Arietta Richmond - Author

Immerse Yourself in Regency Historical Romance

Books in the Regency Era

Today, books are everywhere, in one form or another.  But in the Regency era, most people could not afford books.  The nobility could, but even they rarely had what we would call a  large collection today. To have a few hundred books was
remarkable, and worth quite a fortune.

Books were laboriously printed, where every single letter was a tiny piece of
lead type, that had to be hand laid into a frame, to print the pages.   One
consequence of this was that books were often first published in a serialized
fashion, so that they could be released faster.  The paper that they used was
also thicker than today’s paper, as the processes for making it had not yet
evolved to achieve the effortless quality of thin paper that is made now.  So – a
longer book was much fatter.

To make the process of printing easier for the printers, rather than print one page at a time, multiple pages were printed on one huge sheet, (which was printed both sides, to a very cleverly planned pattern, so that all of the pages ended up in the right order after folding) and the result was folded in a specific way down to the individual page size.  Each bundle of pages was stitched down the fold that aligned with the spine of the book. (which is where the process that some note books are still made by today came from).  This meant that, when the book was assembled (each bundle stacked on the others in the right order, and the whole stitched together across the width of the spine), either a top of bottom edge, or the opening long side of the book had many instances where the pages were still joined together, by a fold (which side these ‘unopened/ uncut pages were depended on the fold pattern used).

To be able to read the book, you needed to take a sharp flat paper knife, and slice along the fold to separate the pages (see picture above to understand what this looks like. The book in the picture has closed folds at both the right hand side of pages and the top of pages.So, when you see a very old book, with rough and a little uneven edges, it is likely because whoever cut the pages did so not so evenly or smoothly.  Books were also often first sold to a buyer with their pages rough edged, most uncut, and in a temporary light cloth binding.  The buyer then took the book to a binding specialist, to get a good quality leather binding in the color and texture of their choice made, and the pages bound into it.

So… next time you read a paper book, imagine being there in the Regency Era, and having to keep slicing the pages apart, the first time that you read a book, just so that you could turn the page!

How Did They Fasten Their Clothing?

Every day, we put on our clothes, and take them for granted, yet so many things about them are amazing.  The number of different ways that we have to fasten them, for a start.  Most of which did not exist in the Regency Era.

So today I’d like to talk about that for a bit. Here’s a list of things that we have now, that did not exist then:

  • Zippers
  • Elastic
  • Velcro
  • Press Studs (invented 1885)

You can start to see how that might limit things.  And that no elastic thing… that means no stretch fabrics either.  Some fabrics were flexible, with some give inherent in the way that they were woven, but most were completely non stretch in all ways.

So – what did they fasten their clothes with ?

  • Buttons and Toggles
  • Lacing
  • Hook and Eye fasteners, hand made from wire
  • Brooches
  • Pins
  • Loop and post Split corset busks
  • Buckles

They actually had quite a choice – but all of these options were fiddly, and many, like pins and brooches, were pointy and quite likely to stick into the wearer if they moved the wrong way!

It was not uncommon for a ladies gown to be cut to so close a fit in the bodice that she was pinned into it, or actually sewn into it when she put it on to wear! That sort of thing gives you an insight into why ladies of the nobility needed ladies maids to help them dress!

Equally challenging, was a dress where the firmness of fit was achieved with a row of very closely spaced small buttons down the back.  That would be hard enough to do up by yourself at the best of times, but, when you were already wearing stays or corset, which rather changes what movements are easy, it became almost impossible to do for yourself.

Next time you look at a picture from the Regency Era, look closely – can you see how the clothes are fastened? Next time you get dressed yourself, consider how your clothes would be, with no elastic, no press studs, no zippers and no Velcro – would everything you own no longer work?

When reading your favourite books, this may make you look at the heroines in a new light!.

The Industrial Revolution

You’ve probably all heard the term ‘The Industrial Revolution’ at some point in your life, but you may not realise just how much of that revolution was happening in Regency times.

