Friday, March 30, 2012

Make a Wish, and Blow Out the Candles!

The other day I celebrated my birthday, a landmark year, in fact, and it was filled with happy surprises and unexpected gifts. I truly was a wonderful day in every way. One of the lovely surprises was a dinner especially for me, given by my dearest daughter and her wonderful husband in their warm, friendly and gracious home. My daughter is a "18th-Century-o-Phile", if there is such a word, and she always makes every celebration picture-perfect, with special touches you hardly ever see anymore. She loves the formal table setting, with special serving pieces, and silverware for all the courses! We were, of course, in casual dress, but the setting warranted some satin ballgowns and perhaps a powdered wig or two!

The Dinner Menu included homemade organic pea soup with creme fraiche, salmon en croute, fennel and apple salad, and a lovely buttercreme birthday cake with peach preserves! Just look at the pictures below, and tell me, is that not special!

I looked into the traditional American birthday of the 18th Century, and found it resembled our modern celebrations, though sometimes it was given political significance or it honored an extraordinary person. These aristocratic celebrations bore the mark of luxury, while a working class individual's event, was more "homespun", so to speak, but still displayed the same amount of heart. A ball might have been scheduled for the luxurious party, where perhaps in a modest home, someone played the fiddle.  There was always the gift to be opened! If you were Puritan or Quaker, though, there was no party at all, as it was considered a pagan ritual.

The Western tradition of adding lit candles to the top of a birthday cake originates in 18th-century from Greece! In ancient times, Greeks used to take the cake to the temple of Artemis.  Some say the candles were placed on the cake because people believed that the smoke of the candles helped raise prayers to the gods. In the 18th Century, with the revival of Neo-classisism, the tradition was revived.

Though the exact origin of the candle blowing ritual is unknown, the placing of candles atop the cake is well documented. Check this out:

"This tradition can be traced to Kinderfest (Kinder is the German word for 'children'), an 18th century German birthday celebration for children. A letter written in 1799 by Goethe recounts: "...when it was time for dessert, the prince's entire livery...carried a generous-size torte with colorful flaming candles - amounting to some fifty candles - that began to melt and threatened to burn down, instead of there being enough room for candles indicating upcoming years, as is the case with children's festivities of this kind..."

So, there you have it!
Birthdays can, though shouldn't, be stressful. They are an acknowledgement of hopefully gaining wisdom through the years, and acceptance of who we truly are. When celebrated with loving friends and family, how can you not like your special day! I am thrilled to be (?). Ha Ha. I may be happy to have celebrated my birthday, but not everyone needs to know how very wise I am!

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Field of Honor!

Last night, about 11:30pm, as I was ensconced in my bed among the down pillows, almost in Dreamland, I heard two very loud sounds, or were they "bangs"? I wasn't quite sure. I listened a bit, and heard more general noise,  so I cozied up and went back to sleep. I was awakened about an hour later, when my Mom called me (my family lives in my complex, as well), to tell me there had been a shooting in the complex! And, moreover, two shots had fired into her living room window!! (Shots that crossed the room, went through a kitchen wall, out the other side, into a wall further on).

As you can imagine, I was floored! This was incredulous. If it had happened earlier, they could have been walking through the house, headed for the kitchen for that "midnight" glass of water! My mind set to all kinds of imaginings.

Then I started thinking about what prompted this type of event. A drug deal gone bad? A theft or murder plot? A domestic dispute? A jealous lover? What kind of gun? Was anyone killed? Wounded? Maimed? A killer still on the loose?

Well, we have always had incidents of violence and conflict in our world, and guns or knives or strong, strangling hands have always been with us. I started thinking about the 18th Century "gentlemenly" solution to a wronged, or insulted individual.......the Duel! The "duel at midnight", the "duel at 10 paces", the infamous duel so often depicted in great old classic movies.

The duel was based on a code of honor, and was fought not so much to kill the opponent, but to gain "satisfaction", to restore one's honor by showing a willingness to die for it!  It was a tradition reserved for male nobility, at least in the beginning. The duel had a pre-arranged time and place, once the challenging invitation was met, a guantlet thrown down.

