Tag Archives: 18th Century

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.

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.)

An Electric Blue Gown at Grandmother’s Party, 1788


Bouquets, or Grandmother’s Party by Philibert-Louis Debucourt  (1788)

Grandmother’s party is popping with fashionable details:  the little boy in a striped suit, the chubby cheeked toddler’s bonnet that matches maman’s, and Maman.  The hedgehog hairstyle she’s sporting isn’t too hot, but how about the electric blue paired with a black lace and silk wrapper?

All in all the etching, dedicated to mothers, is a quaint family scene from an artist and social satirist who built up a body of work painting racier images.   You may compare it with Debucourt’s 1787 companion piece that is dedicated to fathers.

The Compliment, or New Year's Morning by Philibert-Louis Debucourt, 1787

The Compliment or New Year’s Morning by Philibert-Louis Debucourt (1787)

A History of English Miniatures

As is often the case, I recently came across a very dry history book with some hidden gems in it.  Miniatures: Ancient and Modern was written by Cyril Davenport and published in 1908 and although I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you’re a miniaturist dilettante like I am, it does offer a useful perspective on how English miniatures changed from the 16th through the 19th centuries.  The short answer is not much in terms of shape and overall presentation. Excluding the style exhibited in the day’s favored painter,  miniature portraits gradually grew more sophisticated in terms of backgrounds and range of mediums, but they are still miniatures.

England’s Three Periods of Miniature Art

Thomas Wriothesley, First Earl of Southampton by Hans Holbein the Younger (1535) (c) Met Museum
Thomas Wriothesley, First Earl of Southampton by
Hans Holbein the Younger (1535) (c) Met Museum

The 16th century Tudor period marks the first time in English history when miniatures appear in large numbers.  They are influenced by the work of Hans Holbein, the younger and are fairly uniform in design.  Simple blue or red backgrounds predominate and men are the likeliest subjects, although important high-born ladies and Queen Elizabeth do appear.

The shape of the miniature is round, the medium gouache or oils, on vellum or paper, wood or metal, respectively, and no shadows present themselves on the portrait itself. Davenport’s definition of a miniature is no larger than 7×7 inches, which sounds fairly large to me if you wanted to admire someone in the palm of your hand (I always thought miniatures were somewhere in the range of 2×2 inches or less, but I guess not). Anything larger than 7×7 inches gets classified as a cabinet painting, which would measure no more than 2×2 feet.

The black and white mother and son portrait miniatures are from Elizabeth’s reign.  If you do know what Henry, Prince of Wales looks like, you might be wondering if this miniature is actually of his younger brother, Charles I.  Here’s a portrait from 1610-12 painted shortly before Henry death at age 18, making the age depicted in the miniature improbable.

Maybe the miniature below is a keepsake of what Henry would have looked like if he hadn’t died (hmm, I wonder if that was done)?  Or maybe the painter sucked at his art? Another of history’s mysteries, if you’re up for some sleuthing.  You can see Anne’s miniature in color here–the jewels in her hair and ruff are crazy!

The style of the 17th century Stuart period takes a nod from the work of Anthony van Dyck.  Instead of being strictly blue or red, backgrounds add distinctive scenery and short oval shapes compete with the rounds of the previous century.  The mediums have not yet changed.  I personally like the first miniature of a Lady as Flora that was painted by Issac Oliver between 1575 and his death in 1617, making it straddle the Tudor and Stuart period.  The duke in the second miniature has smug looking lips though, so I can’t recommend him.

Portrait of a Lady Dressed as Flora

books-2Before daguerrotypes came onto the scene and resounded the miniature death knell, the third period extended into the 18th and 19th centuries.  They styles is a reflection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings.  Transparent watercolors were introduced, the shape turned oval, and ivory is a popular medium on which to paint.  Ladies also start to appear in miniatures with regularity, though I must say I’ve seen a lot of ladies in 17th century miniatures.

The first three below are 18th century, the fourth is from the 19th, and the fifth is late 19th to early 20th century.

