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April, 2010


Frills and Furbelows

Godey's Lady's Book Bonnets

Composite engraving from Godey's Ladies Book, 1860, showing ensembles with fashionable bonnets.

SO IT’S 1864 and you have nothing to wear to the tea social. And if your plan is to hop in that buggy for a quick check on the fire sales at TopShop, you’ll probably come up empty-handed. Off-the-rack was a term yet to be invented, and while dressmakers and tailors did a brisk business, you did need to plan well in advance how you would kill it at the soiree. A mohair robe? A silk paletot? Don’t fret just yet—for all of your inspiration could be found within the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the immensely popular “queen of the monthlies,” which by 1860 had 150,000 subscribers.

Godey's Lady's Book

"Godey's Lady's Book," Plate 30, April 1864.

The September ’64 index from a Godey’s magazine that might have been floating around Pritchett House offers up a rich harvest of information, with topics ranging from their monthly musical column to an essay “Confessions of a Sprit Rapping Medium,” to advice on how to cure a red nose; the treatment of diphtheria by ice; things wanted in a wife; men injured by crinolines; tales of hired help; gradations of mourning; design for an ornamental cottage [with plans], and a motto from the Prince of Wales.

But the crowning jewel of any Godey’s book was its exquisite, full-color tint fashion plates, with accompanying dressmaker’s patterns. Here was where you found the very latest in what was being shown off on the streets of Paris and London. But the creation of any new item, from corset to cape to was no small feat, not to mention expensive—in 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln, a documented Godey’s clipper, set the standard for conspicuous spending, paying $25 for a bonnet, which would be about eight million dollars today.

As for trying not to swoon in a dead faint from the binding weight of your stays and crinolines, well, that’s whole separate entry.

Godey's Lady's Book

"Godey's Lady's Book," Plate 28, September 1862.

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ouija board

Ouija board with wooden planchette

DON’T HAVE A MEDIUM on speed dial? No problem: get yourself a planchette, place your fingers lightly upon it, and wait for spiritual contact.

A planchette is that thing that comes with your standard ouija board. Literally translated as a “little plank,” a planchette was originally a small piece of wood on legs which moves around, presumably through ghostly intervention. The first models had a pencil attached, so that when it moved, the ghost in question could use it to write messages to the living. Later versions were shaped like a pointer that could point towards letters on a board to spell out words, or to the words “yes” or “no” for quick and easy answers. My own planchette is made of plastic and is made by Parker Brothers. Creepy.

my ouija board

My childhood ouija board. Much used at summer camp.

my planchette

My planchette says:


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Behold the Rhinoceros

Portrait of Black Rhinoceros, Capt. W.C. Harris, “Portraits of Game & Wild Animals of Southern Africa,” London: Published for the Proprietor, 1840.

WHEN JENNIE LOVELL looks skeptically at the illustration of a rhinoceros and wonders if there really could be such a beast, she truly would have had no frame of reference for such an animal. In fact, Jennie would be lucky to live in a home that would even carry such a book of original prints, as they were time-consuming to produce and costly to procure.

In the days before wildlife photography, when travel to continents such as Asia and Africa required a bit more planning that booking your e-tickets, artists with a taste for adventure were commissioned by wealthy patrons to embark on expeditions where they would render illustrations of animals never before seen on the European continent.

Expeditions were made up of eclectic teams of explorers and thrill seekers, as well as painters and naturalists whose collective efforts to capture (both literally and in art) the exotic animals as the leopard, ostrich, and hippopotamus could take years. The illustrations would be rendered, then copied as colored plates and finally bound into enormous, rare edition books—often for fewer than one hundred patrons.

rhino title page

Frontispiece, Capt. W.C. Harris, “Portraits of Game & Wild Animals of Southern Africa,” London: Published for the Proprietor, 1840.

William Cornwallis Harris (1807-1848) led many expeditions into Africa, and was instrumental in completing a volume of such prints, Portraits of the Game and Wild Animals of Southern Africa, which had been originally commissioned nearly thirty-six years before. Here is his rendering of the two-horned rhinoceros. You might notice that the landscape is not indigenous to Africa, but more evocative of Asia, which was considered a more poetic and romantic setting.

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Sitting Still

family portrait

Daguerreotype of the stiff-looking Clark sisters. Between 1840 and 1860. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

NOTICE HOW STIFF and strained these people are this photograph. I used to think that it was just really, really hard to live a life back then. In fact, when I was a kid my family took a novelty Ye Olde Photo and I convinced everyone to put on as dour a face as possible. So we could be authentic. See how angry we all look?

my family, looking pained

My family, looking pained.

It turns out the expressions were merely a result of the peculiar particulars of the photographic process. The very earliest photographs were daguerreotypes: images fixed by natural light onto individual sensitized copper plates. The exposure time for these pictures was excruciatingly long; one could sit for twenty minutes in blinding sunlight in order to get a decently bright exposure.

By the time during which Picture the Dead takes place, daguerreotypes were a thing of the not-so-distant past. Photographers were able to take glass plate negatives and print them onto albumen paper. The glass plates were far more sensitive to light than the daguerreotypes had been, and folks’ sit-perfectly-still times were shortened to a far more manageable thirty seconds (sunny weather permitting). More manageable, yes, but hardly comfortable. You try to sit completely still for a half a minute. Do you blink? Does your foot fall asleep? Do you begin to droop in your chair? Now imagine that there was some sort of metal stand clamped to the back of your neck in order to help you with the not-moving. Ugh. No wonder the portraits turned out like that.

In the following photos, look at the subjects’ feet, and you can see the bases of those neck-clamping-stands. Wuh.

girl with stand

Photograph from "Victorian Women's Fashion Photos," Dover Publications.

man with a stand

Daguerreotype of William Sidney Mount, also identified as Alfred Jones, engraver. Between 1853 and 1860. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

boy with a stand

Carte de visite of Charles H. Richards, 89th Regiment, NY. ca. 1863. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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