Category Archives: Research

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.

A Day in the Life: A Lady’s Maid

The Chamber Maid Brings Tea, Pehr Hillestrom, 1775

A lady’s maid’s day, unlike that of her peers, starts as soon as her mistress wakes.  The hour is variable, depending on the individual mistress and whether the household resides in the city or the country, but generally, a lady’s maid begins her official work later than the rest of the servants.

Attending to her mistress’s person comprises the first task of the morning.  After ablutions are taken care of and her mistress’s hair and body are dressed, a lady’s maid is responsible for tidying her mistress’s rooms.  This may not be the case with experienced ladies’ maids, but in households where there are few servants or a lady’s maid is relatively new, learning the finer details of upkeep are an important part of her position.  Even after a lady’s maid has graduated from general housemaid duty, washing hair combs, removing stains from soiled garments, and starching muslins number among the many exigencies of personal attendance that must be addressed on a regular basis.

Lady Fastening Her Garter (otherwise known as La Toilette), François Boucher, 1742

In households where maids are numerous, it may seem weird for a lady’s maid to act the part of a housemaid.  It’s really not.  The primary reason is to ensure her mistress’s privacy in both everyday situations and in rarer occasions when the mistress falls ill.  Although chambermaids and maids of all work will by necessity enter the mistress’s rooms, it is best to keep these visits limited.  All work in the rooms must be done out of the mistress’s sight.  Timing, therefore, is absolutely essential.

As soon as the mistress departs her rooms in the morning, a lady’s maid tidies and refreshes all belongings and articles under her care.  In a time before central air, a shut-up room would go stale throughout the night.  A good airing, therefore, is the first order of duty.  Windows are thrown open, bed curtains drawn apart.  Any clothes that remain out of closet are put away in the dressing room.  The accessories associated with ablutions must also be put to rights.

As neatness is a lady’s maid’s prerogative, dust and grime are directly under her purview.  Not even a loose thread on the carpet is tolerated by a meticulous lady’s maid.  The general notion here is to return the room to its original state—as if nobody had touched anything.  Wash basins, glasses, and water jugs must be cleaned of soap scum and fingerprints.  To keep up with the steady decline of cleanliness in the room, a strict schedule of supplying fresh water and changing towels is encouraged.


By James Gillray, 1810

After the mistress’s rooms are picked up and dusted, the thread and needle work begins.  Plain work (darning stockings, mending linens) occupies a large deal of this time.  Exactly how much is determined by the amount and state of garments in the laundry.

Before the laundry goes out to the washerwoman, it’s the lady’s maid’s job to sort through the dirty pile to determine what needs mending or what items are beyond repair.  As a sartorial accountant of sorts, it’s important for a lady’s maid to maintain an inventory of her mistress’s wardrobe from the start of her employment.  Any time a garment leaves the room for the purposes of laundering, she is expected to write up a bill of any costs associated with the garment’s upkeep.

Considering the number of times a mistress changes her outfit in a single day, preventing theft and accounting for misplaced or missing items in the wardrobe is necessary if a lady’s maid is inclined to keep her post.  Since she stands to benefit from her mistress’s cast-offs (as she will likely receive them), a wise lady’s maid serves as steward of her mistress’s belongings and keeps a hawk’s eye on anything that leaves the room.

The Jealous Maids

This does not mean a lady’s maid is encouraged to wear anything spangled or luxurious that is handed down to her.  To put on the airs of a mistress by wearing her tarnished finery, even under the mistress’s allowance, is a common offense.  According to anonymous Lady, “A neat and modest girl will wear nothing dirty and nothing fine.”

With these parameters set, a lady’s maid has the discretion to do with her mistress’s unwanted garments as she sees fit.  Charity is always encouraged.  In those days, linen was the only suitable fabric for dressing wounds.  As such, old scraps were in high demand in hospitals.  The poor were also endlessly in need of clothing and a lady’s maid could do much good by donating items to the impoverished.

I touched on this in the last post, but it’s worth noting that a lady’s maid enjoys more freedom than the average domestic.  Once her day’s work is complete, she has leave to improve her mind by reading.  Along with other activities such as sewing, her evening hours are largely devoted to leisure.  This is both a blessing and a curse.   Because ladies’ maids experience privileges denied other domestics and they appear to have the ear of their mistress, they were often subject to jealousy from their peers.

