06 November 2006
Today was a yummy, yummy day. I got to spend the entire day in a sunny corner of the sofa being reminded of why I actually wanted to do the PhD in the first place... the wonder of discovering something new in the pages of a book.
I'm starting research on London's Great Exhibition of 1851 and today's read was an account of the affair written in the 1930's. It's a scholarly publication, but with more charm and gusto than most things written now. It's pretty clear that the author was busting to tell the story of how bird sh!t nearly ruined years of planning and work. For various complicated reasons, they had to build the exhibition hall around the trees and as sparrows are wont to do, they loved taking up residence inside. They couldn't shoot the pests with glass ceilings and all, and the various methods of using nets were equally problematic. The greatest minds of the day were stumped. Luckily, an elderly Duke or General or something stepped in with the answer, "hawks." I can only imagine the carnage in this place that was to go on to be one of the greatest wonders of the 19th c.
I mean, really, imagine if the birds had kept the public from seeing such wonders as this: "There was the usual buttonless, reversible, self-sustaining, self-opening, ventilating, one-piece, and even 'mathematical' underwear." Self-sustaining undies? Only the Victorians...
Some of his presentation of the domestic arts is interesting in its quirks. Despite making quite a few points about the "industrious poor" and attempting to defend the lower classes, he nonetheless dismisses any of the presentations of cotton textiles to move on the silks, despite reminding us that England made its fortune in cotton. Beauty before function, I suppose. As he says, "It was a period that took a sensual pleasure in stuffs, when fifty guineas worth of silk were cut to swing and rustle round a single pair of legs." A reasonably successful engineer in the 1860s made 100 pounds/yr, and a guinea is slightly more than a pound, so if his wife wished to prove herself higher than her middle class status, she'd take up half his salary for one ball gown, and that's not including the "extras" that we all know go into a proper ball ensemble. Beauty always comes at a price, doesn't it, dahhhling?
The crafty among us might also enjoy this little gem. "Lace and embroidery included many curious objects, loyal and sentimental, the produce of long evenings and lonely firesides." We have a long way to go to shake the notion of the crafty spinster, toiling away in borderline misery with her needles.
Unfortunately there are no pictures of "mathematical" underwear or the silk chess sets which were submitted by lonely women, but I'm going to try to scan a few of the images in to share over the next few days. There are some gorgeous depictions of the goods on display and I love how the catalogue arranges common goods like scissors much like the Martha Stewart art/cataloging pictures of today. Yummy, yummy stuff.
Of course there was much about the Exhibition that's troubling and the book does only a fair job of demonstrating that. "There was a twelve-shilling rifle specially designed for purposes of barter with the African native, side by side with totally different models for the purpose of shooting him down. Also from Birmingham was a selection of shackles, leg-irons, manacles, fetters, and handcuffs made for export to the Southern States of America. The sword, unfortunately, is far more interesting than the plough-share."
And how disappointing (but predictable) to find this statement: "And so we finish the British section: only the colonies lie between us and the foreign exhibits in the eastern nave. But nobody who can remember Wembley will want to linger long over Antigua, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand, St. Kitts', Van Dieman's Land, or even over the immense display of the East India Company. To our great grandfathers, the Indian section was half the fun of the whole show; they pored and gloated over the objects of brass and bamboo that had taken fifty years to make. To-day, when the art and wisdom of the East command a less unquestioning respect, they would be spread in vain before our eyes."
Yikes! Go back, go back, I wanted to tell my literary tour guide. I want to linger over that space of the colonies. I'm spending years of my life reading about those things that were found in just that space that you ignored. Sigh... and this is why we need modern research, to pick up where our charming, quaint but terribly flawed predecessors left off. (Just as those that follow us will have to correct all our quaint but horribly flawed ideas.)
(Apologies for the history lesson. I just get so, so terribly excited about my nerdy stuff. I actually had a few wonders arrive in my mailbox today so yarn porn tomorrow, provided I make it through another long, lonely night making lace by the fire.)