Archibald Robertson by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1786-91) (c) Met Museum
Archibald Robertson by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1786-91) (c) Met Museum


Portrait of a Woman, Said to Be Madame Récamier by Nicolas François Dun (1812-14) (c) Met Museum
Portrait of a Woman, Said to Be Madame Récamier by
Nicolas François Dun (1812-14) (c) Met Museum

One last medium that I haven’t mentioned is enamel.  Portraits on enamel have been around since the Byzantine period and during the 16th-19th centuries, were more popular on the continent than in England.  I like how glossy they look.  The colored Mary Wortley Montagu miniature at the top of the post is also enamel.

George IV as Prince Regent, after Lawrence Henry Bone (1816) (c) Met Museum
George IV as Prince Regent, after Lawrence
Henry Bone (1816) (c) Met Museum

Unlike miniatures from the 16th century onward, early examples of Roman miniatures from the first and second centuries A.D. were painted on gold leaf and encased in glass plaques.  The Greeks produced encaustic miniatures, painted on wood with hot beeswax, while Renaissance Italians and Germans also excelled at encaustic works, setting their miniatures in relief with most of their subjects in profile.

Clearly, there’s always been a desire to carry a beloved’s portrait around, making me think that miniatures are kind of romantic.  Yes, they were given as diplomatic gifts and created to commemorate an age or occasion, but I can’t help but feel that many of them are as sentimental as a picture or a photograph in locket, which has got me thinking . . . what’s the history of lockets?

For more information on miniatures, do see:

Victoria & Albert Museum Portrait Miniatures Collection

And if you’d like to know what was going on across the pond, visit the Metropolitan’s Museum of 18th century American miniatures and 19th century American miniatures.  Of particular note is the daring Sarah Goodridge’s self-portrait.  Gotta love a lady with pluck!

Rosalie Duthé, Original Dumb Blonde

Rosalie Duthe by Drouais 1768Rosalie Duthé by Francois-Hubert Drouais, (1768)

When I was a towheaded girl, having to humor more than my fair share of dumb blonde jokes, I would have liked to know the name of Rosalie Duthé.  The scandalous lady who inspired gibes that would endure well past her 250th anniversary, marking their favor in bottle blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, has been an unknown pain in my ass since I can remember.  As an experiment in my teenage years, I dyed my hair auburn and guess what happened?  Science.  Men generally acted politer and the endless spate of jokes withered in people’s heads.  Ultimately, maintaining a brownish hue when nature has bestowed you with fair hair is a futile and expensive endeavor.  I gave it up within six months and have since rejoined the ranks of women, dyed or otherwise, who (allegedly) have more fun.  In the eye of the beholder, the stereotype rings true.  For better or worse, in person or on dating sites, blondes get more attention.  In studies, they have been shown to be more aggressive and confident because they’re accustomed to special treatment.  They also make men less clever, and are thought of as more approachable.  Men, however, prefer marrying brunettes because they “take more care of their appearance, are great cooks and are better at house work.”  And apparently blondes are high maintenance seductresses: brunettes are also considered more experimental in bed.

Rosalie Duthé by Lie Louis Périn-Salbreux

Rosalie Duthé by Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux

Doubtless, Marilyn Monroe, the not so original breathy-voiced blonde, discovered the power of sunlit locks before all several studies diminished an iota of the blonde’s prowess.  But Rosalie Duthé is truly the original master of the birdbrained coquette.  Born in 1748, she became the mistress of an English financier after leaving convent school.  Her alleged chum while hanging out with nuns?  None other than the racy blonde, Madame Du Barry.  After her first conquest as mistress, Duthé danced at the Paris Opera Ballet, but it didn’t take her long to ensnare numerous protectors.  She was a favorite of well-heeled gentlemen, including Charles X of France, and played the muse of many a painter.  But not everything was rosy in Duthé charmed sphere.  She was satirized in the 1775 one-act play Les Curiosités de la Foire as a dimwit.  In On Blondes by Joanna Pitman, Duthe is likewise recalled as a robot, then described in a fair program:

“Machine: a very beautiful and extremely curious contrivance representing a handsome woman.  It performs all the actions of a living creature, eating, drinking, dancing, and singing as if it were endowed with a mind.  This mechanical woman can actually trip a foreigner to his shirt in a matter of seconds.  Its only difficulty is with speech.  Experts have already given up hope of curing this defect and admirers prefer to study the machine’s movements.”

