Oct 312016
 

cover

 

harriette-wilsonA guest post today from those prolific writers Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, fresh from having published “An Infamous Mistress The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott”. The post concerns one of my favourite courtesans of the Regency era, Harriette Wilson. For those of you unfamiliar with the lady, she was one of five daughters of a Swiss watch-maker who had settled in London. Of the five, only one (known derisively as ‘The Paragon’) failed to take up harlotry. The others were highly successful in their chosen profession, but none scaled the heights like Harriette….  Over to Joanne and Sarah:

“A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History” charts the successive unions of two generations of the ducal Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II. Both shocked their family and society, but for very different reasons; the first marriage was the result of an elopement, just weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington’s married niece ran off with the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck, brother to the Duke of Portland.
Today we have decided to write a little about the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, who is mentioned often during the first half of “A Right Royal Scandal” as she was embroiled in the antics of a fair few of the main players in our book.
Lord Charles Bentinck, and his younger brother Frederick, were frequent visitors to her rooms and both were mentioned in the “Memoirs of Harriette Wilson”, written by herself, as was the Duke of Wellington, another of Harriette’s admirers. Harriette offered the men to be named in her memoirs the chance to buy themselves out of its pages, an opportunistic form of blackmail with which she even approached the Prince Regent; the two Bentinck brothers, perpetually financially embarrassed, probably didn’t have the means to do this even if the chance was given to them, and had to suffer the ignominy of seeing their names in print within its pages. But, as Lord Charles said:
We are in for it… my brother Frederick and I are in the book, up to our necks; but we shall only make bad worse by contending against it; for it is not only true, every word of it, but is excellently written and very amusing.
The Duke of Wellington supposedly, and famously, replied to Harriette that she should ‘publish and be damned!’, and he too appeared within. Harriett described him as “having no small talk, and looking like a rat- catcher”, giving rise to this caricature:
rat-catcher
Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell

 

Lord Frederick Bentinck was Harriette’s ‘constant and steady admirer’ but she mocked him mercilessly, as did another visitor to Harriette’s house, the dandy Beau Brummell. On one occasion Fred was admiring his new leather breeches in Harriett’s mirror when he was rebuked for his bad fashion choice by Brummell.

‘They only came home this morning,’ proceeded Fred, ‘and I thought they were rather neat.’
‘Bad knees, my good fellow! bad knees!’ said Brummell, shrugging up his shoulders.
Lord Charles was a widowed man when he danced attendance on Harriette, and it was Harriette who introduced him to a young prostitute, known as Little Ann, who Charles took ‘into his keeping’. Lord Charles parked his mistress in rooms above an umbrella shop in Knightsbridge and his relationship with Little Ann continued until he fell for the charms of the bored, but married, Lady Abdy, and persuaded the lady to elope with him. The cuckolded Sir William Abdy paid a visit to Harriette in the immediate aftermath of the elopement, to pour out his heart to her. He received scant sympathy from the knowing courtesan.
‘That Charles Bentinck,’ said he, half angry, ‘is the greatest fool in the world; and in Paris we always used to laugh at him.’
‘But,’ said [Harriette], ‘why did you suffer his lordship to be eternally at your house?’
‘Why, dear me!’ answered Abdy, peevishly, ‘I told him in a letter I did not like it and I thought it wrong, and he told me it was no such thing.’
‘And therefore,’ [Harriette] remarked, ‘you suffered him to continue his visits as usual?’
‘Why, good gracious, what could I do! Charles Bentinck told me, upon his honour, he meant nothing wrong.’
 harriette-wilsons-last-letter
A Criminal Conversation case and a divorce were the result of the elopement, and the scandal kept the ton in Regency London occupied for many months. You can find out more about this and the second marriage of the title in “A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History”, available from Pen and Sword Books and all good bookshops.
Almost two books in one, “A Right Royal Scandal” recounts the fascinating history of the irregular love matches contracted by two successive generations of the Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of the British Royal Family. The first part of this intriguing book looks at the scandal that erupted in Regency London, just months after the Battle of Waterloo, when the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck eloped with the Duke of Wellington’s married niece. A messy divorce and a swift marriage followed, complicated by an unseemly tug-of-war over Lord Charles’ infant daughter from his first union. Over two decades later and while at Oxford University, Lord Charles’ eldest son, known to his family as Charley, fell in love with a beautiful gypsy girl, and secretly married her. He kept this union hidden from his family, in particular his uncle, William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland, upon whose patronage he relied. When his alliance was discovered, Charley was cast adrift by his family, with devastating consequences.
A love story as well as a brilliantly researched historical biography, this is a continuation of Joanne and Sarah’s first biography, An Infamous Mistress, about the eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose daughter was the first wife of Lord Charles Bentinck. The book ends by showing how, if not for a young gypsy and her tragic life, the British monarchy would look very different today
* * *
Credits for images:
Harriette Wilson, 1806. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Flat Catcher, and the Rat Catcher. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Harriette Wilson’s last letter, or a new method of raising the wind!! © The Trustees of the British Museum
George ‘Beau’ Brummell, from a print by Robert Dighton, 1805. Wikimedia

