A Miserable Winter in Rome

A painting of the River Tiber in winter, by Willem Schellinks (1627-78)

Snippets 188. In 1817 Henry Matthews went on a “tour in pursuit of health”, and wrote about his experiences in Diary of an Invalid, in 1820. His first port of call was Lisbon, and from there he travelled to Italy.  The approach to Rome did not impress him, and by the time he arrived there he was exhausted from travelling.  Far from being “in pursuit of health”, he seemed to be subjecting his body to the stresses of a long journey, and the discomfort of miserable weather.  His description of his time in Rome is consequently one of the grumpiest I have ever read.

The English swarm every where. We found all the inns full. It seemed like a country town in England at an assizes. To look for lodgings was impossible, for it rained unmercifully. By the way, when it does rain here, it pours with a downright vehemence that we are but little accustomed to in England. We got a resting-place for the night with some difficulty, at the Hotel de Paris. Dear and bad…

Established ourselves at No. 43, Via degli Otto Cantoni, Corso. This situation is bad. The Corso is the Bond-street of Rome; — but it is also the Billingsgate. There are two fish-stalls under my window, the people belonging to which commence their vociferations as soon as it is light. There is, however, at least, more variety in these cries than in the perpetual “All alive ho!” of London. The Italian fish-monger displays all the humour he is master of to get rid of his stock, and he will sometimes apostrophize his stale mullet with ludicrous effrontery; — “Pesce! cosa fate? Pesce! state chete.” But the worst objection to our lodgings is their height. We are on the quarto piano; — a hundred and four steps from the ground — though this objection relates only to convenience; for it is by no means mauvais ton in Rome, to live in the upper story, which does not at all answer to our garret. Here, — your approach to heaven does not in the least detract from your gentility…

The more I see of Italy, the more I doubt whether it be worth while for an invalid to encounter the fatigues of so long a journey, for the sake of any advantages to be found in it, in respect of climate, during the winter. To come to Italy, with the hope of escaping the winter, is a grievous mistake. This might be done by getting into the southern hemisphere, but in Europe it is impossible; and, I believe, that Devonshire after all, may be the best place for an invalid, during that season. If the thermometer be not so low here, the temperature is more variable, and the winds are more bitter and cutting.

In Devonshire too, all the comforts of the country are directed against cold; — here, all the precautions are the other way. The streets are built to exclude as much as possible the rays of the sun, and are now as damp and cold, as rain or frost can make them. And then, — what a difference between the warm carpet, the snug elbowed chair, and the blazing coal-fire of an English winter evening; — and the stone staircases, marble floors, and starving casements of an Italian house! — where every thing is designed to guard against the heat of summer; which occupies as large a proportion of the Italian year, as the winter season does of our own. The only advantage of Italy then is, that your penance is shorter than it would be in England; for I repeat, that during the time it lasts, winter is more severely felt here, than at Sidmouth, where I would even recommend an Italian invalid to repair, from November till February; — if he could possess himself of Fortunatus’s cap, to remove the difficulties of the journey.

“Mauvis ton” is French for “the done thing”, i.e. that which is considered correct or fashionable in this context.  Fortunatus was a popular story in medieval Europe.  The cap Matthews refers to here is a wishing hat which transports Fortunatus to any place he wishes to be.  I wouldn’t mind one of those.  Fortunatus was also fortunate enough to be given (by Lady Fortune) a magic purse which refills itself.  Some people have all the luck.

A painting of the River Tiber in winter, by Willem Schellinks (1627-78)

Matthews survived the ordeal of his “tour in pursuit of health”, but sadly died in 1828, still a young man.  He had managed to fight through ill-health to pursue a successful legal career, and was advocate-fiscal of Ceylon from 1821 to 1827.  His only child was born in Ceylon in 1826, also called Henry Matthews, who became a Conservative MP and was ennobled as the first Viscount Llandaff of Hereford.


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Too Much of a Rush

How the Savoy Theatre looked inside, around the time of this quote.

Snippets 187.  At the start of the 20th Century, American Thomas Rees went on a tour of Europe, concluding in Britain and Ireland.  His recollections were published in 1908 in the fascinating book Sixty Days in Europe and What We Saw There.  In London he was keen to visit some theatres.  One that didn’t impress him very much was the Savoy, and after the performance he witnessed a mishap that was probably more entertaining than the opera he had just seen:

We went one night to a performance at the Savoy theatre. The Savoy theatre adjoins the hotel of the same name. The hotel is among the most fashionable in London and this house has the reputation of being among the best. I think the opinion in general of the house, however, is better than it deserves. The main auditorium cannot be much more than forty feet in dimensions in either direction, and above the main floor there are four galleries or balconies, so that a person in the top gallery looks almost straight down on the heads of the actors on the stage. It is one of the most unsatisfactory places to enjoy an entertainment that could well be devised, nor is it particularly elaborate, and yet, it was so completely filled that we could only secure seats in the balcony.

