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Thursday, 26 November 2020

They saw the difference.

My recent silence has been because I have been selecting a wide range, 140,000 words to complete this book. My cover illustration, if you can't work it out, is one of Charles Babbage's difference engines. (My covers never end up going on the book, but because I've done a passable job, the designers make an effort.)

I'm fairly happy with the text, and it's being shared with friends this weekend. In a week or so, I will start pitching it to a couple of print publishers, getting in before Christmas. A social history involves looking mainly at why people did things, but adding something of how they did it. 

Why is this necessary? Because the fun bits are the background gossip, like my story of how Darwin was inspired by a false belief and the way Becquerel found radioactivity because the weather was bad. Again, most of us have no idea what Heinrich Hertz was up to when he discovered radio waves, or what Balmer was doing when he explained the lines that show up in the spectrum.

I mentioned Balmer six years back, when I wrote about the fraudulent work of Dulong and Petit, but I never dealt with it here, so here's a taster for you.

Balmer’s lines

Do you remember the spectroscope/spectrograph in chapter 1? By the mid-1880s, spectroscopy had come a long way. The lines in the absorption spectrum had been pinned down, one by one, so the exact wavelengths of the hydrogen lines could be identified. That left a major puzzle: why did the lines appear where they did in the spectrum?

Johann Balmer set out to make sense of a jumble of numbers. In this, he was like Bode, or Dulong and Petit with their mathematical rule tying specific heats and atomic weights together, or even Maria Goeppert Mayer (next), who found certain ‘magic numbers’ of neutrons and protons that were associated with very stable nuclei.

In the real world, laws do not leap out at you. They usually start when somebody goes data-snooping. That means making lists of measurements, and poring over them to see if there is any pattern to offer a hint about a rule lying beneath the measurements.

Balmer found a relationship linking four of the hydrogen lines in the visible spectrum. He decided there should be another hydrogen line, right on the edge of the ultraviolet, a line of which he had no knowledge. He checked, and the line was there, as predicted, so Balmer’s rather odd little equation was confirmed. Score one point to data-snooping.

Balmer had some trouble reconciling the values reported by different observers. With hindsight, probably the observers were looking at stars with differing degrees of red shift? As we will see later, the red shift was important, once people detected it and chased it down. To find his formula, Balmer found a common factor, deduced from Anders Ångström’s measurements on the first four hydrogen lines, which gave him a value, b = 3645.6x10-7mm. Here, in translation, is his explanation of how b fits in:

The wavelengths of the first four hydrogen lines are obtained by multiplying the fundamental number b = 3645.6 in succession by the coefficients 9/5; 4/3; 25/21 and 9/8. At first sight, these coefficients do not form a regular series; but if we multiply the numerical values in the second and the fourth numbers by 4, we see a consistent regularity appearing [the series becomes 9/5, 16/12, 25/21, 36/32] and the coefficients have for numerators the numbers 32, 42, 52 and 62 and for denominators a number that is less by 4 [than the numerator].

For several reasons it seems to me probable that the four coefficients which have just been given belong to two series, so that the second series includes again the terms of the first series; and so I am able to present the formula for the coefficients in the more general form m2/(m2-n2), in which m and n are whole numbers.

That is to say, the wavelengths of the hydrogen lines are given by l=b(m2/(m2-n2)). Now back to Balmer:

For n=1 we obtain the series 4/3, 9/8, 16/15, 25/24 etc., for n=2 the series 9/5, 16/12, 25/21, 36/32, 49/45, 64/60, 81/77, 100/96 etc. In this second series the second term is already in the first series but in a reduced form.

Balmer compared the first four hydrogen lines as measured by Ångström with calculated values. In Ångström units (10–10 metres), the values for the lines are:

Alpha line: Balmer: 6562.08, Ångström: 6562.10, difference: +0.02

Beta line: Balmer: 4860.8, Ångström: 4860.74, difference: -0.06

Gamma line: Balmer: 4340, Ångström: 4340.1, difference: +0.1

Delta line: Balmer: 4101.3, Ångström: 4101.2, difference: -0.1

Clearly, the model is a very close fit to reality, but Balmer went looking for his fifth hydrogen line: this was the acid test. He calculated that it would be at 49/45x3645.6 = 3969.65 Ångström units.

I knew nothing of such a fifth line, which must lie within the visible part of the spectrum...and I was compelled to assume that the temperature relations were not favourable to the development of this line or that the formula was not generally applicable.

On reference to Professor Hagenbach he informed me that many more hydrogen lines are known which have been measured by Vogel and by Huggins...[and] he was kind enough to make a comparison of the wave lengths thus determined...

There was something going on here. This sort of close fit has to have a reason behind it, but for the time being, all people could do was look out for a cause.

In time, they would find it, and so did Maria Goeppert-Mayer, but while that's what comes next in the book.

 

The girl who hated poetry

From the case notes of Dr 'Harry' Truman, counsellor.

Eliza D came to see me in despair. "It's Henry," she said. "We're engaged to be married. but whenever I want to talk of love, he starts spouting poems..."

"Which poets?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, "but he called me his 'bright star' the other day..."

"That's Keats," I said. "I think he loves you."

"Another time, he said 'My love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you' but he never touched me."

"Keats again," I told her. "I think you're going to be fine. Marry him!"

"I don't know," she said. "The other day, I decided to test him out by taking off my clothes, but when he should have been getting interested, he sat back and started babbling about unclasping my warmed jewels..."

"That's also Keats," I said. "The Eve of St Agnes, very romantic..."

"You might think it's romantic, but I think he's made of stone, and it's sending me round the twist!"

I stopped her there. "Eliza, old thing, if you can't stand the Keats, get out of the hitching."

Being an Australian writer

The perceptive reader may have noticed a hiatus. the reason will be explained shortly. I now do a monthly column for a CBCA newsletter called iRead, but as it may not be accessible to all, I plan to follow up with a release here, a couple of months later. This is the first.

There’s a game I play overseas, and you can play it as well, once we can get away. Sit in a coffee shop in Riga, a wine bar near Rome’s Spanish Steps, a Greek café in Banff, a chippie in Glasgow or a restaurant in Reykjavik, and say “G’day!” with a carrying voice, with vowels as flat as a goanna B-double roadkill. Then watch the Australian heads swivel, seeking an unseen compatriot who may have news from home. That single “G’day!” reminds them of where home is, but they never find me.

I knew from a tender age that I would be a writer, and an Australian writer at that, because Australia has always been my home. I may speak the rounded vowels of Received Pronunciation, but when I write and play games, a streak of larrikinism oozes out.

