Sacks to Suits: The Evolution of Clothing

 

Clothing is pretty important. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you might just, quite possibly, be wearing some.

I hope.

And if you’re not, then I hope that you look better without them than with them.

Anyway, since the dawn of time, mankind has had to wear clothing. Not having excessive amounts of body-hair to keep us warm meant that we had to find something else to compensate for this when the weather turned, or got wet or windy or otherwise unpleasant. In this posting, I’ll be looking at the gradual evolution of clothing from its earliest roots, up to the early 20th century, when the types of clothes we wear today started being created. So, where to begin?

Furs and Pelts

The earliest clothes worn by man were the furs, skins and pelts of the animals they killed while out hunting for food. When hunting was such a dangerous, labour-intensive and time-consuming part of one’s day, absolutely any and every part of a dead animal was used for something. The flesh was eaten, the bones were used to make tools or equipment, and the pelts and skins were used for clothing, or making shelter. The first needles were made out of shards of animal-bone, and the first threads for sewing were the sinews and muscle-fibres taken from these dead animals.

Using rudimentary knives such as napped flints or chunks of razor-sharp obsidian (basically, volcanic glass, which is sharp enough to shave with!), primitive man learned how to skin, cut, and sew together animal pelts to make the first ever articles of clothing – likely loin-cloths (for the covering of one’s loins), or cloaks and capes, for covering one’s shoulders, chests, and backs.

Weaving, Knitting and Spinning: Wool, Wonderful Wool!

Finding enough mammoths, tigers, lions and other furry animals to kill and make clothing is obviously labour intensive and dangerous. The next step in finding ways to make clothing was to grow it! Instead of chasing the sources of your clothing, simply grow it, or let it come to you. Using the long strands and fibres in plants like flax, cotton and hemp, or the strands and fibres in the wool of sheep, mankind realised that if they could utilise these naturally occurring materials, they could make clothing. More clothing, better clothing, and more comfortable clothing! Thus began the domestication and farming of fat, fluffy, woolly sheep!

But, having sheep was not enough. To make fabric from the sheep’s wool, two innovations were necessary – that of spinning the fibres to make a thread, and that of weaving the threads to make cloth.

Unlike cotton and flax, which were seasonal and which were more affected by weather, the wool on sheep was a reliable and plentiful source of material. Because of this, for centuries, sheep’s wool was used to clothe people throughout Europe and North America (in South America, alpaca wool served the same purpose).

Using knives or basic clippers, mankind learned how to shear sheep, to remove as much of this wool as possible for the manufacturing of clothes. It is actually necessary to shear sheep – if you don’t, the wool builds up into unmanageable layers and the sheep can actually die from the weight, the heat, and the infestations of grubs and maggots that get into the wool…eugh.

Shearing and processing wool was a big undertaking. The first step was to wash the sheep. This was usually done by simply dumping the poor animal into a river. The fast-flowing water would blast out all the mud and gunk from the sheep’s woolly fleece, and then you simply trotted it back up onto shore, let it dry out, and then sheared it.

The next step was to shear the sheep, using knives or clippers. You had to get as close to the sheep’s skin without actually nicking it. If you did, tar, pitch or some other adhesive was usually applied to the wound to stop the sheep from getting infected. Sheep were extremely important in Europe, and great care was taken in their maintenance.

Once the wool was removed from the sheep, the next step was to card it.

Carding was the process of combing the wool and cleaning it. This was done by combing it over and over again between two drums or paddles with rows of hooks or needles set into them. The hooks grabbed the wool and stretched out the fibres, combing everything into one direction. This aligned the fibres, but also separated them. This allowed you to clean the wool – picking out any grubby bits that you didn’t want!

A classic, treadle-powered spinning-wheel from the 1600s and 1700s. Being able to sit down while spinning made the job far more comfortable and made production of spun threads and yarns far more efficient.

Once the wool had been carded and cleaned, it could then be spun. Spinning was what compacted and aligned the fibres of the wool, twisting it into a continuous yarn. This was traditionally done on a spinning-wheel, either a small wheel and spindle, at which you could sit and pedal for hours at a time, or at a so-called ‘great-wheel’, which was a huge iron wheel which was spun around continuously, stretching and twisting the fibres of wool that you fed in by hand, into a continuous yarn or thread.

Unsurprisingly, to get enough thread to make anything of significance, you needed to do a lot of spinning. Spinners would walk for miles and miles a day, pedaling or moving back and forth against the spinning of their wheels, to produce thread. As this task was often done by unmarried women with few prospects, the term for an unmarried woman became a ‘spinster’.

Weaving Wool

Once the threads had been spun, the next step was to weave it. This was either done by knitting – looping the wool back and forth against itself to make fabric – or by weaving it back and forth, up and down, using a weaving loom.

Weaving looms were impressive machines, requiring great concentration to both set up, and operate. As the size of the finished fabric was dictated by the size of the loom, some looms could be gigantic! Two rows of thread (the warp) were set up in the loom, moving up and down, alternating back and forth. Between these two rows of thread, the weaver passed a spindle of thread mounted on a boat-shaped device called a shuttle. The thread going back and forth was called the ‘weft’. Together, weft and warp, woven together, created cloth. It was important for thread-tension to be kept even, and for the weaver not to lose concentration, or else the finished fabric wouldn’t hold together…whoops!

For centuries, weaving was done by hand. The weaver operated the levers which shifted the warp up and down, with his or her feet, while their hands operated the shuttle of thread which ran back and forth. This was a slow, laborious task – but one which was highly skilled – it took a lot of concentration to set up the loom, and one mistake would affect the entire outcome of the finished cloth!

Finishing off Fabric!

Once the fabric was woven, and released from the loom, it then had to be finished. Freshly-woven fabric (especially wool) was rough and stiff. This was because of the fibres of wool, and the oils that they contained. To produce a fabric that you’d actually want to wear, the cloth had to be processed or finished-off, in a process called ‘fulling’.

Fulling involved breaking down the fibres of the cloth and cleaning out the oil and grit from the wool, making it softer and fluffier. Ooooh, fluffy!

For centuries, this was done through brute force, and the addition of…human urine.

Do you know anybody with the last name ‘Fuller’? Well, chances are that in the dim and distant past, their great-great-great-great-great…great-great-great…great-great…great ancestors…had the unenviable occupation of being a fuller! A fuller was the person who fulled (processed) cloth. And this was done by dumping the raw fabric into a vat, tub or barrel, and then soaking it in stale piss! The ammonia in the urine dissolved the grease and oil in the wool (produced by the sheep), making it softer and cleaner and easier to use. Once the fabric was drenched in piss, it was the job of the fuller (or if he was lucky, his hapless assistants, or even slaves) to tread the fabric. Constant treading, beating or pounding of the piss-soaked fabric closed up the fibres in the cloth, making it more homogeneous, removing all the little pinprick holes that were left by the weaving.

Once the cloth was softened and finished, it was removed from the piss-vat by the slaves or fuller-assistants (who probably had received a crude pedicure at the same time), then washed, and then strung up! Fabric (especially wool) crinkles up when it’s wet – making it of no use to anybody. To stretch out the fabric and remove any pesky elasticity from it, it had to be stretched out. To do this, it was held in place by small, bent iron hooks or nails.

Ever heard of the expression that someone is ‘on tenterhooks’?

This is where it comes from.

Fabric was literally stretched out on tenterhooks and kept under…tention…or…’tension’, as we’d say today – to remove the springiness from the fabric, to ensure that it didn’t crinkle up again like a ruffle-cut potato chip. Once the tension had been stretched out of the fabric, it was ready for use!

Clothes Throughout History

Once processes for finding fibres, refining them, spinning, and weaving them into fabric had been perfected, what came next was the actual process of making clothes – the results of which were typically dictated by time, price, climate, and of course – fashion!

The process of making clothes has not changed in hundreds of years. Panels of cloth, cut according to measurements, were sewn together with a needle and thread, resulting in a finished garment. What did change, however, was what those garments looked like, over the coming centuries, ranging wildly in colours, sizes, complexities, and fabrics. For a long time, clothing was seen as much more than just something to keep you warm and comfortable.