Another downside of the position is that ladies’ maids seem to have more down time than the rest of the household.  In reality, they are at the beck and call of mistresses who keep late hours.  Suffice it to say, a lady’s maid does not sleep until her mistress does.  The life of a lady’s maid, then, revolves around the schedule, temperament, and demands of her mistress.  Her happiness, too, but judging by the quantity of complaints surrounding the position, that would require an altogether separate post by yours truly.

The Last Shift, Carrington Bowles

Additional posts about a lady’s maid and domestic servants:

Wanted for Hire: Lady’s Maid

La Distraite, 1778, Gallerie des Mode

A while back I wrote a series of blog posts about the lives of female and male  domestic servants.  I think being American, and, well, not being an aristocrat in a former century, makes them a point of fascination for me.  They’re highly hierarchical, for one.  As we’ve seen with Daisy, the scullery maid in Downton Abbey, the lowest servant is ordered around by everybody else–seemingly all at once.  Also, this may seem obvious, but servants are  an entire class of people whose primary purpose is to nod and comply.  They live and breath usefulness, and although they are hardly born of a higher class, they are to comport in a manner befitting the dignity of their “family.”

We know this was not always the case—it never is where discretion is required—but given the high turnover rate of domestics, we can imagine that staying mum was not always top priority.  The memoir The Lady’s Maid: My Life in Service by Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor’s lady’s maid, is not a tell-all, but neither is it a wholly flattering account of the position.  The memoir tells it like it is: being a servant is a whole lot more complex than one might presume.

Lady Preparing for Masquerade, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

As the most senior female domestic, a lady’s maid is below only that of nursemaids, and this, I gather, is debatable.  Compared with the household maids who serve the family at large, she is paid well, performs the lightest work, and is usually allowed access to the library.   In addition, she is the primary witness to her lady’s daily well-being, maintaining a uniquely confidential position similar to a gentleman’s valet.

I pored over The Lady’s Maid; Her Duties, and How to Perform Them by Lady to get the definitive low down on the requirements of the position.  Distilled in a short recap, I imagine an advertisement for a lady’s maid might look something like this:

A Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen, Henry Robert Morland (between 1765 and 1782)

Although the position was coveted among the servant classes, a competent lady’s maid was hard to find.  They had the same reputations as governesses.  That is to say, terrible.  According to the anonymous Lady,

Sounds like a catch 22, doesn’t it?  As they say, however, silence is golden.  The best lady’s maid stuck to this maxim, avoided idle gossip, and used her relatively high positions in the household to reign over the lower servants with kindess and grace.  To what exten this paragon actually existed, only history can tell.

Coming up: A Day in the Life: A Lady’s Maid

Other posts about a lady’s maid:

Horace Walpole’s Correspondence Digitized

For all of you interested in Horace Walpole and his astute commentary concerning the 18th century, Yale has recently digitized his letters.  The site is super easy to naviage by date, illustration, appendices, etc.  There’s also a searchable list of correspondents, including Fanny Burney and Hannah More and many more.  I’ll be putting the link in my permanent research links for future reference.

How to Bankrupt an 18th Century Lord

1.  Gamble at your club.  Convinced of your superior understanding of mathematics and science, show off at whist.  When that fails, proceed to vignt-et-un, faro, and piquet.

2.  Drink while gambling.  Increases the odds, don’t you know!

3.  Have a gaggle of unmarriageable daughters and name them Imelda, Griselda, Hamelda, Gertrude, and Mildred.  Scrounge up portions to carry them through spinsterhood.

4.  Maintain your dowager mother on a hefty jointure.  The third wife of the Duke of Leeds outlived her husband by 63 years and siphoned £​190,000 from the estate! Ouch.

5.  Upstage your fellow peers by declaring palladian architecture de rigeur, formal gardens passé, and nude statuary a must.  Apply these prevailing fashions to your ALL of your sundry estates and renovate.  Hell, why not live the life of a collector?  It is for the benefit of your heir.

6.  Disregard the slavish fashion mindset of the women in your life.  Let’s see here: wife, daughters, mistress (or two) and the occassional prostitute.  Check and damnation!  After all that altruism and personal sacrifice, you deserve to splurge on some manly embellishments.  Think gemstone buttons, diamond buckled shoes, and painstaking embroidery on your waistcoats.  One must play the part, after all. 

