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Category: Gail Eastwood

Photo by Elina Sazonova from Pexels

Did you ever want to go up in a hot air balloon? Have you ever done so? I always wanted to. In Rhode Island where I live, July used to always bring with it the annual “balloon festival,” held in the fields on the campus of the University of RI. On a hot sticky day we would always go to admire the fabulously bright and beautiful inflated balloons tethered to the ground until good flying conditions came around at the end of the day, usually around 6pm when the air would go still for an hour or two.

Photo by Kevin Bidwell from Pexels

During the day, people would pay to go up a short way in the tethered balloons, but oh, those 6pm flights! The balloon crews, and sometimes a paying guest or two, would be set free to go up, up and off into the distance, with their “chaser” vehicles in hot pursuit to find them when they landed.

I imagine the festival atmosphere with all the vendor booths surrounding the area where the balloons were on display and the crowds of admiring, curious people was not too different from the way things were back in the late 18th century and Regency years when balloon events were extremely popular attractions, often attracting very large crowds.

First Balloon Flight in Britain– Msr Lunardi’s in 1784

We’ve touched on this topic briefly before now. Two years ago when we were celebrating amazing Regency women during Women’s History Month that March, we included Sophie Blanchard in our list, with the following very short bio:

Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819)- Napoleon’s official balloonist and aerial advisor, she was the first woman to pilot her own balloon and the first to make ballooning her career. She began as the wife of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the world’s first professional balloonist, and continued after he died (in a balloon accident) just five years after she started. She became extremely famous throughout Europe and often performed in Italy. She performed 67 balloon ascents before she was killed in a balloon accident at the age of 41.

Also, Risky sister Elena Greene’s book, Fly with a Rogue (published in 2013) has a balloonist hero. It’s a great story –not your run-of-the-mill Regency. (If it were, it wouldn’t be “risky,” now, would it?) And just BTW, the ebook version is 99 cents right now, as are all of her ebooks, I think!

But I wanted to come back to Sophie, and actually some other balloonists who competed with her, including other women, for they are a fascinating bunch!

Ballooning with human occupants first began in France in 1783. Jean-Pierre Blanchard made his first ascent months later in March of 1784. Later that year he moved to England, where he made several flights in London, and in 1785 he became the first to fly across the English Channel to France. He then began a tour of Europe.

Sophie married Jean-Pierre Blanchard sometime between 1794 and 1804. By the time of their marriage her husband, more than twenty years older than she was, had already abandoned his original family and become internationally famous, having demonstrated ballooning even America. Just four years later, he had a heart attack while ballooning, fell from his balloon, and ultimately died in 1809. Sophie, an international celebrity herself, continued her ballooning career for 10 more years until her own tragic, accidental death.

But in 1804, Napoleon had named her to replace André-Jacques Garnerin, who had been his official “aéronaute” and minister of ballooning. It was through Garnerin that I learned about the other women aeronauts who competed with Sophie, for they were members of his family. I can’t resist rabbit holes, and when I first saw this print, I had to learn who this balloonist was! This was not the Blanchards, so who was the woman?

Seconde ascension du Physicien Garnerin avec la Cne Henri au Parc de Mousseaux, le 5 Thermidor An 6 (1798)

It turns out that the “Physicien Garnerin” labeled in the print was actually the physician’s brother, Andres-Jacques Garnerin, who had gained fame not only as a balloonist but for creating the frameless parachute and using them in his balloon performances. There was also a third, older brother, Jean-Baptiste-Olivier Garnerin, involved in ballooning. A family affair!

In short order, Andres-Jacques married his female ballooning student, Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse (1775–1847). Under his tutelage she had already been one of the earliest women to fly in a balloon (10 November 1798) and the first woman to parachute (12 October 1799).

Monsieur and Madame Garnerin

While Andres-Jacques still had Napoleon’s favor and was the official “aeronaut” for France, he and Jeanne toured in England during the Peace of Amiens (1802-03), hurriedly returning to France when the war resumed.

1802 Ascension by Madame Garnerin (pub.dom., courtesy of Library of Congress)

Their niece Elisa Garnerin, the physician brother’s daughter, learned to fly balloons at age 15 and also mastered the parachute jumps for which the Garnerins had become so known. She was the second woman in history to make a parachute jump. Elisa was ambitious, sometimes a bit unethical, and often ran afoul of the police, who didn’t like her to begin with because of the great, unruly crowds she attracted. But she made 39 professional parachute descents from balloons between 1815 to 1836, competing directly with Sophie Blanchard during the early years of her career, and she lived to the age of 62.

