This weekend, we celebrated my second daughter (middle child’s) 6th birthday. This year, my husband and I decided to try to emphasize experiences over material possessions, so we celebrated by taking her and her friends to a local indoor splash park, and by also participating as a family in a program to be ‘foster parents’ to baby chicks. We incubate the eggs, care for the new hatchlings for a bit, then give them back to the locally run farm. My daughters both declared it to be ‘the best birthday present ever’– and I haven’t added to the number of toys I have to trip over. A win/win!
At any rate, my younger girl’s birthday was a lovely day of family, friends, swimming, and cake– and a very happy little birthday girl. But it also naturally led me to wonder how her birthday would have been celebrated during Regency times.
Interestingly, though, I could find very little concrete information to answer that question. Birthdays were noted, at least. In a letter to her sister, written from Steventon on Tuesday, January 8, 1799, Jane Austen writes, ” I wish you joy of your birthday twenty times over.” But she doesn’t give any details as to how– or even if– Cassandra actually celebrated her birthday. Years later, Jane Austen writes of her own birthday, “My dearest Cassandra,—I will keep this celebrated birthday by writing to you.” Her letter goes on to mention a drive with her brother Edward, concerts and assemblies and various amusements– but no official birthday celebration, at least as we would think of it in modern times.
As far as I’ve been able to find out, birthdays in Jane Austen’s time were not nearly the important occasions that we make them today. A person might be gifted with a bouquet of flowers or some such to mark the day, but not much else would have been done. Unless, of course, you happened to be royalty. Then, of course, your birthdays were widely-celebrated national holidays.
In another letter, Jane Austen mentions that, “The Queen’s birthday moves the assembly to this night instead of last, and as it is always fully attended, Martha and I expect an amusing show.” A few years later, she wrote to Cassandra that, “The Digweeds are gone down to see the Stephen Terrys at Southampton, and catch the King’s birthday at Portsmouth.”
In 1811, the Prince Regent invited more than 2,000 guests to a criminally extravagant fete at Carlton House, in honor of his father the King’s birthday. In reading about that celebration, I was fascinated to come across a Regency practice that I had never heard of before: that of “chalking” the dance floor. The practice of chalking the floor at a ball was only fashionable for a short while: from roughly 1808 to about 1821, and was performed only at balls held for the very wealthiest and most elite members of society. In a display of conspicuous consumption a bit like the great robber barons of the Gilded Age using hundred dollar bills to light their cigars, the dance floor would be decorated in chalk with a complex and beautiful design that was soon erased by all of the dancing feet.
The chalk arabesques that the Prince Regent paid to have marked on the ballroom floor at Carlton House must have been the most elaborate and beautiful that money could buy. But we can only imagine what they would have looked like; no record was made.
In short, birthday celebrations during the Regency seem to have ranged from extravagant fetes to simple but heartfelt birthday wishes from a beloved sister. Personally, though, our family is quite happy with a trip to the swimming pool and a cage full of baby chicks.
What about you? Does your family have any special birthday traditions? Do you have any favorite birthday memories?