Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Dorian Gray Goes Slumming (a close reading)

"The Hooligans," by Leonard Raven-Hill (1899)
In Chapter 16 of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Dorian Gray goes slumming. The upper classes began visiting the slums for recreational, or charitable, purposes in the 1880s. In Wilde's novel, Dorian travels there for pleasure and has acquired a drug addiction. Wilde's portrayal of London's East End explores the nature of class divisions in the 1890s. Although it's only a few lines long, the first paragraph sets the scene and it's a horrible one, in which light makes the dark more frightening.
A cold rain began to fall, and the blurred street-lamps looked ghastly in the dripping mist. The public-houses were just closing, and dim men and women were clustering in broken groups round their doors. From some of the bars came the sound of horrible laughter. In others, drunkards brawled and screamed.
The first five words tell us this isn't going to be a pleasant night. The rain is cold and it is just beginning. This rain isn't cleansing, but a "dripping mist," like the fog of London -- only wetter.

We know it is dark because the street lamps are on, but rather than lighting the way the street lamps are "blurred" and "ghastly." Ghastly things cause terror. How can a street lamp be ghastly? A ghastly street lamp causes terror by exposing it. Light makes the dark more frightening by providing glimpses of what is hiding in the dark.

By continuing a close reading of this chapter, we will find several references to Jack the Ripper. When Wilde was writing this, interest in Jack the Ripper was high, creating a morbid recreational fascination with the East End among Dorian's peers, who connected the area to the Ripper's brutal crimes.

The public houses, referred to in the second sentence, were East End pubs and taverns. It's closing time. The drinks of last call are done. The "dim men and women" are drunk. Of all the Victorian words for drunkenness, Wilde chose "dim" for the continued allusion to light. The men and women are dim in the ghastly light of the street lamps.

We may also assume that these were ghastly men and women. Respectable Victorian women didn't drink in public houses, or in public at all. The fact that they do here is part of the depravity Wilde wants to portray. Drunken women mingling, or "clustering in broken groups," with drunken men implies loose morals and possible prostitution. Poverty and drunkenness were Victorian character flaws caused by loose morals. Women could not easily be forgiven for ever having demonstrated such character flaws; Lady Meux was shunned by respectable society her entire life because she once worked in a public house.

"From some of the bars came the sound of horrible laughter." The perceived depravity of the poor and drinking classes makes their laughter horrible. In the public houses where they aren't laughing, they are brawling and screaming. Before Dorian even steps out of his carriage, this is the scene that readers see him in.

This paragraph prepares the reader for a chapter that follows Dorian into the slums, where he will find characters from his deplorable past. This paragraph also serves as a window that provides the reader with a view of London's East End from a very specific angle. From this angle, residents of the East End are morally depraved, ghastly individuals, who participate in creating the dangerous situations we find them in.

I will read the next paragraph in my next blog post. In the mean time, you can read The Picture of Dorian Gray at Project Gutenberg. For more information on 1890s slums and slumming visit the Victorian Web.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Victorian False Eyelashes

"The beauty of the eye lies in its expression, whether it has borrowed its color from the corn flower, or shines like the black diamond, or reflects the blue of a May sky, or is veiled under long dark eyelashes." - Baronne Staffe, "My Lady's Dressing Room" (1892).
Victorian ladies typically kept their beauty regimes top secret, making everyone believe that everything, from their tiny waists to their pink cheeks to their long fluttery eyelashes were un-manipulated eternal truths. Long eyelashes were certainly a part of those regimes.  Women have wanted long eyelashes since Ancient Rome. Pliny the Elder claimed that excessive love-making caused eyelashes to fall out, making long eyelashes a symbol of chastity. The question here is: how did the 1890s woman lengthen her lashes?

In his book The National Encyclopaedia of Business and Social Forms (1879), James D. McCabe recommends trimming eyelashes to make them grow longer, suggesting that the sooner in life one begins the process, the more effective it will be. The process is in keeping with the Victorian ideal of encouraging natural beauty, rather than resorting to quicker artificial fixes. Baronne Staff's My Lady's Dressing Room (1892) additionally recommended applying Pomade Trikogene to grow longer eyelashes.

