Friday, 11 October 2013

Anyone else want to bring back Jane Austen's soap?

As you will have learned from yesterday's post, cosmetics in the 18th Century were disastrously harsh. One can only imagine how harsh the processes used for removing such cosmetics - probably involving carbolic soap and terpentine.. England was in great need of some gentle love for the kin of its citizens. In response to this need, the son of a Cornish farmer developed a glycerin soap that was easy on the skin and contained only natural ingredients. In 1789, he opened a barber shop off Oxford street, including a production facility for his soap products.His name was Andrew Pears.
The first interesting thing I must tell you is that his name is not pronounced like the fruit. In the old days, spelling was much more varied, and there became numerous ways of spelling family names in particular. The historic and well-known brand, should actually be pronounced "Pierce." The same name is sometimes spelled "Piers" and one can assume "Pearce" to be another variant.
Pears soap is the oldest continuous brand name in the world. Corporate ownership has changed, but the brand itself has been around for over 220 years.
By the time Jane Austen was writing her novels, Pears Soap was quite popular, at least in London. Although I have no evidence whatsoever that Jane Austen ever used Pears, it is not an unreasonable supposition. She certainly could have. And if she didn't, doubtless her characters did - Fanny Dashwood, for example, perhaps Sir Walter Elliot. Up until 2009, when you smelled a bar of Pears soap, you shared an experience with Georgian English society. Is that not incredible? I think it is.
In 2009, however, the company changed the formula for the soap to make it cheaper to produce. It was a tricky product to make. It often turned opaque in the drying process (though that was remedied in the 1970s with the addition of BHT). It had to be made in small batches and it took months to dry (it was the drying and not any special moulding that created the concave shape associated with Pears). It is now softer and doesn't last as long. It no longer smells the same and it no longer has the hypo-allergenic quality which was the cause of its invention. They changed the fragrance after people rebelled, but they haven't changed the formula back.
I say fine. Have your cheap glycerine soap for the masses. But couldn't they do a specialty soap that they charge more for? They could make it with the original method, with original packaging, and they could charge way more for it. They could sell it at health food shops, and at all the National Trust sites, and other historic places, as well as on line and wherever else they wanted. It seems like a crime against humanity to be able to destroy something that has existed for two centuries, regardless of private ownership. You can't tear down a 200 year old building, freehold interest or otherwise.
I have even thought about licensing the brand name, and starting my own soap factory and barber shop, in Oxford Street, offering tours of the drying ovens and straight-blade shaves. But when am I going to have time to do that, really? Is there anyone who will take on this cause? I will buy your soap.

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook.)

Monday, 7 October 2013

What would you pay for a weekend at Pemberley?

I mean a real weekend house party, with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth, Georgiana, Jane and Bingley, and Colonel Fitzwilliam, in Derbyshire, with Regency meals, staff, country dancing, whist, archery, the works, in regency clothes, just like living in a costume drama. (Am I the only one whose heart races at the thought?)
And I am quite serious. How much would you actually pay? Would you actually pay it? Would you actually book the time off work and cancel your plans?
I can make this happen. It is my dream. And it is a totally authentic regency thing to do. House parties lasting several days were very common in Jane Austen's time. Traveling was infinitely more arduous and time-consuming in those days, so if people came to your house, they stayed a while.
There was no need to have them over a weekend and, as we all know from the Dowager Duchess ("what's a weekend?"), upper classes didn't really pay attention to the structure of the week. Actually, I am pretty sure there was no such thing as a weekend until well into the industrial revolution. It was certainly not a term used in Jane Austen's time.
Anyway, these little house parties would include various entertainments, and usually some dancing. For years I have been talking about putting one on. In fact, one day, I hope to open a permanent facility where this happens every day. When the book/film "Austenland" (TM) came out, I almost had to scream, THAT WAS MY IDEA!!!! So, I am thinking about using Kickstarter to try and make it happen, in about a year and a half. I am trying to gage interest. Please comment below how much you would pay for this all-inclusive vacation (food and costumes included). And please send/tweet this to everyone you know who might want to visit Pemberley.

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook.)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Lead face powder - because you're worth it!

