Blog category: Social History

  • Spring Cleaning in the 19th Century

    Spring Cleaning in the 19th Century

    April 13, 2018

    How do you feel about spring cleaning? For some, it’s a welcome opportunity to freshen the home; for many, a detestable chore; and for others, something not worth bothering with. At least anyone undertaking the task today can rely on modern appliances to help. Spare a thought for 19th-century housekeepers, for whom spring cleaning involved considerable time, elbow grease, and disruption.

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  • Stupid News in the 19th Century

    Stupid News in the 19th Century

    March 23, 2018

    Ever get the feeling that you’ve seen a particular news story before? Is it a story about a supposedly interesting or unusual occurrence that gives the appearance of having just happened, but in fact has been circulating for months, or years, on many different sites, and is not even very interesting or unusual? You’re not alone. Stupid news has been around for at least 200 years. Here’s what one early 19th-century writer thought of these ‘little sneaking fetid nothingnesses.’

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  • The Josephine Delusion: A woman who thought she was Napoleon’s wife

    The Josephine Delusion: A woman who thought she was Napoleon’s wife

    March 9, 2018

    The “Napoleon delusion,” a form of mental illness in which a person believes he is Napoleon Bonaparte, has long been a popular stereotype, as depicted in the short film Maniac Chase (1904), among others. “Delusions of grandeur” accounted for more than 25 percent of diagnoses of insanity in France in the 1830s. In 1840, the year that Napoleon’s remains were returned to France, over a dozen “Napoleons” were admitted to the Bicêtre asylum on the outskirts of Paris. While there is only one identified case of a woman claiming to be Napoleon, many women claimed to be Napoleon’s wife.

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  • The Wellington Door Knocker & Other Door Knocker History

    The Wellington Door Knocker & Other Door Knocker History

    February 23, 2018

    Napoleon in America opens with a knock on a door, disturbing Sir Hudson Lowe at his toilet. Though that particular door on St. Helena did not sport a knocker inspired by the Duke of Wellington, many doors in England did. Door knockers were a common feature of 19th-century life, until they were replaced by the electric doorbell.

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  • Sunday in Paris in the 1830s

    Sunday in Paris in the 1830s

    February 2, 2018

    In describing Jean-Pierre Piat’s excursion through the streets of Paris in Napoleon in America, I tried to give an impression of what it was like to walk through the French capital in the early 1820s, during the reign of Louis XVIII. For a description of a stroll through Paris a decade later, it’s hard to beat the following extract from a 19th-century travel book. The anonymous British author provides a lively sense of a Sunday in Paris in the 1830s, during the reign of King Louis Philippe.

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  • Songs about Napoleon Bonaparte

    Songs about Napoleon Bonaparte

    January 19, 2018

    More songs have been written about Napoleon Bonaparte than about any other military leader in history. Hundreds of songs about Napoleon were written and performed in the 19th century. Napoleon also features as the subject matter of some 20th- and 21st-century songs. If songs that simply mention Napoleon are added to the tally, the number probably reaches into the thousands. Here’s a look at popular songs about Napoleon that have been written in English.

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  • New Year’s Day in Paris in the 1800s

    New Year’s Day in Paris in the 1800s

    December 29, 2017

    New Year’s Day was a bigger celebration than Christmas in 19th-century France. “Le Jour de l’An, as the French emphatically call it – the day of the year – the day of all others – is a holiday indeed,” reported a London newspaper in 1823. New Year’s Day in Paris was particularly festive, as described in the following accounts.

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  • Christmas Eve in Early 19th Century Pennsylvania

    Christmas Eve in Early 19th Century Pennsylvania

    December 22, 2017

    European immigrants brought many Christmas traditions to America between the 17th and 19th centuries. Pennsylvania, with its mix of Swedish, Dutch, Quaker, German, French, Welsh, Scots-Irish and other settlers, had a rich assortment of Christmas customs to draw upon. Joseph Bonaparte and the other Napoleonic exiles who settled in the Philadelphia area after 1815 probably encountered some of the Christmas Eve traditions described in the following article, which appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1827.

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  • Christmas Gift Ideas from the 19th Century

    Christmas Gift Ideas from the 19th Century

    December 15, 2017

    If you’re doing some Christmas shopping, consider these Christmas gift ideas from the 19th century. Books were popular 19th-century Christmas gifts. People especially liked the literary annuals, which were collections of essays, short fiction and poetry. The first English annual – Rudolph Ackermann’s Forget Me Not, A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1823 – was published in November 1822.