My early role models were Norman Lindsay with his Magic Pudding, Dorothy Wall, who wrote Blinky Bill to kill off the koala-shooting trade and Leslie Rees, whose ‘Digit Dick’ books and some of his Oz wildlife stories resonated. It was Henry Lawson who set me going with a short story His Country—After All, where an Australian in New Zealand smells the smoke of a fire made of gum leaves and gum twigs, and gets all nostalgic for home.

The catch: you can’t write smells, though Lawson gave it a good go. If you want to give a book an Australian flavour, you need the right words, from the right period. For the past decade, I have been nailing down Australian words, where they came from, and when, using the National Library’s Trove collection of digitised newspapers.

I started on this, thinking I might one day write some historical fiction, even though my day job has been writing straight-out history. I think it began with an idle thought about when the billy came into use. A search on (and note the wording!) fulltext:"quart pot" AND "tea" will show that the humble billy was a quart pot first of all. The billy was a Tasmanian coinage, I think.

With some distress, I traced the earliest use of “two bob” back to Charles Dickens, and what could be more Australian than “true blue”? Alas, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser mentioned in a filler in 1827 that the term was in use as early as 1737, in England. Struth, Bruce!

So what about that quintessentially Oz term, ‘larrikin’, which I define as calling “g’day” in foreign places? Well, ‘larrikin’ emerged without warning in Melbourne’s The Argus in 1870. We had paddocks and sheoaks before 1810, and sly grog by 1825, though it seems people didn’t shout drinks until the 1850s.

Squatters were around from 1825, but back then, they were shady characters, while until 1805, bushrangers weren’t even thieves, they were just bushmen. Being an Australian writer has its pitfalls!

My researches are online at http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/early-language.htm

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Food and drink in 1859


This is the last of a series of entries are drawn from chapter 7 of my book, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, and they all deal with life in that era. For background on the book, see the first entry in the series, Life in 1859, but if you just want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry.

They were about to be food hogs as well, going on a later account in Scientific American which said customers at the Handel Festival ate 1600 dozen sandwiches, 1200 dozen pork pies, 400 dozen Sydenham pastries, 800 veal and ham pies, 480 hams, 3509 chickens, 120 galantines of lamb, 240 forequarters of lamb, 150 galantines of chicken, 60 raised game pies, 3022 lobster salads, 2325 dishes of salmon mayonnaise, 300 score of lettuce, 41,000 buns at a penny each, 52,000 twopenny buns, 32,249 ices, 2419 dozen ‘beverages’, 1150 dozen ale and stout, 403 Crystal Palace puddings, 400 jellies, nine tuns of roast and boiled beef, 400 creams, 350 fruit tarts, 3500 quarts of tea, coffee and chocolate and 485 tongues. 

“The consumption of wines, which was enormous, had not been ascertained when our account was made up”, it concluded.

In some parts of the world, people may have been starving, but London was not the only major city that did very nicely. In 1858, New York city’s inhabitants accounted for 191,374 beeves, 10,128 cows, 36,675 veals, 551,479 swine. Each week, a thousand beeves came to New York from Illinois alone. Lake Superior farms exported 7 million tons of corn and oats and more than 3 million bushels of wheat in 1859. Ten years earlier, it had been a mere 1400 bushels of wheat, said Archer B. Hulbert, who had looked into the matter.

Feeding habits changed quickly. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, London had only half a dozen restaurants listed in a guide for visitors, all of them pricey. By 1859, restaurants were becoming common around Soho, where many of them were opened by foreign immigrants. Their leader, if they had one, must surely have been Alexis Soyer, who started out as the second cook to Prince de Polignac at the French Foreign Office. During the July revolution of 1830, he left Paris for London and took the post of chef at the Reform Club, where he cooked for a number of English aristocrats. On the morning of Queen Victoria’s coronation on June 28, 1838, he served breakfast for 2000 guests.

Soyer was a Victorian celebrity chef. In 1847, he wrote to the press about the famine in Ireland, and went to Dublin at the government’s request to set up kitchens to serve soup and meat at low cost. He also wrote a sixpenny book, Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, and gave the profits to charity. He resigned his Reform Club position in 1850 to open his Great Exhibition restaurant, but took a loss of £7000. 

He spent the next four years promoting his various books and also his “magic stove”, a spirit burner which could be used at the table.
In 1855, he wrote to The Times, proposing to go to the Crimea at his own expense to advise on feeding an army. While Florence Nightingale changed the way the sick were treated at Scutari, Soyer changed the way soldiers were fed, beginning with the hospital diet sheets. For the healthy soldiers, he designed an ingenious field stove which the British army only stopped using recently.

When he died in 1858, times had changed. If Soyer had opened a restaurant then, he probably would have had more luck than he did in 1851. He was famous enough after his death for his name to be evoked across the Atlantic by Scientific American in an engineering context:

Soyer always maintained that there could be no good cooking where the scales, the watch and the thermometer were not in constant reference. These instruments are as essential to steam-engineering as to cookery.

Isabella Beeton was another celebrity of her age. Mrs Beeton, as we recall her today, died of puerperal fever in 1865, having made herself famous with her books on household management, which appeared in print when she was barely 22. Her recipes appeared first in her husband’s magazine, The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine, which ran for the three years from 1859 to 1861, then her book Household Management followed in 1861.

Like the magazine, it marks an era when women who could read, still had to manage their households: literacy was filtering down the social ladder. Contrary to folklore, she offered no recipe for cooking rabbit beginning “First, catch your rabbit . . .”, but the format she adopted for her recipes is still used today.

In fairness, Mrs Beeton was not the first, just the most successful of her kind. Elizabeth Ellet produced The Practical Housekeeper; A Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy in 1857 (a man of his times, her husband, William Ellet spent his final years as a chemical consultant for the Manhattan Gas Company until he died in 1859). Eliza Acton wrote a number of recipe books, including Modern Cookery for Private Families in 1845 and The English Bread Book in 1857 before she also died in 1859, the year in which Mrs. M. H. Cornelius published her The Young Housekeeper’s Friend in Boston.

“Poverty and oysters always seem to go together” said Sam Weller. “ ...the poorer a place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters.” By the 1850s, natural oyster beds were almost depleted in many places. Notwithstanding Sam’s view, a meal of fried Olympia oysters and eggs was usually the most expensive on the menu in California, making it the meal lucky miners would order when they struck gold. The dish gained the nickname “Hangtown Fry” after a condemned man asked for the dish as his last meal — or so the legend runs.

There was a new condiment for the daring to try: in 1859, a Colonel White made his first batch of hot sauce from “Tobasco” chillies and offered bottles of it for sale. A slightly different formulation was patented in 1870 as “Tabasco”, benefiting those who think wasabi tastes bland on its own.