Duels were fought with sword or rapier, or the classic duelling pistols, which were actually sold in pairs, single-shot flintlock, or black powder pistols which fired a lead musket ball. These pistols were identical in appearance, reliability and accuracy. The participants were generally not prosecuted, or convicted. It was a standard arrangement that was participated in willingly. Now, if you felt you were not up for the task, or not a good shot, you could call on your "second", a person that was willing to stand in for you. Now, that some friend!
Of course, there were witnesses, and duels started with the opponents "about face", walking several steps apart, then being asked to turn, and fire! If you fired early and missed your opponent, then they got a turn, too! Now, that's justice!

Today, I am a bit less appalled, and little more resigned to the fact that these things happen every day, and by the grace of God, no one was walking around my family's home at 11:30pm. And, I feel like watching a good old classic film where "gentlemen" in satin breeches, and flouncy lace sleeves duel it out for the honor of a damsel in distress!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Going to the Symphony

Going to the Symphony can be a wonderful experience, but did you know that the form that we know as "the symphony" today took shape in the 18th Century?
It grew from the Italian overture, or the piece of instrumental music heard at the beginning of an opera, that sets the tone of the operatic story to come. Another type of form it evolved from is the "ripieno concerto", a concerto-type form designed for strings, with no solo instruments. Antonio Vivaldi wrote alot of this type of work, as well as Johann Sebastian Bach, whose most famous ripieno is the Brandenburg Concerto #3!
And, the vast majority of syphonies at the time were written in major keys, which is easy on the ears, and makes for a pleasant experience even for those not particularly familiar with the depths that sophisticated symphonic music can go. Basically, most symphony performance focus on enjoyable music, thereby increasing the attendance and exposure!

And of course, there is certain etiquette that makes the for a richer experience. The word "etiquette" means card or placard, which were posting with rules to follow for all in attendance! And these rules were followed with strict adherence. This was developed during the reign of King Louis XIV (early 1700's). Of course that was France!  Later on and in other lands, though, a musician like Mozart expected his audience to enjoy the experience of the music concert in a much more different manner. During his performances, people could eat, drink, talk, and he was delighted if they burst into applause.
Through the 19th Century, and today, we are back to the high-brow audience of the silence during the performance, the chastisement of one who claps at the wrong place, taps a foot, or even whispers to his fellow attendee.
I think I like a happy medium where you can hear the music, but be able to express one's appreciation or joy.


Monday, March 19, 2012

I'm Scandalized!

Thinking this day about the London stage, and all the wonderful plays available to see, in wishful anticipation of my next trip to that great city. I decided to look into great plays of the 18th Century, and found Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "School for Scandal". It is a comedy of manners, set in London, satirizing the behavior and customs of the upper classes in London, with witty dialogue and an intricate plot that reveal the character's flaws. Typically, there is the bore, the flirt, the gossip, the "rich uncle", the idler.
These kinds of comedies avoided romantic sentimentality that characterized many other stage dramas of the period. Instead, it is rather malicious in its use of gossip and hypocrisy to "get a laugh".

You can view a bit of it at the link below:

This play first opened to rave reviews at the Drury Lane Theatre (still there today) on May 8, 1777. It was heralded as a "real comedy", though it may not hold up today as popular. And why,...... because it is not particularly "politically correct". There is a great deal of anti-semitism running through the play, and of course, in the 21st Century, this is a no-no. There are disparaging remarks about moneylenders, who were most often Jews. When one of the characters disguises himself as a moneylender, he is told he must ask "100" interest" and behave as an "unconscionable dog!"

Of course, people are much too thin-skinned these days, and so this type of stereotype is looked upon with perhaps an overwhelming amount of scandal in itself. Comedy always pokes fun at someone, but these days, we take ourselves much too seriously.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Diamonds! How Brilliant!

Diamonds have always been special! As we all know, they're a girl's best friend. As another song says, Diamonds are Forever!

