was another way to enhance the transparency.

The effect of this kind of drawing (though by no means a modern invention) is very pleasing, if managed with judgement, particularly in [pictures featuring] fire, and moonlights; where brilliancy of light, and strength of shade, are so very desirable.

The very great expense attending the purchase of stained-glass, and the risk of keeping it secure from accident, almost precludes the use of it ornamenting rooms; but transparencies form a substitute nearly equal, and at a very small expense. (2)

The do-it-yourself method became popular in home decoration. Practical applications included lamp and candle shades, fire screens, fans and window blinds. Transparencies became an extension of the sketching and painting that genteel women were encouraged to undertake. Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, refers to transparencies among the Bertram sisters’ handicrafts.

[The East room’s] greatest elegancies and ornaments were a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill-done for the drawing-room, three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlit lake in Cumberland.… (3)

Large transparencies were exhibited at night, with a number of lamps behind them.

Transparencies were one of the most important forms of popular art to emerge in the late eighteenth century; until at least the mid-nineteenth century, they were ubiquitous at pleasure gardens, balls, assemblies, hustings, dinners, astronomical lectures, theatres, fairs and – most prominently – at civic celebrations of all kinds. The most elaborate large-scale transparencies for public exhibition were usually produced by professional scene-painters, drawing masters or even esteemed Royal Academicians, yet their prevalence stemmed from the fashionable status attached to the production of small paper and ornamental versions by amateurs. Transparencies proliferated because they could be executed in a multiplicity of formats, sizes and materials appropriate to whatever artistic or practical skill was possessed by their creator; these were then exhibited in a corresponding variety of public, civic and domestic spaces. (4)

Illuminations and transparencies at Napoleon’s wedding

For an example of transparencies on a grand scale, here’s a partial description of how Paris was illuminated for the marriage of Napoleon and his second wife Marie Louise in 1810.

On Monday evening [April 2], the city of Paris presented such a spectacle that one might have thought himself in an enchanted place. I have never seen such brilliant illuminations. It was a succession of all magical decorations. Houses, hotels, palaces, churches, all were dazzling, even to the church towers, which seemed like stars or comets hung in air. The residences of the great dignitaries of the Empire, the ministers, the ambassadors of Austria and Russia, and that of the Duc d’Abrantes, vied with each other in splendor and good taste. Place Louis XV presented an admirable spectacle. From the middle of this Place, surrounded by orange trees of flame, the eyes rolled alternately to the magnificent decoration of the Champs-Elysées, the Garde-Meuble, the temple of Glory, the Tuileries, and the Corps Législatif. The latter palace represented the temple of Hymen. The transparency of the pediment represented Peace uniting the august spouses. On either side of them were genii carrying bucklers on which were displayed the armorial bearings of the two empires; behind this group came magistrates, warriors, and the people, presenting them with crowns. At the two extremities of the transparency were the Seine and the Danube, surrounded with children, – an image of fecundity. The twelve columns of the peristyle, and the flight of the steps leading to it, were illuminated. (5)

American transparencies

The enthusiasm for transparencies crossed the Atlantic. Here’s a description of some of the transparencies on display to celebrate Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813) during the War of 1812.

Last night, in conformity to the recommendation of the Intendant and Wardens, this city [Charleston, SC] was most splendidly illuminated, in honor of the late glorious victory obtained over the enemy’s fleet on Lake Erie by the gallant Commodore Perry. On this occasion some very elegant and appropriate transparencies were exhibited, with suitable devices and patriotic mottos. Among the most conspicuous were those exhibited at the houses of Major Geddes, J.B. White, Esq. and John Everingham, Esq. Major Geddes’ was a large transparency, executed with great taste and happiness of design, describing the action of Erie, just at the critical and important moment that Commodore Perry was passing in his boat from his own crippled vessel, the Lawrence, which had borne the fire of the whole British force for two hours… On the upper part of the picture was inscribed ‘The Almighty has granted another glorious victory’; on the left over the prostrate symbols of royalty was the motto, ‘LIBERTY TRIUMPHANT.’

Mr. White’s were five in number…. The centre transparency…describes the deeply interesting period when Perry, the intrepid hero of the lake, swept through the line of the enemy, spreading destruction among their shipping…just above this soared the American Eagle, grasping a trident, which he poises over the scene, to be disposed of according as the event of the conflict may determine, which he seemed to be watching over with parental fondness. The all-seeing eye of fate overlooked the whole, scattering the rays of truth in all directions. At the base, the appropriate words of Perry’s communication: ‘It hath PLEASED THE ALMIGHTY.’ In the west window – The genius of America, in bold and brilliant colors, trampling a lion under her feet. Motto, ‘crush the monster.’ In the east window – A female figure, representing industry, and plenty, scattering her fruits. Motto, ‘plenty shall abound.’ In the windows of the upper story were two cherubs, wrapt in light clouds, supporting escutcheons, with the names of Lawrence, Ludlow, Burrows, and Sigourney. Motto, ‘There’s a sweet little Cherub that sits up aloft, To take care of the life of poor Jack.’

Mr. Everingham’s transparency (which we understand was executed by Mr. Wightman jun.) was highly appropriate: we will attempt to describe it. On the right, a marble monument erected on a rock, on the base, ‘departed heroes,’ – on the top, an urn, from which was suspended by a wreath of laurels, the names of Lawrence, Ludlow and Burrows – over the monument, an eagle, in her talons the shield of hope with an anchor – also, a trumpet; and in her bill the motto, ‘Free trade and sailor’s rights.’ On the left, a naval column, rising from the ocean, with the names of ‘Rodgers, Decatur, Hall, Bainbridge, Jones, Chauncey and Porter, [etc.].’

The effect of these several pieces was very great and attracted a vast concourse of people to the respective places; so much so, that a passage through the crowd was effected with difficulty. (6)

If you’d like to try making your own transparent paper lanterns, writer Anna M. Thane provides excellent instructions on her Regency Explorer blog.

You might also enjoy:

Panoramas: 19th century virtual reality

How to Throw a Party in Regency London

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

Celebrating July 4th in early 19th century New Orleans

Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon scared children

Sweetbreads, Sweetmeats and Bonaparte’s Ribs

How the 20 Questions game came to America

Fanny Fern on marriage in the 19th century

Some 19th century money saving tips

  1. Charles Taylor, The Artist’s Repository and Drawing Magazine, exhibiting the Principles of the Polite Arts in their various Branches, Vol. IV (London, 1790), p. 137.
  2. Colin Mackenzie, One Thousand Experiments in Chemistry (London, 1822), p. 476.
  3. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: A Novel, Vol. 1, 2nd edition (London, 1816), p. 318.
  4. John Plunkett, “Light work: Feminine Leisure and the Making of Transparencies,” Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski, eds., Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain (New York, 2016), pp. 43-44.
  5. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant, First Valet de Chambre of the Emperor, on the Private Life of Napoleon, His Family and His Court, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin, Vol. 3 (New York, 1895), pp. 150-151.
  6. “The late Illuminations,” Niles Weekly Register, Vol. 5 (Baltimore, Oct. 30, 1813), p. 145.