The demand for oysters, with or without sauce, was such that the oyster beds near Ceduna in South Australia, an area only settled and exploited after 1836, were already under threat from over-harvesting. Around the Bassin d’Arcachon on the coast of France, southwest of Bordeaux, a place where wild oysters had been taken since Roman times, the locals were forced to start farming oysters in 1859.

At the end of the year, a plan was announced to use a diving bell to harvest oysters from the bottom of Long Island Sound, and it was suggested that parties would be able to go down in the bell, collect their own oysters, and consume them at a depth of 6 fathoms. Scientific American offered an explanation for not eating oysters when there was no R in the month. English oysters, said the reporter, spawn for about six weeks, starting around June!

“Refrigerators” were on sale in 1859 but these were just ice boxes, used to make drinks cooler. Francis Bacon had died in 1626 of a chill, said to have been triggered by experimenting with a chicken stuffed with snow to see if it would keep longer, but refrigerators were rarely used to stop food going off. All the same, ice was a useful commodity in the mid–1850s. Ice ships loaded up in Massachusetts and rounded Cape Horn to make sales in Australia.

James Pimm was the landlord of an oyster bar in London’s financial district. He sold his gin-based Pimm’s No 1 Cup from the 1840s. With backing from some of his customers, he began bottling and selling it in 1859. Beer and ale were still preferred as safer than water, with coffee and tea, even later in the century when water supplies improved. Water was feared as tainted and impure, and in most cases, rightly so.

Even supposedly safe alcoholic drinks carried risks, and Scientific American listed tests for adulterants. Copper in beer could be detected by evaporating the beer down to “the consistency of an extract” and then burning it, treating the ash and looking for a blue trace that became darker when ammonia was added. Lead in beer could be detected by adding sodium sulfate and looking for a white precipitate, and the article went on to explain how a large variety of other adulterants could also be detected by chemical tests on beer extracts.

The water was full of germs and no good, the food was full of adulterants and no good, the air was full of poisons and noxious: it was enough to make you sick. Then again, in 1859, there ever so many ways to make people sick.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Young Dark Emu and Bruce Pascoe's Eve Pownall Award

Today, the Children’s Book Council of Australia announced that Bruce Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu was the winner of the Eve Pownall Award for information books. Earlier this year, bigots associated with a magazine called Quad Rant (or some such) started a withering fire, directed at the CBCA for daring to shortlist the book for the prize. It was wrong, they said, without evidence, so it wasn’t an information book. Keep this dearth of evidence in mind, as it’s common practice among bigots.

The CBCA must withdraw the shortlisting, they demanded. Now it has won the top prize, I imagine they will be foaming at the mouth. At the back of their complaint was the fact that author Bruce Pascoe says, from the viewpoint of an Indigenous man and scholar, that the life of the first Australians was a lot more complex than we had been led to believe by the spotty Europeans who had invaded this land. But Pascoe wasn’t expressing opinions about what was right and what was wrong: he looked at what the whitefellas had reported, and dealt with facts, whitefella facts, recorded by whitefellas.

That's hard to get around, and in the Culture Wars, bigots don’t like that. They call people like me “Black-Armband-Wearers”, but that’s OK: we say they’re all wearing white blindfolds, so the honours are even. The other, and nastier side is what they don’t dare say up-front: Pascoe looks like a whitefella, so he can’t be a blackfella.

I’m clearly a whitefella, albeit one of mixed race, and I’m a trained biologist so I know quite a bit about race and culture. I also write Australian history, so I know a lot of things that get left out of Australian history in our schools, like the items Pascoe has dug out, so I’m well-placed to examine his evidence, and see if it stacks up.

School history is commonly a matter of learning lists of names, dates and bullet points. School history as it relates to explorers rarely mentions the Indigenous men, women and boys who accompanied the explorers, except when they can be cast as “faithful servants”. School history never mentions that most of the explorers followed what they called “native roads”, and how many people know that this began in February 1788?

Those who have read my works of history will know about this sort of thing. My books have been published at various times by Allen and Unwin, Murdoch Books (Pier 9), Five Mile Press and in the last decade, the National Library of Australia.

I began my working life, fully intending to be a pre- and post-Islamic Mediaeval Javanese historian, but when the 1965 coup in Indonesia banjaxed my hopes, I became a botanist instead (as one does), but I retained the synoptic viewpoint of the historian and carried it into my scientific work.

As a writer (I don’t call myself “an author”, it’s too pretentious), my writings have mainly dealt with either science and technology, or with Australian history. If people are going to criticise the Eve Pownall judges’ decision in Young Dark Emu, because somebody claims the judges lack historical training, I must be considered well-equipped to assess both the work, and the judges’ decision. Quick answer: I endorse both, totally.

I have a policy of not arguing with creationists, climate deniers, anti-vaxxers or bigots, because life’s too short to waste trying to rescue sub-humans who cannot connect their other neuron or express themselves clearly. This is a statement of fact, and what follows is a set of facts, not opinions.

The Eve Pownall awards are for information books, and they come from the Children’s Book Council of Australia. I know a fair amount about these awards, because I won one in 2010, I was runner-up in 2007, and I have been “long-listed” a number of times since then, including this year, when I missed the short list. I didn’t mind missing out, because the book I saw as the pick of the crop, Young Dark Emu, was there.

I’m a harsh critic of bilge, and my other main professional skill is in spotting fraud and dishonesty. Because I have written in great detail about Australian history, I was more ready than most to assess Young Dark Emu, and I did so early this year, knowing that assorted Quadrant gibbons were hurling lumps of whatever gibbons hurl.

I attacked his sources and the premises as a conscientious Devil’s Advocate, even though I agreed with Pascoe’s general position. He and his book passed my audit with flying colours, and I have a spreadsheet that demonstrates this. I will share my spreadsheet with supporters and critics of Pascoe, but I will require proof of professional standing from the critics.

I say this because the lead stirrer in this matter seems to be a Queensland housewife (a dismissive pejorative that I stand by) who claims to be a retired teacher, although looking at some of her letters to the Canberra Times in the 1980s, when she appears to have sold dinghies, I am inclined to doubt this. She does not engage in reasoned debate—consider this 2018 letter she fired off to The Australian (a newspaper for which I worked, 30 years earlier):

‘Dave Sharma says “like most Australians, I accept the evidence for man-made climate change” (“The swing with a sting in its tail: why Wentworth was such a painful lesson”, 27/10). The assumption that most Australians agree with him is unsupported.’

Some two thirds of a century ago (yeah, I’m approaching advanced middle age), I was a debater, and enjoyed nothing more than massacring the sort of idiot who relied on assertions that red was blue. They follow this up with a truculent “So there!”, and try to change the subject: this may work in schoolyard bullying, but rebuttal-by-thuggish-denial fails dismally in intellectual circles.

