Would you like arsenic with that?

Happy Sunday, everyone! I’m back, finally, with a historical post.

The book I’m working on now is more mystery than romance–my penchant for killing people off in my books suggested I ought to go in the mystery direction, although so far I’ve killed off fewer people in this book than in all the others. Go figure.

Arsenic makes an appearance in the book, largely because it was hands down the most prevalent poison in the Victorian era. Believe it or not, many of the deaths from arsenic poisoning were actually unintentional. Arsenic was a component of many commonly used products, including cosmetics and soaps, fabric, and wall paper. 

Arsenic cleared the complexion of blemishes and produced the pale skin popular at the time. (Of course, they used lead too, which is another issue entirely.)


Arsenic was also the main component of lovely green pigments and other colors that adorned Victorian walls–wallpaper was very trendy (between 1834 and 1874, the number of wallpaper rolls produced in Britain rose by 2,615%), and the same colors were used on toys, clothing, even artificial flowers women wore in their hair.
Although doctors began sounding the alarm of the dangers of arsenic exposure in these materials in the early 1850s, they were dismissed as hysterical. It wasn’t until the demands of the market changed in the 1870s (and after Queen Victoria had all the green wallpaper removed from Buckingham Palace in 1879) that British manufacturers began to change their practices. It has even been hypothesized that Napoleon was murdered by wallpaper.


There was plenty of deliberate arsenic poisoning in the Victorian era as well. In 1851, Parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Act, which required those who sold arsenic to maintain a written and signed record of sales (as we do in the U.S. now with pseudoephedrine), and it demanded that no one could sell arsenic to someone unless they knew the purchaser. It also required arsenic, with some exceptions, to be colored with soot or indigo before sale.

When I first started researching this, I discovered the 1851 act as originally written only restricted children from purchasing arsenic, but I also found several articles which noted an amendment to the law, added at the last minute, restricted women as well.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any proof of this, which is making it somewhat more challenging to write the book. I may actually have to darken the doors of my law school library. Update: Some days I’m unable to stop researching, so I found this snippet about the provision barring sales to women, which in the end was NOT included in the final legislation: “…sales would be restricted to those of full age though not, as Carlisle, the PMSA, and the Pharmaceutical Society would have preferred, to men only, the decision to discriminate against women being dropped ‘owing to the indignant remonstrances of ladies’.” Thank goodness for indignant remonstrances of ladies. 🙂  And now excuse me as I head off to rewrite three or four chapters…

James Marsh

Arsenic poisoning was so prevalent that it was one of the first compounds for which a toxicology test was created. Although a test to detect the presence of arsenic had been developed in 1775, in 1832, British Chemist James Marsh was asked to analyze a cup of coffee that had allegedly been used to poison a man. Marsh did so, but by the time of trial, the substance had deteriorated. The man, John Bodle, was acquitted. When Bodle later admitted he had actually committed the crime, Marsh was determined to develop a more stable test that could be successfully used in court. By 1836, he had done so, and the Marsh test was first used in France to convict Madame Marie LaFarge of killing her husband.

And now, just for fun, I will leave you with this clip from Arsenic and Old Lace



Taking Tea

I apologize, my friends, for my sad neglect of this blog. I have no excuse, really, beyond being busy and inefficient, and, if truth be told, possessing a certain degree of laziness. But never mind, I am back, so I hope I am forgiven.

Sitting in the queen’s chair at Hampton Court Palace (I’d been awake for 36 hours)

Lately I have been thinking about tea and scones far more than is normal for your average American. This past week I returned from a visit to England, where I traveled hither and yon with my dear college friend Helen, talking and laughing and walking and drinking tea at every opportunity in which wine (or gin, in Helen’s case) was inappropriate.

On my first day there I did obtain a scone with jam and clotted cream at Hampton Court (as one does), but all additional efforts to secure afternoon tea were for naught. We arrived at the tea shop as it was closing (as happened at Hughenden Manor and across the street from Jane Austen’s house), there was no clotted cream (said in a rather rude “even if we did have cream I wouldn’t give you any” sort of tone at the cafe in Hyde Park), or on one occasion (at the 1657 Chocolate House in Kendal), I was in the mood for a cup of chocolate and a sandwich instead.

