Posts Tagged ‘Victoriana’

Bikes, Bars and Bloomers

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is about the first bold women to ride bicycles, in the late 1880s.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

Juicy stuff! It’s up now at the History Girls.

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Inventing tradition

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate it! Right now, I am frantically wrapping presents and mumbling nasty things about my to-do list, so here’s a re-post from December 2009, about Victorian Christmas inventions. Hope you enjoy it, and have a wonderful holiday!

Quick: name three Christmas symbols.

If you’re like me, the first things you picture are Christmas trees, a red-suited Santa Claus (or in England, Father Christmas) and the now-endangered paper Christmas card. Did you know that all three are, in many ways, Victorian inventions or mashups of older traditions? If we were transported back to England, 1840, we’d be celebrating without any of these icons!

Take, for example, Christmas trees – the visual centrepiece of English-speaking living rooms. But the Christmas tree is actually a German tradition made popular in 1840s England by the royal family, who were of German origin. (Queen Victoria’s first language was German and her husband, Prince Albert, moved to England on his marriage at age 20). Victoria and Albert loved celebrating Christmas, and it was their enthusiasm that made the tree (Tannenbaum) popular in England. Oh, and those first Christmas trees were small, potted affairs placed on a table with the gifts beneath – like so (image from the BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas):

Victoria & Albert's Christmas tree

Victoria & Albert’s Christmas tree

Santa Claus and Father Christmas are part of a tangled tradition, too. St Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop much admired for his generosity – far from an elf! We get “Santa Claus” from the Dutch name for St Nicholas. Santa’s red suit is a recent revision, too: until the 1880s, he generally wore a long, green cloak. The most popular images of Santa Claus in a red suit were done for a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1930s, and they’re what we think of now, automatically. Even so… any bets on how long that red suit will endure?

What else would Santa drink?

What else would Santa drink?

And oh, the Christmas card: all that paper is harder to justify each year, but e-cards are so soulless. Yet paper Christmas cards are themselves an invention of convenience – a commercial product without much tradition behind it apart from not wanting to write a long letter. Sir Henry Cole commissioned this next image in 1843 and used it to print the first commercial Christmas card. Note the lack of Christian imagery, here – it’s a family drinking wine together – and even the kids are imbibing:

Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

Henry Cole’s first commercial Christmas card

Although we tend to think of Christmas as something solid, something that all Christian-influenced cultures have always celebrated, our modern Christmas is pretty new indeed. I find the flexibility and brash (relative) newness of these traditions exciting. For me, it means that Christmas is for adapting, for inventing, for personalizing for my family. How about you? And if you celebrate another holiday – Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali – how have your traditions evolved?

Either way, I hope your holidays are splendid.

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Temples of Convenience

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Hello, friends. I have bodily functions on the brain this week. Let’s talk about public toilets, yay!

When Nick and I lived in Manchester, many years ago, one of our favourite after-work meeting spots was a pub called The Temple of Convenience. It was near my office, in the city centre. It was extremely cozy and atmospheric. It had good beer at reasonable prices. But the main reason I loved it so is because it was converted from a disused, underground, Victorian, public toilet. You entered by going down the stairs between spiky, wrought-iron railings. Here’s a picture:

I suppose, given my slightly obsessive interests in historical grit and the Victorian era, I was always going to love The Temple of Convenience. What’s also inevitable is that I’m very excited about Lee Jackson’s new book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, which will be published here next month (it’s already out in the UK).

To celebrate its publication, Jackson wrote a series of blog posts called 30 Days of Filth (har har). I recommend reading them all, of course, but today I’ve picked out a few public-toilet-related excerpts for your, um, delectation. For example, did you know that the creation of public toilets was hotly debated in the mid-nineteenth century? People seemed to agree that they were necessary – otherwise there was the “continual annoyance” of “disused doorways” being used as urinals. Yet the Victorians were NIMBYs, too. According to Jackson, “Whenever [officials] created a dedicated urinal – even the self-contained, rather decorative iron structures which became relatively common in the latter half of the century – they were bombarded with yet more complaints from local residents… It was not uncommon for urinals to be erected, then removed within a matter of months, thanks to public pressure.”

