Archive for the ‘19th century’ Category

Drinking from saucers

Looking for something else, I happened upon these pictures:


By Boris Kustodiev. Found here.


By Konstantin Makovsky. Found here.

From Ingalls-Wilder’s Farmer Boy we know tea was poured from the cup in the saucer, and then drank from the saucer. This was generally done by older people, while younger people thought it was bad form or old-fashioned to drink from the saucer. Research online seems to show most drinking-from-saucers took place in Scandinavia en Russia, and that the habit was probably taken to America by European immigrants.

I wonder though, how this habit came about? It seems the tea cools faster when drank from a saucer, which is understandable for busy farmers but it seems strange that mostly people from really cold countries (Northern Europe and Russia) would like their tea to cool fast. I cannot really find an origin or reason for the drinking from saucers, except that it was just a habit. Any thoughts?


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I use Grammarly for proofreading because I’m certain Victorian journalists would have used it, too, if they’d just had laptops and internet!

A question many visitors ask me on this blog is about the daily life in the 19th century. Not about the big historical happenings or affairs, those are usually fairly well-known. It’s mostly the smaller details: what people ate, what they thought about, what they did in the evenings since they didn’t have TV, that spark people’s interest.

A very good source to get a glimpse of Victorian life are children’s books. While most adult novels assume the reader knows how things in life works, and spends his words instead on greater themes like life, love and death, children’s books are slower-paced and take the time to really explain daily life to you.

The 19th century was a period in which children’s literature as a genre grew and developed at an amazing pace. The urban middle classes were expanding at a high rate. This meant there was more money to buy books, more leisure time to read books, and more children who had had enough education to be able to read for pleasure. In the 18th century and prior to that, there had been some texts especially for children. These were usually religious tracts or educational booklets. In the 19th century, many other genres of literature were developed. There was something for everyone: adventure books, schoolbooks, fairy tales and fantasy novels. But the books that are most valuable if you want to learn about life in the Victorian era, are the girl’s novels with a focus on domestic life.

These books were written partially to entertain, and partially to shape the minds of young girls and prepare them for a life of domesticity. By reading about exemplary good girls, who were happy, patient and caring, it was hoped that this spirit was distilled in little girls also. Showing girls who overcame their flaws (like impatience or vanity) or poor girls who ended up well by being sweet and good, these books meant to inspire young girls to be a valuable part of society.

By their very nature, some of these books might be a little flavorless. However, I compiled a small list of books that are not terribly exciting, yet sweet and comforting and very educating on the daily life of the 19th century. Download them onto your ereader and read some whenever you feel you need a bit of calm, and I promise you, you will get not just a great glimpse of Victorian life but really start to understand the minds and world views of those who lived in the 19th century.

Cornelia de Groot: When I was a girl in Holland (1917)

I’ve written about this book before and it’s still one of the best finds as a first-hand historical source. This book tells of a young girl growing up on a farm in a small town in the Netherlands, around 1880. The book was part of an American series about children all around the world, and therefore makes a point to really explain very clearly how things were done in the 1880s. The writer and protagonist grew up as a fairly rich farmer’s daughter in a small town in Friesland, The Netherlands. Even though the book relates many things that are country-specific (for example the national holidays or certain habits), there’s a lot of general information about daily life. The book is incredible detailed, telling you what they ate, how they traveled, how animals were kept (cow’s tails were washed weekly, just because it’s nice to have clean cows!), how the school was organized, and what it’s like being a smart and ambitious girl in a small town.

At the end of the book the writer fearlessly travels to America by steamer, and tells of the amazing things she sees. The book is at times fairly stiff because of the many descriptions, but at times really moving and personal. Most of all, it’s one of the clearest accounts of 19th century daily life.

You can read When I was a Girl in Holland here.

 Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farmer Boy (1933)

This book is part of the Little House series. While the other books in the series focus on the life of pioneers on the prairie, this book recalls the daily life of a farmer in the 1860 in Malone, NY. It gives a lot of great information on the amount of work that was done and how it was done, from sowing the seeds and hoeing the weeds to spinning and weaving cloth to make clothes. It’s very amusing to read about how much the young protagonist likes store-bought items (they were much fancier than handmade ones) and how the American national holidays were celebrated. It also shows you a good deal about the morals and kind of upbringing many young boys got (and let me tell you, it’s different from today’s!)

