October 4, 2019

What is the History of the Firescreen?

Embroidered firescreen circa 1770.  Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Firescreen in front of a fireplace, circa 1770.  Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons and the Cornell University Library

Okay folks, time for a quiz:  Multiple choice.  Historically, what was a firescreen used for?
A. A very pretty decoration to mask an empty fireplace
B. A shield from the heat of a roaring fire
C. A way to show off a woman's embroidery skills
D. A way to prevent a person's makeup from melting
E. All of the above

Before more effective heating methods, rooms were heated by roaring log fires.  Firescreens were placed in front of the fire to shield the occupants of the room from excessive heat.  They took many forms:  three panel, pole (first photo above), cheval (mounted on two feet as in second photo) or banner and could be made of wood, beautifully embroidered cloth, stained glass or other materials.

Was the firescreen used to prevent wax based makeup from melting?  It appears that this is a controversial subject.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both men and women wore makeup, primarily to hide imperfections in the skin especially smallpox scars and by those of higher socioeconomic status   The more scars, the more makeup.  The makeup was lead and wax based.  Firescreens, either free standing or handheld were used to prevent the heat from melting the wax and the skin from interacting with the lead.  Lead absorbed through the skin is highly toxic and the cause of lead poisoning.

Others tend to disagree,arguing that most women did not wear makeup, much less wax based makeup, and if they did use a firescreen to protect the face it was to prevent the complexion from turning an ugly red in the heat.  This is supposedly the origin of the phrase "save face".  It appears to apply more to the nineteenth century than to earlier times.

I think both arguments have validity but it depends on the socioeconomic status of the individual and the era in which the firescreen was used.  Thus, if you answered "E"to the above quiz, you get an "A" for the day (it is, after all, my blog, so therefore I get to grade the papers!)

References and further reading:
Photos: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Compiègne._Family_Room_in_the_Château_(3486767576).jpg

February 5, 2019

The Four Confusing "C's" of Nineteenth Century Undergarments

Ever confused by these four terms for nineteenth century undergarments: crinoline, chemise, camisole and corset?  What are they and how do they relate to each other?  Let's find out.

Crinoline:  From Wikipedia - "A crinoline is a stiffened or structured petticoat designed to hold out a woman's skirt, popular at various times since the mid-19th century. Originally, crinoline described a stiff fabric made of horsehair ("crin") and cotton or linen which was used to make underskirts and as a dress lining."

Cutaway showing a crinoline, circa 1856
Courtesy of Wiki Commons

Chemise:  From Wikipedia - "Historically a chemise was a simple garment worn next to the skin to protect clothing from sweat and body oils, the precursor to the modern shirts commonly worn in Western nations."  It was commonly knee length.

 Chemise ;  Artist David Rind
Courtesy Wiki Commons

Camisole:  A waist length foundation garment worn under the corset to protect against sweat and body oils.  The camisole appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a way to replace the heavier, longer and bulkier chemise. It was commonly made of silk, cotton or linen.

Camisole circa Victorian
from ebay

Corset:  The corset was used by women to cinch in the waist and support the bust.  It was worn under a dress and usually had stays made of bone, steel or other rigid supports. It was aimed at minimizing the waist, not the hips. Corsets were in use in various forms from the time of Marie Antoinette until the early twentieth century when women rejected them in favor of comfort and the relaxed fashions of the day. (See also the post on this blog dated 9/15/17).

Courtesy Wiki Commons

So, let's put it all together.  If you were getting dressed in the nineteenth century, here is the order in which you'd put these garments on: chemise or camisole next to the skin, corset, crinoline, dress.   

References and Additional Reading: