Giant Feet and Rhinoceros Gums

Max O'Rell

Max O’Rell

Max of the Month 7.  When reading non-fiction books from the 19th Century, one finds no shortage of great writers who have now been largely forgotten. However, occasionally a writer comes to light whose work is so entertaining, and who was so incredibly popular in his lifetime, that is it almost inconceivable that he is not still a household name. One such author is Max O’Rell.

This month’s quote from the writings of O’Rell is taken from John Bull and his Island, published in 1883, which focusses on Britain.  O’Rell was from France, so this was an outsider’s perspective.

Englishwomen are remarkable for their fresh complexions, their decided and fearless gait, and the length of their feet, which reminds one that twelve inches go to the foot in England. Impossible to make faux pas with such bases as these. They cannot lose their centre of gravity.

When they are pretty, Englishwomen have no equals upon earth – they are angels of beauty; but, too often, their faces have no expression, their eyes lack lustre and piquancy, their teeth are long and protruding, and when they laugh, they show their gums like a rhinoceros. They have only the beauty of youth. An Englishwoman is seldom handsome after thirty. The lower-class women of London are thin-faced or bloated-looking. They are horribly pale; there is no colour to be seen except on the tips of their noses.

Their sculptural lines (generally straight ones) are suggestive, pronounced, exaggerated, or suppressed, according to the fashion of the day.

In 1879, it became fashionable to display a protuberant corsage. There was not a woman, even the thinnest, that was not in a position to exhibit a bust that would have been a splendid capital to a Burgundian wet-nurse. In shop windows might have been seen twin gutta-percha balloons, or bags of millet-seed, which were sold under the name of figure improvers.

Max O’Rell was born Léon Pierre Blouet, but chose a pen name to avoid any embarrassment in his role as a teacher at St Paul’s School in London. He had worked there since 1874, and the same year married his English wife. Such was the success of his writing that he resigned in 1885 to tour, lecture and write full time.  O’Rell wrote more than a dozen books, which fall broadly into two categories: characteristics of different nationalities, and characteristics of women.


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The Killer Leaf

avenueofpalms

The avenue of palms at the Rio Botanical Gardens. Source: Wikipedia

Snippets 212.  Thomas Woodbine Hinchcliff was a mountaineer, explorer and travel writer, who served as President of the London-based Alpine Club, the first mountaineering club in the world, between 1875 and 1877. During that time one of his several travel journals was published, and the one I want to take a detailed look at over the coming months: Over the Sea and Far Away, which mainly focuses on South America, published in 1876. In Rio de Janeiro, Hinchliff visited the breathtaking Botanical Garden, and had a lucky escape from what might have been a rather unusual accident:

The Botanical Garden is near the base of the Corcovado, and its famous avenue of royal palms is a truly magnificent sight. One of the many tramways lately established for the convenience of the city, runs thither in little more than an hour. The change made by these institutions has been very great indeed. When I knew Rio formerly, carriages were excessively expensive; and as the place is too hot for much walking, people seldom moved more than they were obliged, to move: now the tram-cars are full all day with people going in every direction, and numbers of clerks and men of business are enabled to sleep in the lovely suburbs, amidst groves of oranges and gardens full of brilliant flowers, instead of being cooped up in the city itself. The receipts of the companies must be very large and the expenses small. Their tickets serve as small change, which is a great convenience in a country where there is nothing but paper money, with the exception of copper dumps, a cumbrous exaggeration of our extinct cartwheel penny-pieces.

The car stops at the very gate of the garden, where a startling effect is always awaiting a visitor for the first time. An avenue of one-third of a mile in length is formed by a double row of cabbage-palms (Oreodoxa regia) lining the broad path which intersects the garden. These noble palms are a hundred feet high, and have grown with such marvellous regularity that their crowns meet in a continuous arch, as if composed of glorified Corinthian capitals. There is a shorter similar avenue at right angles to the first; and in clear weather it is a charming sight to look up those tall pearl-grey stems to the shining green of leaves gently rustling under the ‘central blue.’ I was making notes one day at the foot of one of these giants, when I heard a swishing sort of noise overhead, like that of heavy rain, though the sky was cloudless; and a bystander had just time to warn me from the spot, when a dead leaf about twenty feet long, with a stem as thick as my arm, fell exactly where I had been sitting. It was just as if the royal palm had thrown down a leaf to enable the stranger to form some notion of his noble proportions.

19th Century Travel journals are fascinating “windows into history”.  If this quote has sparked your interest in this area of history, you might like to consider reading about my recently published book on the subject: Windows into History – The Book


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Humorous Review of 1919

Horatio Bottomley photographed in Trafalgar Square in 1915.