The Industrial revolution was a period when much manufacturing which had previously been done in homes, as ‘cottage industry’ began to move into more factory style bulk production.  This happened for a number of reasons.

1.   Over the century of the 1700s, there had been many small inventions,
especially in the cotton production and weaving industries, each of which
greatly enhanced the productivity possible from a single worker.
2.   The Napoleonic wars, like any war, required a great deal of supplies to keep soldiers in the field – not just food, but uniforms, weapons and ammunition.  The protracted series of wars (from 1790 to 1815) drove innovation in manufacturing, both because merchants wanted to profit from being a supplier to the military, and because so many young men had gone to war that efficiencies were needed to get anything made, as there just were not enough workers in some areas.
3.   The appetite of the English aristocracy for high quality and exotic goods, for conspicuous display of wealth, drove merchants to look for new and more effective ways to provide what they wanted to buy – from new types of fabric, produced in the new weaving factories, to other items which had become more scarce as the wars affected the ease of trade.
4.    The increasingly innovative use of steam engines (to drive things like factory machines, as well as the trains for the railroads which were starting to be built) provided a more economic method of creating rapid production, and the railways began to make fast distribution of goods possible.

Put all of that together, and you have a recipe for rapid change.  Change that brought good things and bad. Machinery allowed the manufacture of much more high quality cloth, and more complex patterned cloth, using the new Jacquard weaving looms, and for many new items, such as machine produced greeting cards. But machinery in factories was a new thing – a thing that could be very dangerous to workers, in an era where there were no laws protecting those workers (It was more than a century later, before the idea of Occupational Health and Safety was invented….).  In the weaving shops, small children were often employed because they could get under machines, and get their hands into tiny spaces to untangle things – many were crippled or killed when machines broke or trapped them.

(overseer supervising child workers – image via Brittanica.com)

The advent of machine tools also allowed greater standardisation in production of items – which made things cheaper – what had previously been handcrafted and only available to the rich, could now be bought by the lower and middle classes.  The change in standard of living this created was the beginning of a great destabilisation of the distribution of wealth, and the sense of ‘knowing your place in the class system’ of the world.

Until our Regency period, it was a world where almost every item was made by hand, was unique, and not quite the same as the next one, and took much time to make.  Imagine how different such a world was!  And how exciting, and terrifying, the rate of change must have seemed, when machines began to be possible, and mass production came into existence.

Dancing – What dances did they do?

When we think about dancing today, at parties, or ‘dances’ of any kind, we tend to most often think of the sort of very free form dancing that originated in the 1960s and has become most common – where there may, or may not, be a pattern to the dance, and everyone sort of tumbles about the dance floor,
staying vaguely with whoever they are dancing with.

If we think of something more than that, then we think about more formal ballroom dancing, or maybe things like Jive or Swing, or Latin American dances.  All of which usually involve being in close contact with your partner, all the way through the dance.

Yet, you may have noticed that how dancing gets described, in the better, more historically accurate regency books, is nothing like that.  There are many books that talk about the waltz as being ‘scandalous’ – has that puzzled you?  Have you wondered why?  Well, that’s what today’s trivia is about.

Let’s start with the reason that the waltz was scandalous, and then move on to what the other dances they did were like.  The waltz was introduced to England from the continent around 1810 (opinions on exact dates vary).  The form of the waltz danced then was not what we call a waltz today (the simple ‘box shaped pattern of three steps  that we get taught and which we see at weddings etc), but what we now call the ‘Viennese Waltz’, although the regency version was danced more slowly than we dance this today. It is a slightly more complex version of the dance than the basic waltz most common now, in which the dancers are rotating all the time, and can only change direction of rotation using a specific set of extra steps. (its a dance that makes it easy to get very dizzy!) (Note – I used to do medals grade ballroom dancing, as well as having done lots of historical recreation – its amazing what we learn in life that becomes useful in completely different ways later!)