Also, let’s remember that these public conveniences were for men only, at first. Jackson says that for poor women “there were common privies in the slums – but these were often abominably foul… Admittedly, middle-class females had more choice. They might make use of the private closet of a tavern or shop – if the owner permitted. Many a trifling purchase was made simply to obtain discreet access to an establishment’s WC.” Things haven’t changed that much, have they? It’s easier these days – any Starbucks will do – but I’d bet that most of us in North America still depend more on private toilets than public ones, when we’re out. According to Jackson, after the Ladies Sanitary Association began campaigning for public women’s toilets in the 1870s, one health official acknowledged it was “a selfish inequality” to provide public facilities only for men. Another “denied that women were physically better able to exercise self-control – a popular myth. Rather, he claimed, they were simply more uncomplaining of discomfort.” Even so, it was only in 1889 that authorities built “London’s first municipal ‘public convenience’ for women“, underground, in Piccadilly Circus. Finally!

Maybe it’s time to resurrect the Ladies Sanitary Association for the twenty-first century. My first request: more cubicles per washroom, to reduce wait times. Who’s with me?

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Lock up your pies!

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Hello, friends. I know I said I’d blog this week about the editorial process. But that was before we popped into Barriefield Antiques and I encountered my first-ever pie safe. Yes, that’s right: a circa 1850 pie safe. It’s just what you think it is: a secure cupboard in which to store your wealth of cooling pies, away from flies and grubby fingers.

1850s pie safe

This one is made of maple. The patterned inset panels on the doors are made of tin, and they’re as rusty as the photo suggests. And in the photo below, you can see a pattern of rings showing where hot pies were set down, some 150 years ago.

pie safe interior

I had no intention of buying this myself, but it delighted me to know that pie safes were, at some point, a recognizable item of kitchen furniture. And when I thought about it, I realized that I’ve seen the pie safe in a variant form.

Wikipedia points out that pie safes are also called kitchen safes or meat safes. When I visited Malaysia and Singapore a few years ago, I saw a couple of period kitchens which included food safes. They were frequently used to store meat (between its morning purchase at the market and the cooking of the day’s main meal), with one extra refinement for the tropics: each leg stood in a wide dish of water, to discourage cockroaches and other vermin. I’ve also seen a photo of a food safe designed to hang from the ceiling – although one would still have to deal with insects descending from above.

In any case, the pie safe/food safe is a brilliant reminder of how hard people used to work to keep food edible. It makes me look at my fridge (a basic Sears model, not at all special) with new appreciation for what a sophisticated bit of technology it is.

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After the Ice Storm

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Hello, friends. We made it! The Ice Storm of 2013 is over and it wasn’t nearly as severe or debilitating as some of us expected. In my neighbourhood, we lost power four times over three days, but never for more than a few hours. Really, it was just enough to give us a taste of pre-electric life before we had to do anything hardcore like melt snow for bath water.

A few observations:

– I am so very grateful to live in a place with strong infrastructure. An ice-laden branch from a neighbour’s tree fell on a power line at 3am, and there was a team out there with a bucket truck just five hours later, fixing everything. On a Sunday morning. The next time I see some Utilities Kingston workers in a coffee shop, I’m going to buy them all drinks.

– I am also deeply grateful for excellent neighbours. An hour after the power went out, we had a call from a neighbour offering us shelter, food, and company. Later that evening, a pair of friends went door-to-door in our area, checking to make sure that everyone was okay and asking if there were any frail or elderly people who needed special help.

– Doing without electricity for a couple of hours at a time was an adventure! There were some logistical considerations (“Let’s try to cook tomorrow’s food before we lose power again.” and “Let’s bathe the children now, so if the power goes out we have enough daylight to finish the job.”) and creeping around with flashlights. I had a shower by candlelight!

– You can’t bend a beam of light. After my delightful shower, I was walking down the hall holding my candles, feeling very adequately lit, when I tripped on a fallen sweater. What I learned: when you hold candles above waist height, anything below knee level is lost in utter darkness. (My friend Violette Malan experienced the first ice storm, in 1997, and she learned this same lesson in the kitchen: on that first evening without power, she had a pile of candles and felt ready to make dinner, but she couldn’t see anything in the kitchen drawers. This, she says, is why old kitchens had open presses (shelves) for utensil storage.)

– Candlelight favours small rooms with low, white ceilings. I now understand why rooms in old houses are so often small: unless people were extravagantly wealthy, they could never have lit them adequately.

