Arietta Richmond - Author

Immerse Yourself in Regency Historical Romance

What were all those servants called????

In my books, I strive for good historical accuracy (allowing for a little artistic licence here and there), and one of the challenges at the start was making sure that I got the names of things right, where those things don’t really exist today.  One of the things in that category is the plethora of servant roles. So this post
is all about that.

Any story set in the Regency period will, of necessity, feature lots of servants –
because the nobility / aristocracy of the time had huge numbers of servants.

Having servants was not simply ostentation – it was actually a requirement of having a title or a lot of wealth – all of those servant roles were the main employment of the era – it was a wealthy person’s responsibility to keeping the economy of the country afloat, to employ as many people as possible.

But from our point of view toady, it seems a bit overwhelming, and confusing – who did what? What were the names of each of those roles? (and note – names of things back then did not have to be politically correct – they were gendered, and to the point.)

So – here is a glossary of servant roles in the Regency period.

In the house

Butler

The senior servant in the house, responsible for oversight of all other male servants (except in some cases, where a Lord might have a steward who was responsible for all of their estates, in which case the Butler also answered to the Steward, as the Butler was only for a single house). Butlers also were not necessarily responsible for managing tutors, who might come in each day just to teach.  Responsible for making everything run smoothly, for the security of the silverware and other valuables, and for the quality of service.

Housekeeper

The senior female servant in the House, responsible for oversight of all other female staff (except for the Companion or Governess, if there is one). Responsible for ensuring that the linens, draperies etc are maintained in good order, that the rooms are cleaned as needed, that the items needed for the kitchens (as specified by the Cook) are available, and that the female servants are cared for and protected from abuse.

Cook / Chef

Responsible for the kitchen for that establishment. Manages the scullery maids and any kitchen boys. Responsible for food ordering, and for planning menus, in consultation with the mistress of the house and the housekeeper. Also manages the storage of food and avoids waste.  In a big house, there may be second cooks, who answer to the senior cook.

Scullery maids

Work in the kitchen, under the Cook’s direction. Scrub benches, tables, pots and keep things clean, also may be called upon to cut up food and help with other prep work.

Kitchen Boys

Do the dirty work in the kitchens – keep the fires going, cart coal or wood, cart away the rubbish, take the food scraps out to the compost heap. Turn the spit if there is a spit to cook whole animals, carry water where there is no running water.

House maids

Responsible for keeping the house clean and tidy. Each maid will be allocated certain rooms to keep clean – dust and mess free, with everything in its place, and making sure that there is always coal in the coal scuttle beside each fire place, ready to go. The larger the house, and the wealthier the owner, the smaller number of rooms that each maid will likely have to look after, and the more maids there will be.

Ladies maids

Generally, each lady living in the house would have a dedicated Lady’s maid, to help her dress, to do her hair, and generally to look after her in any way that was needed.  Sometimes, two sisters might share a maid. The maid was expected to have sewing / clothing repair skills, cleaning skills, hairdressing skills, skill with cosmetics and more.

The Lady’s maid was the top of the hierarchy of maids, with greater privileges, including often receiving her mistresses cast off dresses – which, even when they were ‘too old and unfashionable’ for the Lady, could easily be reworked into higher quality dresses than the maid might ever have otherwise.

Footmen

Footmen were the ubiquitous method of getting anything done.  They might be tasked with staying in the foyer, ready to open the door, or might each have a section of the house where they simply waited in the halls, ready to run errands or do whatever was needed.  There was a hierarchy here as well – some tasks were more desirable than others. Footmen might also accompany a lady when she went shopping, ready to carry her parcels. Pretty much any time that someone pulled the bell rope to summon a servant to get something done, the one who answered was a footman, even if the task then required action by someone else.

Nanny

If the household had young children, there was usually a nanny. The Nanny was the senior childcare servant and might have nursery maids to help her – the more children, the more nursery maids. The nanny was also usually responsible for the children’s first, very basic, education – in manners, and in simple reading and numbers.

Nursery maid

Nursery maids did the tedious bits of childcare – from changing nappies, to being the one up at all hours of the night, to providing entertainment for teething children. They took children out for walks in the park (note, early baby carriages barely existed yet, so often they carried the children), and amused the children. They also had to deal with washing all of those nappies….

Valet

The Valet, like the Lady’s maid, was a role with status.  The valet was the gentleman’s personal servant, responsible for helping him dress, caring for his clothes, shaving him, polishing his boots and more.  A good valet could tie a perfect cravat in multiple styles and could dress a man’s hair in the fashion of the day. He was also likely to receive the gentleman’s cast off clothes, and was expected to be very discreet about the gentleman’s day to day affairs, which he was almost always aware of.

