Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Perchta and the History of Oliebollen

It's the night before New Year's Eve and Willie Wilde's best friend, Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (Tex) comes to call on him at Lady Jane's house. A Dutchman, Tex brings with him a basket full of pastries and, knowing how much Lady Jane loves folktales, a story! This might, or might not, have happened, but is the pretext I'm using to write about olibollen.

Oliebollen are a traditional Dutch food eaten at New Year's. The name literally translates to "oil balls" and they were the inspiration for the American invention of the donut. I was always made to understand that these treats are so fattening that it would be bad for you to eat them more than once a year, but the history of Oliebollen and the story Tex would have told Lady Jane are the real New Year's treat.

Imagine, Willie, Lady Jane, and Tex sit around the fire. Lady Jane's servant, Mrs Faithful brings them a warm plate of oliebollen and three cups of whiskey and eggnog. Willie and Lady Jane get powdered sugar on their faces and clothes, as they take their first bites of this doughy pastry with bits of apple, raisins, and dried cranberries, and Tex tells them about Perchta.
Family portrait: Perchta, Krampus Jr., Krampus, and Angel.
James Mundie (2012).
"Perchta – Derived from an early Germanic word meaning “bright or “glorious”. Perchta is famed for her dual nature. Her grim aspect is known as “Perchta the Belly Slitter”. Perchta is alternately described as kind or violent, as a monstrous hag or a willowy maiden" - source.
Perchta is a pagan witch, or Germanic goddess (depending on your point of view), who plays the role of guardian of the beasts, during the twelve days of Christmas. At Yuletide, Perchta flew around the Netherlands with evil spirits looking for food and would cut open the belly of anyone she came across to steal their food. However, if you had been eating oliebollen, the fat in the dough made it so that her sword would slide of your belly.

Young woman with a cooking pot filled with
oliebollen (Aelbert Cuyp, ca. 1652)
While records indicate that the Dutch have been eating oliebollen since medieval times, the first recipe appears in "De verstandige kock" (1667). At that time, they were still oliekoecken (oily cookies); it wasn't until the 1890s that the word oliebollen became the more popular term, appearing in an 1896 Dutch dictionary.

Everywhere in the world that I have travelled, Dutch people serve oliebollen to their friends on New Year's Eve, so I'm pretty sure that Tex would have had some for the Wildes in London in the 1890s.

Have a safe and Happy New Year!

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Flirtation, Calling, and Escort Cards: the social media of the 1890s

It's Christmas card time and I stumble upon the headline: "The 19th Century 'Escort Cards' with Pick-up Lines You Definitely Haven't Heard Before." The cards are lovely, but the headline is baiting. The escort card was one of many innocent types of Victorian cards. Escort, or "flirtation," cards were so commonplace that one American grocer adopted their style for an advertisement in 1900.

A commercial ad variation on the flirtation card,
issued by a grocery store. Circa 1900. Source.
1880s and 1890s flirtation cards came in two varieties: the calling card, and the escort card. The calling cards were used to formally introduce oneself to an acquaintance. A gentleman looking for love might have had a set of these printed up with his name on them to be used as an icebreaker at formal gatherings. The escort card was a novelty, reserved for more casual interactions.

Mid-century advancements in print making led to a proliferation of ephemera, like these and a great variety of other cards that helped people navigate the strict rules of middle-class etiquette. Like acronyms on the internet today, the verbal and non-verbal messages on the cards were a short-cut to communication understood by all who used them.
"To the unrefined or under-bred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of social paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it, combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude, even before his manners, conversation and face have been able to explain his social position." John Young, Our Deportment (1890).
Most commonly the calling card was left at the house of someone you wanted to visit. If the recipient wanted you to visit, they would send you their card. If no card was sent, or your reply card came back in an envelope, you weren't to return. The size of a gentleman's card indicated his marital status. Women's cards were always bigger than men's. During a first visit, a gentleman would leave a card for each lady in the household. Blank spaces on the cards could be used to write notes. Flirtation and escort cards filled those spaces with prepared messages.

If there was a late-Victorian social pastime greater than flirting, it was mourning. The symbols and decorations on mourning communicated the social status of the mourners and social status was, as it is, aspirational.

These cards were presented to everyone who attended the funeral.

When public figures, like Abraham Lincoln, passed, print shops around the world manufactured and sold the cards as collectibles and people most certainly collected them.

Set of three Lincoln mourning cards.
Albums for collection and display of cards were a common fixture in Victorian parlours. Printing a new card was like writing a Facebook status update in that you used it to communicate what you were interested in at the moment to your peers. Because the printing of cards was relevant to a wide range of social activities a collection of cards served as an entertaining record of all that had passed in your social network. When people didn't follow the proper usage of cards (like oversharing on Facebook), they faced social consequences (blocked/unfriended).

Wedding card (1883).
Assorted Victorian dance cards.
Like the Facebook newsfeed, card collections weren't limited to personal cards, but included photographic cabinet cards, advertisements, political propaganda, and cards with uplifting or humorous images and messages.

Someone said recently that in the age of social media, millennials have begun remembering their lives in the present moment, by documenting and sharing everything that happens to them. Cards were the Victorian way of doing the same thing - even allowing young couples to flirt in plain sight.

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