Masquerade Celebrations: Victorian Style

Were 19th century masked balls similar to the revelry of Mardi Gras? You be the judge.

masqueradeAt the Masquerade by Charles Hermans (1839-1924)

From 1842 to 1851, Queen Victoria hosted three masked or costumed balls, which inspired Society to continue the tradition of wearing costumes. Wealthy Victorians attended bal masques and posed for “fancy-portraits” dressed as popular or historical figures.

In Twice Round the Clock: Or, the Hours of the Day and Night in London (1862), George Augusta Sala described masquerades as “very expensive.” A gentleman might spend as much as £10 for tickets, costumes or evening dress, supper, wine, champagne, bouquet, and assorted refreshments for his companion and himself. That amount would be the equivalent of $868 in U.S. currency today.

Newspapers reported the antics occurring at masquerades. In 1864 The Times detailed the trial of Mr. Caldwell, proprietor of the Assembly Rooms on Dean Street. He was fined for holding two simultaneous masked balls, one for respectable persons and the other not. Police observed about thirty known prostitutes at the latter. The Marquess de Lusignan became a topic of gossip when the electric apparatus hidden in his “Rigoletto” costume hump malfunctioned at a masquerade in 1885. After shaking hands and shocking other guests, the wires leading to his feet and hands tangled causing him to jerk wildly and collapse to the floor from the electric jolt. Despite rampant reports of orgies and other degenerate behaviors, one New York sociologist declared that masked balls were “dull affairs.” After most guests left around midnight, the only people who remained were management, catering staff, and drunks being removed by policemen.


Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion by Helen Rappaport

National Portrait Gallery post “Victorian Masquerade”

Twice Round the Clock: Or, the Hours of the Day and Night in London by George Augusta Sala

The Times, London, 31 December 1864 excerpt at the Dictionary of Victorian London

Edinburgh Evening News Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland 30 April 1885

New York Times Feb. 27, 1885


Children’s Birthday Celebrations: Victorian Style

Victorians’ Secrets: Handkerchiefs, Napkins, and Silverware

Did you know these everyday objects facilitated communication between enamored couples during the 19th and early 20th century? Next time you watch Downton Abbey or another period drama, see if you can spot any of the signals below.

Euphemia White Van Rensselaer by George Haley (1842)


Right cheek = Yes

Left cheek = No

Across lips = flirting

Twist left = not interested or go away

Twist right = thinking of you

Wind around 3rd finger left hand = married

Forefinger wind = engaged

The Dinner Party by Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882)


Drawing napkin through the hand = I desire to converse by signal with you.

Holding napkin by the corners = Is it agreeable?

Using three fingers to hold napkin = Yes


Playing with fork = I have something to tell you.

Holding up knife and fork (one in each hand) = When can I see you?

Laying both fork and knife to left of plate = After the meal

Clenching fork or knife with right hand on table = Yes


The Mystery of Love, Courtship, and Marriage Explained (1890) by Henry J. Wehman


Victorians’ Secrets: The Love Letter

Victorians’ Secrets: Tussie-Mussies and Sweetheart Flower Clocks

Victorians’ Secrets: Fans

Victorians’ Secrets: Fans

In the 19th century fans were not only a beautiful accessory or a means to cool off. Women often expressed their amorous feelings and arranged clandestine meetings through a series of signals. Can you interpret the following five responses to suitors?

A. Finger to the tip of a fan
B. Right hand, right cheek
C. Left hand, left cheek
D. Open fan wide near face
E. Open fan near heart

A. I wish to speak with you.
Jeune élégante a l’éventail by Fernand Toussaint  (1873-1956)

B.  Yes
Woman with a Fan by Hamilton Hamilton (19th century)

C.  No
At the Ball by Berthe Morisot (1875)

D.  Wait for me or follow me.
The Loge by Mary Cassatt (1880)

E. You have won my love.
At the Theater by Mary Cassatt (1879)

Which signal(s) proved the hardest to decipher?