Governess

A Governess was employed to teach younger children – usually girls, but sometimes also very young boys. A Governess was an odd position, hallway between a normal servant, and a gently born lady. Often, women of the upper classes, whose families had fallen on hard times, would take employment as a governess. It was regarded as one of the only acceptable roles for a well born lady, if she had to work. The governess taught young girls manners, ladylike skills (painting, music, singing, dancing, languages and more) and prepared them for their role in society.

Companion

A Companion was employed to keep an older woman, or a single woman, company – this provided a layer of propriety, as well as giving an older widow (for example) someone to talk to, in their daily life. Companions, like governesses, were in that grey area between servant and the nobly born. They were often from good families fallen on hard times, or they were distant cousins from the poor side of the family.

Tutor

A Tutor was employed to teach boys, before they reached the age where they were sent off to boarding schools. The Tutor taught languages, maths, science and potentially other subjects which were regarded as suitable for boys. Like governesses, tutors might be of gentle birth, but from a poorer family, but they might also be from a commoner family, but be  a man who had done well for himself and become learned. They might live with the family, or come in each day to teach, and live elsewhere.

In the stables / outside the house

Stable master

The Stable master was responsible for all staff based in the stable area. He was also responsible for ensuring that the horses, carriages and equipment were maintained in excellent condition. He was responsible for ordering feed supplies and making certain that the quality received was good.

Groom

A groom looks after horses.  That means ensuring that they are fed and watered correctly, that they are groomed (brushed, washed if needed etc), that they are shod (the groom takes them to the farrier, who, in a small town, may also be the blacksmith), that their feet are cleaned out and kept in good condition, that they are brought to wherever the owner needs them, that they are walked to cool down after working and more.  Each groom may be responsible for one or more horses, depending on the scale of the establishment.  Grooms also rode and were responsible for keeping the horses exercised if the owner did not use them often. (A horse not exercise becomes bored, and often then fractious when next ridden). When ladies went out for a ride, a groom would accompany them – for propriety, and to help them if needed.  Many women could not mount up onto a sidesaddle without a mounting block or a hand up from a groom.

Stablehands

Stablehands did the dirty work of the stables (although the worst of it was often left to the stableboys, if there were any working there.).  This includes cleaning out the stalls, carting the manure away to the manure pile, laying fresh straw, hauling large amounts of hay in and out of the hayloft, lugging bags of grain about, cleaning harness, saddles etc, washing saddlecloths and horse rugs, cleaning and polishing carriages and generally helping to get everything done. They rarely, if ever, rode.

Stableboys

Stableboys were the bottom of the pecking order in the stables.  They were usually young, and hoping to move up over time (a bit like an apprenticeship). They got the worst jobs of the lots – whatever the grooms and stablehands didn’t want to do. They were the ones who got to stand out in the cold, waiting for the master to come home, so that they could be there to take his horse, they got to shovel the manure pile onto the waste cart when it came to collect it, and to be up first in the cold winter mornings, to break the ice on water troughs etc.

Tiger

A Tiger was a young boy, fairly small, who went with the Lord when he was using a carriage which he drove himself.  The boy travelled on a small step or seat on the rear of the carriage and was therefore available when the Lord stopped somewhere to jump down and hold the horses. Tigers often learnt to drive the carriages, so that they could move them if needed while the owner was off doing whatever he had come to do.

Coachman

The coachman drove the carriages. This was a well respected position, requiring considerable skill, especially for the larger vehicles.  If a family was wealthy, they might have many carriages, and a number of coachmen, one of whom would be the senior one and who would manage the others. The coachman was responsible for ensuring that the coaches were well maintained and that the carriage horses were well cared for by the other stable staff.

Studmaster

If the Lord chose to breed horses, he would have a Studmaster, who was responsible for all breeding related activities on the Lord’s estates. This included choosing horses to buy, choosing which mares to breed to which stallion, overseeing the breaking to saddle of the horses, overseeing the choice of which foals to sell and which to keep and more.

Farrier

A farrier specialises in making horse shoes and fitting them to horses, as well as in the science of trimming and shaping the horses hoof so that the horse is comfortable, and his stride is also smoother for the rider. Farriers also often dealt with the necessary horse dentistry. In small towns, the blacksmith might also be the farrier. In a larger town they would be separate.  A lord with a very large estate and lots of horses might employ his own farrier.

