Tag Archives: Popular Culture

War Games

It’s not just contemporary video games that engage our children (boys) in virtual warfare: their paper predecessors had the very same focus. The majestic monarchs and large professional armies and navies of the eighteenth century inspired the transformation of traditional games of the goose into more strategic games of fortifications and war, and nineteenth-century manufacturing and marketing techniques intensified this shift, along with contemporary ideas about nationalism and education. Four things inspired me to dig into this topic:  André Hellé’s Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, which I featured in my last post, the discovery of a board game dating from and “playing” the Crimean War of 1853-56 (too topical), a recent New York Times “Opinionator” column about “The Myriopticon”, a Civil-War parlor game which was “immensely popular with boys”, and an advertisement for Salem’s own Parker Brothers’ Spanish-American War games, The War in Cuba and The Battle of Manila. And then I discovered the Victoria & Albert’s Museum of Childhood “War Games” exhibit, which is closing at the end of the week.

ABC Great War Games

War Games Crimea V and A

War Games

War Games Parker Brothers

I find these games a little disarming. I understand that the ABC was intended for “the children of our soldiers”, but do these children really need to see pictures of trenches and tanks (no gas masks, thankfully)? I’m just nervous about the Crimea. And Milton Bradley produced the Myriopticon during the Civil War (or Great Rebellion), a tactic that was followed by Parker Brothers at the end of the century. Both World War I and World War II challenged the glorification of war in many ways, but they did not put an end to war games; if anything, the intensifying competitive nationalism and focus on propaganda made them even more popular. The latter are of the bombs away variety, but games of the Great War seem particularly and personally destructive: German children targeted Britain with their toy u-boats, while the object of British children was to get rid of the Huns.

War Games U Boat

War Games Sink the Huns

Get Rid of Huns Maze Puzzle, c. 1916, Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.


Halloween & Husbands

The modern secular holiday that is Halloween has evolved in so many ways over the twentieth century that its “customs” would have been unrecognizable even a century ago. At that time, the focus was much more on divination than on horror: pumpkins, black cats, and witches were in the margins but for grown-ups, fortune-telling was in the forefront. There’s a long process of assimilation that creates Halloween–from harvest to Samhain to the eves of All Saints’ and All Souls days–but the evolving traditions of the harvest holiday converged most vividly in Scotland, and Scotch-Irish emigres transferred them to the New World, where they were subject to yet another process of assimilation. In his 1785 poem Hallowe’en, Robert Burns presents and annotates the customs of western Scotland: its longer title, The Merry Diversions of Halloween, encompasses an account of the Kale stalks–burning nuts–Catching sweethearts in the Stalk Yard–Pulling the corn–winding the Blue Clue–Winnowing the Corn–Sowing the Hemp Seed–And the Cutting of the Apple, with the Conclusion of these Merry Meetings, by telling Wonderful Stories about Witches and Fairies. Written in Scots and English, the poem requires some translation, but as the title relates, it all begins with cabbages, witches only come in at the endand Halloween is more merry than scary. Over a century later, one of Ellen Clapsaddle’s most sought after Halloween postcards illustrates the Scottish/cabbage connection.

Halloween Cabbages

Kale or cabbage-pulling was a particular type of divination tied to one’s marital future: unmarried men and women would go out to the patch and pull up a cabbage, and then bring it back to the farm to uncover its stalk–and the characteristics of their future mate: old or young, tall or short, strong (straight) or weak (crooked). Then the stalks would be hung up in a public place to determine exactly who you would marry: if yours was placed third in line you would marry the third man who walked beneath it. Corn (wheat), nuts, apples—all the fruits of the earth–could reveal all sorts of things if you knew the rituals to tease out their secrets, but Halloween rituals definitely seem to focus on relationships. The cabbage patch customs do cross over the Atlantic (with variations) but the most popular crossover was definitely scrying, or mirror magic. In the modern era, scrying usually involves a crystal ball, but centuries ago it was more generally a process that involved water, glass and/or mirrors. Burns’ poem contains a line where a “wee” lass says I’ll eat an apple at the glass which refers to the custom of gazing into a looking glass in candlelight while eating an apple, which will bring forth the visage of your future conjugal companion, peering over your shoulder. There were lots of variations on this ritual, including one which incorporates three bowls of water (clean, dirty, empty) and a blindfold, and another which calls for the seeker to descend backward down the stairs with mirror in hand (sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary’s Curse”), and yet another in which the maiden flips an apple peel over her shoulder to see her future mate. All of these customs crossed over, but mirrors definitely dominated in modern America.

