Because so many people come to this blog for tips on hosting a Victorian-style dinner, I thought this would fit right in. It’s from an article I read recently describing the fashions of serving food and laying tables in the 19th century.

“Dinner Old English style, which actually originated in the 18th century, referred to the style of placing all food items on the table before the diners sat down. In this service, guests could help themselves to the food items set out before them, within the bounds of proper manners. Where servants were unavailable it was considered, by some writers as late as the 1870s, “acceptable” behavior to help oneself to any dish on the table within reach. This service changed throughout the 19th century, taking on bits and pieces of other styles.

 A departure from the Old English style called for food items to be replaced by decorative centerpieces. This style was commonly referred to as à la Russe in late 19th-century guidebooks. Serving dinner à la Russe became fashionable among European elites during the 1850s and 1860s, and by the 1870s it has also become fashionable in the United States.” (82)

Because the high cost of employing the many servants that were needed for the dinner à la Russe, and the shortage of good servants at the end of the 19th century, a new style called American style arose. “In the American dinner service the table was laid in the same manner as that of the à la Russe style, the major difference between the two was that the American style required the host and hostess to divide food portions on individual plates and then pass them or have them passed around the table by a servant. Food items from each separate course were placed on the table and then served from there or a side table.” (83)

How a table looks like is described here by describing a boarding-house table: “If the table is void of flowers, and other side decorations, including olves, rashishes, and celery, tastefully arranged napkins and wineglasses, an impression is given os a boarding-house table.” (84)

When the courses grew larger in number, the plates grew smaller to accommodate the smaller portions served. At the end of the 19th century, plates were on average 2 inch smaller in diameter than earlier on in the century.

(All info and citations from “A la Russe, à la Pell-Mell, or à la Practical: Ideology and Compromise at the Late Nineteenth-Century Dinner Table” by Michael T. Lucas, which appeared in Historical Archaeology, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1994.


Want to read more on Victorian dinners? Check out these books on amazon:
victorian dinners

Who hasn’t eaten an ice-cream or at least a muffin in their life ?
Even in movies you see children run behind an ice-cream van, shouting ecstatically for them to stop. While the sound of their bells will always remind us of more pleasant moments in our youth. But the muffin man wasn’t armed with a much different weapon to sell his wares.
The muffin man, who traditionally bore his ware on his head, and the signal of his approach – the ringing of a handbell – was on of the most joyous sounds in a Victorian childhood, continued in business until the Second World War.
Ice-cream was something of a latecomer to the streets. Although it was available by the time of the great Exhibition, it became common only in the eighties, when portable freezing equipment was invented by Agnes Bertha Marshall, the principle of a London cookery school. It was she who invented the cone in the late eighties. Prior to that, ice-cream had often been frozen onto metal rods that had to be returned after it had been licked off!

The street sellers of muffins and crumpets were calculated for Henry Mayhew at approximately 500 during the winter months, somewhere between the years 1858 and 1861.

The street sellers bought their items thirteen to the dozen from a baker who knew them, but Mayhew had not heard of any vendor who made his own wares.
´Peoples likes them warm, sir.´ an old man told him, ´To satisfy them they´re fresh, and they almost always are fresh; but it can’t matter so much about their being warm, as they have to be toasted again. I only wish good butter was a sight cheaper, and that would make them go. Butter’s half the battle.’
Good sized muffins from the street sellers cost a halfpenny each, crumpets sold four a penny. Some are sold cheaper, but these were generally smaller or made of inferior quality flour. Well-off ladies and gents bought them from streets seller, speculating or not but I believe that even the lower classes would indulge themselves to such a delightful treat if their money allowed it.

Last but not least, in my opinion it were the Victorians who made our childhood a little more jolly.

Henry Mayhew’s London labour and the London poor
Life in Victorian Britain by Michael Paterson


This guest post was written by writer J. Elizabeth Valentine, thank you so much for contributing!

Today’s post is written by Sally E. Svenson:


“You have not got to hunt for the best dresses in a crowd,” observed an English society journalist in 1890. “They will always make themselves seen.” What fashionable women wore became a prominent aspect of British society reporting during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when nearly fifty new magazines aimed at women entered the British market. Describing such garments required skill. “It is not everyone who can carry away the memory of thirty dresses in her head,” noted one critic, and only the most brazen journalists stooped to taking notes at social events, including the hapless reporter satirized by the British humor magazine Punch in 1900.

A few journals supplemented textual descriptions of the fashion statements of aristocratic clotheshorses with rough line illustrations, among them Queen and Lady’s Pictorial, unashamedly snobbish weeklies that chronicled the doings of high society. The artists assigned to the task made no effort to capture individual likenesses, but sketched gowns on near-identical, mannerist figures with wasp waists and tiny heads.