This house is operated by a woman and presents only Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which appear to be very popular in England, although the basis of nearly all of them is ridicule of the English system of government. Just in front of the hotel and opera house, in the park on the Victoria embankment, is a bronze statue of the late Sir Arthur Sullivan, the Irish wit, who was the joint author, with Mr. Gilbert, of these operas.

The opera house is reached by a little street leading from the Strand with a very steep decline toward the river Thames. The night we attended the opera at this house was stormy and the rain had come down in a drizzle all day. The street leading down by the opera house was paved with asphalt and a film of mud on it made it quite slippery.

As we came out from the performance a driver with a hansom cab came rapidly down this little street in an endeavor to secure us or somebody else for a trip. He was in such a hurry to get ahead of all rivals, as he came down the hill, that when he came to the opera house door and jerked up his horses, the momentum was so great that the horses simply sat down and the rig, horses, driver and all went as though they were on a toboggan slide all the rest of the way down the little street and nearly to the bank of the river. It is hardly necessary to say that he didn’t catch a passenger as he went by.

The Savoy Theatre opened in 1881 and was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electric lights.  It was famed for Gilbert and Sullivan operas for many years, and now puts on a variety of musical productions.


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Rules for Children, 1904

A class of German school children, photographed in 1904.

Quick Quotes 20.  The following quote is taken from On the Healthy Home Life of School Children, by Professor Dr. Leo Burgerstein, published in English in 1904 and translated from the original German text by R.T. Williamson.

It is unfortunately a common delusion that alcoholic beverages are strengthening. Except when prescribed as a medicine, by a doctor, they should not be taken by school children.

The table beverages for children should be water or milk.

Strong stimulants, such as strong coffee and strong tea, are also injurious to children. It is a great mistake to take them with the object of overcoming fatigue during the preparation for examinations.

Parents should provide their children with their own drinking glasses or cups (when such are required) for use in the school; glasses should not be borrowed from other scholars.

The greatest caution should be observed with respect to drinking water in districts where it is not quite free from suspicion of impurity, and especially in parts where epidemics of typhoid fever or cholera are liable to occur, or at times when such diseases are prevalent. The drinking water for daily consumption should be boiled, covered over, and allowed to cool. The taste may be improved by the addition of a little lemon juice.

Unfortunately, smoking is becoming more and more common amongst school children, and more common at an earlier age. Apparently the chief inducement to the habit is because it is forbidden. The tact of the teacher will be needed in choosing, in each case, according to the temperament of the scholar, the most suitable means of checking this habit.

It is important, on grounds of health, that the scholar should be accustomed to have the bowels moved daily at a definite hour — before school, or at least not during school hours. If the bowels are regular, much fluid should not be drunk just before going to bed; also the urine should be passed just before getting into bed.

The scholar should wash the hands, face, and neck thoroughly in the morning. The teeth should be cleaned with a tooth-brush which is not too hard, both on the outer and inner surfaces, and the mouth then washed out thoroughly. (A little spirit or common salt may be added with advantage to the water used for washing out the mouth.)

If possible, the scholar should not study after the supper or evening meal. He may then devote himself to some light occupation of his own choosing. Amusements which are exciting, or which are continued late at night, as well as exciting reading, should be avoided.


“Quick Quotes” are some bonus content for the blog. Each time I find an interesting or amusing little quote from and old (verging on forgotten) book, that does not really need any further explanation or background information, it will appear on Windows into History under this heading. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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Revolutionary Tech, 1904

patentSnippets 186.  An early publication concerning audio technology was The Talking Machine News, a monthly magazine for “users and makers of talking machines”; in other words, phonographs, or what we would now term “record players”.  By 1904, technology was marching on at a rate that might surprise a modern reader, and in the February issue the magazine reported on a use of phonographs that was revolutionary at the time, but is now familiar as simple audio dictation:

Government by phonograph is the latest phase of the evolution of the talking machine. True it is in a relatively unimportant government department, but from what small beginnings great occasions rise. We shall hear of Mr. Chamberlain transacting the business of “the Empire upon which the sun never sets” upon the talking machine all in good time. At present we have Mr. Graham Murray, the new Secretary for Scotland, who makes an even greater use of the phonograph for the conduct of his correspondence than he did when Lord Advocate. Some five or six dozen records are now constantly in use by him, and on to these he dictates replies to letters, together with a mass of other detail work. These are then forwarded to London, if he happens to be in Scotland, and the contents taken down by his secretaries in Whitehall. This done, the records are scraped off, and the cylinders are again ready for use. By keeping a phonograph both in London and Scotland he is able to give viva voce instructions to his department in a permanently recorded form—if necessary at a distance of some hundreds of miles.