Donna MacMeans’ post “The Secret Language of Fans”

The Mysteries of Love, Courtship, and Marriage (1890) by Henry J. Wehman


Victorians’ Secrets: The Love Letter

Victorians’ Secrets: Tussie-Mussies and Sweetheart Flower Clocks

FUTURE POST: Victorians’ Secrets: Handkerchiefs, Napkins, and Silverware
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The Faces of Sherlock Holmes Part II: The Victorian Stage Actors

Long before Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller assumed the Sherlock persona, Victorian Charles Brookfield became the first professional stage actor to portray Holmes. Wearing dark tights and a short cape, Brookfield appeared in Under the Clock, an 1893 musical parody of the sleuth’s adventures written by Seymour Hicks.

724px-Lottie_Venne_and_Charles_Brookfield1892 caricature of Charles Brookfield and co-star
Lottie Venne from Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan


The Scottish playwright Charles Rogers claimed an established copyright due to an 1892 performance of his play. In 1894 Roger’s Sherlock Holmes, The Private Detective opened in Glasgow with John Webb in the starring role. Several years later American actor William Gillette collaborated with Sir Arthur Conaan-Doyle and producer Charles Frohman to bring Doyle’s stories to the stage. Charles Rogers’ heirs sued but failed to stop the production.

In 1899 William Gillette performed as Sherlock Holmes for the first of over one thousand times. He became famous for his portrayal and two iconic elements, shortening a line to “Elementary, my dear Watson” and using a curved pipe as a stage prop.

1899 Willliam Gillette

Related post:

The Face of Sherlock Holmes Part I: The Victorian Illustrators

Who are your favorite Sherlock Holmes actors? Why?

The Face of Sherlock Holmes Part I: The Victorian Illustrators

Which 19th century sketch depicts the famous fictional detective?


If you guessed all the images, you are correct. Although many Victorian era artists sketched Sherlock for publications, only six illustrators are featured above.

H. 1887 by David Henry Friston from the first story edition of a “Study in Scarlet”

O. 1888 by Charles A. Doyle, Arthur Conaan-Doyle’s father, from the first book edition

L.  1890 by Charles Kerr from “The Sign of Four”

M. 1891 by George Hutchinson from the second edition “Study in Scarlet”

E. 1893 by Sidney Paget from “The Greek Interpreter”

S. 1894 by unknown artist from the First American edition of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by A.L. Burt Publishing Company

Sidney Paget emerged as the Victorian illustrator who most influenced the public image of Sherlock Holmes. He created over 350 sketches of the fictional detective and first added two details never described by Arthur Conaan-Doyle. The deerstalker cap and Inverness cape.

Bosc-011891 Sidney Paget illustration from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

A complete set of Paget’s illustrated issues for The Strand is extremely rare and valuable. His original drawing of the image below sold for $220,800.00 in 2004.

1893 Sidney Paget illustration from “The Final Problem”


Future post:

Jan. 21st  The Face of Sherlock Holmes Part II: The Victorian Actors

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Which Victorian illustration of Sherlock Holmes do you prefer? Why?

Children’s Birthday Celebrations: Victorian Style


The painting above depicts the birthday of the artist’s young daughter, Alice. Like other well-to-do families in the last half of the Victorian era, Frith and his relatives celebrated the occasion with a meal, music, games, and presents. However, British royalty hosted more elaborate festivities for their children.


According to 19th century newspapers Princess Louise, the eldest daughter of the Prince of Wales and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, celebrated her fifteenth birthday at a party with one hundred guests. The entertainments included costumed singers, a magician, minstrel troupes, and tricks by a lady riding a tricycle. The children play old-fashioned games such as Hunt the Ring, Fox and Hounds, Post, and Hunt the Slipper. After a rambunctious game of musical chairs, each of the children dipped their hands in two large bran pies to retrieve a present.

circus elephant

At the seventeenth birthay party of Princess Louise’s sister, Victoria, an elephant entertained the guests. Little Jumbo performed his Oxford Music Hall act in which he walked on champagne bottles, rang for dinner, balanced on a globe, navigated a tightrope, played musical instruments, and tipped his hat in farewell.

