History from
the Bottom Up

Baby Carriers

In the first part of the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to dress babies in long petticoats to protect them from drafts. 1730 Joseph Highmore   Mrs. Sharpe and Her Child   Google Art Project 353x450 Baby Carriers Helena of Mecklenburg Schwerin Duchess of Orleans with her son the Count of Paris 1839 292x450 Baby CarriersVoluminous clothing might also help keep a child from slipping out of its mother’s or nursemaid’s arms. According to Elizabeth Ewing in her History of Children’s Costume, the first modern baby carriage in America was introduced in 1848 by Charles Burton, but it was soon banned for being a nuisance to pedestrians. He had more success opening a factory in Britain, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that a pram was created where a baby could lie down. So prior to 1870, babies had to be carried.Edmund Blair Leighton   The Lord of the Manor 373x450 Baby CarriersA well-nourished 18-month-old weighed an average of 26 pounds. (Quick aside: Have a look at these next two pictures: the first one really gives you a sense of the baby’s heft. The mother in the second one doesn’t seem to be straining to hold that kid at all.) 1767 Mrs Benjamin West and son Raphael c.1767 386x450 Baby Carriers 1 Stoltenb8840serg Mor med barn 341x450 Baby CarriersBy the 1870s, you start to see baby prams in paintings. The impressionists seemed fond of painting them. Here’s Degas:Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas 054 450x334 Baby Carriersand Gauguin:512px Paul Gauguin 060 450x338 Baby Carriersand here’s a later model, 1913. It’s such a sweet picture, isn’t it?

LC USZ62 708611913 341x450 Baby Carriers

LOC 708611913

Tough to Swallow

A few days ago my writer friend, Erin Dionne, posted this status update:

Erin is a fantastic writer, incidentally. You should read her new book, if you haven’t yet.

She followed up with

(Loree Burns is another writer friend, who has written several nonfiction books about insects. If you don’t yet have them, you should run out and buy all of her books immediately.)

Erin’s post sparked a lively conversation in … Read more

Poisonous Powders

Livre d’heures de Jean de Montauban – Bibliothèque des Champs Libres

One of my favorite memories from childhood was opening a new box of crayons. I marveled at the beautiful hues. When I was older and took painting classes, I never lost that feeling of awe at the brilliant, saturated colors that came right out of the paint tube. But five hundred years ago, painters didn’t have the luxury of buying their paints from the art supply store. They had to mix their … Read more

Greetings to All

As I may or may not have mentioned in my last blog post, one of the best–but also most perilous–things about doing research is that it’s so easy to get sidetracked. While looking for images for my book proposal, I spent a lot of time that I don’t really have to spare looking at Victorian/early twentieth century greeting cards on various archives (British Museum, Library of Congress, and New York Public Library). They’re fascinating.

The penny post was introduced in Britain in 1840, and that meant a lot of people could afford … Read more

Research Diversions

By Roger from Derby, UK Preserved Chemists shop in Derby Silk Mill via Wikimedia

I have a new favorite publication. During my recent week of research in New York City, I spent many happy hours poring over nineteenth century copies of The British Medical Journal. I found it so diverting—literally—that it was difficult to stay focused on my area of research. It’s written in a very approachable, conversational style, well, for a medical journal—with lots … Read more

Top Ten Viking Nicknames

The subject of today’s hilarity will be nicknames from the Viking Age. (I did a post awhile back about some of my favorite royal nicknames.) As with most people living in medieval times, the Norse had no last names (surnames), outside of patronyms (Ander’s son, Peter’s son). So, as happened frequently in other medieval communities, nicknames were used as a way of identifying individuals. We’ve all heard of Eric the Red, but there are lots of better ones. The list below comes from the people … Read more

Analyze This

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.22.22 AM

I’m working on a new book right now, and as part of my research, I have enrolled in an online course on forensics. My professor is one Roderick Bates, an organic chemist and associate professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I find him delightful. Soft-spoken, with a pleasant British accent, he wears a white lab coat and safety glasses, and he delivers his lectures about heinous crimes involving wood chippers, analysis of body tissues found in chain saws, and body-dissolving sulphuric acid in bathtubs, with a charming exuberance and a hint of a smile playing on his lips.

 … Read more

My Geek Week

This week, Dear Reader, I won’t be posting, as I’m doing research for my next book. I’m staying in the empty apartment of a New York City friend and will be spending all my time here, at the New York Academy of Medicine:

And here, at the New York Public Library. Back next week!

Fashion Fail

Last month when I was in Paris my husband and I spotted a statue in a small park, and long before we were close enough to read the inscription I said, “That is so the 1830s.” Here’s the statue. In case you can’t see the inscription, the date is 1830.

Not that I should get mad props for ID-ing the fashion era. The period from 1830 to the early 1840s was marked by a very characteristic look in fashionable European and American circles. I loathe it.

 … Read more

Swarmed

Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Roman DictatorBibi Saint-Pol, own work

The first time I stumbled across a reference to the disease known as phthiriasis (pronounced “thuh-RY-uh-sis) I was reading Plutarch’s gleeful account of the death of the Roman tyrant Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 78 BC), who had a nasty habit of putting his enemies’ heads on pikes, died a relatively old man, having murdered all the people who might try to assassinate him. And yet, according to Plutarch, Sulla met a ghastly … Read more

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