The men who promenaded in the parks or on the Mall were still—as in Elizabethan or Restoration days—the more grandly dressed sex. Except at work or at home, they wore tilted three-cornered hats, often cocky with tassels, ribbons, or cockades. They bound their tresses with a pretty bow behind the neck, or covered their heads with a powdered wig. Their handsome coats, rustling about their knees, sported buttons designed to dazzle rather than to tie; and sleeves of rich brocade proclaimed income or class. Their fancy waistcoats sought the eye with their gaudy tints—yellow, orange, scarlet, pink, or blue—and dangled a watch fob of gold on a golden chain. Their shirts of fine linen were faced with frills, hiding flannel underwear. “Stocks” (cravats) of “lawn” (a fabric imported from Laon in France) were fitted snugly about their throats. Their breeches were fastened with buckles at the knees, three buttons at the waist, and three hidden in the fly. Their stockings were usually red, but would be of white silk at formal gatherings. Their shoes, in 1730, had to be red in toe and heel. Even with all this equipment the man of fashion felt naked without a sword. As the middle classes mounted, swords were replaced with canes, usually topped with some costly metal and finely carved; but since the streets were still dangerous, the cane often contained a sword. Umbrellas had entered the picture late in the seventeenth century, but did not become general till the end of the eighteenth. Specific costumes, of course, were required for riding in the park or with the hounds; and dandies (“Macaronis”) clamored for attention with extremes of adornment or coloration. Another group (“Slovens”) made a religion of careless manners and untidy clothes; they disheveled their hair with rebellious care, left their breeches unbuckled, and flaunted the mud on their shoes as declarations of independence and emblems of original thought.
Women, when on display, dressed as in our wondering youth, when the female structure was a breathless mystery costly to behold. Their fluffy skirts were generally inflated with hoops that lifted them lightly from step to step, and made a giddy revelation of sparkling ankles and prancing feet. Hoops, sometimes nine yards around, were ramparts, and stays were shields, so that the conquests of love required all the ardor of a knight piercing armor and scaling parapets; so much the better for poetry. The gloss and splendor of a woman’s hair were partly lost in reinforced elevations so lofty that they had to be guarded against being ignited by chandeliers. Feminine faces were concealed by lotions, pastes, patches, powders, and adjustable eyebrows; and all the gems of the Orient were commandeered to adorn their hair and ears and neck and arms and dress and shoes. From her towering hat and scented curls to her silken and jeweled footwear the woman of fashion was dressed to kill any hesitation on the part of circumjacent males. By 1770 the arts of the toilette had reached such wizardry that Parliament, in a jovial mood, passed an act designed to protect the precipitous sex:
That all women, of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgins, maids, or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce, or betray into matrimony any of his Majesty’s male subjects by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, etc., shall incur the penalty of the law now enforced against witchcraft and like misdemeanours, and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.86
Sumptuary laws struggled to check conspicuous expenditure in dress, but custom required all loyal Britons to don a new outfit on the birthday of Queen Caroline, who at her coronation wore a costume costing £2,400,000—mostly in borrowed gems.
Home was a place where one might discard the laborious accouterments of display; there one could dress in anything or less. Windows were not inquisitive, for their number was held down by a law that limited them to five and taxed any surplus as luxury. Interiors were dark and stuffy, and not designed for breathing. Lighting was by candles, usually not more than one at a time per family; the rich, however, brightened their rooms with gleaming chandeliers and with torches burning oil. In the mansions of the well-to-do, walls were paneled in oak, staircases were of massive wood and unshakable balustrades, fireplaces were marbles of majesty, chairs were padded with hair and upholstered in leather. Furniture was designed in heavy “Georgian” style, complex with carving and glaring with gilt. Toward 1720 mahogany was introduced from the West Indies; it was too hard for existing tools; sharper tools were made; and soon the new wood made the most brilliant pieces in English homes.
Houses were heated by burning coal in stoves or open grates, or wood in spacious hearths. London air was cloudy with smoke. Domestic cleanliness was made difficult but imperative by the ever-threatening dust and soot. The French rated their English enemies as next only to the Dutch in the grooming of their homes. Said Nicolas de Saussure in 1726:
Not a week passes by but well kept houses are washed twice in the seven days, and that from top to bottom; and even every morning most kitchens, staircases, and entrances are scrubbed. All furniture, and especially all kitchen utensils, are kept with the greatest cleanliness. Even the large hammers and the locks on the doors are rubbed and shine brightly.87
This despite the fact that soap was expensive and water limited. Bathrooms were a luxury of the few; most men and women bathed by standing and splashing in a tub.
Commoners spent most of their indoor and waking hours in the kitchen, courting the big stove; they ate there, chatted there, sometimes slept there, for the kitchens were immense. Dining rooms were for special occasions. In all ranks the main meal came after midday: in the middle classes at two or three o’clock, among the rich at five or six; then, as now, the more money you had, the longer you had to wait for dinner. In fashionable homes the women retired when eating was over, for then began male drinking, smoking, toasts, and tales. Dinners were substantial, but they were the city Briton’s first food after breakfast and a light 11-A.M. “snack.” Frenchmen were astonished at the amount of food an Englishman consumed at a sitting. Most of the diet in the upper and middle classes was meat; vegetables were negligible garniture. Heavy puddings were a favorite dessert. Tea drinking was universal, though tea cost ten shillings a pound. Supper at 9 P.M. rounded out the exploits of the day.
