Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 17 - Two Great Inventions - Everyday Things That Were

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Lucifers - Postage-stamps - Letters - Script - Benevolence - Uncut newspapers - Carpet-bags - Willow pattern china - Dutch clocks - Roasting jacks - Baths.

IT may seem odd to the present generation, but in the 1850s lucifer matches as we know them were of very recent invention and the country had not long emerged from the age of flint-and-steel. There had been matches, it is true, for a good many years; but they had to be dipped in a bottle containing phosphorus to excite ignition. The striking match was an immense advance, and altered domestic conditions throughout the world in a degree excelled by few other inventions. Yet its author remains uncommemorated, his very name and even nationality unknown to the vast majority of his countrymen. Mr. John Walker, a chemist and druggist of Stockton, is generally credited with the first conception of using heat due to friction to ignite a chemically tipped match and of giving practical effect to the idea. The famous Professor Faraday, himself a creator of epochs, was instrumental in making the new matches known. He heard of them when passing through Stockton, procured a box, which cost him 1s. 6d., and demonstrated the invention in the course of one of his lectures at the Royal Institution. Mr. Walker lived till 1859, but does not appear to have benefited greatly by his cleverness.
    Faraday was the discoverer of the electric light and of the phenomena which give us the magneto and dynamo, and it is curious to reflect that the ordinary match is no older than these comparatively recently-perfected developments.
    Sir Isaac Holden, who died in 1922, aged eighty, was [-146-] asserted in some quarters to have been the inventor of the striking match, but he could not have outgrown his swaddling clothes at the date of its appearance. It is singular that such a fundamental departure should have been so casually recorded and its author so little recognised. Is there a Walker monument at Stockton, I wonder?
    So the lucifer match, it is satisfactory to be able to say, was of British origin, and its manufacture for a long time was confined to this country. And when the simple modification which produced the safety-match striking only on the box, came along, I believe that was British too.
    The present type of sliding box with roughened paper on its cover was in use when I first came to play with matches (which was very early indeed in the 1850s!) but I do not know whether it had been introduced by Mr. Walker.
    Swedish matches, packed vertically with tips uppermost, in round willow boxes, were also sold. The tips were of several colours, and pretty effects were produced by arranging them in geometrical patterns. The English boxes cost 1d. each; the Swedish were, I think, dearer but contained a greater number of matches.
    I now pass to another world-swaying British invention - the postage-stamp. I believe that I am not singular in admiring the original Rowland Hill stamps of the 1d. and 2d. denominations. I was not early enough to know the 1d. black, which was more effective pictorially than the succeeding brick-dust red, but was familiar with the 2d. blue, which I have seen described as one of the most beautiful stamps ever produced. Certainly the Queen's head stood out admirably on both. When halfpenny postage came in, the original d. stamp was in similar style, red, but only half the size of the 1d. It, too, was very pretty, and I think it a pity that the process which gave such fine results no longer finds favour. To-day our stamps lack both distinctness and distinction, and are excelled in artistic elegance by those of many foreign States.
    Neither do I remember the pre-perforation days, although stamps were snipped off the sheets by scissors up to 1853. It was in that year, I believe, that the Government paid [-147-] Mr. Archer 4,000 for his device for perforating sheets and enabling tearing off to be easily effected. Certainly we owe much to Mr. Archer. Had it not been for him, we might, in these stamp-using days, be all carrying snipping scissors in our vest pockets. As a boy I had a collection in which were many unperforated varieties, including numerous specimens of Thurn and Taxis.
    Stamps are easier to buy to-day owing to the abolition of some of the absurd old-time regulations. Even in the 1860s, branch post offices would not sell any but ld. stamps after 6 p.m. I remember having a letter for Holland in 1866 and nearly giving a sub-postmistress or some lady of the kind apoplexy by innocently asking for a 4d. stamp - that was the rate to France, Holland, etc. - after 6 o'clock. And at the few offices open on Sunday they would not sell less than one shilling's worth. I saw a poor woman refused a 1d. stamp, although she pleaded that she wanted the letter to catch her son at Queenstown on his way to America the following day. I gave her a stamp out of my own purchase.
