Posts Tagged ‘Victoriana’

Past lives

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

A few days ago, I opened a box and one of my past lives fell out. Specifically, I found the papers related to my comprehensive exams, way back in the second year of my Ph.D. Without question, the seven months I spent studying for the comps was the most stressful period of my life. And long after it was over, some of those papers held an eerie, residual power over me. They were like voodoo dolls of a former self.

Weird, super-nerdy voodoo dolls, I freely admit. In the year 2000, if my apartment had suddenly gone up in flames, THIS is what I would have risked everything to save. Check it out:

Handwritten notes on every poem/novel/essay on my reading list…

comps notes

And more…


(These go on for hundreds of pages. I’ll spare you the rest.)

I even saved basic administrative memos as though they were essential legal documents.

comps instructions

And in a sense, they were. For seven precarious months at the start of my academic career, they represented everything that was official and certain. Certainties are a rare luxury in the humanities and I felt deeply superstitious about throwing these out.

As for the comps, I’ve never worked so hard or so long at something for which there was no feedback, no further steps, no discussion. After I got my exam results, that was… it. End of story. Yet the trauma around the comps haunted me for years. I even blogged about it a few years ago, and the horror was fresh and vivid at the time.

When the comps jack-in-the-boxed out at me this week, however, I felt… mildly amused.

I sifted the papers. I flicked through my painstaking notes. (I disagreed with my assessments, at some points. At others, I found my past self quite insightful.) And here’s the best part: I recycled all the administrative stuff, the stern injunctions to self (Check dates v. v. carefully! ESP. CENTURY!), the practice exams, the elaborate table I made that cross-referenced critical themes in canonical works. All that stuff? Gone.

For some reason, the comps wound has finally healed. I’m keeping my handwritten notes because they tickle me, and because I feel a distinct nostalgia for the hundreds of hours of work they represent. But they’re no longer a sinister talisman to ward off failure and ignominy and an uncertain future. And maybe that’s the point.

Fifteen years on, I’m an entirely different person. I’m happily, confidently working outside academia. I know who I am, and I like who I am.

That other, anxious, frantic Ying? I’ll keep her notes because I like her company. But I don’t need her baggage.

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Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Hello, friends! I am not presently in North Wales, but our holiday was too lovely not to share with you. This week’s photos are from the Victorian seaside town of Llandudno.

We took an Edwardian tram car up the very steep side of a cliff called the Great Orme (Pen y Gogarth, in Welsh). Here’s the view from the midpoint:


And from the top of the Great Orme:


And then we descended to the seaside, which features one of the longest seaside piers in the UK (not pictured, sadly, as my phone was acting up). But here’s the beach, where bold and overfed seagulls snatch ice creams from the hands of children. (True story.)


Halfway through our ice creams, I was distracted by an extraordinary, piercing, squawking voice. I turned around and saw my first-ever, real-life, Punch & Judy show.


Obviously, I couldn’t just watch the show and move on; I was burning to find out more about this Victorian seaside tradition. As a result, the rest of this week’s post is over at the History Girls and it features, among others, diarist Samuel Pepys, Victorian artist George Cruikshank, and the notorious hangman, Jack Ketch.

Here’s Mr. Punch with Jack Ketch:


“That’s the way to do it!”

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A History of Violence

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

A couple of months ago at the launch party for Rivals in the City, I read aloud a scene that takes place in front of Newgate Prison. The year is 1860. A wooden scaffold has been built outside the prison gates, as it was before each public execution. The hangman, William Calcraft, is testing the gallows and trapdoor to ensure that they work. And the crowd is eagerly, boisterously, anticipating the day’s entertainment. All this is historically attested.

The public face of Victorian executions, William Calcraft (c. 1870). Image via wikipedia.

The public face of Victorian executions, William Calcraft (c. 1870). Image via wikipedia.

In the scene, I add a detail featuring ragged children “playing Calcraft”: taking turns pretending to be executioner and condemned. I invented this game, and have never formally researched “macabre children’s games, past and present” (although now that I’ve typed that phrase, it sounds like a fascinating topic). But the idea of the game rings true for me. Games of the imagination are how children process the world around them, and how they imbibe their culture. In my novel, the game of “Calcraft” has several functions: it’s a means of including children in the Victorian streetscape; a way of shifting and blending perspectives of the execution-day milieu; and, of course, a comment on the idea of a public execution in general.

Newgate Prison, mid-nineteenth century. Image via wikipedia.

Newgate Prison, mid-nineteenth century. Image via wikipedia.

