Harriette Wilson was a mistress to numerous famous and wealthy men in Regency England. After several of her paramours failed to provide her with decent financial support, as was expected at the time, she wrote a tell-all book called The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson: Written by Herself, which caused a massive scandal by naming and shaming numerous high-ranking men. The two-volume autobiography details affairs with no less than the Duke of Wellington, the foreign secretary, various other nobles including new dukes, and even the Prince Regent himself. While she didn’t sleep with the Prince Regent herself, she details an affair for which the Prince was supposed to have provided £20,000 that he never paid.
Harriette Wilson was, by the standards of the era, a courtesan. Many women who became the long-term mistresses of aristocratic men were courtesans who negotiated levels of financial support in exchange for maintaining the relationship. Despite the transfer of funds, the associations were not looked at as prostitution in the era, but instead financially caring for a dependent long-term lover. However, to the courtesans, their affairs were the basis of a career, and any lapse in payment could leave them destitute. It was such lapses in payment that led Wilson to write her book.
Opium, which is a refined form of the sap from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, was imported in significant quantities to England from its colony, Bengal. Opiates were common in household medicines in various forms, especially laudanum, and were easy to obtain. The Prince Regent himself was reportedly taking up to 250 drops of laudanum a day towards the end of his life. Laudanum, as used at the time, was a tincture of 10% powdered opium by weight, and the equivalent of a tincture of 1% morphine today. It’s hard to imagine now, but children and even infants were often dosed with laudanum for toothaches or cholic during the era. Doctors and apothecaries, who served as rudimentary pharmacists, had no formalized training and freely advised patients of all ages to take opiates.
Opiates were no less addictive in Regency England than they are today, with countless contemporary reports of lives destroyed and sufferers dying from addiction and overdose. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was famously addicted to opium. While he initially began taking laudanum for childhood fever, it turned into an addiction that led to his using two quarts of laudanum a week by the end of his life. His obsession led to his wife leaving him and his friendship with fellow poet William Wordsworth dissolving.
Wealthy residents of Regency England had rich diets full of fat and, most importantly for their teeth, sugar. Unfortunately for them, dental hygiene and practice was still incredibly rudimentary science. Consequently, the wealthiest people in the Regency Era had the worst teeth. Since rotted teeth were so widespread among the upper crust, dentistry was a booming industry. Jewelers, blacksmiths, wig makers, and other professions all jumped into the dentistry craze. False teeth were often crafted out of ivory, bone or porcelain at an incredibly high cost. The most expensive treatment was replacing a pulled rotten tooth with a live tooth, often from a live “donor” or fresh corpse, which spread disease.
In a morbid, yet fortunate, turn of events for those in need of teeth, over 47,000 soldiers died at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. After the battle was decided in favor of the English, people scoured the battlefield harvesting healthy teeth from the mouths of the fallen soldiers to make dentures for the wealthy back home. “Waterloo teeth” became incredibly prized for dentures since they came from mouths of healthy young men and were relatively unaffected by decay. The teeth would either be fitted into a single empty socket or crafted into dentures with an ivory base. While this treatment is horrifying, at least it didn’t spread disease.
When the wealthy traveled in Regency England, they would often stay at the homes of other nobles as a guest. Regular working folks had no such luxury and were forced to remain at coaching inns. Such inns were a common sight along Regency roadways and offered a cheap frill-less overnight stop for poor travelers. Due to the high demand for such services, the inns were constantly packed. The owners of such inns were of low social status and didn’t have much wealth themselves, so expanding their inns and buying more beds was out of the question. So, what does an enterprising coaching inn owner due to meet demand? Make the guests share beds with each other, of course!
As horrifying as this sounds, communal bed sharing among travelers was standard practice throughout the west in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The method was so conventional that there were rules of etiquette surrounding the sharing of a communal bed. One was to lie still, be quiet, keep one’s hands to oneself, and not hog the blankets. Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and John Adams famously (and hilariously) broke these rules by spending a night at an inn fighting over whether or not to sleep with a window open.
Bundling, or tarrying, is an old tradition in which an unmarried couple that was courting would spend a night in bed together with some sort of barrier between them to prevent premarital relations. This practice was believed to encourage intimacy in a courting young couple without allowing for any sinning to happen. There were many forms of bundling including placing a board down the length of the mattress to create separation or using a rolled-up wad of bedding along the bed for the same purpose. Another way is having the man lay atop the covers and the woman under, wearing unique sack-like clothing that was difficult to get out of, or both people laying in a sack with a seam sewn down the middle.