Hackett calls herself “an author” on the strength of a single book, a travel memoir, published in 2002 by New Holland, a reputable publishing house. Apparently she has also self-published six booklets of local history.

Riffing on Martin Amis’ infamous comment about writing for children firmly, I suppose if I were brain-damaged, I might write a local history, though even then, I would draw the line at letters to the editor, or writing for Quadrant. I want the 50-odd books I have had published to be my memorial, not some vile drivel in a hate mag funded by shady sources.

Hackett does not engage in scholarship of any sort: rather, she takes in the washing of others. She cites somebody called Russell Marks who (according to her) criticised an account of an event involving Charles Sturt: the objection is about ascertaining the latitude and longitude of an event. Pascoe had credited two friends with identifying the location, but the Quadrant gnomes didn’t like it, because it struck them as unnecessary.

‘His [Sturt’s] journal also records that the incident took place on the 3-4 November, as anyone who had actually read the journals would know. These details can be verified on pages 70 and 71 of Sturt’s Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia. Put another way, there is no way that Pascoe’s researchers could not have stumbled upon the fact that Sturt had done their work for them.’

The event is described on Sturt’s page 76, the location was identified on page 70 (notpages 70 and 71” as stated), and more to the point, if you are going to play the nit-picking pedant game, you need to win your spurs first. Sturt's Narrative was in two volumes,  the text referred to here is to be found in volume 2! (Now do you see why I don’t waste time on these people?)

While we are at it, the Marks objection, as cited by Hackett, is said to be to a footnote to a statement on page 98, but it isn’t a footnote at all: what they cite is plain text on pages 100 – 101. Any Year 8 of mine who made a hash of citations like that would soon be set straight, but why did Pascoe’s friends determine a date and place for Sturt to be fed on roast duck and bread in the first place?

Marks is clearly unfamiliar with Sturt’s eminently readable but slightly sprawling style. Items which are six pages apart in the journal, like (a) the estimated position and (b) Sturt’s feast might have been near each other or not. That was the way Sturt wrote, and I know, because over several years, earlier in this century, I read all of the published explorers’ journals, and even some of the unpublished ones. I created a massive database, and that allowed me to assess the content of ‘Dark Emu’.

The simple fact is that most of the early writers didn’t ‘get it’. ‘Blacks’, they thought, were savages who did nothing and knew nothing. The “dispersals” (killings) went on, as Emily Creaghe noted in 1883:

‘Mr. Watson has 40 pairs of blacks’ ears nailed round the walls collected during raiding parties after the loss of many cattle speared by the blacks.’

As a scientist, I am aware of the shortcomings of the Australian biota as agricultural material: without imported plants and seeds, farming as we invaders know it wasn’t possible, but land management was, and Pascoe reminds us of just how far this went. It was far more than firestick farming: there was careful cropping, and even planting in places.

Of course, what we are ignoring is the elephant in the room: Pascoe doesn’t ‘look black’, they say, so he must be a fraud! I am 25% Scots, but I have a Scots name, and my heart lifts to the skirl of the pipes, because I was brought up that way. Culture is learned at the parental knee, not inherited in the DNA.

My father knew an Indigenous piper whose party trick was to play ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’. My party trick was to sit at my Scots/Welsh father’s feet at Hogmanay, as he warmed up the pipes. I’m a bleepin’ Scot and I’ve got a sgian dubh for your black heart if you say otherwise!

Now just to play the Hackett bluff-them-with-denial game, she says: “No qualified scholars or reputable academics agree with Pascoe’s claims. The accepted scientific and academic view is that the Australian Aborigines were hunter-gatherers.”

This qualified scholar says “bollocks”. So there.

Please feel free to share this. 

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Music in 1859

This is one of a series of entries are drawn from chapter 7 of my book, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, and they all deal with life in that era. For background on the book, see the first entry in the series, Life in 1859, but if you just want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry.

In Manchester, ‘The Halle Orchestra’ had been created in 1857, and some said it was quite as good as that of the London Philharmonic Society. In an age before modern entertainment media, music held a central place, and in an age when all music had to be “live”, many more people took part, not always a good thing.

The tastes of the masses applied. Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ had been arranged by a Devon organist in 1847, though it only became fashionable after the wedding of the Princess Royal in 1858. Then there was La Prière d’une Vierge, known to the English as A Maiden’s Prayer. This piano solo was let loose in Paris in 1858, and introduced into England in 1859. Percy Scholes said of Thekla Badarzewska, its composer who died aged 23:

In this brief lifetime she accomplished, perhaps, more than any composer who ever lived, for she provided the piano of absolutely every tasteless sentimental person in the so-called civilized world with a piece of music which that person, however unaccomplished in a dull technical sense, could play.

Muscular musical criticism was all the go in 19th century Britain. Bach had died in 1750, Beethoven in 1827 and Louis Spohr in 1859. In The Mikado, Gilbert offered a list of punishments which included being forced to listen to “Bach, interwoven/With Spohr and Beethoven/At classical Monday Pops”. The Popular Concerts, or Monday and Saturday Pops, began in 1858, and offered mainly chamber music. At the time, Bach was regarded as suitable fare only for the strong-willed, strong-boned, teeth-gritted musicologist, and Beethoven and Spohr were somewhat out of fashion as well.

Beethoven was still heard, if rarely. The Bradford music festival in August was attended by the Queen, her Consort, the Prince of Wales, seven earls, a duke, an archbishop, a bishop, nine assorted mayors and lord mayors as well as other dignitaries. Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Beethoven, Verdi, Mendelssohn, Weber, Bellini and Cimerosa were all played, as well as Léopold de Mayer and Hullah. Mostly names we still know: no Brahms, no Bach, no Vivaldi, no Haydn. The first large-scale performances of Bach’s entire Mass in B minor took place in 1859 in Leipzig, but that would have been too Catholic for Bradford.

The morning program featured The Messiah, the evening had Mozart’s Jupiter symphony and a new cantata called The Year by W. Jackson. This was “William Jackson of Masham”, a Bradford organist who was held in high esteem, but who has now faded into oblivion as Bach had then. Let us hope that in a hundred years, Spohr and Jackson will be back in the catalogues and play-lists. 

Leopold de Mayer (or de Meyer), a virtuoso pianist, seems to have been largely lost from view, as has John Pyke Hullah who combined with Charles Dickens in a now-forgotten comic opera called The Village Coquettes, which ran from 1836–1837. He later appeared in the controversy over standard pitch that began around 1859.

In a time before cathode ray oscilloscopes, the A above middle C could, and did, vary from 420 Hz to as high as 457.2 Hz (on New York Steinway pianos– in London, Steinways used A=454.7), though A=440 was more common. The high figure can be determined from a tuning fork, still in existence, some of the lower figures come from looking at the tensions that can be withstood by early keyboard instruments. (A side issue: how could scientists or musicians measure frequencies before the CRO? 