It was regarded as scandalous because to dance it, especially if the ladies gown was rather long and easily tripped on, without falling over, the gentleman had to have a firm hold on the Lady, who had to be, therefore, scandalously close to his body, front to front.  The theory was that there should still be at least 12 inches between them – but, let me assure you, doing a Viennese waltz When you are that far apart is almost impossible!  So, naturally, people danced closer together – which led to scandalous body contact, whisperings in ears, the chance for the gentleman to move his right hand rather further down the lady’s back than was strictly good form for the dance, but which allowed him to tough parts of her that he could never hope to touch otherwise!

So – what were the other dances like, if a waltz in close contact was so shocking?  Other dances of the time came from two different heritages.  One was the very formal court dances which had been around, and evolving, for centuries – dances like the minuet (which most people have heard of).  The other was what are called ‘country dances’,  like the cotillion – these are also, like the court dances, pattern dances, where there is a lot of progression, stepping around your partner, being passed up and down a line of partners etc etc, but, in the country dances, things tended to be a lot more energetic and ‘bouncy’ in style (which could also lead to wardrobe malfunctions and torn flounces on hems etc.)  These dances rarely had the partners do more than touch hands, to pass around each other, or from one partner to another – hence they were less scandalous.

 

Caricature of longways dance by Rowlandson, second half of 1790s

There is a good overview in this wikipedia article –
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regency_dance 

So – next time you read a regency story, and the author talks about dancing, stop and think – is what they are saying accurate?  or has their unconscious modern set of assumptions snuck in and affected what they have written?

Why Was It Called ‘The Season’?

Most Regency romance stories feature ‘The Season’ in some way.  But…  Have you ever thought about why it was called that?

Whilst we can’t be utterly certain of anything (because we often have limited
records from the period), there are a few things that we know.

The Season mostly aligned with the parliamentary sessions, when the Peers
had to be in London to attend.  Parliamentary session timings varied
considerably over the years, but, during the times from around 1780 to 1830,
the opening of the parliamentary session, on average, got later and later
(moving from October right out to February – it didn’t settle at a February
start until about 1822).

When the men of the nobility came to town to do their parliamentary duties, they brought their families with them.  And, mostly, everyone stayed in town through much of winter, and right up until some time in June, when parliament usually closed. All of those family members, who did not have to be in parliament, needed something to do!  So began the tradition of using that time to entertain each other with Balls, outings and other social occasions.

Wilhelm Gause – The State Ball (painted 1900)

Everyone was competing with everyone else to show how sophisticated and wealthy they were, so things became more and more elaborate over time.  Along with that, quite early on, the intelligent mothers of the nobility realised that the grand cycle of glittering events was the perfect hothouse climate for fostering emotional attachments or carefully cultivated marriage proposals.  So what began as entertainment soon developed a much bigger purpose.

If you were going to spend the amazing amount of money that it cost to entertain during the season, you might as well make sure that the best possible marriage  for your children resulted.  So, because it all happened each year, people needed a way to refer to it – and the concept of ‘The Season’ was born.

The term is thought to have been coined one of two ways:
1.    As a modification of the term ‘parliamentary session’  which was often referred to as ‘the Session’ or
2.    As a contraction of ‘the entertaining season’ – the season in which everyone entertained.

So – we can’t really know for sure, exactly who first called it ‘The Season’, but we do definitely know that it all came about because families were stuck in London in winter (when the roads were in terrible condition and travel was difficult) and needed something to do!

Valentine’s Day in the Regency Period

I have to say, up front here, that most Regency authors take a lot of liberty with history, when it comes to most  holidays.  That’s fair – after all, our readers
want a good story, with concepts that they relate to, for the season.  But let’s
take a quick look at what Valentine’s Day celebrations were actually like in
the Regency period.

The beginnings of Valentine’s Day go back to the third century!  Saint
Valentine was a priest at that time, and was imprisoned for a long time.  He
was not sainted until considerably later. There are a range of versions of his
story told, and it is uncertain which are true, but the core of today’s Valentine’s Day traditions, and those engaged in during the Regency period, go back to one element of the stories told.