Among the women whose clothes attracted press scrutiny at this time was American-born Lily Hamersley, who was from 1888 until his death in 1892 the second wife of the eighth Duke of Marlborough, head of the Churchill family. Lily had a sure sense of style, and her choices reflected the expense, thought, and workmanship that went into the making of a fashionable woman of her period. She did her part in upholding the English stereotype of American women as better dressed than their British counterparts (as did her sister-in-law Jennie Churchill, who spent far beyond her modest means on clothing and was singled out by New York’s Town Topics as the most modishly attired woman in London in 1898). What Lily wore accounted for a considerable portion of the “news” that appeared about her in the press, particularly in the years between 1895 and 1900 when she was married to her third husband, Lord William Beresford, an old friend of the Prince of Wales. Coverage began with Lily’s April 1895 wedding, when Queen provided its readers with a sketch of her wedding dress–of delicate pearl gray brocade patterned with satin roses over a petticoat of white moiré trimmed with Brussels lace. Her matching Louis XVI coat with diamond buttons and gauntlet cuffs of rare antique Point d’Alencon lace opened over a waistcoat of the same material. On her head she wore a gray velvet bonnet embroidered with pearls and trimmed with pale gray ostrich plumes, a white aigrette, and white violets.  The hat was fronted with a small white lace veil.

In August 1895 Lily was one of twenty-two women attendees at the Dublin horse show whose gowns made up a full-page display in Lady’s Pictorial. On this occasion Lily appeared in a dress of dove-colored “undressed cloth” with sleeves of rich dove silk embroidered in a unique design in white terry velvet. Her bonnet, again a subject of some scrutiny, was of crinkled violet straw, trimmed with white stock gillyflowers and an upstanding fan of black ravenswing feathers.

Ball gowns deserved particularly close observation. A May 1897 volume of Lady’s Pictorial featured nine gowns worn at Mrs. Harry Oppenheim’s smart flower ball, to which each female invitee had been asked to come dressed as her favorite flower, sending buttonholes of the same blossom to three gentlemen of her choice. Lily “scored a complete success” in a white satin gown trimmed with tall stems of pure white trumpet lilies up the skirt and on the bodice, which was finished with chiffon and slender lines of brilliants. The look was completed by the addition of a pale-green sash. The ball’s hostess attired herself as a basket of poppies.

The most systematic and detailed fashion press coverage was given to what was worn at Court Drawing Rooms–the extravagant afternoon receptions held several times a year at which eligible women, each wearing the obligatory evening dress baring neck and arms, were introduced to Queen Victoria and the Court. Indeed, reportage of these events often amounted to little more than a compendium of the attendees’ toilettes. In May 1898 Lily, who was singled out by the Aberdeen Journal as “hardly ever” going “to the Drawing Room without wearing one of the most notably beautiful dresses at Court,” chose for the occasion a gown of ivory satin, its skirt and bodice ornamented with Tuscan embroidery in a rich design of orchids outlined with Strass diamonds and finely-cut steel beads. Her nine-foot train was of lily-leaf green satin brocaded in a design of lily branches and lined in pale blue.

Women’s magazines provided readers of the late nineteenth century with fairly accurate images of contemporary fashionable dress through their preoccupation with the clothes worn by women of the aristocracy. What’s more, they did so in color, thanks to the combination of sketch and written narrative. Fashion aficionados of today who appreciate Victorian dress still applaud their contributions.


By Sally E. Svenson, author of Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854—1909): A Portrait with Husbands

A long while ago I wrote a series on Victorian cooking (here, here, here, and here). Many people asked about specific Victorian recipes or dishes, either for a Victorian dinner-party or to bring a fun snack to school for presentations and such.
In the nineteenth century, cooking wasn’t really a hobby, it was either a necessity or just something you hired a cook for. Furthermore, there were no real recipe books, though at the end of the century some books with suggestions came into fashion, mostly in America. It wasn’t very commom for novels to explain what food was eaten, and food wasn’t really a topic of discussion as it is now. Therefore, it’s pretty hard to find actual recipes or dishes from the nineteenth century. I finally found a very good resource in the Annotated Emma by David M. Shapard ( who got them from E. Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper). I will repost them here.

(Click to enlarge)

This dish consists of: Transparent soup (some sort of broth?), Fricas’d chicken, Harrico (green beans), Pigeons Comport, Codsounds like little Turkies, Lambs Ears Forc’d, Fricando Veal, Pork Griskins, French Pye, Brocoli &c., Kidney Beans, Small Ham, Mock Turtle, Boil’d Turkey, Sallad, Bottl’d Peas, Sweet Breads Ala Royal, House Lamb, Sheep Rumps & Kidneys in Rice, Ox Pallets, Larded Oysters, Ducks Alamode, Beef Olives, Florendine of Rabbits, Hare Soup.