Pomade Trikogene was believed to improve hair growth wherever it was applied. I found a recipe for it in A Practical Guide for the Perfumer (1868).

I don't know what "nerval balsam" is, but I wouldn't put pure veal grease anywhere near my skin! Croton oil is worse. It causes diarrhea, if ingested. When applied to the skin, it causes irritation and swelling. Because it is so awful, researchers use it on lab animals to study how pain works. It has been found to promote the growth of tumors, but does nothing for eyelashes. If rubbing it around the edges of your eyelids sounds bad, some hairdressers thought up an even more painful alternative in France.
"The Parisans have found how to make false eyelashes. I do not speak of the vulgar and well-known trick of darkening the rim around the eye with all kinds of dirty compositions, or the more artistic plan of doing so to the inside of the lid. No, they actually draw a fine needle, threaded with dark hair, through the skin of the eyelid, forming long loops, and after the process is over -- I am told it is a painless one -- a splendid dark fringe veils the coquette's eyes." Henry Labouchère (1882). Source.
If I was thinking of getting eyelash extensions when I started writing this, I'm no longer considering it! Labouchère was only the first to tell anglophones about this terrifying method. In July 1899 the Dundee Courier announced that“Irresistible Eyes May Be Had by Transplanting the Hair.”

While I've never liked the idea of gluing hair to my eyelids, it seems like the safest method for creating longer lashes. There are many claims to inventing stick-on lashes, including the 1911 patent below that was filed by a Canadian, Anna Taylor.

Her patent was for:
...an artificial eyelash, a strip of material substantially crescent shaped with the ends clipped [off], short lengths of hair projecting outwardly from the convex side of the crescent shape in the form of eyelashes and fixedly secured adjacent to said edge on the under side of the strip, and an adhesive spread over the under side of said strip.
Taylor wished "to improve the personal appearance of the wearer, without adding discomfort, and. generally to provide in such articles the natural efi'ect at a minimum cost," but while so many women endured torture to lengthen their lashes, Taylor was by no means the first to invent such a convenience.

False eyelashes (at least similar to Taylor's) were so ubiquitous in the late 1870s that the Royal Cornwall Gazette complained about them in 1879:
"False eyelashes are not the perfect inventions they are represented to be. I saw one floating in a cup of tea the other evening, and the lady went on toying with the saucer and conversing, and never for a moment suspected that the left side of her face, by contrast with the right looked rather as if it were slowly recovering from a small explosion of gunpowder." Source.
Before investors, I mean... inventors, like Taylor, began packaging and patenting false eyelashes around the turn of the century, false eyelashes were like any other hair piece. The woman mentioned in the Royal Cornwall Gazette would have got hers from her hairdresser, who likely visited her at her house, the way that dressmakers did.

Because these transactions were so private, there is little we can use to know how popular false eyelashes were before they became a highly marketed consumer product in the 20th century. Still, it is safe to assume that they are more popular now than they were then.

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Dead people don't stand in photos.

Seriously, how could they?

This might be an unpopular post. One reason that myths persist long after they've been disproven is that people want to believe them. Pictures of Victorian dead people are so popular today that people try to forge them. Contemporary imposters are easily spotted and often meant to be art, rather than forgeries, but many fans of Victorian mourning portraits stubbornly refuse to believe they could be wrong about the health of the people in old Victorian photos.

Why does it matter if we enjoy mistaking a person in an old photo for a corpse? Imagine if people in 2116 published your Facebook profile picture as an example of fascinating post-mortem photography. When BBC News published Bethan Bell's article yesterday, full of pictures that she claimed were of people who died, one commenter noted that one of the pictures was of her great-grandmother. 

As it turns out, the commenter's great-grandmother was in fact dead in the photo Bell shared, but this was not the case in some of Bell's other photos.

Bell claims "the youngest child [in the above photo] has died and is propped against a stand for the picture." The type of stand Bell is referring to can be seen clearly in the picture below.

Photo source.
Sadly, Bell has been duped by the persistent myth that these stands were used to prop up corpses for mourning photos. As is evident in this photo, the child being photographed is alive and such a stand is not strong enough to keep a dead person upright. Take a closer look at the stand.