 

Oct 262016
 

 

Hearn's Hotel

Hearn’s Hotel

For a change, travel back to Ireland and visit  Hearn’s Hotel, at Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. It is the sixth of July 1815, and a small jaunting carriage pulls away exactly on time, heading for Cahir some ten miles or so away. The jaunting carriage was a slightly odd two-wheeled conveyance, unprotected from the elements, where the seats were in a row facing sideways onto the road. This day there were no passengers – the six seats were all unoccupied, and the single horse has no difficulty plodding its lonely journey. The same thing happened the next day, but then the 31-year-old Italian printer whose idea it was to set up a coaching service decided that it was a case of ‘double or quit’. So he arranged  for two jaunting carriages to be ready and waiting at the appointed hour on the following day, both ready to make the journey as advertised to the good burghers of Clonmel. To observers it looked as though there was a competition. That certainly attracted public attention, and before long there were dozens of people queuing to make the two-hour  journey, at a rate of a penny-farthing a mile. It was certainly a darned sight quicker than the five- to eight-hour journey offered for the same trip by boat.

Jaunting cart

Jaunting cart

 

bianconi-photoJourneys in Ireland were incredibly slow at the time – the roads were poor, travel was in its infancy, and there was no integrated transport service. It would be another thirty years before rail travel opened up the countryside, and in those thirty years the coach service mushroomed in a most remarkable way. And the man behind it? Charles Bianconi.

Carlos Bianconi, born on 26 September  1785 at Tregolo in what is now Lombardy in Italy, had escaped from his mother country just before it was over-run by the forces of Napoleon. He was relatively poorly educated – the priest at the local school he attended described him as a ‘troublesome dunce’ who left school ‘almost as ignorant as when he entered it and a great deal more wilful.’ As a 16 year old he had travelled to England but then moved across to Ireland, and was apprenticed  to the owner of a print-shop. Selling the prints took him around  Dublin and its neighbouring towns and villages, usually on foot. He would  peddle the prints which he carried in his satchel as he walked from town to town. Eventually he set up his own print and engraving shop in Clonmel, and as the business started to expand he travelled around on the appalling roads to deliver his wares, often stopping to give a lift to pedestrian travellers. No doubt it was this which gave him the idea of providing a public transport service, given that the only alternatives were the prohibitively expensive Mail Coaches.

 

bianconi-ocach

bianconi-car-arriving

Shortly after he launched a separate coaching business he was fortunate to be able to buy a number of ex-Army horses (no longer needed following the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars). These magnificent animals, well-trained and strong, could be picked up ‘for a song’ – well, for between ten and twenty pounds – and the coach business expanded quickly, with new routes being added until  they criss-crossed the country. Bianconi started to build his own coaches, eventually moving up to a twenty-passenger long-coach. They were known as ‘Bians’ or Bianconi Coaches, and soon became a familiar sight everywhere. Coaches meant coaching Inns, and a network of Bianconi Inns were developed, some of them still remaining to this day.

