Category Archives: Historical Reconstructions

A Georgian Trifle and Hope for our Future

A year or two ago I bought, in a mixed lot at auction, an object that was described as a set of ‘folding toothpicks’. I didn’t think they were toothpicks, but they were beautifully made and clearly had some important function, it took a while before I realised they had been very important indeed. This is their story.

Vaccinator 1

In the eighteenth century the terrible disease of smallpox was endemic, every so often there were outbreaks and many people were disfigured or died. There was a form of treatment, inoculation or variolation, which had been introduced to Britain by Mary Wortley Montague at the beginning of the century. But this treatment was, in many cases, as bad as the disease, because variolation involved giving the patient, what was hoped would be, a mild form of smallpox. If you were lucky you would survive, without too many scars, and would then have natural immunity in the future, if not, you died. Position and wealth couldn’t help you, the Princes Octavius and Alfred, the youngest sons of George III both died after being inoculated.

In the West Country people had long noticed that if a person caught the disease cowpox, they were subsequently immune to smallpox. This was possibly one of the reasons that milkmaids were proverbially pretty, their faces weren’t scarred with pock marks. Although well-known it wasn’t until 1774 that one man, a Dorset farmer called Benjamin Jesty, decided to try to recreate this immunity by deliberately giving someone cowpox.

He had caught the disease as a child, so he couldn’t experiment on himself, so he decided to give cowpox to his family, he scratched the arms of his two sons and rubbed in ‘matter’ from a cowpox sore from a cow. They were ill for a few days, and then were thereafter immune to smallpox (this was tested nearly thirty years later). Then he tried it on his wife, this time she became seriously ill, and nearly died. The local doctor said he admired what Jesty had done, and would try and protect him if his wife died and he was charged with murder. Happily she recovered, but the local people regarded him as potential wife-murderer, and in due course he had to leave his home at Yetminster in north Dorset, and had to move many miles to Worth Matravers in the south of the county.

Worth Matravers - Gravestone of Benjamen Jesty

Twenty years later, in Gloucestershire, Dr Edward Jenner began his experiments. He knew of the traditions about Cowpox, he may have heard of Jesty, but he was a doctor and managed to treat his patients without danger. In 1796 he gave a boy cowpox, there was a slight illness, then he tested the boy – he was immune to smallpox. Dr Jenner carried out many more experiments, and finally published his results in a form other doctors would believe, and so saved millions of lived. As the material came from a cow (vacca in Latin) he called it vaccine, and the process of administering it vaccination.

Vaccinator 2

But what has that to do with the tiny object I showed you at the beginning of the blog. It took me a while but I eventually discovered that these are early vaccination points, a persons arm would be scratched and vaccine, the matter from the cow pock on a cow, or a previously infected person, would be transferred to the wound, using the points. The points are made from either bone or ivory as it was found that metals could kill the vaccine.

So, as we await the vaccines that will end the present pestilence, look on this tiny object, which almost certainly saved hundreds of lives, and think of (and thank) those doctors who, in Kipling’s words;

Took their lives in their lancet hands,

And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged.

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Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Kipling, Scientific History

The Curious Scissors Net, another Entomological reconstruction

During lockdown people have been encouraged to try handicrafts, also to get out and enjoy nature. Now as a reenactor who enjoys experimental history, there was an obvious thing to do – make an eighteenth century butterfly net.

Some time ago I described how I made a reconstruction of a Clap, or Batfowler net to see how this improbable looking butterfly net functioned. Rereading Moses Harris’s The Aurelian a little while ago I was inspired to make another improbable looking insect net, the Scissors or Forceps Net.

He begins by describing;

Racket Nets. Which are form’d of Wire about the Size of a Raven’s Quill, turned round to a Circle, bending the Ends outwards by way Shanks, which are made fast in a Brass Socket;  this Circle or Ring of Wire is covered with Gause, and bound round with Ferret [A stout tape most commonly made of cotton OED]; a round Stick of about two Feet in Length is fitted to this Socket, by Way of Handle. These Sort Of Nets are what an AURELIAN should at all Times carry about him; a Pair of these of about six Inches Diameter are the most convenient for that Purpose. The chief Use of these Sort of Netts are for catching Moths, sitting against a Tree, Wall, or Pales; or a Moth or Fly sitting on a Leaf, may be conveniently caught between a Pair of these.