Most Englishmen hugged the safety of their homes at night, and amused themselves with conversation, drinking, quarreling, reading, music, dancing, chess, draughts (the American “checkers”), billiards, and cards. “Prithee,” said Marlborough’s Duchess, “don’t talk to me about books. The only books I know are men and cards.”88 Bishops and parsons, even the prim Dissenting preachers, played, and philosophers too; Hume rarely went to bed without having a turn at whist (now “bridge”). In 1742 Edmond Hoyle systematized the laws of whist in a Short Treatise, after which, till 1864, the game had to be played “according to Hoyle.”—Animal pets were a household necessity, not only dogs and cats, but, here and there, a monkey or two.89Almost every woman nursed flowers, and nearly every home had a garden.
Blest and harassed with rain, the English made garden design a national passion. Under Charles II English gardens followed French models—chiefly Versailles—in shaping formal gardens on geometrical lines, straight, rectangular, radial, or circular, with “picturesque vistas” and “perspectives” (these three words had entered the language in the seventeenth century), with trees, shrubbery, and hedges clipped to line, and classical statuary symmetrically placed. The amusement gardens at Vauxhall and Ranelagh were so laid out; we can sample this formal style today at Hampton Court. Though it accorded well with the neoclassical literature of the “Augustan Age,” Addison and Pope, the best exemplars of that age in print, rebelled against the formal garden, and cried out politely for a “natural garden” that would leave at least a part of nature’s luxuriance unclipped and untamed, and would generate delighted surprises by preserving nature’s incalculable irregularity. Chinese influences entered into the rebellion; pagodas replaced statues in some gardens; in his Kew gardens the Duke of Kent built a house for Confucius. The natural garden reflected the sentimental Thomson and Collins rather than the chaste Addison and the meticulous, trim and tidy Pope; it joined with the “poets of feeling” in a “Romantic” treble to a classical bass. Pope and Thomson agreed in praising the gardens designed on the “Stowe” estate of Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham. Charles Bridge-man had begun it on a formal design; William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown re-formed it in natural style; it became the talk of gardeners in England and France, and won the acclaim of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Beyond the gardens lay the streams where oarsmen rowed and lazy anglers dreamed of snaring fish; and the woods where men shot pheasants, grouse, partridge, or wild fowl, or where scarlet huntsmen followed their dogs to the cornered fox or the exhausted hare. Less moneyed Britons amused themselves with cricket, tennis, fives (“handball”), bowling, horse racing, cockfighting, bear baiting, bull baiting, and boxing matches—between women as well as between men. Prize fighters like Figg and Piper were the idols of every class, drawing immense crowds to the ringside. Till 1743 prize fighters fought with bare fists; boxing gloves were then introduced, but many years passed before these were accepted by the spectators as anything but an effeminate device unworthy of John Bull. Among the entertainments advertised in London in 1729–30 were “a mad bull to be dressed up with fireworks and turned loose” in a ring, “a dog to be dressed up with fireworks over him, a bear to be let loose at the same time, and a cat to be tied to the bull’s tail.”90 In the game called “cock throwing” a cock was tied to a stake, and sticks were thrown at it from a distance till it died. The most popular cockfights were those in which as many as sixteen cocks were matched against another sixteen till all on one side were killed; then the victors were divided into opposing camps, and fought till all on one side were killed; and so on till all but one were dead. Counties, towns, and villages pitted their cocks against one another with a noble patriotism, and an amiable writer hailed these sports as a moral equivalent for war.91 Nearly all sports were accompanied by betting.
Those whose stomachs were not attuned to these spectacles could seek milder amusement at Vauxhall or Ranelagh, in whose shaded gardens they might, for a shilling, feel the comfort and security of crowds, if they kept their pockets guarded; there they could dance and masquerade, or sit under lanterned boughs, sip tea, and watch fashionable ladies and gallants, and the passing stars of the stage; they could gaze at fireworks or acrobats, hear popular music, dine in state, or seek adventure in lovers’ lanes gratefully obscure. At Ranelagh, under the great Rotunda, they could lift themselves up to loftier music amid people of genteeler class. “Every night,” wrote Horace Walpole in 1744, “I go to Ranelagh, which has totally beat Vauxhall. Nobody goes anywhere else; everybody goes there.”92 Vauxhall and Ranelagh were closed in winter; but then the rivers might freeze, and winter sports had their day. Once, at Christmas of 1739, even the Thames froze, and the Londoners showed their spirit by staging a carnival of dancing and dining on the ice; some enjoyed the thrill of driving by coach on the river from Lambeth to London Bridge.93 Lastly there were the great fairs, where you met all the unpedigreed world, and enjoyed a variety of spectacles from peep shows to flying men.