I'm not convinced I could hang my purse on a stand like that without knocking it over, so you may safely assume that, any time you see evidence of one of these stands in a photo, the person is alive.

Bell shares two other photos of people who were alive when the portrait was taken. She asserts that sometimes open eyes were painted onto the photograph. If you've ever tried painting something on a photograph, you will know that this rarely works out well. Because it generally looked terrible, Victorians rarely did so and the woman on the left is sick, but not dead when visited by the photographer (those are her real eyes).

Finally, not all Victorian mourning photos contained pictures of the corpse. It was also common to take a living photo of the deceased and have it reprinted with a phrase, like "Gone to Jesus," in honour of their passing.

The boy on the right was very much alive when the
photo was taken.
A group of contemporary Victorianists have even banned together to create a web site to dispel the kinds of myths about Victorian death photography that Bell and BBC News are currently spreading.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Jobs for Women: the Angel in the Workforce

For 465 years, from 1377 to 1835 [the Ship and Turtle Tavern] was run by a succession of widows. During the Victorian era, the Ship and Turtle Tavern even supplied several of the West-end clubhouses. Source.
And yet we speak of working women as the exception in the Victorian era. Was that the case?

During the Industrial Revolution in the UK, young people (including women) were moving to cities at an unprecedented rate. Usually, a young person would arrive and stay with, or in the neighbourhood of, a person who knew their family, which resulted in regional concentrations of religious and cultural groups. It also created large households of people who were loosely connected.

In these households, everyone did their part (including women and children). Family economics of this type had long been the norm in rural populations, but in cities, women’s work was frequently downplayed, or entirely overlooked, as the emphasis increasingly focused on the male as breadwinner.

Victorian culture’s emphasis on separate spheres overplays the “Angel in the Household” motif, which simply doesn't describe the reality for many Victorian women and families. The obvious example being female heads-of-house, such as widows.

Moreover, the industrial revolution increased the demand for female and child labour, who could be paid less than their adult male counterparts. Still, forty percent of female occupations listed on the census of 1851 were in domestic service, with textiles and clothing services in a near second place. Women did much of the delicate work in factories that produced household goods and participated in trades that suited ideals of femininity, such as kitchen work, sewing, laundry, and retail.

Dore's Woman Pedlar.
While 'upper' working class women rented shops, the 'lower' hawked on the streets and beaches. They sold flowers, toffee apples, ice cream, cold drinks, shrimps, oysters and whelks, and offered donkey and goat rides and even fortune-telling, sometimes by budgerigar. Source.
Even in the middle- and upper-classes, the ideal of the Angel in the Household doesn’t adequately describe all that was taking place. Not only were women, like Rachel Beer, dominating the world of journalism, but many widowed and single-women had no choice, but to earn money to support their standard of living. Some, like Marie Corelli and Lady Jane Wilde (Speranza), did so by writing, but many widows carried on the family business after the death of their spouse. Many middle- and upper-class women could be found working as governesses, running boarding houses, or managing properties for income. Many of these women also played important roles in family businesses as silent partners, bookkeepers, administrative workers, and more.

Three fully-clothed women hiking their skirts at the
shoreline of the beach in Averne, Wallace G. Levison, 1897
By the 1890s, stories of the New Woman, who was educated and independent, began to emerge. Many of these women resented the stereotypes that depicted all women as seeking a husband to support them.

For more information, two excellent sources are the BBC and the Economic History Association.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Snuff and Nonsense: Tobacco in the 1890s

Jack.  Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.
Lady Bracknell.  I am glad to hear it.  A man should always have an occupation of some kind.  There are far too many idle men in London as it is.

This blog debuted with a post about cigarettes. Cigarettes themselves were an invention of the nineteenth century. Though the Mayans were using tobacco in the ninth century, tobacco wasn't rolled in fine paper until it went to Spain in the seventeenth century. The Spanish called this a 'papelate.' A papelate went to France in 1830, where they called it a cigarette. French people and cigarettes were two of Oscar Wilde's favourite things. In a letter to his brother, he once said: "Charming people should smoke gold-tipped cigarettes or die."