Clothing in the Middle Ages

We pick up on the saga of clothing in the Middle Ages. One event – one long, wavering event, would affect the clothing of the people of the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, and the Early Modern era, all the way up to the time of the Victorians – and it’s important to know what this event was, to understand the evolution of clothing during this long stretch: An event called the Little Ice Age.

Stretching from about 1300-1850, the Little Ice Age was a weather phenomenon that came and went over the next half-millennium, cooling the earth gradually every couple of generations. This resulted in shorter summers, and longer, and colder winters. So cold, in fact, that major rivers in European cities such as the Thames in London, would freeze solid, right up into the 1840s and 50s, which is not that long ago!

But what affect did the Little Ice Age have on clothing?

Because of the decidedly harsher climate across Europe and America, China and Canada, during this time, clothing was by necessity – thick, and worn in layers. Cloaks, capes, shawls and wraps were common. Women wore layers of petticoats, skirts and bodices, while men wore thick, baggy shirts, woolen britches or leggings called hose, and a jacket or coat known as a ‘doublet’, so-called, because it was quite literally – double-lined in wool, inside-and-out, to provide warmth against the cold.

Clothes like this lasted virtually unchanged in their essentials, from the Middle Ages through to the 1700s.

Edward VI wearing a doublet and hose. This look remained common for men throughout the medieval era and renaissance, until the early 1600s.

While men wore leggings, hose, stockings, tunics (baggy, collarless shirts), with doublets and cloaks on top, women during this era covered themselves with a profusion of fabrics. The first garment was typically a chemise (a light, undergarment), followed by her corset (usually stiffened with wood, or whale-bone), followed by petticoats, skirts, a stomacher (a padded apron), and dozens of pins, all used to hold these various pieces of clothing together. Pins were so essential to dressing, in an age before buttons and zippers, that there was an entire industry devoted to making them, back in the 1500s.

In many respects, clothing like this changed little between the 1200s or 1300s, up to the dawn of the Modern Era, with the generally colder weather around the world meaning that it was just more practical to keep on wearing so many layers.

Clothes Maketh the Man

It was during this era that clothes were seen as a status-symbol. Given that they were so incredibly labour-intensive to produce, most people owned few clothes – at best, maybe two or three full sets each, generally just chopping, changing, darning, patching and sewing them up, over, and over, and over again, to keep them going as long as possible, before they could afford to buy enough fabric to make another set.

Because of this, for a long time, clothing – both the quantity and the quality of it – was a massive status-symbol around the world. Dresses, shirts, skirts and cloaks made of velvet, silk, or satin, instead of cotton or wool, were seen as more luxurious and higher-class.

People of Colour!

These days, we don’t think much about the colour of our clothing, beyond what colours go with which other colours. I mean you’re not gonna wear THAT…are you? Oh god…

But in times past, the colour of the cloth which made up your clothing was actually of great significance. Colours such as red, white, green, black and even purple, were considered highly fashionable and popular. This was partially due to their brightness or contrast, but also because of their expense. Purple, green and white were considered desirable because they were thought to display wealth, power and taste!

Purple in particular, was difficult to make, requiring a chemical reaction, in which crushed seashells were needed to dye the cloth. It was so expensive and labour-intensive to produce that for centuries, only royalty and nobility could wear cloth made of purple. Even today, royal cloaks and robes are a deep purple colour. That’s not an accident.

Red was also popular. A bright, scarlet red was traditionally produced by crushing tiny cochineal beetles. The dye in their shells could be used to stain the cloth red. Red was popular for dresses, cloaks, doublets, tunics…all kinds of things! In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, cochineal dye was most famously used as the red dye for the redcoat uniforms worn by British soldiers.

Diarist John Evelyn. In the 1600s and 1700s, crisp, white linen collars, cuffs and neckerchiefs were a sign of wealth, since it took so much money to buy such clean white cloth, and then so much effort to keep it clean and white!

Another highly popular colour was white – white cuffs, white collars, white ruffles, neckerchiefs, cravats, shirts and other flourishes and accessories were extremely popular in the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s. The more you had, the more affluent you were. This was because it suggested that, not only did you have the money to spend on such fine, crisp, white linen, but you also had the money to pay servants to keep it clean and white and crisp, sprinkling it with starch to help keep the shape and colour. Being trimmed in white also suggested that you were a man or woman of means – you had your own money, or at least, earned it through means of business and trade – not through such horrible occupations as farming or mining or doing manual labour, which might soil your beautiful white collars and cuffs with grime and dust and sweat!

It’s a huge misconception that people in the past did not care about colour in their clothing. They most certainly did, and they used it as a way to express their wealth and status. And not just in Europe. In China, yellow was only ever worn by the Emperor, red was worn for celebrations, and in Asia, just as it was in Europe – purple was the colour of royalty.

The Renaissance Man and Woman

By the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s, clothing was gradually becoming more refined. For men, separate leggings were now becoming a single garment. What were previously called ‘hose’ were now called breeches, or ‘britches’, knee-length coverings with a sort of drawstring opening at the front, similar to a modern fly. This was augmented with a pouch or flap of cloth known as a codpiece, with which to cover your ‘codware’.

For those who could afford it, clothes were now being made in a more tailored way – by the 1600s, it became common for men to wear long tailcoats, and long waistcoats to combat the cold winter air. Under this, they still wore their simple, white shirts, however. These shirts were long, baggy and typically made of linen or thin wool fabric. They were worn baggy because part of their function was to act as underwear, and as sleeping attire. At the end of the day, you removed all your coats, waistcoats, cloaks and jackets, and simply went to sleep in your shirt, or ‘nightshirt’ as it became known. This tradition persisted right up into the Victorian era, and even in the later 1800s, to be seen ‘in your shirtsleeves’ as it was called – was tantamount to walking around wearing a jockstrap and nothing else – a MAJOR social faux-pas for the time!

Capt. James Cook in his naval uniform, which consisted of knee-length breeches (buttoned at the thighs), and knee-length white stockings beneath.

For women, the layers of petticoats and skirts remained the norm, although by now, a new innovation which the woman who could afford it, might add to her attire was this newfangled ‘pocket’ thing that people kept talking about.

Pockets had existed before, but it wasn’t until the 1500s and 1600s that they really became a thing. In previous times, a ‘pocket’ was a simple pouch strapped to your belt, and was also called a purse. But these pockets – made in pairs – with tie-strings on them, could be tied to a lady’s undergarments, hidden away from view, in which she might keep her money, scissors, spectacles, or anything else that might fit inside.

Of course, if the straps which tied the pockets to your skirts came loose, then you would literally – lose a pocket…like Lucy Locket…which is the origin of the nursery rhyme.

As I said before, during this time, your clothing was a serious marker of your social and financial status. If you walked around town in your fine dresses, long, flowing, embroidered coats and jackets, or crisp, white linens, you would really stand out as a member of the upper-clasess…which meant you had money…lots of money! Which meant that you could probably stand to lose some, yeah?

Well, others certainly thought so. It was at this time that we are introduced to the character of the ‘cutpurse’, a person who would wander around behind unsuspecting toffs, and quite literally use a small knife to cut the drawstrings on their purses or pockets, catch them before they hit the ground, and then run off with them, without the owner being any the wiser! In time, the cutpurse would attain a new moniker – the pickpocket!

The Start of the Suit

In modern English, a ‘suit of clothes’ is a set of clothing all cut from the same cloth. As we’ve seen, clothing in the past was not. Shirts, jackets, waistcoats, breeches, leggings, petticoats, chemises, dresses and cloaks were made of a wide variety of fabrics – cotton, wool, tweed, silk, satin…the list goes on.

So, when did the suit as we know it – a set of clothing all cut and made from the same type and colour of fabric – first originate?

The suit as we know it is comprised of three components: The jacket, the trousers (a two-piece suit), and a waistcoat (three-piece suit). How far back does this combination, in matching fabrics – go?

