The Ultimate Vacation: The Grand Tour

As the summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about how the idea of a “vacation” is a relatively new idea for most people- prior to the invention of the railroad, travel was extremely slow and expensive. And before the industrial age, few people could leave their farms or other work for even a short period of time. However, one group was able to travel for pleasure- the sons of the wealthy upperclasses- who codified their youthful trip through Europe as The Grand Tour.

The concept began as early as the 1600s and continued until the mid 1800s when regular travel became easier. This wasn’t a quick jaunt either, young men would spend months or even years on their trip. And this wasn’t Europe on $5 a Day. These young men were very wealthy and carried letters of introduction to stay with their aristocratic peers at castles and manors across the Continent. It’s traditionally associated with the British nobility, but was also undertaken by North and South Americans and some other Europeans.

The idea was for a post college graduation trip to see the classical world that they had studied (back when mastery Latin and ancient Greek were the hallmarks of the classical liberal arts education). Italy was the prime location to go and study the art and architecture of Rome, Florence, and Venice. In a time before museums really existed, it was only the aristocracy that had access to a lot of the famous works of art because they could appeal to their peers who owned them to let them in for a look. Inspired by seeing these classical artworks, many gentlemen set out to acquire some of their own. They were also inspired architecturally to create their own grand estates back at home in the style of the ancients, which gave rise to the Neoclassical period of architecture.

Other key destinations in the Grand Tour were Paris (to improve one’s French, the language of sophistication at the time), Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Holland. Of course, it was not all about the serious study of art and architecture. Grand Tourists made plenty of time for wine-ing, dining, and partying with all the loveliest and wittiest people in the highest circles. They weren’t all totally selfish either, sometimes they would bring artists (who would benefit tremendously from the exposure to ancient and Renaissance art) and other people of lesser means with them as companions.

The advent of the industrial age and the greater ease of travel opened up the idea of a “grand tour” of Europe to more and more people. It eventually became fashionable for older women to take grand tours of Europe, bringing along a lucky daughter or niece as a companion (for propriety and for the younger lady’s education). Of course, the idea still exists in the concept of a “gap year” in many countries, or just the general “study abroad” or “backpacking around Europe” that are still wildly popular today.


Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do that Anymore: Hire Decorative Hermits

You know how, when you are a British noble in the eighteenth century, and you are redoing your landscaping and you’ve got Capability Brown doing the design and are adding some nice fountains and follies, but somehow it’s still just missing something? What if…you just hired a living human to come and be a hermit on your property? That would be just the ticket, right?

It sounds a bit nuts, but ornamental hermits were a fad among the rich in both England and France for a while in the 1700 and 1800s!

It had to do with a romantic notion of sadness and meditation, and what better to remind you of that than having a person act it out in your presence? Hermit grottos would be built as part of the landscaping design and then men would be hired to come in and be the hermit- often for quite a lot of money. But they would have to agree to grow out their hair and beards and not trim their nails. Sometimes they would be asked to dispense wise words to visitors and sometimes they would be silent in more of a living diorama. Some hermits would stay as long as seven years or more.

I first came across the concept in one of those reality shows where people have to live for months like they are in a historical time period- this one was called Regency House Party and they had an actor playing the garden hermit. At the time I was just like, oh yeah, the hermit, that makes sense in this wacky world where they take baths according to rank, using the same water for each person. But now, I look back on it and I’m like, WHAT? It’s such a strange concept. It really makes garden gnomes and flamingos look very rational and charming!

Royal Ascot Etiquette

Royal Ascot starts tomorrow and if you don’t know, it’s the premier horse race in Britain. Like the Kentucky Derby, but with royalty in attendance.

The race was founded by Queen Anne in 1711 and is attended every year by Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and other members of the Royal Family. They even open the race by entering the ground in horse drawn carriages! While the general public can buy regular tickets to the races, and almost 300,000 do, but only the crème de la crème can hob nob with the Royals in the Royal Enclosure. Royal Enclosure invitations are harder to get than Hamilton tickets- to be a Royal Enclosure member, you must be sponsored by two existing members who have been members themselves for at least 5 years (and members can only sponsor two new members each year). Members are also allowed to bring up to two guests on the Friday or Saturday of the races, but these guest passes are limited, so even if you do know someone, you might still not get in!