18th Century Book – The Experienced English Housekeeper

Wonder how to make a portable soup for travellers?  Set an 18th century table?  Make soup a la reine

The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald is an essential book to discover not only what people ate in the 18th century, but also how their meals were cooked.  There’s a wonderful section on preserves and confections, extensive chapters on meats (ox cheek anyone?).  And, of course, you’ll want to learn how to make an edible “amulet.” Many of the recipes are easy to whip up today, provided you translate the odd spelling.  It’d be rather funny if you didn’t. 

“Eels or Lamprey with pudding in the belly” aside, here are a few I’m planning on for a future 18th century test kitchen:

Note:  If you decide to delve into the book, remember it was published in 1782.  The spelling is surprisingly uniform but what looks like “f” is typically “s” in older english books. 


Molly Houses – 18th Century Subculture

Molly:  term for an 18th century gay man, usually effeminate, and especially one who frequented Molly Houses, private establishments where homosexuals and cross-dressing men could meet likeminded partners.  

Since sodomy remained a capital offense in England until 1828, Molly Houses sprang up all over large cities, a subculture in their own right when homosexuality was widely considered an unnatural act against God and man.  Here, gay men could gather, unmolested by the harsh opinions of a moralistic society, to express their sexuality, to sing and dance or merely find a partner.  Gatherings like these flourished in 18th century London,  with the most famous, Margaret (Mother) Clap’s Molly House in Holborn, London, reportedly entertaining around 40-50 men per night. A story concerning Mother Clap’s Molly House has also been made into the eponymous play by Mark Ravenhill.  The 2001 play was billed as a “black comedy with songs, is a celebration of the diversity of human sexuality, an exploration of our need to form families, and a fascinating insight into a hidden chapter in London’s history.”  I couldn’t find a recording of it, which is a bit disappointing, but you can buy the play on amazon.

Interested in learning more? Sodomite’s Walk – A cruising lane in Moorfield (see map here)

Rictor Norton’s book Mother Clap’s Molly House.    He also has a pretty exhaustive body of work on Gay History and Literature that is worth checking out.

Red Lobsters, Robin Redbreasts, and Thief Takers

18th Century Word of the Day: Raw Lobsters and Robin Redbreasts

Are they:

A.  Edible, but questionably delicious

B.  Crustaceans, birds, or other animal kingdom variety

C.  Bow Street Runners

D.  All of the above

If you answered A, you are correct.  Well, technically its C (and moreover D) but murderers in eighteenth century London did have a predilection for biting of the noses of their victims during the act of strangulation.  Gruesome, aye?


Established in the 1750’s at No. 4 Bow Street, Raw Lobsters and Robin Redbreasts refer to Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners because as you might have guessed, they wore red.  Vests, that is.  As much as I’d love to show you a picture in color, I’m afraid we’re stuck with b&w.  You’ll just have to imagine how well they would’ve matched the crime scene.  I wonder if that was intentional.

Bow Street Runners, William Hogarth, Cruelty in Perfection

Bow Street


Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones and his half brother, John Fielding (below) founders of Bow Street Runners.

Sir John Fielding by Nathaniel Hone

And, no, John Fielding is not a ninja warrior.  Great misfortune.  He’s actually blind and that is what the black band signifies.

If you’re curious about these two fellows and about Bow Street Runners in an eat popcorn and slurp on cola kind of way, rent City of Vice, a  Britsy mini-series that uses historical records as a basis for their tales.  This show does, however, contain flights of whimsy so just don’t nitpick.   It’ll ruin the whole sordid experience.

To Patch or Not to Patch

The Allure of Beauty Patches

The 18th century can thank the Duchesse du Maine for bring patchy back. Although their popularity waned after the reign of Louis XIV, beauty patches would rise to the height of fashion in the 1760s, worn by both men and women to either hide their imperfections or flaunt their pristine white beauty.

A popular anonymously written poem makes this metaphor:

Her patches are of every cut
For pimples or for scars
Here’s all the wandering planet’s signs
And some of the fixed stars
Already gummed to make them stick
They need no other sky.

Some contemporaries of the trend remarked that migrating patches made constellations of the wearer’s face as the patches were shaped to resemble stars and celestial bodies. Other times the silk, velvet, or taffetta adhesives were cut into hearts, diamonds, or the more elaborate animals, insects, and figures (fyi: if one were poor, the patch might be made of mouse skin).