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  • The Bedroom Adventures of a Napoleonic Soldier

    The Bedroom Adventures of a Napoleonic Soldier

    December 1, 2017

    The adventures of a Napoleonic soldier in the bedroom can be as entertaining as his exploits on the battlefield. At least that’s the case when Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, tells the tale. In late 1809, at the age of 33, Coignet was back in Paris after the Austrian campaign, during which he had been promoted to sergeant. Wanting to improve his appearance to suit his new rank, he bought some false calves – padded attachments for the lower limbs – to make his legs look more shapely. Shortly thereafter, Coignet was invited to dinner at his captain’s house, along with some “distinguished military men and citizens and ladies of high degree.”

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  • Self-Help Lessons from Napoleon Bonaparte

    Self-Help Lessons from Napoleon Bonaparte

    November 3, 2017

    Napoleon has been used as an example in self-help books ever since the genre was invented. Authors of self-help books often misquote Napoleon (see “10 Things Napoleon Never Said”) and tend to be vague or inaccurate on historical details. The self-help lessons drawn from Napoleon say as much about the preoccupations of the author, and the age in which he or she is writing, as they do about the former French Emperor.

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  • Some 19th-Century Packing Tips

    Some 19th-Century Packing Tips

    September 29, 2017

    Do you make a packing list before a trip? Do you take a couple of small suitcases, or one large one? Do you fold or roll your clothes, or just shove them in? If you were wealthy in the 19th century, these were things you didn’t have to worry about, since servants did the packing for you and carried your bags as well. That’s why Joseph Bonaparte is able to travel with mountains of luggage when he and Napoleon set out on a tour of the United States in Napoleon in America. As railway travel became widely available in the mid-1800s, more common folk had to figure out how to pack. Many 19th-century packing tips sound remarkably like those of today.

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  • Advice on Settling in New York in 1820

    Advice on Settling in New York in 1820

    September 15, 2017

    What was life like for a foreigner in the United States in the early 1820s? This was one of many questions I looked into when writing Napoleon in America. Fortunately, many early 19th-century writers provided answers. One of them was William Cobbett, a farmer, journalist and politician described by historian A.J.P. Taylor as the second greatest Englishman (after Samuel Johnson) ever to have lived. Cobbett resided in the United States from 1792 to 1800, and again from 1817 to 1819. In 1820, a farmer asked Cobbett about emigrating from Britain to America. Here’s the answer Cobbett gave.

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  • How to Spend Summer in London in the early 19th century

    How to Spend Summer in London in the early 19th century

    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.”

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  • A Summer Night in New York City in the 1800s

    A Summer Night in New York City in the 1800s

    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.

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  • How to Throw a Party in Regency London

    How to Throw a Party in Regency London

    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.

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  • 5 Easter Traditions No Longer Practiced

    5 Easter Traditions No Longer Practiced

    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.

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  • Charades with the Duke of Wellington

    Charades with the Duke of Wellington

    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.

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  • Celebrating a 19th Century Christmas

    Celebrating a 19th Century Christmas

    December 23, 2016

    Here’s a selection of newspaper extracts to give you the flavour of an early 19th century Christmas, including some puzzles to amuse you during the holidays.

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

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

    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.”

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  • Celebrating Thanksgiving in the 1800s

    Celebrating Thanksgiving in the 1800s

    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.

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  • Panoramas: 19th century virtual reality

    Panoramas: 19th century virtual reality

    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.

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  • Napoleon’s Ghost

    Napoleon’s Ghost

    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.

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  • Celebrating with Light: Illuminations and Transparencies

    Celebrating with Light: Illuminations and Transparencies

    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.”

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  • Sweetbreads, Sweetmeats and Bonaparte’s Ribs

    Sweetbreads, Sweetmeats and Bonaparte’s Ribs

    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.

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  • Some 19th-Century Money-Saving Tips

    Some 19th-Century Money-Saving Tips

    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?

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  • How the 20 Questions game came to America

    How the 20 Questions game came to America

    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.

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  • Valentine’s Day in early 19th century America

    Valentine’s Day in early 19th century America

    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.

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  • Fanny Fern on Marriage in the 19th Century

    Fanny Fern on Marriage in the 19th Century

    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.

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  • Celebrating July 4th in early 19th century New Orleans

    Celebrating July 4th in early 19th century New Orleans

    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.”

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  • Coiffure à la Titus

    Coiffure à la Titus

    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?

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We must confess that fate, which sports with man, makes merry work with the affairs of this world.

Napoleon Bonaparte