Halloween print BM

Halloween and Husbands 3a

Mezzotint, 1830s, British Museum:  “Place three Plates or other Dishes on the Table, one containing clean water _ another foul _ and the ghird empty _ If the lass [who is / blin]dfolded, put her hand into the clean water, she will soon get a young husband _ If into the foul water, she will [...] / either an old man or a widower _ If into the empty dish, she will die an old maid. // Painted by Alexander Barron. // Engraved by E. Radclyffe.”; 1910 postcard, New York Public Library.

In America, there are fewer visual and literary references to the harvest (except for thoroughly-American pumpkins, of course, as well as apples) and encroaching witches–but all is still relatively merry in the world of turn-of-the century postcards. Things are changing though; the last young woman below looks scared–whether by the sight of the shadowy witch or her future husband, I do not know.

Halloween and Husbands 3

Halloween & Husbands 5

Halloween and Husbands 7

Halloween & Husbands 6

Halloween and Husbands 4

Of course the World Wars will change everything, but the more macabre and ghoulish nature of modern Halloween is hard to imagine when looking at these early 20th century postcards, which portray the holiday in either a whimsical or slightly sarcastic light (see below). But once traditions are torn from their geographical and cultural context and plunged into brave new worlds, their transformation can be frightful.

Halloween & Husbands 11

Halloween & Husbands 12

Halloween Husband 13

Good and bad husbands for Halloween: Rose Company postcards, c. 1900-1909, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Modernizing the Monarchs

Playing with history, even manipulating it, is amusing in my off-time (which includes the blog), so naturally these images captured my attention: they were commissioned by a British television channel named Yesterday for their tabloid series entitled The Secret Life Of… and are the results of “digital artists working closely with history experts to ensure the portraits gave a real sense of how historical characters would look if they were alive in the 21st Century”. I don’t know how this could be “ensured”, but interesting choices were made in the updating process. For example, Henry VIII was by all accounts a vain man, so he would have maintained his athletic figure through middle age and cloaked it in a bespoke suit–but the jewelry? I don’t think so. I also think he was a traditionalist, so he would have worn a tie, especially for an important portrait-sitting.

History People

Henry’s daughter Elizabeth is described as “the over-the-top queen with the powdered white face, unnaturally high forehead, and a wardrobe that made her the Lady Gaga of the 16th century” .  Why then such a boring pantsuit? This modern Elizabeth has been robbed of her femininity, which was an essential feature of her projected character. I would have clothed her in something much more high fashion:  she looks like a Dolce & Gabbana girl to me, and the ensemble below (from their Fall 2012 collection) reads royal.

History People Elizabeth

Dolce and Gabbana fall 2012

Elizabeth’s contemporary William Shakespeare fares better, I think, but then who really knows? The receding hairline that you see in some historical images (we’re not quite sure what Shakespeare actually looked like) has been “corrected” with a modern hair transplanting process, resulting in abundant curls, and his ruff is replaced by a hipster shirt and vest. The facial hair remains the same, as it does with Henry VIII. Timeless, I guess.

History People 2


Spring Witches

In central and northern Europe the closing days of April and commencement of Spring converge on Walpurgisnacht, a bonfire festival based on both pagan and Christian traditions. On the eve of May 1, the canonization day of Saint Walpurga, an English Christian nun and missionary based in southern Germany in the eighth century (and presumably was so named to replace a pre-Christian harvest goddess also named Walpurga), witches gather to fly off to the highest mountain (in the case of Germany, Brocken Mountain in the Harz mountain range) to pay homage to the Devil with a night-long bacchanalian celebration. Newly-empowered and inspired, they fly back to society, on broomsticks or goats, to continue their demonic service.