– Similarly, reading after dark was an activity for the affluent. Wax candles and books were both very expensive, and you need several candles to read comfortably.

– Much as I love (and am obsessed with) the Victorian era, I am firmly a creature of the present. I love hot water on demand, bright lights, and refrigerators. However, this tiny sample of pre-electric life has made me curious. At some point, I’d like to try an extended unplugged experience. Have any of you tried this?

– Finally, is there anything more beautiful than a world enveloped in a thick layer of ice? Here are some shots from our walk this morning.

Dead flowers on a bush in our garden.

Storm clouds over Lake Ontario, and some very cold-looking pigeons on the beach!

Our local waterfront path

How was your week? Did you get hit with heavy weather? Do tell me! And finally, if you’re celebrating it, Merry Christmas! I hope it’s warm and peaceful, wherever you are.

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 2

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Hello again, friends. Two weeks ago, I wrote about my recent tour of the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. It was an intense and memorable experience, and today I’d like to round it out with a few more photos and explanations. In my earlier post, I walked you through the main prison building and mentioned the native ceremonial grounds. Just past these grounds there is a second major building that was in daily use: the prison “shops”. This is the building in which inmates could work and learn.

There was a wood shop, a metal shop, and a furniture-maker – the clearest indication of the prison’s rehabilitative function. (It may seem hard to believe, but when Kingston Penitentiary was first built in the 1835, it was considered an enlightened and modern place.) Here, in the shops, inmates could learn skills that might change their futures.

Inmates who held jobs earned a small amount of money – according to our tour guide, David Stewart (pictured), the inmate wage topped out at $6 per day and was reduced in recent years, due to budget cuts. Inmates could spend their earnings at the canteen (which sold snacks and cigarettes). Prisoners who applied for extended visits with their families were also permitted to buy and cook their own food in the family units, using money earned in the shops.

Here’s an image of the metal shop, with its beautiful Victorian brick-arched ceilings.

It’s an interesting level of trust, to have a sole teacher working with a group of inmates using heavy machinery. According to someone who worked as a prison teacher, the consensus was that it was fairly safe: the teacher was seen as an ally, or at least a bystander. If any violence occurred, it was much more likely to be between inmates.

Up on the second floor, there was also a school. You can see the small sign below. Some of the inmates would have been working towards their high school diplomas or possibly university degrees, but many lacked even elementary reading and math skills.

After the cool gloom of “the shops”, Dave led us back outside. The prison grounds house a hospital with a permanent psychiatric ward, and there is also a gym. We didn’t see either of these but we got a strangely beautiful sight of the outdoor exercise area.

It’s hard for me to judge how large this space is – maybe three football fields put together? Dave said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common to have three hundred inmates in the yard, and two unarmed guards locked inside with them. There would also have been guards with rifles posted at two or three lookout points over the yard, but even so, it’s a daunting thought.

This next image is a closer shot of the guard tower. The entrance you can see is the old one; it was filled in some time ago and you now access the guard tower from outside the prison walls. If you’re a Kingstonian, these guard towers are iconic. Along with the front door, they are the only parts of the prison you can see from the outside.

As our tour neared its conclusion, we walked along the west wall towards the entrance. Again, I was struggling to capture the scale of the place but I remembered that there have been escapes from this penitentiary in which inmates have managed to climb the walls. Here’s what the climb would have looked like, over the west wall.

The final brief sight on our tour was of this neatly landscaped limestone building. It now houses the prison’s administration. Can you guess its previous function?

This was the Female Department: Canada’s first prison for women. I’m not sure exactly when it was built, but I believe that originally, female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the men’s prison. They were allowed to bring their children with them. The Female Department was used to hold prisoners until 1934, when the Prison for Women was built nearby.

At this point in the tour, we asked Dave how he’d managed to work in Corrections for thirty-two years. His answer was both encouraging and admirable: he said that the most important thing was to remember that each inmate was a person, and wanted to be treated as such. He emphasized the importance of always being watchful, because prisons are always potentially dangerous. He also said he’d been lucky because he had missed the 1971 riot at the Pen, when prisoners seized control of the building for four days, killed two inmates, and took a number of guards hostage. However, Dave finally said that he tried always to speak to inmates with respect, and to do what he said he would do, and he felt a similar respect from them in turn. I really admired his approach.