In the same issue there is a report of another revolutionary use of the technology, again familiar to us today but viewed with scepticism at the time: audio evidence in court.

Our excellent contemporary the Tatler suggests that evidence might well be given in a court of law by talking machine. The Tatler’s suggestion sprang from the fact that a collier named Matthews was, the other day, at Aberavon, fined five shillings for drunkeness, on the sole evidence of a wire sent by him to the magistrate admitting his culpability. We do not wish to discourage the Tatler—or anyone else—in speculations of so engaging a character, but we are bound to point out that many magistrates would consider that what the phonograph said “was not evidence.” At any rate it would have to be attested and verified before it would “go down” in any well-regulated court. And though—even with all this preliminary trouble and expense—this might prove a boon to the motorist, about to be fined for furious driving, and anxious not to lose the time and opportunity for repeating the offence, the process would be likely to prove too costly for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.


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A Rude Awakening

Snippets 185.  One of the most brave and remarkable explorers in British history was the relatively little-known Lucy Atkinson (nee Finley).  During the late 1830s and early 1840s she worked as a governess in St Petersburg, where she met her husband Thomas Atkinson.  They were married in 1848 and set off on a grand tour of Siberia and Central Asia, which lasted until 1853.  The following quote is from her account of her travels, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, published in 1863, and describes her disappointing arrival in Omsk, in southwestern Siberia.

Omsk in the late 19th Century.

As we travelled on, the roads varied; at times, the snow was so deep, we stuck fast, and were obliged to send to the villages for assistance. The country we now passed over was neither pretty nor interesting to us; it was one white waste, with a cold cutting wind; but the last stage to Omsk, the roads were entirely clear of snow. It was four o’clock p.m. of Saturday the 27th, when we reached the town; we drove to the house of the Police-master, having a letter for him from a young man, an acquaintance of his and ours, whom we had met on the road.

A Cossack presented himself. On our asking for his master, he said he was sleeping and could not be disturbed — at six we could see him, which was the hour he usually awoke. Mr. Atkinson told him he could not be kept waiting in the streets; that he must see him, therefore he must be awoke. The poor fellow asked us in, and went, apparently with great reluctance, to obey the orders.

In about ten minutes the sleeper made his appearance, in a dirty greasy dressing-gown. He had a most malicious countenance. With a shrill squeaking voice, he demanded our business. Mr. Atkinson handed him the letter from his friend. Having perused it, he flew into a great passion, and demanded how we dared to awaken him, and was turning upon his heel to walk away, when Mr. Atkinson presented his official papers, saying that perhaps those would command a little more civility than his friend’s letter had done. He took them, and having read them, appeared a little annoyed; he then called a Cossack, and gave him orders which we did not overhear. He said the man would conduct us to quarters.

We left him without his having recovered his equanimity of temper; the disturbing of his rest had been too much for him; indeed, I think both parties were mutually dissatisfied.

The Cossack now had us driven to the outskirts of the town, to a most horrible place — we had to pass through a room on the floor of which men were lying stretched out in all directions, some smoking, and others talking at the utmost pitch of their voices; it was not pleasant, and, moreover, the room we entered was cold; however, we succeeded in getting a fire and procuring something to satisfy our hunger — our sledge was unpacked, and we set about making ourselves as comfortable as we could under the circumstances. It was now near ten o’clock, so we were glad to spread the bear-skins on which to stretch our cramped and bruised limbs; for six nights I had not had my clothing off.

The following morning we were up early, Mr. Atkinson being desirous to call upon Prince Gortchikoff with his letters. He received us most politely, and acceded to Mr. Atkinson’s request for an escort to travel in the Steppe.

He then enquired what kind of quarters had been given to us. Mr. Atkinson informed him, and likewise what had occurred. He was very angry, and despatched a Cossack to the Police-master, with orders to have us removed immediately into proper quarters. The prince then invited Mr. Atkinson to dine with him, saying, how sorry he was that he had no lady to receive me.


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The Living Picture

An illustration of the Warwick Trading Company building, from the January 1904 issue of Talking Machine News.