Bianconi Bar, Main Street, Kildysart

Bianconi Bar, Main Street, Kildysart

The business was at times seriously under-capitalised but an interesting account in the Irish Story – an online history blog, comes up with this information:

“In 1826, came the famous Waterford by-election when the Beresfords – landlord family who had dominated that county’s politics for 70 years – were ousted by the Catholic Association party of Daniel O’Connell – campaigning for Catholic Emancipation.  Bianconi had actually been retained by the Beresfords (who were staunchly opposed to Emancipation) to transport their voters to the election, but feelings were running so high that he felt his drivers to be endangered and asked to be released from his contract. The Beresfords reluctantly agreed, and Bianconi was promptly retained by the O’Connell supporting team. He may well have been partly responsible for their resounding success, but from his point of view the important thing was that he was paid £1,000 (perhaps as much as €1,000,000 in today’s values) for his services. This was the capital he needed.”

The scale of operations was remarkable. Here are just some of the statistics:

*  By 1845, Bianconi was one of the largest proprietors of horses and vehicles in the whole of Europe, with a fleet of one hundred cars,  and 1,400 horses.

*  He employed a hundred drivers as well as  130 ostlers to look after the animals.

*  Each day, the Bians covered over 4,200 miles of Irish road, serving 120 towns and villages.

*  The horses consumed around 3,500 tons of hay a year, plus 35,000 barrels of oats.

*  In its heyday the business was paying Bianconi £35,000 a year.

*  He was  twice made mayor of Clonmel.

* He was renowned for looking after his staff, knowing all of the drivers by name, and when they were too old or infirm to work he provided them with food and lodging in his cellars at his house at Longfield House, Boherlahan, County Tipperary, referring to them as his “fireside fellows”.

*  When the Great Famine came, he famously employed his men to carry out maintenance work at his beloved Longfield House with its 1000 acres of prime farmland, rather than see them starve.

And when the railways eventually arrived, Bianconi wisely arranged his coach itineraries to include the railway stations which his passengers would then use for their onward journey. Oh, and he invested his money in the railways themselves, thereby securing his future when the coaching side of the business declined. He died, a multi-millionaire in today’s terms, in September 1875, at the age of 89. The story goes that as he died the sound of a phantom coach was heard clattering up the long driveway to the house….

Irish commemorative stamps

Irish commemorative stamps

I am indebted to the historian Turtle Bunbury for some of the facts used in this article, based on his blog here. Thanks too to Stephen Lombard for first regaling me with the story of Mr Bianconi and his coaches – and for showing me the prints made in the 1850s showing the Biancs in use. It is a remarkable story, especially for  a man dismissed as a dunce. Nowadays, immigrants tend to get a bad press. Here was an immigrant who had the imagination and courage to transform the world around him…

 

Oct 202016
 

washed a great wash 001I am not sure whether he did it to save paper, or because he was somewhat dis-organized and chaotic towards the end, but my ancestor Richard Hall used every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on. There seemed to be no method that I can discern as to what information was jotted down – or where.

This page is a case in point: on one side there is a poem about the pleasure of being dead (“In one moment – sick and sad/ In the next both well and glad/Never more to know a pain/Not a tear, nor sigh, nor groan”). On the back is a note to the effect that Mr Griffith (his son in law, living in Bath, and married to Richard’s eldest daughter Martha) had ‘got into his new house 2 April 1792″

The next line informs the world that Richard began shaving with Mr Hardiman on Monday July 2nd 1792 – presumably a whole-of-head shave which would have kept him nicely free of head-lice. He then goes on to list the times he did his laundry (as in “Washed a great wash”) – something which took place in July, November, March and June, which seems a bit excessive but may just have shown how Richard had enough changes of bedding to be able to go four months before running out of changes of linen. Or, more probably knowing my lot, he reckoned the sheets could easily last a few months especially when it got colder….