Pitman goes on to say that Duthé was “arrogant, dyed blonde, and vain.”  Similar to the stereotype we enjoy today.  Whether Duthé deserved the harsh criticism or reaped jealous sneers on account of her reputation for sexual conquests, 18th century or 21st, some things never change.  It probably didn’t help Duthé that her image was widely reproduced, or that she relished posing for full nudes.  Regardless of her social accomplishments, a courtesan by trade rarely ascended beyond the designation of lowly whore when an insult was fitting, and there must have been countless opportunities to tear down the favorite of royalty and nobility.  What made her popular also made her an easy target–so easy she galvanized dumb blonde jokes in generations to come. Not without help, of course.  According to Revlon, blonde hair dye outsells other colors five to one, and there’s always another Rosalie Duthé willing to flip about her flaxen hair in order to gain male attention.   But Madame Duthé is distinguished by being the first trollop infamous for being a dumb blonde.

Rosalie Duthe by Henri Pierre Danloux 1792

Rosalie Duthé by Henri Pierre Danloux (1792)

Rosalie Duthe by Lie Louis Perin-Salbreux

 By Lie Louis Perin-Salbreux.  I’m guessing the eyebrows are drawn with charcoal and the hair is powdered, making her look barely blonde.

Rosalie Duthe by Jean Honore Fragonard

(A very young) Rosalie by Jean Honore Fragonard

Rosalie Duthe by Claude Jean Baptiste Houin

By Claude Jean Baptiste Houin

Satire vs Real Life: Fashion in 1800

Last week we looked at the satire print “A French Family” from 1792 and the newly fashionable deshabille including the chemise a la reine.  When it first arrived on the scene in England via Perdita (actress Mary Robinson), the garment  was considered shocking, and strict husbands forbade their wives from wearing a dress that resembled an actual chemise.

The problem with the garment was very simple: it was made of thin cotton fabric,  like a lawn shirt, and was bleached to resemble plain white chemises.  It effectively placed the habit of the boudoir in a public sphere, and the ton couldn’t get enough.  Not only was the fabric expensive, the cotton markets of Egypt and the United States were unavailable to England due to poor trade relations.  Increased trade with India through the British run cities of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay introduced cotton in the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 1790s that cotton was manufactured in English mills, making it accessible and, most importantly, cheap.

The fabric shown in the fashion plates below was top quality muslin that silhouetted women’s bodies in any kind of weather, and was particularly revealing in English weather.  To the disgruntlement of many, taking a stroll through Hyde Park showed off heretofore unseen ladies assets–bosoms, bums and legs exposed in a family park.  Oh, my.

It seems ridiculous today,  but the clingy muslin dress was probably the 18th century version of a wet t-shirt contest.  I’m going to place its shock factor somewhere between the modern bikini in the 40s and the modern thong in the 70s .  Men drooled and old ladies clucked at the loose morality of youth.  But everybody fashionable wore it.

Paris ladies in full winter dress by Cruikshank (1799)

Compared with Cruikshank’s print, in reality the fashion was far less shocking.  The dresses hung closer to a woman’s natural form and must have seemed louche to those accustomed to panniers and peek-a-boo underskirts topped with yards and yards of fabric, but they were classical, simplified.  They were also a life-saver in hot, humid weather, and, as Anatole France relates almost a hundred years later in his 1893 At the Sign of the Reine Pedaque, were still appealing to men and women, albeit in different ways:

Following a discussion of war strategies:

“It is a secret I may well confide to you since there is no one to hear me but you, some bottles, Monsieur, whom I am going to kill presently,  and this girl here who is taking off her clothes.”

“Yes,” Catherine said, “my chemise is enough.  I’m so hot.”

Remarked by an Abbe to the heroine Catherine who has just experienced a drenching by a rogue:

“. . . the chemise of mademoiselle here, which owing to the wine with which it is soaked has become but a pink and transparent veil for her beauty.”