After I’d read this scene aloud, one of my listeners expressed concern about the scene. Was it, he asked, appropriate to explore violence and death in a book that was written for children? Didn’t it glamorize violence and death, to see it represented in fiction? He was talking about the contemporary young adults to whom my book is marketed, but I wonder if the presence of children in the Newgate scene is what triggered his very real anxiety. It was an earnest question and I attempted to answer it with the seriousness it deserved. The party was hectic, though, and I compressed my response into a couple of brief points. Now, I think it’s time to answer the question more fully.

So is it, in fact, appropriate to explore death and violence in children’s literature? My first instinct at the party was to cite historical realism. During the Victorian era, people were much more pragmatic about death and suffering. Infant mortality was much higher than it is now; adult life expectancy was shorter. A death in the household also meant a corpse laid out in the parlour or spare bedroom. And in many cases, the women of the family washed and dressed that corpse themselves. The Victorians were less squeamish about death in general. People didn’t spay or neuter their pets; they simply drowned the unwanted litters. In Wuthering Heights, Hareton Earnshaw famously “hang[s] a litter of puppies from the chair-back in the doorway”. The shocking part of the scene is not the puppies’ deaths, but the fact that their suffering is a form of entertainment for Hareton. But remember: in Emily Brontë’s vision, even Hareton Earnshaw, Animal Sadist, is redeemable. With Cathy Linton’s love and support, it becomes possible to imagine a somewhat happy ending for Wuthering Heights.

Still, the defense of historical realism only takes us so far. After all, history contains an endless amount of truly gruesome detail. How do we decide which of those bits belong in historical fiction for young people? Let’s go back to human developmental principles. Children learn about death in bits and fragments, starting in toddlerhood. By the time they are eight years old, they are “consistent in showing adult ideas of death”. So the idea of death – with variations according to age and circumstance – is a normal part of children’s understanding. I’d go a step further, here: if a novel like Rivals in the City deliberately downplays the existence of death, it’s insulting the intelligence of its readers.

Knowing this, perhaps we can agree to acknowledge historically realistic deaths. But what about violence, and the much-feared “glamorization” of violence? Once again, let’s think about real, present-day children. Children understand violence because they are human beings. They negotiate conflict from toddlerhood. They can act violently towards others. They hear about violence on the news. They see instances of injustice all around them. The real question here is, What do they do with all this experience and all this unformed knowledge?

At this point, we must return to the specific scene or image that prompts the question. Is it an image or description of violence on the news, presented without context or consequence? I imagine that would be haunting, confusing, and possibly traumatic. Is it a video game, in which the hero-player is rewarded for acts of violence? In that case, I see how that trivializes the gravity of violent acts. In my novel, however, the threat of violence is mediated by a heroine, Mary Quinn. She is a former victim of violence who understands its impact. She has strong feelings about the uses and abuses of power. She offers readers a thoughtful perspective on the violence of her culture, and how to resist it.

If anything, I’d argue that this kind of ethically grounded violence is essential to children’s literature, and to the project of learning about the world and about oneself. I’m proud to be part of a long tradition of children’s authors who imagine the world as fully as possible, as humanly as possible, as respectfully as possible.

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We are still the Victorians

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. Today is Earth Day – a useful time to reflect upon what our environment is like, what might happen to our world in the future, and how things used to be. As you know, I think we’re a lot more like the Victorians than we’d prefer to believe. It’s so comforting to view them as boring, prudish, ignorant dinosaurs. It’s so flattering to congratulate ourselves upon how much we’ve changed and how modern we are. But I’m here, once again, to argue that we are much more like the Victorians than we might think.


I’ve written in the past about the Great Stink of 1858, which I chose as the backdrop for A Spy in the House. It’s satisfyingly revolting to think about it – all that sewage and waste in the Thames! – and I, like most people, am really glad we don’t live that way anymore. But the Great Stink of 1858 was also a major turning point. That summer, the citizens of London learned that they couldn’t expect the river to absorb all their waste and pollution. They were forced to build modern sewers, to reconsider the amount of waste produced by factories and, above all, to change their ways. Sound familiar? As we confront our own ongoing environmental crises – oil spills, climate change, flame retardants in our water and soil – we’d do well to address our problems as directly and effectively as Londoners have done, over the last 150 years. After all there are, once again, fish swimming in the Thames.

It’s also tempting to refer to “the Victorians” as a huge, undifferentiated group. (I do it all the time here on the blog, for the sake of convenience.) But we should remember that there were Victorian environmentalists, as well. They were outnumbered by industralists, of course, much as they are now. Still, here is the future poet A. E. Housman describing a lecture he attended in 1877, as an undergraduate at Oxford. The lecturer was the art critic John Ruskin:

This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner‘s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, “You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is like now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.” Then he caught up a paintbrush. “These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-tiful iron bridge.” Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. “The colour of the stream is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.” Forthwith one side of the stream became indigo. “On the other side by the soap factory.” Soap dashed in. “They mix in the middle — like curds,” he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. “This field, over which you see the sun setting behind the abbey, is not occupied in a proper manner.” Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. “The atmosphere is supplied — thus!” A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilisation amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches. (quotation from Norman Page’s A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography, via the Victorian Web)

Despite Housman’s dismissive tone (“a great outburst against modern times”), he does suggest that, in 1877, Ruskin had caught the prevailing mood. The undergraduates “crowding” his highly emotional lectures are not so different from the curious, critical-thinking young people of 2015 wondering what their contribution to the world will be.

