Female secret agents, fashion magazines and a Jack in the green–things I learned about in today’s helping of History a’la Carte.
Establishing a postal service was one of the first priorities of the Umayyad caliphate in the seventh century. For the Umayyads and their successors … formal letter delivery and deliverers had a purpose beyond correspondence. The “carrier of letters” or sahib al-barid was also the sahib al-khabar, the carrier of secrets. The mailman, in other words, was a spy.
Karl Drais was a prolific German inventor who invented the Laufmaschine (“running machine”), nicknamed the dandy horse. Later, the Laufmaschine was called the velocipede, draisine (English), or draisienne (French). On a well maintained post-road, it could travel up hill as fast as an active man could walk. On flat ground, it could travel six or seven miles an hour, and up to eight or nine miles an hour (equal to a horse’s gallop) in ideal conditions.
It was not uncommon for women in the 18th Century to wear strap-on metal “shoe supports” to lift the shoe off from the ground, so that long coats and dresses did not drag along the mud and puddles… Especially linked to working class women, the pattens often feature in caricatures.
“The best time for studie is early in the morning, when the Planets be favourable to our purpose… Diligent students… must apply themselves earnestly to reading and meditation for the space of an houre: then to remit a little their cogitation, and in the meane time with an Ivory Combe to kembe their head from the forehead backwards about forty times, and to rub their teeth with a coarse linnen cloth. Then to returne againe to meditation for two houres, or one at the least..
Magazines dedicated exclusively to fashion grew out of the more traditional ‘women’s magazines’. As early as the 1600s, The Treasure of Hidden Secrets was addressed to ‘gentlewomen, honest matrons and virtuous virgins’. The publication offered readers treatises about urine and how to cure consumption with ‘snails and worms boiled in beer’ to avoid the plague!
The word “hysteria” conjures up an array of images, none of which probably include a nomadic uterus wandering aimlessly around the female body. Yet that is precisely what medical practitioners in the past believed was the cause behind this mysterious disorder. The very word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning “womb,” and arises from medical misunderstandings of basic female anatomy.
Barbers were often the targets for thieves. Whilst a barbershop might not immediately spring to mind as a tempting target, lots of barbering goods were actually desirable, and easy to put out through the fence.
The heyday of Norfolk smuggling probably came in the 1770s and 1780s, when high taxes were imposed on ‘luxury’ items like tea, gin, brandy, silks and lace to pay for England’s endless wars with continental Europe and America. It seemed to take a while before the authorities worked out that high taxes on basically cheap items meant huge returns for the smugglers: more than enough to make up for the occasional losses to zealous Revenue agents.
For Victorian ladies, there was much more to letter writing than simply dashing off a note. There were rules for proper correspondence, encompassing everything from acceptable shades of paper and ink to penmanship, wax seals, and conditions under which a woman must write in the third person.
A Jack-in-the-Green was once a traditional sight amongst English May Day celebrations. Dancing at the head of processions on the day, often noisy and drunk, the Jack-in-the-Green was a man who covered himself in a conical or pyramidal framework decorated with green foliage, concealing his body. He resembled a walking tree or bush. The parades were riotous affairs, usually consisting of a King and Queen (or a Lord and Lady) as well as the Jack-in-the-Green, together with jesters, clowns, chimney sweeps and musicians.
So did you learn something new today? I sure did! Tell me about it in the comments!
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