Like the fan, patches were worn to suggest a certain mood or state, with each placement having a name. Corner of the eyes was the passionate; middle of the cheek, the gallant; the nose, the impudent; near the lips, the coquette, and to masks scars or pimples, the concealer. 1  A patch on the forehead signified dignity, around her lips, kissable.  A bethrothed young woman wishing to announce her new status sported a heart on her left cheek.  Upon her marriage she switched the heart to the right. 

Can you guess this lady’s intent?   She’s passionate and kissable (and looking to land a man for the night!)

Portrait of a Lady – Thomas Gainsborough 

(modified for your patchy enjoyment)

The favored color was black, but green, purple, blue or red might be use to enhance a lady’s gown or her eyes.   Dark skinned women were seldom seen wearing patches because their foremost purpose was to show the striking comparison of black against pale white skin.

According to one of my sources, “a great lady always had seven or eight, and never went without her patch-box, so that she might put on more if she felt so inclined, or replace those that might happen to come off.” 1

Faience Patch Box from the Polk Museum of Art, ca 1745

Seven or eight? Seriously?  That would look like a strange case of the pox and not, I imagine, altogether beguiling.



1.  The XVIII century

2.  England of Song or Story

3.  Women & Gender in 18th Century Russia

Domestic Servants – Part 2 – Men

It’s not so much about the idealized “servant” above but really more about the stiff and serious, the proverbial butler.  Which isn’t so bad, mind you, but who wants to see a butler, looking all proper and superior, when you could have a man, getting down and dirty in the house?  Well, 18th century masters and mistresses for one.  Men simply did not do “women’s work”.  Unless their purview included luxuries, they did not clean, polish, mend, or launder anything.  They were considered skilled workers; having been apprenticed, they could rise to a greater position in the house, and in this way, they were far above women in regard to employment (although women could ascend to higher offices also).  Where a woman worked, a man managed and oversaw.  But lest this become a feminist treaty on sexual politics in the workplace, I’ll quit with the comparisions.  Just know that men, first and foremost, were skilled in their employ and within the domestic sphere, they ruled over household luxuries, or those of the most expense: land, horses, glass, china, and the like.  Boys, fixed on the path of men (we hope!), were somewhat more engaged in women’s work, but only until they gained the aptitude to abandon their current position in favor of a better one.

The Hierarchy – Male Servants

Land Steward – Managed estate in all forms: collected tenant dues, leased farms, surveyed the property, settled disputes over land and farming, detailing records of such affairs.  When master was not present or inclined, he supervised the cultivation of the land, lending his ear to tenant farmers and the sophistication of their agriculture practices.

If there is no land steward, the house steward is the highest position in the house.  He would manage all domestic affairs, including servants below him, and is answerable only to the master.

Master of the Horse/Clerk of the Stables – oversees all equine and groom activities, including inspecting feed and overall care of the horses; arranges travel; is responsible for checking the condition of roads and inns; manages details of carriages; boss to coachman, grooms, postilion, and those connected to the stables or coaches.   By around 1725, this position devolved to the clerk of the stables.  More often than not, the clerk of the stables was lower born than his predecessor, the master of the horse.

Clerk of the Kitchen – responsibilities include the realm of the kitchen, including the work of the female cook and her subordinates. He ordered table provisions, negotiated with the green grocer, baker, and butcher; disbursed funds allocated by house steward for payment of provisions and to tradesmen for their services; guardian of the larder(pantry); ensured that meals were served on time and properly prepared this type of food preparation.

  • Man Cook: may take the role of the clerk of kitchen if domestic is absent, or he may divide roles to assist the clerk of the kitchen.  He would be familiar with French cuisine, as the English preferred.
  • Confectioner – employed in larger households, usually trained outside the household in a shop.
  • Baker – likewise as confectioner

Bailiff – Either a free agent or employed under the land steward. He manages the farm on the master’s country estate; buys cattle and horses for the plow; is responsible for husbandry, the breeding and raising of livestock; also performs administrative duties for the estate, assisting the land steward in tenant and leased land issues. He may be called upon, on occassion, to assist in the dining room.

Valet de Chambre – or as we know, simply the valet.  For the  first quarter of the century, this position was called the gentleman in waiting, but like the master of the horse, it dissovled into its present form.  The valet is responsible for his master’s person: prepares the master’s toilette, including coiffure.  Before bed and upon awaking, the valet is at the master’s disposal and must undress and dress him.  This was such an important role that if the valet was indisposed, the master would not prepare for bed, or as in the case of morning, would not get out of bed until his valet appeared.  As a master of fashion, the valet’s primary role is to care after the master’s appearance, inlcuding the care and selection of clothing, as the valet is responsible for his master’s modish presentation to the world.