Interspersed with his laundry records are the  dates when he brewed beer – 4 bushels on November 12 1793 and the same again in February the following year. That kept him going until September 1794 – time for another four bushels. My recollection is that a bushel was 64 pints, so that meant he was brewing around 250 pints of barley at a time. I am unsure how many pints of beer he ended up with, but it must have helped pass the time of day while waiting for the next wash day to come round…

brew 001On a totally separate piece of paper I then came across some more brewing records, from 1792 through to 1797. Here  though the brewing seems to have been spread over several days, with an interval of a day in between. He also slipped in a wash in January 1794 – though why that wasn’t shown in the middle of the other washing list is quite beyond me!

Oct 142016
 

zebra 2Standing in the dappled shade on the edge of a woodland  a zebra looks majestically … around the gardens of Buckingham House. The scene was painted by George Stubbs and the picture, shown courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, is one of a number of exotic wild animals painted by Stubbs. Normally this artist was known for his equine paintings, and he achieved his amazing lifelike studies by spending hours dissecting dead horses. By revealing the muscles and ligaments and by attaching weights and pulleys, he was able to see how the animal moved. But this time the subject, a zebra, was still very much alive and kicking. Besides, its owner was no less a person than Her Majesty the Queen and she was rather fond of her zebra, or she-ass as it was known, on account of the fact that it/she was a wedding present.

The Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had married King George III on 8 September 1761 in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace and of course that raised an immediate problem for all the officials, diplomats, courtiers and hangers-on: what to give the royal couple as a wedding present? For the governor of the Cape in far off South Africa it was simple – round up a couple of Cape zebras, one male and one female, load them on board HMS Terpsichore under the command of Sir Thomas Adams, and pack them off to London. Unfortunately the male zebra died on the way, but the “Queen’s Ass” (as she was rudely known from the outset) was a favourite of the young Queen. The year was 1762 and a constant stream of visitors called to see the beast, reputedly the first such zebra ever observed in  Great Britain. As one observer noted: “The Queen’s she-ass was pestered with visits, and had all her hours employed from morning to night in satisfying the curiosity of the public. She had a sentinel and guard placed at the door of her stable. . . . The crowds that resorted to the Asinine palace were exceeding great.”  Was the zebra lonely for company? Apparently not, because she was  given the company of a royal elephant (my, how those royals must have loved opening their presents from far away countries!).

I rather like the story recounted by Sir David Attenborough to the effect that the Queen wished to breed from the zebra, and in the absence of a male of the species resorted to the ploy of getting a male donkey, painting white stripes across its backside, and introducing it to the “Queen’s Ass”. Incredibly the ruse worked – the zebra became pregnant and in due course gave birth to a “zebroid”. The Queen’s Ass lived until 3 April 1773, having been moved to the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London. Apparently the taxidermists then got to work and before long the stuffed remains were on display at The Leverian, after it had moved for Leicester Square to its new home at the end of Blackfriars Bridge.

The Queen's Ass - otherwise known as the Prince of Wales.

The Queen’s Ass – otherwise known as the Prince of Wales.

In its lifetime the poor animal became a pseudonym for any of the Queen’s favourites, most notably the Prince of Wales, shown here with his striped jacket, waistcoat and stockings. In time the epithet was applied to others such as William Pitt and a number of other sycophantic politicians. It became an easy symbol for caricaturists. The public were quickly familiar with the expression “The Queen’s Ass” especially after this rude ditty was published:

queens ass 2Ye Bucks and ye Jemmies who amble the Park,

Whose Hearts and whose Heads are as lightsome as Cork,

Through “Buckingham Gate”, as to “Chelsea” you pass,

Without Fee or Reward, you may see the Q—‘s A–.

“See the Q—‘s A–. See the Q—‘s A–, Without Fee or Reward”, &c.

 

(The Queen’s Ass. A new humorous allegorical song . . . By H. Howard, To the Tune of “Stick a Pin There”. Broadsheet, shown courtesy of the British Museum).

The Queens female zebra 1762 LWL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Queens Female Zebra’  shown on the Lewis Walpole Library site and appearing first in 1762 in The London magazine; or, Gentleman’s monthly intelligencer.

