Science Experiment! Regency Style

Stand Back! I’m Going to Try (Regency) Science!

Sort of. As you’ll see.

In the course of Googling historical stuff in Google Books, I came across a reference to something I’d not heard of before: Chimney Ornaments. Which led to more Googling and the discovery of instructions to crystallize things in order to make chimney ornaments. Chimney ornaments are things you put on your mantle — just like today!

I read the instructions for how a young lady might amuse herself by crystallizing things and thought it didn’t sound too complicated. Basically, you need the following items:

  • A quart of Spring Water (beer measure)
  • 18 oz Alum
  • A jar or container
  • String
  • A wooden stick or something
  • Something to crystallize

Science Requires Accuracy and Precision

You’ve probably guessed that I ran into trouble right away. I am nothing, however, if not adaptable.

I won’t bore you too much with the details, but finding that much alum wasn’t all that easy. I started at the drug store, tried the grocery store and ended up at various websites. Did I need did alum powder or alum crystals? I didn’t know. I assumed powder was what I needed but now think it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d obtained alum crystals.

At last, I obtained 16 oz of alum for an amount that didn’t make me see red with rage. All I needed to do is wait for delivery.  My alum came in due course.

We’re on well water here at Jewel central so I pretended that was the spring water.

The container, stick and something to crystallize was also easy.

String was an issue. Someone cleaned out the junk drawer where there used to be string. I decided I would use leftover ribbon from wrapping Christmas presents. (That turned out not to be necessary.)

Math and Measures

The next hurdle was figuring what a quart of water, beer measure is. After much Googling the answer appeared to be: a quart.

Naturally, I was suspicious of that result. Why call it a beer quart if it’s the same thing as an actutal quart? Two different sources showed a table in which a beer measure quart was equal to a quart. Must be true, right?

I declined to confirm this by doing the math for a square inch of water and calculating that out.

Note: If I’d forced my son to do the math for me, one of us would have been peeved at the interruption of Skyrim for mathematics anyone could do. (The teenage math whiz is not particularly understanding of the math challenged.)

As you can see from the ingredient list, it’s 18oz of Alum per quart of water. I also declined to calculate how much water I needed for 16 oz of alum (since that’s how much I had). I estimate all the time when I’m cooking dinner and nobody’s died yet.

Note: based on the results, the stated proportion is WRONG or else a beer quart measure is more like a quart plus 1.5 cups, give or take.

Better Living Through Chemistry

You’re supposed to dissolve the alum in hot spring water. When it’s almost cool, you tie a string to the object to be crystallized, tie the other end of the string to a stick or something and suspend the item in the alum water. You put the container in a cool dark place and leave it for 24 hours.

What could be simpler?

Indeed, what? (Said in an ominous tone…)

I decided I would crystallize a rose, because wouldn’t that be pretty? The instructions said you could crystallize grass, moss, flowers and other dainty things. A rose is pretty dainty, I thought. Well, as it turns out, actually not dainty enough. There’s a reason the guy didn’t mention crystallizing roses and specifically mentioned only very small, very VERY delicate things.

Also, leftover ribbon from Christmas proved to be an unusable substitution for string. It was also an unnecessary one because the rose was buoyant. You cannot suspend a buoyant object in solution.

As you’ll see, I found a work around.

The Results in Pictures – Round One

The pictures were taken via iPhone or a Nikon D-80 with a macro lens because it’s the only lens I have right now.

Friday, December 30, 2011

I call this “Alum Sludge” You cannot dissolve 16 oz of alum in only a quart of water. I had already added more water in this picture, and more is needed. My rose had a long stem AND it floated. Suspending the rose was not actually possible. Luckily, with a lid on, the long stem hit the top of the lid and kept the rose jammed down in the jar.

I should mention that a bud attached to the rose I was using broke off. I let it drift to the bottom of the jar. Same with some little leaves. More about them anon.

At this point, I did not hold out much hope of anything like success.

24 Hours Later

I had forgotten all about my experiment. You should all be grateful I did not go into science as a career.

I was on deadline, see, and not cooking. Take-out and survival of the fittest only in the Jewel household. There was no need to open the side of the pantry where I put the jar. In fact, after I turned in the book on January 2, I made cookies for dinner. They were delicious. The sugar and flour are on the other side of the pantry.  I did not see the jar.

Ignorance, they say, is bliss.

I enjoyed my day off on Monday. I ate more delicious cookies and put whipped cream in my coffee.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Rose In Alum Solution

Most of Wednesday, I thought it was Tuesday. You may recall my post to that effect. This is what my experiment looked like (above). Note that the water is no longer cloudy with alum, yet whitish. It’s more yellow. Like maybe horse pee yellow. That’s because the rose I used is a Honey Dijon rose, which is a beautiful bronzy yellow.

Rose in Alum Solution after way more than 24 hours

Oh. Oh, dear.

There ARE Crystals

Hm. Wonder what this looks like? There are crystals, yes, but this is OBVIOUSLY not the delicate, crystallized rose a Regency Lady would make whilst she dreams of her brother’s hot friend.

Umm. Basically WTF?

Most of the crystals that appear to cover parts of the leaves sheared off with a disgusting plop. It didn’t smell, which was good, but yeah. It’s pretty much as gross as it looks.

Rose Decomposed

Are there words to describe this? Probably, but I won’t use them here.

Lump of Alum Crystals. They sloughed off a leaf.

What I was left with was a rotting rose which I put into the compost, lumps of alum crystals that sloughed off the leaves, which were in no way strong enough to hold the weight of huge (relatively speaking) clumps of alum material.


Pictures of the minor success in a bit.

Kind of Pretty. Alum Crystals

This is for artistic effect. Sparkly crystals. Oooh.