Snippets 212.  Exactly one hundred years ago today, on 1st January 1920, the West Sussex Gazette carried a very tongue-in-cheek look back on previous year, titled “Humorous Review of the Year 1919”. The following are the highlights of this amusing article, with explanatory notes below:

The year 1919, which has been torn from its moorings and packed away with a few bits of camphor to keep the moths from pecking it, will undoubtedly go down in history as the “Year Won.” Promptly on the morning of January 1 it started its career. The population of Great Britain on that day was, roughly speaking, 43.221,715 – including Lord Northcliffe. The number of births registered showed a decrease of at least 10.400 compared with previous years. These figures may appear startling, but, after all. you cannot blame people for refusing to be born while housing conditions remain as they are at present. While on the question of births, a remarkable incident happened in January, when the wife of a Hamilton miner gave birth to three girls and one boy. The father is reported to be going on as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

Marriage during the year shows a falling off also, which seems to indicate that a few of the bigamists have gone out of business, though one bigamist confessed that be could not remember marrying three “wives.” In all such cases it is as well to keep a diary. Deaths during the year have dropped considerably, especially in Scotland, where undertakers’ fees are so high as to render death almost prohibitive. A very satisfactory state of affairs is reported by the marked falling off in the number of suicides, there being 2495 fewer than the previous year. This is probably due to the fact that owing to pressure of business and speeding up, few people have had time to bother about suicide. There were also 2321 fewer bankrupts in 1919 than in 1918, though it would be more interesting if we could have their names. It is worthy of note that 98 centenarians died during the year, of whom 13 were over 102. Strange to relate, most of these died orphans. This seems to indicate that as general rule centenarians are delicate race…

On March 31 the Floating Debt of the country was £1,412,000,000, but no effort was made to wipe it out, despite the suggestion of a dear old lady in Kensington that we should hold a whist drive and clear the debt…

A Glasgow man has made a written confession that he has never read the “Daily Mail”, and a warrant for his arrest has been issued. Mr. Winston Churchill has threatened to paint a portrait of Mr. Asquith; Mexico is about to start shooting for the Presidency; a pair white spats have been seen mating in the Strand; bricklayers have been seen building at Golders Green; the snails on the thorn, the tax-gatherer on the wing; Mr. Bottomley states that the war will still be over next Christmas; Christmas, 1911 passed peacefully away on the morning of December 26; Mr. Pelman still remembers what Gladstone said in 1887: and things are not what they used to be – and never were.

Lord Northcliffe was a newspaper publishing magnate, who owned the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. During the First War he was appointed Director for Propaganda by Lloyd George, and an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him was made by the Germans during the war, when a warship was sent to shell his house. “Mr Bottomley” refers to Horatio Bottomley, a journalist whose skills were utilised by the War Propaganda Bureau. As part of his attempts to persuade young men to sign up, he was known for giving the impression that the war would be over quickly. “Mr Pelman” presumably refers to the memory system “Pelmanism”, popular at the time and practised by former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.

Happy New Year from Windows into History!


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To Santa Claus, on the Moon

santamoonChristmas History 44.  The following article is from the Blackburn Standard, from 31st December 1898:

A correspondent has obtained copies of some of the letters addressed to “Santa Claus” which find their way to the Dead Letter Office, and are destroyed. This is a comprehensive request:

Dear Santa Claus, – I want a horse with a big tail and a big mane, and eyes and nose and mouth, and a bridle and saddle. ABC book and a crain, and a horn and a cowboy doll, a little waggon, and a tule box and some nails and a milk wagon and some candy, apples oranges, bananas.

A fair number of these little notes are pathetic enough. For instance, the following:

Dear Santa Claus, – I am 9 years old. My popa has gone, and my mama has no money, so please Santa bring me and my baby sister some candy for Christmus.

I hope you won’t forget me when Christmas comes because I havn’t no mother, and papa hasent got no work, so please I would like a nice doll like other girls has got, and please Santa don’t forget little Beatrice, she would like a dollie carriage, and I guess that is all. I remain a good girl. Good-by.

These are the addresses of some of the letters : –

“Dear Santa Claus City”; “Mr. Santa Claus, North Pole”; “Send this to Dear Sandy Klosse; he lives in the moone”; “Mr Santa Claus, in the Arctic Regions”; “Leave at town nearest the North Pole, and give to Santa Claus as he passes”; “Mr Santa Claus, Snow Mountain”; “Mr. Santa Claus, North Land, USA”; “To Santa Claus, Santaclausville, Don’t forget me”; “Santa Claus, a Hundred Skies High”; “Santa Claus, Rock Candy Castle, Fairyland”; Santa Claus, care of the Polar Bear, USA”; “Santa Claus, Up in the Clouds”; “Mr Santa Claus, Jerusalem Gate”; “Santa Claus, on the housetop”; “Santa Claus, on the Roof.”