Interestingly enough, the first "brilliant" cut diamonds were introduced in the mid-17th Century, also known as the double-cut stone. But, the brilliant cut that we all know and love, was developed by Vincent Peruzzi, a Venetian gem polisher, in 1700. He increased the number of crown facets from 17 to 33, known as the triple-cut, thereby increasing the jewel's fire and brilliance! Of course, today more cuts are being developed as precision tools allow for advancement, but the Peruzzi set the standard for quite a long time.

The 18th Century was known as the "age of gems", though not all gems were precious, and to fill the great demand throughout Europe, "paste" was used.  Paste is not imitation stone, but a brilliant glass that could be used when precious stones could not. Think, today, of the Swarovski crystal, as an example, with its radiance and rainbow effect.

The French, of course, set the tone of fashionable jewelry, with jewelry making becoming such a demanding profession that two types of jewellers evolved! One was the "bijouterie" who worked with gold and enamel, and the other, the "joaillerie" who mounted diamonds and precious stones.

All the rage were the "parures", or matching sets of necklaces, earrings and bracelets, and sometimes even a tiara. Men's parures might include sword, buckles, buttons. Also coveted was the "chatelaine", which could carry a miscellaneous assortment of small, utilitarian objects, like thimbles, scissors, magnifying glasses, scent-cases, patch boxes, keys, watches, etc. By 1785, they were the most popular wedding gift, the the essential "equipage" for the bride!

The English court set an interesting custom that included the rental of fabulous jewels for special events. The stones were hired from a local jeweler, and when the occasion was over, the jewels went right back to the shop!. Think of the "red carpet set" of today that don lavish jewels for the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Tonys, etc. Most of those jewels are rented, too, and work as an advertisement for the jewelers who offer them, including Harry Winston, Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpel.

Back to "paste" for a moment. Though the origins of the work are unknown, paste is a collective word for cut glass that is faceted to resemble the real thing. Georges Frederic Strass, an 18th Century Parisian jeweler also lends his name to this type of stone. Around 1730, he became so well-known for these pseudo-gems, that they are often called Strass. He was appointed to the post of jeweler to the King of France in 1734, and his fame became assured. Even Marie Antoinette "resorted" to wearing them, as we, too, will wear something just because it's the newest thing that's all the rage!

Think of the new plastic watches, bracelets made of bottle cap rings  or rubber that support a cause.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Life Below Decks

Yesterday we talked about sailors and their personal possessions, generally kept in the veritable sea chest.  

Today, I want to talk about one of those possessions, in particular. Some common sailors, if they could write, and not all could, sometimes kept a diary or journal of their travels and life at sea. There are not many journals left today that tell their stories, as most were probably lost, but one exists, telling in great detail, the life of a particular 18th Century sailor, George Hodge.

Hodge was part of Lord Nelson's Navy from 1790 to 1833, and he not only wrote about his daily life and adventures, but he was also an artist! He includes many water color drawings along with his accounts. He was self-educated and starts his journal with the words:

"George Hodge, his Book Consisting of Difrint ports & ships that I have sailed in since the year 1790. Aged 13 years."

The book is 500 pages long, and contains all kinds of accounts. He recorded the ladies of leisure with whom he associated, lists of crew members, lists of flag formations, records of how many guns were on board and what type, painted stunning pictures of ships and flags as well as a self portrait (shown above).

A typical daily account read:

"1. An enemy is in sight. 2. Prepare for battle. 3. Sail by divisions... 5. Engage the enemy (If red penant shown engage more closely) ... 10. Enemy retreating at full speed." It also shows that danger was ever present for crews, even when the ships were not in battle.

Some tales were sad: On December 26, 1812, an entry reads: "A fresh breeze a strange sail in sight. Empl painting quarterdeck. Fell from the for top mast Mathew Donelson and was drownded." 
 "July 19 light breeze at 5am picked up body of John Carter and buried him on the Isle of White."
On Christmas Day in 1806: "Employ'd in wartering ship and seting up the riger ... fish for dinner."
In 1794 he travelled to a Russian Baltic port and was captured by the French, then later sent home in a cartel sloop. He was captured again in 1797, but was returned home and then spent months on the run from press gangs.