According to those stories, whilst imprisoned, Saint Valentine wrote letters to a woman that he had come to love, and signed them ‘your Valentine’.

Everyone loves a good story, and through the centuries the whole thing was romanticised.  In the 1600s and 1700s people began to give love favours and small gifts on Saint Valentine’s Day, and by the Regency period, that had become a very common thing to do – mainly men giving favours to the women that they were courting, or to their mistresses in some cases.  It was less common amongst those who were already married.

At that point, the favours and tokens given were all hand made, and could be of any style or construction – it was the thought behind them that mattered.  In the early 1800s it became more common for a favour to include, in some way, poetry.

Cards decorated with lace and ribbon were made by hand, often by the giver.  Around 1815 or so, enterprising people saw the opportunity, and began to mass produce those cards, still, initially, by hand.  Rapidly after that, however, machine made cards came into existence, featuring things like machine cut paper lace. These became called ‘mechanical valentines’.

The advent of more affordable and reliable mail services in the early 1800s, in combination with ‘mechanical valentines’,  allowed a massive expansion of the giving of the cards – with hundreds of thousands of them being posted around the date of Saint Valentine’s Day each year by approximately 1820.

As machine made, mass produced cards became easily available, the hand made, beautifully decorated versions became a more exclusive product, reserved for those who could afford to pay for that level of quality.

In some ways, it is surprising how much the ‘commercial’ aspects of the Regency Saint Valentine’s Day celebrations resemble those of today.  In other ways, we can see that the Day was still seen as more of a religious holiday (and was still called Saint Valentine’s Day), and that the way that it was celebrated was limited to the giving of cards or favours.  It is a fascinating time in the evolution of the celebration, as the concept of mass produced cards began to drive a commercial approach.

If you had lived in the Regency period, consider – how would you have celebrated Saint Valentine’s Day?

Christmas Decorations and Celebrations

I have to say, up front here, that most Regency authors take a lot of liberty with history, when it comes to Christmas.  That’s fair – after all, our readers want a good story, with concepts that they relate to, for the season.  but lets take a
quick look at what Christmas celebrations were actually like in the Regency
period.

Christmas Trees – were still pretty much unknown in England, with the first having been introduced by the German born Queen Charlotte in 1800.  The upper aristocracy did take up the idea, as copying the royal family was always seen as good form, but the tradition of a decorated Christmas tree was slow to spread.

Decorations, if there were any, were likely to be edible – gingerbread men, small cakes, sweets tied in paper etc.  There were some indications that other paper decorations did sometimes occur, but we have no detailed evidence for them.

Other Christmas Decorations – were mostly greenery and berries.  Greenery used, apart from pine boughs, was rosemary, bay, holly, laurel, and mistletoe.  This was a longstanding tradition, going back to medieval times and earlier.  There are references to kissing under the mistletoe as early as the late 1600s as well.

Christmas Traditions – in Regency times, many of the older Christmas traditions had fallen out of favour, being seen as rather unsophisticated, but many of the country people still held to them.  This included the concept of the Yule Log, or Christmas Fire, and the wassailers – people who went from house to house, singing and pretty much begging for food and drink in return.  The Christmastide was the period from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night, and celebrations might happen across the whole period.  Much less importance was placed upon the gathering of family at this time of year then, than is now.

Christmas Food – There were very few, if any, foods that were regarded as especially for Christmas – it was more about having good food in general, and being charitable, by sharing that with neighbours, and with the poor.

So – there is a quick summary – rather flat compared to some of the Christmas extravagance that we see today, isn’t it!  The important things to see here, are that the royal family instigated changes in what was done, the poorer and country people were more likely to celebrate than the aristocracy, and the aristocracy who did celebrate were likely to do charitable deeds as part of it.

As you enjoy your Christmas, consider – who would you rather have celebrated Christmas with, in the Regency period?