Answer: they mainly relied on a variety of mechanical stroboscopes, which returned highly accurate measures for standard tuning forks.)

Scientific American reported that a meeting in London had decided a uniform pitch would be desirable. The French C above middle C was 522 vibrations a second, Hullah used 512, others used a lower tone. Jenny Lind (famed as ‘the Swedish Nightingale’) argued that the high pitch then in vogue was harming singers’ voices.

Still, 1859 was a good year for opera. Verdi’s A Masked Ball was produced, Gounod’s Faust and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and Genevieve de Brabant were all premiered in Paris. Wagner completed Tristan und Isolde.

In Madrid, a hired crowd booed Madame Grisi until she fainted during a performance of Norma. Berlioz revived Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice the same year.

The hymn Nearer My God To Thee became popular, recycling an older tune, but opera became involved with politics. A scheduled Naples performance of A Masked Ball had to be moved: it depicted the assassination of a Swedish king and any mention of assassinating royalty was unacceptable to the authorities. 

An 1859 La Scala performance of Bellini’s Norma somehow included a reference to the enemy eagles, meaning the Roman eagles. The Austrian censors had banned this, because the Hapsburg crest also featured an eagle. The phrase ‘Viva Verdi’ was heard, but VERDI here meant Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia, Italian for ‘Victor Emmanuel, king of the Italians’. The booing of Madame Grisi was nothing in comparison to the cheers of the Italian mob, enflamed by opera and patriotism.

In other areas, Daniel Decatur Emmett, a northerner and the son of abolitionist parents, had his Dixie first performed on April 4 in the Mechanics’ Hall, New York City. In January, Louis Moreau Gottschalk completed La Nuit des Tropiques subtitled Symphonie Romantique and composed his Columbia, caprice américaine for piano, Op. 34, D. 38 (RO 61) in 1859. This has distinct hints of both Schubert and ragtime about this piece which features a familiar tune, My Old Kentucky Home.

Brahms completed his Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra during the year. It may have been originally devised as a sonata for two pianos, and then as a symphony before becoming a piano concerto.

Camille Saint-Saëns gave the world his Symphony number 2, but it would be another 27 years before his third or ‘Organ symphony’. Louise Farrenc was part of a large and well-connected artistic family, but after her daughter died of tuberculosis in 1859, she stopped composing.

Connections were everything, even in music. The Times reported that Meyerbeer had been less than happy at the ‘thunder’ produced for his Pardon de Ploermel, but then he heard stones and mortar falling to the ground through a long wooden trough on a building site. This thundered much better, so he hurried to the theatre and had a trough made, and found that stones gave too hard a sound. 

He decided grape shot would be ideal but the manager found that these were munitions which could only be procured with the permission of the government. Unfazed, Meyerbeer wrote to Marshall Vaillant, Minister of War, who made the army’s stores at Vincennes available to the composer, giving him the thunder he desired.

Musical instruments were changing. The now-forgotten harmoni-cor was invented by Louis Julien Jaulin, while on December 20, Henry Steinway Jr. took out US patent 26532 which covered the over-stringing of grand pianos. This was a turning point for Steinway, and their pianos won many awards around the world thanks to this innovation. Ignaz Bösendorfer died during the year, and his son Ludwig took over that family’s piano-making business.

In early January, Howard Glover announced a chamber concert featuring a number of vocalists and two solo instrumentalists: Miss Emma Green and Mr Henry Blagrove, “first violon of the Philharmonic”. The ‘violon’ is just a French ‘violin’. Using the word in English was a little pretentious, even then. Henry was another of those concerned with standard pitch, and his brother Richard was an eminent concertina player.

A Wheatstone concertina and harmonium price list of the time shows prices ranging from £1/16/- to 12 guineas for “ . . . a full-compass instrument as used by Signor Regondi and Mr Richard Blagrove.”

If the English public might enjoy the concertina, they loved Handel. Born Georg Friedrich Händel, he lived for most of his adult life in England, and became a British subject in 1727. He had died in 1759, but where Bach, Spohr and Beethoven fell from favour after their deaths, Handel stayed in the public’s eye, and ear — and in the repertoires.

The first Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in 1857, was just a warm-up for the centenary. In one issue of The Times on January 3, the public were alerted to the Green-Blagrove concert and also informed that celebrations of Burns and Handel that would take place during the year. London would be the main centre, but most cities and towns would offer something. In 1859, the British public would be Handel hogs. We'll come back to that, next time.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The music hall in 1859

This is one of a series of entries are drawn from chapter 7 of my book, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, and they all deal with life in that era. For background on the book, see the first entry in the series, Life in 1859, but if you just want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry.

Until the place closed in 1859, 'well bred' young men of a certain kind visited Vauxhall Gardens, founded in 1661. The Gardens offered food, drink, pantomimes, fireworks, dancing, balloon ascents — and dalliance, which was why the young men went and  nice young ladies didn’t, but the fashion died. Once the gentry stopped coming, the gardens closed, and many patrons moved to the music halls, a new craze which spread well beyond London.

Wilton’s Music Hall opened in 1859, with splendid décor of white, gold and mirrors, a ‘sun burner’ chandelier with 300 gas jets to light the stage, and room for 1500 patrons. Bought by the Methodist church in 1884, it became a soup kitchen, and saw its proudest hour as the HQ for those who saw off Mosley’s bully-boys in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street. Wilton’s was the location where ‘Champagne Charlie’ was first heard (and some say the first English can-can took place there), but the suggestiveness of acts generally grew over time.

Charles Morton let women into his Canterbury Hall from 1852, but created two more halls in 1859 and 1861, while Glasgow’s Britannia Hall was started in 1857 and opened in 1859. After 1859, the numbers swelled as more people acquired enough money to afford tickets. London had 200 halls by 1868, 347 in the 1870s.
In Massachusetts, Theodore Parker preached each Sunday in the Boston Music Hall, and in London, Charles Spurgeon made use of the Surrey Music Hall.

To some of the very pure, all things are impure, and one of Spurgeon’s deacons urged against using “that devil’s house”, but the preacher was more practical: “We did not go to the music-hall because we thought it was a good thing to worship in a building usually devoted to amusement, but because we had no other place to go.”

All the same, Spurgeon used the financial clout of a regular Sunday morning booking to get the management to agree to close the hall on Sunday nights. When the foundation stone of a new tabernacle was laid in July, The Times attacked the proprietors of the Surrey Music Hall for wanting too much for the use of the hall for a celebratory breakfast, pointing out that the hall was getting £780 a year for rentals, and was likely to do so for some time to come.