The immediate ancestor of the suit dates back to the 1600s. This was when men started wearing breeches instead of separate leggings which were simply tied to their shirts. Originally called hose, breeches were knee-length coverings comprised of a seat, front, fly, and two legs. Indeed, during the 1500s and 1600s, and even into the 1700s, a rite-of-passage for small boys was the transition from wearing baby-clothes (typically dresses or skirts), into wearing breeches (the forerunner to trousers), and it was considered a major point in their lives, since indicated that they were growing up.

Why, you might ask, did little boys wear skirts as toddlers, instead of breeches? Well, it’s a lot easier to clean up a toddler’s bodily motions when they’re wearing skirts. The transition to breeches indicated that they had grown up enough, and were now mature enough, to handle their bodily functions on their own, and were therefore mature enough to wear breeches. This rite of passage was known as ‘breeching’. In one form or another, it remained common into the 20th century. But more about that later…

The Jacket

The first part of the suit is the jacket. Men had been wearing jackets or coats for centuries, and by the 1600s, the long tailcoat with cuffs and pockets with flaps had become an established article of men’s clothing. They varied in length, but at their most extreme, went down to below the knee for winter garments, and around thigh-level for warmer-weather jackets.

The Breeches

As mentioned, breeches descended from hose, which descended from the separate leggings worn in Medieval times. By the 1600s, breeches had become an established part of European menswear, usually matched with a pair of knee-length stockings, typically white, although other stocking-colours were also popular. By this time, pockets, at least for men, started becoming ‘in-built’ into their garments. No-longer were they little sacks or pouches that hung off the side on strings. Now, they were being sewn into, and onto, men’s clothing, such as the pockets in coats and waistcoats, so did early trousers and breeches also have pockets.

Breeches remained popular from the 1600s up to the early 1800s, due to the fact that most men either walked, or rode a horse everywhere, to get from place to place. The poor condition of roads meant that it was highly likely you’d get splattered with mud, rainwater or dust while out riding or walking, or even just getting in and out of your carriage. If your stockings got wet or muddy, you could simply change them, and keep wearing the same pair of breeches for a longer period of time before they too, would have to be washed (in a time when washing clothing was an extremely laborious task, garments were, of necessity, washed as infrequently as possible to save on water, fuelwood, and expensive soap, a commodity which remained taxed in England right up to the Victorian era). Wearing knee-length breeches, which were less likely to be soiled by grime, and a pair of removable stockings, was therefore seen as a matter of practicality, as well as fashion.

The Waistcoat

Arguably, the first instance of a ‘vest’ or ‘waistcoat’ being mentioned in the English language is in Samuel Pepys’ diary of the 1660s, when he describes King Charles II of England, wearing such a garment, and declaring that his courtiers should do the same. Early waistcoats, much like the jackets and coats of the era, were dictated by the ‘Little Ice Age’ at the time. Waistcoats were much longer than modern ones, reaching as far down as the knee in an effort to provide warmth and deal with drafts.

The beginnings of a Suit

With these three components: A coat or jacket, vest or waistcoat, and a pair of breeches with stockings, the suit as we would know it today, was in its infancy. Over time, it would gradually evolve. By the 1700s, the waistcoat would shorten in length and coats and jackets would become less elaborate. The fashion for breeches remained for much of this time, though, due to reasons explained previously. It would not be until the early 1800s that they finally started to be usurped by trousers.

Dandies, Fops and Macaronis

By the 1700s, men’s and women’s daily attire had hardly changed markedly from what it had been a hundred, or even two or three hundred years before. For women, layers of petticoats, shawls and undergarments remained the norm. For men, things had advanced somewhat, but the layers of clothing and elaborate attire remained de-rigeur. Jackets and waistcoats had increased or decreased in length according to fashion and style, and by the Georgian era, it was slowly becoming less and less elaborate…although that is a matter of opinion, in some circles!

Foppish Macaronis!

“Now Sir! You’re a complete Macaroni!” – The over-the-top outfits worn by men in the late 1600s and 1700s were what gave them the nickname of ‘fops’, ‘poppinjays’, or ‘Macaronis’. This dependence on powder, rouge, scent and bright colours was seen by some as being overly effeminate.

By the 1600s, a phenomenon known as the ‘fop’ had arrived on the scene, also called a ‘poppinjay’ or even a ‘coxcomb’…these were all derogatory terms coined to describe the sort of excessively well-dressed, superficial man, typically of wealth or breeding, who spent far too much time concerned with his clothing, makeup, scent, and general appearance in public! These last two terms – poppinjay and coxcomb, aimed to compare the fop with common birds – specifically the parrot, and the rooster (or ‘cockerel’).

Why?

Because, like a rooster or some other exceptionally flamboyant and flowery bird – they were constantly strutting around, heads up, making loads of noise, trying to get others to notice them, while also preening themselves endlessly, with scent, perfume, powder and makeup! Bedecked with jewels, brocade suits, ruffs, frills, overpowering cologne, insanely elaborate wigs dusted over with powder to give them a brilliant, bright whiteness, fops embodied the 17th and 18th century man of means.

Linked closely to the fop was the equally dazzling ‘macaroni’, as in that old nursery rhyme of Yankee Doodle and his hat with the feather in it.

Calling it ‘Macaroni’!

By the 1700s, it became increasingly popular for young men to do what was called the ‘Grand Tour‘ – basically a sort of 18th century gap-year. The idea was that – if you could afford it – you packed up your trunks and bags, and, with a companion, friend or tutor, went off on a tour of Europe – generally encompassing France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Italian City States. This was supposed to be a mind-broadening exercise – to expose clueless young English noblemen to the refinement, style, class, and fashions of the continent!

Having been exposed to all this grandeur and fashion, it was expected that these feckless young toffs would have returned from their travels with a more cultured, sophisticated outlook on life, having learned about the classical societies of Greece and Rome, perhaps learned a foreign language, or developed a greater appreciation for the arts. One thing which these young men developed a taste for was Italian cuisine…you know…pasta. Specifically – this newfangled ‘macaroni’ thing, which most people had never seen before!

Macaroni then became a term used to describe young, clueless men of questionable cultural understanding, who were determined to copy or imitate high European fashion and society. As with anything when people try to imitate the styles, fashions, cuisine or culture of a foreign nation, things get lost, exaggerated, or simply left out, of the translation – and this caused the Macaroni faddists to become ridiculed by their peers.

Fine and Dandy

As you can imagine, all this excess started to get rather…excessive. Especially by the end of the 1700s. This led some to seek a simpler, cleaner, more refined look. Spearheading this new, clean-cut look was George Brummell – better known as ‘Beau’ Brummell. Well-educated and from a decent, middle-class family, Brummell had spent time in the army where he became friends with the Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent, later George IV).

Rejecting the powder, wigs, scent, makeup, love-spots and other trivialities of the fop, Brummell strove to create a cleaner, simpler look for the man about town. Instead of breeches, he introduced trousers. Instead of bright, flashy, garish colours, he insisted on darker tones. Navy blue. Black. Grey. He contrasted this with crisp, white linen in the form of shirts, and crisp, white neckerchiefs and cravats – the immediate predecessor to the modern necktie. Brummell was such a perfectionist with his wardrobe, it’s said he took up to five hours to get dressed, and required the aide of his manservant to do such things as tying his cravat.

The Dandy Movement, started by Brummell, spread around Europe in the late 1700s and throughout the later Georgian era of the 1810s, 20s, and 30s. This portrait was painted in France in 1801. The cleaner, simpler lines and less flamboyant colours display a complete departure from the loud, garish outfits of the macaronis and fops, just a few decades before.

The simple, elegant look popularised by Brummell started being copied throughout Europe and North America, spreading around the world with European trade and colonisation. It was easier to tailor, and less elaborate. On top of that, the dandy also presented himself differently to the world: No wigs, no powder, rogue, no makeup of any kind, beyond maybe the occasional spritz of cologne. They kept themselves washed, cleaned and close-shaved and insisted on their clothes being carefully laundered. Brummell himself insisted on polishing his boots with champagne!

