Immerse Yourself in Regency Historical Romance

Category: Regency Trivia (Page 2 of 4)

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.



This wallpaper was designed by William Morris.

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.


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!

Greenery as Christmas Decorations

For many centuries, long before any artificially created things were used as Christmas decorations, various forms of green growing things were used.  In
the Regency era, whilst some decorations made form paper and other items were beginning to be used, by far the greatest amount of decoration was still greenery.

In the UK, before Christmas Trees became popular (in the 1830s – they were
first introduced from Germany, in about 1800, by the royal family) and dating
back to the middle ages, a popular form of Christmas / mid-winter decoration
was the Kissing Bough or Bunch. These were made of five wooden hoops that made the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and then the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were covered with Holly, Ivy, Rosemary, Bay, Fir or other evergreen plants. Inside the hoops were hung red apples (often hung from red ribbons) and a candle was either put inside the ball at the bottom or multiple candles were tied around the horizontal hoop. The bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball. (For a simpler bough you could also just have a horizontal hoop decorated and hung with apples and the mistletoe.)

Most Christmas greenery, whilst often originally used in non Christian or pre-Christian cultures, when adopted by Christian countries was imbued with a Christian meaning. many of these meanings related to the ability of the evergreen plants to survive through the harshness of winter.

Holly – The prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. The berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns. In Scandinavia it is known as the Christ Thorn. In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old tradition from the Midlands of England says that whatever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve.

Ivy – Ivy has to cling to something to support itself as it grows. This reminds us that we need to cling to God for support in our lives. In Germany, it is traditional that Ivy is only used outside and a piece tied to the outside of a Church was supposed to protect it from lightning!

Laurel, Fir and Yew, Rosemary and many other plants were all also allocated meanings in the context of the Christian faith and Christmas. So, in Regency times, decorating your house with Christmas greenery was also a statement of your faith in God, and a sign of your family’s adherence to the church.

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

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 – 

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!

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