Category Archives: Victorian era

OMG! A 19th Century File Cabinet!

Wellington chestThe 19th century equivalent of a file cabinet! Pictured is a ‘Wellington chest’, sometimes called a ‘side-locking chest’. These got their name because the Duke of Welllington is supposed to have carried a similar chest with him on his Peninsular War campaigns.
     Wellington’s chest had to be portable, but it featured a frame on the right-hand side that overlapped the drawer fronts. This strip of wood, when locked in place, prevented the drawers from opening. It was the latest security tech for that era.
Wellington desk with locking mechanism
     After the war, anyone who needed private and secure storage seized on these useful items. Surviving pieces average around four to four-and-a-half feet tall, with seven to ten drawers.
     Wellington chests were made into the Edwardian era, and are still found by lucky antique hunters today.
     I’ve given a Wellington chest to the factory-owner-turned-earl hero of my current Work-In-Progress. Would you like to have one of them for yourself, or stick to the plain metal models we’re familiar with today?
A full article about this particular Wellington chest is here.

Dress Shopping, Victorian Style

january1843fashionsI do love a good makeover: That scene where the heroine discovers the perfect clothes to bring out her best features. They make me want to fist pump and say ‘Go girl! Bust out that bustle (or crinoline or redingote, depending on the era)!’

As in life, women in literature dress for other women – namely their female readers. But how did one actually go about putting together that killer outfit guaranteed to turn the hero’s head and bring him straight to one’s side? In 1840, the internet did not exist, Mr. Selfridge’s father was still a boy, and Mr. Harrod, having given up on the linen draper’s business, wouldn’t move his grocery and tea enterprise to Knightsbridge until 1849. Mr. Harvey did sell linens, but he had only hired clerk James Nichols the year before.

Until sewing machines were invented, every last hem, flounce, tuck and bead was stitched by hand. Ready to wear clothing consisted of shawls, simple hats and bonnets, smocks and the shoddiest of work clothes for the poor, referred to as ‘slop-ware’.

It amuses me when romance novels feature female characters going to the dressmaker’s or sending for one, as if buying several gowns at £200 – £300 apiece is no big deal.

 

Fashion Plate A

In an age where middle class income ranged from £100 – £1,000 a year, believe me, for most women this would be a big deal.

 

What you wore depended on what you could afford combined with what you knew how to make. The ‘slop-ware’ mentioned above was worn by the poorest working classes, for dirty jobs. As England had no compulsory education during the early Victorian era, girls in the poorest families could not count on coming into contact with textile crafts in sewing classes. They might learn to sew at home provided their mother or another female relative had picked up the skill. To avoid widespread public nudity, families depended on charity, or used clothing vendors.

Large numbers of Victorians wandered the streets in second-hand clothing. Even in the best families, new clothes were time- and money-intensive. Children customarily wore hand-me-downs. Even oldest children could find themselves in a cousin’s outgrown suit or dress. If the family had a trunk of grandma’s old dresses, that might be raided for free cloth.

A woman at the pinnacle of society, whose family income stretched into the tens of thousands of pounds or more, could afford new wardrobes of the latest fashions every year. She would customarily give her outmoded gowns to her lady’s maid to dispose of. The privilege of claiming her mistress’ cast-offs was a valuable benefit of that servant’s employment, and was often included along with her wages.

Once in possession of a second-hand garment, a lady’s maid could keep it, refurbish, or wear it. (Ideally not where her employer would catch her.) If she sold it, dealers would come to the mews or servants’ entrance and buy them for their shops or stalls. After going through multiple owners, used clothing ended up in places like Petticoat Lane, where vendors would pull goods out of enormous bags to present to working-class customers. Men and women alike found gowns, trousers, mantles, frock coats and more for a few shillings each. When a common laborer could expect to put by maybe one or two shillings a week for clothes, outfitting a family even in these dirty and worn clothes took a chunk out of his savings.