Spring Witches

Hermann Hendrich Die Walpurgishalle in Goethes Faust

Fireworks over the Rhine on Walpurgisnacht, 2012, and Hermann Hendrich’s vision, 1901.

Like Halloween, exactly six months later, Walpurgisnacht is a perfect example of early medieval assimilation, in which a saint’s day is grafted onto an existing “calendar” and there is a clash of evil and good, or perhaps a last hurrah for evil before good prevails in the merry new month of May. Evil is always very, very close–but the actual ritual by which the witch enters into the pact with the devil–described and perceived as in inverse Sabbath–happens far away, in a remote place that one could only access through flight. As I wrote about in an earlier post, fears about a conspiratorial demonic force intensified in the sixteenth century along with the Reformation, resulting in over 100,000 trials for witchcraft in the early modern era. Two hundred years later, after the Devil had lost much of his power, he was revived by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic and tragic Faust (1808-1831), with its vivid scenes of Walpurgis Night.

Spring Witches Faust

Spring Witches Faust 2b

Spring Witches Faust 3b

Title page of the 1908 Hayward/Hutchinson translation of Goethe’s Faust, with illustrations of Walpurgis Night by Willy Pogany.

Goethe, along with his near-contemporaries the Brothers Grimm and a host of other authors and artists, was both reflection and inspiration for an intensifying interest in German folklore in the nineteenth century. Witches became more fanciful than fearful; even if it was with or for the devil, they still danced. Given its long association with the witches’ sabbaths, the Brocken and its adjacent Hexentanzplatz  (a plateau long referred to as the “witches’ dancing floor”) became popular tourist destinations. A hilltop hotel on the Hexentanzplatz drew a steady stream of visitors from 1870 on, and the addition of an open-air theater and the Walpurgishalle, a museum dedicated to Goethe and Walpurgis Night, increased their number after the turn of the century. The Hexentanzplatz became a place where everybody could come to dance, on the eve of St. Walpurga’s Day, Beltane, May Day, or simply Spring.

walpurgisnacht pc 1890s

Walpurgisnacht pc 2

Walpurgisnacht in Meissen

The focus is clearly on the Hexentanzplatz hotel in postcards from the 1890s and 1911 (along with the now-naked witches); a century later the more generic Wulpurgisnacht is celebrated in Meissen (photo by Tobi_2008@ Flikr).


A Two-Comet Year

Looking forward to the year ahead, as we all tend to do at this time, I notice that not only is this the “year of the snake” and the year of the (Pantone) color emerald green, but also a year in which there will be two great comets visible in the northern hemisphere. I’m working on an academic project on changing perceptions of wonder in the early modern era, and few things were as wonderful as a truly “Great Comet” blazing a very visible trail through the sky, so this is one of those times where past and present, scholarship and blog intersect, which is very exciting. It’s a rare year that one comet is visible to the naked eye, so the possibility of two is extraordinary. Comet PANSTARRS will be the first comet of 2013, appearing only in the southern hemisphere for the first two months of the year, but by the middle of March it should be visible in the north. The recently-discovered Comet ISON, so bright that it might even be visible at daylight if it doesn’t break apart or flame out, will make its appearance towards the end of the year.