This book is incredibly centered on food, so if you’re ever in doubt about what 19th century American families ate, just have a read! A summary for you: lots and lots of pies, mostly apple pie and rhubarb pie, lots of mashed potatoes and mashed turnips, big roasts of meat and chicken, preserves and jams. The books even describes how icecream and candy was made, and it’s described so clearly that you can try it out yourself.

Did you know? In the 19th century, rhubarb was sometimes referred to as “pie plant”. Also, vinegar pies were baked when there were no lemons to make lemon pie. Yuck!

You can read the book online here.

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women (1868-67)

Joy Kasson wrote that “Alcott chronicled the coming of age of young girls, their struggles with issues such as selfishness and generosity, the nature of individual integrity, and, above all, the question of their place in the world around them.” Young and adolescent girls could find in this book examples of strong, brave and ambitious women.

Many people know the novel Little Women, most because they saw the movie. But did you know there were actually four novels in this series? If you want to learn about the role of women in Victorian society and about stereotypes, docility and feminine behavior, these books are a great way to start. These books feature four women who all navigate life quite differently. It’s a very interesting read, showing you a lot about the role of women in society and the way women dealt with their lot.  The latter books, especially the third and fourth, are not as strong on storyline or as interesting as the first book, but they’re still a pretty good read. Also in book 3, you’ll get some great tips on baking! Did you know soured milk was used to make cakes rise when there was not enough baking powder around?

The books are called Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. You can read them and all other novels by Alcott here.

 Louisa May Alcott: An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869)

Another one of Louisa May Alcott, this book is much lesser known. I’ve quoted from it on my blog, mostly because I was very surprised to find some info on make-up use by Victorian women. This is not something you’ll find in textbooks or formal history books, only literature will reveal such small but significant details. There are two books in this series, centering around the girl Polly. The books are sweet and charming though somewhat moral, and will give you a great look in the mind of people from the 19th century. Especially nice I found the passage where a grandmother tells stories from her youth. No dates are mentioned but you might assume the stories take place in the early 18th century or even late 18th century. To hear what girls did for fun in those times is truly something special.

An Old-Fashioned Girl can be read here.

(As you can see this post was sponsored by Grammarly, which I found to be an excellent and very convenient tool. Do check it out, if you do a lot of writing. It doesn’t just check grammar but also punctuation, context and even checks for plagiarism, which I know will be helpful for a lot of college students!)

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Jean de Büren, a long time friend of this blog, wrote a book about his ancestor Henri de Büren. Here’s a short summary:


Blending adventure and social commentary, the journals and letters of Henri de Büren, a young Swiss nobleman, detail his grand tour from his family castle overlooking Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to the still youthful Americas of the 1850s. His voyage—on foot, horseback, and by boat—would take him through the Eastern United States, the waters of the Caribbean, the vast expanses of Mexico and the stunning lakes and mountain ranges of South America. Henri would not return home for two years.

Henri’s first-hand accounts of his travels in the New World reflect his observations on a variety of subjects: the grandeur of nature (made both from the vantage point of an artist and avid botanist); racial injustice and social inequality; his meetings with noted Swiss scientists such as Louis Agassiz; and his colorful encounters with European emigrants and wily government officials.

Henri’s journals and letters to his family, seeing the light of day for the first time in over 150 years, will fascinate readers who value wit, history, and the broadening qualities of travel. His thoughts and observations on the 19th century open a larger window into the past, one that shows at times how far we have come and at others how far we still have to go.
19th century travel journals and first-hand descriptions are incredibly popular right now, and with good reason. To really step in the mind of a person and see the world through their eyes really helps you understand and interpret history.


Jean is giving away 5 Ipad copies! That’s great news, right? A free book is always a good thing in my world. Simply leave a comment on this post, you can just state that you’re entering the contest or make it more fun and let me know if your ancestors were travelers as well! I’ll pick 5 winners and you’ll receive an Ipad copy of the book.

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ImageRecently I received the book The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne, the book I posted a trailer from earlier. If you read through this blog you will notice a lot of Austen-related subjects. It’s true, I’m a big Austen fan. I read all the books, multiple times. And then the annotated copies. So I was glad to read this book. Not just because it’s an Austen biography, but because this biography promises to show us an Austen that is “far tougher, more socially and politically aware, and altogether more modern than the conventional picture [...] allows”.

I am always surprised at people trying to put down Jane Austen as a modest, gentle, kinda boring woman. The short biographies on the dustcovers of the book never seem to coincide with the person you feel the author is. If you read an Austen novel carefully, really listening well, you can sort of feel that Jane Austen was a quick-witted woman, who saw many strange things in society, social unright and unbalanced situations, and saw the books as her way to remark upon that. Also, clearly she was in a sense mischievous, and addressed issues on her mind in a playful manner. Even though she was clearly also a product of the society in which she lived, she was someone who was able to look further. Reading a biography that promises to show us more of Austen, is very good news!