Daytime BodiceIn the middle class, women often did learn at least basic sewing, which enabled them to take advantage of new-fangled paper patterns, introduced in the 1830s. The wives and daughters of artisans and middle class perused fashion prints as enthusiastically as wealthy women did, though with the intention of using cheaper material and simpler decoration. Patterns often came with one skirt design and two bodices, one high-necked and with longer sleeves for a respectable daytime appearances, and one with a lower neckline and shorter sleeves for evening events. Thrifty women would make up both bodices to get more wear from their garment.

Once they had a design and a pattern, there were several steps between the page and the finished product. They would start at the linen draper’s (seller of general dry goods) or mercer’s (seller of textiles only). In the 1840s, the choice of dress materials ranged from wool and cotton to silk, velvet, satin, and lace. Within types of material, quality varied. ‘Wool’ encompassed everything from merino to cashmere; cotton ranged from cheap calico to fine batiste.

It was not unusual for a dress to require 20 yards or more, so once all that cloth was cut, it had to be hand-stitched.  Sewing women could be hired for this, some of whom might have workshops of their own. Some establishments could deliver a gown the day after it was ordered, for during the London Season, they would employ a workshop full of seamstresses that were required to work up to 20 hours a day.

Do you have any favorite makeover scenes in movies or books? Some of mine are Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Penelope Featherington in ROMANCING MR. BRIDGERTON by Julia Quinn, and just to keep in mind men can benefit from The Makeover as well, Philip Jettan in Georgette Heyer’s POWDER AND PATCH. (It takes place in the 18th century, not the 19th, and the heroine is decidedly childish, but it’s still entertaining.)

Mom, Apple Pie & Birth Control

Old-Birth-Control-Devices-245x300This post first appeared on Authors by Moonlight on March 23, 2012. It has been slightly edited.

As a writer of historical romances, I guess you could say I have a professional interest in birth control methods of the past. Basically, humans have been trying to prevent pregnancy, with varying levels of success, ever since we figured out what causes it. People think of the Comstock Laws and don’t realize that contraception has been part of American life since the beginning.

Colonial women grasped the implications of controlling their reproduction early. Before obstetrical medicine developed, 1 out of 10 pregnancies ended with the mother’s death, according to centuries of parish records in both Europe and America. Add to this the number of deaths from complications, infections from dirty hands exploring the birth canal, and general lack of basic hygiene, and maternal mortality approaches 25 out of every 100.

One less mouth to feed meant more resources were available for a family‘s existing children, and eased the husband’s economic burden. Women could not compel their husbands to use abstinence (and probably didn’t like it much themselves) or withdrawal. Breast-feeding provided some protection, but lacked dependability. Vaginal sponges and condoms don‘t seem to have been common. That left plants in cottage gardens that could be used to induce abortions. There are North American plants with similar qualities, and I would be very surprised if Native American women did not know how to use those.

During the nineteenth century, Americans continued to search for ways to manage the size of their families:

1839: Charles Knowlton publishes the first pamphlet in America describing various methods of contraception, aimed at married couples. He advocated douching after sex as the best method. A hundred years before the FDA, no one realized that douching has a 90% fail rate and can lead to painful pelvic inflammations. The same year, Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber, enabling the manufacture of rubber condoms in the 1840s. Compared to the porous condoms made of animal skin or intestines since the 16th century, the 50% fail rate of these ‘capotes’ and ‘cundrums’ is hailed as a miracle by married couples.

February 1840: Queen Victoria, a figure of fascination for many Americans, marries Prince Albert and discovers sex, which she privately describes to her doctor as “fun in bed”.

November 1840: Queen Victoria gives birth to her first child. She does NOT consider this fun and discusses birth control with her doctor. He suggests she and Albert use the rhythm method. At the time, doctors believed that a woman’s ‘safe’ days were midway through the woman’s menstrual cycle. You know, the days when she is actually most fertile. To her dismay, the Queen went on to have eight more children. She never lost her passion for Albert, although she shared a dread and loathing of pregnancy with women on both sides of the Atlantic.