The Fly Catching Macaroni

Then he tells us that;

The Scithers Net are no more than a small Pair of these Racket Nets; fixed on two Pieces of Iron which are rivetted across each other, with two of the Ends turn’d round in the Form of Rings, for the Admittance of the Thumb and Finger; in short, a Pair of Toupee Irons, or Curling Tongs, such as is used by a Hair-Dresser, are very well adapted for this Purpose, with a round Net fixed to the End of each Tong with binding Wire, or small Twine well waxed; these Nets are principally adapted to take small Moths, &c.

Scissors Net cartoon

So to make a Scissors Net, I first needed a pair of tongs. Whilst I have (as one does) a pair of Georgian Curling Tongs, I didn’t want to use these so I needed a pair of tongs of similar proportions. After a while I found some old barbeque tongs which could be adapted.

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I then needed to make the wire loops, I unfortunately don’t have a Ravens Quill, but online enquiries (thank you 18th Century Sewing facebook group) suggested just under 1/8 inch diameter. Fortunately wire coat hangers are about the right size.

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Unfortunately I cannot find anybody who produces ferret these days, but it was easy enough to create a stiff cotton tape, and finally create the net.

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Then I had to work out how they were to be used, the delightfully named Letitia Jermyn, in 1824, she tells us that;

The forceps are about ten or twelve inches in length, provided with fans of a circular or other form, and are covered with gauze; they are held and moved like a pair of scissors, and are used to catch the insects when at rest.

In later editions of her book (1836) she adds further advice

The leaves should be expanded as wide as possible, and the prey approached very cautiously, and when within reach, close them upon it suddenly, including the leaf or flower on which it rests.

Whilst William Curtis, in 1771, advised using them to catch wasps and bees as;

These insects being armed many of them with poisonous stings, it will be necessary to use the forcep nets to catch them with.

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I soon discovered that they were very easy to use, especially when taking insects sitting on flowers, and on a plant like bramble I was able to capture insects without risking the net being caught. As to why the net fell out of use, I suspect it was simply the problem of carrying a number of nets. Difficult when was no longer accompanied by a servant.

On day I might well make a pair of Racket Nets, as described by Moses Harris, or the oddest of all nets, and also the simplest.

The Casting Net, described by Letitia Jermyn in 1824 (she dropped it from later editions of her book);

If they {insects} are beyond your reach, you must use a casting net, which may be made thus:- tie a weight (a halfpenny for instance), in one of the corners of a piece of gauze, about the size of a common handkerchief, a lighter weight in the second corner, and a bit of very light wood in the third : the inequality in the weight and bulk of these substances, will occasion the gauze to open, when thrown from the hand : a thin piece of twine, a yard to two long, may be tied to the remaining corner, by which the net may be drawn in at pleasure. The art of spreading it to its full extent may be acquired with very little practice.

The vision of a Regency Lady throwing a weighted handkerchief over a butterfly of moth is a delightful one, which it would be lovely to recreate.

Sources

Curtis, William. 1771 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Insects

Harris, Moses. 1776 The Aurelian or Natural History of English Insects

Jermyn, Letitia. 1824 The butterfly collector’s vade mecum; with a synoptical table of British butterflies.

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Filed under Butterfly Net, Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Reconstructing the Regency, Scientific History

Our Ancestors got it right – As usual

As the pestilence sweeps the land, there are several things we have been advised to do to keep ourselves safe.

But, of course, our ancestors got there first.

 

Greetings

‘We shouldn’t touch each other when greeting.’

 

This was usually taught at an early age

But you were never too old to learn

Social distancing.

 

Men were taught to do this.

Whilst women’s clothes were designed to encourage this.

 

They could also help if a man didn’t abide by the rules.

Whilst leaving plenty of space for fresh air and exercise.

 

Protective clothing

 

But above all spend your time productively. Shakespeare once self-isolated to protect himself from the plague. He took the opportunity to write King Lear!

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Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, plague

Imagination – Another strange meeting

“Then they looked out of the wood – and saw dinosaurs!”