“It is true that idiot has wet my chemise,” said Catherine, “and I shall catch cold.”


Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s The Ray, or The Kitchen Interior

I have an affection for rays. I’ve watched them sleep in a secluded bay under full moonlight, glide between channels of mangroves, and fly beneath the seawater as if they’ve wings. They’re creatures possessed of a quiet grace: Stay still in the water beside them and they’ll graze your leg if you don’t fear their spiked tail.  Mostly, though, you wouldn’t want to.  As Monsieur Chardin shows us, they are better off beyond the hands of man.

Yes, I am sentimental about rays.

Simon Chadin's still-life The Ray 1728

The Still-Life in 1728

Gazing at Chardin’s The Ray, or The Kitchen Interior plumbs from me a visceral reaction: repulsion. The tableau is unsettling and provocative, inciting neither the appetite nor the anticipation of gastronomic pleasure. The anthropomorphic ray has a face reminiscent of a sad clown or a person, however comically, pleading for mercy before death. Apart from the indignity of being eviscerated, he emblazons the wall with a natural opalescent splendor, but the eye doesn’t stray far from raw flesh; he’s hung on a hook until he’s chopped and plopped in a pot.

The sole living object in the painting is the cat. Perched in maniacal rapture, the feline is takings its chance on slurping the glutinous flesh of a half-dozen oysters before it’s swatted off the counter. The instruments of death–i.e. kitchen pans and cutlery–await the arrival of the cook. But what is being said about death here and what of life? What did Chardin intend?  Interpretations range from religious overtones of Christ and martyrs, to man versus nature, to the simplest explanation: rays or skates were a regular fixture in French fish markets.  No need for squeamishness here.

water giuseppe acrimboldo 1566

Play find the skate! – ‘Water’ by Giuseppe Acrimboldo (1566).

On Zee Plate

Curious about the customs and regularity of eating skate (the type of rays commonly dished up), I searched Google books and found recipes for fried skate, boiled skate, steamed skate, skate a la beaufort, skate a la plenty.  Turns out, Bubba’s enumeration of shrimp from Forrest Gump equally applies to skate.  In the 18th century, the fish was more common in France than England, but today the BBC has skate recipes which leads me to believe skate has been accepted as a tasty food source.   According to an 1828 Angler’s Guide, skates were also plentiful in Scotland but the traveling writer wasn’t particularly impressed.  The 1785 A View of the British Empire, most especially Scotland, cites Harwich in Essex as supplying London with 2000 tons of fish, including skate.  As another writer of ichthyofauna records, presumably some English folk besides residents of Devon ate it as a cheap and nutritious food source.

Across the channel, the opinion on the deliciousness of skate differs and there tends to be greater consensus.  The Magazine of Domestic Comforts  (1839) describes skate as “. . . held in high estimation, and is looked upon as one of the most delicate of fish.”  Back in 2006 when I was in France, I saw skate in Parisian markets and on restaurant menus throughout the countryside.   In fact, before I knew skate was a ray, I think I ate it at a restaurant in a teeny French town where the local butcher shop lady had blackened teeth and few, if any people, could or would speak English.  I remember asking the hurried waiter to describe the fish and after confirming it as having crimped white flesh, I thought: fish, edible, smells fine – we are good here.  Turns out, I believe I also ate pureed brains during that dinner because the waiter called it “cervelle” and ’twas not cervelle de canut (this is what happens when you eat in a town where a lady has blackened teeth!).

The practice of eating skate is apparently not as horror-inducing as I seem to think or as Chardin  has portrayed.  A book from 1903, Fish, Volume 1 from the Queen Cookery Books at Windsor, describes the various names, the preparation required to turn wing to edible filet, and what I have come to consider a predictable reaction to the cartilaginous fish: “. . . known as the thornback, the tinker, the ray, and the maid [‘Young skate are called ‘maids’ and their flesh is tender and delicate.’]  It is seldom seen in its natural and very ugly state on the fishmonger’s slab, though it is common enough when cut up and crimped.”

