Blog category: Social History
Letters of Introduction in the 19th Century
January 20, 2023
Letters of introduction were the reference letters of the past, particularly among the upper classes. They were a way to say, “I know this person and can vouch for them.” If you wanted to become acquainted with someone of a higher social status, a letter of introduction written by a mutual friend was necessary to set up the meeting. Letters of introduction were also useful for travelers. If you were going to a place where you didn’t know anyone, a letter of introduction to someone who lived there would give you entry to the social or business community.
Post-houses and Stage-houses in the Early 1800s
October 7, 2022
If you were taking a trip before the onset of rail travel, you’d likely be spending time at a post-house. Post-houses – often called stage-houses, especially in the United States – were essential stopping places in the days when vehicles were pulled by horses. Situated approximately every 10-15 miles (16-24 km) along routes known as post roads or stage roads, post-houses were houses or inns with stables where coaches could obtain a fresh set of horses for the next stage of the journey. Mail, packages, and passengers could be dropped off and picked up. Drivers could be swapped out. Travellers could get something to eat, and spend the night. If you wanted to travel in a private vehicle, rather than a public one, you could rent horses and a small carriage at a post-house, along with postilions.
Christmas in Mexico in the 1800s
December 24, 2021
In the years after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, many visitors arrived from Europe and the United States hoping to establish profitable diplomatic and commercial relations with the new country. Here are glimpses of some of the Christmas celebrations they encountered.
How did people shop in the early 1800s?
December 10, 2021
Although people in the early 1800s could not shop at supermarkets or department stores, they had plenty of other shopping opportunities, especially if they lived in cities. Markets, peddlers and hawkers, specialty stores, general stores and cheap shops all catered to early 19th-century shoppers. Here’s a look at what it was like to go shopping 200 years ago.
How to Make Small Talk in the 19th Century
November 12, 2021
In 1818, future first lady Louisa Adams wrote to her father-in-law, John Adams: “How much practice…is required to receive company well, and how much the greatest talents are obscured by that want of ease and small talk which, though in itself trifling, always produces the happy effect of socializing a company and by insensible degrees warming it into brilliancy and solidity. This is one of those arts that everybody feels, but few understand, and is altogether inexplicable.” As Louisa knew, small talk does not always come naturally. Here’s a guide to how it was done in the early 19th century.
The 19th-Century Comedy Routines of Charles Mathews
May 14, 2021
What made people laugh 200 years ago? Among other things, old jokes and comedy performances in theatres. One of the leading comedians of the early 19th century was British actor Charles Mathews. Famous for his wit and his skill at mimicry, he kept audiences in stitches with his one-man shows, which were a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. How funny would we find his comedy routines today? Read on and decide for yourself.
One Thing at a Time: 19th-Century Multitasking Advice
January 22, 2021
Long before the word multitasking was coined, common sense frowned on the practice. “Who chases two rabbits catches neither” has been attributed both to Confucius (551-469 BC) and Publilius Syrus (85-43 BC). “The human mind can attend to only one thing at a time,” wrote 17th-century philosopher Pierre-Daniel Huet, presaging some modern neuroscientific findings. In the 19th century, this turned into some rather fierce instruction about the importance of single-tasking, as well as some pseudoscience regarding the ability to concentrate.
A 19th-Century Austrian Christmas
December 25, 2020
In 1836, English writer Frances Trollope visited Austria, accompanied by her 26-year-old son Thomas and her 20-year-old daughter Cecilia. She provided the following description of Christmas in Vienna, including a party at the home of Austrian chancellor and foreign minister Clemens von Metternich.
Shopping in the Early 19th Century
December 11, 2020
Frustrated by long line-ups and unhelpful websites when doing your holiday shopping? Here are some situations you might have encountered if you went shopping 200 years ago, taken from early-19th-century newspapers.
Things People Were Thankful For 200 Years Ago
November 27, 2020
Although Thanksgiving traditions have changed over the years, giving thanks for life’s blessings has been customary for centuries. Here are some things people were thankful for 200 years ago.
When People Knew How to Speak: Oratory in the 19th Century
October 2, 2020
At a time when the quality of public discourse is often complained of, it’s interesting to look back to when people took oratory, or eloquence in public speaking, seriously. One such period was 200 years ago, in the early 19th century. Inspired by Greek and Roman ideals, politicians, lawyers, religious leaders and other public speakers sought to stir emotions, change minds and inspire action by speaking so masterfully that people would pack rooms just to hear what they said.
When an Englishman Met a Napoleonic Captain in Restoration France
September 18, 2020
France and England were at war for most of the period between 1793 and 1814. This made tourism between the two countries extremely difficult. After Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba in April 1814, English visitors flocked across the English Channel, eager to see Paris now that France was under the rule of England’s ally, King Louis XVIII. One of those making the trip was British journalist John Scott, who left the following account of one of his countrymen.
Taking the Waters at Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa
May 29, 2020
“Taking the waters,” the practice of drinking and bathing in mineral springs to treat illness and promote health, was a popular habit in 19th-century America. Two of the most renowned resorts were Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa in upstate New York.
Humour in the 19th Century: 200-Year-Old Jokes
May 1, 2020
In addition to being dependent on personal taste, humour tends to be specific to culture, to place and to time. This makes it tricky to weave jokes into fiction set in the past, like Napoleon in America. What did people find funny 200 years ago? How well have those jokes held up over time? You be the judge of this humour from the early 19th century.