1842: German physician W. P. J. Mensinga invents the diaphragm. Copies are soon available in the U.S.

1860s: Newspapers from New York to Charleston to Cleveland carry adds for ‘capotes’, douching syringes, penis caps, ‘wife protectors’ (rubber cervical caps or diaphragms), sponges and ‘female solutions’. Quality was dubious, making them undependable and in some cases dangerous. They become connected with the sex trade and promiscuity in the minds of many who might otherwise have taken advantage of them.

1873: The Comstock Laws, a series of anti-commerce laws are passed, which define contraception as ‘obscene’ for the first time. The U.S. becomes the only country in the Western world to criminalize family planning. Dr. Edward B. Foote advocates the benefits of ‘fertility limitation’ for married couples, citing improved health for mothers and infants as well as relief of the husband’s economic burden. (Sound familiar?) In spite of the Comstock Laws, he distributes birth control devices and information about them.

1876: Dr. Foote is tried for breaking the Comstock Laws and sentenced to a fine of $3,000, equivalent to $67,000 to $73,000 today. When he asks for help paying it, 300 people come forward to offer support.

1879: Connecticut passes the stiffest anti-contraceptive law in the country: Even married couples cannot legally obtain from a doctor birth control to protect the wife’s health. For both health and economic reasons, It is regularly flouted for nearly 100 years.

1888: Dr. W. R. D. Blackwood writes “Is it proper, is it human, is it desirable that the lot of a married female should be a continual round of impregnation, delivery and lactation?…I do not hesitate for an instant to say NO! And I look with more than suspicion on those who, assuming superior virtue, condemn any and all attempts to control conception.”

1892-1920: Gynecologist Clelia Mosher asks her married patients to fill out questionnaires on their sexual practices and beliefs. Only 45 did so over the years, but their comments are interesting. 41 of the women used birth control, including douches, condoms, and ‘womb veils’, all illegal. One woman used a rubber ring around the cervix, which was apparently painful, but not as bad an another child. Many of the 41 considered reproduction a secondary reason for martial sex.

1913: On October 16, Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, both nurses, open America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. They see 488 women in the ten days before they are shut down. At their trial, the judge rejects the idea that “a woman has the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”

1920s: Spermicidal gels and suppositories (some foaming — how festive!) are sold over the counter as ‘feminine hygiene products’ to get around laws forbidding the sale and use of contraceptives. Adding spermicides reduced the failure rate of diaphragms to 20%, the most reliable birth control until the Pill. Although more effective, this method as it is messy and pretty much kills spontaneity.

1936: In the face of the Depression, 70% of Americans favor birth control in a national survey. An upswing in abortion as a method of birth control also occurs during the decade. One doctor in Chicago reported after his arrest that the majority of his patients were married women aborting third pregnancies or higher. He didn’t say whether they had tried contraceptive measures that failed.

1945: Alabama becomes the first state to establish a tax-supported family planning program. Several southern states follow suit. Poor families shrink and illegitimate births drop across the region.

1950: Katherine McCormick, one of the wealthiest widows in America, finances the research that would lead the first Pill.

1955: The Margulies spiral, the first American made IUD, is invented. Its long tail intrudes into the vagina, causing “pain and trauma” to partners. Unsurprisingly, it never catches on.

1960: Enovid, the first pill, goes on sale. It causes headaches and weight gain, but users flock to their doctors demanding prescriptions anyway. It becomes the best-selling drug in U.S. history to that time, thanks to its dependability and ease of use.

1965: The first American-made IUDs prove popular long-term permanent birth control solutions. The modern IUD was invented in Germany in 1920, but could not be legally imported.