Gold-tipped cigarettes (circa 1890)
While Oscar's father may have enjoyed the ocassional cigarette, he probably preferred snuff. Long before Oscar Wilde and the cigarette, the ritualistic habits of tobacco users appealed to Europeans all over the world.
Snuff's associations with fashion made it irresistible to British society, whose fondness for rules and tendency to develop tobacco rituals led them to develop a complex etiquette for snuffing, against which they could measure the relative social rank, or intellectual potential, of a stranger. An example is provided by that venerable chronicle of idiocy, the Tatler: 'I cannot see either his person or his habit in his letter, but I shall call at Charles [Charles Lillie, a French perfumer and snuff seller] and know the shape of his snuff box, by which I can settle his character.' -- Iain Gately, "Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization" (2001).
Smoking cigarettes, gold-tipped or otherwise, didn't really catch on until the 1880s, after an American made pre-rolled cigarettes cheaper. James Bonsack lived in Virginia, where his father operated a woolen mill. By tinkering with one of the carding machines from his father's factory, Bonsack created a cigarette rolling machine, capable of producing ten thousand cigarettes per hour.  To put that number in perspective, in an 1897 cigarette rolling contest, the "Queen of the hand-rollers," Lily Lavender rolled 162 cigarettes in thirty minutes. All cigarettes were rolled by hand, until Bonsack got the patent on his machine in 1881.

Diagram from James Albert Bonsack's patent application
(U.S. patent 238,640, granted March 8, 1881). 
"Duke of Durham"
(circa 1890s).
James Duke of W. Duke Sons and Company in Durham had 125 hand rollers producing 250,000 cigarettes a day, when his company tried the Bonsack cigarette machine in 1883. One machine could do the work of 48 people, but other companies were reluctant to try it because they thought people preferred hand-rolled cigarettes; this allowed Duke's company a chance to be the first. By 1888, Duke replaced all of his company's hand-rollers with machines.

By the 1890s, French and British cigarette companies were using various types of cigarette rolling machines, which lowered the cost of cigarettes everywhere. Their popularity increased at this new lower price, so that in the 1890s younger men smoked, whereas older men might have still been attached to the habit of snuff.

Many women, especially feminists who were fighting against social convention, smoked. Though it was typically frowned upon for them to do so in public, its reported that many celebrity women were smoking at the opening of the Dorothy Restaurant on Oxford Street in June 1889.

In Robert Proctor's "Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition" (2011), Bosnack's smoking machine is partially responsible for setting off the smoking epidemic. Perhaps, as Lady Bracknell says in "The Importance of Being Ernest" (1895) there were far too many idle people in London; idle hands are, as they say, the devil's workshop.

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Monday, March 7, 2016

For Rich or Poor: Creepy Victorian Food

Man people still didn't have a kitchen at home in the 1890s. In tenement houses, whole families lived in a single room , which might be shared with as many as six other whole families. Eating out, consequently, was something many people did, though not in the nicest restaurants and maybe not the most appealing dishes.

This blog brings us ten weird Victorian street food, including: sheep’s trotters (those are the feet), hot eels, saloop, plum duff (basically Christmas cake), pickled whelks, donkey or ass’s milk, bloaters, ginger beer, rice milk, and blood.

Saloop was originally a kind of milky tea that dated back to the seventeenth century and was made from ground orchid roots. The stuff you would buy on the streets of 1890s London was made from sassafras bark and sweetened with sugar. I want to try some because “sassafras” and “saloop” are both words that are fun to say. Sassafras bark thickened the drink and worked as a stimulant in place of coffee. Saloop’s popularity declined when people started thinking of it as a remedy for venereal disease, making public consumption of the beverage a little awkward.

Pickled oysters, whelks, and periwinkles were cheaper because the pickling process preserved them, obviously! There’s an old British insult that you “couldn’t run a whelk stall,” and that refers to these enterprises, which were regarded as very simple to run.

Donkey or ass’s milk was more readily available in winter and popular with the ladies, who thought consuming dairy made them appear more youthful. I think that Victorian rice milk must have been interchangeable along with the popular curds and whey and also popular with the ladies. Lady street vendors were usually the one’s selling rice milk, which was more like rice pudding and, like all of these street foods, consumed on the street.

