I am not a historian, but I am curious, and completely fascinated by the Regency Era. What I present here is not intended to be a definitive or even authoritative voice on the topic, but rather, an expression of just a few elements of the period that, when I first came upon them, elicited surprise, and in some cases, shock or delight. The extensive knowledge of Janeites in general is part of what makes every day in the world of Austen an adventure, so I encourage those readers who have some to add or clarify in the comments below.
The end of the Georgian Era known as “The Regency” was a remarkable time in World History, particularly so in England. King George III, referred to at home and abroad as “Mad King George” was proclaimed unfit to rule, so his son George was named as the Prince Regent. Given little political power, George, nicknamed “Prinny” by his subjects, became a patron of the arts, and demonstrated a lifestyle that was extravagant and indulgent, which example was followed by fashionable society.
- Funerals: Today marks the second anniversary of my own father’s passing. Had we lived 200 years earlier, the events and traditions that marked a parent’s death would have been dramatically different. Women, particularly wives and daughters, were discouraged from grieving publicly, so as a daughter, I wouldn’t have been allowed at the funeral. Female friends or distant relations were allowed to be present, but regardless of the relationship, the women were relegated to the chapel for the actual internment, which only men attended.
Mourning: I have long known that widows were expected to wear black for a year after their husbands died, but I was completely floored by the extent of the restrictions society placed on widows. During the initial period referred to as “deep mourning”, black or dark brown dresses with a matte finish was expected. During this time, which, depending on a number of variables such as location and societal sphere, would last from six-months to a year and a day, no trims or decorations were allowed. Children of the deceased were subject to six-months of deep mourning. During deep mourning, social activities were curtailed, and the widow and other family members would not go out in public or entertain beyond simple visits in their home. Even their correspondence was expected to reveal their mourning status with black-trimmed stationery.Once this time had passed, they had a second half of the mourning period to go. They were allowed to relax a little and add trims such as lace to the clothing, and also a few other colors such as lavender – which were then trimmed with black.
The rules were more lenient for men, who were expected to be able to conduct business, so to manifest their status, they wore black armbands, black gloves, and in some cases, black cravats. Some wore all black for the duration of the mourning time, but it was not expected. The period was often shorter for men, and the records reveal no half mourning attire for men.
- Mourning Jewelry: This aspect was amazing to me. I was delighted to inherit a necklace from my grandmother’s collection and wear it in her memory, but the Georgians took it much further. The idea of keeping a lock of hair that had belonged to a loved one didn’t seem too strange, but they didn’t just tuck the lock away in a drawer. They had rings, pendants, bracelets and similar accessories made, often with the hair of their loved one woven, braided or embroidered into the design. I even found a reference to a case where a tooth of a deceased relative had been turned into a tie-pin! The designs were extremely sentimental, with such motifs as grieving women throwing themselves on a grave or inscriptions such as ‘Not lost, but gone before’ or ‘In death lamented as in life beloved‘.
- Bundling: We have all heard of the extreme strictures of propriety imposed on courting couples, so this one was a revelation! In truth, it had been more common in previous decades, but still happened in some of the far-reaches of the country, in cases where travel to call upon the maid they were courting could be a hardship. A young couple would essentially spend the night together in the same bed. Of course, this was fraught with peril, so all sorts of obstacles were put in place to prevent easy access, from a board that ran between them, to tying or sewing their nightclothes together to keep them encased. In some cases, both parties were actually sewn into a large bag with a seam down the middle to keep them in their own side. The parents would then chaperone in the room while the couple availed themselves of pillow-talk to get to know one another.
- Wife Selling: While not common, but not unheard of either, this practice occurred most often in the more humble classes. The newspapers mention this happening at a rate of about once a year.
- The After Dinner Separation of the Sexes: I had been reading JAFF and other Regency novels for well over a year before I got a hint of this one, although it makes perfect sense. The romantic notion that the men and ladies separate so the women won’t be subjected to hearing the men’s coarse language, suffer through their cigar smoke or watch them pound back the brandy glosses over one other activity. Both genders required a post-dinner bathroom break. While a chamber pot in the dining room makes me a bit squeamish, by this point, I’m less surprised at such conventions than I used to be.
- Underwear: Here’s the shocker – women wore very little in the way of underwear as we would define them. (Panties/Knickers) Yes, they wore a chemise, slips, corsets and short-stays but should a stiff breeze kick-up, it is highly likely that our Regency sisters felt a distinct draft-in-the-aft.
- Arsenic: When we think of “Emerald Green”, I suspect few of us think of death, but that is exactly what this paint color brought during the Regency era. In Germany in 1814 a highly toxic pigment named emerald green was developed. Made with arsenic and verdigris, this bright green color was rapidly adopted by users of pigments. Painters, dyers, wallpaper and textile makers availed themselves of the lovely green shade, along with many other industries – including confectioners who died candies green. When the paints oxidized and shed paint dust, when flocked wallpapers lost bits of their flocking, when people wore clothing dyed green, when people in many industries worked with the pigments on a daily basis, or heaven forbid, they ate food dyed green, they were subject to chronic exposure to arsenic. Although there were some alerts to the dangers made within one year of the development of this pigment, they were ignored, and it was many decades–and many deaths–before the pigment was removed from homes and industry.
- Tea: I don’t drink regular tea, but I do drink herbal tea, and I simply can’t imagine re-using the tea leaves, but that is precisely what happened during this era, when tea was an expensive import. The common scenario went like this – the first use was made by the householder. After they had enjoyed their tea, the housekeeper would collect the leaves and dry them out, whereupon she would enjoy the second steeping of the leaves. She may then pass them onto some lucky individual who had fallen into her favor, blessed to enjoy the third use of the tea.
- Traveling by Mail-Coach: Set-aside your romantic notions – this was not a comfortable way to travel. You’ve seen those photos of trucks in third-world countries where passengers are clinging to the sides? Well, the mail-coach wasn’t much different. The passengers piled in, they piled on, and they suffered the bad roads and the elements when need be. This makes a ride on a bus seem like luxury travel!
Are there any Regency customs or facts you find surprising? Curious people like me want to know!