Other caricatures lampooned a variety of political allies of the Queen, as here in ‘The Asses of Great Britain’ (also via Lewis Walpole Library). It came out in 1764 and was drawn and published by John Jones, and is having a go at the Earl of  Bute, George Whitefield,  the magistrate Sir John Fielding, Irish writer Arthur Murphy,  and the Scottish poet and author Tobias Smollett.

John Jones' asses of GB 1762 Bute Whitefield Fielding Murphy Smollett LWL

 

Sometimes the Queen’s Ass was a metaphor for the Queen herself, as with this caricature, apparently  by Thomas Rowlandson, from December 1788 and entitled ‘The Q.A. loaded with the spoils of India and Britain”. It is shown on the British Museum site who describe it as “Pitt rides (right to left) a zebra; he sits on the animal’s hind quarters, flourishing a whip; before him are two panniers filled with jewels…The zebra (the Queen) is led by Dundas (left) … and urged on by Richmond (right), who prods it with a goad. It says, “What are Childrens rights to Ambition – I will rule in spite of them if I can conceal things at Q.” [Kew.] In front of Dundas (left) is a signpost: “To Tower Hill by B——m [Buckingham] house”.

QA

So, the zebra became a shorthand for  royal greed and stupidity. In Return to the Political Ark, also on the British Museum site, we see William Pitt as the Queen’s Ass:

Return to the ark

He is shown as one of a procession of Members of Parliament heading for the ark (representing the House of Commons). The British Museum commentary states: “In the lower left corner is Pitt as a zebra on his hind-legs ; he holds a bunch of grapes to his mouth, in his other forefoot is a paper inscribed ‘Pay to my Order on Demand five Millions for Bouncing. P. To John Bull’; beside it is a paper inscribed ‘Open to future Insult’. On his back is a saddle-cloth inscribed ‘Art of preventing War’. He excretes ‘Convention Drops’ which are eagerly devoured by geese, dogs, a cock, and two asses with human profiles”

Given that this was supposedly the very first time a zebra had been seen in the country these caricatures give some idea how quickly the exotically marked animal captured the human imagination. Others quickly followed – in 1779 one was being exhibited at Astley’s Amphitheatre near Westminster Bridge. I came across the occasion when researching for my book “Astley’s Circus – the Story of an English Hussar” about the great exhibitionist Philip Astley. Mind you, Astley was keen to get rid of the creature and advertised that it was available for purchase for 400 guineas. I suspect that he would have despaired of training the animal, since obedience was the keystone of the Astley act. A disobedient zebra, however pretty, was never going to make it as a star. It was never going to rival General Jackoo, his performing monkey, and so the zebra went the way of the ostrich, another of Astley’s exotica …

Another zebra collector was Robert Clive. I am not quite sure why “Clive of India” chose an African animal but presumably no self respecting nabob wanted to be upstaged by the Queen. Apparently he had his own private menagerie – and the same story is told that he successfully introduced his (female) zebra to a paint-striped male donkey, with successful results. When Clive died in 1774 an inventory of the livestock at his home showed a zebra and foal, two small cows, two spotted deer,  two antelopes, six hog deer and, bracketed together as “very troublesome”, seven goats and an African bull. According to a helpful paper published by the University of York:  The running and Grazing of the Young Zebra cost 3s. a week, while in 1777 £18 8s.6d. was spent on the Young Zebra being sent into Shropshire. Quite what happened after it got to Shropshire I do not know – perhaps it got sold to Astley.

Years later, George III was presented with a quagga. A sub-species of the Plains Zebra, the quagga was extinct by the late 1870s, but for some years  a royal specimen was kept at Kew. This is shown courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Rather more about the exotic animals collected by the Georgians can be found in Christopher Plumb’s excellent book “The Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London” details of which appear here.  Christopher was kind enough to draw on some of the records kept by my ancestor Richard Hall, so the least I can do is return the mention!