The author of the blog that listed all the foods above admits that blood was more of a barn food than a street food and that it was used to treat consumption. People, often ladies, with consumption would drink it by the glass, hot and fresh from the animal.

It is so easy to read a list like that and think that poor Victorian Londoners in the 1890s ate a load of disgusting food, but then we find this recipe for brain balls, which were used as a garnish for turtle soup. This would be prepared for someone, who had a kitchen, and they probably paid someone to make it! Just reading a recipe that uses actual animal brains is creepy!
1. To Cook Brain: Combine all ingredients for in medium saucepan, except for brain; simmer 30 minutes. Add brain, simmer gently 10 to 15 minutes until soft but firm (about 180 degrees on an instant read thermometer). Transfer to plate, covering with damp towel. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until cold. Chop fine; reserve.
2. To Make Brain Balls: Combine all ingredients, except brain, until mixture is smooth. Add chopped brain and mix until combined. Scoop out 1 teaspoon portions and drop in dried fresh breadcrumbs. Heat oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until oil reaches 375 degrees; cook balls, until golden and crisp all around, about 2 to 4 minutes; transfer to paper-towel lined plate and season with salt.
Did I mention that was a garnish for turtle soup? Mock turtle soup, as in Alice in Wonderland, was pretty common, but there was an actual restaurant in London that kept aquariums full of turtles to assure patrons that they were getting authentic turtle soup.

I’d still rather eat a bowl of turtle soup garnished with brain balls than eat a ladies’ complexion wafer, which was laced with arsenic. “Doctors” promoted arsenic to help ladies achieve the pale look that was so fashionable at the time. The arsenic helped in this process by killing your red blood cells. The Ultimate History Project has a lot more information on the arsenic eaters here, if you are interested.

The question "would you like some ass milk with your brain balls and turtle soup?" makes it easier to understand the popularity of fasting girls.

Fasting girls were women, who promoted the idea that women didn’t need to eat to live. Of course, they had people sneaking them food, but these women would go extended periods of time not eating, eating very little, or pretending not to eat. Some became famous for it, some died tragically in their attempt.

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Margaret McMillan, Lady Meux's Paid Companion

"Men come here, distinguished men, but not their women. I am outside ... It is only right to tell you, that it isn't a good thing for you to come here. You might not get another post." Source.
According to Devon Cox, these were the words of the socialite, Lady Meux, to the Christian Socialist, Margaret McMillan. In the end, it was Meux who lost her taste for McMillan.

A member of the Fabian Society, McMillan did volunteer work in the poorer neighbourhoods of London. We remember her for the work she did to improve the lives of children to which end she wrote books on early childhood education and pioneered the play-centred approach that we use to teach our children today.

When she went to Meux that day, McMillan was looking for a job; Meux needed to hire a companion. A well-born, or well-raised, woman in England during the 18th to the mid-20th century could find work as a governess or a lady's companion -- literally a companion to a woman who had more money. This position evolved from the position of a lady-in-waiting, which were traditionally high-born women, who took the position for status of associating with higher born women thereby improving their marriage prospects. In the 1890s, women, like McMillan, applied for the job because they needed the money.

As I've mentioned before, Meux came from humble origins, but she married well, even though her in-laws couldn't stand her. Rosaleen Joyce calls Meux "a rags-to-riches barmaid." Many people disliked Meux and spread rumours that she once worked as a prostitute. During McMillan's interview, Meux told her that she was "a woman not received," by which she meant that Society women shunned her. Working for Meux, McMillan's reputation would be tainted by Meux's -- at least that was the warning.

McMillan took the job and lasted three years.
McMillan became her companion. Lady Meux saw in her the potential to become a great actress and paid for her training. She was most displeased, however, at McMillan's public display of socialist views. McMillan stood up for her principles and left Lady Meux's employment, despite her lack of financial means.
Both women went on to live amazing lives, which just goes to show that one thing not working out doesn't mean all things won't work out, even if everything turns out differently than you thought it would.

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