Both before and after the sixteenth century, comets were portents of a potentially cataclysmic event or great change:  plague, earthquake, the fall of a regime, all of course the wrath of God bearing down on sinful people. Omens were always ominous. In political terms, comets were “the terror of kings”, and one of the first images of a comet, likely Halley’s comet, is in the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, which records the Norman Conquest from the Norman point of view. Isti mirant stella:  they gaze in wonder at the star, blazing over King Harold II’s head, foretelling his defeat and death.

comet Bayeux

Halley’s Comet did not return until 1456 (when it was associated with the conquests of the Ottoman Turks in eastern Europe), but there were bright “hairy” stars recorded by European chroniclers in 1264 (predicting the death of Pope Urban IV) and 1402 (again–the advances of the Turks).  The first image below, from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript, shows a man looking upon a particularly bright (and hairy) comet with wonder, a mixture of fear, awe, and curiosity, and I think that balance tips towards the latter in the early modern era. As evidence, look at the amazing second image below, of what I often describe in class as a “comet party” viewing (and drawing) the Great Comet of 1577:  these people are not quaking in fear; to the contrary, they look rather celebratory.

Royal 6.E.vi,  f. 340v. detail

Comet of 1577

British Library MS Royal 6 E VI, c. 1360-75, England; Woodcut by Jiri Daschitzsky, Von einem Schrecklichen und Wunderbahrlichen Cometen so sich den Dienstag nach Martini M. D. Lxxvij. Jahrs am Himmel erzeiget hat (Prague: Petrus Codicillus a Tulechova, 1577).

The changing perception of comets isn’t quite as straightforward as these two images indicate; in fact, early modern descriptions and representations of comets are a mixed bag, some very “scientific”, others very allegorical. Below, two sixteenth-century men of science depict comets of their time in very different ways:  while Peter Apian attempts to chart the course of the comet of 1532, physician Ambroise Paré presents blazing stars as fearful “swords of the heavens”, like the “mortal darts” of John Milton’s Paradise Lost a century later:  Incensed with indignation, Satan stood Unterrified, and like a comet burned, That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair Shakes pestilence and war.

comet_1532_apian-l

L0021174 Ambroise Pare, Les Oeuvres, 1579: fearful comet

The comets of Peter Apian (1532) and Amboise Paré (1579), Wellcome Library, London.

The comets of the seventeenth century provoked fear and trepidation, but they also provided empirical celestial evidence of a more predictable universe.  The Great  Comet of 1680 (to which ISON might be connected) was viewed through the telescope and utilized by Newton to verify the accumulated theories and hypothetical laws of the previous century and therefore “complete” the Scientific Revolution, and the Comet of 1682 became “Halley’s Comet” after his colleague Edmund Halley utilized historical and scientific analysis to connect it to comets of the past and the future.  I don’t really see much of this rational spirit on display over here in the New World, where Increase Mather called the Comet of 1680 a “terrible sight indeed” and the colonial government of Massachusetts proclaimed a general fast in order to cease “that awful, portentous, blazing star, usually foreboding some calamity to the beholders thereof.”

Comet of 1619 BM

Comet over Rotterdam Verschuier1680

Engraving of the Comet of 1619 after Adriaen van de Venne, British Museum; The Great Comet over Rotterdam, December 26, 1680 by Lieve Verschuier, Historisch Museum, Amersterdam (note the crowd below with their measuring devices).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially after Halley was proven posthumously correct with the return of “his” comet in 1758, comets were perceived with a more modern sense of wonder on the part of both the scientific community and the general public. The blazing comet of 1811 inspired all sorts of cultural expressions, and was tied to a positive outcome (for once):  a conspicuously good year for wine production. And even better than wine (or at least on a par), the return of Halley’s comet in 1835 inspired a completely new category of jewelry:  comet pins.

Comet of 1811 Thomas Rowlandson BM

Comet Brooch, France V and A

Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of comet-viewing in 1811, British Museum; French paste comet brooch, c. 1950, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Christmas Casting

In the medieval era and slightly after, Christmas was often the time for making predictions for the coming year, rather than on New Year’s Day. Weather predictions were common, and also more varied prognostications, based on what day of the week Christmas fell. The predictions based on a Christmas Tuesday are not particularly cheery, I must admit, but then neither are they overwhelmingly optimistic for Christmases that fell on the other days of the week.  Here’s the Middle English verse from British Library Harley Manuscript 2252, the commonplace book (an often-miscellaneous journal of very random sayings and bits of information, kind of like a blog!), of London merchant John Colyns, from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, with my hasty translation. It’s been a while since I have tangled with Middle English so there may be some lapses here, but I think I got the gist of this verse.

