Although the U.S. has several New Year’s Day traditions, especially involving certain meals eaten for good luck, there was no such equivalent in most of Regency England. For that, we have to go farther north. While most of the English were engrossed in the countdown to Twelfth Night (on January 6th), those who lived up north joined the Scots in having big parties on Hogmanay. Hogmanay is New Year’s Eve and also spills over into New Year’s Day in its traditions. You may have heard of first-footers, who vied to be the first person to cross the threshold of a friend’s house in the New Year, and thus were bringers of good luck for the year. Gifts were carried in and distributed—salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, black bun (food and drink for the guests), and other items that might bring luck. But you probably don’t know about local customs—people bringing a decorated herring into the house (Dundee) or roaming the streets swinging fireballs (Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire) or baking special cakes (St. Andrews). I could go on, but suffice it to say, the Scots really knew how to celebrate the new year!
I learn something new every day. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before, but Regency era theaters were fully lit during the entirety of performances. There was no turning down of the lights, because the “house lights” were candles in sconces and chandeliers! Can you imagine lighting all those, and then blowing them all out, then lighting them again, etc.? It would take forever and be utterly impractical. As for the stage, they had foot lights, which were also candles but set in reflectors. Here’s a drawing I found of them on Pinterest. I collect tons of Regency era images on my various boards, so follow me on Pinterest so we can journey down the historical picture rabbit hole together!
Regency era women of the ton wore beads (glass, not plastic) all the time . . . but on their dresses and reticules and even shoes! There’s a lovely example of a Regency beaded gown here. Just imagine how much time it took to sew all those colored beads on, not to mention drawing out the design in the first place. Years ago, I made my own wedding dress and sewed tiny pearls on just portions of it, and it took hours of work for my simple decoration. This is far more complex. So I would imagine only the rich could afford such a gown.
You were probably unaware that the study in Armitage House in London (Sheridan’s townhouse) looks out on a courtyard with a garden Sheridan stares at when he needs solace. The English have enjoyed gardening (and gardens) for centuries, to the extent that some of their landscape gardeners became celebrities. Lancelot “Capability” Brown comes to mind, although it was his successor, Humphry Repton, who coined the term “landscape gardener.” They were known for “creating” charmingly informal vistas, where there were fake ruins (which exist at Armitage Hall in the country), manufactured ponds and lakes, structured slopes, and ha-ha’s (hidden ditches that prevented animals from grazing near the house, essentially), all of it intended to look utterly natural. The style was popular for a century or more. If you want to be impressed, look up Capability Brown and you’ll discover the sheer volume of parks and gardens he designed in his lifetime. It has its own category on Wikipedia!
My favorite part about doing research is stumbling over real stories of people. We tend to have misconceptions about the past: Everyone married only once and died young is a popular one. The last part in particular isn’t true, because the data used to determine life expectancy factors in all the many children who died of illnesses that we now vaccinate for—polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, etc. Here’s a case in point. The Duke of Leinster and his wife, one of the famous Lennox sisters, Emily, had 19 children. Of them, only 10 survived to adulthood. One died on the day of her birth although I couldn’t discover if she was stillborn. The last child was actually Emily’s illegitimate son by William Ogilvie, the tutor to her eldest son, although her duke husband claimed him. After her husband’s death, she married Ogilvie and had 3 more children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. She lived to the ripe old age of 82 and he died at 91. He was 18 years younger than she, but they lived happily together for 40 years. She must have been one amazing woman, and he must have been an amazing man. The woman bore 22 children in all. How incredible is that?
If you ride horses or deal with them regularly, you might already know the info in this tidbit (even so, you might find this more detailed article interesting. For the rest of you, here’s something you may not know. Horses were used in different capacities in the Regency. That’s why Sheridan considers raising money by selling some of his. A gentleman might have saddle horses for riding and carriage horses for pulling his carriage. A rich gentleman might also have Thoroughbreds for racing. Then, if their racing days are over, the owner might keep them for putting out to stud and charge stud fees. So Sheridan kept the moneymaking horses and (very sadly) sold some of the saddle horses.
Regency Valentines were much the same as ours, except that they were home-made, because commercially produced cards weren’t yet available. Well, that’s sort of true. The decorations could be your own, but as usual, not everyone could come up with a good verse for their Valentine. So you could get books to tell you what to write. My favorite is Hymen’s Rhapsodies, or Lover’s Themes. A collection of original Valentine Verses Written expressly for this Work, for Gentlemen to Address Ladies in Sonnets, Superior to Any Other. Phew! That’s a long title. But at least you knew what you were getting when you bought it. There was even a book that gave you verses for various trades! And the author of the book, the title page of which is pictured below? It’s “Love.” Yes, Love itself wrote the book. Anyway, if you’d like to see some Regency-era valentines, you can visit my Pinterest page for them. You might also be interested in my guide to making your own Regency valentines. Have fun! For more Regency tidbits, click here.
You may think I’m beginning a bit early to think about the Christmas meal, but I’m right on time according to British tradition. I’m writing this on the Thursday before Stir-up Sunday (this year on November 22nd), which is the day everyone in Regency England would have been “stirring up” their Christmas plum pudding. I’m sure plenty of you already know this, but British plum pudding is more like our U.S. fruitcake in its consistency and ingredients. What we call pudding is what the Brits would call custard or blancmange … but I digress. Stir-up Sunday always falls on the Sunday before Advent Sunday. There’s a complicated reason for why it’s called Stir-up Sunday, having to do with the Anglican liturgy, but the upshot of it is that plum pudding has to be prepared and cooked well in advance, and apparently it takes a lot of people to stir it up. (It sounds a bit like churning butter to me, and that’s hard.) After all, you need to have some strength left in your arm for hauling Yule logs and a Christmas tree!