Victorian Vanity

By the Victorian era in the 1830s, 40s and 50s, men’s and women’s clothing was becoming less elaborate, and more clean-cut and simplified. Excessive use of colour and flashy fabrics was no longer seen as fashionable and things like frilly collars and cuffs, elaborate ruffs and heavy embroidery started to disappear, to be replaced by a simpler, cleaner look of white collars and cuffs, simpler, solid colour dresses and suits, and an overall more sedate form of dressing. For women, the desire for a curvy, hourglass look led to the agonising fad known as ‘tight-lacing‘, where women would literally be crushed into the tightest-laced corsets that they could possibly stand, and which were tied up phenomenally tight so as to help maintain their figures.

For women, corsets had been a thing for centuries (even some men wore them!), but tight-lacing was corsetry taken to a whole new extreme. Women being unable to eat very much of anything, having having their ribcages deformed, and even fainting from the inability to breathe properly became commonplace, and fainting-couches, fans and phials of smelling-salts were required to combat these fainting-spells. For a long time, Victorian-era policemen would carry, as part of their standard-issue equipment – a bottle of smelling-salts (called a ‘lady-reviver’), to bring consciousness to any fainting females falling in the streets.

For men, by the 1800s, the combination of stockings, breeches, long flashy cloaks, coats and waistcoats were seen as excessive and tasteless, and were replaced by simpler, and more conservative suits, paired with trousers. Gradually the shirt, once considered an unsightly undergarment, also started rising in status.

The Shifting Shirt

Although in Victorian times, it was still considered crude and unsightly to appear in public in your shirtsleeves, shirts themselves went through a bit of an image-improvement campaign. Proper dress-shirts, similar to the kind we know today, started being developed. These had no collars, very long sleeves, and long shirttails and were known as ‘tunic shirts’. They were cheap, mass-produced and could be worn by almost any level of man in society.

Because early manufactured shirts were of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ variety for the most part – the sleeves were often quite long. To adjust the sleeves to your length, you rolled or pushed them up at the elbow, and wore a pair of ‘sleeve-garters’ to hold back the excess fabric, so that the cuffs rested at your wrists in the right position. Sleeve-garters are those elastic-band thingies that you see barbershop quartets wearing on their sleeves.

Ebeneezer Scrooge from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, in his long, flowing white night-shirt.

During the Victorian era, the shirt was seen less and less as a sleeping garment. The concept of the ‘nightshirt’ started to fade away, and break off into a separate entity, to be replaced by dressing-gowns and pajamas, since people suddenly decided that maybe it would be more comfortable to sleep in silk, satin and soft woolens, rather than in a shirt that you’d been wearing all day long…possibly for several days straight!

In the early 20th century, shirts and collars were still sold separately. ‘Arrow’ collars were particularly popular – even appearing in the 1929 song ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ (“…high hats, and Arrow collars, white spats, and lots of dollars…”)

One peculiarity of shirts, right up to the early 20th century, was that they had no collars! Shirt-collars, and even shirt-cuffs, were detachable, removable, and could be (and were) cleaned separately from the shirt itself. This was because the shirt was still seen as underwear, and washing shirts was expensive, what with the price of soap, coal or wood for the hot water, and the sheer time and effort involved in laundering. You would wear your shirt as long as possible (up to a week or more in some cases), and you only changed the collar and cuffs (held on with studs or buttons) with any regularity, finally changing out the shirt at the end of the week. One benefit of this style of shirt was that you could chop and change your collars as you saw fit. Arrow-point, wing-collars, Eton-collars, rounded collars…the variations you could attach to your shirt were pretty extensive! Shirts with attached collars and cuffs wouldn’t become a thing until after the First World War.

Waisted Shirts!

By the 1800s, clothing for women also began to change. Instead of clumsy bodices, women in the 1800s could look forward to the forerunner to the modern blouse – called a shirtwaist. Made out of cotton shirt-fabric (hence the name), the shirtwaist was basically the female version of the men’s shirt, but with included collars and cuffs, which were sewn, rather than buttoned, on. Shirtwaists remained popular throughout the Victorian era, and extended into the early 20th century.

As the 1800s continued, dresses for women also started to get simpler. Outrageously wide crinoline skirts, and bulky, ludicrous bustle skits gave way to simpler, more flowing designs which ere not only more comfortable, but also far more practical. This was followed, in the second half of the 1800s, by the Victorian ‘Rational Dress Movement’, which encouraged women to cast off the bulky, overladen outfits of their parents and grandparents, and to take on simpler, more comfortable, and sensible clothing styles that made moving, eating, breathing and dressing, much more easy, and also, much more comfortable!

The Rational Dress Movement

The Rational Dress Movement is something most people have probably never heard of, and yet in its day, it was a revolution.

By the mid-1800s, the growing Industrial Revolution was affecting everybody’s lives. Even the lives of women! For the first time, it was possible for women to enter the professional workforce. They became nurses, pharmacists, schoolteachers, nannies, governesses, and dressmakers. No longer chained to the stove and shackled to the broom, women in work decided that they needed more practical, and comfortable clothing. Crinoline dresses and enormous bustles were impractical for serving customers behind a shop-counter, serving diners tea, crumpets, cakes and sandwiches, or tending to the sick in hospitals.

Bloomers and similar, less baggy outfits allowed women to take part in sports and activities such as cycling, which were impossible in the bulkier layers of skirts that they used to have to wear. This advertisement is from 1897.

Because of this, by the 1850s, 60s and 70s, a growing number of women, who would later give rise to the suffragette movements of the 1890s and the early 20th century, decided that a fullscale reform of women’s clothing was necessary! Away with the ridiculous layers and layers of skirts and petticoats and stomachers and bodices! Throw out your hoop skirts and hobbles, your bustles and braces! Instead, from now on, women’s clothing was going to look to comfort, ease of movement, and simplicity to be its guides, rather than frivolous use of fabrics and layers!

Skirts and dresses became simpler, less flamboyant and ostentatious. Ladies’ undergarments became less bulky, and were replaced by bloomers – baggy, divided garments which when together, looked like a full skirt, but which parted in the middle to allow for greater movement. The arrival of the bicycle in the 1880s meant that women could, with their new clothing – actually travel long distances in relative speed and safety – without needing to be accompanied by someone to manage the horses!

The Rise of the Sewing Machine!

You could hardly talk about a history of clothing without the impact of the sewing machine.

Although the first sewing machines were invented in the 1700s, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that enough people with enough money and enough individual ideas and patents, had discovered enough to build a really, properly-functioning sewing machine. The man who did this was a German-American, named Isaac Merritt Singer.

You…might possibly have heard of him.

Singer did not ‘invent’ the sewing machine, as much as he just stitched it together. He did this by stealing all the ideas from all the other people who had claimed to have had ‘invented’ the sewing machine – and then putting all these different patents together into ONE machine!

Unsurprisingly, all these other guys started trying to sue him, but Singer came up with another idea – Since no one person could make a functioning sewing machine without patents from the other parties involved – they should pool their patents to make sewing machines – and then sue anybody else who tried to copy them!

The other sewing-machine pioneers decided that this was such a fantastic idea that they agreed almost at once, and drafted up a document which created a body known as the Sewing Machine Combination – because it took the combined efforts of all these patent-holders to make a functional sewing machine.

From the 1850s onwards, the sewing machine sped up the production of clothing enormously – what took a seamstress, tailor, dressmaker or shirtmaker half a day to produce, could now be done in a matter of an hour or two, and to a much higher standard of quality. For the first time in history, mass-produced clothing was possible. Shirts, undergarments, jackets, trousers, blouses, skirts, dresses and other articles of clothing could be produced cheaply and efficiently.

Sewing machines were expensive in their day – companies like Singer, Wertheim, New Home, Jones, Wheeler & Wilson, and countless others – typically sold their machines through hire-purchase schemes, since it was almost impossible to buy a machine outright due to the high prices. The sewing machine allowed men and women who made their livings from the clothing trade to vastly increase their output and improve the quality of their wares. A house with a sewing machine, and a person who knew how to use it, would have at least some sort of income even if the main breadwinner had lost his job, because the machine virtually paid for itself.