1965: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the 1879 Connecticut ban on all contraceptive use and confirms that a “right to marital privacy” exists in the spirit of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In 1972, the Supreme Court extends the right to privacy in deciding to use contraceptives to unmarried people.

1971: The Dalkon Shield hits the market. Eventually two million women will use this IUD. Undisclosed problems include severe pain and a tendency to cause uterine infections. 18 known deaths are eventually associated with it, along with hysterectomies, infections, birth defects and miscarriages (not always a problem with other IUDs.)

1988: High dose pills are taken off the market.

2002: Contraceptive patches are introduced. Changed once a week, they have fewer side effects than pills, but are more expensive.

For more reading:
A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom

Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, Andrea Tone

A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman

The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser

The universal flouting of the Comstock Laws amazed and amused me! What do you think is the most surprising thing about the history of birth control in the U.S.?

Also, here is a fun slideshow on WebMD on some of the things people have used in the past to prevent pregancy. Think fish bladder condoms and crocodile poop.

Building Historical Worlds

World building is a familiar concept to writers and many readers of science fiction and fantasy. Writers from C.J. Cherryh to Marion Zimmer Bradley have written about the importance of pulling your readers into the world of a book, and the works of Tolkien are a primer for building an alternate world.

Historical romance is not in the business of building completely new worlds (that would be for the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal members of the Romance Writers of America), but historical romance writers still have to draw our readers in, so that they can feel themselves inside the story, wearing crinolines or a hoop skirt or a toga, traveling the high seas in a pirate ship or taking the air in Hyde Park on horseback.

World building, whether for sci fi, fantasy or historical writing, works best when the writer has done his or her homework. When building a world from scratch, that includes notebooks covering geography, history, languages, customs, religious or spiritual beliefs, the presence or absence of magic, and on and on. Lots of work!

Historical romance writers have it easier in that we can research times past to find out about the world our characters are going to inhabit. We also have giant binders full of information, of course. We just have to research existing knowledge, using the best research material we can find.

Even simple things were harder 150 years ago. Travel was a much bigger deal when Victoria ascended the throne. In an era when it’s possible to cross hundreds of miles in a single day by car, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the speed of carriage travel. Drive your car down your street at 14 miles an hour and try to imagine that as the absolute top speed you can achieve in a vehicle. The sensory description will be entirely different in the 19th century world. Hoofbeats, not the sound of tires, characterized traffic, for example.

To our modern sensibilities, the past is an alien place, not just physically, but in mental attitudes. Victorian England was a place of overt class consciousness, where people who moved from level of society to another (up or down) were viewed with suspicion, if not outright scorn. There was a strong impetus to keep to one’s place, and not only in the upper classes. This attitude loosened up as the 19th century wore on, but even servants preferred to work for a suitably aristocratic family to one with ‘new money’. America also had its unofficial aristocracy, with Ward McAllister’s decree that truly fashionable New York society was made up of only 400 people. (He was trying to keep out those dreadful Westerners, Midwesterners and Vanderbilts at the time.)

If a writer chooses not to have her characters reflect the social mores of an era, her characters need solid motivation to explain why they think differently.

What are your favorite details about historical romance? The clothing? The food? The customs? Let us know!

To the Bedroom!

I do love a comfy bed. There are so many delightful things to do in between the sheets, some of which are sleeping, reading, writing, thinking, doodling; and some of which are…um, not. Ahem. Beds were not always the comfortable refuges they are today, but for opulence and beauty as well as comfort, the 19th century might have us beat.

While the middle and lower classes, and servants in large houses, had to make do with hardwood floors, unadorned furniture and hand me down rugs, the master or mistress of a great house slept in beds of rare woods furnished with feather mattresses and fine linens.  The newly rich would purchase matching bedroom furniture like this rosewood suite from the 1860s.  The armoire, washstand and commode on the left side were necessities in the days before built in closets, clothes hangers and bathrooms!