Thank you for reading the Christmas quotes on Windows into History.  If you have missed any you can find them all listed on the Contents page under the “Christmas History” heading.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


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Letters to Santa, 1898

santaChristmas History 43.  In the 19th Century it took a while for news from America to filter through to the British press, especially when it was of an anecdotal nature.  The following Christmas article didn’t find its way into the Whitby Gazette until 3rd February 1899, and could be found copied in other papers later the same year, even as late as July, by which time people were surely not feeling the Christmas spirit!

Perhaps among the millions of letters written during the year there are none to whom the performance is such an unmixed joy as these little correspondents of old Santa Claus. Here are one or two curious little letters written by children on the other side of the Atlantic to their old friend:

“Dear Santa Claus, – l would like to have a very large doll, and a machine and a dolls bed, and please bring a tree, please have the doll in white clothes and I would like to have pillows and blankets and sheets. – Your little friend, Elsie Mills.”

“Dear Santa Claus, – l want big doll, with blue eyes and pretty hair, and 1 want some candy, please. 1 want a Christmas tree. And bring papa and mamma something, and please remember the poor little girls to, and bring the baby and George something and 1 am eight years old and I live in Market Street. Good By. From Helen Varll.”

“Mr. Santycaus. Dear Sir, – Will you come to me and my little sister we like to play? Please send us dolls and everything nice and we will thank you if you will come. We are to little girls. We will not be very afraid of you if you do not look at us much. Be sure and come my little sister and I will look for you every day. Your little girls.”

We will have some more Christmas letters to Santa from a different newspaper article on Monday.


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Christmas in Russia, 1869

St Petersburg, 19th Century (Source: englishrussia.com)

Christmas History 42.  The following quote is from the Morning Post, 28th December 1869, and is written by the paper’s correspondent in St Petersburg:

Thanks to their persistent preference of the Old Style, the Russians have yet 12 days to wait for the coming of the great festival; but it needs no almanac to tell the citizen of Moscow or St. Petersburg that Christmas, if not yet arrived, is very near. The legions of mimic banners and toy swords, of wooden horses and impish-looking masks, which fill the windows of every toy-shop – the dwarfish trees, as yet all unconscious of their approaching consecration, that line the front of the Gostinni-Door – the gigantic dolls which, in all the splendour of gauzy skirts and lace-trimmed bonnets, lie prostrate on every stall like the corpses of Bluebeard’s wives – the complicated games, requiring as much study as a problem of Euclid, daily advertised in every direction – proclaim, as surely as the purchase of holly and mistletoe in our own country, that the opening of the children’s parliament is at hand. In this benighted land, whither the great national institutions of mince-pies and plum-pudding have not yet penetrated, the English sojourner in the tents of Muscovy find it hard to recognise the saturnalia of his childish recollections; but if not kept strictly in accordance with Western rule, Christmas-day has still its full share of honour at the hands of the orthodox nation. In riches or in poverty, in the city or in the field, the Russian still loves his holiday and rejoices in it with all the boyish unthinking gaiety of that strange Muscovite race which, through centuries of bondage and barbarism, has still preserved its quaint humour and intense enjoyment of the present moment. Christmas may not be like Easter – it may not be the event of the year, the “white day” of the northern calendar – but it is still a festival of the Church, a season of joy and thanksgiving, and it never comes without a welcome. It is welcomed on southern steppes that weary the eye with their unending level, where the half savage peasant crosses himself on the morning of the Nativity, and prays to the holy Boji-Mater to remember her poor servant. It is welcomed in remote villages, far from railway or high road, by groups of carollers in sheep-skin coats, who sing hymns of rejoicing under the windows of the little rough-hewn log-huts, ever and anon holding up a wide-mouthed sack to receive the largesse of brown loaves, sausages, knobs of cheese, or copper pieces, flung to them by those whom they have serenaded. It is welcomed in Moscow, the city of fantastic splendour, where the gilded domes of a thousand churches look down upon the beautiful ritual of the orthodox faith, and the red Tartar wall of the sacred Kremlin, girt by surrounding snows, glows in the sunshine like a ruby set in ivory. It is welcomed in Imperial Petersburg, where the German fashion of Christmas trees and Christmas presents still reign supreme, the Russians being as yet not civilised enough to be ashamed of enjoying themselves. And truly they have their reward. Nowhere in the world can one witness a scene of livelier, heartier bustle than that presented by a Russian household for two or three days before the great celebration.