Hand-cranked vibrating-shuttle sewing machine, typical of those manufactured and sold during the late 1800s. Made by the Wertheim Sewing Machine Company, ca. 1910.

From the 1850s up to the 1960s, the vast majority of sewing machines were black, cast-iron monsters mounted on wooden bases. Many were heavily decorated with gold decals, brightly painted patterns and decorations, and even mother-of-pearl inlays. Since they were so expensive, sewing-machine companies wanted their machines to look as attractive as possible so that people would feel that they were worth the outlay.

Clothes for a New Century!

By the early 1900s, clothing was changing faster than ever. By now, things like jeans had been developed (in America in the 1850s), as well as cardigans (England, 1850s), and we’ll round off our look at clothing through history, by looking at two staples of the modern wardrobe: T-shirts, and bras.

The Terrific T-Shirt!

The T-shirt, an article of clothing so common today that anyone reading this posting probably has a dozen of them in their closet right now – was first conceived of back in the 1800s – a time when all shirts in general, were considered as unsightly undergarments, not fit to be seen by the eyes of man – and definitely not by the eyes of women! The T-shirt was an undergarment, descending from the one-piece ‘union-suit’ cold-weather underclothes worn during the late 1800s. These eventually split into two separate garments – the top of the union-suit became a T-shirt, with shorter sleeves, and the bottom became long-johns.

T-shirts became popular in the early 1900s, when they were used as undershirts by factory-workers, sailors and soldiers – spreading widely in popularity during the period of the First World War. By the end of the war, the word ‘T-shirt’ had officially entered the dictionary.

A sailor wearing a T-shirt in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War.

T-shirts exploded in popularity in the 1920s and 30s – cheap and easy to manufacture, they were worn by men and boys looking for a lightweight, comfortable upper garment. Initially, their popularity was largely restricted to the army and navy where they had been widely used back in the 1910s, but with the coming of the Second World War, the T-shirt began to spread. Sailors in the US Navy stationed in the Pacific started wearing T-shirts (originally an undergarment) as outer garments while on deployment, due to the tropical heat. This trend carried over into their postwar-lives, and in the late 40s and during the 1950s, the T-shirt increasingly began to be seen as being a flexible garment, suitable for both underwear and outerwear, depending on the weather.

By the end of the 1950s, the T-shirt had become an accepted article of menswear and children’s wear for boys, replacing things like button-down sleeved and collared shirts, which were more expensive to produce, and which were less comfortable in warm weather. As time went on, the T-shirt became seen as a unisex garment, worn by men, women, boys and girls as a casual, easily-washed, cheap garment which could come in a wide variety of colours and designs.

The Beautiful Bra!

For centuries, women have needed to deal with a little problem…up top. And for a long time, to deal with this, they used everything from strips of cloth wrapped around the chest (‘breast bands’), to corsets, braced with everything from wood to whale-bone to steel! These were effective, but could also get pretty uncomfortable. However, by the end of the 19th century – something new came on the scene. From 1899, the first ‘brassiere’ became available! Invented in Germany by Christine Hardt, the Brassiere remained a niche item for over a decade, before mass production of the new undergarment began just before the First World War.

But, in a time when every woman alive would’ve known nothing but the restriction of a corset, what made the bra suddenly kick off?

Actually – we have the First World War itself, to thank for that.

Remember how I said that the corset went from wood, to whale-bone, to steel?

An early bra, worn over a corset, from ca. 1900.

I wasn’t kidding about that steel. By the Victorian era, corsets used LOTS of steel. Steel eyelets for the drawstrings, steel stays to provide reinforcement, and steel wire to help corsets hold their shape. Now, imagine that every single woman in Britain, America, Canada, France, Australia…etc…etc…etc…is wearing one of these steel-reinforced corsets.

That’s a LOT of steel.

A lot of steel, which could be used for making tanks…planes…rifles…field-cannons…

Basically, the bra was introduced just before, and during the First World War, as a steel-saving measure. Bras needed hardly any metal at all, whereas corsets needed loads! Women were encouraged to cast off their corsets and embrace bras! Women everywhere were gradually convinced that it was their patriotic duty to upgrade their underwear, and save steel for the war-effort! Huzzah!

By the end of the First World War, the bra had become an accepted garment of women’s clothing. It was gradually improved in the years that followed, with refinements in design, shape and support introduced in the 1920s and lettered cup-sizes coming in by the 1930s.

Closing the Lid on Clothing

Well, this ends our brief look at the history of clothing, and its evolution from the ruffs, doublet and hose, the bodice, corset and stays, to the arrival of jeans, T-shirts, bras, which, at the turn of the 20th century, heralded the coming of the modern wardrobe!

Writing on Writing: Sounding out the Silent Craft

 

The pen is mightier than the sword!

Possibly one of the most famous phrases in history, referring to the fact that the written word has more influence over the vast majority of people, than does the sharpened edge of a length of folded steel!

…but…does it?

While this line has been repeated ad nausea, it still bears consideration. The written word is only powerful or influential if it captures the reader’s attention. If what is written means something to the reader, if it connects to the reader in some manner.

Not all writing can do this, and yet, all writing is certainly trying to do so. After all, despite what some of us might think – we never write anything for ourselves. Everything that has been written throughout history, has always been written for the consumption – willing or unwilling – of others.

That being the case – what makes good writing? What makes attractive, interesting, fun, fascinating, scary, comedic or educational writing? What makes good writing, good?

When I was in university, I learned two pieces of what I believed to be vital advice to becoming a good writer, and neither of them was more than a line or two in length. They were:

“There’s no such thing as a boring subject. Only boring writers”. 

“There’s no such thing as an original story”. 

And you know what? They’re both true. Any subject can be made interesting…or boring. All that is needed to tip the balance is the skill…or ineptitude…of the writer telling the story. Likewise, there is no such thing as an original story.

What’s that? You found an original story by some new author at your local bookshop?

No you didn’t. And neither did they write one. An original story does not exist. If you don’t believe me, keep reading and I’ll explain why, later.

Before we go any further down this rabbit-hole of pure imagination, I should probably preface everything that comes hereafter by saying that this is all based on my own experiences, gained from twenty-odd years of being incredibly bored, daydreaming, making crap up, twisting it around in my head, writing about it, and then thinking that other people might be bored enough, like I was, to actually read it.

So, where do we begin?

Why Does This Thing Exist?

It exists because I’m a big fan of roleplaying. For those of you who have never heard of roleplaying, it’s got nothing to do with you and your wife or husband pretending to be sexy farmhands and innocent milkmaids. It’s a pastime undertaken by writers (like me), who enjoy creating their own fictional characters and playing them against other fictional characters in scenarios which both players create. It’s an enjoyable, relaxing pastime which is part fantasy escapism, and part writing exercise, to keep my skills sharp. And it’s a lot of fun when everything goes right.

It’s when it goes wrong, that you realise what a finely balanced craft really good creative writing truly is, and how and why not everybody can do it. So, how do you do it? What makes it good? How do you know if it’s any good?

“What makes YOU qualified to write about good writing?”

I dunno. What makes anybody? There are no ‘official’ certifications about what is, or who can be, or isn’t, a good writer. There’s no magical fantastical scientifical mathematical formula. But, I have two university degrees in writing, and damn near thirty years’ writing experience under my belt. I think most people would consider that to be ‘qualifications’ enough. In case they aren’t – a good writer is determined by the number of people who enjoy reading what they’ve written. And I feel confident enough in saying that I’ve garnered enough of a satisfied audience – here, and elsewhere – to be considered a half-decent writer on my own merit.

Anyway. Enough horn-blowing. Let’s get down to writing about writing…

Good Fiction Writing: You Got It!…Right?

When it comes to writing, especially writing any kind of fiction, or creative work, what makes ‘good writing’ can be highly subjective. There’s no scientific way to say what makes ‘good writing’ or ‘bad writing’. But there are certain rules and guidelines that you can follow and remember, to improve your chances of producing good writing. But that said, all the rules and guidelines in the world will not help you, if you are not at least a moderately decent communicator. To be a good writer, you should first be a good communicator – because writing of any kind – is communication. And if you don’t have that skill, then you might struggle here.

