Birthdays During the Regency

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.

599px-West_Ante_Room,_Carlton_House,_from_Pyne's_Royal_Residences,_1819_-_panteek_pyn36-421_-_croppedAs 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?

22 Responses to Birthdays During the Regency

  1. I don’t do birthdays myself; too many bad associations of things like cat deaths. But we always have been low key.
    As to chalking the ballroom floor, this was originally done with plain chalk to prevent slipping, rather than have the individuals chalk their own dancing pumps which was the alternative. Chalking in patterns of course made its appearance and was an opportunity for artistic members of the family to shine in presenting their designs to the chalkers to interpret. As carpets echoed painted ceilings in the most opulent houses, I imagine that copying the ceiling design also occurred. And the degree of pattern could suit a number of budgets. I doubt the chalkers were paid as good a wage as they deserved!

  2. I think I like the idea of low-key birthdays. Beyond a certain age, it’s not something I like to think about!

  3. I always phone my immediate family member with singing “Happy Birthday/May the Dear Lord Bless you”. We always try to remember to make phone calls. But when our children were young we had parties with a traditional photo of the immediate family behind the cake. Growing up we rarely got presents but my mother did make us a birthday cake. Mine always had a lemon glaze icing, which I still love.

  4. I got to foster baby chicks for my sixth birthday too, and it is a great memory for me. For some reason, as I got older, I forgot that we returned them to the farm and thought they had died. It was only a few years ago that my mom reminded me of what actually happened. I will always be grateful she let me do that.

  5. A birthday memory? When I was five or six I had a party which was great….I got finger paints…so exciting! But the best part was that I had written a letter to Santa and sent it to the radio station, and he read it on the radio on my birthday! I thought that was the coolest thing ever. 🙂

  6. What a great idea. I must pass it on to my daughter. Her 2 boys are 2 1/2 and 1 day old so it might come in handy. The eldest went to Toronga zoo for his second birthday and loved it. He likes to feed the neighbours fish so if they do something like that there he might like it when he is a bit older. Interesting to read about regency times though I think it is better now as long as we don’t go overboard.

    • Congratulations on the new baby in the family! 1 day old– so precious! Yes, as a parent it’s great when you can figure out something that you and the kids BOTH love as a gift. 🙂

  7. Sounds like a wonderful way to celebrate birthdays and teach children it is not about the ‘loot!’ 🙂 I have baby chicks every so often for we have chickens! It is so nice to live in the country. Happy Birthday to your daughter!

    • My girls would be so jealous of being able to keep chickens on a permanent basis! Sadly not allowed where we live. Yes, we try to make it not about presents. She asked guests at her birthday party to contribute money to fund a little orphan girl in Africa hoping to go to school– all her idea. Although she did get presents, too, from the grandparents. 🙂

  8. Birthdays for us were always a big deal. My family doesn’t do Christmas the way that some people think of it. No presents, none of that. Christmas isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus and family and giving back to those less fortunate. However, your birthday is all about you. LOL So lots of presents, pick your meal and whatever dessert your little heart desires. I can think of some pretty funny memories but the biggest is that for one day a year, the day was all about us and that was pretty special.

  9. Personally, I love to celebrate birthdays, just not age. As for Jane Austen’s Birthday, being in music I love that she shares the same date with Beethoven, though not the same year. Happy Birthday to your daughter. Jen Red

  10. Sounds like a wonderful birthday for your daughter. I like simple where the birthday person feels special and loved. With my kids I always baked there Birthday cake and they choose what kind of cake it was. Of course we did give presents.

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