In the end, the Surrey Music Hall management decided the loss of Sunday night trade was more than they could wear, and Sunday night concerts began, late in the year. On December 14, The Times reported that Spurgeon had decided not to preach again at the Surrey Music Hall, as it was now opened on Sunday evenings for music, “although chiefly sacred”. He moved his services to the rather smaller Exeter Hall instead, until the new Tabernacle opened in March, 1861.

The 1843 Theatres Act forbade legitimate drama in British music halls, though dramatic interludes and sketches were allowed. Christy’s Minstrels were on tour in Ireland in January, but the Ohio Minstrels (15 vocalists, dancers and musicians) were in London, as were ‘The Coloured Opera Troupe’, who, dressed in Court costume, offered “refined NEGRO CONCERTS” at the Oxford Gallery, before a provincial tour in February.

In January, The Times indicated that Mr Dickens was offering a few more “Christmas readings”, with performances on January 6 and 13, for prices ranging from 1s. to 4s. Elsewhere, Mr Barnum repeated his lecture on ‘The Art of Making Money’ with prices from one to three shillings.

For those wishing to avoid theatres, there were glee clubs and home entertainment. The same page of The Times revealed that evening parties could be entertained by “Her Majesty’s Ventriloquist and Magician”, Mr Wellington Young, who had entertained HM, one night in 1846, but was still trading on it. A Young Married Lady was willing to entertain on the pianoforte or play for juvenile balls and evening parties for 3s. 6d. an evening. More upmarket accompaniment could be had from quadrille bands, though budget quadrilles could be danced to just a cornet and piano.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Theatre and public morals in 1859

This is one of a series of entries are drawn from chapter 7 of my book, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, and they all deal with life in that era. For background on the book, see the first entry in the series, Life in 1859, but if you just want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry.

Increasing levels of education and literacy, combined with evening schools and greater leisure as workers began to win on the ‘hours’ front, meant people had more time to think, and more time for leisure. The theatre was widely seen as a place of loose morals and easy virtue, but audiences still flocked to the theatres. In New York, Dion Boucicault opened The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana on December 15. It was seen by many as an attack on slavery, though others saw it as defending slavery.

Boucicault’s most lasting effect came when he suffered piracy of his work in the US in 1853. With R. M. Bird and G. H. Boker, he got a copyright law through the US Congress in 1856, but it took many more years to get clear and enforceable legislation. The Octoroon included a slave auction scene, an exploding river boat, and also an up-to-the-minute plot device when photography was used to solve a crime.

Dionysius Lardner Boucicault was born in Dublin, and may have been the illegitimate son of Dionysius Lardner, a famous 19th century science writer, a man with an eye for the ladies and very close to the family. Still Boucicault kept the name of his mother’s Huguenot husband, 26 years her senior, even after she moved to London with Lardner and her son. Then young Dion got the acting bug, and helped change the way theatre was seen in Britain and the USA.

He even toured Australia in the mid–1880s, outraging the Australian middle classes by marrying an actress in his company who was 44 years his junior. This did a great job of encouraging the curious to come and see the scandalous pair perform, but it helped to confirm the view some still had of theatrical types.

In Indianapolis, the manager of the Metropolitan Theatre offered to hold a benefit for the local Widows and Orphans Asylum. There was soul-searching, with pragmatic board members eager to accept the donation. Others drew the line at accepting “tainted money” from theatre folk, and in the end, the offer was declined.

Still, many upright citizens wanted entertainment. Asked by a reader for the safe and innocent family amusements in New York, Scientific American recommended “Drayton’s Parlor Opera” at Hope Chapel, Broadway. The performances were remarkably spirited, very amusing and “perfectly free from the usual evils of theaters”. All parts in the “entirely unobjectionable” performance were played by Mr Drayton and his wife. The journal described a collection of paintings known as “Waugh’s Italy”, as “also one of the harmless exhibitions which are well worth seeing”.

In London, the brand-new Adelphi Theatre offered private boxes with a saloon holding six for 2 guineas, family boxes holding four for a pound, stalls two feet wide were 5 shillings to 3 shillings, while pit stalls with elbows and cushions were 2 shillings. The cheapest seats were 6d, but for this, you would see a sketch, Mr. Webster’s Company is Requested at a Photographic Soiree, followed by the comic drama Good For Nothing, and a grand Christmas pantomime Mother Red Cap.

Like most of the other pantos, it offered an extravagant ‘Transformation Scene’, and had named stars playing Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon.

Taking The Times around his theatre on December 22, 1858, Mr Webster showed how theatres had improved. All refreshments would be under his control, so there would be no extortionate prices. Spacious cloakrooms for the ladies were on offer, with all the requisites for the toilette–  and no fees would be charged for caring for cloaks or bonnets.

The staff would all be women, reducing extortion or fee-taking, and the whole theatre from pit to ceiling, was fireproof. The many exits would allow the entire audience to leave almost instantly. The reporter was ecstatic, writing “No transformation which this year’s Adelphi pantomime can furnish will be half as great or half so striking as that which the audience will behold in comparing the old theatre with the new.”

The Victoria Theatre may also have been fireproof, but just five days later, people were killed in a fire scare that began when a boy in one of the boxes struck a light and set fire to a box of matches. There was a puff of smoke, some women screamed fire, and panic set in as the people in the gallery burst out, opening the doors. 

There were two performances scheduled for December 27, and the house could hold 3000 people, a third of them in the gallery. This was reached by a spacious staircase with four landings, with a ticket box on the third level. That made the first three flights effectively a vestibule, closed off by a door below the fourth flight.

At the early performance, 800 people were in the gallery, and a crowd was blocking the stairs up as far as the closed door, waiting to get in for the next show. When the fire panic began inside and doors at the top of the stairs opened, the new arrivals surged forward even as others struggled to get out. After 15 minutes, sixteen people were dead.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Circus acrobats and strong men in 1859

This is one of a series of entries are drawn from chapter 7 of my book, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, and they all deal with life in that era. For background on the book, see the first entry in the series, Life in 1859, but if you just want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry.

The Romans had wanted their bread and circuses, the folk of 1859 would settle for just a circus, but it was rather less barbaric than the Roman namesake. The “equestrian circus” began in London in 1786, but 1859 was the year that the flying trapeze was added to the bill. The world’s first flying trapeze circus act was performed on November 12 at the Cirque Napoléon in Paris by Jules Léotard, 21, who had practiced at his father’s gymnasium in Toulouse. He wore the daring (for that period) tights which still carry his name.

A whole series of daring young men followed him, but few were as daring or showy as Charles Blondin, the tightrope walker. Starting on June 30, Blondin made 21 crossings during the summer on a rope 1100 feet long stretched 170 feet above the boiling waters of the Niagara Falls, from Prospect Park on the United States side to the Canadian side. 
On August 17 he carried his manager across the gorge on his back. The trip lasted 42 minutes and included 42 rest stops. Scientific American was scathing: “We did not suppose that two such fools existed on this hemisphere. The idea of such a thing is enough to congeal the blood.”

