Back to Top

Category: Research

Posts in which we talk about research

In my last post I talked about the difference between morning gowns and walking costumes and other “informal” types of dress. Today we’re going to take a peek at riding habits.

Habits are something you’re probably all familiar with, at least in concept. They’re composed of an extra-long skirt and a spencer jacket. They might also involve a waistcoat and a habit shirt (worn with a cravat), or with a chemisette with a frill for a more feminine look.  Sometimes they follow the high-waisted silhouette of the Regency era, and sometimes they don’t (a rare chance to show off your heroine’s waist!). Most often, they’re made of wool of some kind (stuff, bath coating, kerseymere, etc.), but there are extant examples of summer habits made of linen.

Habits are worn with some kind of hat, gloves, and either pumps or low half-boots (yes, pumps!). No tall riding boots for women as far as I can document (I’ve seen ONE cartoon of a woman in riding boots, but she was also shown with 5 o’clock shadow so we can hardly take her adoption of a masculine boot seriously).

First is this sketch of an extant 1810 habit by Janet Arnold for her book, Patterns of Fashion. It’s particularly great because Arnold details all the innards of the garment, including just how the skirt stays up (it’s really a “bodiced petticoat”), and we get to see the watch pocket, and the fact that their are hook and eyes connecting the jacket and the skirt. The pattern also lays out the series of tapes on the inside of the skirt that can be used to loop it up invisibly so that the train/length is hidden and you can walk.

1810 habit

Habit, 1810 (sketch by Janet Arnold)

1810 habit detail

Detail of 1810 Habit.

Here are couple of basic habits. They could be masculine in style (as is the à la militaire one from 1817 with its “lacing”), or they could be  feminine and frilly (I can’t find a public source for this one, so I’m sending you to Candice Hern’s site for all the filly glory).


Habit, 1803

1817 habit

Habit, 1817





I  say all the time that I’m a pantser, not a plotter, but I’ve come to realize that’s only partially true. I do plot, or at least I research towards plot. When I’m in the “thinking” phase of starting a new book, I have a go-to list of resources that I always check out to see if anything sparks.

The Annals of London


I absolutely love this book. It goes year by year from 1065 to 1999. For each year, it lists significant events and strange goings on. So stuff my characters might well have known about, talked about, been interested in, etc. Take for example 1789. There are only five entries.


Excerpt from The Annals of London. Click to enlarge.

How many of these might make it into my book? At least four of them. Clearly the frozen Thames and entertainments would be great (in fact, I used them in Lord Sin). The Shakespeare Gallery? Could make a useful outing or meeting place for my characters and add a little period flavor to the book. The Italian Opera House burning down? Oh, hellz yeah. Now we’re talking. Obviously I’d have to research the circumstances, but that could add drama in so many ways. Bridge opening? Yep. Another good detail to use for an outing or meeting, and you always need those (you can only write so many balls, LOL).

The English Year


This one is sort of the opposite of The Annals of London. It covers the year, day by day, with tidbits about special holidays and events. So I flip through this looking to see if anything particularly good is happening during the months when my book takes place (this sometimes helps me choose a location for a character’s seat or country home so I can use some particular tidbit. For example, this archery contest sounds like a lot of fun to write about, which might lead me to do put my characters at some kind of house party in Yorkshire so they could observe or participate.


Excerpt from The English Year. Click to enlarge.

Political Stuff

Since I’m writing about people in the ton, it’s very likely that they (or their father, or brother, or all of the above) are in Parliament as either a sitting Lord or an MP. There’s a very useful list of the Acts of Parliament on Wikipedia that can provide fodder for plot, both external and internal depending on your characters and the story. Especially in years when something huge happened. If I go look at 1788, the first thing on the list is the American Loyalists Act. That certainly sounds like it could be a plot point (albeit with a lot of research). A character fighting for almost a decade for compensation for remaining loyal to the crown? Yeah, that works. Want a do-gooder character? How about The Chimney Sweepers Act? Really want to get into it? The Slave Trade Act was also passed in 1788. It was supported by some Abolitionists and opposed by others because it merely regulated the trade. Basically, this lets me know what would have been on everyone’s mind (and what votes would have been important enough for a character to make sure he was present for the vote (something I used in Ripe for Seduction to get my secondary hero out of the way for an important plot point).