Mirrors

Mirrors are another thing that we take for granted today.  They are everywhere – not just in our bathrooms and bedrooms, but as decoration in buildings, in lifts and in other places, as well as in our homes.  We use them to make rooms seem bigger, or in small chips to add glitter and brightness to all sorts of things.

In the Regency era, it was rather different.  Mirrors were another thing that
was mostly limited to the very wealthy.

Early mirrors were made of polished metal, or sometimes obsidian or stone,  (going back many centuries) but even that required having enough wealth to afford one.

Glass mirrors with metallic backings were experimented with for many centuries, but no reliable and effective process was developed until around 1835, when a German chemist developed the process to lay down a very thin layer of silver on one side of a glass sheet, using a chemical process, to create the first mirrors of the style that is common today (although today’s mirrors use a thin layer of aluminium).

There were silver backed mirrors from around the 1600s, but they used larger amounts of silver, which was not as evenly applied, and produced a much less effective mirror. Another metal backed mirror was invented by the Venetian glassmakers in the 1600s – they coated the back of a glass plate with mercury!  It produced a beautiful undistorted reflection – but was difficult to create and had obvious (but unknown to them) health risks!

In Regency times, mirrors made from polished steel were available, and some small glass mirrors, with metallic backings of various kinds.  The larger mirrors found in some aristocratic homes were amazingly expensive, and possessing one, or more, was an ostentatious statement of wealth. Each of those mirrors was either backed with manually applied silver leaf, or with a tin/mercury amalgam, which was also hand worked to get a thin flat layer.  The metal was applied to the back of the mirror, usually then painted on the back to protect it, and the whole enclosed in a frame to make sure the layers stayed in place.  These methods also meant that mirrors were rather heavy!.

So – next time you casually glance at a mirror to check your hair, spare a thought for our Regency heroes and heroines, trying to look their best for a Ball, with minimal mirrors available!

Chandeliers – and Other Lighting.

Let’s actually think about lighting.  Today, we tend not to – we turn the switch and the light comes on (unless there is a power outage…..).  But…. in Regency
times, there was no electricity yet…. so….. how did they light their houses?
how did they light those big ballrooms?  how did chandeliers work,  if they
weren’t wired in?

Starting with the obvious – all lighting had to come from fire, in some form.
Be that rushlights, oil lamps, candles, or the very new (and expensive still) gas
lamps.  Candles came in two main types – beeswax, regarded as the superior
form, as they smelled good, burned with a whiter light, and lasted longer than
the other type, which were made from tallow (rendered animal fat).  The very poor could not afford candles, and used rushlights – strips of dried rushes (the plant that grows in the edge of streams and lakes), twisted together to form a sort of candle shape and lit on one end.

The common people used tallow candles, and maybe oil lamps if they could afford one (many different types of oils were used in these, including whale oil, which, apparently, didn’t smell very nice at all!).  The wealthy used beeswax candles and higher quality oil lamps.  The very wealthy used high grade beeswax candles, oil lamps, and, if they were open to new inventions, had gas lamps installed with piped gas.  No matter who you were, there was no easy ‘flip a switch’ to get light – you needed a flint and steel to strike a spark to light your candle or lamp, or a fire in your hearth to light it from.

But what about those chandeliers?  We see pictures of the ballrooms of stately homes, with huge chandeliers, draped with many amazing sparkling crystals, way up high near the ceiling.  How did they light those?  How did they even get to them, to light them?

The basic facts – chandeliers had all of those dangling crystals, not because they looked pretty (although they did) but because the crystals reflected and re-reflected the light, multiplying it manyfold, to better light a big space.  Most chandeliers had dozens, or, in some cases, hundreds, of candles mounted on them, to create enough light to reflect.  The really interesting bit was how they lit them.  Most of the time, the candles were not even in the holders on the chandelier – the ballroom, when not in use for a major function, would be lit by normal candles or gas lights in sconces mounted around the walls.

