Monthly Archives: March 2014

Reading Coffee Grounds: A Lady’s Hobby

Divination by coffee grounds was an art practiced by ladies and ridiculed by men.


An edition of the Plain Dealer from 1724 claims that tasseography was one of “a thousand shining proofs of the capacity of woman’s wit.”  The writer even went so far as to exhort gentlemen to beware the danger: “Our women are become a nation of sages!  And men must be shortly dependent on them, not for DELIGHT only, but for INSTRUCTION.”

In keeping with the theme of the print shown above, the Gentleman’s Magazine relates a story of a gentleman coming upon two ladies having their fortunes read in coffee grounds:

“He surprised her and her company in close cabal over their coffee; the rest very intent upon one; who by her dress and intelligence he guess’d was a tire woman [ladies’ maid]; to which she added the secret of divining by coffee grounds… On one hand sat a widow, on the other a maiden lady, both attentive to the predictions to be given of their future fate… They assured him that every cast of the cup is a picture of all one’s life to come, and every transaction and circumstance is delineated with the exactest certainty.  If this be so, reply’d he, such an Art would be of service to a statesman, for instead of going to council he need only examine the coffee grounds and all the affairs of the whole nation would appear before him at once and he would know all the plots cabals and intrigues of his adversaries… In case he should see mischief and misfortune coming upon him, [he asked] whether it would be in his power to prevent ’em, they reply’d no.  From which he takes occasion to dissuade them from such unwarrantable inquiries to be content with what they enjoy and be prepared to endure evil when it comes and to depend on providence for the rest .”

ProfessorTrelawneyDivinationEven 21st century wizards think divination is worthless.

Ladies didn’t much care for this no-nonsense approach to fate.  Instead, they consumed books like Every Lady’s Own Fortune-Tellerwhich I’m delighted to say tells us how to read our very own coffee grounds.

The 18th century method says to use the last coffee pour before you reach the dregs.   Pour it into your cup, let settle, and drink everything but the dregs.  Then turn the cup around, making sure the dregs stick to the sides.  Next, lay your cup upside down and let the moisture drain out.  Pick up your cup and start reading counterclockwise to your thumb placement on the cup until you complete the circle back to your thumb (Hmm, does it matter if you’re using a dish of tea or a teacup with handles?  One would think this omitted detail is important.)

Your Divination Results

A Visit From Your Beloved or a Journey: “If you see a clear narrow part between two lines, it signifies a public road.  Observe the little atoms in this passage, and their distance from your thumb, as also their direction, whether to the thick part of them are inclined towards you, or from you.  If the former, your best beloved is coming to see you.  If the latter, he is going away from you;  the farther this road is from your thumb, the greater distance he is from you.

If it is mostly on the left side, he is only leaving the place he was to come.  If mostly on the right side, he is on his arrival.  If this clear or white part is long and broad, he is coming by sea.  If you see the resemblance of several houses, on or near a road of white space, it signifies a great city or seaport.  If there is no large atom in the road or space, you will yourself soon perform a journey or voyage.

Marriage, Death, and Popularity:  If you see the likeness [of houses], but of one large house with few people or atoms about it, you will be married a short time, that being the emblem of a church.  If there is a great crowd, you will attend the funeral of some dear friend.

If you perceive the semblance of a coach, which is easily distinguished, you will be speedily raised to honour and dignity.   If the likeness should be a horse, you will be married to a person much above your own condition.  If you observe the similitude of a gallows, which may happen, we recommend to you to mend your own morals, or caution any of your acquaintance, whom you know to be vicious, of the threatened danger.

Wealth:  If there appears a great many round small white spots on any part of the cup, it denotes that you will shortly receive a large sum of money.  The nearer to your thumb on the right hand side, the sooner you will get it.

Birth Order Theory & The Georgian Family Portrait

I haven’t posted many Georgian family portraits, mostly because they tend to show domestic affairs in a retiring light, but I do enjoy John Lee and His Family by John Russell. Unlike many portraits of listless heads, John Lee’s Family appears bursting with personality.  This is despite the fact that a) the children are dressed in today’s equivalent of white t-shirts in group photos, and b) they share outgrown bowl style haircuts.  Kinda cute, actually.

Although there aren’t any definite indicators of sex like we would use today, I’m inclined to say the three central children are male while the remaining three are female.  The two golden haired children around the mother also look like twins, but again, reckless speculation.  You, readers, will simply have to give me your take as I have thrown research out the window and had my fun labeling the children with their respective (and imaginary roles).

John Lee and His Family by John Russell (1809)

click to enlarge

What do you think?  Have I got it all wrong and maligned the children?  Is birth order theory a sham?  And what about Dad?  Do you have a read on him or another interpretation of the family?  Leave me your comments. I’d love to hear them!

The Human Butterflies

Anthropomorphic monkeys ran rabid through interior designs during the early to mid 18th century, and Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin put his spin on the trend by creating his human butterflies.  If you’re not familiar with Saint-Aubin, he had two claims to fame beyond his body of work.

1.  He came from a large French family of creatives, with six of the seven children finding work as draughtsman, etchers, and designers.  His younger brother Gabriel-Jacques is noteworthy for having studied with Francois Boucher and chronicling daily Parisian life, but unfortunately died penniless and largely unknown.

2.  He occupied the official position of Designer of Embroidery and Lace to the King’s Wardrobe for King Louis XV.  Fun day job, right?  His parents were embroiderers, and though he followed in their footsteps, spiffing up the king wasn’t his only pursuit.  In addition to authoring a scandalous book that required his anonymity, he etched what remains his most popular series: Essay de Papillonneries Humaines (1756).