In a large house, the latter two items might have been placed in an adjoining dressing room.  Still, a number of grand houses had commodes and washstands in the bedroom itself, due to the age of the house itself or to family custom.  Retrofitting pipes into house built in the 18th century or earlier often resulted in the toilet or bath being tucked into a former linen closet or under a staircase – not something people wanted to wander down the hall to in the middle of the night!

The dressing table had some kind of cloth protecting its surface from dust.  Girls and women often received matching sets of brushes, combs, hand mirror, and bottles or jars, all resting on their own tray.  The materials for these ranged from horn or carved wood to elaborate silver.  Ivory, plain or carved, was also popular in the days when people considered wildlife a commodity.

Victorians out of necessity used their bedrooms for a lot more than we do.  A hundred and fifty years ago, most people were born at home and died at home.  Medicine cabinets could be mounted on the wall for people suffering from chronic diseases.

The custom of separate bedrooms for wealthy couples continued throughout the 19th century in both Britain and America, giving the woman a refuge from household duties.  If she was lucky enough to live in a really large house, she also had a boudoir, or small sitting room, as part of her apartment.  Otherwise, wealthy women and their middle class sisters often had a writing table, chairs, and a chaise longue or sofa in their rooms.

One thing you would not find, even at the highest levels of society, is a bed table.  Instead, a lady set her candle on a chair placed beside the head of the bed.  Reading in bed was frowned upon, for what if one fell asleep before blowing out the candle?  A good draft could send the flame into those lovely curtains, endangering the sleeper’s life.   Gas jets came in before the end of the era, but their light was often dim and unsteady.  It wasn’t possible to curl up in bed and read after sundown until electricity became common in the 20th century.

Just to end up, here is a link to a fascinating article on box beds, which I made use of in Her Scottish Groom.

What kind of bedroom appeals to you?  Small and cozy or large and sumptuous?

Gardens Great and Small

English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bri...

One of the things I noticed most during a springtime visit to Great Britain several years ago is the national passion for gardens. From palatial English Heritage sites to terraced houses with yards the size of hankie, flowers, plants and trees overflow.

From Elizabethan knot gardens to the modern Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Britons love their gardens. And with good reason: they are sources of beauty for everyone who sees them. However, before supermarkets and drugstores, households great and small depended on their gardens for food, medicine, recreation and ironically, privacy.

Evidence from Egyptian tomb paintings indicate that humanity was planting ornamental gardens by the time recorded history began, but the most practical use for gardens has always been to grow food. In 1631, William Lawson in The Country Houswife’s Garden advises careful housewives to plant  artichokes, cabbages, kale, carrots, garlic, leeks, onions, pumpkins, radishes and strawberries in the kitchen garden, bordered by “herbes…comely and durable”.

The herbs weren’t used just in seasoning food. In Lawson’s day, medicine depended on herbs and most women had a store of recipes for everything from arthritis (a paste made of rose petals) to worms (horseradish or powdered fern root). The physician, if you were lucky enough to have one at hand, would also prescribe such things as lavender oil for faintness, or, I suspect less successfully, for heart palpitations or dissolved in water for ‘palsy’.

As well as medicines, the lady of the house would make cosmetics and personal grooming aids in the still room (so called from its use distilling oils and extracts from plants). Oil of rosemary was used both to prevent baldness and in a ‘hair-wash’ considered especially good for dark-haired women. Their blonde sisters used an infusion of chamomile. Apparently redheads were out of luck, unless they chose to dye their hair brown with the extract of boiled walnut shells.

Despite their practicality, the kitchen and herb gardens were generally planted out of sight if at all possible. Even the middle classes much preferred attractively planted parterres of blooms, if possible with a lawn beyond. One could stroll among the flower beds or read, and exchange confidences with trusted cronies away from the ears of household servants.  The lawn could be used for outdoor meals (served on tables with the good china and silverware, of course) or perhaps a pick-up game of cricket.