Butler – in some cases, when a butler possessed supreme skill in domestics, he would take over the role of the house steward, and as such, presided over all servants in the house.  This was more common in the 19th century and onward. Other household offices were often coupled with the butler’s so that in some instances he was house steward, valet and butler at the same time.  He is on par with the housekeeper, an office held by a female, but being male, he was her superior.  Common duties included supervising dining room affairs, managing the wine cellar and all spirits, decanting wine bottles and ales, and serving liqueur.  He also looked after the silver, polishing it and keeping it in pristine condition.  An underbutler assisted the butler but was considered a lower domestic.

Gardener – fairly self-explanatory but as grand country estates had impressive gardens and landscaping, the gardener required an extensive knowledge of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and matters of landscape design.  Most often, he occupied a cottage on the estate, but could possess an office in the house.  He was expected to serve as a guide, escorting visitors on the grounds.

Lower Manservants

One thing to be aware of: while uppermanservants wore their own clothes, subordinates dressed in livery, basically the formal uniform of the house.

Coachman:  When a master of the horse or clerk of stabes was employed, he simply drove the coach.  Otherwise, he managed those employed in the stables and ensured that the coach was in working order.  An undercoachman assists the coachman.

Footman: Performed duties both inside and outside the house.  When in house, he waited the table, laid out cloth and served tea, and cleaned knifes (may clean glass when no butler was employed).  Out of doors, he performed as an escort or messenger.  On occassion he may express his masters “how d’ye’s” paying respects to acquaintances and friends when the master was disobliged.  He would also inquire after the health of those he visited and hand deliver messages.  As an escort, he rode on the back of the coach, walked behind his master or mistress, opened doors and carried parcels.

On the same level with the footman and groom is the running footman.  The fourth Duke of Queensbury, who died in 1810, was the last to employ one.  The running footman would run ahead of the calvacade, prepare an inn for his master’s arrival, and for sport, engage in running contests to win wagers for his master, and while on city streets, prepare the path for the coach.

Groom:  Under the master of the horse, he cares for the horses, feeding and watering them, brushing them down and administering medicine when they take ill.

Porter: A guardian of the gate, the porter screens those who seek admission to the estate.  In London townhouses, he was positioned in the foyer and is responsible for opening the door, taking calling cards, and allowing entry into the house.

Park Keeper:  Cares for deer on a master’s country estate.

Game Keeper:  Monitors the estate, looking for poachers and trespassers; knows how to breed wild game and is familiar with game laws.   Both the park keeper and game keeper live in cottages on the estate.

The Youths (lowest positions)

Postilion – mounted on one of the drawn horses, aka postboy

Yard boy – there is very little documented about the yard boy of this time, but I can (un)safely assume he fetched wood and probably aided the gardener in utilitarian affairs.

Provision boy – likely assisted the kitchens in fetching supplies

Foot boy – an attendant in livery

The yard boy, provision boy, and foot boy are largely interchangeable.  They were most often lackeys assisting in various domestic affairs.

Page – apprentice footman, attends on a person of distinction

Hall boy – assistant to the lowest footman, he empties chamber pots and cleans boots.  On par with the scullery maid.

And that’s it! Whew, am I glad that’s done.  As much as I love research, I hate recording it in an organized, presentable manner.  It’s only fun when the fiction writing begins and those scribbled notes actually start to pay off.

Much thanks to the .02% of readers who actually finished the post!  When it comes to domestics, you are now more educated than those who groaned and thought their head might explode from digesting a little bit of period knowledge.  The information about servants may seem extranneous in our modern day life, but if you read anything about the 18th century (or prior/proceeding centuries), understanding the role of domestics is a prerequisite for truly understanding a story and its social implications.  The way a character interacts with a domestic reveals a lot about his/her quality, especially when considering the lower servants, but also vice versa.  And there are a thousand other interactions between the higher and lower classes that are very telling when you recognize their weight.

So, between my Female Domestic Servant post and this one, I hope you’ve learned something useful for when you’re reading the likes of Georgette Heyer or maybe just a historical romance novel.