Some people are amazing, funny, effective or informative communicators. Others…are not. If your ability to write funny, informative, enjoyable or engaging creative works is suffering, then perhaps this post will help you. Read on!

What Makes Good Writing?

A combination of factors. I will be covering each of these in turn throughout this posting. Some are more important than others, but a comprehension, if not a mastery, of all them, is best, if you intend to become a really good creative writer. This relates to everything from ‘voice’, ‘character development’, ‘descriptions’, ‘word-use’, and many other factors. If you really want to stand out as an accomplished or serious writer of fiction, or creative nonfiction of any kind, these are the things that you MUST be familiar with. So, let’s begin.

Show, don’t Tell

This is the most common thing that teachers of creative writing will tell you. ‘Show, don’t tell’.

OK.

Show, and don’t tell…what…exactly?

Show, and don’t tell – what is going on!

Nobody wants to be TOLD a story. They want to be SHOWN a story. They want to see, in their imagination, what is going on. Being told stuff isn’t very interesting. You don’t tell somebody a good time, you show them a good time. And you do that by how you write.

To show your story through words, rather than tell it, you need to approach it indirectly, or laterally. Instead of telling someone what happens, you need to describe and illustrate what happens. You do this by use of descriptive words and details. Say your story starts mundanely enough, by having your character going to work. Or school. Boring. Everyone does that.

What are they thinking about while they’re getting ready? What’s the weather like? What’s been going on in their lives up until this point? Details like this make what would otherwise be a mundane and routine task sound interesting. But here, we run into one of the first pitfalls of good writing.

Too Much Detail!

Most people will tell you that loads of detail in creative fiction writing is a good thing. And…I disagree. Certainly, a particular amount of detail, is important. But the trick is knowing how much of that detail to include. Let’s go back to the example mentioned above. We start off with a relatable experience – going to school or work. Everyone’s done it, everyone knows what it’s like. Good. We have started on a level playing field and have connected with our audience. They’re on board and they know what’s going on. To flesh it out and make it more interesting, we add in details.

These details are not there as pointless, decorative fripperies. A good writer should know, and should strive to achieve the goal, that details – all details – serve a purpose. This is where we reach what I like to call ‘necessary details’.

In creative writing, details should accomplish one of two goals. They should either:

1). Improve our understanding, or enjoyment of the piece.

OR

2). They should advance the plot.

If the details you have included accomplish neither of these goals – they’re superfluous, and should be removed AT ONCE.

Why?

People think that to be a good fiction writer, you need loads of fat, juicy, jiggling details.

No you don’t.

You need the RIGHT details. The ‘necessary details’. Adding in more than the necessary details – descriptive passages or phrases – pads out the story. It makes it longer, bulkier, more wordy – and boring. Writing with too many unnecessary details in it becomes a bore to read. You might think it’s great because it’s chock-full of details! But your reader will not thank you. This is because they have to trudge through all these details, trying to decide which ones are relevant to the plot, and which ones are not, losing sight of the story in the process.

A lot of people seem to think that the way to fantastic writing is through detail. Loads of detail! To this end, they will pump their stories full of every single descriptor and adjective or adverb that they can think of! But, there is a tipping-point here.

On one side of that tipping point – the writing is engaging, detailed, entertaining and colourful.

On the other side of that tipping point – the writing is overbearing, boring and confusing. Never make the mistake of pumping your story so full of detail and description that it reaches this point. You and your writing will come across as being insecure, insincere, and virginal – like you’ve just started writing, and haven’t found your feet yet. It screams ‘I don’t know how to write, so I’ll just add in more stuff. More stuff is good, right? So more stuff = better writing!

No. Don’t do that. Your readers will not thank you. If you do, the result is boring, unattractive, mundane writing.

How Much Detail?

Alright. So what is the right amount of detail?

The right amount of detail in your writing is the amount which tells the story and embellishes it, enriches it, without being repetitive or overbearing. Sometimes, excessive or repetitive detail is good. It emphasizes a point or brings attention to it – which you might want, possibly for comedic effect, among other reasons. And that’s fine. But if you do it all the time, it becomes boring, and ends up being a literary boat-anchor, dragging your writing down with it.

To determine whether or not you have too much detail in your writing, take a sample (say, a page), and read through it.

Now, read through it again, and remove everything which isn’t absolutely necessary for the telling of the story, of improvement of its readability.

Now, read it through a third time, and look at all the stuff you removed. All the things crossed out in red.

All that red-struck stuff is all the excess baggage and clutter that you didn’t need in your writing. It should now read much more clearly and concisely, more to-the-point. Your readers can now follow the story and understand what’s going on. Provided you’ve done a good job with the plot and characters, it’s now a much more enjoyable read.

Character Development: Personality, Voice, etc.

As well as taking into considering how, and how much you write, you also need to consider the creation and interaction of your characters. The best characters, whether they’re humans, anthropomorphic characters, talking clocks or elves, are ones that people can relate to, and understand. If you can’t understand a character, can’t relate to it, can’t ‘see things from its point of view’, then you can’t engage with it throughout the story. Instead of seeing things from the point of view of the character, you become a bored member of an audience at the theatre, watching something detached and bland, happening up there on the stage, without engaging in what’s really going on.

So what do you need to do with your characters?

Building Believable Characters

In any good work of fiction, one part of the winning formula is its characters. The players who make the plot possible!

The most important aspect of any character is – is he, she, or it, believable?

By that, I mean, could we imagine that such a being might exist in real life? Are his or her actions and reactions what we might expect us, or a person like what’s being portrayed, to be like in real life? If various aspects of a character’s mannerisms, mentality, personality or other aspects (such as physical appearance, etc) aren’t believable, then the chances that the readers will be interested in him or her, connect with, or sympathise with the character in question, are unlikely. And if they’re not likely, then your story is likely to suffer, as a result of this.

Purpose and Personality

The important thing with any character-building is that each character needs to stand out as an individual. This isn’t strictly necessary with background characters, but with secondary and primary characters, it is vital. You must be able to differentiate every character. Each one must have their own way of talking, acting, reacting, interacting and engaging. They must have their own ways of doing things, or not doing things, their own morals, motivations, habits, and other things which make them human! If they’re not human, or human-relatable, then your readers aren’t likely to enjoy them.

Now, you might well ask – How important is this stuff, really? Who cares? Why does it matter? Do we HAVE to do it?

Well…Yeah. If you want your writing to work. Every character must have traits, issues, attributes, qualities, foibles and voices, which make them stand out as individuals. I’ve known writers who could have a whole cast of characters – anywhere from three to six to a dozen or more – and all their characters – regardless of age, gender, nationality, or any other form of individual marker – all sound alike. They all speak alike. They all talk alike. They all act alike.

Starting to see the problem here? If you can’t identify, or give individualism, to each of your characters – your writing suffers. And what’s even worse – your reader suffers, because they can’t tell apart your characters, their voices, and what the hell is going on! Oh my god…they’re gonna put down your book and find something else more interesting to read. Possibly Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

Every character should have a purpose and a personality. They should have a background and traits that make them stand out as an individual. They should act, and react in ways which are specific or unique to them. This is what makes them believable and relatable to your readers.

Victorian author-extraordinaire, Charles Dickens, at his famous writing desk. The same desk is on permanent display in the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

The Voice of the People!

Another aspect of character-building in good fiction-writing, is the creation of what I like to call a character’s ‘voice’. That is, his or her way of speaking. This means their accent, their diction, their delivery, the tone and pitch of their voice, the slang or inflections, words and phrases that they use, and so-on. This should be as individual to each character as their fingerprints, DNA, and colour of their eyes. Having two characters or more, which sound exactly the same, is very boring, and confusing.

How your character speaks lends interest, individuality and persona to it, and people will enjoy reading about his or her exploits. It will also make it easier to identify the character and build up a fuller picture of who the character is in the reader’s mind, as well as what they’re like.