The novelist put the papers down. “A good way of ending the episode?”

The palaeontologist nodded, “Wonderful, what an imagination you have.”

“You too must have imagination, to create lost worlds out of fragments of bone.”

“But not like you.”

As he left he thought of the bones in his workshop. His imagination had created something very special, the Missing Link, but no one would realise it wasn’t real for many years, if ever.

His friend was just a great writer, however he was the greatest scientific hoaxer ever.

The Glade of the Iguanodons, the scene described by Doyle.

 

In several of my blogs I have imagined several possible meetings between, possibly unlikely, characters from history, here and here. This meeting is, however, completely true. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing The Lost World, he sought out advice on prehistoric life from the Natural History Museum. They passed the request to a local expert palaeontologist, Charles Dawson ‘discoverer’ of the Piltdown Man and undoubtedly ‘the greatest scientific hoaxer ever.’

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, in 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes  an act of “peering from the woods.” Go where the prompt leads.

 

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Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Historical tales, Literary puzzle

Dorset Buttons – Saving a lost craft

Lady Lees couldn’t stop looking at it, a large, button, unlike any she had ever seen before, it seemed to have been created by sewing. The farmer’s wife, saw where she was looking.

“Funny old button isn’t it. They used to make them Shaftesbury way, but no one knows how to make them anymore. Have it.” She bent, and cut it from her apron.

She sought out more buttons, and at last a frail old lady, who said.

“Buttony, of course my dear.” And picked up a needle and a tiny brass ring. The lost craft was saved.

A follower of Lady Lees, practicing Buttony

The true tale of how the craft of Buttony, making Dorset Buttons, was saved. This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, in 99 words (no more, no less) write a story including buttons. Hope you enjoy it.

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Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Historical tales, Victorian

A Pattern for a Patten – Reconstruction

Pattens must have been very common, there would have been at least one pair by the back door of every house, farm or cottage across much of Britain. Then, in the early twentieth century, rubber boots became readily available and the patten was immediately superseded. Pattens had absolutely no advantages over rubber boots so they became instantly obsolete, and almost all disappeared.

As I mentioned previously, I had wanted to add a patten to my collection, but could never find one. Then a local metal detectorist kindly gave me a patten iron, the metal part of a patten.

It needed to be cleaned and the metal treated

Patten Reconstruction 1

Then a wooden sole was made

Patten Reconstruction 2

And fitted to the base

Patten Reconstruction 3

Finally leather straps were cut

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And I had a patten to add to my collection.

 

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A Pattern for a Patten – Protection and Punishment

What’s a patten?

Well, here is a wet London day described by Dickens, and no one described a wet day better;

The sky was dark and gloomy, the air was damp and raw, the streets were wet and sloppy. The smoke hung sluggishly above the chimney-tops as if it lacked the courage to rise, and the rain came slowly and doggedly down, as if it had not even the spirit to pour. In the street, umbrellas were the only things to be seen, and the clicking of pattens and splashing of rain-drops were the only sounds to be heard. (Pickwick Papers)

Wet under foot.

Pattens were wooden soles on metal rings that raised the foot above the wet ground, they were usually worn by women, and the noise they made was a feature of urban life in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious, or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity. When Lady Russell not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint. (Jane Austen, Persuasion)

It was the noise they made that was probably the reason they were banned from churches.

Trent, St Andrew, patten notice
Trent Church, Dorset

As the nineteenth century progressed the patten, which had been worn by women of all classes, gradually moved down the social scale. Though it remained in use in country districts until the end of the nineteenth century.

Patty
A fashionable woman in pattens in 1783

A woman had to learn to walk in pattens, wearing them was similar to a child wearing stilts, indeed child sized pattens were made so a girl could learn to wear pattens almost as soon as she learnt to walk. In 1872 Miss Berry Dallas and her sister Helen came to live with their uncle and aunt in rural Dorset. She not only kept a diary, but it was copiously illustrated and, on the first page, she shows how they learnt to walk in pattens.

Patten - Winterbourne St Martin 1

A teenaged Miss Berry helped to stand by an elderly gentleman

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Miss Helen smugly managing to stay upright.