In the book The Real Jane Austen each chapter starts of with examining an object, after which the focus shifts to examining a part of the life of Austen. The book is a very dynamic read because of this. There is a chronological order but it’s not the leading motive, rather several subjects are examined up close, one by one. This makes you really able to envision and imagine Austen’s life.

Objects that are mentioned and researched in the book are, among others: a royalty check, researching Austen’s desire for her books to be acknowledged despite being anonymous at first; a laptop, telling us of Austen books being printed and being received favourably; the topaz crosses, recounting the stories of Austen’s brothers in the Navy. Because of this in-depth look and the thorough research, this book will definitely give the reader a well-rounded and complete idea of Jane Austen and her world.

I loved the look of this book, it being rather big and heavy with a wonderful pale greyish-blue cover, and inside filled with amazing colour plates and a pleasant font. Definitely recommend for present-giving to Austen fans.


To purchse the book, go here.

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If you like to read Jane Austen, there inevitable comes a point where you’ve read all the books, but are not yet ready to leave the Austen universe. Luckily, there are many annotated versions and biographies to peruse. A new biography just came out, promising to shed a whole new light on Austen’s life. I’ll be reading and reviewing it in a bit but in the meantime, you can watch the author, Paula Byrne, talk about it here:


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Because so many people come to this blog for tips on hosting a Victorian-style dinner, I thought this would fit right in. It’s from an article I read recently describing the fashions of serving food and laying tables in the 19th century.


“Dinner Old English style, which actually originated in the 18th century, referred to the style of placing all food items on the table before the diners sat down. In this service, guests could help themselves to the food items set out before them, within the bounds of proper manners. Where servants were unavailable it was considered, by some writers as late as the 1870s, “acceptable” behavior to help oneself to any dish on the table within reach. This service changed throughout the 19th century, taking on bits and pieces of other styles.

 A departure from the Old English style called for food items to be replaced by decorative centerpieces. This style was commonly referred to as à la Russe in late 19th-century guidebooks. Serving dinner à la Russe became fashionable among European elites during the 1850s and 1860s, and by the 1870s it has also become fashionable in the United States.” (82)

 Because the high cost of employing the many servants that were needed for the dinner à la Russe, and the shortage of good servants at the end of the 19th century, a new style called American style arose. “In the American dinner service the table was laid in the same manner as that of the à la Russe style, the major difference between the two was that the American style required the host and hostess to divide food portions on individual plates and then pass them or have them passed around the table by a servant. Food items from each separate course were placed on the table and then served from there or a side table.” (83)

 How a table looks like is described here by describing a boarding-house table: “If the table is void of flowers, and other side decorations, including olves, rashishes, and celery, tastefully arranged napkins and wineglasses, an impression is given os a boarding-house table.” (84)

 When the courses grew larger in number, the plates grew smaller to accommodate the smaller portions served. At the end of the 19th century, plates were on average 2 inch smaller in diameter than earlier on in the century.

(All info and citations from “A la Russe, à la Pell-Mell, or à la Practical: Ideology and Compromise at the Late Nineteenth-Century Dinner Table” by Michael T. Lucas, which appeared in Historical Archaeology, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1994.  




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Who hasn’t eaten an ice-cream or at least a muffin in their life ?
Even in movies you see children run behind an ice-cream van, shouting ecstatically for them to stop. While the sound of their bells will always remind us of more pleasant moments in our youth. But the muffin man wasn’t armed with a much different weapon to sell his wares.
The muffin man, who traditionally bore his ware on his head, and the signal of his approach – the ringing of a handbell – was on of the most joyous sounds in a Victorian childhood, continued in business until the Second World War.
Ice-cream was something of a latecomer to the streets. Although it was available by the time of the great Exhibition, it became common only in the eighties, when portable freezing equipment was invented by Agnes Bertha Marshall, the principle of a London cookery school. It was she who invented the cone in the late eighties. Prior to that, ice-cream had often been frozen onto metal rods that had to be returned after it had been licked off!

The street sellers of muffins and crumpets were calculated for Henry Mayhew at approximately 500 during the winter months, somewhere between the years 1858 and 1861.