James Sowerbys portrait of a quagga, painted in 1824

James Sowerby’s portrait of a quagga, painted in 1824

Oct 072016
 

It is interesting to realize how long a ‘life’ these blogs have: a few years ago I did a post called ‘Isabella Beetham – shady lady (painter of silhouettes)‘ and just recently received an e-mail from Guy Dickinson asking if I could help track down a ‘missing’ silhouette made by Isabella and which profiled his ancestor  Barbara Fitzgerald. She was the daughter of a priest, and  as ‘Barbara Loftie’ had been born in 1768. She eventually went out to India with her family.  There she married Mr Fitzgerald, who had links with the East India Company.  Eventually they returned to England, and Barbara died in 1847.

I say ‘missing’ – it was more a case that the family knew that there was a silhouette in existence but had no idea what it looked like or who owns it. I was able to track down a reference to an unspecified auction of a possible silhouette which took place in the year 2000 but had no idea which auction house was involved. Perseverance paid off and it turned out to be Bonhams – and lo and behold the auction catalogue is still available for purchase. So, I was delighted to be able to point Guy in the right direction. He has kindly lent me the catalogue, and this is the profile of his 4xgreat grandmother:

barbara001

The Bonhams catalogue states that the silhouette was three and a half inches high (88mm to be precise…) and from what I can gather went for the not unreasonable price of £180. Mind you that was sixteen years ago and some of Isabella’s work sells for ten times that amount. The image is described as being made circa 1795 “profile to the right, wearing bandeau in her curled hair, decollete dress with double frilled collar, with tied laces at her corsage and necklace.”

As with many of Isabella’s silhouettes of the 1790’s it was painted on to glass (in this case convex) and backed with wax – whereas her earlier silhouettes were cut out onto blackened paper. By 1785 Isabella had acquired sufficient skill as a painter – having been trained by the miniaturist John Smart – to open her own studio at 27 Fleet Street and there the clamouring public could have their likenesses prepared with the brush strokes applied direct onto either glass or plaster. Isabella used stippling and often dots/dashes to create the dress and hairstyle fashions of the day. She never made a fortune – her estate was worth some £200 when she died in 1825, perhaps the equivalent of £15,000 today. Nevertheless, Isabella was probably the first woman to have been able to make a living from  producing silhouettes. At least she didn’t have to rely on an income  from her husband, who patented a design for a wooden roller for the new-fangled washing machines which were just starting to appear. Pish! Washing machines, what a silly idea!

As an aside, these silhouettes were popular in the Quaker community – it was considered vain to have your own picture hanging on the wall, but a silhouette –  well, that wasn’t you, it was your shadow….

The catalogue shows that the Barbara Loftie Fitzgerald lot was one of nearly ninety silhouettes forming the Shirley North collection.  I rather like these two, sold as a single Lot but actually by different artists:

silhouette 88L     silhouette 88R

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the other Lots featured include some splendid profiles by John Miers, probably the most famous silhouette artist of the day. Here are his husband-and-wife profiles of Henry, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch and Elizabeth. She sports what is termed a ‘banging chignon’ (why don’t we see more banging chignons nowadays?) and a large outdoor hat adorned with feathers and ribbons, while the Duke  has his hair done in a fine queue and wears an open coat with a frilled cravat.

Silhouette57RSilhouette 2 001 - Copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another silhouette by John Miers made £1050 and is of an unidentified lady and made some time between 1788 and 1791. It really is rather impressive:

Silhouette Jn MiersMiers was certainly prolific. He had opened a studio in the Strand in 1788 and at the time of his death was believed to have amassed nearly 100,000 silhouettes – all of them as a result of 3-minute sittings.That’s a lot of minutes…

(My thanks are due to Bonhams for the use of these images – and to Guy Dickinson for nudging me into re-visiting this fascinating area of 18th Century art).