Estate manager

A Lord might have an estate manager, who managed a single country estate for him. Occasionally, the estate manager might manage more than one property, but generally the steward did that, overseeing estate managers on each location. The estate manager was responsible for ensuring that the property was well run, the tenants cottages well cared for, the farms well run, and the harvests profitable.

Gardener

Every estate or house (even London townhouses which had smallish gardens) had at least one gardener, usually more. The gardeners not only cared for the formal gardens of ‘pretty flowers’ but they cared for the kitchen gardens, which provided much of the fresh produce used by each household, and for the herb and scent gardens, which provided the herbs for cooking, healing and providing pleasant scents (like lavender to put in a lady’s dressing room, to keep her clothes smelling good). There was a hierarchy of gardeners – a head gardener, and others that he managed.

Groundsman

A Groundsman had a wider remit than a gardener. He might also be responsible (mainly on country estates) for the state of the gravel on the driveway, the state of fences, of gates and of other structures, as well as coordinating any forestry activity required.

Gatekeeper

On large country estates, the driveway might be long – often, a small cottage was built near the gate, and a gatekeeper employed to live there, and open and close the gates as required.

Elsewhere

Jarvey

Jarvey was a term for a man who drove a hackney cab. It was also sometimes used to indicate any coachman who drove a hired coach.

Doorman

A Doorman was a servant employed at establishments such as gentleman’s clubs, to mind the door, welcome approved guests, and turn away those not welcome.

Usher

An Usher was a role performed at large functions, where there were many guests (such as at a large Ball). There might be a person employed just for that, but it was more likely that a footman was appointed to the task for the event. The Usher announced the guests to the people already present, as they entered the room.

Messenger boy

Messengers were everywhere. With no telephones, and no way to communicate other then in writing, huge numbers of short letters were sent every day. Within cities, there were children who earned their living delivering messages for people of all stations.  Whilst an aristocratic family might send one of their own footmen with a message, others had no choice but to use whatever messenger boy they could find, lurking about in hope of work.

Crossing sweeper

Because of the literally hundreds of thousands of horses in London (carriages, ridden, pulling delivery carts etc etc), the streets were perpetually littered with manure, among other rubbish. In areas where the wealthy went to shop, or go to the theatre etc, there were enterprising urchins who made brooms out of straw and sticks, and who swept the road in front of the pedestrians, in exchange for a coin. This allowed the wealthy to keep their shoes and hems clean. In winter, when there was snow, the snow rapidly became filthy, and crossing sweepers did a good trade.

Steward

The Steward was a very high ranking man within the Lord’s employ. He managed all of the Lord’s estates as an entity, making sure that the Lord’s holdings were profitable overall, and that resources were used where needed, to balance out any issues that might occur in a single location. He generally worked closely with the Lord’s man of business.

Man of Business

The Lord’s man of business was similar to your family Solicitor or Lawyer today. He kept legal records for the Lord, assisted with investment and banking, drew up contracts, dealt with any legal issues and more. He was usually very trusted and had the deepest knowledge of the actual state of the Lord’s accounts.

Modiste

Modistes were the highly expensive upper-class version of a seamstress – the equivalent of French haute couture brands today. Generally, they ran a business, and created gowns for multiple clients (gentleman’s outfitters were a separate thing). Occasionally, a wealthy lady might employ a modiste exclusively, but that was rare.

Names never to be used

Groomsman

This is not a job title from the era! It is a male attendant at a twentieth century or later wedding, but has nothing to do with Regency (or horses).

Attendant

This is a modern, gender neutral term that we use for people performing service roles at events etc now. It is not a term that was ever used in that way in the Regency era. Job roles then were very gendered, and this was not a term used in that way.

Servant

This is not a specific job role. Servant is a generic term for anyone in service. So using it to describe a person in a Lord’s household tells you nothing about what they do – use the specific terms instead.

 

I hope that you found that interesting (and useful).

Lighting – How Did They Light Their Homes?

Now, when we walk into our homes we can just flip a light switch and have instant bright light. That wasn’t so in Regency times – electric lighting was many
many years away, and gas lighting was only just coming into existence – very expensive and somewhat dangerous still.

So – how did they light things? In an earlier post I touched on this and talked about such things as  chandeliers in ballrooms, and lighting in large wealthy homes. Today, I want to look in more detail at the simple aspects of lighting in daily life, in the homes of the common people as well as the wealthy.