But wait! Neither of these Garnerin women are the young woman in the print above. That young woman, known only as Citroyen Henri, had her fifteen minutes of fame (well, a few days, at least) in 1798, when she was chosen to be the first female passenger in a controversial balloon ascension Garnerin planned to hold in the Parc Monceau in Paris that July. While the public generally favored the project, the police and government officials didn’t believe the woman knew what she had agreed to, feared what physical effects the heights might have upon her, and also claimed moral implications for the close enclosed proximity in the balloon’s basket. Eventually they agreed however.

Wikipedia says, “By all accounts Citoyenne Henri was young and beautiful.” On July 8 Garnerin, not one to miss a chance for showmanship, took “several turns around the park” with her to the applause of the crowd before they climbed into the basket of the balloon. When the ascension finally took place, they rose high into the air and covered a distance of nearly 20 miles to the north of Paris. Citoyenne Henri was famous for a short while after this feat, but is not known to have ever repeated it. She fell back into obscurity except for her connection with this historic moment in time.

Would you have wanted to be chosen to try something so new, adventurous and possibly dangerous? I have to believe that all of the “aeronauts” who flew in balloons and made descents using parachutes loved some aspect of what they did, besides the fame and money they earned. Among those who did it, the percentage of those who died in ballooning accidents is high, including both of the Blanchards.

There’s a woman who is making a full-length independent documentary about Sophie Blanchard. It’s all animated, even though it includes interviews with historians, etc. I’m fascinated now and want to see it! She’s raising funds for the finishing production costs. I wish I was rich –I’d totally help her out! 🙂 Here’s the website link if anyone’s interested:

There is also a movie, “The Aeronauts” based on true events from 1862 –a Victorian era scientific balloon flight in which meteorologist James Glaisher and professional aeronaut Henry Coxwell almost died after reaching more than 30,000 feet. Of course, for the fictionalized movie, they replaced Coxwell’s character with a woman. The leads are played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and you can watch it on Youtube:

If you follow this blog, you know I occasionally delve into the lives of lesser known individuals who made great contributions during our favorite time period. Since British and French scientists corresponded and compared notes despite the war which dominated the period, today we’re veering away from the UK to introduce you to a Frenchman who impacted every nation that had sea commerce in the early 19th century and hugely changed our knowledge about optical science. (Also I’m taking you to visit a tiny museum in the U.S.!!) What do lighthouses and the Regency period have in common?? Read on…

I happened across this “real Regency hero” back in August when fellow Risky sister Elena Greene and her two daughters stopped in for a quick visit with me. I live in “the ocean state” where we are, naturally, blessed with lots of shoreline and also lots of lighthouses.

Elena and daughter Gaile at Beavertail Point in Rhode Island

The Beavertail Light on the island of Jamestown in Rhode Island was one of the earliest established in the American colonies. The original lighthouse, built in 1749, was only the third such structure in the country. The lighthouse standing there now is the third at that location (built in 1856) and also includes a small museum.

Always alert to a man in a cravat, on a wall there I encountered Monsieur Fresnel, a Regency era engineer and physicist who made great strides in the science of optics and in doing so, also invented the Fresnel lens. I wanted to know more!

Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827) was the second of four boys born to a French architect and his wife in the Normandy area of France. He was a sickly child (he suffered from tuberculosis) and did not show great promise in his early years when he was schooled (primarily in religion) at home. But in 1801 at age 13 he was sent with his elder brother Louis to the École Centrale at Caen. Fresnel’s aptitude for his studies improved there, and after three years he was accepted into the École Polytechnique, a prestigious school of higher learning south of Paris.

An uncle who was a prominent artist and professor at the school (Léonor Mérimée) took interest in Fresnel, who showed talent in drawing and geometry, winning a prize in geometry in his first year there. After he graduated in 1806, he went on to study engineering at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (National School of Bridges and Roads). He graduated in 1809, the same year his brother Louis, who had become a lieutenant in the French artillery, was killed in action in Spain.

Fresnel’s training led directly to employment as an engineer with the national Corps des Ponts et Chaussées, for whom he worked (with numerous approved leaves of absence) the rest of his life. A skilled and valued engineer, Fresnel also became a physicist due to an intellectual curiosity and natural ability for scientific inquiry that compelled him to continually question and test aspects of the world around him. His interest in optical science is what led to his greatest contributions to both scientific theory and practical applications that changed the world.

