According to William Hone’s period tome, The Every Day Book, New Year’s Day in London was primarily celebrated with small social gatherings and the wearing of new clothes (out of a superstition that not doing so was unlucky—which Mr. Hone disparages). He also says, “The only open demonstration of joy in the metropolis, is the ringing of merry peals from the belfries of the numerous steeples, late on the eve of the new year, and until after the chimes of the clock have sounded its last hour.” I think I’d prefer that to fireworks.
Time for the Season! Or rather, past time or not yet time. The Season began earlier, in February or March, but the part we most often hear about—the young ladies’ debuts—came to depend on when Easter was, since that was what dictated the Parliament midsession break. All the best social events came after Easter. But for a young woman like the heroine of Project Duchess, the Season was a daunting prospect no matter when it occurred. A debutante had to have a respectable female sponsor (and if, like my heroine, she didn’t have a mother, that might be hard to find). The debutante had to wear these awful huge gowns that were only used for debuts. And there were many etiquette rules. For example, the gowns had to have trains, but after meeting the Queen, the hapless young lady had to back out of the room. Try doing that with a train!
Potatoes have long been a staple of both English and Irish cooking. Still, I was surprised to find a Victorian-era recipe for “Fried Potatoes (French fashion)” which is what I would consider potato chips. Check out Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (online at http://www.mrsbeeton.com). She talks about thin slices of potato fried in oil—if that’s not potato chips (or crisps, in British English), I don’t know what is. Mrs. Beeton was a Victorian lady who gathered household tips and recipes into the aforementioned book, which was published by her husband. I’d like to try the “Potato Snow” recipe. It sounds interesting (and far better than the real snow everyone has been experiencing).
You may not be aware, but it was considered unseemly for a Regency gentleman to write letters to a young lady or vice-versa. Communication was supposed to go through the parents. That didn’t stop ladies from checking the mail while Papa was preoccupied, of course, so papas were particularly careful on Valentine’s Day, which was when gentlemen (and rogues) sent valentines. Thus it was with some enjoyment that I read an old blog by Two Nerdy History Girls (authors Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott) about a father who intercepted a couple of “obscene” Valentines before they could horrify his daughters. I found the original letter to the editor concerning this event and was greatly amused. Today the equivalent would be dirty pics in Messenger. In my day it was obscene phone calls. Apparently, in the regency, “depraved” valentines contained what were probably the equivalent of bawdy limericks. But I still wish I knew exactly what was in those valentines, don’t you?
On Sabrina’s Dames and Dukes, I’ve been answering readers’ most pressing questions, and one that comes up time and again is about hygiene: How did women shave their legs and underarms? The answer is simple—they didn’t. Until the early twentieth century, having body hair was considered perfectly acceptable in Western cultures. Then sleeveless dresses with higher hemlines came along, and the fashion industry used that to preach that hairless equaled more beautiful . . . mostly so they could sell razors. We’re so used to shaving body hair now that we can’t imagine a woman having her underarm and leg hair intact, but in the Regency, no one thought twice about it! If you want to chat about fun Regency tidbits, join us on Sabrina’s Dames and Dukes.
In both The Secret of Flirting and The Risk of Rogues I mention that Hart sold his commission. In case you don’t know what that means, during the Georgian, Regency, and partway through the Victorian periods, the British army (but not the British navy, apparently) used a system by which gentleman could buy a commissioned officer rank, beginning at cornet or ensign, and then purchase commissions to rise in rank (up to the rank of colonel). These commissions weren’t cheap, by any means (go to this page about officer’s commissions to see the costs). A commission as a cornet cost 450 pounds in 1837, which is equivalent to 38,000 pounds now ($50,473.88). And you can well imagine how much it cost to become a major. So Hart, a younger son of a rich marquess, could easily go up the ranks to captain. That’s why you always hear about younger sons of rich men going into the military. Once they decided to retire, they could sell their commissions for the total amount of money they spent and have a nice nest egg. That’s what Hart did. It’s more complicated than I’m making it sound (some regiments, like the Royal Artillery, used merit for advancement, and there were other restrictions), but this is the system in a nutshell. Now you know why some of those officers were so young (and incompetent).
My heroine in The Risk of Rogues really loves big, elaborate hats. But I’ll tell you a little secret. She wasn’t that out of the norm for the times. In the 1830’s, the hats were outrageous! Some of these concoctions were three times the size of the wearers’ heads. Just go look at my Pinterest page for the novella if you don’t believe me. They’re replete with towering feathers, blossoming turbans that stick out like giant mushrooms atop their heads, and strange mixes of large hat brims atop tiaras with feathers sticking out all over. I think it just depended on who you were and how far you wanted to go. Honestly, Lady Anne would probably have been right in sync with some of society’s fashionistas!
The Risk of Rogues takes place partly on St. Valentine’s Day, which was celebrated even then. Before Christmas cards became a thing in the Regency, St. Valentine’s Day cards were exchanged with loved ones. These were usually handmade and decorated, although in 1815, companies started mass-producing Valentines. In the Victorian age, a class of cards called “mocking Valentines” (“vinegar valentines” in the U.S.) started to be produced. Essentially, they insulted the person who received them. Can you imagine getting one of those in the mail? Especially since, at this time, it was the receiving party who paid the postage. Talk about adding insult to injury! Anyway, you can see a variety of Valentines from the period on my Pinterest page.
April Fool’s Day (aka All Fools’ Day) goes back at least to the 17th century in England. In 1698, someone invited lots of people to go see a fictitious “washing of the white lions” at the Tower of London (where they used to keep the menagerie). It worked so well that some bright fellow in 1860 decided that the prank deserved a repeat and actually sent out invitations to the “washing of the white lions.” Several people showed up, only to find that there were no longer any lions at the Tower, much less any that needed washing.
Although the word “jigsaw” didn’t exist before the jig saw was invented in the late Victorian age, such puzzles did exist, cut out with marquetry saws. They were called “dissected maps.” Apparently, puzzles go back to the 1700’s, when they were primarily maps cut along the borders of the countries/counties, etc. You can see an example of two on my Pinterest page. I even saw them mentioned in a period account as a popular gift for loved ones on Valentine’s Day!