In an earlier post, I talked about the most well-known ways that Regency women kept themselves occupied during the times between engagements, walks, errands, and mealtimes. But there were some lesser-known activities that enjoyed at least bouts of popularity during the era.
“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “that young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are… They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses.”Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; illustration by Hugh Thomson
Nowadays, screens can be either ornamental—something purchased from a far-off country or in an antique shop to add decoration or elegance to a room—or they are functional—to block off the view. Screens in the Regency were always functional, but often in different ways than today.
In a time when homes were made of thick stone blocks with no insulation, and windows were set in wood frames that often cracked and shrunk with the weather, drafts were a daily evil. Enter the ubiquitous screen, which blocked or redirected the draft away from where people were seated or congregated, thus ensuring their comfort whatever the temperature outside.
Also a daily evil was the unpredictable heat emanating from the fireplace, which could become hot enough to bring an unseemly flush to anyone’s cheeks (upper or lower). Here, the screen could be employed to buffer the heat so that grandmama or Aunt Hester had no need to remove from the most comfortable chair in the room in order to seek solace.
But all these screens served yet another, and arguably more important, function: to advertise the accomplishments of the young ladies in the household. A screen covered in a lovely scene drew the eye and admiration, and if that eye belonged to a rich, single man in want of a wife—well, purpose served.
Rolled Paper Art
Craft kits have been around for centuries, it seems. Cabinet makers would make boxes or other ornaments with empty frames for accomplished young ladies to fill in with their designs of rolled paper. The designs could be copied from somewhere, or created by the artist. As always, useful items were the norm, because Regency ladies didn’t like to waste their time!
During the Regency—especially during the years of the Napoleonic Wars—travel and sightseeing within the UK became a huge pass time among the middle and upper classes. And people then were no different than people today—they always wanted to bring something home with them to show for their adventures.
Seashells were abundant and easy to carry, and could be found on the beaches or purchased from seaside shops. But instead of letting them sit in jars gathering dust, young ladies from the Regency put them to good use, tastefully arranging them in little collector’s boxes, or, as shown above, decorating plaques, boxes, and vases with them.
The designs could be quite ornate, with shells used as flower petals of varying kinds, with stems and leaves, or in geometric patterns. This craft was so popular that it survived well into the Victorian era.
“Pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table, and I think it infinitely superior to Miss Grantley’s.”Miss Bingley to Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Along with painting screens, Regency young ladies often enjoyed using their talents to beautify tables. This desire to decorate various pieces of furniture seems to be akin to the toll-painting craze of the 1980’s, but there is not much proof that anything other than tables and screens were affected. At any rate, the results were often lovely, and generally fetch a huge price in auctions today, so the exertions of those young ladies of two centuries past were not wasted.
There are probably many more occupations I’ve missed, or that we simply don’t know about, but the point of all this is that even fine ladies kept themselves busy with activities that were more often useful than not. Though they lived in grand houses and dressed in fine clothes, they still made efforts to help the poor and create gifts and to beautify their surroundings with whatever talents their upbringing and inclinations had provided them.
And while many did while away hours on makeup or reading or eating bonbons, at least none of them wasted their time staring at a flickering screen attached to a wall.