How your character expresses things like joy, anger, romance, happiness, and sadness, the turns-of-phrase they use, how much they swear, how they speak to different kinds of people – these are all aspects of their ‘voice’. If you don’t have this, your character sounds flat, stale, unrealistic, and boring.

A 4-year-old toddler should not speak or sound the same way that a 45-year-old private detective does, and neither should a bitter, 90-year-old war-veteran sound like a fresh-faced, 21-year-old gaming-nerd. If your readers cannot tell the difference between these characters simply by how they speak – then you have failed to give each one of them a distinctive ‘voice’.

Flawed Fantasies

Every good character should have a few flaws, character deficiencies, or bad habits. Not many, just a few. They might be forgetful, easily angered, claustrophobic, mentally or physically scarred, have a broken relationship in their past, or even their present. Flaws and imperfections make your characters sound realistic.

Now, I do understand that some people – myself included – have this thing where they want to try and create the PERFECT character – whatever that may be, varies from person to person – and sometimes that’s fun to do, and fun to write about. But it’s not always fun to read. A character which is TOO perfect can become boring.

One way around this is to make what appears to be an impressive asset, actually a hindrance or personal issue to your character. A war veteran with loads of combat-experience might struggle from shell-shock. A person who’s really tall, muscular and good-looking might have to deal with issues like how the world just isn’t sized for someone of his height.

On the other hand, unexpected or contrasting flaws or failings can make a character more interesting or human. An intelligent, bookish and adventurous character, such as perhaps Prof. Robert Langdon of the ‘Da Vinci Code‘ fame, suffers from claustrophobia, while Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and so-forth. A ‘Mary Poppins’ character, which is practically perfect in every way is unrealistic, and uninteresting.

Producing Plot and Purpose

Once you’ve understood the rudiments of good writing, and the surprising complexity that can go into producing a good character, you now need to decide what type of story you’re going to write, and how that’s going to happen. Here, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.

The good news is that there’s loads of different plots and ideas and scenes and scenarios to pick from! Everyone – give me your best Homer-Simpsonesque ‘Whoo-hoo!’ fist-pump right now!

Great, huh?

Eah…hm…nah.

Here’s the bad news: Every single one of those ideas – yes, even that one you had as a child about a kingdom of bunnies made of candy-floss who harvest chocolate baubles that grow off trees made of cinnamon – has been done before.

There’s No Such Thing as an Original Story

Remember how I said – there’s no such thing as an original story?

Well…guess what? It’s true.

Now I’m sure there are people who will read this, who might dispute this assertion, but it is, in essence – true. There are only so many story-ideas and plot points and twists which can exist in the world, and after thousands of years of making stuff up – mankind has pretty much exhausted all of them.

Well crap!“, you think. “I might as well give up being a writer now, then!

Why? Because you can’t think of an original idea? Big deal. Why should that stop you? Nobody’s thought of an original idea for centuries. Even Harry Potter, where the protagonist discovers a secret world which he’s never realised ever existed, isn’t a new idea – Alice in Wonderland, anybody? There is a reason why writers are always suing other writers for stealing their ideas – it’s because they probably did! After all, there’s only so many ideas to go around, right?

The skill of a good writer is NOT to try and create an original story. That’s already been done. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to do the impossible.

The skill of a good writer – a REALLY good writer – is to take what has already been done – and CONVINCE PEOPLE that what they’re reading – that thing you’ve written – is actually something completely new and original!…even if it isn’t. Not only is it much more impressive, but it also keeps other writers from suspecting that you’ve just pinched their ideas and are claiming them as your own. And not getting sued for plagiarism is always a bonus.

And that, my friends – is a MUCH harder job. If you want to test yourself as a writer of skill and creativity – try doing that. Not many people can. And that is why really, really GOOD writers, are few and far between.

Ask most people to tell you the same story ten different times, and make it sound like a different story every single time, indistinguishable from the last one – and most people would struggle. And yet, that is what a good writer must be able to do. This is why to be a really skilled, effective and successful writer, is not something that just any Joe Schmoe from Cocomo, can do, right off the street. I doubt even I could do that, and I’ve been writing for over twenty years.

Building your Story from the ground up!

Because this task of dressing mutton as lamb, of making something old or bland look new and fresh again, is so difficult, great care and planning must be undertaken in any serious literary endeavour which you undertake. You must consider absolutely everything about your characters, your plot, what drives it forward, what holds it back, what makes it what it is, and what doesn’t. You should therefore plan and write down as many of these details as possible.

Decide things like how the story starts, why it starts where it does, and what happens to your protagonists to drive them forward, make them stagnate, retreat, or reach some sort of resolution. It’s best to write these things down in a notebook, where you can scribble, cross out, re-mark and change things as you go along. I still have notebooks which are crammed with hundreds of pages of notes, ideas, characters, and even entire chapters, all written by hand. At last count, I had about half a dozen of them.

As you plan, don’t be afraid to chop and change things. In fact, the more you do that, chances are, the better things will be. As with the act of writing, itself, the act of building up the plot and the details that hang off it or propel it forward works best when it’s uncluttered. Less is more. When you can’t see the forest for the trees, then you’ve got too many things going on, which will result in your reader getting confused, bored, or both. And if they do become confused, or bored, they won’t bother reading what you’ve spent weeks or months or even years, trying to produce. As the Comte de Exupery once said:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. 

And this applies just as much to writing, as it does to anything else.

Addressing your Audience

I have said that the way to good writing, is to have clear writing. Writing which is uncluttered by too many plot-points, twists, descriptors or details. Clear, concise, inventive and entertaining writing is the best kind – where people can be both engaged and entertained, or engaged and educated. But they can only do this – if you know what you’re doing!

I have met people who take the sparsity of detail in their writing to absolute extremes, and this makes the writing difficult to follow. As I said earlier – the right amount of detail is the amount at which the story is easy to read, enjoyable, but not overbearing.

If you want to succeed as a writer – be it of fiction, or non-fiction – then it is vital to always keep in mind who you are writing things for – your audience.

I’m sorry to say this, but many people write without considering who their audience is; and their writing suffers greatly, as a result.

Unless it’s a diary, you never write something for your own consumption. Everything that anybody has ever written, has always been for the consumption or use by another party, whether that’s a kids’ story, a teen-fiction novel, a crime drama, the script of a blockbuster movie, a computer-game strategy guide, a repair manual, or anything else that’s meant to entertain, or inform. So when writing anything of substance, be it informative or entertaining, remember the following:

Never assume that your reader knows what you’re talking about. Never assume that they can guess something. Never assume that they will draw the correct conclusion from hints and tidbits of information. Never assume that they understand what particular types of jargon mean, unless you’re writing to an audience which uses said jargon regularly, and you wish to connect to them and ‘write on their level’.

These are the things you need to consider when you write. At all times, you must consider who your audience is, what they might, or might not know, and how to tailor your speech in what you write, accordingly. If you do not, then you run the real risk of boring, insulting or otherwise alienating your readers.

How to be a Good Writer: Ten Commandmants

Here’s a few final tips on those aspiring to be really good writers. Things to always remember, if you intend to be as fantastic as you possibly can. These should be used as guidelines, to ensure that you’re always at the top of your game, and constantly finding things to raise that game, at all times.

1). Thou Shalt Remember Thine Audience, and keep them holy. Those who do not risk alienation and loneliness.

2). Thou Shalt be Humble in the eyes of thine Readers. No writer ever got anywhere by thinking that they were incredible and without the need of self-improvement. If you think you’re fantastic, you’re going to get a NASTY shock when people think otherwise. Especially if your delusions of grandeur result in your writing falling in quality.

3). Thou Shalt Strive towards Perfection. Just like the Soviets and True Communism, a writer should always strive to attain perfection in writing, even if perfection, like true communism, is actually unattainable. The closer you get to that ever-escaping pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the better you’ll be as a writer. The key is to never stop chasing it.

4). Thou Shalt Be Pedantic and Methodical. Always write things down. Always take notes. Always keep writing-aids (be it a dictionary, reference books, plot-notes, notepad, etc) near-to-hand. Never settle for second-best in your writing.