Do you recall how the ray in Chardin’s still life is hung from a hook?  Surprisingly, it is not for effect but rather practicality.  An 1897 Handbook of Fish Cookery explains:  “Skate improves by being hung up for a day before using.”  According to another fish guide, it should be hung head down (rather than Chardin’s head up) for two days in cool weather to fully develop its flavor and texture.  The wise fisherman knows that their skin secretes mucus for a number of days after catch and will ward against consuming this anti-digestive .  What is the mucus, you ask?  Ammonia the skates have converted to urea which is stored in their blood while they’re alive.  Nineteenth century Scots in the Hebrides used the hang dry  method to prepare “sour skate” (salted and strongly smelling of ammonia) which, based on what I could find, sounds similar to the Norwegian lutefisk (salted and treated with lye).

Of note to literary fans, Dickens, whose prolific pen seems to cover all topics known to man, edited a volume of Household Works in 1883.  Whilst eating a sixpence dinner at a Fisheries Exhibition in South Kensington one evening it was remarked: “We were glad it was not skate, for a portion of this fish, with the redness which gives it the appearance of being undone, was served to a lady near us, and was rejected as being uneatable.”  The reference to red flesh is a minor conundrum.  Skate flesh is ever described as white, but when it’s uncooked or, in the lady’s case, undercooked, it looks like the picture below.

uncooked skate wing

Chagrin, chagrin, my dear. Seems the lady got a raw deal, after all.

A Beauty in Search of Knowledge

As I read Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife in anticipation of review, I’ve been reflecting on how damned lucky I and all fellow females are these days.  Not so lucky as to forget the existence of feminism or the necessity for it, but lucky in that no man may lord over us unless we allow them dominance.  We are not eternally bound by “I do”.  Nor are we raised to be Emile’s adoring, spineless Sophie.  We are beauties in possession of knowledge, not forever and vainly searching for it, but behold the danger in the 18th century.  A young woman is about to ruin her mind at circulating library by renting . . . fiction.  Earlier posts on the subject can be found here and here, and if you’ve read them, you know the absurdity.  If not, reading romances or anything popular in fiction was thought to be a corrupting force in a young lady’s education (does this sound familiar today? A teensy bit).  Only history–but never in Latin–would improve a lady’s faculties and only so far as nature would allow.

18th century mezzotint

Circulating libraries like the one above popped up around London with increasing frequency in the late 18th century.  They served the middle class populace and supplemented booksellers’ incomes by charging a small fee to patrons for access to the entire library. Unlike members-only subscription libraries that offered classical literature, nonfiction, and access to the latest scholarly texts, circulating libraries stocked popular novels and were always eager to accommodate readers with the latest craze, such as the late 18th century’s gothic romances by Ann Radcliffe and others.  Anyone who could read and pay the fee could rent fiction along with travel memoirs, biographies, plays, poetry, and periodicals.

For those who enjoy dates, the first circulating library on the British Isles and the continent opened its doors in Edinburgh around 1725.  By 1750 London and other cities of sizable populations had libraries of their own, a trend that trundled along without competition until the Public Libraries Act of 1850.  The commercial establishments gasped its last breath in the 20th century when they died in favor of free public libraries.

Through the Fish Bowl: A Girl at a Window

The fish bowl within a fish bowl feel; the drapery flowing out the girl’s window, mirroring the sinuous cloth depicted in the stonework below the ledge; the bird in a cage canopied with greenery–what mysteries are embodied in this grisaille by Louis-Leopold Boilly?


The ribald scene forbidden to the viewer is exposed to the young girl and a companionable boy. They spy through their binoculars activities curiouser to the boy than the girl, but does their observation signify a loss of innocence? A commonplace distraction to relieve their boredom?

I find a striking sense of innocence and depravity in the work. The engraving beneath the ledge (where the girl rests in pale splendor) is an indication of passions but not ecstasies: A young maiden, swooning and looking scarcely conscious in the arms of a brutish man, their party of many joined by an opportunist (yet another?) The girl looks cleverly acquainted with the situation.