When a big function or ball was planned, the chandeliers were put to use.  Each chandelier was suspended from a big chain, which went up to a large (very securely mounted) metal ring at the ceiling.  But the chain didn’t stop there – it was long, and went through the ring, across to another ring on the ceiling at the side of the room, through that, and down to an anchor point at floor level, where a large amount of chain was coiled around special mountings.  So, to fit the candles and light them, the chain was uncoiled and the chandelier was slowly and carefully lowered to the floor, with the chain carefully paid out to do so.  Once the candles were fitted, and lit, it was equally carefully hauled back up, and the chain anchored and coiled again.  If you were wealthy enough, you might actually have a mechanical winch for your chandeliers, but, mostly, it was the brute strength of your assembled footmen that did the job.

So next time you just flip a switch, and bright light fills your house, spare a thought for the challenges of lighting in Regency times!

How Did They Buy and Store Food?

Today, we go to the supermarket to do our weekly (or sometimes daily) shopping, we bring it home and store a lot of what we buy in the refrigerator, and we
think nothing of being able to get a wide range of fruits and other foods all
year round, even though we know that those things are only in season near
us for a few months of the year.  But what happened in Regency times?

In Regency times there were no refrigerators……  there was no supermarket…….  there was no easy global transportation….

So what did they do?

Lets start with the shopping.  In major cities and towns, there were large farmer’s markets – places where anyone who grew produce of any kind, to sell, came each day to sell, and the housewives, or the cooks and housekeepers of the nobility, came early each morning to buy.  Because there was no refrigeration (unless you were a wealthy aristocrat and could afford to have large blocks of ice brought in regularly, at great expense…), it was critical that the end consumer get the foods as soon as possible after they were picked / killed / baked, so that they could be consumed before they went off.

There were bakers, who baked bread and cakes every day, there were butchers, although the way that they operated was very different from today, and meats were often rather more ‘aged’ when they got to the consumer than we would consider acceptable now. There were starting to be a range of ‘dry goods stores’ which stocked flours, nuts, dried foods (always air dried and sun dried..) etc, that would not go off so easily.

So a wide range of food was available on any one day.  But that range varied wildly throughout the year, as, with horses the primary form of transport, things could not easily or quickly be brought long distances and stay fresh (or anything close to it).  There were some vendors, who sold to the nobility, who did have special carriages designed to transport food with large blocks of ice to preserve it longer, but obtaining the ice was costly (in summer – winter made that a lot easier…..).

Once the daily shopping was done (and that could be a huge thing in itself, for a large home of the aristocracy, especially if a Ball or other large entertainment was planned), and everything brought home, how was it stored?

Almost all houses had cellars.  Not just for wine (although that was stored there too), but for food storage.  Why a cellar? because cellars are colder than above ground, and stay that way for most of the year, kept cool by the earth around them.  If it was available at that time of year, and could be afforded, blocks of ice might also be bought and put in the cellar to make it colder still. So foods that needed to be kept fresh (like meats and fruit) were stored in cellars.  But cellars could be a bit damp, so foods that needed to stay dry (like flour, nuts, dried fruit, dried herbs etc) were stored in large pantry rooms on the ground floor of the house, usually next to the kitchen.

Purchased foods were also supplemented by foods grown in the kitchen garden attached to the house (almost all houses in the country would have a food producing garden, and any house in the city with even a small amount of garden would have part of it planted with herbs and foods). Herb gardens were very popular with the nobility, because they could be pretty, and smell wonderful, as well as provide flavours for their food, and materials for perfumes, lotions, clothes fresheners etc.

Food preserving techniques were also used whenever possible, from making jams and other preserves, to drying food, to pickling, salting, storing in oil, or storing in alcohols.  Many of the foods that we have today came into existence because someone was looking for a way to make their meagre food supplies last longer, or to keep the flavours of summer available in winter.

So next time you eat a delicious antipasto platter, or have jam on toast, think about how inventive people were in earlier times, and be thankful!

« Older posts