Lets start with an obvious fact that we, today, forget – all lighting, back then, involved flame. Whether it was a candle, or an oil lamp, or just the light from the fire in the hearth, flame was involved. In a sense, lighting your home was dangerous! Once it got dark for the evening, unless you were wealthy enough to afford very expensive pure beeswax candles, in large quantities, you really could not see well enough to read much, or to do detailed work (like embroidery etc). So the options to keep yourself busy were limited!

In midwinter, in England, when it got light at 9.30 in the morning and was dark again by 3.30 or so in the afternoon, it was rather challenging to get much done at all. Candles and lamps also give off smoke – and if you are using cheap tallow candles, that smoke smells and is greasy – it ends up putting a dirty layer on the walls and the furniture of your rooms. So people tended to minimise the amount of time that candles were burnt (also because candles were somewhat expensive.)

Scholars, who read a lot by candlelight, seamstresses, who sewed long into the night by candlelight, and people in similar situations, all tended to go blind early in life, from the eyestrain.

Most houses were not at all well lit, simply to reduce the cost of all those candles.  Massive numbers of candles in a house, and in chandeliers for a Ball, was pretty much a conspicuous declaration of how wealthy you were. Similarly, the fact that the ton could afford to sleep until midday, and stay out until 2 or 3 am, was also only possible due to the wealth that was expended on lighting the homes and clubs they frequented.

There were some clever things done to get more light out of each candle.  Early chandeliers applied the same principle that makes mirror balls fun  – lots of bits of crystal, and in some cases mirrors, made up the chandeliers, so the light as multiplied by all of the reflective surfaces.  Similarly, even though mirrors were expensive, the ballrooms and reception rooms of houses of the wealthy might have a wall lined with mirrors, specifically to multiply the light at night.

The same principle applies to many closed lantern types – either oil lanterns or candle lanterns, where the inside of the metal lantern body had mirrors on it. When the front shutter was opened, the light that came out was multiplied by all of the internal reflections in the lantern.

But, the end result of all this was still that, if you wanted to get up in the middle of the night, you had to light a candle somehow, and anywhere you went in the house at night, you had to carry a candle with you, or feel your way about in the dark.

Next time you read a book where everyone is wandering about stately homes at night, or reading, or writing etc, after dark, spare a thought for how it really was, with all of those candles, and dark flickering shadows in the corners!

What was Regency Food Like?

Today, we don’t think a lot about our food – we can get most any kind of food, all year round, just with a quick trip to our local supermarket. So we eat whatever grabs our attention, whatever we particularly like, maybe what’s on special, or what we can afford. But we don’t think about what went into making that
food available to us.

In Regency times, there were far more limitations on food. There was no
global transport infrastructure, beyond ships that took months to go from
one part of the world to another. There was no refrigeration (although snow
and ice was used in winter, and there was a trade in big blocks of ice cut from
the high snowbound mountain tops and transported to the cities for those who could afford it), and there were limited, very expensive, greenhouses.

So food was grown and used in fairly close local areas. Food that could be transported further had to be foods which were preserved in some way (pickles, jams, salted meats, alcohol etc). And, most importantly, food was only available when it was in season, in the relatively close district.That meant that many foods were only available for a few months each year.

In Winter, food options were limited, unless you were fabulously wealthy, and could afford to have a greenhouse, with hot air piped from a system based on a wood-burning boiler, on your property, and a dedicated gardener to grow foods out of season. Most poorer people lived through winter on stored vegetables, which were kept in cellars, so that the cold of the earth made them last longer, plus porridge and other ‘gruel-like’ things, with small amounts of meats and the old stored vegetables added. plus apples etc that were months old, and shrivelled as a result.

Sugar, salt and spices were enormously expensive, so they were not often available to ordinary people. Food could get very bland.

For the aristocracy, who could afford the best, it was still a challenge to get it. The ‘things don’t grow much in winter’ issue still existed, as did the fact that foods have a season. Some things could be brought from France or Spain by ship, if they were items that could stand a few days to a week or so in transit, without refrigeration – but you can imagine the cost!

Meat was also a challenge, even for those who could afford it. With no refrigeration, meat needed to either be salted and preserved in some way, or to be consumed within a day or two of the animal being slaughtered – or it went off, especially in summer.  The creation of heavily spiced dishes, in many parts of the world, was a direct result of them needing to disguise the taste of slightly off meat.

So for our aristocratic heroes and heroines, who blithely eat opulent many course meals, there was always a cook or a chef and a small army of kitchen servants, working in the background, to do miracles with whatever was available in that location, in that season. One of the reasons that the wealthy had country estates was that those estates not only provided income from the produce that was sold, but also ensured the best possible variety of foods available on the table of the estate’s noble owner.

