The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

Georgian hairWhile researching 18th century hair-styles and wondering how extravagant they actually were, I discovered an article in a 1773 edition of The Gentlemen’s Magazine which makes a very important point: women were walking conductor’s of electricity. Here’s what said chappie had to say:

Singular Effects of Electricity.-by P. Brydone, F.R.S.

A Lady who has her head surrounded with a wire cap, and her hair stuck full of metal pins, and who at the same time stands upon dry silk, is to all intents and purposes an electrical conductor insolated, and prepared for collecting the fire from the atmosphere: And it is not at all surprising, that during thunder-storms, or when the air is extremely replete with electrical matter, she should emit sparks, and exhibit other appearances of electricity.—I imagine a very trifling change of dress, which from the constant versatility of their modes may some day take place, would render this Lady’s disease altogether epidemical amongst the sex. Only let the soles of their shoes be made of an electric substance; and let the wires of their caps, and pins of their hair, be somewhat lengthened and pointed outwards; and I think there is little doubt, that they will often find themselves in an electrified state: —But, indeed, if they only wear silk, or even worsted stockings, it may sometimes prove sufficient; for I have often insolated electrometers as perfectly by placing them on a piece of dry silk or flannel, as on glass.

How little do our Ladies imagine, when they surround their heads with wire, tha most powerful of all conductors; and at the same time wear stockings, shoes, and gowns of silk, one of the most powerful repellents; that they prepare their bodies in the same manner, and according to the same principles as Electricians prepare their conductors for attracting the fire of lightning! If they cannot be brought to relinquish their wire caps and their pins, might they not fall upon some such preservative as those which of late years have been applied to objects of much less consequence?

Suppose that every Lady should provide herself with a small chain or wire, to be hooked on at pleasure during thunder-storms. This should pass from her cap over the thickest part of her hair, which will prevent the fire from being communicated to her head; and so down to the ground.—It is plain that this will act in the same manner as the conductors on the tops of steeples, which from the metal spires that are commonly placed there, analogous to the pins and wires, were so liable to accidents. You may laugh at all this, but I assure you I never was more serious in my life. A very amiable Lady of my acquaintance, Mrs. Douglas, of Kelso, had almost lost her life by one of those caps mounted on wire. She was standing at an open window during a thunder-storm: The lightning was attracted by the wire, and the cap was burnt to ashes; happily her hair was in its natural state, without powder, pomatum, or pins; and prevented the fire from being conducted to her head, for as she felt no kind of shock, it is probable that it went off from the wires of the cap to the wall, close to which it then stood. If it had found any conductor to carry it to her head or body, in all probability she must have been killed.—A good strong head of hair, if it is kept perfectly clean and dry, is probably one of the I preservatives against the fire of lightning. But so soon as it is stuffed full of powder and pomatum, and bound together with pins, its repellent force is lost, and it comes a conductor*. We have it even in our power to be making experiments in electricity. And although this fluid is the most subtile and active of any that we know, we can command it on all occasions; and I now so accustomed to its operations, that I seldom comb my hair, or pull off a stocking, without observing them under some form or other. How surprising is it that mankind should have lived and breathed in it for so many thousand years, without almost ever supposing that it existed!

•Since the writing of this, the author has made some experiments on the electricity of hair, which tend still to convince him the more of what he has advanced. A Lady told him, that on combing her hair in frosty weather, in the dark, she had sometimes observed sparks of fire to issue from it. This made him think of attempting to collect electrical fire from hair alone, without the assistance of any other electrical apparatus, to this end, he desired a young Lady to stand on a cake of bees-wax, and to comb her sister’s hair, who was sitting on a chair before her.—Soon after she began to comb, the young Lady on the wax was greatly astonished to find her whole body electrified; darting sparks of fire against every object that approached her. The hair was extremely electrified and affected an electrometer at a very great distance: He charged a metal conductor from it with great ease; and in the space of a few minutes collected as much fire immediately from the hair, as to kindle common spirits; and by means of a small phial gave many smart shocks to all the company. A full account of these Expeiiments was lately read before the Royal Society. They were made during the time of a very hard frost, and a strong head of hair, where no powder or pomatum had been used for many months.

The Perfect Hoop Petticoat

18th Century Digressions, Society and Politics No Comments »

Various petticoats a la mode

The new fashion for the circular hoop petticoat was picked up by Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer on the 26 April 1783 in the following biting paragraph:

'The perfect hoop petticoat is to undergo a material alteration before the Summer commences, and is to be a perfect imitation of that magnificent one worn by the fair islanders of Myconia, which is perfectly circular, and of course furnishes that beautiful simile of comparing a woman to a star ; as then it may be truly said, that every lady moves in her own orb, and shines in her own sphere. There may indeed arise some objections to those kind of ornaments, viz. that a slender woman in such a dress stands upon a basis so exorbitantly wide, that she resembles a tunnel; and that a woman of low stature, when she moves, gives us a perfect idea of a child in a go-cart.'


MJ Holman


The harmful vogue of Chinoiserie

18th Century Digressions, Occupations & Trades, The Georgian Home 1 Comment »


 'Chinese Baubles'

The growth of my passion for all things to do with the eighteenth century coincided with the success of retailers such as Past Times. Leafing through their gift catalogues whilst sipping from a glass of Pinot Grigio became a happy distraction and a moment to slip away from the present. The displays of decorative arts or chinoiserie wallpaper helped complete a fantasy that I could have my entire home ornamented in a vogue that reached its peak between 1750 to 1765.
   For many an eighteenth century wife, the style seemed to become a de rigeur home accessory for the fashionable much to the frustration of one commentator: 


Through the ignorant taste of the present times, ornamental China has become a universal fashion, and the veriest tradesman's wife within the weekly bills, would look down upon herself a downright Tramontane, unless she had an urn or a Mandarin on her chimney-piece. This pernicious custom has been a great loss to our carvers and dealers in looking-glass, who formerly supplied the ornamental part of our chimneys, and by that article alone, employed a prodigious number of hands, whose labour was extremely serviceable to the community; this circumstance, therefore is a fresh reason why the East India Company should be laid under some immediate and salutary restraints, as nothing can justify our allowing any set of adventurers an exclusive right to prejudice any manufacture of the kingdom”.
London Chronicle

 The writer continued to express his concern that thousands of pounds derived from the sale of such objects would go east to the Indian Princes, who would “acquire millions to squander on some European instrument of tyranny and murder”, while our industries are oppressed for the importation of “Chinese baubles”.
   These words were written as the fashion began to wane and décorative styles moved towards neoclassicism. The chinoiserie vogue faded and the impetus for the great British industrial engine was about to move up a gear and place these islands at the centre of new modes of manufacturing.

Catherine Palace

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