Lady Bedford, circa 1830

Lady Bedford, circa 1820

Spending so much time drinking tea and visiting historic sites last week, I started thinking about the history of afternoon tea. Although tea as a beverage has been common in England since the mid-17th century, it was not until the 7th Duchess of Bedford was feeling a bit peckish that the concept of afternoon tea as we know it today was born. The story goes that sometime in the 1840s Lady Bedford, a close friend of Queen Victoria, found herself desiring a snack around 4 o’clock, halfway between lunch and the fashionably late dinner. She asked for a tray of tea, bread, butter, and cake. This repast was so pleasant she made a habit of it, and then began inviting her friends round to enjoy it with her.

Afternoon Tea–not to be confused with High Tea, which is another animal altogether–consists of tea, small sandwiches, cake, and scones served with jam and clotted cream. It is not only the meal itself but the ritual that makes afternoon tea what it is. Ideally, the tea should be loose leaf, served from a tea pot. Milk is added after the tea is poured, not before. (Apparently there is much disagreement on this issue–I had no idea it mattered so much.) There is also great debate about whether jam should be slathered on the scone before the cream. In the spirit of research I tried it both ways, and admit I prefer jam then cream, which gives one the ability to add far more cream than is strictly healthy.

In an effort to make up for my lack of afternoon tea while in England, I shall be baking scones, brewing tea, and eating this afternoon. (Unless I have to go watch middle school boys play hockey, or take a nap.)


Here’s my recipe for scones:

8 oz (approx. 1-3/4 c) all-purpose flour
1-1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
2 oz (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 oz (2 T) sugar
4 fl oz (½ c) milk

*Preheat the oven to 425F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
*Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl. Using your fingertips, lightly rub the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and the milk and lightly mix with a wooden spoon until just combined.
*Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Spread the dough using your hands until it is about 3/4 inch thick. Cut out 8-12 scones using a 1-1/2 to 2 inch fluted biscuit cutter. Press straight down–do not twist, or the scones won’t rise properly. (Ask me how I know!)
*Place the scones on to the baking sheet and brush with milk or an egg wash.
*Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and place onto a wire rack until cool enough to handle.
*Serve the scones warm with clotted cream (or butter) and your favorite jam. If you can’t find fresh clotted cream in your local grocery store, or you object to paying $10 for a jar, you can find a number of recipes online. Here’s the one I’m planning to use, although it takes so long it will have to wait until next weekend’s afternoon tea: https://fearlessfresh.com/make-clotted-cream/. I’ll let you know how it goes!

For more information on the history of afternoon tea:




Victorian Fashion

I am not a fashion maven. I am a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl, unless I’m wearing Chico’s Travelers Collection, which look stylish but feel like pajamas. (Need I say more?) I have one favorite pair of shoes for each season and I wear them until they fall apart, at which time I spend hours online looking for the exact same pair. I almost never wear shorts because of my pasty white Cleveland legs, but the pair I don’t mind being seen in I bought in 1998. Seriously.

Despite my embarrassing anti-fashion proclivities, I am a writer of historical romance, and in the Victorian era, women of a certain class were very concerned with fashion. And if I am to write about them, I need to care about what they wore. Or at least how to get it off them. 😉

To that end, I spent Saturday taking a field trip with my NEORWA chapter mates to the Kent State University Museum of Fashion. The most interesting exhibit, at least for me, was one called Inside Out, which featured clothing literally inside out so you could see how it was constructed. And they had Darcy’s puffy shirt! Colin Firth wasn’t even it–more’s the pity–and we were all still drooling. You can find pictures at https://insideoutksum.wordpress.com/–I can’t get WordPress to cooperate with the photos I took. 

The Victorian era lasted from 1837 to 1901, and fashions changed drastically during that timeframe.  And don’t even get me started on men’s facial hair–that is deserving of its own post.

In the 1830s, as at right, the ideal form was a long torso with a slim silhouette, so corsets were tight and movement was restricted. (Isn’t that an odd picture? The upper half seems oddly disconnected from the bottom, but I sometimes wonder if that’s how women felt…)


Starting in the 1840s, skirts became wider–the fuller the skirt, the more petticoats underneath, which was a sign of wealth. I love this relaxed portrait of Queen Victoria and her prince from 1841.