Pattens were not just used to walk outside in wet weather, but were essential when wet jobs were to be done around the house, especially on washing days.

How are you off for soap

A cartoon of 1816, Vansittart was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who had just put a tax on soap!

There were other uses for pattens, Charles Dickens describes, at the end of Barnaby Rudge when the unpleasant Miss Miggs gets her dream job of a female turnkey (jailer) for the County Bridewell (jail).

Among other useful inventions which she practised upon offenders and bequeathed to posterity, was the art of inflicting an exquisitely vicious poke or dig with the wards of a key in the small of the back, near the spine. She likewise originated a mode of treading by accident (in pattens) on such as had small feet; also very remarkable for its ingenuity, and previously quite unknown.

Whilst in 1723 it was reported in the London Journal, that:

Some Days ago a Female Duel was fought at Greenwich, in which one of the Combatants kill’d her Antagonist with her Patten. The Coroner’s Inquest having sate upon the Body of the Deceased, brought in their Verdict Manslaughter.

I understandably wanted to get hold of one of these useful devices, but as something that was never really valued, I doubted that I ever would. How I managed to I will describe in my next blog.

 

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Filed under Charles Dickens, Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Victorian

County Recipes of Old England – A Culinary Delight

I love old cookbooks, particularly ones that include very old fashioned or traditional recipes. Only last week I came across a beauty, published by Country Life in 1929.

County Recipes 0

Like modern cookery books it is well illustrated, but here the illustrations range from the informative.
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To the useful.
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To the advisory
County Recipes 1
And to the delightful.
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There can be problems in understanding the recipes.
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Flead (Fleer or Leaf) is the unrefined fat of a pig.
Not having any Flead available (I live in rural Dorset, not somewhere like London where I am sure an artesian butcher could easily supply hand flaked, sustainably sourced and biometrically tickled Flead). I had to try something else.

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I was tempted by the Bakewell Tart, made without almonds, but settled on an easy Derby Cake.

Very tasty, now where can I get some Flead?

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Making an Acorn Snake – A Vanishing Toy

When did you last see an Acorn Snake? Do you even know what one is or how to make it? I recently realised that very few people seemed to know about this ancient toy, so here it is.

 

First take a good handful or two of acorn cups, one or two large acorns, and some string.

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Drill a small hole in the base of each acorn cup.

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Sort them by size from the smallest to largest.

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Thread the cups on a length of length of string, stick a tiny cup over the knot at the small end, stick a large acorn into the biggest cup. Add a face and there you have it.

Pseudophidius quercii The Acorn Snake

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Filed under Acorn Snake, Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Reconstructing the Regency, Regency

Reconstructing the Regency, or Protecting the Pound Coin with a Regency Toy!

The new One Pound Coin is being lauded as the most secure, most difficult to forge, coin ever produced. One of the many features is the ‘hologram’ on the obverse, just below the Queen’s head. This is a small feature that shows a £ sign when viewed from one direction and a figure 1 when viewed from another.

one pound coin hologram 3

Picture from the Royal Mint

However this isn’t a true hologram, rather it is a physical picture cut onto tiny ridges, one image is on one side of the ridge and one on the other. You can feel the ridges if you run a fingernail over the feature.

This type of picture is called an anamorphic picture, a picture that can only be viewed from a particular direction. The most famous example of this is the skull in Holbein’s picture ‘The Ambassadors’. However this type of anamorphic picture was developed much later and by the Regency was a children’s toy, and is described in The Boy’s Own Book published in 1834. The instructions are far from clear, if you would like to try and make one I give them here.

Boys own 3

Naturally, as soon as I discovered these instructions I wanted to make one, so I began by working out the geometry.

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Then I selected two suitable pictures (from the British Museum online catalogue) and printed them out.

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These were then cut into correctly sized strips, that was what all the geometry was about, and pasted onto the base sheet.

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When dry the strip was folded in a concertina fashion, the images are completely mixed up.

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But viewed from the side one picture becomes clear.

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And the other can be seen from the other side.

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So to protect the most advanced coin of the 21st century, you need a child’s toy from the 18th!.

 

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Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Reconstructing the Regency, Regency