In 2008, this book came to auction at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA, and it was hoped to garner 30,000 British lbs, ( or $47,0000).  It sold for $100,000, to an un-named collector! It's out there somewhere, keeping the stories of life below decks alive and well!

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Sea Chest: Sailor's Personal Space

It's been awhile since I have written about anything nautical, and so today I decided to take a look inside the Sea Chest, the sailor's luggage! Generally speaking the average sailor owned very little, but what he did own, he took great care with.

Going to see meant being away from home many months, or perhaps years. Each sailor was provided a small amount of storage space on board, generally in the cramped foc'sle area of the ship, for his personal property. His chest might also suggested something about him, as they sometimes displayed carvings or painted images, with intricately woven rope handles, called beckets. I wonder why the rope handles, but perhaps if the chest got knocked about, these handles would not snap off.

Sailors carried their clothing in the chest: a hat, jacket, shirts, pants. (They better know how to mend them by the way. They might get some thread or button from the ship, but most often, they were on their own).  The chest also was a place to store his bank, his journal, if he could write. He could use it as a table as well.

Below, see a chest from 1790, with a carving "Jan Smart" inside a heart (on its top). The chest is larger at the bottom , suggesting stability. Most were built with this shape.

Today, the sea chest has been replaced with the duffel bag. Not quite as interesting, though sailors still take the time, when the have the time, to personalize them with embroidery, or ink drawings. Notice the one below, with American flag, and stars (1790's). The name comes from Duffel a town in Belgium where the thick cloth used to make the bag originated.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Price of Beauty!

I was putting on my makeup this morning, looking at my pale face (after yesterday's nightmare sinus headache). I felt I needed some color, not only with my lipstick, but all over to relieve my ever-so-slightly-light-greeny-white complexion. Ha Ha! Quickly, I brought out the bronzer!

Then I remembered The Look, the favored visage of the18th Century attractive woman! Pale, very pale indeed! I instantly felt better, like perhaps if I lived in the 1700's, this palor would be an asset! I'd be popular, and very much in-vogue!

Only today can a lady go out and buy affordable cosmetics. In the 18th Century, only the women, or men for that matter, with means could afford these little luxuries. It was a time when outward appearance revealed your station in life. Faces were pock-marked from disease, tooth-loss made for sunken cheeks, and generally the lower classes' poor diet reflected on the complextion as well.

Only if you could afford to, were scars and blemishes covered with fashionable black patches of silk or taffeta, to hide imperfections, and enhance beauty. These patches were cut out in little interesting shapes! Hearts, diamonds, circles, flowers! For the poor, the question became: Do I eat today, or do I purchase some silk for my pimple?!

Hair too was enhanced, piled high on the head, eventually reaching tremendous heights, powdered and perfumed, propped up on the inside with forms, and decorated with flowers, boats, stars, anything the mind could think of depending on the occasion. The poor just had to tie their greasy hair back, and out of the way.

Here's an interesting account I found on-line:
The basic ideal of a beautiful face was described by Sir Henry Beaumont in Crito; or A Dialogue on Beauty (1752) "the forehead should be white, smooth and open. The skin in general should be white, properly tinged with red with apparent softness and a look of thriving health in it. The cheeks should not be wide; should have a degree of plumpness, with the red and white finely blended together. The eyebrows, well divided, rather full than thin, semi-circular broader in the middle than a the ends. The mouth should be small, and the lips not of equal thickness. A truly pretty mouth is like a Rose-bud that is beginning to grow...."
In contrast to the very white complexion the cheeks and lips were excessively rouged due to the poor quality of the product making application difficult. Eye make-up was not used but the eyebrows were darkened or thickened using mouse skins. Cheek plumpers of cork or leather were inserted too.