Illustration of cage crinoline from Punch, 1856


The 1850s saw the invention of bloomers, as well as the cage crinoline–a miraculous contraption that held the skirts out in lieu of a dozen petticoats, returning women to a comparative freedom of movement.


There is an adorable scene from Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford in which a fancy cage from Paris is ordered for Miss Pole’s bird. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong type of cage. It’s just the first minute and again at about 3:45, but if you like BBC period programs, you have to watch the whole series–it’s delightful.

The 1860s saw skirts at their widest and waists at their narrowest–remember this scene from Gone With the Wind?


In the 1870s, skirts deflated quite a bit, hoops replaced by a flatter front and layers in the back, as in this painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir from 1874.



In the 1880s, the bustle was the dominant feature in women’s fashion (and the top hat for men) as seen in this 1883 painting by James Tissot.




The last decade of the 19th century brought big sleeves, sharply defined waists, and slimmer skirts, as in this fashion plate from 1893…





…and this John Singer Sargent painting from 1896.



The turn of the century brought us more masculine attire for women, the Gibson Girl–see the Sargent painting at right from 1903–outrageous hats, and the rise of haute couture.

Londoners in front of Harrods, 1909

There is far more to seventy years of fashion than I have the time, energy, or inclination to share here, but if you’re interested in learning more, click on the link for each decade above, and check out these sites for more information and lots more pictures:



Good Vibrations

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently watched the movie Hysteria, a Victorian romp (you’re thinking there’s no such thing, aren’t you?) about the invention of the vibrator. I refuse to say it was hysterical, but it was pretty funny. Underlying it, however, is the very real history of women’s sexuality, and the utter incomprehension of the same by men for thousands of years.

The ancient Greeks, it is said (although some dispute this), believed that women were possessed of a “wandering womb,” which caused any number of health problems. As early as the second century, it was determined that “hysteria” was caused by sexual frustration, and a Greek physician reportedly urged marriage as a cure.  Over the ensuing centuries, other physicians prescribed “digital manipulation,” suppositories, horseback riding, hydrotherapy, massage, and “la titillation du clitoris.” The medical condition of “hysteria” was one of the most diagnosed diseases in history, and was actually still considered a medical disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1952.

In the 1860s, a British doctor advocated surgical removal of the clitoris. Dr. Isaac Baker Brown claimed a 70% success rate in curing epilepsy and any number of other ills he claimed were caused by masturbation, until he was expelled from the London Obstetrical Society for performing the procedure on women without their consent.

The very first vibrator was developed by an American physician, George H. Taylor, in 1869. It was a steam-powered “Medical Vibrating and Kneading Machine” that stuck through a hole in a table to massage the pelvic area.

U.S. Patent 86,604.

In the 1880s in England, Joseph Mortimer Granville, the subject of the film, Hysteria, was the first to invent an electric vibrator. The film gleefully notes that the impetus for the invention was the carpal tunnel resulting from Dr. Granville’s tedious manipulation of the nethers of well-to-do Victorian housewives. History suggests a much more mundane origin–he intended it for relief of muscular ailments of men, and tried to distance himself from the device when its use became popular for treatment of hysteria. He discusses the device, which he called a “percuteur,” in his 1883 book, Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease.

Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, 1833-1900

Rachel Maines looks the subject in her 1999 book, The Technology of Orgasm–an occasionally unintentionally funny look at the history of women’s sexuality. You can find a lengthy excerpt in the New York Times, which may be quite enough for you to get the picture.


Patent US794003 for Vibrator, 1905.


Physicians, although they considered it a chore and happily used the newest devices to enable them to see more patients for shorter periods, made a lot of money treating hysteria. Women needed frequent treatment, but as none of them were actually sick, there was no risk for the doctor. Portable models became available around 1905, and women continued to see physicians for treatment of hysteria until the 1920s, when the vibrator disappeared from medical literature.

Fortunately, the 1960s came along, and vibrators became small, portable, and easily purchased by women for use in the privacy of their own homes. As Rachel Maines put it, “The women’s movement completed what had begun with the introduction of the electromechanical vibrator into the home: it put into the hands of women themselves the job nobody else wanted.”

Because You Can Never Have Too Much Hockey

This post is late because of hockey.

This weekend my son was in a youth hockey tournament at our home rink, so not only did he play in three games, I scored two other games, and then we watched the championship game, which sadly, he wasn’t in. Six hockey games in three days.