Doctor George Winship, a 25-year-old physician who trained in Cambridge Massachusetts could raise himself by either little finger until he was half a foot above it. He could also raise 200 lb by either little finger and lift 926 pounds dead weight, without the aid of straps or belts, said The Times

Closer to home, Scientific American used the same figures a week earlier, suggesting that both journals drew from the same original source or press release, as there was no time for the American material to have crossed the Atlantic.

The American account says Winship was due to give a lecture in Boston, but fainted twice. He attributed this to the atmosphere being close and impure, though others thought it was because he had not spoken in public before. His lecture was on physical education, but the aptly named the Boston Atlas reported that the strong man proved an infant. Winship seems to have disappeared from public notice thereafter.

For his own pleasure and the amusement of others, a gentleman in Liskeard, Cornwall fashioned himself a suit made solely from 670 rat skins, collected over three and a half years. It included neckerchief, coat, waistcoat, trousers, tippet, gaiters, shoes and even a rat hat.

It was a measure of the way people were being urbanised that dogs were now seen more as companion animals than as work assistants. The world’s first dog show was held at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in June, while Birmingham held another show in November. To this day, Britain’s National Dog Show is organised by the “Birmingham Dog Show Society (founded 1859)”. The Battersea Dogs’ Home was established in 1860.

There was a poultry and pigeon show at London’s Crystal Palace in January. No doubt a few scientists who knew Darwin’s ideas would have dropped in to view the displays, because the selected breeds of birds were central to Darwin’s arguments about what could be achieved by selection of another sort, natural selection. Perhaps they took in a theatrical show while they were in town, but perhaps they did not, because many still thought the theatre lacked propriety.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Sporting fashions in 1859

This is one of a series of entries are drawn from chapter 7 of my book, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, and they all deal with life in that era. For background on the book, see the first entry in the series, Life in 1859, but if you just want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry.

To most Americans and Canadians today, cricket is a mystery, but Abraham Lincoln attended a cricket match between Chicago and Milwaukee in 1859, and a professional All England cricket team toured Canada and the USA during the year, playing five matches, the first overseas tour in any sport. Taking a cricket team to the US back then was not as bizarre as it sounds from today’s perspective.

In 1859, cricket was very popular in the mid-Atlantic states, in Boston and the New England factory towns, but it could also be seen in Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and even San Francisco, a total of perhaps 300 or 400 clubs.

Cricket even inspired American inventions. In March, M. Doherty of Boston patented a cricket bat that would not jar or bruise, but which would send the ball further. The blade had a wooden shell filled with cork or similar material, while the handle was hollow and contained a strip of whalebone, but in 1859, the baseball craze started to bite, and soon cricket would be eclipsed.

The writing was on the wall for cricket in September, when the ball game for the Massachusetts state championship caused enough interest for several railroads to issue excursion tickets to Boston’s Agricultural Fair Grounds.

Many new sports arose around 1859, perhaps because the lawnmower was now mature technology. The original mower was developed in 1830 from a machine used to remove the nap from cloth, and it allowed smooth, true grass surfaces, something almost impossible to create with a scythe or with grazing animals, but organic mowers still had a presence. The Illustrated London News reported in the middle of 1859 that a lightning bolt had struck a sheep in London’s Hyde Park, summarily terminating its earlier sterling grass control services.

After about 1860, horse-drawn and then motorised mechanical mowers did most of the work.

Lawn tennis was developed in 1859 by
a solicitor, Major Thomas Henry Gem and his friend, a Spanish merchant. The two were living in Birmingham, England, and played a game that they termed “pelota”, based on a Spanish ball game, which they played on Perera’s croquet lawn. This later came to be known as tennis, and 15 years later the two formed the Leamington Tennis Club, which laid out the rules of the game.
Croquet even featured in Alice in Wonderland.

In 1868, the All England Croquet Club was created to provide an official body to control croquet and to unify the laws. The club’s members leased four acres at Wimbledon in 1869, and tennis courts were added later when the croquet fad waned.

The club changed its name to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in 1899, and has held that name to the present day, even if the world just thinks of it as ‘Wimbledon’. Croquet had become a British craze in the 1850s, and the first recorded croquet game in the USA was at Nahant, Massachusetts in 1859.

Football was also emerging. In May, the rules for “Australian Rules” football were developed, though the Football Association, the founding body for the world game (or ‘soccer’, if you must) only wrote out its rules in 1863, with Rugby codes developing about 1870.

1859 was the year in which Allan Robertson, the world’s first golf professional died, still hating the new-fangled ‘gutties’, the golf balls with gutta percha in their hearts. They made the game too easy, he thought.

Not all sports owe their birth to lawn mowers. Polo was started in India in 1859 by the Maharajah of Manipur, Sir Chandrakirti Singh (who called it by a name which literally meant “horse hockey”).

It was the year lacrosse was named as Canada’s national sport and the first ice hockey game appears to have been played in Halifax in 1859 (ice hockey became Canada’s national winter game in 1994).

The first modern Olympic Games were staged in Athens, not in 1896 but in 1859! A Hellenic grain merchant named Evangelos Zappas convinced the Bavarian-born King Otto I of Greece to patronize an Olympic festival at Athens.

Otto was driven out of Greece in 1862, which caused the second Olympiad to be somewhat delayed, and these days, we take the second attempt of 1896 as the first of the modern series.

A Meyerbeer opera, Le Prophète, opened in 1849. It featured apparent ice-skaters (roller skaters), but that and an 1849 ‘spin-off’ ballet, Plaisirs de l’Hiver ou Les Patineurs helped to make roller skates popular, while Les Patineurs remains in the orchestral repertoire today.

In 1859, the Woodward skate with vulcanised rubber wheels, was unveiled in London, but people did more than demonstrate their own strength and agility. They went to see the experts in action.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Hidden fashions in 1859

This is one of a series of entries are drawn from chapter 7 of my book, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, and they all deal with life in that era. For background on the book, see the first entry in the series, Life in 1859, but if you just want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry.


The problem with writing social/domestic history is that all too often, people at the time did not record the details of their everyday activities. We cannot always get the details we need to understand everyday life, even two life-spans in the past. William Perkin’s mauve, discovered in 1856, was new and different enough to draw attention, so we know it came into production in a major way in 1859, giving ladies a new (and safe) fashionable colour, even if it was derived from the noxious remnants of coal gas and coal oil production.