I know this is a lot of material to contemplate. But before I go, I want to leave you with a link to this CBC documentary about Kingston Pen, Tales from KP. It’s quite melodramatic but it offers a number of interesting insights into the prison. And it mentions that Charles Dickens toured the Pen in 1842! Dickens called it “an admirable gaol… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” Despite the suffering and injustices that must have taken place within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary, it is good to know that it was born of generous and progressive intentions.

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Mythological maidens

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Hello, friends. We were in Ottawa this past weekend and I spent several minutes staring, transfixed, at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill. I had cleverly neglected to bring a working camera with me, so this image is ripped, with apologies, from the Public Works and Government Services of Canada website.

statue of Sir John A Macdonald by Louis-Philippe Hébert

I’m interested, specifically, in the slightly-larger-than-life-sized sculpture that adorns the pedestal: the regal-looking woman seated with a spear. There’s a much clearer image of her here, if you’re willing to click through. Or you can just take my word for everything I’m going to say.

I didn’t know who she was, at first: some generic Greek-mythological nymph, I thought. There’s quite a tradition of placing decorative female figures (which I’ll call FFs, from now on) below statues of male politicians. I had read somewhere, years before, that the FFs embodied aspects of the politician’s best-known leadership qualities. Well. If that is indeed the case, Macdonald (or “John A”, as he’s familiarly known in Kingston) was primarily celebrated for an imperious gaze, carelessly worn togas, and very large breasts.

The most striking thing about this statue (the woman is more than an embellishment; she’s a statue in her own right, and much more prominent than Macdonald himself, if you’re standing at ground level) is how extremely young, firm-bodied, and nearly undressed she is. She’s bare-armed, the thin fabric of her toga leaving nothing to the imagination. And she’s wearing very minimal sandals, so that her feet are essentially bare. This is an extraordinary state of public undress for 1895, the year of the statue’s creation by Louis-Philippe Hébert, and a year when respectable women dressed like this.

I suppose that’s the point: the FF is not meant to be a respectable woman, or any kind of real human being at all. She’s a decorative element, the spirit of a person or nation or movement personified. (This one is sometimes referred to as the Personification of Canada.) But it’s another startling reminder of just how casually the female body could be used, even in 1895. It’s also part of a long artistic tradition of male sculptors and painters evading the standards of the day by using “historical” costume to undress female bodies for visual pleasure.

I’ve been wondering how viewers in late-nineteenth century Ottawa responded to the FF. Did adolescent boys flock to view her, to their parents’ consternation? Did MPs pause before it for a few moments’ distraction, during a break in the House of Commons? Or was it simply another semi-nude figure scattered across Ottawa’s terrain? I would dearly love to know.

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How to mount a penny-farthing

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Hello, friends. I’m up against a deadline (Canada Arts Council grant application – my first!), so here’s a fun little instructional on how to mount a penny-farthing bicycle. Bicycles became extremely popular in the 1880s and 1890s and I enjoy thinking about Mary Quinn trying one out, in later life.

As you’ll see, the early designs were for athletic men only; sadly, there’s no chance of riding one of those in a crinoline! So it’s fitting that this video was produced by a group of people at the Mountain Equipment Co-op, in what looks like Vancouver (Yaletown, possibly?).

Now you know exactly what to do the next time you see a penny-farthing for sale on Craigslist.

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Fatberg!

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Hello, friends! Did you hear about the “fatberg”? It was a 15-ton conglomeration of solid fat found in a London sewer. (This NPR blog post has a photo. If you’re the queasy type, don’t click; just take my word for it.) This thing was 15 tons of congealed fat mixed with disposable wipes. Sewage workers spent 3 weeks hacking it into chunks which were then taken away in “heavy-duty lorries”. They said, “If we hadn’t discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston [in suburban London].” Workers are now busy repairing the damage done by the fatberg to the sewer.

You’ve probably noticed my fascination with sewers and the grotty details of urban life. And naturally, the first thing I thought when I heard this was, “Well. This would never have happened in Victorian London.” And it has nothing to do with population growth or advances in kitchen plumbing. Or the fact that baby wipes hadn’t yet been invented.