The street sellers bought their items thirteen to the dozen from a baker who knew them, but Mayhew had not heard of any vendor who made his own wares.
´Peoples likes them warm, sir.´ an old man told him, ´To satisfy them they´re fresh, and they almost always are fresh; but it can’t matter so much about their being warm, as they have to be toasted again. I only wish good butter was a sight cheaper, and that would make them go. Butter’s half the battle.’
Good sized muffins from the street sellers cost a halfpenny each, crumpets sold four a penny. Some are sold cheaper, but these were generally smaller or made of inferior quality flour. Well-off ladies and gents bought them from streets seller, speculating or not but I believe that even the lower classes would indulge themselves to such a delightful treat if their money allowed it.

Last but not least, in my opinion it were the Victorians who made our childhood a little more jolly.

Henry Mayhew’s London labour and the London poor
Life in Victorian Britain by Michael Paterson


This guest post was written by writer J. Elizabeth Valentine, thank you so much for contributing!

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Today’s post is written by Sally E. Svenson:


“You have not got to hunt for the best dresses in a crowd,” observed an English society journalist in 1890. “They will always make themselves seen.” What fashionable women wore became a prominent aspect of British society reporting during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when nearly fifty new magazines aimed at women entered the British market. Describing such garments required skill. “It is not everyone who can carry away the memory of thirty dresses in her head,” noted one critic, and only the most brazen journalists stooped to taking notes at social events, including the hapless reporter satirized by the British humor magazine Punch in 1900.

A few journals supplemented textual descriptions of the fashion statements of aristocratic clotheshorses with rough line illustrations, among them Queen and Lady’s Pictorial, unashamedly snobbish weeklies that chronicled the doings of high society. The artists assigned to the task made no effort to capture individual likenesses, but sketched gowns on near-identical, mannerist figures with wasp waists and tiny heads.

Among the women whose clothes attracted press scrutiny at this time was American-born Lily Hamersley, who was from 1888 until his death in 1892 the second wife of the eighth Duke of Marlborough, head of the Churchill family. Lily had a sure sense of style, and her choices reflected the expense, thought, and workmanship that went into the making of a fashionable woman of her period. She did her part in upholding the English stereotype of American women as better dressed than their British counterparts (as did her sister-in-law Jennie Churchill, who spent far beyond her modest means on clothing and was singled out by New York’s Town Topics as the most modishly attired woman in London in 1898). What Lily wore accounted for a considerable portion of the “news” that appeared about her in the press, particularly in the years between 1895 and 1900 when she was married to her third husband, Lord William Beresford, an old friend of the Prince of Wales. Coverage began with Lily’s April 1895 wedding, when Queen provided its readers with a sketch of her wedding dress–of delicate pearl gray brocade patterned with satin roses over a petticoat of white moiré trimmed with Brussels lace. Her matching Louis XVI coat with diamond buttons and gauntlet cuffs of rare antique Point d’Alencon lace opened over a waistcoat of the same material. On her head she wore a gray velvet bonnet embroidered with pearls and trimmed with pale gray ostrich plumes, a white aigrette, and white violets.  The hat was fronted with a small white lace veil.

In August 1895 Lily was one of twenty-two women attendees at the Dublin horse show whose gowns made up a full-page display in Lady’s Pictorial. On this occasion Lily appeared in a dress of dove-colored “undressed cloth” with sleeves of rich dove silk embroidered in a unique design in white terry velvet. Her bonnet, again a subject of some scrutiny, was of crinkled violet straw, trimmed with white stock gillyflowers and an upstanding fan of black ravenswing feathers.

Ball gowns deserved particularly close observation. A May 1897 volume of Lady’s Pictorial featured nine gowns worn at Mrs. Harry Oppenheim’s smart flower ball, to which each female invitee had been asked to come dressed as her favorite flower, sending buttonholes of the same blossom to three gentlemen of her choice. Lily “scored a complete success” in a white satin gown trimmed with tall stems of pure white trumpet lilies up the skirt and on the bodice, which was finished with chiffon and slender lines of brilliants. The look was completed by the addition of a pale-green sash. The ball’s hostess attired herself as a basket of poppies.

The most systematic and detailed fashion press coverage was given to what was worn at Court Drawing Rooms–the extravagant afternoon receptions held several times a year at which eligible women, each wearing the obligatory evening dress baring neck and arms, were introduced to Queen Victoria and the Court. Indeed, reportage of these events often amounted to little more than a compendium of the attendees’ toilettes. In May 1898 Lily, who was singled out by the Aberdeen Journal as “hardly ever” going “to the Drawing Room without wearing one of the most notably beautiful dresses at Court,” chose for the occasion a gown of ivory satin, its skirt and bodice ornamented with Tuscan embroidery in a rich design of orchids outlined with Strass diamonds and finely-cut steel beads. Her nine-foot train was of lily-leaf green satin brocaded in a design of lily branches and lined in pale blue.