Next time you trundle that shopping trolley through the supermarket, and pick up fresh fruit or veg with a label that says ‘produce of XXX’ where XXX is a country on the other side of the world, spare a though for people in the regency era, and the limitations they faced with food!

How Many Servants did the Nobility / Aristocracy Have?

For people today, it’s hard to imagine having a house full of servants – our first thought is of how expensive that would be. And often, our second thought is about how little privacy that would allow!

So – lets look at that topic. The first thing to understand is that that there
were very few tools to automate anything back then – so people did all the
work. And if you were wealthy, especially if you were nobly born, you did not want to do all that work for yourself – so you employed people to do it for you.

It was a Lord’s responsibility to provide employment for the people who lived on his estates, and in the surrounding district, or, in London, to provide employment for a decent number of people. The British economy, until the Industrial Revolution, was driven by the employment provided by the wealthy. To be employed in an important Lord’s house was something to be proud of, and gave the person status amongst the community.

But what does this mean in terms of numbers?

In a huge country house, there might be hundreds of servants – yes, literally hundreds, from the boy who cleaned out the ashes from the fireplaces, up to the estate manager, who managed all of the Lord’s interests for that estate, or multiple estates. Every task you can think of (and probably quite a few that won’t even occur to you) might have a person or persons dedicated to getting it done. Many would live in the mansion, some in outbuildings, or above the stables, and some in the nearby villages.

In a London townhouse, which might be almost as big as that country mansion, there might be 100 servants, although not all of them would live in on the premises. A wealthy person was never out of hearing range of at least one servant – if they yelled, someone would come, to see what they needed. (although they usually rang bells, rather than yelling!) So, no, there wasn’t much in the way of privacy. But the wealthy did not see it that way, usually – servants were almost part of the furniture (which is why they always knew all the gossip, because the wealthy would forget they were there….), and were ignored, as if they were invisible, until they were needed.

Some wealthy families did treat their long terms servants differently, especially Nannies and Butlers etc, who became closer to the family over many years – but still, the social divide prevented anything so rash as friendship.

For the wealthy, employing many staff was not an extravagance – it was a duty to society, to ensure that people had employment, and that the economy thrived. So next time you read of a hero or heroine who is perpetually surrounded by servants, realise that they are not ridiculously privileged, they are just fulfilling their duty to society.

Ladies’ Clothing Styles – How was the Regency Era Different ?

This is for those of you who care about fashion, about just what the ladies’ dresses looked like, and notice how that is presented on book covers. I am
pretty sure that you find it confusing – one book will have a dress that’s obviously very corseted, with huge ruffled skirts, and the next will have a
dress that has a high waist, and fairly slim line flowing skirts – so which is
accurate?

And why is what’s on book covers so diverse?

The Regency era is a bit of a ‘blip’ in women’s clothing history. In the late 1700s, women’s outfits were generally lower waisted,  with voluminous skirts and fitted bodices, over a fairly firm corsetting. After about 1825, women’s clothing went back in that direction – lower waists, big skirts, strong corsets and fitted, higher necked bodices, culminating in the extreme shapes of the Victorian fashions of the late 1800s.

In between, the Regency fashion was very different – high waists (empire line), softer corsetting (stays), loose, flowing skirts that mostly fell close around the body, light fabrics, low necklines – a far more comfortable set of styles that those of either side of that era.  It was described, by some fashion historians, as, compared to the fashions either side of it, ‘the era of nakedness’, because they regarded the regency fashions as so revealing compared to the early Georgian or Victorian fashions.

1785                   1798                   1805             1811 (riding habit)   1816                   1833

So – why do so many book covers show what are really Georgian  or Victorian dresses?

There are a couple of reasons –

  • Reader expectations – people expect historical romance books to feature women with big flowing skirts, spread out around them
  • Cover designer’s convenience – its far easier to make a book title stand out in a way that is easily readable, if its against a consistent colour area – usually the wide spread skirts of the dress!
  • Ignorance – often the cover designer has no idea about fashions in the era, and isn’t paid enough to want to take the time to do the research.
  • Artistic licence – even if its not quite right, it looks pretty….

Reality – there wasn’t some day in 1800 or so when everyone suddenly changed what they wore, nor in 1825 or so.  Fashion changes gradually, as the daring introduce new things, and others copy them. And when fashion changes, not everyone follows it – the older ladies, who had spent most of their life already wearing the bigger skirted and lower waisted styles often stuck to those, in defiance of fashion.