The first thing is that solid fat was an important resource in the nineteenth century. It was part of English cuisine (beef dripping or bacon fat spread on bread; lard in pastries; fats from all animals cooked into meals) and, if you were poor, an essential source of calories and nutrients. Fat also had commercial value: you could render it down and use it to make soap. If you had an excess of fat, you could sell it around the neighbourhood, or to the scrapman who came to your door. Indeed, fat was relatively expensive: there’s a traditional treat called lardycake, a sort of brioche made with lard and currants. It’s a festive food, associated with special occasions, and part of that is because of the extravagance of kneading sugar, dried fruit, and lard into a bread dough. But I digress. My point is that because of fat’s many uses and significant value, no one would deliberately pour it down the drain.

Even so, a small amount of fat must have found its way into the sewers (greasy dishwater, spills). We know this because in 1862, a journalist named John Hollingshead explored the sewers and and noticed “icicles” of fat clinging to the sewer roof. But remember! At this time, sewers drain straight back into the Thames. And this is where the mudlarks came in handy: poor Londoners, often children, who scavenged through rubbish on the riverbanks. They collected whatever refuse could possibly be recycled or re-used. Any clots of fat they spotted bobbing on the water would have been harvested and sold, too.

We had to wait until the early twenty-first century, and our prodigality with (and simultaneous terror of consuming) solid fats, and our domestic laziness in flushing everything down the toilet, before we could experience the Fatberg. Not really much of an advance, is it?

P. S. You probably don’t need to be told this now but please don’t pour cooking fat down the sink, especially the stuff from your festive turkey or your weekend bacon. Please don’t flush disposable wipes or maxi pads down the toilet. Don’t put hair in the toilet, either. All these things will only come back to get you in the monstrous form of the Fatberg.

P. P. S. Thanks to my friend Sean Burgess, who first alerted me to the Fatberg.

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Viva the Victorians

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Hello, friends! When I last posted, I had just arrived in England and was feeling both stunned (about finishing Rivals in the City) and exhausted (by finishing Rivals in the City). But this week, I’m mostly full of glee. If you’ll permit me, I’m going to defer my post on the long-drawn-out writing of Rivals and talk a bit about what I’ve been doing, instead.

I’m on holiday! In northern England! During a heat wave! It’s been gloriously sunny and warm for 3 days in a row, which is outrageous by local standards. I had fish and chips for dinner last night. The news is almost entirely about Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory. And today, we went to a museum that made me shiver with excitement: the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

One of the reasons I love Manchester is because it’s such a Victorian city. Yes, it was founded some 2000 years ago by the Romans, and there are the ancient ruins to prove it. But its period of massive, intensive growth came during the Industrial Revolution. When you walk around the city today, most of the evidence of your eyes is solid, red-brick, Gothic-nostalgic, science-and-engineering driven proof of Manchester’s own belle époque.

Let me hastily acknowledge: much of the social and human history of that belle époque was entirely the reverse of beautiful. But feast your eyes on this!

This is just a small number of the many engines collected in one of the Museum’s several vast buildings. Entirely appropriately, the Museum is located in a former industrial district. It features an historic train station. An 1830 red-brick warehouse. An entire building devoted to airplanes and bicycles. Another dedicated to trains. Underground exhibits about gas and waterworks. And a gruesome recreation of an impoverished man dying, painfully, during the 1830 cholera epidemic. Among other things.

It also has a number of exhibits still being developed. Behind one of the fenced-off areas, I found this first-class carriage from the old Liverpool and Manchester Railway. It’s tiny and lovingly polished, and if you peer inside, you can see six very comfortable-looking plush upholstered seats per compartment:

Now, turn your attention to the next carriage: a second-class car on the same railway, from the same period.

It must have been bitterly cold for most of the year. And look at those bent metal rods, presumably for safety!

I love these hard and shallow wooden benches. They weren’t the least bit subtle about the class difference, were they? And this is an updated version. The second-class carriages didn’t have any overhead shelter, initially, and the third-class carriages remained what were called “open trucks”.

Midway through our visit, I was amused to realize that I was dragging my family around the Museum, exclaiming with delight, agonizing over which exhibits we’d have to miss (entire buildings’ worth!), and what else might be lurking around the corner. We’d originally gone for nostalgic reasons (my husband went as a child) and because we thought the children would enjoy all the vehicles.

But I’m going to have to return for me alone: I may have just finished writing my last Mary Quinn novel, but my obsession with Victorian England shows no sign of abatement.

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