What’s your favorite kind of birthday celebration?

Capturing a Royal Baby Christening Then and Now


In 1841 Charles Robert Leslie wrote to Lord Melbourne requesting permission to paint the christening of Queen Victoria’s first child. After reading Leslie’s letter, the Queen agreed that Leslie could make a quick sketch at the christening.

For months after the ceremony, Leslie studied the Princess Royal, the Queen, and attendees except the Queen Dowager who was ill. One year later the painting was still unfinished. When the King of the Belgians finally received a print impression in 1849, he remarked that the likenesses were unsuccessful.

Since the birth of William and Kate’s son on July 22nd, the media has speculated about who will capture the first image of Prince George at his christening in October. Hopefully the photo will elicit more favorable comments than Leslie’s painting. No pressure.

19th Century Women Travelers: Packing


As my fellow romance writers packed for RWA#13 in Atlanta this week, I wondered what Victorian women travelers took on their trips. Nellie Bly wore a two-piece suit with an overcoat and a cap and carried one small bag containing writing and toiletry necessities.


In contrast, experienced 19th century traveler and writer, Lillias Campbell Davidson, had a list of must-haves such as eau de toilette, smelling salts, a small flask of brandy, and an ivory glove stretcher.


In Hints to Lady Traveller: At Home and Abroad (1889), Miss Davidson also

suggested foot-warmers, well-stuffed feather cushions, a medicine chest, and travel rugs. Since she ventured into more remote areas, she insisted on bringing one item my fellow romance writers should be glad they didn’t have to pack. A portable bathtub.


I don’t travel quite as lightly as Nellie Bly, but I only use one rolling carry-on and a tote bag.

How many bags do you take on trips?

Victorians’ Secrets: Tussie-Mussies and Sweetheart Flower Clocks


What are tussie-mussies? Tussie refers to a small bunch of flowers and mussie means the moss moistened to keep the flowers fresh. Tussie-mussie holders vary from paper to lace to silver.


In the nineteenth century Victorians were passionate about floriagraphy, the language of flowers, and consulted books on the subject before selecting the perfect flowers for their sentiments. Some enterprising Victorian sweethearts combined their messages with a coded floral clock to arrange and confirm the hour for rendezvous at a predetermined place.



IVY: Meet me.

PRIMROSE & IVY: I will meet you.

LAVENDER & IVY: I cannot meet you.

FIELD POPPY: Make another appointment.

CLOVER: Today.



CARNATION: Noon or midnight

RED ROSE: One o’clock

MARIGOLD: Two o’clock

VIOLET: Three o’clock

DAISY: Four o’clock

A tussie-mussie of ivy, primroses, clover, and violets would convey “Meet me today at three o’clock.” If a young lady sent back the ivy and primrose, her beloved understood her reply, “I will meet you.”

What tussie-mussie message and reply would you create?


Language of Flowers book by Kate Greenaway 1884

Victorians’ Secrets: The Love Letter

Sir Horace Edmund Avory, a noted British solicitor and jurist of the late Victorian era, reportedly said “No one but a lunatic would keep a copy of his love letters.” If so, I’ve read many poignant letters written by famous and obscure lunatics.

Victorians consulted popular manuals on letter writing etiquette. Lovers wishing to keep their communications private used coded messages and stamp positioning to indicate meanings to the recipients. Letters were often hidden in the secret compartments of writing desks, canes, and parasols. If discovered, the incriminating missives could lead to scandal, divorce, blackmail, or murder.

In this age of instant messaging is the art of writing love letters dead, too?


Nineteenth Century Manual (with tips on letter writing and stamp positioning)

Nineteenth Century Letters and Codes

Nineteenth Century Box with Hidden Compartments


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