Snippets 184.  An early publication concerning audio technology was The Talking Machine News, a monthly magazine for “users and makers of talking machines”; in other words, phonographs, or what we would now term “record players”.  We previously looked at a couple of quotes from a 1903 issue, but by that time there was already a rival to the phonograph in home entertainment, the cinematograph.  Responding to the increasing popularity of the visual entertainment medium, Talking Machine News updated their remit in January 1904, and adopted the tagline “Monthly Journal for Users and Makers of Talking Machines, Cinematographs, and Automatic Amusement Machines of all kinds.”  Firstly, let’s take a look at their explanation of what motivated the change to include cinematographs:

For the third time in eight months we find it necessary to enlarge our borders—this time by no less than sixteen pages. We were the representative paper for the talking machine trade at one bound, so to say. Indeed we have, as our readers will see for themselves, enlarged our borders in more respects than one; for we are commencing with the New Year a series of articles specially devoted to the cinematograph. We believe that these will not only bring us a new circle of friends, but that they will greatly interest the wide circle of old ones which we have already acquired. The “living picture” complements the talking machine just as the talking machine complements the cinematograph. They both represent in a high degree the resources of modern science devoted to a combination of amusement with instruction. We believe they will be happily joined; at any rate, we shall use our best endeavours to combine them in our columns to our readers and our own satisfaction.

Within the pages of the same issue can be found their first ever cinematograph article, concerning the Warwick Trading Company, a highly significant company in the history of the cinematograph.  The following is an interesting snippet from that article, which is in some respects remarkably accurate in its predictions:

There can be no doubt that the significance of the cinematograph is not yet fully recognised. The “living picture” has not only come to stay, but it offers endless possibilities and development as yet undreamed of. There is no reason why, at no distant future, we should not have the cinematograph in the home just as we already have the talking machine. Already you can buy a living picture machine for home use at a far lower price than you could buy a phonograph only a few years ago. Not, as I think, that the cinematograph in the drawing-room would be likely to oust the exhibition machine from its place. But it will supplement it. One can buy for a few pounds at the present time what is known as “a parlour cinematograph.” And the parlour, as everyone knows, is a grade lower than the drawing-room.

It was (writes Our Special Representative) with a view to learning something of the history and the latest developments of the living picture that I called at the offices of the Warwick Trading Company, 4 and 5, Warwick Court, the other day. This Company was the first to introduce animated picture machines into Europe, in 1894. Eighteen ninety four—and we are now only in 1904, and the cinematograph has already become a nightly and essential feature at every “well-regulated” music hall in the United Kingdom…

An extra film plant has recently had to be provided in order to cope with the demand from music-hall managers, and exhibitors in general, for prompt delivery all over the Kingdom of films of popular events. If negatives come to hand by four o’clock in the afternoon they guarantee from twenty five to fifty prints, according to length, for exhibition the same evening.

The demand varies according to the popularity of the subject. It ranges from one to seven hundred and fifty copies. Under ordinary circumstances they can turn out from fifty to one hundred within forty-eight hours of the receipt of the negative.


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Too Much Hat

hatSnippets 183.  In 1889 French travel writer Max O’Rell wrote about American society in great detail in Jonathan and his Continent, making the book an important piece of work from a social history perspective.  The following are the edited highlights of his thoughts on how people dressed in America towards the end of the 19th Century:

In America, gentlemen’s dress is plain, even severe: a high hat, black coat, dark trousers. Fancy cloth is little used, even in travelling.

I remember well the sensation I created with a pair of light-grey trousers in a small Pennsylvanian town. Everyone seemed to look at me as if I had been a strange animal; in the hotel the waitresses nudged one another, and scarcely repressed a giggle; and the street-urchins followed me as if I had been a member of the Sioux tribe in national costume. The day after my arrival, one of the local papers announced that ‘‘a Frenchman had landed in the town the day before in white trousers, and that his popularity had been as prompt as decisive.”…

American ladies dress very well, as a rule; but there are a great number who cover themselves with furbelows and jewels, and, so long as each item is costly, trouble themselves little about the general effect…

Yes, in the large cities they dress well; but they lack the simplicity of style which the Princess of Wales has so happily inculcated in the English-women who surround her. American women have plenty of style of their own, and have certainly also a great deal of distinction and grace; but they always look dressed for conquest. It is well to be it, but not well to show it. They are apt to laugh at the toilette of Englishwomen, and model their own dress more on French lines. For my part, I think that nothing can surpass a fresh young English girl in a cotton dress and simple straw hat.

The fashionable headgear, during my sojourn in the States, was a high, narrow construction, perched on the top of the head, and surmounted with feathers. At a certain distance it gave its wearer the look of an irate cockatoo. These monuments looked very heavy and difficult to maintain in equilibrium, and the ladies wearing them walked like grenadiers in busbies…

At the theatre, women wear silk, which prevents one from hearing, and hats a foot high, which prevent one from seeing.

An American was once asked what a play — which he might have seen — was like. “Very much like the back of ladies’ bonnets,” he answered.


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