What do you see, readers? Have any thoughts on what root vegetable hangs above the fish bowl? Or what’s in the stoppered bottle? Tell me all about it!

18th Century Beauty Rituals: Chicken Skin Gloves

A model white complexion, 18th century
Portrait of a Lady, English School, late 18th century From: Dreweatts, Pictures from the Collection of Tony Hayes, Donnington UK

Although the term “blueblood” did not enter the lexicon until 1838, ladies and gentlemen alike had been inspecting their skin for whiteness since Egyptians slathered themselves with powdered lead. Skin bleaching creams gained widespread usage in medieval Europe, and the frenzy for milky complexions lasted through the 1920s when the siren Josephine Baker showed Paris just how beautiful caramel could be. Even Coco Chanel, ever the forerunner of trends, contributed to what would later become the tanning craze when she got sunburned in 1923 aboard a yacht in Cannes. Once she returned home, bronze was officially all the rage.

One would be hard-pressed, however, to convince a 18th century aristocrat of the merits of tanning. Laborers and peasants were browned by the sun, not lords or ladies. Those born pale and rich suffered little to keep what nature had provided, so long as they remained vigilant. Any lady shrieking at the sight of a liver spot or—demme me!—a freckle had restorative options such as elderflower water or cover-up in the form of powdered white lead.

18th Century lady
LVIII by Sergei Solomko

Since ancient Greece, white lead had killed many a vain female, and by the 18th century, husbands were advising against its use. By then the powder used to achieve the sophisticated Elizabethan look had fallen to the purview of courtesans and the French at Louis’s court.

While considering my heroine’s situation in Shadow Fire Lady, I dealt with this twin prejudice of her wanting smooth, pale skin while at the same time not wanting to use cosmetics that screamed “trollop”.  As an émigré, Thea had the misfortune to appear in London, penniless, French, and decidedly not a courtesan. Desperate for employment, she worked a short-stint as a laundress—labor being a true enemy of poreless, seamless skin. This was a time when the city was clogged with aristocrats who’d lost their right to pale and had to venture beyond gilded doors to earn their next meal.

I imagine Thea would’ve laughed at the idea of chicken skin gloves, but their popularity was quite remarkable. From the 1600s all the way through the reign of George III, they were considered essential in preserving beauty for both women and men.

Despite their name, they weren’t entirely composed of chicken skin—the inherently nubbled flesh being an understandable drawback—but instead were a combination of unborn calf-skin for smoothness and chicken skin for whiteness. (How did chicken skin contribute to whiteness?  No idea).  Due to their place of manufacture, the gloves gained the nickname “limericks” and a major selling point was the fact their delicacy afforded them a novel ability. They folded easily inside a walnut shell.

In his book Gloves:Their Annals and Associations: recounting an imagined history from the New Bath Guide, S. William Beck shared a poem about chicken skin gloves:

18th Century Study of a Fowl
Study of a Fowl, Lateral View, with skin and underlying facial layers removed, from ‘A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl’ | George Stubbs

“Come, but don’t forget the gloves
Which, with all the smiling loves,
Venus caught young Cupid picking
From the tender breast of chicken;
Little chicken, worthier far,
Than the birds of Juno’s car,
Soft as Cytherea’s dove,
Let thy skin my skin improve;
Thou by night shalt grace my arm,
And by day shalt teach to charm.”

He also recounts the extremes fashionistas would resort to in order to flaunt their best face. Makes me wonder what methods he left out: “. . . it was but a mild measure to lard the face over at night, nothing extraordinary to wear gloves lined with unguents, or to cover the face with a mask plastered inside with a perfumed pomade to preserve the complexion. Some steeped slices of raw veal for some hours in milk and laid them on the face. Young and tender beauties bathed in milk; beauties who were no longer young, and far from tender, bathed in wine or some other astringent.”

Raw veal?  Ugh.

Dearest readers, what do you think of this chicken skin business?  Not only were gloves manufactured, but chicken skin fans too.  Were you an 18th century lord or lady, would you don them at night and maybe, just maybe, transport them in a hand-painted walnut?   Let me know.  I’d love to hear what you think.