It is perhaps not surprising (although it probably is crazy) that after all this hockey I should choose to write about its history. Games featuring a stick and ball, even on ice, have been around for centuries–possibly even millenia–but hockey in its current incarnation is a Victorian creation.

A young engineer/journalist/lawyer from Nova Scotia, Canada named James Creighton is considered by many to be “the father of ice hockey.” In 1872 he moved to Montreal, bringing with him ice skates (you can see pictures here) and hockey sticks. The skates featured blades similar to the ones still in use today, affixed to boots with metal clamps.

In 1875, Creighton organized an indoor hockey game–the sport had previously always been played on ponds, outside–at the Victoria Skating Rink. At least one source claims that Creighton invented the hockey puck, changing it from a ball to a flat disk to reduce the danger of it flying around and hitting spectators, but another source claims the word ‘puck’ was used in Montreal newspaper in 1867. (The OED records its first usage as 1886.)

In any case, Creighton practiced with his buddies for a month, and held a public exhibition on March 3, 1875. The game was one of the first to feature a predetermined set of rules (known as the “Halifax rules”). It included two teams  of nine players each, goaltenders, a referee, a wooden puck, a 60 minute game time, and a recorded score.

The following announcement ran in the Montreal Gazette:

Victoria Rink – A game of Hockey will be played at the Victoria Skating Rink this evening, between two nines chose from among the members. Good fun may be expected, as some of the players are reputed to be exceedingly expert at the game. Some fears have been expressed on the part of intending spectators that accidents were likely to occur through the ball flying about in too lively a manner, to the imminent danger of lookers on, but we understand that the game will be played with a flat circular piece of wood, thus preventing all danger of its leaving the surface of the ice. Subscribers will be admitted on presentation of their tickets.

Notice the lack of boards around the ice, and the spectators lined up at the edge. Definitely not today’s hockey.

Lord Stanley, then the Governor General of Canada, witnessed his first hockey game at the Victoria Skating Rink in 1889. (His children also played hockey–his daughter is rumored to be the first woman to be photographed playing the game.) The rink hosted the first Stanley Club playoff games in 1894. Hockey’s popularity spread across North America, with hockey clubs formed by men of all classes.

The first women’s hockey game was reportedly played in Ottawa in 1891. The first international women’s hockey game was played in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1916. (There is always a Cleveland connection, even when I’m not looking for one!)

As for Mr. Creighton, he moved to Ottawa in 1882, where he became the Law Clerk to the Canadian Senate, a post he held for 48 years.  He died while at work in 1930, at the age of 80, and was buried in an unmarked grave. His role in hockey history faded away until the 1980s, when he was rediscovered by a Canadian hockey historian, Bill Fitsell. In 2009, Creighton was recognized in a memorial ceremony attended by the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and a plaque and monument were erected near his gravesite in Beechwood, Canada’s National Cemetery.







Christmas, Victorian Style

Christmas rapidly approaches, and I suspect no one who reads this blog will be surprised to see a post about Christmas in the Victorian era. Predictability is good, right?

Although Christmas as we know it today does celebrate the birth of Jesus (even though there is evidence to suggest he was not born in December), the many and varied traditions surrounding the holiday predate that event by thousands of years. The Yule log and singing of carols are Scandinavian in origin, a celebration of the Winter Solstice. The Christmas tree and the giving of gifts, some say, have their origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia. The twelve days of Christmas are reportedly a throwback to the ancient Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuth, a celebration of their god Marduk’s defeat of the monsters of chaos each winter.

But Christmas as we celebrate it today has its origins in Victorian England. The Christmas tree was largely unknown in England until the German Prince Albert brought the tradition to his adopted country upon his marriage to Queen Victoria. After this engraving ran in the Illustrated London News in 1848, Britons flocked to put trees in their houses.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and assorted offspring around the palace Christmas tree.                 From the Illustrated London News, 1848. Source: Wikimedia Commons.



First edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, and created a resurgence in the singing of Christmas carols, giving of gifts, and giving charity to the poor.






First Christmas card, 1843. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The first Christmas card is believed to have originated in 1840s England as well. In 1843, Henry Cole, an English civil servant, commissioned an artist, John Callcott Horsley, to create a card for Christmas. In 1880, 11.5 million Christmas cards were sold.