Who was being talked about and why were they being talked about? There are all kinds of resources for this, but one of my favorites is period cartoons. So I always spend a little time looking in various museum archives for cartoons (like what would have been posted in Ackermann’s windows). I also take a peek at the biographies on my shelves that might be of interest and in books like Decency and Disorder and George III: A Life in Caricature. I definitely always look to see if anything interesting was happing with Prinny!

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper. Gillray 1805

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper. Gillray 1805



Because I tend to write Corinthian-type heroes, I definitely look at what was going on with various sports as well. Racing and boxing are both fairly easy to research online. And it’s always fun when there was a big scandal in one of those.

Science and the Arts

I also love to glance through The Royal Society of London Philosophical Transactions (they’re on JSTOR, which most people can access via their library). Sometimes there’s a cool tidbit (report of an earthquake felt in Manchester) or information about new astronomy discoveries or other scientific experiments. Again, this is mostly just ideas for period color and to remind myself about what people would be reading and talking about.

So there you have it, my way of easing into a new book with research. And yes, I was once told by a very prominent agent (who I have a lot of respect for) that she was not the agent for me because, and I quote, “It’s clear you really love history; sadly, I don’t mean that a compliment.”

When you write historicals, you often run up against a lot of misconceptions (both readers’ and your own). I’ve had the rant about “no, our characters weren’t shorter” fight more than once. So often in fact that I did a blog post about it several years back. I’ve also tried my best to demystify the history of kilts and clan tartans (to much grousing) and have tackled thorny and unpopular topics like pointing out that croquet is Victorian and the hymen is NOT located internally.

Skull by Pedro WEINGARTNER

Skull by Pedro WEINGARTNER


Today I want to highlight a very interesting bit of historical archology that came to my attention recently: people used to have very straight teeth! It’s almost a gimmie that when you see a historical film or show the production will highlight the snaggly teeth of the characters that happen to be poor. But it turns out that’s anachronistic!

Janet Monge—curator of the physical anthropology section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—has studied a lot of skulls and she noticed something very interesting about them. To quote, “Nobody in the past had dental problems, like we are talking nobody.”

So what exactly got us to the point where we are now, where nearly everyone with a perfect smile had to invest a fortune in orthodontia to achieve it? Well, Monge has a theory… and it links like so many other negative physical developments to the industrial revolution. She says the change happened fast and it happened globally (the globally is a fly in the ointment in my opinion, as the industrial revolution didn’t hit across the globe all the same time), but her theory is still interesting. Her hypothesis is that it’s all down to bottle feeding! There’s a very verifiable difference between the development of the jaw an palate in babies that are breastfed and those that are bottle fed (bottles not requiring the same kind of sucking that breasts to in order to receive nourishment). So narrow faces with weaker jaws (but the same number of teeth) result in crowded and crooked smiles.

Silver Pap Boat

Silver Pap Boat

So, our characters would very likely have had beautiful, straight smiles, unless they were so unlucky as to have been “brought up by hand” and nursed on pap from a “bubby pot,’ “pap boat,” or “sucking bottle.” The snaggly teeth we all think of as a common thing pre-braces have really only been common for the past 150-200 years!

One of the questions I get a lot when giving clothing workshops is “How did people store their clothes”? The answers are obviously very different across the classes, but in general my audience wants to know about the gentry and nobility.

Let’s start with closets. Yes, closets existed. Both in the modern sense of a large cupboard in which you store things and in the more historical sense of “a smaller room off a main living space, where you also stored things”. You see modern-type built in closets in many period homes, though they’re often hidden. They usually flank fireplaces, doorways, or built-in nooks for beds. The period idea of a closet was part of a suite of rooms that made up a person’s private chambers. There would be a bedroom, a study or boudoir, and often a closet or dressing room. This all varied widely so there’s no hard and fast rule as to what set-up your characters might have (and don’t forget to take in the era in which the house was built).