Sometimes an industrious journalist filled in the background while earning his fee, as when Septimus Priesse wrote about making and colouring bonnets. He described mordanting straw bonnets with an ounce of iron sulfate in two gallons of water, boiling them for an hour, then hanging them out to dry, adding that chip or leghorn straw needed less mordanting. Next, the bonnets were boiled in 2 gallons of clean water for an hour with half a pound of broken nutgalls and half a pound of logwood, two common dye sources of the time.

Then, he said, leave two ounces of best glue in two quarts of water overnight before boiling to dissolve it and straining the glue, now referred to as size. The next step was to soak the bonnets in the size, one at a time, before removing them, sponging off the excess size and drying before carefully shaping the hat, or placing it on a block to dry. The result will be a nice black bonnet. A few details might be deemed too intimate, but more often, they seemed too ordinary, so we sometimes have to rely on inference, or unpublished sources.

Diaries and letters are useful. Because Eliza Edwards’ letters described life in Hawaii to her family in New York, she included ordinary matters like donning rubber boots to walk through knee-deep rushing water. In her diary, Caroline Cowles Richards, a young girl in upstate New York, revealed how a friend pierced her ears for her so she could wear ear-rings — as well as revealing the fashion influences she experienced:

Mary Wheeler came over and pierced my ears to-day, so I can wear my new earrings that Uncle Edward sent me. She pinched my ear until it was numb and then pulled a needle through, threaded with silk. Anna would not stay in the room. She wants her’s done but does not dare. . . . It is nice, though, to dress in style and look like other people. I have a Garibaldi waist and a Zouave jacket and a balmoral skirt.

Not everybody agreed with fashion. Empress Eugénie of France had pioneered the crinoline, but she declared in 1859 that she was giving it up. Unmoved by the edict of a mere empress, the style held on. It was claimed in the press that in Istanbul, the Ottoman sultan had, by decree, imposed a limit upon the luxury of the Turkish women of high position, and ordered certain changes in their costume.

This does not ring true: perhaps it was put about by somebody annoyed by the challenge of trying to pass crinolined ladies on a narrow street, or to fit them into a pew, a doorway, an omnibus, or a carriage.

On the other hand, the crinoline was good for business. It had sparked 100 patents in France in four years: 4 in 1855, 16 in 1856, 30 in 1857, 37 in 1858, and 13 by July 1859. Covered steel crinoline (wire) sold at 50 cents a pound, and about three quarters of a pound was needed for one hooped skirt. The estimated usage in 1859 was 5 million pounds. At the end of the November, Scientific American reported that in Derby, 950,000 hoop skirts had been made since April 1, using 9,100,000 yards of tape and 445 tons of steel.

A Mr Wappenstein in Manchester received a patent in 1859 for making artificial whalebone from animal horn. This would be cut in long helical strips which were then flattened and heated before being coloured. They were suitable for use in both umbrellas and crinolines.

According to cricket lore, round-arm bowling was developed by a cricket player’s sister, who found that her crinoline got in the way of conventional underarm bowling. She is usually named as Christine or Christina Willes, but she is alleged to have come up with her innovation in the early 1800s, half a century before the crinoline. Her dress may not have been embroidered, but it appears that the story was.

An advertisement in the Victorian Cricketer’s Guide of 1859-60 offers batting gloves, wicket-keeping gloves, and “leg guards” but no protective boxes for the male players. There was no real call for them at the time, as the umpire would call ‘no ball’ if any bowler raised his arm above his shoulder.


Saturday, 5 September 2020

Life in 1859

In 2007, I realised that the sesquicentenary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was coming. As an active historian of things scientific, I decided to write my own account, and casting around for themes, I read Richard Dawkins' comment to the effect that "the world changed after Darwin published", the suggestion being that the book caused change, when my view was that Darwin's book was but a symptom of a fast-changing world.

1859 was the year that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln turned 50 (they were born on the same day in 1809) and by the end of the year, their names were becoming known, all over the civilised world. It was the year of the first oil well, the invention of the slide rule and spectroscopy (rapidly giving us enough extra chemical elements to make the Periodic Table mean something). It was also the year in which Mendel started investigating the genetics of peas, the Suez canal was started, key evidence for the germ theory of disease was being assembled, and tobacco-smoking was first identified as a cause of cancer—and that's just for starters!

Railways, telegraphs under the sea, steamships and internal combustion were all tying the world together in amazing ways.

The end result was a work entitled Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, which saw the light of day in 2008 as a print book which you may or may not be able to pick up somewhere: here's a quick outline.

The work is certainly available from Amazon as a Kindle e-book, and also from Booktopia, or you can listen to me talking about it here.

Anyhow, my next few entries are drawn from chapter 7 of that book, and they serve to describe life in that era. If you want to see the others, use the tag 1859, which appears at the end of each entry. I will begin with fashions.


Fashions, after all, are only induced epidemics.
George Bernard Shaw, Doctor’s Dilemma, preface.

British men in the 19th century were generally clean-shaven until soldiers returned from the Crimea with beards, though “literary men” had beards sooner. The young Charles Darwin had no beard, old Charles Darwin was bearded. In early 1861, Abraham Lincoln explained just before his inauguration why he would be the first US President to have a beard in office: an 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, wrote and suggested he should grow one because his face was thin, but if fashion did not sway Lincoln, it must surely have influenced Grace Bedell.

Men used lead-based dyes on grey beards or hair and many bright colours contained a variety of heavy metals. Women who dyed their hair were at risk, but they had more to fear from arsenical dyes in their gowns, while everybody was threatened by green wallpaper, dyed with arsenic compounds — but it was fashion. Fashion was just as lethal to the whales which supplied whalebone for corsets and crinolines, and it had been as bad for the beavers which had provided the fur needed to make gentlemen’s hats until the 1850s.

Then the varnished silk hat took over, but Scientific American did not like them, saying the hard-shell hats were a menace. Some of these had gauze tops for ventilation, but most did not. While felt hats are somewhat porous and so somewhat ventilated, silk plush hats were saturated with lac-varnish and completely airless. They needed perforations at or near the band, argued the reporter. Later in the year, William Warburton obtained a patent for a machine that used heated points to perforate the sides of a hat, a system that Scientific American recommended for any headwear coated with varnish.


Ladies’ underwear was causing some worry. With the development of the crinoline, where hoops of whalebone, wire or other stiffening converted the dress into a giant bell, exposure of the limbs was more likely. Legend has it that ladies, fearful of being blown on their sides by wind or swooning, suddenly wanted more modest underwear, but the evidence is, at best, scanty — unlike the new underwear, it seems.

And in Britain, the poor were still being banged up in workhouses. I may or may not get back to discuss the fate of Thomas Drewery's orphans in Victoria, not long after that, but I have already described the fate of Australian poet, Jennings Carmichael, who died in an English poorhouse.