Cosmetics were made at home as well. Below see an interesting recipe for a face pack, or "fard" as it was called:
Take two ounces of oil of sweet almonds, ditto of spermaceti: melt them in a pipkin over a slow fire. When they are dissolved and mixed, take it off the fire, and stir into it one table-spoonful of fine honey. Continue stirring till it is cold; and then it is fit for use.
This useful paste is good for taking off sunburnings, effects of weather on the face, and accidental cutaneous eruptions. It must be applied at going to bed. First wash the face with its usual ablution, and when dry, rub this fard all over it, and go to rest with it on the skin. This is excellent for almost constant use.

Beauty is an ever-evolving thing, and styles come and go. Think, for instance, a few years ago the singer Pink, created quite a scandal with her pink hair. Today, many others have gone pink, or green, or brilliant yellow, and no one gives it a second thought. What will be next? It's fun to see what will be the next trend! It seems palor is making a comeback! Or at least, the very dark eye!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Today the winds are up in the desert, and I am suffering a terrible headache, as Spring has brought blooms of all sorts to our area, and the March winds are stirring the pot!I just took some sinus-relieving medication, and am waiting for a change to the knitted brow that has taken over my face. It has gotten me to thinking about 18th Century medications. There was no aspirin, or antibiotics. Even colds were considered quite serious, and were cause for alarm.

Medical science was not as advanced as today, and the body and its functions were still a mystery. Doctors had their own simplistic versions of the ills of the human body, and though those ills were due to maladjustments of the body systems. They based their diagnosis of illness of ancient beliefs of "humors", or body "tension". The practice of "bleeding" with leeches, or cutting the patient and just draining off blood into a bowl (at left) were to relieve the body of ill humors. This often did more harm than good, as doctors did not wash their hands, nor sterilize instruments. Ouch!

There was also the mixing and making of drugs from odd herbs, minerals, metals, oils, etc. In Europe, everything was tried, where in America, a more common-sense approach was implemented. Most American medicines of the times were "botanical", and documented in charts as to their use. We know the benefit of these today, and the ones to avoid, but back in the day, alot of this was trial and error. Many plants are poisonous, or can produce extremely harsh effects when overdosed.

Mark Catesby was persuaded by eminent English physicians to document many therapeutic plants during his travels from 1710-1719. He researched may apple, snakeroot, ginseng and witch-hazel. He wrote about them in his "Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas Islands".

The use of vaccinations began in the 18th Century, with the hope of eliminating small pox, a disfiguring and often fatal disease. Scurvy, that plagued sailors, was also researched with the finding that the use of fruits, expecially citrus, improved health.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Theatre, The Theatre, What's Happened to the Theatre? (Irving Berlin)

On this day in 18th Century history, in 1750, the Shakespeare play, "King Richard III" was performed in New York City. It was the first Shakespearean play to be presented in America. The play is summarized below:

The play is dominated by Richard the hunchback Duke of Gloucester who becomes King Richard III but only through a series of horrible acts, killing off his enemies, his kinsmen, his wife and most of his supporters before reaching the Battle of Bosworth and crying out "My kingdom for a horse." Richard is portrayed as a pure, self-professed villain of monstrous proportions. His evil drives the plot, and until his final defeat by the Duke of Richmond (who became Henry VII) in the play's last act, the good forces opposing him are weak, splintered, and easy prey for his schemes.

By 1750, New York City had over a thousand citizens, and 150 taverns and one formal performance space. Before that time, taverns offered a bit of theatre along with beverages, but plays or shows were small, extemporaneous, impromptu. At the east end of Broadway, though, the Theatre on Nassau Street changed all that. It was a two story structure holding about 280 people, where actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean set up a resident company to perform Richard III on March 5, 1750.
They also included the first documented performance of a musical, John Gay's The Beggars Opera, in December of the same year.

The rest is history, as they say. Today there are endless theatres, great and small, on the Great White Way, the section of Broadway where the neon lights are at their most impressive, creating a path of birght white light, where the greats of the stage have all performed. Who would have thought!?