In the Beavertail Light Museum, Fresnel’s significance was reduced to a single, although important, card:

That really doesn’t tell us the story. He did so much more than this! How did he come to make this important invention, or develop the important theories about optics that changed so much science? As so often happens, a confluence of circumstances and timing helped out.

In 1814 after seeing a notice about work by French physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774–1862), Fresnel’s curiosity about the nature of light and the science of optics was piqued and he began to study it and perform experiments on his own. A suspension from work (after he offered his services to the royalist cause during Bonaparte’s “100 Days”) ultimately gave him time off to further his studies.

There were two conflicting theories leading the optics field at this time. One was the “corpuscular theory” based on Descartes (1637) and favored by Isaac Newton, attributing a particle nature to light, and the other was the “wave theory” developed by Christiaan Huygens (1690). Neither theory could explain some of light’s observable phenomena—diffraction, for example, or polarization. No modifications in these 17th century theories had been proposed until the British polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829) published new work in 1801.

Lacking exposure to Young’s work, Fresnel duplicated much of that in his early experimentations. However, thanks to contacts through his uncle, Fresnel eventually met François Arago (1786–1853), one of several French physicists working in optic science at that time. While unimpressed with Fresnel’s first efforts, Arago did suggest readings and put him on a path to study Young’s work as well as other physicists developing optic theories, including Biot, André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) and Étienne-Louis Malus (1775–1812).

Of these great minds, only Young favored Huygens’s wave theory, but Fresnel found much to like there. As he continued his explorations, he submitted papers to the Institute Polytechnique that were evaluated by Arago, who came to recognize that Fresnel was contributing new and important information to the field. Once Bonaparte was finally defeated in 1815, Fresnel was reinstated with the engineering corps, but his influence as a supporter of the winning side allowed him to obtain a leave of absence to continue his scientific work. When that expired, Arago intervened through his contacts to get Fresnel yet another leave, allowing him to come to Paris.

During this time Fresnel invented his famous double mirror lens as part of his experiments on diffraction. Between working and leaves of absence, Fresnel continued to work on his diffraction and other optic research and ultimately in 1819 won the prestigious Grand Prize awarded by the French Academy of Sciences.

His work on lighthouse lenses also benefited from circumstances and François Arago. In June, 1819, Fresnel was named to the Commission on Lighthouses, a body formed by Napoleon and administered by the Corps des Ponts, Fresnel’s employer. Arago, a member, recommended him. Fresnel had been working on a type of “stepped lens”, unaware that his work paralleled that being pursued by the British scientist David Brewster. When he made his first presentation on it to the commission in August, the similarities were pointed out, but Fresnel was still given a budget of 500 francs to have a prototype made, and when it was publicly demonstrated in 1820, it surpassed all other known lenses.

The Cordouan Lighthouse today

Fresnel went on to create both rotating and fixed lenses that surpassed his first design, while continuing to pursue the other optic theories he was developing. The rotating lens was tested publicly from atop the unfinished Arc de Triomphe in April 1822, witnessed by not only the commission members but also the king, at a distance of 32km. In 1823, the lens was installed in France’s oldest lighthouse, the Cordouan Light. Built in 1611, it still stands today, and with the extensions added in 1790, is the tenth tallest such lighthouse in the world as well as the last inhabited lighthouse left in France, although Fresnel’s lens was replaced in 1854.

Height added to Cordouan in 1790

Fresnel’s fixed lens was installed in the lighthouse at Dunkirk in 1825. Fresnel continued to improve on the design of his lighthouse lenses, offering several versions in different sizes; he also produced a mapped plan for equipping France with a system of 51 lighthouses where each would have a unique light pattern due to variations in the lens designs and sizes so that mariners could distinguish between them.

Fresnel Lens at Beavertail Lighthouse Museum

His health was deteriorating badly by this time, which only spurred him to work harder, pushed to complete his work before death should take him.

Fresnel contributed significantly to the science of optics and his development of the “transverse-wave theory” was credited by some as being as important to science as Newton’s gravitational theory. In 1825 he was elected to the Royal Society of London, and in 1827, he was awarded their prestigious Rumford Medal on the recommendation of John Herschel, with whom he had corresponded to answer questions about wave theory.