 

Oct 012016
 

Today I am delighted to offer a guest  spot to someone who edits a splendid blogsite called Dirty, Sexy History, which you can find here.  It is of course my sort of history – all the bits which get missed out of conventional history books. Jessica Cale is the award-winning author of the historical romance series, The Southwark Saga. Originally from Minnesota, she earned her BA in Medieval History and MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Wales while climbing castles and photographing mines for history magazines. She is an RWA member and this is what she has to say about stays: 

Woman's corset, figured silk, 1730-1740. Described as being "Silk plain-weave with supplementary weft float patterning stiffened with baleen" it appears courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Woman’s corset, figured silk, 1730-1740. Described as being “Silk plain-weave with supplementary weft float patterning stiffened with baleen” it appears courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Corsets were popularized as an undergarment in the early sixteenth century by Catherine de Medici, who considered them an essential part of a lady’s wardrobe. Within fifty years, they were worn by women from most socio-economic backgrounds all across Europe. While the term “corset” has been used to describe laced bodices since the fourteenth century, in England, the foundation garment worn for support was more commonly known as “stays” (as in “a pair of stays”) until the nineteenth century.

In the eighteenth century, there were two main types of stays: the heavily structured, formal variety and the more flexible half-boned stays (“jumps”) more common for daily use that could be put on without assistance more easily. Stays could be made from most fabrics, as the structure of the garment came from its boning as well as its busk, a long piece of rigid material that fit down the centre of the garment to provide a kind of backbone down the front. Busks could be made of wood, ivory, metal, or whalebone, were removable, and often ornamental.

Stays in the eighteenth century were fairly conical and used to shape the breasts and waist, support the back, and to improve posture. They were worn over undergarments to protect it from sweat, but under gowns or bodices as a foundation garment. They did not keep women from breathing, but could restrict movement by preventing women from bending at the waist. Although they were an essential item for any well-dressed woman, women of all classes relied on them for support. Some of the jumps were even washable, and would have been very helpful for keeping women in their few dresses during and between pregnancies.

Although we think of stays as a feminine garment, some eighteenth century men were known to wear them as well. George IV wore them constantly, beginning when he was an infant to encourage good posture, and through adulthood to create a streamlined silhouette. Fashionable men in London were so dependent upon corsets that by 1747, Richard Campbell wrote in The London Tradesman that out of their clothes, the men appeared to be “quite a different Species (like) Punch, deprived of his moving Wires, and hung up upon a Peg.”

In William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753), he presents the theory of the “Line of Beauty,” a way to classify beauty based on the movement of the eye. This line is basically an S-shape and can be applied to everything from candlesticks to the curve of a woman’s waist. Stays were vital to maintaining this precise curve to achieve to the eighteenth century ideal.

hogarth-analysis-of-beauty-atlanta-3

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, Hogarth’s theory holds up: to his eyes, figure 4 was the ideal shape. This curve is still desirable today, although most women no longer wear stays to achieve it. Nevertheless, they are still an essential part to any costume drama and there are numerous websites dedicated to their history and construction.

If you would like to have a go at making your own, visit this site here.

For a comprehensive look at stays through American history, check out 18th Century Stays

Sources

Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women’s Underwear.

Hogarth, William. Analysis of Beauty. (which you can read online here)

Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk.

 

 

Thanks Jessica! You can find out more about her and her fascinating book on her Amazon page – and do pay a visit to her ‘Dirty Sexy History’ site! Also worth a mention: there is a special promotion on her first novel “Tyburn” which can be obtained free as a Kindle book between 1st and 20th October (details here).

Meanwhile, to end with, a few caricatures from the site run by those lovely people at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale:

"Tight Lacing" published by William Holland circa 1782

“Tight Lacing” published by William Holland circa 1782

 

 

"The stays designed by an Amateur" by James Gillray, 1810, showing the corseted lady inserting the busk down her front.

“The stays designed by an Amateur” by James Gillray, 1810, showing the corseted lady inserting the busk down her front.

 

A Dandy Cock in Stays, by Robert Cruikshank and dating from 1818

A Dandy Cock in Stays, by Robert Cruikshank and dating from 1818

and finally, still from Lewis Walpole Library, this one of the dandy with his shape distorted by stays, padding and so on:

"Laceing a dandy" published by Thomas Tegg in 1819

“Laceing a dandy” published by Thomas Tegg in 1819