    And the letters upon which these stamps were stuck ? Many were of a kind never seen to-day. Envelopes had come in, and were pretty generally used; but many people, especially old-fashioned ones, folded the sheet, tucked one flap into the other, and fastened with one or more wafers, even as Queen Anne had done. Quite effective, too. I was surprised that the plan was not widely revived during the war when envelopes were so dear. I sometimes adopted it myself, using gummed stamp margins or paste instead of wafers, and had no mishaps.
    The penmanship (and more especially penwomanship) of the letters was also different. Sloping writing was taught. Elbow tucked tight into the side, two first fingers straight down the pen-ruler on knuckles if deviation observed- produced good results in many, and bad in some, including myself. In girls and women this method evolved with great uniformity a script strongly suggestive of intoxicated spiders staggering across the page, usually finishing lower on the right than the starting point on the left. Often only two or three words would go to a line, and it required a [-148-]  lady of exceptionally strong will to get "immediately" - which had a bad habit of sprawling - into one. And the gentle sex were giving to crossing their pages (it was necessary to make room somehow) so that a missive from a fair friend required, as the Yankees say, "some tackling." And the universality of the style was marvellous.
    The old-fashioned double s was still a good deal used, looking like f or p when carelessly written, and was even taught. I remember instances in my own copy-books.
    On the whole I think that people, especially women, write to-day more legibly than did their predecessors of sixty years ago. The advent of the girl clerk and influence of the County Council Schools have in this respect wrought notable improvement.
    Quill-pens were still common, and a pen-knife was not quite the misnomer it now is. And so was the art of making flourishes after a signature or at the end of a document. My first teacher in pencraft, Mr. Joseph Woodman, he of the avenging ruler aforesaid, whom we most irreverently called Joe (behind his back), was an adept at what I may perhaps term free-hand flourishing and sometimes enveloped even his simple initials in a maze that made the one at Hampton Court appear, in comparison, little less direct than a straight line. A most conscientious teacher, Joe! But he never did me any good. My writing through life may have been passable or may have been faulty - on that I offer no opinion - but such as it has been, and is, has come about in utter disregard of everything he prized, practised or taught.
    Of course the typewriter had not arrived - that did not come in a practical form until the early 1870s - and carbon paper was the only means of manifolding writing.
    Newspapers used to contain items of information never met with nowadays. Unclaimed dividends on Government stock were regularly advertised by the Bank of England. Under the heading "Benevolence," contributions to the poor-boxes kept at the various Police Courts were acknowledged day by day under the names or initials of the donors. For a time in 1859 I kept a record - with the aid of the Morning Herald - of these sums in a note-book [-149-] with the idea of finding out which Court would have the highest total at the year end - unconscious evidence, perhaps, of how ingrained are racing and wagering in the English nature - but was laughed out of it. I was told that such a contest was unfair, seeing that I could at any time influence the result by sending secret contributions to the Court of my especial fancy. In view of the ordinary condition of my pocket-money exchequer that seemed an extravagant proposition, much more extravagant than I was likely to be in the Police Court Benevolence direction - but with other ironies it sufficed to blot charity from my everyday activities.
    In those days and during the sixties, newspapers and periodicals were sold uncut, and the first thing to be done on buying a paper was to perform on it with a penknife or paper-cutter. Some people did this with great deliberation, and, I am sure, got as much pleasure, if not instruction, out of the operation as any yielded by subsequent perusal. Railway passengers habitually carried folding paper-knives - kept on sale at the bookstalls - in their vest pockets and it was a common sight to see a compartment full of voyagers each intent on cutting the edges of a paper just purchased from Smith and Sons' Mercuries. There was no royal road to newspaper knowledge; it had to be extracted with a knife.
    Another feature of the Victorian age has disappeared - carpet-bags - swept away by the avalanches of Gladstone bags and suit-cases. "Packing his carpet-bag" was equivalent to saying a man was starting on a journey; and the American expression "carpet-bagger," meaning a Northern politician on a dollar hunt in the conquered Southern States, will be remembered.