And, as this cartoon shows, Victorians got it: London was filthy.

Despite the clean-up of the past 150 years, it still is. Today, if you walk past Coram’s Fields, you can see sheep living in the heart of Bloomsbury and they are, indeed, quite dingy with accumulated soot. As we think about Earth Day and what lies ahead, let’s do so knowing what changes are possible, how much change is yet to come, and how close we are to our Victorian roots.

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The Victorian tattoo

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Hello, friends. Today is April Fool’s Day and I feel a certain amount of not-so-subtle cultural pressure to write a gag post. I believe I ought to document a Shocking Truth about the Victorians, or similar, which I later reveal as – surprise! – a prank. Joke’s on you, sssssuckers.

However, I’ve always felt a strange resentment of April Fool’s jokes and, for that matter, practical jokes in general. (Practical jokes rely on a few people being insiders, and laughing, while others are outsiders, and laughed at.) Also, our images and preconceptions about the Victorians are crude and hazy enough that I don’t think we need to cloud the atmosphere any further. So today, I’m going to write about something that sounds like it should be an April Fool’s Day gag, but isn’t. I’m going to write about Victorian tattoos.

In Rivals in the City, James jokes about body art: “‘Perhaps I’ll have your name tattooed on my arm so there’s no doubt as to whom I belong’, he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow and resuming their steady walking pace. ‘What would you say to your initials in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?'” I loved being able to include this moment of dialogue because it’s such a familiar cultural motif for us now. It’s another way of bringing the Victorians closer to us, one of the projects at the heart of my fiction. But it’s also rooted in a fairly well-documented tradition.

There are brief mentions of tattoos in Victorian literature. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sybil Vane’s brother, James, is identifiable as a sailor because of his tattoos. I believe Sherlock Holmes notices and assigns tattoos the same kind of cultural value. According to wikipedia, it was during Captain James Cook’s voyages to Polynesia from the 1760s to the 1780s that the idea of tattoo (from the Tahition word, tatau) was introduced into English culture.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.58.43 PM

Apparently, the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, a member of Cook’s expedition, came back to England with a tattoo. (portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1773)

By the mid-nineteenth century, tattoos were firmly established as the domain of seamen and soldiers – working-class Englishmen who had travelled widely and come into direct contact with tattoo culture.

Tattoos, however, were about to make an interesting social transition. In 1862, when the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) toured the Middle East, he acquired a tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross.

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The Prince of Wales in Constantinople at the end of his Grand Tour (1862). Somewhere on his body, there is a fresh tattoo. (image via the Royal Collection)

By 1870, the trend had spread not only amongst the English aristocracy, but into the courts of Russia, Germany and Spain. And beginning in the 1880s, upper-class women also began to sport discreet tattoos. One of the most celebrated was Lady Randolph Churchill, who had a “dainty” and “elaborate” tattoo of a serpent entwining her left wrist.

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Lady Randolph Churchill, with her signature bracelet. (image via NYPL)

She frequently covered it with bracelets, but it was described in the New York Times in 1906. Tattoos were fashionable enough that Country Life magazine featured them in an article dated 27 January, 1900 – as if to kick off the new century. As you might expect from Country Life, it described “one of the most popular Masters of Foxhounds in England” who had “tally-ho!” tattooed on his forearm along with a fox’s head and brush and a hunting crop.

Like all fashion trends, however, tattoos were fairly swiftly brought down by mass imitation.

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Nora Hildebrandt claimed that she was forced by Indians to receive hundreds of tattoos. The truth was more mundane: her father was a tattoo artist. (image via the Human Marvels)

Once performers like Nora Hildebrandt began displaying her hundreds of tattoos for the horror and delectation of the masses (she travelled as part of P. T. Barnum’s American circus), aristocrats promptly lost interest in tattoo art.

I haven’t. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a tattoo, yet never been able to choose a single motif or image that I’d want to wear on my body forever. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading. May I suggest Margot Mifflin’s Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo? To start you off, there are some amazing images pulled from Mifflin’s book right here.

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Author Math

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. The Agency novels are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed England and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the steam-powered Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my books takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city.

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

Timing the final action

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 2.41.39 PMI assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour – a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

– 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

– 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

– 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeThis left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period of time my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?

(This post was also published yesterday at The History Girls.)

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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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