(Click to enlarge)

This second course consists of: Pheasant, Moonshine, Crawfish in Savoryjelly (sic), Snow balls, Globes of Gold Web with Mottoes in Them, Marbl’d Veal, Mince Pies, Pickled Smelts, Fish Pond, Pompadore Cream, Stew’d Cardoons, Pea Chick with Asparagus, Transparent pudding cover’d with a Silver Web, Roast Woodcocks, Stew’d Mushroomd, Macaroni, Floating Island, Potted Lampreys, Crocrant with Hot Peppers, Collar’d Pig, Pistacha Cream (pistachio something?), Burnt Cream (maybe a creme brulée?), Snipes in Savory Jelly, Rocky Island, Roasted Hare.
Wel… are you hungry? They definitely knew how to eat, then! Some of these dishes are fairly straightforward but some of them are very puzzling. If you know what they mean or feel like googling for them, please let us know what you found in the comments! I’m especially curious about “Globes of Gold Web with Mottoes in Them”.

Actually, 19th century men and women weren’t so different from contemporary men and women at all! Just as there were brooding but sexy bad boys, there were girls who couldn’t help falling for them. Who, even though they knew the dangers, sought out bad boys just because they were so interesting. Here’s a bit from Jane Eyre, all quotes from Blanche Ingram:

“It is my opinion, the fiddler David must have been an insipid sort of a fellow; I like black Bothwell better: to my mind a man is nothing without a spice of the devil in him; and history may say what it will of James Hepburn, but I have a notion he was just the sort of wild, fierce, bandit hero whom I could have consented to gift with my hand.” […]

“Oh, I am so sick of the young men of the present day!”exclaimed she, rattling away at [the piano]. “Poor, puny things, not fit to stir a step beyond papa’s park gates, nor to go even so far without mamma’s permission and guardianship!” […]

“Here then is a Corsair-song. Know that I dote on Corsairs, and for that reason, sing it con spirito”

The footnote accompanying this says that the fashionable taste for Corsairs, Italian bandits, highwaymen, and Levantine pirates lasted a long time. Already in 1818 Jane Austen described the attraction of the bad boy Captain Benwick, and in 1867 Trollope still wrote about girls complaining of their boring and tame lovers in The Last Chronicles. (And I think you can even see it now, for example in the brilliant TV series Lost in Austen, where Mr. Darcy charms a modern-day girl.)

Highwaymen especially held a certain charm, as this rather breathtaking and romantic poem about highwaymen shows: The Highwayman (1913) by Alfred Noyes. If you prefer that sung you can find it here or have it recited to you by a nervous redhead you can click here. I think that proves that highwaymen, Corsairs, pirates and bandits have held a certain charm to people ever since Byron put his poems down to paper.

The nineteenth century had its proper share of bad boys. Even though it’s more than a century ago, and even though some of them were not even real at all, there’s no doubting the attraction of one mr. Rochester, mr. Knightly, or mr. Heathcliff.

The nineteenth century’s bad boys are more commonly known as Byronic heroes, named after both Byron
himself as well as after the men in his writing, mostly in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The words “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” were later remarked about Byron by Caro Lamb, who had an affair with him.

A Byronic hero is easy to characterize: it is a man, usually a gloomy or somewhat depressed person or in any case a person with deep thoughts and intense feelings. He might be moody or unpleasant to deal with, and definitely be a little uncivil. He might be quite good-looking (as Byron himself was) or be somewhat ugly or unusual looking (as mr. Rochester.) He might have a hidden past or carry some deep, dark secret. But the most important thing, the one big element that all the Byronic heroes share, is: he is incredibly attractive. In spite of all his faults, there is something so engaging and intriguing about him, you cannot help but be interested in the Byronic hero.

As easy as it is to characterize, so hard is it to find them. Which is strange, since the Byronic hero is a fairly well-known concept and you’d expect nineteenth-century literature to be crawling with these mysterious broody men. Not so! The only few that I would name Byronic for certain are Jane Eyre’s Rochester and Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, maybe, but I seem to be alone on that. Erik from Phantom of the Opera, thought that is not Victorian but rather later. And Byron himself, of course.

Others that are called Byronic but I’m not sure I can agree: Captain Wentworth in Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818), Claude Frollo from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Edmond Dantes from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844),[3] (1847), Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde, and James Steerforth from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849–1850).

What do you think? Who is truly Byronic, and who isn’t? And who is your favourite, in real life, novel, or movie? Let me know!

(Depending on how bright your screen is set, this Heathcliff picture is a bit saucy. But definitely shows off the brooding/sexy image. Maybe not appropriate for work? View it here.)


Fern hunting

I’ve written a lot about ferns in the past and even reviewed a very ferny book, so these tidbits are a nice addition to all the fernery on this blog. These are again from A Room with a View, also known as “the book that illustrates my blogposts”. Nice.

Miss Bartlett gave a kind of wriggle, and he prepared for a discussion. He had never fathomed Miss Bartlett. As he had put it to himself in Florence, ‘she might yet reveal depths of strangeness, if not of meaning.’ But she was so unsympathetic that she must be reliable. He assumed that much, and he had no hesitation in discussing Lucy with her. Minnie was fortunately collecting ferns.


And, Miss Bartlett not favouring the scheme, they walked up the hill in a silence which was only broken by the rector naming some fern.

I thought this was very interesting, for a book published in 1908, to still be so concerned with ferns and fern collecting. It truly goes to show how big the fern craze was in the 19th century.


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