Yf Crystemas day on Tuysday be, That yere shall dyen wemen plenté; And that wynter wex grete marvaylys; Shyppys shalbe in grete perylles; That yere shall kynges and lordes be slayne, And myche hothyr pepylle agayne heym. A drye somer that yere shalbe; Alle that be borne ther in many se, They shalbe stronge and covethowse. Yf thou stele awghte, thou lesyste thi lyfe; Thou shalte dye throwe swerde or knyfe; But and thow fall seke, sertayne, Thou shalte turne to lyfe agayne.

If Christmas Day be on a Tuesday, many women will die that year; and that winter will see great marvels; Ships shall be in great perils; That year kings and lords shall be slain, And many other people against them. That year will have a dry summer; All that are born in that year shall be strong and covetous. Whoever steals, shall lose his life by sword or knife; But if one falls sick, they shall become well.

Well at least it ends on a somewhat optimistic note!

STC 25949, title page

Ships and people in peril a century later:  The Wonders of this Windie Weather, London, 1613. STC 25949.


         


Fire over England

Tonight is Bonfire Night, the age-old celebration of the thwarting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a native Catholic conspiracy to blow up the entire English government–King James I and VI and the royal family, attendant Lords and legislators–at the opening of Parliament. Plans of the plot leaked out, and Guido (or Guy) Fawkes, the man who has come to symbolize the Plot and recently so much more, was found in the basement of Parliament with 36 kegs of gunpowder. In the days that followed, he confessed to the Plot (both under torture and afterwards) and named the others involved. Not long after 1605, the relatively new art of fireworks was merged with the traditional celebratory British bonfire and burning Guy effigies to create a truly incendiary evening.  And the tradition has continued for over 400 years–it looks like they already started this weekend.

Celebrating the “wonderfull deliverance” in 1605 and last year.

The Plot and its aftermath have so many interesting dimensions:  historical, cultural, political.  I’m going to focus on just a few in this short blog post, but obviously books can and have been written. For teaching purposes, nothing demonstrates burgeoning popular anti-Catholicism in England better than the Plot and all of the diverse reactions and expressions that came after, as demonstrated particularly by the broadside below, which connects the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 with the Plot through a nefarious council jointly overseen by the Pope and the Devil. Religious propaganda in seventeenth century England was not subtle, but subtlety is not what you need to convey religious intensity, both negative and positive, to twenty-first century college students.

And then there is the culture of remembrance and the shaping of national identity. Modern historians have focused on this trend, particularly in relation to the Civil War in America and the First World War in Europe, but I think we can push it back into the early modern era. The Fifth of November was definitely and deliberately cultivated as a day of national deliverance and remembrance in England, and later in Great Britain, the Empire, and the Commonwealth. Here in New England, the 5th of November was celebrated as “Pope-Night” until the onset of the Revolution, and then it had to stop, or change, as it was just too British. Being British meant remembering the 5th of November, even if it was increasingly shed of its specific religious associations.

Illustrations from George Carleton‘s A Thankfull Remembrance of Gods Mercy, London, 1627, British Museum and from Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night, Boston, 1769, Library of Congress.

Obviously it’s all about Guy Fawkes, then and now:  Bonfire Night is Guy Fawkes night.  As I wrote about in last year’s November 5th post, Fawkes has gone through an amazing transition, from terrorist to liberator, due to his central role in the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta and his adoption by the global Occupy movement. Guy miraculously became an advocate for freedom and an avatar for the 99%, with Shepard Fairey reworking his famous Hope poster with the mask of Fawkes replacing Obama. This transition seemed rather abrupt to me a year ago, but I’ve looked at Guy’s evolution over the centuries a bit and now I think I understand:  he has lost his context. Shed of the conspiratorial motivations and details, he became an increasingly iconic image, and also somewhat of a dashing cavalier.