Most of the prints from the era that we see are evening wear – but day wear had much more variation – warmer styles with higher necklines for winter, fitted bodices almost like a military jacket for riding habits, etc. And, of course, as is true today, to some extent, your wealth made a difference – the very wealthy could afford many changes of clothes, and to buy new things when the fashion changed – but the poorer you were, the less you could afford – so you likely had to wear clothes a few years out of date – and therefore out of fashion.

So, to some extent, covers reflect the diversity found in reality.  For book covers, unless the image shows something centuries inaccurate, just forgive the variance, and appreciate the art!

Why did the aristocracy look down on those engaged in trade?

No doubt you’ve seen it, in my books and in other author’s regency set books –
the moment when a member of an aristocratic family makes a sneering remark
about ‘sullying your hands with trade’. But why did they think about it that
way?

Lets look at how all of the titled and nobly born people got their money.  All
of those big country estates weren’t just for looking impressive. The land was farmed, both by tenant farmers, who paid a large tithe of a percentage of their harvest to the Lord, as well as their rent, and by farmers employed by the Lord.

All of that produce was sold, and that was what produced the income from each estate, which, when combined from a number of estates, made for a handsome annual income. Lords might also invest in business ventures – they did not run the businesses themselves, but let others, of the ‘merchant class’ be the ones to do the ‘dirty’ job of actually working. The Lords were just financial partners, who took a large dividend in the form of their share of profits.

A Lord might be involved in planning the management of his estates, but would still have an estate manager to implement his decisions. To the average person of noble birth, working was what servants and farmers did. Professional men (lawyers, professors, doctors etc) were on a thin line between acceptable and not, for, whilst they worked, they were well qualified and reasonably respected.

But anyone else who worked was a person of the lower classes, who could not afford to live without working. This ingrained prejudice began to be severely challenges around 1800, as two things happened – the industrial revolution, and the vast expansion in British colonial trade. Suddenly, there were merchants who were wealthier than some Lords – their businesses, especially import businesses and factories, flourished, and the merchants did not have huge ancestral estates with hundreds of servants, to maintain, so they kept a far larger share of their profits as cash at bank.

The fact that there were merchants with more money than them drastically offended many of the aristocracy. What made it even worse, was that these merchants began to be accepted on the fringes of high society – why? Because the merchants had daughters – daughters whom they could afford to settle very large dowries upon. And desperate, impoverished Lords often decided that a beautiful woman who came with lots of money, was acceptable, even tainted with merchant origins. Those who did marry the merchant’s daughters were sneered at in public, and often envied in private.

Between 1800 and 1840, it became progressively more obvious that, in the world then, it was a rare Lord who could survive at the standard of living he wanted, purely from the income from his estates. And, as more Lords invested in businesses, more of them became, almost by accident, drawn in to the complex and interesting daily workings of successful industry. The lines between high society and the lower classes were blurring.

So, next time you read about a Lord sneering at ‘sullying your hands with trade’ consider his emotional state, consider the rather terrible social trap he was caught in, as the world changed around him.

The Unexpected Cost of Green Wallpaper

From around 1778 onwards, green became an increasingly popular colour.
The brighter the green the better.

Why?  For many centuries, prior to that time, most dyes available produces colours that were somewhat muted and ‘dirty’ to the eye – very few colours
were very clean and bright (Royal Purple is called that, because it was one of
the few dyes that was intense and bright, and it was so expensive, to make, coming from murex shells, that it was restricted, by law, for the use of royalty
in many countries).

So, as brighter lighting via gas lights etc came into being, there was a big drive for chemists to find new dyes, that would make colours that stood out brightly at any time, night or day. As with anything new, getting bright colours, be they in your dress, your carpet, or your wallpaper, was a sign of wealth – because new technologies cost more.

Britain became obsessed with green, from when a Swedish chemist, Carl Scheele, came up with a bright green dye, in 1778, which was created using copper arsenide. The green was used everywhere – in clothes, in wallpaper, in paint and in carpet, among other things.

Soon, huge numbers of houses in England had bright green patterned wallpaper, as a way of being at the height of fashion. Soon after, people began to die.

Yes, die. because the colours used were not ‘sealed’ or ‘fixed’ in any way – just touching the wallpaper could transfer arsenic to your skin, colour would flake off, fabric would be leaching poison into your skin as you wore it, children playing on a green carpet would be being poisoned by it, and the wallpaper would be slowly leaching fumes into the air of the room you slept or worked in.

Of course, at first, no one knew this, and deaths were attributed to all sorts of other things. But, as the years passed, doctors and others became suspicious – those suspicions were aided by the terrible deaths of the workers who made the green dyed items. But the public struggled to believe that wallpaper or fabric could kill you, by transferring invisible poisons – it seemed highly unlikely to them.