    The carpet-bag had metal jaws and a snap-lock and was sometimes a formidable affair, two feet long, perhaps, and, artistically, of startling pattern. It was a strong and capacious packing machine but suffered under the disadvantages of being waterproof only to a limited degree and of having but one top, so that the whole contents had to be discharged to get at its lower regions. Carpet-bags had [-150-] been the traveller's stand-by in the coaching days and were still much to the fore in the fifties and sixties, going out rather suddenly as the seventies declined.
    Willow pattern china and crockery, now seldom seen on active duty, was quite the common thing in my boyhood. At home, we had nothing else for many years.
    I suppose the Dutch clock was killed by the cheap American, German and Japanese articles now so universal in poor households. But at the time of which I am writing, swinging pendulums twelve or eighteen inches long, with exposed chains and weights and a portentous tick, were practically everywhere in kitchens and cottages. This clock was a cheap, simple and enduring piece of mechanism, not readily put out of order and quite passable as a time-keeper. The winding was done by pulling down the chain and thereby lifting the weight in readiness for a fresh descent. A kitten we had at Camberwell disclosed a weak spot, however, for It used to jump at, and sometimes stop, the swaying pendulum of the kitchen dial, thereby occasionally putting breakfast time entirely out of joint. When the cheap clock of to-day needs repairs, it may as well be thrown away, but the old Dutch ticker would go on for decades with very little attention. I do not remember any alarum clocks I=in the fifties. No doubt they existed, for repeater watches were common, but were not cheap enough for popular use.
    Roasting-jacks were then in every house, for meat was really roasted. Ours was a clockwork one of ordinary model which stopped and reversed every ten or twelve turns, announcing the fact by a loud tick. It was suspended from a toothed bracket over a dripping-pan with a well into which the fat and gravy drained, leaving intrusive cinders on the upper deck. Periodically the cook had to dip melted fat from the well with a long-handled ladle- such as Dick Whittington was thrashed with-and pour or baste it over the twirling joint. At the 1862 Exhibition a Signor Zanni had an automatic basting-jack which pumped fat from the pan and tipped it over the meat. Marconi was not the first Italian inventor. The jack was often helped by a Dutch oven placed behind it.
    [-151-] Roasting-jacks may yet survive in kings' palaces, but the gas-oven and the whirl and pressure of modern life, have put them out of gear and they are no longer "understanded of the people," which is a pity. A restaurant enterprising enough to resuscitate them and serve nothing but roasted joints would probably score a success. In France the word for cook-shop is still rotisserie, but I'm afraid few could produce a roasting-jack without first sending round to the local museum.
    Once, when staying with an aunt, there were ducks for dinner, and a delicious smell from the kitchen advised hungry boys and others that the roasting process was proceeding satisfactorily to its climax. Suddenly, about ten minutes before dishing-up time, came a shriek from the lower regions with much scuttling of feet. The chimney had caught fire and discharged a mass of burning soot on to the roasting birds, burying the dripping-pan, well, ladle and all. Tragedy! Dinner, vegetables and pudding! On this special occasion an oven would have yielded better results. Ordinarily it was far otherwise.
    Bath-rooms were much rarer than they have been for the last few decades. Lack of cleanliness must not be too rashly inferred, however. Tubs and portable baths were quite the rule, and the universally-fitted copper provided plenty of hot water. The daily bath, hot or cold, was not so practised, either for children or adults, but matters were very much better than they had been, by all accounts, forty or fifty years earlier. There were a few public baths and wash-houses already established in the 1850s. In 1902 I converted one of the earliest of these - that of Wincolmlee, Hull - into a Telephone Exchange for the Town Council. It was not, I think, before the 1870s that London saw its first Turkish Bath, the one still extant in Jermyn Street. Real Turkish masseurs from Constantinople were at first employed, but they advertised the novelty but indifferently by succumbing very readily to the climate. Several died, and ultimately all were replaced by men to whom Golden Horn conditions were not so essential.