In cities, this urge for green was answered with public spaces by the Victorian era, such as Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in London or Bath’s Royal Victoria Park (now the Bath Botanical Gardens). Then, as now, city dwellers could enjoy open space filled with grass, trees and flowers, perhaps before going home and enjoying a fresh tomato from a container garden!

In spite of my black thumb, I enjoy visiting all kinds of gardens with my honey, who is pretty good at growing plants and flowers. What’s your favorite kind of garden – large and stately or cozy and full of flowers (or veggies)?

The Gentlewoman’s Guide to Tea

Ah, the pleasures of the tea table! The fragrant liquid, enjoyed in between tidbits of delicious finger sandwiches, cakes and gossip. (At least the sandwiches and cakes are delicious. No Person of Breeding ever calls gossip delicious, unless in the company of Trusted Friends. But I digress.)

Few of us are aware of the background of the drink consumed in every home from Buckingham Palace down to the lowliest cottage. Thanks to the help of Mr. Tim Smith, a most knowledgeable purveyor of fine teas, (and an American, no less!) I can pass on some interesting facts to share with friends. Just in case there is a lack of goss– er, amusing stories — to share at teatime.

Worldwide, only water is consumed more often than tea. And he variety of teas boggles the mind. In England, we greet the day with a full-bodied black tea, such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey. In the afternoons, Oolong is preferred. Let us not forget green teas, used by the Japanese, and white teas. The latter do not seem to play a part in any formal ceremony, but Mr. Smith assures me he sells a fair amount of them in his shop, the Tea Smith.

Imagine my amazement when Mr. Smith informed me that all  those different kinds of tea come from the same plant, camellia sinensis! I thought he was jesting, but he assures me that it is simply a matter of how the leaves are prepared.

All Quality tea starts with the two tenderest leaves and a bud from each branch of the plant. White teas are produced from leaves that are plucked, steamed, and then dried. To make green teas, leaves dry and wither somewhat before steaming, and afterwards, leaves are rolled by hand and dried near a source of heat. The delicate flavor of Oolong teas come from actually bruising the leaves after they are withered, to increase oxidation. Once the edges turn red, the leaves are rolled and dried. Black teas attain their deep coloring and rich flavor because they are made from leaves they are left to oxidize completely before rolling and heating.

(I am Shocked at all this plucking, bruising and rolling. I had no idea processing tea leaves involved such Violence.)

One hears rumors of a something called a ‘tea bag’, in which the lowest quality of tea, referred to as ’fannings’ or ’dust’, are gathered into paper envelopes attached to a string. How Revolting! How can one indulge in the frivolous but charming pastime of reading one another’s tea leaves? As any Civilized Person knows, good tea can be reused after the initial steeping. Furthermore, the leaves, once the flavor is completely brewed out of them, make excellent compost. Or an economical household will strew the damp leaves over the rugs each morning and then sweep them up, thus removing dust. Tea bags, indeed!

The dashing botanist Robert Fortune introduced tea plants to the Darjeeling province of India by smuggling them out of the hinterlands of China. The writer cannot help but Wonder how the entire East India Company missed the species of tea plant growing one province over, in Assam. Possibly the observant eyes of females, so used to noticing important details, could have prevented this Embarrassing Oversight. On a happy note this means we now have access to India’s camellia sinensis assamicus in addition to the Chinese plant.

Climate and soil affect the taste of tea leaves, much they do the taste of grapes used in wine-making. Teas are labeled by their location and type (white, green, oolong or black). If more than one kind of leaf or ingredient as added, the tea is referred to as ‘blended’. Our beloved Earl Grey tea is considered a blend, as are English and Irish Breakfast teas. Other blends are jasmine, orange and mint teas, all of which sound most Exotic!)