The Broken Off Bud From The Bottom of The Jar

This is the bud that broke off. It’s pathetic and sorry-looking but there ARE crystals clinging to it. Plainly, the process works. Just not following my method. Or that guy from 1807.

Two Little Rays of Sunshine

This isn’t a total disaster. There are lessons learned and some interesting results that point me in the right direction . . .

These shots were taken after the salvageable bits had dried overnight or longer.

Two crystallized bits

These are the two small bits of matter that broke off and floated to the bottom of the jar . . .

Close up of the top of the Rosebud

Another shot of the top of the Rosebud

As you can see, the tiny rosebud, while still a hot mess, has its bits of crystal beauty.

Very small leaves with crystals

Three kind-of crystallized leaves.

I pretended the scattered alum crystals were diamonds. Feel free to do the same.

Obverse of 3 leaves, covered with crystals

Another shot of crystallized Stuff

Plainly, this project can succeed if I work out the alum solution issues and use very small and very delicate matter to crystallize. They’re kind of pretty in a way.

Project Crystallization – Part 2

I decided I would reuse my alum solution. The instructions say you can find clever ways to color the water and so achieve crystals with color. As you might recall, my alum solution is horse pee yellow. For a while, I thought, sure! Yellow is a happy sunny color. But every time I looked at the jar, it looked like horse pee.

Through twitter, someone pointed me in the direction of instructions from 1900 in which the process was mostly the same, only the instructions were clearer. Also these instructions said that the alum must be dissolved in hot water (over the stove) until the point at which the water can no longer absorb the alum. Hot diggity! I was already most of the way there with my yellow alum solution and copious alum sludge and lumps of pre-crystallized alum.

I put my ingredients in our cast-iron pot, which had last been used to make popcorn, by the way. I decided I would add three drops of red food coloring so as to make the solution orange, because orange does not look like horse pee. Orange is another happy color. Also, we only had red food dye because my son likes red velvet cake, which I cannot eat because I am allergic to red dye.

Alum Solution Success?

Alum Solution No Longer Looks Like Horse Pee

I realize this looks kind of like tomato soup. But I soldiered on. As the sludgy solution heated, it began to smell suspiciously like popcorn.  I continued to stir and think about melted butter and before long, all the alum was dissolved. Like magic almost.

But, I wondered, have I contaminated my solution with the residue of popcorn cooked the only way you should ever bother making popcorn? I decided to filter my solution using a funnel and a Chem-Ex coffee filter.

Only when I was already filtering did it occur to me that I did not know whether dissolved alum would pass through the filter or be trapped in some kind of awful “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids But Not Small Enough” parody.

Well, too late.

Cheerfully orange Alum Solution Filtering

Filtering the Solution into the Jar

Well, obviously, some of the red dye was filtered out. The filter itself was not gritty nor was there any residue that I could detect. I figure there’s alum in there.

Ominous Orange Alum Solution

My alum solution no longer looks vaguely like tomato soup. A tomato-soupy-ish solution might actually be kind of comforting. This looks like poison to me and to be honest, I’m pretty sure some Poison Dart Frogs are this color. Whatever you think it looks like, it is, however, completely free of alum sludge.

A Doomed Fern Frond

I went outside and clipped a bit of delicate fern frond, just like a Regency Lady would have done. I was wearing my fuzzy black slippers because it was cold outside, jeans, and my Bronte sisters T-shirt so, yeah. Not period at all. Comfy though.

Wooden Skewer holding a Clothes Pin Holding the Doomed Fern Frond

 Since we still didn’t have string, but I did know where there was a clothes pin and a wooden skewer, I jury-rigged a system for suspending the fern frond in the poison dart-frog alum solution.

The Plunge! Fern Frond in the Alum Solution

Fern Frond at the Bottom of the Jar

24 hours later?

I will continue my Adventures in Regency Science next week.

About carolyn

Carolyn Jewel was born on a moonless night. That darkness was seared into her soul and she became an award winning and USA Today bestselling author of historical and paranormal romance. She has a very dusty car and a Master’s degree in English that proves useful at the oddest times. An avid fan of fine chocolate, finer heroines, Bollywood films, and heroism in all forms, she has two cats and a dog. Also a son. One of the cats is his.
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Jane George
Jane George
10 years ago

I LOVE this post! Can’t wait to find out what happens to the fern.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

“If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Thomas A. Edison

(the little bits that crystalized were lovely!!)

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Now that shows real dedication to Regency research, Carolyn!!! Fascinating–but I don’t think I will try it myself. I would definitely end up burning the house down 🙂

10 years ago

In the 1960s, I conducted an experiment to grow crystals from alum following instructions in a (children’s) chemistry book which I had borrowed from the library. The book was probably written in the 1950s or 1960s. The experiment wasn’t as elaborate as this – from memory, the intention was simply to see the shape of the crystals which an alum solution made as the water evaporated.

It’s fascinating that someone realised in the 1800s that the beauty of the crystals could be combined with the beauty of a plant to make a truly decorative object!

Isobel Carr
10 years ago

You are slaying me.

Elena Greene
10 years ago

Very cool! Can’t wait for next week’s post.

Amy Kathryn
Amy Kathryn
10 years ago

It is nice to know that DIY decorating projects probably went just as well for the Regency ladies as they do for us! Sponge painting anyone?

I can’t wait to see if you get citrines instead of diamonds this time.

10 years ago

Thanks for the good wishes.

Helena: growing crystals from alum is, I learned, a common science experiment for schools. The process is a bit different, because in crystal growing, the object is to get one big crystal, but with this, you want small. That experiment sounds fun, too.

Amy Katherine: I know! as I was doing this, I was thinking the same thing about a Regency Lady struggling to make this work right. Though she’d probably at least know what a quart, beer measure is!