The main wallpaper manufacturer, famed for green wallpaper, was William Morris – these days better know as an art deco artist, for the wallpaper patterns that he created – most of which were monumentally poisonous. He refused to believe the truth about the arsenic danger in his wallpaper, and stubbornly continued using it into the late 1870s.

Image © 2016 Crown Copyright, The National Archives, Kew| C. E. & J. G. Potter, Lancashire, UK, 1856 |James Boswell, Dublin, Ireland, 1846 | Christopher Dresser for William Cooke, Leeds, UK, 1860 | C. E. & J. G. Potter, Lancashire, UK, 1856


CREDIT: 2016 CROWN COPYRIGHT, THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, KEW/ CORBIÈRE, SON & BRINDLE, LONDON, UK, 1879

Part of the challenge for doctors in understanding it, was that a healthy adult might barely be affected by the same amount of arsenic which would kill a child or a frail elder. Equally not understood then was the fact that the more protein a person had in their diet, the more arsenic their body could deal with, without terrible effect.

So… it took until the 1860s for people in general to believe it, and for manufacturers to begin using dyes other than copper arsenide. It took until the early 1900s for everyone to truly believe that arsenic was that poisonous and that easily transferred out of other items into the human body.

So – when you read about clothes or wallpaper in the Regency era being ‘a brilliant shade of green’ think about it – whoever lived with those colours was heading for a slow and painful death!

Pens and Pencils

Today, pens and pencils are ubiquitous. Most people have dozens of pens lying about their house, usually labelled with the name of a business that they have dealt with. We can buy pens and pencils in boxes at cheap $2 shops.  But it wasn’t
always that way.

In Regency times, there were no ball point pens!  Those were not invented
until the 1900s. The main writing instruments were quill pens – a large
feather, usually the primary wing feathers of goose, turkey or swan, with the pointy tip of the feather shaft sharpened to a precise shape for use as the nib.

Whilst a person might sharpen their own quill, it required some skill and time.

Feathers were first stripped of their barbs and the natural grease coating scraped away. The feather was then hardened by heat treating in sand. A super sharp specialized quill knife formed the pen. Because of the curve of the feather, left-wing feathers are best for right-handed penmen and vice versa.  While most quill knives could be used to mend a pen, most people carried a smaller “pen knife” for the task. So most people of any means purchased their quills pre-shaped and sharpened, in bulk.

Because the shaft of a feather is permeable, as a quill was used, it absorbed some ink, and became softer, eventually getting too ‘squishy’ to be used to write.  At which point it was wiped, and set aside to dry, and harden again. A long letter might involve the use of multiple quills.

There were also ‘quill nib’ pens – pens made of metal, as a holder for a short nib cut from a quill.

A quill nib in a nineteenth-century gold-plated penholder.  Also shown is a far more durable steel nib, mass produced in Birmingham, England, starting in the 1820s.

There were also early fountain pens available, which used quill nibs. These were very expensive (2 pounds, which might be a months wages for a worker) and there fore not available to many people.

Pencils were around from the 1500s, but were not necessarily cheap!

Sometime in the 1560’s (the exact date is unknown) a chance event occurred which became the turning point in the development of the modern pencil. Local lore tells of a fierce storm In Cumberland, England, which uprooted a large tree where shepherds discovered a strange black substance clinging to its roots. The locals quickly discovered this to be very useful for marking their sheep, and then gradually its application for writing was developed. By the end of the 16th Century graphite was well known throughout Europe for its superior line-making qualities, its eraseability, and the ability to re-draw on top of it with ink, which is not possible with lead or charcoal. The substance was initially called Wadd, and also became known as white lead, black lead, bleiweiss, grafio piombino, bismuth, and plumbago. The Borrowdale deposit remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form.

The technique for encasing the graphite in wood emerged from the woodworking craft of joiners, with the original process involving cutting a lengthwise groove into a strip of wood, gluing strips of pure graphite into the groove one against the next until it was filled, sawing off the protruding pieces to flattness, then gluing a piece of wood on top to cover the wadd. The wood assembly could then be used in this square shape, or shaved to a round form.

So – making pencils took quite a bit of fiddly labour! There were no automated machines for creating the pencils until the 1860s.

Next time you read a regency story, and the character writes a letter, or draws with a pencil, pause a moment an consider just how wealthy they are to be able to afford both the paper and the pens or pencils!