Mr. Smith says that he imports teas from not only China and India, but from Kenya, Taiwan and Japan. By the first two names, he refers to parts of the globe labeled on my maps as British East Africa and the island of Formosa. (One is concerned about the teaching of Geography in the United States.) I have included his address below, in case any reader should like to investigate his wares.

www.thesteasmith.com
345 N 78th Street
Omaha, NE 68114
(402) 393-7070

1118 Howard St
Omaha, NE 68102
(402) 932 3933

The Gentlewoman’s Guide to Coach Travel

Cambridge stage-coach (Howden, Boys' Book of L...
Image via Wikipedia

Let me preface my remarks by observing that the most preferable mode of travel is always the latest model of Private Carriage, pulled by a team of prime horseflesh. Nothing matches the comfort, privacy and convenience of one’s own well-sprung vehicle! Or one’s father’s. Or one’s husband (even a husband acquired for the purpose of placating one’s father). Even the personal conveyances of handsome, if overbearing, strangers met on the road often prove superior to stagecoaches, provided one demonstrates suitable breeding and does not engage in any Improper Activities suggested by said handsome stranger. At least not right away.

However, let us proceed on the assumption that no personal carriage is available for one’s journey. In that case, a Lady must decide between Speed and Comfort. If her destination involves a Sickbed, Preventing an Execution, or Escaping an Unwanted Marriage, one can only choose the Royal Mail. The whirlwind speeds attained by these maroon wonders whisk the intrepid traveler from London to York — a distance of two hundred miles — in a mere eighteen hours!! Truly astounding compared to the days it normally takes to travel this distance!

The cautious gentlewoman should be warned that a seat on the Mail requires a certain amount of Fortitude. For one thing, Mail coaches often travel at night, when there is less traffic. And as instruments of His or Her Majesty’s government, these vehicles make only a few stops, of most Unchivalrous Brevity. A lone female in a passenger load of four to six (often ill-bred) persons, with even more on the roof, is advised to arm herself with a Winsome Manner so as to encourage the others to allow her the first chance at the hasty meals provided by inns and posting houses along the route. Sadly, even the most charming airs fail to impress the drivers themselves, so a Large Purse is useful in convincing these hard-hearted individuals to allow one sufficient time to eat and use Certain Necessary Facilities. (The writer dares not go into more detail here, other than to bitterly note that ladies are at a Severe Disadvantage in this area due to the encumbrances of fashionable dress.)

If Illness, Death or Immediate Disaster does not figure into one’s reasons for taking to the road, or Limited Funds do, the stage coach is a reasonable alternative to the Mail. Indeed, this choice offers many advantages over the Mail. For one thing, stages nearly all run during daylight hours. And besides the decreased cost, stage coaches stop more frequently, and for longer periods of time. True, the passengers are at the mercy of each hostelry in the manner and quality of food and beds (for overnight stops), but many inns take pride in offering tasty meals and comfortable lodging.

A lady with any kind of breeding guards her behavior when visiting even the most respectable establishment, even if forced by circumstance to travel without a chaperone. She will not visit the taproom unless carried into one in a dead faint, preferably by a strapping male from a Good Family. It is to be hoped that in such a case, the inn’s host will offer the use of either a private parlour or at the very least a bedchamber for one’s recovery. Although the male in question cannot, with propriety, enter either of these rooms with her, it might be acceptable, if he speaks like a gentleman and is quite good-looking, for her to join him for dinner. Particularly if it seems likely that he owns a carriage and horses of his own.

Lunch and a Ghost Story

Last week, my husband and I drove with our youngest daughter to Louisiana for a college visit.  It meant a lot of driving, but after years of taking our older daughter to out-of-state skating competitions, road trips are nothing new to us. While it’s nice to leave our daily routines behind and see new parts of the country (or revisit fun destinations), there are downsides to car travel. One of which is road food.

I love burgers and fries more than is good for me, but eating in fast food joints, or even nice chain restaurants, palls after the first few days away from home. After a frustrating morning that included two wrong exits and a stretch of road without even a burger place, we decided to stop at Isabella, in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Located in a house dating from 1880, the bed and breakfast also serves lunches at its Porch Restaurant. Lucky us!