We kill ourselves for beauty, or so I have heard it said. And it is as true now as it has ever been, but the means were not always so subtle. In the 18th Century, as indeed in most of history, pale, milky skin was valued by the English as an indication of prestige. If you were tanned, it meant you spent a lot of time in the sun, probably working, and the upper classes wanted to get away from this image as much as possible. This ultimately resulted in ladies, and in fact some gentlemen, painting themselves white.
We may dust our faces with bronzing powder, but they painted their skin with led paint. You can only imagine the wonders this did for their complexions. Yes, it ate holes in their faces and made their eyebrows fall out. And that is not to mention the countless other illnesses and even death that were caused by the direct application of lead to their faces.
To remedy the loss of eyebrows and pocks on the skin, they adopted some other gruesome tactics. They made false eyebrows out of rat hair which they would actually glue to their faces and they covered their pocks with moleskin patches. These latter became a fashion of their own, and varied a great deal in size and shape. When you see an obviously false beauty mark being sported by an 18th century lady with a pale complexion in an old painting, that is a moleskin patch and is covering up a hole in her face.
Fortunately, by Jane Austen's time, this look was starting to go out of vogue. By the time she was writing her novels, it was certainly not fashionable among the young. I have heard several theories as to why that was, but I will save that for another post. 
Ladies did still continue to use rouge, but they would always deny it. I think there are some scenes in Moll Flanders (the book, not the film, which I love, but which takes only its title and none of its plot from the book) in which some ladies are accusing each other of using rouge, which accusations are hotly denied. And, according to Sir Walter Elliot, if Lady Russell would only wear a little rouge, she would not be afraid of being seen.

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook.) 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Tired of Pemberly's extensive but predictable grounds? Spice things up with a hired hermit!

The idea of a house having a view is quite a modern one, well, if you think the 18th Century is modern. It was always the house that was the view. I am, of course, talking about grand estates, not houses for normal people. It was more important to the well-to-do that they maintain their image than that they enjoy their life. And so, their houses were show-pieces from the outside as well as the inside, possibly more so since not everyone would get to see the inside. Therefore, it mattered more that the house ornamented its surroundings than that the people inside had anything to look out at through the glass.
One famous landscape architect you may have heard of was called Capability Brown. His name wasn't actually Capability, but that's what everyone called him because he could do anything. He really changed English gardens forever. He re-ordered hills and lakes and all sorts to make it look like the house was perfectly situated without any human interference. He created rolling hills, vast lawns and asymmetric shrubberies, and did away entirely with the ornamental gardens that had previously prevailed. They continued to be the done thing in France, a la Versaille et al. But in England, things were going another way entirely.
One individual who was an unwitting and accidental but undeniable influence on landscape architecture was actually a sketching artist. In the 18th Century, for reasons I don't understand, travel became easier, and there started to develop a tourist industry of sorts among the upper classes. Why this happened, I don't know. They didn't have steam boats. They didn't have railways. They didn't have paved roads. They didn't even have suspension in their carriages. So what made it easier to travel? Was it political conditions? I don't know, but apparently it was. Consequently, society ladies started going on holidays, and they liked to do drawing. One Mr. Gilpin wrote a few books about drawing, particularly drawing exotic landscapes, and suggesting good spots to draw in popular tourist areas like Italy and the Highlands of Scotland. He invented the word, and the concept, "picturesque." This has now come to mean that something is merely pretty, but it had a more specific meaning when he used it. He meant it to describe subjects that would make good pictures, for specific compositional reasons. There had to be something framing the foreground, some interesting subject matter in the middle ground, and some dynamic background. Items must be grouped in odd numbers, like cows in a field or people in a crowd, and, most importantly, the main subject matter should have lots of craggy lines, like a ruined castle or a rock face. Straight lines, new buildings, these were not picturesque.
This last principle started to be taken up in landscape design, and people started doing things like building follies, which were false ruins, on their properties. They wanted interesting things to look at out of their windows, to see pictures where they looked instead of just being the picture. I don't know that Mr. Gilpin is solely responsible for this, but he was part of a growing fascination with rugged and ragged things, like the French Pyrenees and secret coves. Therefore, some of the follies they built were hermitages, little hidden hovels that suggested a bit of excitement. And there were some who even went so far as to hire a hermit. possibly a poet, to live in their folly hermitage. Therefore, it became a sort of adventure for the rich to go for walks and chance an encounter with a real hermit. 
What lengths the bored and wealthy will not go to for a little diversion.

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook..)