So, you ask, what occurs in a butterfly’s life?  Unsurprisingly, butterflies, unlike their lowly caterpillar counterparts, live like aristocrats.   First there are the daily rituals such as the bath and toilette…

Le Bain by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

La Toilette by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Then the energetic pursuits of the acrobat and the duel….

Le Bateleur by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Le Duel by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Which naturally leads to the injured person…

Le Blesse by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

And what is an injured person to do but play checkers and get carted around in a litter?

Le Damier by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

La Brouette by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Evening arrives and a butterfly has no choice.  He must go to the country ballet or the French theatre…

Ballet Champêtre by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Théâtre Français by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

And when that gets dull?  Well, one can always ride around on a turtle.

Le Papillon et la Tortue by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin

Ah, it’s hard being a butterfly.

P.S.  As an aside, if you’re the type who must know what would have gotten Saint-Aubin in big trouble if he fessed up to authoring the work, the answer is his Book of Caricatures, Good and Bad. Waddesdon Manor has the 400 page volume in a digital catalogue and contains some subversive images that are good for a laugh, including a nun watering a man’s sprouting bottom.  (Who knew that would happen?  Nuns are so clever.)

The Duke Buys a Wife

Once upon a time in December 1744…


Selling a Wife by Thomas Rowlandson (1812-14)

An ostler named Jefferyes decides to rid himself of his wife. He ties a halter around her neck and hauls her, like he would any poor beast, to an inn in Newbury called The Pelican.  Inside, the second Duke of Chandos and his companion are dining and notice a commotion taking place in the yard outside.

“Wife for sale” somebody shouts. “He’s leading her around by a halter,” shouts another. “Whoopie,” shouts a third.

“What can this be?” thinks the duke. It’s not everyday he gets to witness the sale and purchase of a female, though wife selling is not an uncommon occurrence. In the days pre-dating divorce, how else is a fellow to ameliorate his unsatisfying experiences at home?  He cannot kill her, or at least he ought not.  No, auctioning her to the highest bidder is the right of the common man, and the duke decides he may as well see what’s being offered before he repairs to London.

Together with his companion, he ventures into the yard only to be struck by Cupid’s arrow.  “Damnation,” thinks the duke.  His father died this past August and because of the South Sea Bubble, the duke is left with a miserly inheritance.  He cannot afford a blinding attraction to an ostler’s wife, but it’s not like he’s going to marry her.  Even so… The beautiful creature before him has been humbled.  She is not prideful but submits to her husband’s indictments, peeping not a word.  Some who witness the scene later imagine the ostler has beaten her, and the duke swoops in as her noble rescuer. Others say the duke is so sympathetic to her plight that he believes it better to be sold by a villain than to bed down with one. Either way, he’s so overwhelmed by her charms he cannot help himself.  

He buys her.

Still from The Slipper and the Rose (cinderella story)

And so Ann Jeffreyes, chambermaid, is at one moment the unwanted wife of an ostler and the next the property of a duke. “How unbelievable,” she must think to herself. “How terrifying and exciting.”  And then, “Yes, I’ll marry you!”

It’s true. Henry Brydges, the widower Duke of Chandos, makes his pretty purchase a duchess and a Cinderella story is born.  He and Ann give life to every servant girl’s dream: one doesn’t have to be born a lady to become one.  One only needs to be sold and purchased.  Preferably with a duke attending her auction, but there’s always earls and viscounts to be had…

Dripping in Gold

Ever heard the tune ‘Crave You’ by Flight Facilities?

“I walked into the room dripping in gold
Yeah dripping in gold
I walked into the room dripping in gold
Dripping in gold
A wave of heads did turn, or so I’ve been told
Or so I’ve been told…”

I present the 18th century version in Lady Cunliffe, who may actually have been dripping in gold.


By John Hoppner (1781/82)

When Lady Cunliffe (nee Harriet Kinloch) married Sir Foster Cunliffe, 3rd Baronet, in 1781, the Cunliffe family was a generation away from two words that wrinkled society noses: merchant and slavery.  Hoppner’s portrait was completed right before or right after they wed, and may have alluded to the less than respectable Cunliffe family riches that were accumulated mid-century.

The first Foster Cunliffe–Sir Foster Cunliffe’s grandfather–was born in 1685 and made his wealth as a Liverpool merchant.  The Virginian tobacco trade was just emerging in his hometown in the early 1700s, and he made a great deal of money on Oronoco weed (originally cultivated by John Rolfe, Pocahontas’ husband), which he sold to the French.  What filled his coffers the most, though, was the Atlantic slave trade.

To get an idea of what occurred during Cunliffe’s lifetime, the first half of the 18th century saw an expansion of some 5,000 ships from the beginning of the century to a whopping 45,000 before 1750.  Cunliffe, as one of a hundred slave traders in Liverpool, owned 26. Those ships transported West Africans to the sugar islands, but they also carried German Palantines (sold as indentured servants) as well as convicts to the Americas.

Exporting commodities from the sugar islands provided a supplemental income, but the trade that brought the family into affluence was falling out of favor by the time Lady Cunliffe entered the picture.  By 1758, upon Foster Cunliffe’s death, Cunliffe’s sons followed in their father’s mayoral footsteps and took political offices.  The company went defunct in 1759 and the family began distancing itself from its role in slavery.  Thanks to their investments, the following generations joined the landed gentry and used their fortune to buy the hallmarks of social ascent, including the dripping in gold Hoppner portrait above.