But Fresnel was dying from tuberculosis. Arago arrived to deliver the Rumford Medal to him just eight days before he died. But his legacy in marine safety was unmistakable: Wikipedia notes “Within a century of Fresnel’s initial stepped-lens proposal, more than 10,000 lights with Fresnel lenses were protecting lives and property around the world.(ref. Levitt, 2013) And further, “Fresnel managed to construct the world’s first coherent theory of light, showing in retrospect that his methods are applicable to multiple types of waves.” Until the next advance in optic science (electromagnetism) was made by James Maxwell in 1865 and overshadowed Fresnel’s work, Fresnel’s discoveries were considered on a par with those of Isaac Newton in significance.

Did you know?

If you want more details (and can make sense of a lot of science), Wikipedia’s long biographical article offers a lot more information. And if you are curious about Fresnel’s lens, here is a close-up of the information at the Beavertail Light’s museum:

A man is shown seated with his hands on his thighs. He looks pensive. Above and to the the left of him are the words, "I can't believe it's been a year since I didn't become a better person."

Are you one of the people who make resolutions every January? I confess I am not –I often just carry on with unfinished goals from the previous year. But is the practice of New Year’s resolutions a modern one, with our recognized focus on self-improvement and achievement? Did people in the Regency era take the time to reflect on their past years and did they make resolutions, too? If they did, was their focus the same as ours?

A quick dive into the history of New Year’s resolutions reveals that the practice dates back at least 4,000 years (if not longer, if it may be ascribed to human nature!). The ancient Babylonians, with their agricultural culture, recognized and celebrated the start of each new year when the growing cycle renewed at the spring equinox (circa March 20 on the modern calendar). Their twelve-day celebration, called Akitu, signaled the start of the farming season, a time to crown or renew loyalty to their king, and also the time to promise to pay their debts. One common resolution, according to some sources, was the returning of borrowed farm equipment! Starting the new year “right with others” was believed to insure good fortune for the seasons ahead.

The Romans adopted the same practices, including the making of resolutions, with the same timing until about 46 A.D. when Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar. He set the start of the year as January, named after Janus, the forward and backward-facing Roman god of doorways and gates, beginnings and endings, forward planning and backward reflection. Sacrificing to the god and promising to be better people were meant to bring good fortune just like the Babylonian resolutions, but a stronger emphasis on moral character was added by the Romans.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, religious practices replaced resolutions and anything else associated with the pagan Roman customs. For instance, the Feast of the Circumcision was set to be observed on January 1 with prayers and fasting, rather than the revelry that non-Christians indulged in.

small image taken from a medieval manuscript shows orange vines with large leaf shapes, and among them a small figure of a peacock with crested head and distinctive broad tail featuring the "eye" decorated tail feathers.

Over the following centuries the changes met with varying success, however. During the Middle Ages, a sort of New Year’s resolution was made by knights who would renew their vow to chivalry by making their annual “Peacock Vow”–placing their hands on a peacock (cooked or not) during the last feast of Christmastide (usually Twelfth Night) and recommitting to the moral and social code of conduct.

According to historian/author Bill Petro, by the 17th century “the Puritans urged their children to skip the revelry and spend their time reflecting on the year past and contemplating the year to come. In this way, they again adopted the old custom of making resolutions. These were enumerated as commitments to employ their talents better, treat their neighbors with charity, and avoid their habitual sins.”

But “New Year’s Resolutions” as an identified thing was still not the common concept it is today.

In the 18th century, making resolutions (other than those creating laws and regulations) was a firmly entrenched practice, especially among the religious. In 1710 we can find the writer William Beveridge, in his treatise “Private Thoughts Upon Religion, Digested into Twelve Articles,” writing: “And how, then, shall I be able, of myself, to resolve upon Rules of Holiness, according to the Word of GOD, or to order my Conversation according to these Resolutions….”

Black and white portrait image of Jonathan Edwards wearing a white wig with rows of even curls. He has a pleasant face with a long nose and small mouth, smiling slightly. He is dressed in a buttoned black coat and wears a white neck stock with dual front tabs.

A decade later (1722-23), the young Puritan-raised American theologian-to-be Jonathan Edwards wrote down his resolutions over the course of two years after his graduation from Yale University. He created seventy of them altogether, that he tried to review on a weekly basis. But young Puritans were trained to practice self-examination and introspection, indeed, as were entire congregations.

