In the Victorian secret code called the language of flowers, roses were especially meaningful. Each color of rose sent a specific message to the recipient, and many a fond hope was dashed when a gentleman presented a lady with a yellow rose (denoting friendship) instead of the expected red (true love) or light pink (desire).
Victorian and Edwardian greeting cards often featured roses, and several women illustrators of the period became known for the exquisite detail they achieved in painting the flowers.
Below are some of my rose-themed Valentine’s Day greeting postcards dating from about 1905 to 1915. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Last year, I had the pleasure of seeing Gerald Charles Dickens, the great-grandson of the author Charles Dickens, present a one-man performance of A Christmas Carol. Gerald clearly resembles his namesake, and his facial expressions as he brought to life the different characters in the story were priceless. But my favorite part of the evening was when Gerald embodied Mrs. Cratchit as she prepared to serve the Christmas pudding to the assembled Cratchit family. Here’s the condensed version of the scene used by Charles Dickens himself in his dramatic readings:
“Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone, —too nervous to bear witnesses, — to take the pudding up, and bring it in.
“Suppose it should not be done enough! Suppose it should break in turning out! Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose, — a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid! All sorts of horrors were supposed.
“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastry-cook’s next door to each other with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered, — flushed but smiling proudly, — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
“O, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”
And many a modern British family would not think of celebrating Christmas without a traditional pudding. But this pudding is not at all like what we think of as pudding in the United States—a creamy smooth, relatively bland desert. “Pudding” is the generic term for “dessert” in the U.K. Christmas pudding, though, is a specific dessert with a rich history. Though I confess I have never tasted this treat, from the typical ingredients used, I can conclude that it must be sweet, spicy, dense, and chewy. Last week, I blogged about mincemeat and its mystery ingredients. Christmas pudding (a.k.a. plum pudding because it originally contained plums) seems to be a recombination of many of the same ingredients—suet, dried fruits, candied fruit peel, and spices—held together with flour, breadcrumbs, and eggs. The mixture is formed into balls, wrapped in cloth, and aged for a few weeks, during which time it is basted with brandy or rum. It is then steamed or boiled to soften the texture. Just before serving, the dining room is darkened and the pudding doused with flaming liquor before being ceremoniously presented to appreciative oohs and ahs.
The plum pudding trade cards in my collection, which date to the 1870s, suggest that the role of carrying the pudding to the table in households of means was typically performed by a servant. Below, the king instructs his serving-man where to place the steaming dessert:
On this card, the bearer resembles a liveried footman:
The woman below appears to be a cook, with cheeks flushed from standing over a steaming copper pot:
Sometimes the task was assigned to a child, as on this trade card, which depicts either a servant boy or a wealthy child in period clothing:
The most nerve-wracking choice would be to entrust the flaming pudding to two small children in the family. Don’t try this at home, kids:
If you are not inclined to light your food on fire this holiday, you’ll find a simplified, flame-free version of a classic English Christmas pudding here (along with sources for a few harder-to-find ingredients). But why not try the real deal instead? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Anyone who spends a lot of time with the memorabilia of previous generations is often struck with how few of our daily joys and sorrows are new. The technology and language we use to express them may change, but the emotions and realities remain the same.
Example: We ran an article in our April/May Earth Matters column called “Hard Work = Tastier Food.” It seems that researchers at Johns Hopkins University experimented with mice and found that the mice enjoyed a snack more when they had to work harder for it. Although we’re not mice, I’m sure this is one of the reasons that vegetables we pick from our gardens taste better than those we merely “pick out” at the supermarket.
But guess what? Our mothers already knew this. That’s why they sent us outside to “work up an appetite” before dinner. They learned it from their grandmothers. Take a look at this Victorian-era pamphlet, the type of token that would have been given to a Sunday-school pupil for learning bible verses.
It describes a young girl who turns her nose up at the “bad” soup her mother serves her for lunch. Her wise mother tells her she doesn’t have to eat it because she will have better soup for supper. Then she takes the girl into the garden, where they spend the afternoon harvesting potatoes. At suppertime, the girl is so tired and hungry from working that when her mother serves her the same soup, she pronounces it delicious.
The moral? Hunger is the best sauce.
And it still is. Whether scientists say so or not.
Most of us associate the Victorian Era with primness and propriety, and assume that treacly sentiment would have been the only thing on offer in a greeting-card shop in those days. Not so. One example is this set of Valentine’s Day cards, printed circa 1884, featuring skillful caricatures of vegetable-people.
The cards were probably printed by Herman Rothe, of Covent Garden, London. (I found a nearly identical example online imprinted with the publisher’s name and a New Year’s greeting.) The set of six cards originally sold for $.40, a princely sum when you consider that in 1885, a woman could work a full year in a garment factory for $300. Comic Valentines, some including extremely cruel cartoons that no doubt sparked many a crying jag, were very popular at the end of the 19th century. The examples below are fairly benign, but I have to wonder what message was being sent in each case…
“The old, old tale, but ever new. Lovest thou me as I love you?” That’s the question the Cabbage Lady is asking. But why is she shaped like a cabbage? That’s the question I’m asking. I find her root-hair and root-arms particularly disconcerting.
A similar effect is achieved by making hair and arms out of an onion’s leaves. The “fringe” of roots at the Onion Lady’s hemline is inspired, though. Was the sender of this Valentine suggesting that his lady-love needed deodorant? We’ll never know.
This artist has done a masterful job of capturing the texture of a cantaloupe. Cantaloupe Chef’s arms, holding aloft a Valentine cake, are a pretty good approximation of melon vines, too. But what message is he sending? Is he telling some young lady that he “can’t elope”?
Comic Valentines often poked fun at men they deemed too dandified, and the umbrella and jaunty cocked hat on this tuberous fellow make him well qualified. This is one spud that has actual “eyes,” too. And arms made of sprouts.
There’s no mistaking this red-breasted dude as anything but a dandy. The monocle, cravat (of dried beet-greens) and walking stick give him away. The Valentine cookie he’s holding sports a decoration of forget-me-nots, symbolizing true love.
Carrot Man may be a dandy (with a stylish necktie fashioned from carrot greens), but he’s also a gentleman. He doffs his hat for the lady he addresses. “Mine is the love that no cloud can o’ercast. My heart and my hand all thy own to the last,” he professes. He sounds sincere, but I have to think he’d have better luck if he weren’t, you know, shaped like a carrot.