Aside from some bluestockings, manners were rough and blasphemous. Hogarth will show us the life of the commonalty, but not their speech. Harlots and rakes, draymen and bargemen, soldiers and sailors, were masters of damnation and ribaldry, and the fishmongers at Billingsgate made their market immortal with their incomparable profanity. In the inns and taverns speech was less vivid but still coarsely free. Even in their homes the men alarmed the women with their stories, expletives, and toasts, and the ladies themselves were not above a hearty curse and a gay obscenity.
In the coffeehouses and clubs language took on more refinement. Steele, Swift, Fielding, Cowper, and Johnson wrote on conversation as a polite art. We picture the men in their jealously male gatherings, sampling their coffee or beer, gulping their liquor, smoking their pipes, arguing about arguments in Parliament, about Robert Walpole’s vote buying, and the unseemly politics of those “French dogs” across the Channel. Laughter was deep in the belly and loud in the throat, despite the pleas of moralists like Shaftesbury and amoralists like Chesterfield that laughter should be left to the lowly and should simmer down to a smile.94 Snuff-taking, first mentioned in 1589, had become a careful ritual in both sexes; like coffee, snuff (powdered tobacco) was supposed to have medicinal value: the sneezing it caused would clear the nasal passages, cure headache, colds, deafness, and sleepiness, soothe the nerves, and improve the brain. No man or woman of style was fully dressed without a snuffbox; and on that appendage the goldsmith, the jeweler, the enameler, and the miniaturist exercised their most delicate craft.
The three thousand coffeehouses in London were centers of reading as well as of talk. They took in newspapers and magazines, and circulated these among their customers; they provided pens, paper, and ink, accepted letters for mailing, and served as mailing addresses. Some coffee or chocolate houses, like White’s, evolved in this period into exclusive clubs, where men could be sure to find only the company they preferred, and could gamble in privacy. By the end of the eighteenth century there were as many clubs as there had been coffeehouses at the beginning. Apparently the Freemasons began their English history as a club—the “Grand Lodge”—organized in London in 1717. The clubs encouraged drinking, gambling, and political intrigue, but they taught men at least half the art of conversation. The other half was missing, for the clubs were baccalaureate retreats; the finer courtesy and subtler wit required by the presence of women received no stimulus there. England was a man’s land; women had little share in its cultural life; there were no salons; and when Lady Mary Montagu tried to establish one she was looked upon as an eccentric who did not know her place.95
In the upper classes women could ply their arts at receptions, dances, and musicales at the court or in their homes. The weekend in country houses was a gracious feature of English life, tarnished a bit by the high gratuities expected by the servants; the parting guest had to run the gantlet of valets, butlers, footmen, stewards, porters, maids, cooks, and other help standing in a double row at the door, while coachman and groom waited sternly outside. The reputed fidelity of British servants to their masters had scant reality in the first half of the eighteenth century; they were in many cases inattentive, insolent, rebellious, and changed domiciles readily for a better wage. Many of them robbed master, mistress, and guests when they could; they drank their master’s wine, and donned their mistress’ finery.
Next to acceptance at court, the crown of fashion was a stay at some watering place, to drink medicinal waters, or bathe with select bodies rather than in the promiscuous sea. Tunbridge was famous for its wells, but its clientele was indiscriminate. Epsom Wells offered music, morris dances, performing dogs, and purgative water, though its minerals had not yet been gathered into Epsom salts. Sea bathing was not popular, though Chesterfield noted some at Scarborough; but in 1753 Dr. Richard Russell’s book Of Glandular Consumption, and the Use of Sea-Water in Diseases of the Glands sent a human wave to the shore, and coastal villages like Brighton, which had known only the humble families of fishermen, blossomed into bathing resorts.
The aristocracy preferred Bath. There, among the most distinguished of Britain’s valetudinarians, one might drink—and bathe in—smelly waters touted to cure the ailments of the too-well-fed. The little spa had opened its first pump room in 1704, its first theater in 1707, and a year later the first of the “assembly rooms” celebrated in Fielding and Smollett. In 1755 the great Roman bath was discovered. John Wood and his son, as we shall see, remade the town in classical style. In 1705 “Beau” Nash, a lawyer and gamester, became the dictator of its social life. He forbade swords in places of public amusement, and succeeded in making duels—in Bath—disreputable. He persuaded men to wear shoes instead of boots. He himself wore an immense white hat, and a coat with rich embroidery; he drove in a coach behind six horses that had to be gray; and he announced his coming with gay French horns. He improved the streets and buildings, laid out handsome gardens, provided music, and charmed all but a few with his geniality and wit. The English nobility flocked to his realm, for he gave them gaming tables as well as baths, and when laws were passed against gambling he invented new games of chance that bypassed the laws. Finally George II came, and Queen Caroline, and Prince Frederick Louis, and Bath was for a time a second court. The Earl of Chesterfield, who loved the town, would doubtless have applied to its elite the description that he gave of all courts, as places where “you must expect to meet with connections without friendship, enmities without hatred, honor without virtue, appearances saved and realities sacrificed; good manners with bad morals; and all vice and virtues so disguised that whoever has only reasoned upon both would know neither when he first met them at court.”96