If you do manage to get a membership or invitation, you are going to have to follow the extremely strict dress code:

For Men:

  • Morning dress is required- this means a cut away coat, special pinstripe pants, a waistcoat and tie. In either black or gray.
  • A black or gray top hat (again, this is REQUIRED, you will probably have to rent one)
  • Plain black shoes
  • Or you can wear National Dress (aka you are from another country and have a special formal wear- such as a kimono) or formal Military Dress (if applicable)
  • Boys 10-17 can wear the same, or just wear a plain dark colored suit with a tie.
  • You are not allowed to wear:
    • A cravat instead of a tie
    • A bowtie
    • Any adornment to your hat

For Ladies:

  • Formal daywear. Dresses or skirts must knee length or below. Trouser suits are also appropriate.
  • Dresses and tops must have straps at least one inch wide (no strapless, halter tops, spaghetti straps)
  • Hats with a base of at least 4 inches (aka no fascinators) must be worn.
  • Midriffs must be covered.
  • Girls 10-17 must wear the same, but they can wear fascinators or other small headpieces.

Again, this strict dress code is for the Royal Enclosure only. And honestly, if you are going to be participating in that, this is probably a dress code that you are already familiar with and prepared for anyway. The Queen Anne Enclosure also has a dress code- generally- hats required for ladies, nice dresses and pants suits with no shoulders or midriffs showing, no shorts. For men, they must wear a suit and tie. The super general area doesn’t have a dress code, but from pictures it looks like people mostly make some effort to look nice. You can see more dress code info with fun pictures on their website.

What Is a Linen Press?

You might know a linen press as a piece of furniture used to store linens, but did you know that there is an alternate meaning of this phrase? From the medieval period up until the 19th century, linen presses (also called napkin presses) were actual presses that were used to flatten cloth, sometimes give it a nice sheen, and interestingly, to create purposeful creases in the cloth. It was also used for storage- many books of household management reference getting tablecloths out of the napkin press and putting them back in when the meal was over. These were so common, they are mentioned in household lists of furniture and guides for housewives without any explanation of what they are for or how to use them other than that they are helpful to keep tablecloths and napkins neat.

They worked like any kind of press- you put the linen in between two boards and then tightened it down with a screw mechanism. So, kind of ironing by pressure instead of heat. Speaking of irons, though, did you know you can buy giant irons that you feed tablecloths and sheets and things through (if you want them smooth and not with purposeful creases)? I found that out recently and I want one so badly because I am a wack who loves ironed sheets, but alas, I cannot fit a monster appliance like that in my Brooklyn apartment. Someday though.



What Is a Chatelaine?

A chatelaine is like a really fancy, old timey keychain or Swiss Army knife mixed with a charm bracelet- it’s got a little of everything in a pretty package. Though they were around much longer, the term wasn’t coined as “chatelaine” until 1828.

Women traditionally wore it either around their waist or pinned to a belt or something at the waist and was meant to carry around all manner of useful objects to help with household tasks. It might have things like scissors, a little notebook, keys, seals, tweezers, etc. During many periods, these items were very valuable as well as useful, so it was good to keep them on one’s person so they would not be lost. During the period that chatelaines were popular, most women’s clothing didn’t have pockets and they didn’t really carry bags, so the chatelaine was a substitute.

It could also refer simply to the keys to the house. In many times and households where servants were common, much of the supplies and goods were kept locked up to prevent theft. Household silver and jewelry, obviously, but also pantries and linen closets, so having the keys to all of these was the task of the mistress of the house and the servants would have to go to her to have her unlock things so they could get supplies. Having the keys to a household was a powerful thing- and often little girls would copy their mothers by carrying “chatelaines” around that were much more like charm bracelets than any real use.

Chatelaines could be very plain or completely covered in diamonds, other jewels, and fine metals. They could also be specialized to a trade (like nursing- with thermometers, bandages, and such) or a hobby.

Of course, like everything, they could get so ridiculous that they were mocked in cartoons, like this one from a 19th century Punch magazine:


There is a book about chatelaines, apparently, if you are interested.