Edwards’s resolutions are often compared to the resolutions penned by another noted American of the period, Benjamin Franklin, whose resolutions (published in his Autobiography) for guiding a good life numbered merely thirteen.

Color portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1783. A heavy-set older man with receding hairline at the top of his head but shoulder-length hair that covers his ears. He is showing signs of age: baggy skin beneath his eyes and under his chin. His lips are very thin. He wears a gray suit (coat and waistcoat) with matching gray buttons, a narrow white cravat around his neck, tucked in, and white ruffles from his shirt extend out through the unbuttoned top section of his waistcoat.

According to George S. Claghorn (Editor, Letters and Personal Writings (WJE Online Vol. 16) ): “Both men agreed on the value of making resolutions, evaluating their effectiveness, and following them lifelong. And the resolutions show that the two were united on the importance of speaking the truth, living in moderation, helping others, and doing one’s duty. Each counseled himself (and others) to avoid sloth, make good use of time, cultivate an even temper, and pray for divine assistance; and each offers an energetic, thoughtful approach to life.” However, as the writer points out, Edwards’s focus was on producing “a soul fit for eternity” and Franklin’s was on producing “a good citizen” of this world.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was an 18th century influence on practicing New Year’s resolutions. In 1740 he created a new worship service he called the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. It became the root of the “watch services” still held by some evangelical Protestant denominations today, and included praying and making resolutions for the year ahead instead of indulging in revelry.

Apparently, a Boston newspaper from 1813 featured the first recorded use of the phrase “New Year resolution,” although it seems clear the concept itself was already common. The article states:

“And yet, I believe there are multitudes of people, accustomed to receive injunctions of new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behavior, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”

In fact, one source claims that as early as the 17th century there were jokes about people failing at their intentions to become better in some way in the coming year.

I would say it’s safe to say yes, in the Regency decades people were commonly making (and breaking) New Year’s resolutions, even if they didn’t call them that, for in that time period the “multitudes” of Americans doing so were still generally aping whatever people in the United Kingdom were doing.

Were they making resolutions to lose weight, give up drinking, or get more fit? These “self-improvement” promises are typical of modern times. The top New Year’s resolutions for 2021 were “living healthier 23% of people, getting happy 21%, losing weight 20%, exercising 7%, stopping smoking 5%, reducing drinking 2%. In addition, people resolve to meet career or job goals (16%) and improve their relationships (11%).”

In Regency times, for one thing, most people were more fit and got more exercise in the normal course of everyday life. Their resolutions were much more likely to be outward-looking: about their relationship to others and the world around them, and to have a moral imperative attached: to be more charitable, for instance. If you had lived during the Regency, what do you think your resolutions might have been?

When I wrote The Magnificent Marquess back in my Signet Regencies days, I did a lot of research not only about India during the Regency period and the British people who went there, but especially about people’s attitudes towards India back in England, since that is the setting for the story. Not surprisingly, considering human nature, those attitudes ranged all over the place, and I tried to reflect that in the book. The East India Museum was established in London in the headquarters of the East India Company on Leadenhall Street between 1801-04, although in its early days it was known as the “Oriental Repository”, a much more apt name, as you will see if you read on. While it gets a passing mention in TMM, I did a deep dive into its history last spring as one part of my contributions to the Beau Monde’s month-long class, “A Tour of Regency London.” I thought you might enjoy this somewhat shortened version.

The East India Company fronted on Leadenhall Street in London starting early in its long history. Founded in 1600, the company sought a dedicated building of its own by 1648, leasing an Elizabethan mansion known as Craven House. That building was eventually purchased and continued to serve (along with the surrounding area) through several expansions and reincarnations. It was completely rebuilt between 1726-1729. By the 1790’s, however, even that version was no longer sufficient for the huge entity that was the East India Company. The grandest structure of all was created between 1796-1800. The buildings on either side were purchased and torn down to allow side expansions, and a new front elevation designed by the architect Henry Holland. This was the massive edifice that Regency tourists flocked to see, and which eventually housed (as an adjunct to its library) the collections of the “repository,” or museum. 

East India House, by Thomas Malton the Younger (d. 1804)

A period guidebook, The Picture of London (for 1802), tells us: “It has been enlarged and adorned with an entire new front of stone, of great extent and much beauty, having a general air of simplicity and grandeur.” It notes that the interior is also “well worth visiting” and compares the domed sales room to the rotunda of the Bank of England.