Women’s magazines provided readers of the late nineteenth century with fairly accurate images of contemporary fashionable dress through their preoccupation with the clothes worn by women of the aristocracy. What’s more, they did so in color, thanks to the combination of sketch and written narrative. Fashion aficionados of today who appreciate Victorian dress still applaud their contributions.


By Sally E. Svenson, author of Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854—1909): A Portrait with Husbands

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The Black Count by Tom Reiss

The Black CImageount – Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the real Count of Monte Cristo.

If you like adventurous tales or history’s wild men, this book is for you. If you like to read about Byron, if you like to watch Johnny Depp in The Libertine, if you enjoy the Three Musketeers, this book is a must-read. But also if you’re interested about the lesser-known parts of history, for example about the very first multi-racial society, this book is for you.

Tthis is the story of Alex Dumas, the father of famous writer Alexandre Dumas (who authored The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo). The story tells of Alex Dumas, who was born in slavery but ended up commanding 50.000 men, and finally was imprisoned and poisoned.

The story is constructed from diaries, letters, battle reports, and the memoires of Alexandre Dumas, creating what is called “narrative nonfiction.” This is the same kind of concept as last week’s book The Graves are Walking, but with a very different tale and a different sort of protagonist.

The book is very well written. There are many small details and touches that really set the scene and make the story come alive before your mind’s eye. But at the same time it’s pleasantly academic, well-researched and with plenty of footnotes to keep the information-hungry reader happy. I find it very pleasant to read fiction that is well-researched, because it means you can just read for pleasure on a sunday morning but you still get to learn a lot of new things. Especially if a story’s well-told, information will stick with you a lot longer.

Even though the book is called The Black Count, this fact did not really register with me immediately. But an interesting extra point is added to the story, namely the fact that Dumas was a black man. In 18th century French high society, black people weren’t exactly common so the fact that he was so famous and appreciated really does get some extra meaning. If you like researching the alternative side of history, the part that you won’t find in the more common book, this book is definitely recommended.

Strangely, even though this book has everything going for it, I found it less gripping than last week’s The Graves are Walking. It seems strange, that you’d rather read about Irish people starving than a swashbuckling admiral, but there you go.

Interesting fact: the black count on the front cover is totally Tom Reiss himself! What do you think? Check it out here!

Recommended? Definitely! Give it as a present to someone who likes adventure. Four stars.

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John Kelly is a person who likes tragedy (lately some writers of the books I’ve reviewed come to my blog so let’s just hope John Kelly won’t come by and be offended!) He likes tragedy, because his previous book deals with the history of the black death, the plague that killed many Europeans. His new book, The Graves are Walking, deals with the great Irish famine and its aftermath.

Even though the subject is not cheery, the book is very compelling to read. I have never read much about the Irish famine or had a very great interest in it, but I definitely couldn’t put this book down. Kelly has found a way of combining historical correctness and research with a fiction-like prose.

The book reads somewhat as a newspaper report, using very exact dates, places and numbers. Then, in some chapters it switches to what reads like a personal account, what one person saw or thought or experienced. Even though the text in itself is about the historical facts, it’s spiced with all kinds of details that make the story come alive. For example, while writing about Lord Lucan: “As a young man, Lucan had been prettier than a professional soldier ought to be, but in 1847 he was forty-seven, as old as the century: balding, thickening around the middle, and out of uniform.” Details like these make the story very personal, and makes you care for the people in it.

The Graves are Walking carefully traces how and why the Irish famine could happen. It shows (very vividly!) what Ireland looked like during those years (especially describing in gruesome detail how the sick looked and smelt. I think John Kelly also likes horror.) And then it constructs how Britain reacted, trying to reconstruct Irish society and shape it in a different form.

John Kelly definitely gives a fresh perspective to this part of history. But more importantly, John Kelly shows how historic fiction can be both accurate and thrilling. The story is about many people, not centering on one main character or protagonist. But the personal details, the small things that make you feel like you’re there, really make the story come alive. I think everyone who wants to write historic fiction should take an example from this book. Hats off to you, John Kelly! Five stars.

You can read an exerpt or buy the book here:  http://us.macmillan.com/thegravesarewalking/JohnKelly#buy-the-book


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