Guy through the ages:  a Gunpowder Plot card from a deck of “Popish plot” cards, 1672, British Museum; an actor in character and costume as Guy, 1830s, Museum of London; cigarette cards from the 1920s and 1930s and a W.W. Denslow poster from the turn of the century, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; boys in Camden Town, London, with their Guy effigy, c. 1970, Museum of London; putting finishing touches on a Guy effigy this past weekend, Reuters.


Michaelmas

In pre-modern Europe, the year was once organized by saints’ days, overlaid on key dates in the agricultural year.  Of these days, Michaelmas, coinciding with the harvest and celebrated on the 29th of September, was among the most important, and it still remains relevant on the British academic calendar.  Michaelmas is named for the most powerful of the medieval angels, the archangel Michael, who was a real fighter, fighting Persians, devils and dragons. I’ve always thought he was the best representative of medieval militant Christianity:  he convinced Joan of Arc to take up the mission of ridding France of the English during the Hundred Years’ War, and even after the Reformation he remained a powerful figure in British culture, appearing as the “flaming warrior”  who drives the sinful Adam and Eve out of Paradise and then defends it from all intruders in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

BL MS Harley624 (12th century) ; Michael Burgesse (engraver) after John Baptist Medina, illustration to Book XII of Paradise Lost, (1688); Michael speaking to Joan of Arc in the famous painting by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1879; Metropolitan Museum of Art) and in a Puck adaptation from 1912 featuring Teddy Roosevelt (Library of Congress).

Because Michaelmas coincides with the harvest it became associated with lots of other things:  it was the day that the annual rents were due, as well as a taxes, and the last flowers and fruits of the summer became known as Michaelmas Daisies (asters), and Michaelmas peaches and pears. It was a widespread custom to serve goose on Michaelmas evening, and to avoid blackberries the next day and after:  at that season of the year called Michaelmas, the Devil is said to touch with his club the black-berries, or to “throw his club over them”, none daring after that period to eat one of them, ‘or the worms will eat their ingangs’ (John MacTaggart, The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia: Or, the Original, Antiquated, and Natural Curiosities of the South of Scotland (1824).  There was also a custom involving apples harvested on Michaelmas Day that could forecast the rest of the year:  take oak apples and cut them, and by them you shall know how it shall go that year; spiders shew a naughty year, flies a merry year, maggots a good year, nothing in them portends great death (Lilly’s New Era Pater, or, A Prognostication  for Ever (1750).

Michaelmas Daisies by Jacob Huysum after Elisha Kirkall and John Martyn, 1741, Wellcome Library Images; Michaelmas Pears by Thomas Bensley, Pomona Britannica, 1812; a “Michaelmas goose”, 1840, British Museum.


Whistle Belly Vengeance

Flipping through one of a stack of old books I seem to be collecting on “ye olde” customs of New England, I found not only a recipe for a popular drink called “Flip”, but also one very much linked to my adopted city:  “A terrible drink is said to have been made popular in Salem – a drink with a terrible name – whistle-belly-vengeance. It consisted of sour household beer simmered in a kettle, sweetened with molasses, filled with brown-bread crumbs and drunk piping hot” (Alice Morse Earle, Customs and Fashions of Old New England, 1893).  I had seen that phrase before–in Old England–where it generally seemed to convey a truly awful drink, so it is odd to see it used as a name of a popular one:  the link must be the sour (spoiled) beer.  Our colonial forebears lived in an ever-perishable world which disdained waste of all kinds, so spoiled beer was turned into something sweet and hot to cover up its taste, and I suppose that the bread crumbs even added a bit of sustenance.  Many of the drinks referenced by Earle are similar in their combination of sweet and hot–and a few have proteins mixed in as well;  sillabub (hard cider, mixed with sugar, nutmeg and cream)and the afore-mentioned flip (strong beer, mixed with sugar, nutmeg, pumpkin and molasses, a shot of rum and a beaten egg, stirred with a hot fire poker) seem to have been the most substantive.  In general, possets were drinks which featured cream or milk, and fustians contained eggs.