Plans for the new expansion of the building included the creation of a library, reading rooms, and a museum, “to house the natural history specimens, books, samples of manufactures, manuscripts and other miscellaneous items collected by the Company and its officers in India.” [Desmond, Ray. The India Museum, 1801-1879. London: H.M.S.O., 1982].

The phrase “miscellaneous items” gives an apt idea of the company’s attitude towards the artifacts that were ultimately collected in the “repository.” Most of the populace still knew surprisingly little about the history and culture of the subcontinent, considering how deeply connected they (or at least those wealthy enough) were, through the imported products they used every day, the events in the news and the sheer numbers of British people who had been making careers there, either military or commerce-related, for over two centuries. The museum would offer glimpses to any who were interested enough to look.

No mention is made of the library or museum in the early guidebooks. Most sources agree that they did not open until 1801 (one says 1804). Charles Wilkins (knighted in 1833), who had spent 16 years in India, was appointed as the first director of the library, and as such was also the de facto first curator of the museum, although it was not a separate entity at that time. Wilkins’s great interest was in languages. He mastered both Bengali and Persian, and designed typefaces to enable the print publication of books in both languages. He also studied Sanskrit and translated and published many great works of Indian literature.

Given his scholarly interests and activity, it may not be surprising that Wilkins was chosen to direct the new Oriental Repository at India House, or that the printer and translator was not well-suited for a librarian’s job. No doubt the company’s extremely casual attitude toward the collections also did not encourage Wilkins (or those who followed after him) to make the library’s maintenance or organization a priority among his other projects. It was, indeed, merely a “repository.”

Sadly, records and inventory for the Regency years of the library and museum do not exist. No catalogue of holdings was maintained. Records of the pieces that ended up at the Victoria and Albert Museum only go back to 1843. So we don’t know what the Regency visitor who gained access was able to see. Or even how easy or hard that access was. Or even exactly where it was. Wikipedia says that when the new expanded building was completed, “The Company’s museum was housed in one extension, the library in the other.” No source is given, but certainly the museum had very little in it to start, and at later dates it, or parts of it, were definitely housed in the library’s reading room. The Picture of London from 1822 may not be the first reference but it is the first I found that included the East India Museum in its list of exhibitions along with a description. It says:

This may be the best inventory of these treasures on record, despite errors such as identifying Tipu’s symbolic tiger as a lion. Clearly at the time, the public was invited to visit on scheduled days. At other times, an application had to be submitted and approved. It is interesting to note that no mention is made of the museum’s most famous artifact, the automaton/musical instrument of Tipu Sultan’s Tiger, which after several years in storage made its public debut at East India House in July of 1808. “Tippoo’s Tiger” is a nearly life-sized wooden sculpture of a royal tiger (Tipu’s personal emblem) attacking a European. It is an automaton, a playable miniature organ, and not least, a political statement by an Indian ruler whose hatred for the British is very clear. (I have talked about this automaton in previous posts, first here .)

The brutal storming of Tipu’s fortress at Seringapatam (Srirangapatna) in 1799 captured the imagination and curiosity of the British public for many years after the event. A panorama depicting it in 1800 was a great success. The tiger automaton first appeared in England as the frontispiece for the book A Review of the Origin, Progress and Result, of the Late Decisive War in Mysore with Notes by James Salmond, published in London in 1800, before the tiger had even arrived. The battle was featured as a vast spectacular at Astley’s Amphitheatre, and cut down to size for a juvenile drama. As late as 1868 it set the scene for Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone. G. A. Henty wrote a fictional account, The Tiger of Mysore, and then there’s Bernard Cornwell’s offering in the Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Tiger.

The problem with artifacts from the fortress of Tipu Sultan (aka Tippoo Saib, Tippoo Sultan, and King of Mysore) was that British soldiers had gone on a frenzy of looting once their victory was secure, one that Wellington finally managed to stop, but not before a great number of valuable items were seized by individuals. Many of these eventually made their way to the museum, but only decades later. They were not on display in the museum’s early years. It is supposed that what saved the tiger automaton was that he was made of wood, and therefore had no intrinsic value to the looting soldiers.

Both visual and written documentation prove that Tipu’s Tiger resided in the library reading room at East India House, where poet John Keats saw it in 1819, and the French poet Auguste Barbier saw it in 1837. Both commemorated it in their poetical works. We also have a view of the reading room in 1841 clearly labeled as “the museum” and it shows a number of display cases besides the notable presence of the tiger (at far left).