Mahogany clothes press, c. 1730-1760. Interior contains both drawers and shelves. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Regardless of what rooms your house has, the clothing storage will be of three types: chests (the classic flip-top large box), chest of drawers (just like today) and the clothes press/wardrobe (not like the big one that leads to Narnia). Clothes presses are most similar to what Americans now call “high boys” (which are a form of raised clothes press).


Clothes Press, c.1775-1778, Chippendale. Interior contains both shelves and drawers. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Clothes presses have drawers at the bottom and then an open space with pull-out shelves at the top behind doors. Later on (late 19thC) you get the kind with half the space given over to hanging garments and half to shelves). So your clothing would be carefully folded and organized among these various options, but in general it would not be hung as it often is today (I’ve heard their might have been pegs or a line for awkward items like false rumps, hoops, etc., but I’ve never seen this in practice outside of satirical drawings of how the poor lived).


Japaned Clothes Press, c. 1815, Crace (likely made for Brighton Pavilion). Victorian and Albert Museum.

It’s also likely that clothes were cycled, so you didn’t have everything in your room at once, just the things you needed for the season you were in. Clothing for other seasons would be packed away and stored in the attics (hence the treasure troves occasionally unearthed   ). At the end of each season, you would decide what was worth packing away for use the next year and what you would get rid of (this retired clothing was generally a perq of the lady’s maid, who could refashion it for her own use or sell it).


English Clothes Press, c. 1750.

For more insight into period homes, I highly recommend Georgian & Regency Houses Explained by Trevor Yorke.

As a writer and a historical re-enactor, one of my favorite things is researching the minutia of everyday life. It’s all well and good to know when a major battle took place and who was king, but really, my characters are more likely to be concerned with removing a stain from a carpet or managing the dairy maids (especially as I’m currently working on a book with a country setting where the heroine is burrowing into the estate like a tick and making it all her own).


I just found a great new resource to aid me (and my heroine) in this endeavor: The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman (1776). It’s a tiny little book put out by the National Trust (God bless the National Trust!) that contains one gentry woman’s notes about housekeeping and managing servants as well as foresection that gives lots of additional information to help you understand what might otherwise be obscure in her directions. It also reinforces information that I’ve read elsewhere indicating that servants had become very had to retain by this point. One of the reasons for the book was the fact that most of the maids appear to have stayed less than two years, even though the pay seems to have been on the generous side and the fabrics chosen for their clothing above the quality usually provided.

The servants mentioned include a housekeeper, cook, laundry maid, housemaid, and various obscure mentions of male servants providing occasional assistance. We also know there was a governess (based on the bills section). Mrs. Whatman does not appear to have had a lady’s maid of her own. All reference to the care of her clothing mentions the housekeeper and the maids. Apparently the housemaids were seen as having a great deal of free time when their actual work was done and they could thus be employed in a plethora of other capacities about the house.

To touch back on my last post about clothing storage, when the book mentions the schedule for closing the curtains/shutters to keep the sun off the furniture, the “mahogany presse” in every bedroom is specifically mentioned and one specific reference is made to a servant’s bed in the “little dressing room” adjoining one of the bedrooms.

It also contains prices, and oh how we all love prices! Susanna was married to wealthy man who owned multiple paper mills (but who appears to have lived more as a gentleman, concerned with improving and expanding his estates than a manufacturing baron). Essentially, we’re dealing with a man who might well have been Bingley’s father. His income was £6000 a year (£4700 of which was from the mills). His expenditures were only £1500 a year (which may well explain how one of his children married into the local aristocracy).

He purchased an ancient manor house with 86 acres which adjoined his estate, as well as another paper mill from the Earl of Aylesford for £7423 and then spent an additional £5000 refurbishing and outfitting the house. To put this money into perspective, he had a portrait of Susanna done by Romney (a prominent painter of the day) which cost £25.

Under BILLS, we learn that in 1781, food cost £222. Other household bills totaled 325. Sevants’ wages and clothes came to £211, the stables to £184, and Susanna received £105 in pin money. Mr. Whatman’s own personal expenses came to £143.

Is there anything about historical housekeeping that either baffles or intrigues you?

Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By