How to Deal with Boredom: Tips from the 19th Century
April 3, 2020
Are you stuck at home and wondering what to do? Here are some tips for dealing with boredom – or ennui, as it was commonly called – from the 1830s, when a cholera pandemic was raging around the world.
New Year’s Day in 19th-Century New York
December 27, 2019
Visiting friends and sharing food were features of New Year’s Day in early 19th-century America. James Stuart, a visitor from Scotland, described a New Year’s Day in New York in 1830.
A 19th-Century Spanish Christmas
December 13, 2019
In 1829, Caroline Cushing, a resident of Newburyport, Massachusetts, travelled to Europe with her husband Caleb Cushing, a lawyer and member of the Massachusetts Senate. While Caleb employed himself in studying the laws and institutions of the countries they visited, Caroline wrote a fascinating account of their journey through France and Spain. She provided the following description of Christmas in Madrid in 1829.
National Stereotypes in the Early 19th Century
November 29, 2019
If you think of a particular European nationality, what stereotype comes to mind? For one British writer in 1822, it was “the mercurial Frenchman, the ignorant and sluggish Spaniard, the profligate Italian, and, perhaps, the enthusiastic and imagination-led German.” Here are some of the national stereotypes found in the writings of early 19th-century travellers.
What did Napoleon think of women?
March 8, 2019
Although Napoleon Bonaparte respected his mother and put two of his sisters in charge of small territories, he believed that women were generally inferior to men. In Napoleon’s view, women were destined to play a domestic role, rather than a public one.
The Restaurateur: Dining in Paris in the Early 19th Century
February 22, 2019
A restaurateur is a person who owns or runs a restaurant. Dining options in France increased dramatically after the French Revolution, when unemployed cooks from aristocratic and royal households became restaurateurs.
Exercise for Women in the Early 19th Century
May 11, 2018
Women who wanted to keep fit in the early 19th century had to contend with the notion that they were too delicate for many forms of exercise. They also had to deal with clothing that constrained their physical movement. The following recommendations were aimed at women in the upper and middle classes of society. Women in the labouring class tended to get plenty of exercise just going about their work.
Spring Cleaning in the 19th Century
April 13, 2018
How do you feel about spring cleaning? 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.
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.’
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. “Delusions of grandeur” accounted for more than 25 percent of diagnoses of insanity in France in the 1830s. While there is only one identified case of a woman claiming to be Napoleon, many women claimed to be Napoleon’s wife.
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.
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.
Songs About Napoleon Bonaparte
January 19, 2018
More songs have been written about Napoleon Bonaparte than about any other military leader in history. Here’s a look at English popular songs about Napoleon.
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. New Year’s Day in Paris was “the most remarkable day in the whole year.”
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 this article.
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. Presents ranged from “a well-chosen book” to “elegant preparations for the toilet” to bread, bullocks, and coal.
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.”
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. 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.
Some 19th-Century Packing Tips
September 29, 2017
Do you make a packing list before a trip? Do you fold your clothes or just shove them in? Many 19th-century packing tips sound like those of today.
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 19th century? Journalist William Cobbett provides a hint in his advice to an Englishman on settling in New York in 1820.
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.
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? Pity the inhabitants of New York City in the summer of 1822.
How to Throw a Party in Regency London
June 16, 2017
When one imagines a party in London during the Regency era, 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. This was considerable, even if she did have servants to help her.
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.
Charades with the Duke of Wellington
January 27, 2017
Charades, which began in 18th-century France as a type of riddle, became a popular 19th-century parlour game. Sit in on a game played by the Duke of Wellington in 1821.
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.
Able was I ere I saw Elba: 19th-Century Palindromes & Anagrams
December 16, 2016
Napoleon Bonaparte did not say, “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” although this palindrome is often attributed to him. Anagrams were a more popular form of word play in the early 19th-century. Napoleon even made a pun or two.
Celebrating Thanksgiving in the 1800s
November 25, 2016
Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday in the United States until 1863. What began as a New England tradition gradually spread to other states, although not without resistance.
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.
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.
Celebrating with Light: Illuminations and Transparencies
October 14, 2016
Light displays were part of public celebrations in France since 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.
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. To further confuse things, actual sweets – candies, cakes, pastries, preserves – used to be called sweetmeats.
Some 19th-Century Money-Saving Tips
September 2, 2016
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?
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. Twenty Questions was introduced to Americans through British Prime Minister George Canning. Let’s sit in on a game he played in 1823.
Valentine’s Day in Early 19th-Century America
February 12, 2016
Here’s how St. Valentine’s Day was celebrated in the United States in the early 19th century, as gleaned from newspapers of the time.
Fanny Fern on Marriage in the 19th Century
November 20, 2015
Sara Payson Willis Parton, writing under the pen name of Fanny Fern, was the first female newspaper columnist in the United States and one of the most highly paid authors of her time. She satirized marriage and other aspects of life in the mid-19th century.
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.
Coiffure à la Titus
May 22, 2015
In an earlier post I looked at Napoleon in America character Barthélemy Bacheville, who was described in an 1816 police report 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?
We must confess that fate, which sports with man, makes merry work with the affairs of this world.