While some religious leaders preached against bundling, it remained a widespread practice well into the 19th century, especially in the United States. The practice was especially popular among Pennsylvania Dutch settlers and Amish settlers. It is believed that bundling may still be used during courtship by the Nebraska Amish community today. While it is a charming system, in theory, it’s hard to imagine that amorous youngsters who intended to be married wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to outsmart a board or a sack.
Many older folks today complain about the lewd nature of today’s music. However, many of today’s rappers and pop stars had nothing on the troubadours of the Regency Era who sang songs that could positively make you blush. A favorite folk song of the era was “A Lusty Young Smith.” It is a rather frank depiction of a tryst between a married woman and a young blacksmith, with one surprisingly explicit verse describing the frequency of the encounter saying,
Six times did his iron by vigorous heating, Frow soft in her forge in a minute or so, And as often was hardened, still beating and beating, But each time it softened, it hardened more slow. With a jingle bang, jingle bang, jingle bang, jingle, With a jingle bang, jingle bang, jingle, hi ho!
Another rather raunchy folk song of the period was “The Trooper Water His Nagg” which was a humorous story of a man stopping to water his horse and eventually whetting his appetite with the innkeeper’s daughter. The ribald end of the song is the man in woman discussing what to do together in bed, with the lines:
“But what is this hangs under his chin?” “‘Tis the bag he puts his Provender in.”
Quoth he, “What is this?” Quoth she,” ‘Tis a well Where Ball, your Nag can drink his fill.”
“But what if my Nag should chance to slip in?” “Then catch hold of the grass that grows on the brim.”
“But what if the grass should chance to fail?” “Shove him in by the head, pull him out by the tail.”
Pork was an everyday staple for middle and upper-class diners of the Regency period. Little of the animal went to waste, with the pancreas, called sweetmeats, and head being common delicacies of the age. At dances, finger foods were highly prized as they allowed revelers to mingle and continue dancing while eating. This was much preferable over a massive, multi-course seated dinner that would surely get boring quickly to the young attendees with courtship on their mind. One tasty finger food was chicken stuffed with pigs’ tongues. Pig’s tongues were, in general, considered a delicacy to be savored when served a whole pig’s head.
Beef was another favorite food during the era, taking on a primarily political air during the war against the French. Dining clubs sprung up that focused heavily on eating beef, as it was unpopular in France at the time and considered by the British to be an unpretentious patriotic food that set them apart from continental Europeans. Eating specific foods or renaming them for political purposes is an old tradition that persists into our time, with hamburgers being renamed “liberty steaks” during World War I and french fries being called “Freedom Fries” in the early 2000s when France refused to support the United States’ war with Iraq.
Anyone who has ever had to sport shapewear or an elaborate dress knows that it isn’t always convenient, or even possible, to remove your garments in a way that facilitates using the bathroom. Regency Era women certainly knew this, given the layers of slips, dresses, and outerwear that would have comprised their daily attire. It should be a little surprise, then, that the clever women of the era had ways of using the bathroom while hardly having to adjust their clothing at all. Starting in the 18th century, women used fanciful gravy-boat like vessels called bourdaloues to do their business.
The bourdaloues were typically made of porcelain or metal and genuinely do look like small gravy boats minus a spout. They had a handle on one end and were curved inwards in the middle to rest comfortably against the user. For wealthy women, a maid would be waiting nearby to enter the pot after use. A painting by Francois Boucher shows a woman in full dress preparing to use a bourdaloue. Reportedly, women would use them in public, merely standing in a dark hallway or behind a curtain to relieve themselves. The advent of water closets in the 19th century put an end to the practice of using bourdaloues.
If you thought the folk songs of the Regency Era were tawdry, just wait until you hear about the cartoons. In an era before formal pornography, people needed some material to excite the imagination. This was accomplished with widely available cartoons that depicted countless carnal acts in full color. Surprisingly, in an era of purportedly chaste Christian morals, nothing was taboo in erotic artwork including gay people, interracial acts featuring Africans, oral, orgies, and acts depicting transvestites. Oddly enough, one erotic graving of the era describes putting a trumpet in a woman’s backside. Whether this was a peculiarity of the artist or an actual practice at the time is (thankfully) unknown.
The artist Thomas Rowlandson, who was active during the Regency period, created dozens of erotic engraving and illustrations that still survive today. They depict interracial acts, voyeurism, bestiality and more. Rowlandson is also famed for his satirical and political cartoons, implying that he must not have had his reputation damaged by the publication of erotic artwork. It is unclear what publications published Rowlandson’s erotic artwork during the era, but shortly after the Regency Era, the Victorian Era had several widely distributed erotic magazines called The Pearl and The Oyster that featured erotic stories and images.
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