Staffordshire posset pot, early 18th century, courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Beverige was a lighter, non-alcoholic drink generally made of water mixed with ginger and molasses, but when served to sailors it was strengthened by the addition of rum and vinegar, and became switchel. There were countless rum drinks, served hot and cold:  beer was mixed with rum (bogus), cider was mixed with rum (stone-wall), molasses was mixed with rum (black-strap).  New England was indeed awash in rum, perhaps fueled by rum, and therein, unfortunately, lies its major connection to slavery. My own house was built by a wealthy rum distiller, so I think about this connection quite a bit.

Eighteenth-century caricature from the George Arents Collection of Tobacciana in the New York Public Library (where there is smoking there is usually drinking); the Buckman Tavern in Lexington, Massachusetts, from A Revolutionary Pilgrimage (1917) by Ernest Clifford Peixotto.

Apparently a British brewery has revived Whistle Belly Vengeance:  a “ malty reddish ale”  produced by Summerskills Brewery of Devon is clearly not based on the original recipe, but it does seem to have attained the “frothiness” that was often aspired to way back when.



Playing with Fire

Francis Bacon heralded the compass, printing, and gunpowder as the three European (really Chinese) inventions that changed the world, but he also had words of praise for another Renaissance (Chinese) innovation:  fireworks. Like gunpowder, fireworks represented the Promethean feat of his age:  stealing fire from heaven, and in both his Essays (1612; “On Masques”) and The New Atlantis (1627) he references the achievement:  we represent also ordinance and instruments of war, and engines of all kinds: and likewise new mixtures and compositions of gun-powder, wild-fires burning in water, and unquenchable. Also fire-works of all variety both for pleasure and use.

I’m not sure what the recommended use of fireworks was besides pleasure, but I thought I’d indulge in a brief (and very Eurocentric) illustrated history of fireworks for the beginning of our July 4th week.  As always, when I compare the past and present, I’m struck by the artfulness of the former:  fireworks displays from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century seem to have been as much focused on a flagrant display of machines on the ground as light in the sky. As evidence, look at the elaborate seventeenth-century (Italian, of course) creation below, and an illustration from John Babington’s Pyrotechnia.

Engraving by Lodovico Ottavio Burnacini (1636-1707), courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, London; John Babington, Pyrotechnia (1635), courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

Fireworks demonstrations in Europe are first recorded in the fifteenth century, so two centuries later they are not quite the marvel they once were and the “pyrotechnists” had to stage ever-more elaborate displays in order to impress at every royal and national event:  weddings, coronation, victories in battles and wars. Views of London fireworks celebrating the English victory at the Battle of Boyne in Ireland in 1690 and the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in April of 1749 are below;  the latter celebration definitely had its highs and lows. The high was the first performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, while the “low” was a firework-sparked fire which burned the central pavilion to the ground, accompanied by a swordfight between the pyrotechnist-architect of the performance, Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni, and the organizer of the event, the Duke of Montagu.

Night-time fireworks celebrating William III’s victory at the Battle of Boyne, 1690, British Museum; two views of the fireworks and fireworks pavilion celebrating the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, April 27, 1749, British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum.

In the nineteenth century, fireworks celebrations look a bit more recognizable (boring), so I’m going to shift to ephemera and fireworks-related items.  From either end of the century, some great British trade cards and a beautiful cover of Lippincott’s Magazine by Will Carqueville.

Trade cards from the British Museum and British Library; Lippincott’s cover from July 1895, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Back to the art of fireworks for the last century:  Eric Revilious’ amazing fireworks design for Wedgwood, commemorating the 1937 coronation of King George VI on a coffee cup, and a recent photograph by Sarah Anne Johnson.

Eric Revilious mug for Wedgwood, 1937, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Chromogenic print with applied photospotting ink, acrylic ink, gouache, and india ink by Sarah Anne Johnson, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


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