That display location continued in the following decades, too, for the complaints of those trying to use the reading room while visitors cranked the tiger into motion are also documented. The musical and noise-making aspects of Tippoo’s Tiger suffered over the years from public exposure and use, and gradually fell into disrepair. Eventually the crankhandle that powered the sound effects of the tiger disappeared. The Athenaeum magazine reported in 1869:

 “These shrieks and growls were the constant plague of the student busy at work in the Library of the old India House, when the Leadenhall Street public, unremittingly, it appears, were bent on keeping up the performances of this barbarous machine. Luckily, a kind fate has deprived him of his handle, and stopped up, we are happy to think, some of his internal organs… and we do sincerely hope he will remain so, to be seen and admired, if necessary, but to be heard no more”.

I found one item definitely documented as a Regency era donation (based on the donor’s date of death) among the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection. It is a “small standing figure” of Vishnu, “given to the India Museum, London, by Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754- 1821), who may have acquired it some time around 1800-10.” (shown at left, courtesy V&A Museum, 2017KA5265)

Another famous item that was definitely on display in our period (donation date uncertain) was the Nebuchadnezzar II Stone Inscription Tablet unearthed before 1803 in the ruins of Babylon by Sir Harford Jones Brydges, then British Resident in Baghdad. Later, Brydges presented it to the museum of East India House. It has since been known as the East India House Inscription. (Probably originally buried in the foundations of one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s numerous constructions in Babylon between 604 and 562 BC.)

Beyond these two items, we can only guess at what else was displayed. But I found several items from Seringapatam that might have been typical, via a fascinating website on the history of textiles offered by the Textile Research Center. TRC is a charitable educational foundation based in the Netherlands.

Some are examples from a 2015 auction by Bonhams in London, which sold off a collection of armoury “taken from the fortress of Seringapatam (Srirangapatna), the last refuge of Tipu Sultan of Mysore…in 1799 A.D.” These items may well have remained in a private collection for the entire 216 years prior to that year. I have no idea who purchased them or where they have gone since, but similar items may have been in the India House Museum during the Regency. The site description says: “Apart from a quiver, armguards and a belt, the collection included sabres, gem-set trophy swords, exquisite quilted helmets, blunderbusses, fowling pieces, sporting guns, pistols, and a three-pounder bronze cannon.”

The quiver, armguards and belt are decorated with gold thread embroidery and spangles, on a red ground.

Other pieces shown on their site include a “Saddle cloth of crimson Genoa velvet thickly embroidered with gold thread in conventional foliage pattern, &c. (Indian, formerly the property of Tippoo Sahib)”:

a Beetlewing embroidery example that “used to be part of the collection of the India Museum and was transferred to the holdings of the South Kensington Museum in 1879/1880”

and an example of the “exquisite quilted helmets” mentioned in the auction along with a detailed description: “The quilted helmet is provided with a gold kaftgari (a form of Damascene work), steel nasal bar, inscribed with the names of Allah, Mohammed, Fatima, Ali, Hassan and Husain (clearly a reference to a Shi’ite origin). The decoration of the helmet includes gold thread embroidery on a red ground. There is also an interlocking shell design worked in metal thread on a blue ground. In the centre of each shell there is a single spangle.”

(If links do not work, please try copying and pasting?)

The attitude of the company towards these kinds of artifacts was a huge part of the problem. To them, and to most of the public, the items did not represent the rich history, culture, artistry and craftsmanship that we see in them today. They were “curiosities”— interesting, to be sure, but not considered important.

In the 1830’s, the museum came under public attack for its negligence in managing the library (and museum) collections. Apparently, as far as I have pieced together, a scholar named Peter Gordon took it upon himself to begin to asses the collections in the library. Unfortunately for us, he was mainly concerned with the manuscripts, books and records. The only specific museum artifacts I found mentioned were coins, medals, 35 “Hindu idols” sent in 1822, and a “gold salver.” But Gordon was aware of the great collections that had been bequeathed or forwarded to the museum, and listed many. He found many, many discrepancies, missing volumes in sets and missing material that had supposedly been sent years earlier.

When he communicated these faults to the Company Directors, they, rather than showing concern about the problems, took issue with what he was doing, and banned him from the library. Incensed, Gordon published his findings along with the letter dismissing him. I found these referenced as a book, The Oriental Repository at the India House (London 1835). The book is rare, but I discovered it is apparently a bound version of a scathing article Gordon initially published in Alexander’s East India and Colonial Magazine the same year. The deficiencies he outlines, in between cataloguing as much as he could, more than explain why it is so difficult to know what the museum contained.

