Blog category: Social History
August 11, 2017
In the early 19th century, fashionable and would-be fashionable residents of London considered it desirable to leave the city for at least part of the summer, “when there is nobody of any consequence in town, excepting a few mad dogs.” If one couldn’t get out of London, it was important to pretend to. “An unfortunate Marchioness and two Countesses were yesterday ascertained to be in town by ‘White’s men.’ Expulsion from Almack’s next season will most certainly be the consequence.”
July 28, 2017
Do you find it hard to get a good night’s sleep in the summer? It’s just as well that Napoleon – who visits New York City in the summer of 1821 in Napoleon in America – was not a great sleeper. Here’s a description of a night in New York City in the summer of 1822.
June 16, 2017
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.
April 14, 2017
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.
January 27, 2017
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. In the early 19th century, people began to act out charades as a parlour game. Let’s sit in on a game of charades played by the Duke of Wellington in 1821.
December 23, 2016
In 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. “Whatever may be said of the dissipation of Christmas, we think its recurrence is attended with many excellent effects.”
December 16, 2016
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.” 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.”
November 25, 2016
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.
November 18, 2016
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.
October 28, 2016
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. The following story about Napoleon’s ghost first appeared in British newspapers in January 1832.
October 14, 2016
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. Light displays had been part of public celebrations in France since at least the reign of Louis XIV. In the late 18th century, transparencies (paintings on see-through paper or cloth) began to enhance public illuminations. In a DIY craze, they also featured in home decoration. “[B]y means of artificial and brilliant lights placed behind them, they have a very gay and sprightly effect.”
September 30, 2016
Would you rather eat sweetbreads or sweetmeats? While sweetbreads might sound like sugary buns, they are actually a form of meat. They consist of the pancreas or thymus glands of an animal, usually a calf or a lamb. The first known use of the word occurred in the 16th century. To further confuse things, actual sweets – candies, cakes, pastries, preserves – used to be called sweetmeats. Some popular 19th century British sweetmeats took their names from prominent figures of the Napoleonic Wars.
September 2, 2016
When looking into the history of the 20 Questions game, I came across some splendid money saving tips published in 1829. Although intended for young men, these “Twelve Golden Rules of Prudent Economy Necessary to be Studied in Early Youth, that they May be Practiced at Maturer Age” could usefully be heeded by anyone at any age, even today. They were written by William Fordyce Mavor (1758-1837), a Scottish teacher, priest and prolific author of educational books. Perhaps something to show the student in your life?
August 19, 2016
Have you ever played 20 Questions? This popular 19th century parlour game became the basis for a number of 20th century radio and television quiz shows. Though it has been said that the 20 Questions game was invented in the United States, it actually originated on the other side of the Atlantic. Twenty Questions was introduced to Americans through British Prime Minister George Canning. Let’s sit in on a game he played in 1823.
February 12, 2016
The custom of celebrating St. Valentine’s Day came to America with English and German settlers. Though mass-produced valentine cards did not appear in the United States until the mid-19th century, handmade valentines were exchanged as early as the Revolutionary War. Here’s a peek at how St. Valentine’s Day was celebrated in the early 19th century, as gleaned from American newspapers of the time.
November 20, 2015
When I was researching Napoleon in America character James Many, I came across an amusing piece of satire in the March 9, 1852 edition of the Richmond, Virginia Daily Dispatch. It appeared on the same page as the description of Many’s Mardi Gras funeral, under the headline: “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony.” Further digging revealed that the author was Sara Payson Willis, writing under the pen name of Fanny Fern. I had stumbled onto the work of the first female newspaper columnist in the United States, and one of the most highly paid authors in mid-19th century America. Before I talk about Sara, here’s the article that caught my attention – and there’s even a mention of Napoleon.
July 3, 2015
On July 4, 1821, in Napoleon in America, Mr. Renault puts on a balloon and fireworks display to honour Napoleon’s presence in New Orleans, and to celebrate “the liberty of our country.” Such a display took place – or at least was planned – for Independence Day in New Orleans in 1821. On May 28 of that year, Mr. Renault advertised in the Courrier de la Louisiane / Louisiana Courier as follows: “Mr. Renault has the honor of informing the inhabitants of New Orleans and its vicinity that on Sunday the 3rd of June he will start a Balloon 70 feet in circumference, with a gondole carrying off two figures of natural size.”
May 22, 2015
Last week I looked at Napoleon in America character Barthélemy Bacheville, who a police report of 1816 described as being “coiffed à la Titus.” This got me wondering: what does a Roman Emperor have to do with hairstyles in early 19th century France? Titus ruled the Roman Empire from 79 to 81 A.D. He is best known for completing the Roman Colosseum and for being the emperor during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., which destroyed Pompeii. He is also a character in the play Brutus by the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire.
We must confess that fate, which sports with man, makes merry work with the affairs of this world.