Owners Bobbye and Phil Pinnix are only the third family to own the historic house, and their renovations include Victorian furnishings in the parlors and bedrooms.  Even our lunch was served on a collection of vintage glassware and red toile plates.  My husband enjoyed a huge roast beef sandwich with fresh fruit, while my daughter tucked into sliders and I tried a burger with a side of Bobbye’s potato salad. Yum! Did I mention they grow their own tomatoes?

Fortunately for us, we arrived at the tail end of lunch, so we were able to chat with the Pinnixes. Bobbye told me that while she is not fanciful, she is convinced that the house is haunted by some of the former owners.  She and Phil, along with some of their guests, have heard the sounds of glass shattering in the butler’s pantry and  furniture dragged over the wooden floors.  The ghostly activity seems to be limited to making noise, as there is never any broken glass or rearranged furniture to be found.  Bobbye even told of receiving a comforting squeeze on the shoulder while she was completely alone in the kitchen area. According to her, spirits in the house don’t mean any harm.  “After all, it was their house before it was ours,” she said.

I am skeptical of most reports of paranormal activity myself, because I think much can be explained by scientific fact. However, I would love to risk a haunting if it means I can return to Isabella!

Isabella Bed & Breakfast

1009 Church Street

Port Gibson, MS 39150

601-437-5097 or pinnixdesignsinc@gmail.com

Advice to New Mothers: Victorian Style

With Mother’s Day coming up in many countries around the world, this historical romance writer thinks it might be interesting to take a look at motherhood during the Victorian era.  Strip away the sentimental gauze which covers the 19th century and you’ll find some alarming advice given to new moms.

A young bride could go from complete ignorance about sex to motherhood within the first year of her marriage. And in an age where widespread knowledge of contraception did not exist (and providing it was often a crime), the average middle class Englishwoman would give birth four more times over the course of her life. (Provided she did not die of puerperal fever or the effects of a complicated birth.) Then, as now, advice books to help her through the process of raising a family abounded.

However, attitudes differed from our day. For one thing, women were not encouraged to follow their own mothers’ advice or their own common sense. The (mostly male) writers of books on ‘the management of children’ urged their readers to defer to “the superior wisdom of medical experts.”  While the possession of a functional uterus does not automatically make a woman a good mother, some of the ‘wisdom’ offered is astounding. In a bad way.

New mothers who wanted to breastfeed were discouraged.  Even where the occasional doctor might acknowledge some advantage to the practice, nursing for longer than three months interfered with a woman’s perceived duty to her husband and household.  Also, advice books opined that breast milk was not nearly as nutritious as ‘pap’ — a concoction of bread soaked in water and sweetened with sugar. (And they wondered why so many infants didn’t survive to their first birthday!)

In the ideal painted by experts of that time, mothers did not spend excessive amounts of time with their babies and young children.  Instead a nurse, nursemaid, or nanny provided most of the care, with the mother in a supervisory role.  The old maxim is “Children should be seen and not heard.” While that is still an excellent piece of advice, especially when we take our kids out in public, in some families in the 19th century, children were barely even seen. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were considered model parents for visiting their two oldest children once a day.  Their younger children got much shorter shrift, as the Queen noted in a letter that she scarcely saw them more than once every three months.  While I believe that children are small wild animals that need to be trained in at least the appearance of civilized behavior before we let them loose on the rest of the world, this is extreme even for me.

So is the Victorian concept of proper food for growing children.  Meals were to be plain. Highly flavored food might arouse passions (especially dangerous in girls)! Fruits and vegetables were suspect, and even fresh bread and butter might lead young people astray. Mrs. Beeton suggests day old bread is good enough for the schoolroom. Jam was considered inappropriate for children.  One young woman only tasted marmalade for the first time after her marriage!

What about you? Would you have enjoyed raising children or growing up in this era?