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, three organizations were competing to collect these types of items: the London Missionary Society (LMS), the Oriental Repository in East India House, London, and The Indian Museum, Calcutta. The apparent carelessness of the East India Company directors towards the holdings of their library and museum, once in their possession, portrays the problem of setting a commercial enterprise as a guardian over distinctly non-commercial assets.

Despite this, the collection continued to grow, along with the public’s interest in India. This reached a peak in 1851 with the Great Exposition in the Crystal Palace, where a vast amount of Indian goods were shown and then given to the museum. It became Britain’s largest collection of Indian objects. At least the new artifacts were covered by the 1400-page exposition catalogue, which included a 130-page overview of the displays in the Crystal Palace’s Indian Courts. But then, the Great Rebellion of 1857 happened, and everything changed. The East India Company was disbanded in 1858 and its function taken over by the British government. The India Office was established, and the museum collection was moved to Fife House in Whitehall in 1861.

The New India Museum, Whitehall-Yard. Illustrated London News, 1861 (14799675223)

The huge East India House on Leadenhall Street was demolished in 1863 along with everything it represented, just 63 years after its massive remodeling. Later the holdings were put in storage, and in 1875 they were moved temporarily to the South Kensington Museum. In 1879 the museum collection was formally dissolved. Some of the items went to the British Museum, some to Kew Gardens (according to Wikipedia) and what remained in the South Kensington Museum (later named the Victoria and Albert Museum) reopened in 1880 and was known as the India Museum until 1945.

I found this a sad but also fascinating tale. Did you? Have you read any Regencies where the characters visited the Oriental Repository or East India Museum? Would you have liked to visit it?

References to Valentine’s Day go back to early times. Chaucer mentions it, and so does Shakespeare. By the 1600’s, giving gifts or tokens to ladies seems to have become a common practice, mentioned by the diarist Samuel Pepys.

During the Regency era, parties and cards as we think of them now still were not part of celebrating Valentine’s Day, but unmarried admirers did send tokens, hand-made cards, letters, verses from poetry, etc. In fact, it seems that for young swains courting young ladies, such recognition of the day was de rigueur. No pressure, right?

To help those who lacked a talent for composing poetical messages, publishers were quick to fill the void, issuing pamphlets like The Young Man’s Valentine Writer (1797), filled with romantic verses which could be copied out by those with little poetic skill and sent to their sweethearts.

That sending such missives and cards was common practice seems clear when we consider this tidbit from the Morning Chronicle of February 15, 1815:

Yesterday being Valentine’s day, the whole artillery of love was put into requisition. The Postmen were converted into Cupids, and instead of letters upon business, carried epistles full of flames, darts, chains, and amorous declarations.

Before the advent of machine-made cards, what would a Georgian or Regency Valentine have looked like? Here is an example of the folded paper “puzzle-purse” style of Valentine, dated February 14, 1816.

Below is another example of a typically folded hand-made paper card, decorated with watercolor, from Edmund Hemming to Anne Wilkes of Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, dated 14 February 1820, courtesy of English Folk Art.

The design features hearts & arrows, flowers, and lovebirds. The main central design, when unfolded, shows the fashionable young couple in arms, standing beneath two trees (symbolically entwined), with a house on the left (a happy home), and a church on the right (wedding bells).

The love token includes romantic verse, ‘On you depends my future peace, One kindest look one tender sign, Shall bid my every trouble cease, Come then and be my Valentine’.

However, there were all sorts of craft approaches: pinwork (piercing paper to make the designs), cutwork (like making paper snowflakes, cutting the paper to make it have lacey designs), quill-work, and also non-paper options, to create love tokens made of any kind of material you can think of! The one at left is just lavishly illustrated in watercolors.

If you are ambitious or creative enough to want to try to make a Regency-style Valentine, I found the patterned examples below which were copied in the 1880’s from Georgian Valentines, one dated 1785. There were no directions, so you’ll have to sort out the fold lines and the order in which to make the folds for yourself. If you have experience doing origami, that will undoubtedly help!

Paper was expensive in this period, and so was postage. And there were no envelopes! You might find this video about letter-folding in the Regency helpful! 

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of true romance in our favorite time period. Whatever your pleasure, I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day!

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