Christmas crackers, which for some reason never caught on in the U.S., were invented by Tom Smith, a London confectioner, in 1847.  Originally designed to help market his own bon bons, he added a popping sound upon opening (inspired by the crackling sound of a log on the fire), and inserted sweets, and a message.  Today’s crackers also include a paper crown, a small toy, a sweet, and a message akin to that inside a fortune cookie.

Gifts given at Christmas were modest in Victorian times–small trinkets, treats, fruits, and nuts–and were hung on the Christmas tree. As presents got bigger, they were stashed under the tree. Decorating for Christmas with evergreens, a medieval tradition, was adopted wholeheartedly by the Victorians. Family, so important to the Victorians, became the centerpiece of the Christmas celebration, and that tradition too we hold dear today.

And so I wish all of you a joyous holiday season, no matter which winter festival you celebrate. May you be blessed with family, friends, peace, and happiness during this season and the year to come.


Technology in the Victorian Era

So a couple of months ago I sat in on my son’s 5th grade Science class. They were watching a documentary on the Apollo space program, called In the Shadow of the Moon. It occurred to me as I watched that I was the only one in the room who was alive during the first moon landing–even the teacher wasn’t born until after the Apollo program had ended. Whether it’s a wholly accurate memory or not, I remember sitting in the dining room while my mother cooked, watching the moon landing on our tiny black and white TV.

One of the astronauts in the program said that his father was born around the time of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and the astronaut’s son was four when the astronaut went to the moon. The astronaut’s father could not even imagine a time when a man could fly to the moon, yet to the son, it was inconceivable that it would not be possible to fly to the moon.

When I mentioned these musings on Facebook, it led to a rousing comment thread, discussing all the technological innovations that have happened in our own lifetimes, or those of our parents. Naturally, since I am immersed in editing my Victorian era WIP, I thought back to that period.

The Victorian era was one of the most sustained and prolific periods for technological and scientific advancement in history. These advancements created significant chances in society, giving rise to the middle class and a new type of wealth.

It saw the rise of the railroad and the improvement of the steamship. The first steam-assisted crossing of the Atlantic took place in 1819, before Victoria, and took 633 hours (just over 26 days). By 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, it took only 5 days to cross. Likewise, the railway era started before Victoria’s reign, in 1825, but by 1900, trains ran regularly, and with complete safety, at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour. The first lavatories appeared on trains in the 1860s, the first sleeping cars were introduced in 1873, and dining cars came into use from 1879. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/victorian_technology_01.shtml#three).

The Victorian era also saw these inventions that we take for granted today:

Photograph (1838)
Pedal bicycle (1839)
Postage stamp (1840)
Christmas card (1843
Rubber tires (1845)
Tarmac (1845) and concrete (1849)
Sewing machine (1846)
Gasoline/petrol (1850) and oil (1859)
Flushing toilet (1852)
Steel (1854)
Safety match (1855)
The first underground railway opened in London (1863)
Typewriter (1873)
Chocolate Easter eggs (hurray!) (1875)
Telephone (1876)
First recording of human voice (1877)
Electric street lamps (1878)
Electric light bulb, for home use (1879) (the first electric light bulb was patented in 1875)
Gramophone (1887)
The Kodak box camera (1888)
Comic book (1890)

Cinematograph (1894)
X-ray (1895)
Radio (1895)

(Source: http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/homework/victorians/inventiotimeline.html)

The Victorian period saw the serialization of novels in magazines, which made them more accessible to the public. This is unrelated to technology, but just to give you an idea of the breadth of the Victorian literary world, some lists:

Victorian novelists, in no particular order, included Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), William Thackeray (1811–1863), Emily Bronte (1818-1848), Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855),  Anne Bronte (1820-1849), George Eliot (1819-1880), Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), Mark Twain (1835-1910), Henry James (1843-1916), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), and so many others I’d be here all day if I listed them all.  The era also produced poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), Robert Browning (1812-1889), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), A.E. Housman (1859-1936), and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Playwrights included George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). There is a more comprehensive list and some other great stuff at A Literary Odyssey.

Anyway, all of this change is why I set my writing in the period. The dramatic possibilities are endless.

Now I think I’ll go pull one of my Elizabeth Gaskell novels off the shelf, and settle in with a cup of tea.

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