Hay – Feeding Animals in the Early 1800s

In Regency times, there were hundreds of thousands of horses in England, all needing food every day. Whilst highly bred horses might be fed grain (usually
oats, the same as today, and sometimes linseed mash), most horses had a
major part, or all of their food in the form of hay. (so did many cows, especially
in winter)  That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

But… if you think of hay today, you think of bales of hay – either big round
ones, or smaller square ones. And that’s where  this gets interesting. The
machines that squash hay into bales and tie the bales up were not invented until
the mid 1800s. Before then, hay was just a loose pile of dried grasses or grain stubble. Not very compact, and very easy to make a mess with.

When the hay was harvested, it was piled up in big haystacks in the fields.  Then, they came along with huge wagons, and used pitchforks to put the hay up onto the wagons.  The wagons were taken to their stables, and the wagon was actually driven inside the building, where men stood on the back of it and used the pitchforks again, to ‘pitch’ the hay up into the hayloft, which was basically a big empty second storey over the stables.

Why did they store it up in a loft, instead of at ground level?

For a number of reasons:

  • It was easier to keep tidy when it was constrained in a building.
  • Being up of the ground, it did not get wet (as wet hay goes mouldy and makes horses sick)
  • It allowed them to simply shovel some down through the loft hatch each day, to be fed to the animals
  • In winter, when it was snowy outside, the hay was already in the building where it would be used, warm and dry
  • In winter, that layer of hay above the stables worked like insulation, and kept the whole building warmer

The only disadvantage to this, is that a loft full of hay is a rather large fire risk – so care had to be taken, in an era when lights at night were candles.

So, next time you are reading a Regency story, and someone goes to feed the horses, spare a thought for the fact that they had to climb up into a loft, shovel great piles of loose hay down through a hatch, then pick it all up in loose bundles to carry to where it needed to be. (And loose hay is itchy scratchy stuff….). Nowhere near as easy as cutting the strings on a neat square bale, peeling a single ‘biscuit’ off and carrying that!

Paper in the Early 1800s

Today, the first thing that comes to mind when asked “What’s paper made from?” is ‘Trees’ or ‘Wood’. People assume automatically that paper is made from wood, that paper and wood are synonymous.

But in fact, paper has been made from wood only since the mid-1800s; until
the 1850s, paper was made from recycled linen and cotton rags. In England
before the mid 1600s, in most cases, the only ‘paper’ available was parchment
or vellum – parchment is the skin of a sheep or goat that’s been prepared
for writing; vellum is a fine parchment made from the skins of calves, lambs
or kids. It was, as a result, very expensive, and in limited supply.

Once the idea of making paper from linen, cotton, hemp and similar fibres really took hold (it was introduced to Europe around 1000 from China, by way of the Arab nations), it spread slowly. Rag based paper existed in England from around the 1300s, but the scale of production was small. By the mid 1700s, the demand had risen so much that rags were worth a great deal of money, and there were laws in parts of Europe forbidding trade in rags outside national boundaries (so, of course, people smuggled them).

The demand drove change. Throughout the eighteenth century, there was an intense search in Europe and the U.S. for a new fiber source of paper. Contests were held, universities offered prizes, and inventors and laboratories worked feverishly to come up with a new source for paper. Inventors would often print a book on their newly-invented paper that described how the paper was made. And so we ended up with books printed on paper made from asbestos, straw, swamp grass, marsh mallow, and esparto dune grass from certain beaches in Spain.

In the early 1800s the crisis in demand for rags was made worse by the progressive invention of better printing presses, and the rising demand for books from the wealthy classes. The first patent for a paper using deinked waste paper as part of its fiber source was issued in 1800 in London. It was not until the 1840s that the initial development of the papermaking machine in England and experiments in ground wood pulping in Germany and Nova Scotia enabled the commercial production of paper, which used wood fibre as part of its composition.

So – when your read about books in Regency stories, or about characters pulling out a sheet of paper to write on, those books and writing papers are made of rag fibre, and are very expensive. No-one wasted paper, unless they were unbelievably wealthy.

Crossed

This is also why letters of the time were often ‘crossed’ – (see image above) where the writing was written on the page in one direction, and then the paper was turned 90 degrees and the person continued writing in lines which ‘crossed’ the first loot of writing – all to save paper. Which made it remarkably hard to read what your correspondent had to say! (and has made it extraordinarily difficult for historians to transcribe the letters of historical figures, even when they are well preserved.

So next time you scrunch up a sheet of paper in frustration, throw it away, and start again, consider that, in the Regency era, you would have been throwing away what could amount to a month’s wages for a poor person!

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