I have to say that I identify with the subjects of this article in “being as yet not civilised enough to be ashamed of enjoying themselves”. That’s the kind of “civilisation” I am happy to do without, especially at Christmas!


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A Christmas Kidnapping

canada snowChristmas History 41.  The following alarming tale is taken from an article about Christmas in Canada in the Lincolnshire Chronicle, Christmas Eve 1869.  Just a warning: I have removed a racial profanity, but the article is still reflective of the attitudes of the time, which some readers may find distressing.

It is doubtful whether in any of the principal towns an incident could occur like the following, narrated to me an old Canadian as having happened in his father’s house. There was a time when the Indian element gave a tone to Canadian life. Wild and savage tribes, driven out by the Americans, threw themselves on the protection of the English…

The remnant of a tribe of these wandered into the part of the country in which my friend’s father’s house was situated, and one night at Christmas time presented themselves, and asked leave to use the shelter of a ruinous outhouse. Their request was granted; they were fed and refreshed by the terrible “firewater” which had decimated the tribe, and in return they offered to amuse the guests assembled with one of their native dances. This was gladly accepted for the novelty of the thing. All were disposed to be pleased except a young Englishman – Harker by name, I think – who loudly stigmatised the intruders as “n******” and “vermin,” and protested that if they performed, it should not be in the presence of Marie, the young lady to whom he was paying his addresses. But Marie, who belonged to a good French family, had a will of her own and a curiosity of her own: she had made up her mind to see the Indians, and the Indians she would see. In a word, Harker had to give way, and did so with the worst possible grace.

The exhibition was strange and ghastly. The half-naked bodies of the Indians were striped and dotted with paint, red, blue, and white… But the most startling appearance of all was presented by one Indian, who, with the eye of a hawk, and the face of a lynx, was so emaciated that it seemed as if his body was that of a mummy, covered with a tight brownish parchment…

A war-whoop and fierce dance of triumph completed the exhibition. Its singular vividness, and the dramatic force of the actors in it, drew forth peals of applause from all save Harker, whose jealous heart was stung by the slight Marie had put upon him by the assertion of her own will in opposition to his. He did not applaud; no word of praise fell from his lips; and while the rest clapped their hands, his hung motionless by his side. He stood apart some distance from Marie; but so that he could command every expression of her face, and overhear every syllable that might fall from her lips. While watching thus, a trifling incident aroused his jealous wrath. The emaciated Indian, whose whim it was to personate a living skeleton, overjoyed at the applause given, and one or two substantial marks of approval following it, was moved to express his gratitude in very natural way. Bowing his head to Marie, close to whom he was standing, he took her fair hand in his swarthy fingers, and raised it to his lips. At that instant, the welt of whip-thong across his face caused him to stagger back with howl of pain. “Beast!” he heard Harker exclaiming, “how dare you pollute that lady with your touch?” Half-blinded by the whip, the poor wretch nevertheless fixed on the man who addressed him a look of diabolical malignity, and with a yell fiercer than the war-whoop he had before uttered, would have fallen upon him, and no doubt done him some mortal injury. But he was restrained. The guests interfered: attempts were made to appease the Indians, who at length consented to retire to the shed in which they were privileged to pass the night. With their disappearance quiet was restored, and the incident was regarded as an unfortunate one; but not as anything of sufficient importance to give rise to the slightest alarm or uneasiness. Nor did it; the party was kept till a late hour, and when it broke up, the startling interruption which might have brought it to a tragic close was almost forgotten.

The host, an old Canadian, was, however, well acquainted with the revengeful character of the Indians, and he had some misgivings to what might result. Early in the morning, therefore, he went himself to see in what temper they might happen to be.

To his surprise the shed he had placed at their disposal was empty. They were gone.

Yes; gone. No one knew at what hour they had stolen away; whether in the dark night, or in the fresh glimmer of dawn. It was ascertained that they were not loitering in the neighbourhood. This abrupt departure was ominous; still, as nothing seemed to come of it, no one regarded the circumstance with apprehension. Not even Harker. Certainly not Marie, who was as gay and joyous, and full of life and vivacity as ever; fuller, in fact, for Harker had made her name a day on which they were to be married, and this prospect filled her heart with happiness.

The day named was the eighth of May.

In the night of the seventh of May, the expectant bride disappeared from her father’s house.

And she was seen no more. Never again, in life or in death, did those who loved behold her; but that the Indians were concerned in her abduction no one entertained a doubt. This was their revenge.


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