5). Thou Shalt Always Write. The true writer, the writer who wishes to constantly improve, and maintain their craft, is the one who never, ever stops writing. This is one reason why I took up roleplaying as a hobby. It forces me to think fast, and write all the time, and that is what improves you. Sometimes pressure is good. Also, nobody will believe that you’re a serious writer if you’re not always at least thinking about something to write about!

6). Thou Shalt Keep Thine References Close. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to have a good command of the language in which you write. Know the difference between words, know proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. Don’t make the mistake of, for example, confusing a depository of information with a suppository of information. A dictionary is your friend. If you don’t like physical dictionaries, then try something like www.dictionary.com

7). Thou Shalt Read Constantly! You won’t become a good writer if you do not read, and read voraciously, preferably about subjects which you are at least a little bit interested in. History, geography, science, literature, technology…the list goes on. But if you expect to be a good writer, you must first study the craft itself and observe the styles, techniques, word-choices and sentence structures of other writers. These will show you what is possible, and how it may be achieved.

8). Thou Shalt Ask for Feedback. You’ll never know if you’re doing any good as a writer, of anything, if people don’t actually read what you’ve written. Only impartial, unbiased opinions are worth anything when it comes to finding out how creative, imaginative, interesting, or easily understood, your writing is.

9). Thou Shalt Be Thine own Critic. It’s often said that the creator of a work is usually its most scathing critic. And this is good. A writer should always view his or her own work with the most critical and dispassionate eyes possible. Detach yourself from what you’ve written, and look at it objectively (or as objectively as you can). This will enable you to ruthlessly make the changes which are necessary to improve your work, regardless of how much effort you might’ve put into it.

10). Thou Shalt Use Thy Details Wisely. This bears repeating, since it’s a huge problem with aspiring writers. Be careful with how much, how often, and what kinds of details, descriptions and adjectives you use, to add spice, colour, flavour and texture to your writing. Too much, and it becomes overbearing. Too little, and it becomes incomprehensible. The best way to do this, I find, is to go back and remove as much as you can, without sacrificing readability, and not to add so much, that the essence of what you’re trying to say, gets lost in all the fancy words you’ve gone and scattered everywhere.

I call bulky, over-descriptive, over-compensatory writing ‘sawdust‘. In the old days, flour was expensive. To stretch out flour, and to make it last in hard times, bakers used to add ground-up sawdust into the dough to thicken it up, to make the resultant loaves of bread seem bigger and more substantial than they really were.

It didn’t DO anything to the bread. It didn’t make it taste better, or bake faster, or last longer…all it did was fatten it up and make it look more impressive. But in terms of actual benefit – there was none to be had. The bread was not more nutritious, or easier to eat, or anything. It was purely a superficial result.

This is the exact same result that comes from using an overabundance of detail and description. Avoid it like the plague!

Anyway, that ends this rather lengthy posting about the craft of writing. I hope that it has in some way helped any aspiring writers of creative fiction or creative non-fiction out there, who have been hopelessly groping around in the darkness, trying to find writing advice that they can actually understand, follow, and apply to their own work.

 

Antique Blue Enamel Tiffin Carrier (Ca. 1900)

 

The things you find on your vacations, huh?

I bought this at the Lorong Kulit flea-market in George Town, Penang, a few weeks ago, when I was there on holiday. The stallholder had a whole van overflowing with bric-a-brac, junk, battered antiques and nicknacks, and this was one piece hiding up the back. I ended up buying it, and two more pieces (which I may cover in a later posting), and somehow managed to get them all back home to Australia in one piece.

The carrier. In this shot, you can see the four containers, the lid, and the carrying frame. You can also see the flowery gold decals printed on the sides of each bowl, and the original owner’s name engraved into the side in Indian (probably Tamil?) script.

It’s a classic, four-tier antique tiffin carrier, of a style that was extremely common during the 1800s and early 1900s. I fell in love with the colour, condition, and quality at once. And at the price it was going for, decided that I simply couldn’t let it pass!

What’s a ‘Tiffin Carrier’?

If you haven’t read my other couple of posts about these things, I’ll summarise it really quickly here.

A tiffin-carrier is the English name given to a type of stacked-bowl or stacked-container food-carrying device which has been used in Asia for hundreds of years. Versions of these have been made from wood, bamboo, porcelain, and more recently, brass, stainless steel, enameled steel, and even plastic. They date back in countries like China, India and other countries in Southeast Asia for generations.

A side-on view, showing the frame and handle.

Each container of the carrier stacks on top of the other, with each one holding a different food, or component of a meal. Dumplings, noodles, rice, dessert, soup, etc.

Tiffin carriers started being made of punched brass and steel coated in enamel paint, in the 1800s. Although they were very popular throughout Asia (specifically India, Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China, and Indonesia), a large number of them were actually manufactured in EUROPE, and exported to southeast Asia. That said, brass ones were commonly manufactured in India, where the interiors were plated in tin, to prevent the brass from corroding and tarnishing, which would affect the taste of the food stored inside them.

Where does ‘Tiffin’ come from?

‘Tiffin’ is an old English slang-word, a holdover from the Victorian era. It referred to any assortment of light snacks, nibbles, or comestibles consumed for luncheon or afternoon tea. It gained popularity among the British expats living in India at the time, and spread throughout southeast Asia, becoming virtually synonymous with lunch, afternoon tea, or a light dinner, taken anytime beween midday and the late afternoon.

Dissecting the Blue Meanie!

The blue tiffin carrier I have comprises six different components: Four stacked bowls, a lid, and a steel frame made out of one long piece of flat steel bent into a U, and a turned, wooden handle on top.

The four bowls or containers are used for storing the food. The first three are identical in size. The fourth one, at the bottom, is slightly larger. The staple food (rice or noodles) would’ve gone in the bottom bowl. Into the upper bowls would’ve gone meat, vegetables, or curry, with possibly, a dessert or snack in the uppermost bowl. The shape of the lid that goes on top of the topmost bowl means that it could be flipped over, stood up, and used as a rudimentary plate while eating.

The steel frame that holds the carrier together is shaped in such a way that the two ‘handles’ or ‘tabs’ on the sides of each bowl may slide down the inside of the frame. In this way, they may be held in place without being damaged, and without falling apart unexpectedly, which would cause food to spill everywhere.

The top of the carrier. Here you can see the lid, the turned wooden handle, the security clamp (which is hinged, so that it may be pushed out and up to open the carrier), and the holes drilled in the side of the handle and the clamp, where a padlock could be passed through, to secure the carrier even more.

At the top of the frame is a swing-down steel clamp. This serves to keep the lid and the bowls underneath it, firmly in-place. There’s also a hole drilled through the clamp, and the handle of the frame, so that it may be locked with a padlock (don’t want anybody stealing your lunch now, do you!?).

The handles at the top of tiffin carriers like this are usually turned wood. In brass models, the handles might be made of turned brass instead. The carrying handle on modern tiffin carriers are usually just flat steel, or moulded plastic.

As a decorative element, the enameled sides of the carrier were decorated in gold decals. Antique carriers were often decorated in a wide variety of ways. Some Indian ones were embossed or chased, with repousse work set into the brass. Others were engraved, or as with this case – set with gold decals on the sides. Tiffin carriers used by the Straits Chinese were often bedecked with handpainted flowers on the sides, and sometimes, gold leaf borders, decals, and words in Malay for good eating, and an enjoyable meal!

Modern Tiffin Carriers

“DUDE!! That thing is so cool…I want one! Gimme!”

No! Bugger off! Go gitcher own!

“Alright…where!?”

Actually, you can buy them pretty easily online. Modern tiffin carriers are widely available. These days, they’re usually plain stainless steel, enameled steel, and sometimes brass (although this appears to be rare). Some are even made of plastic. Typically, the design hasn’t changed much – it’s a set of bowls or containers (usually 2-6) stacked up, and held together by a frame of some description.

These have the advantage of being dishwasher-safe, and will typically withstand daily use, carrying your sandwiches, cookies, leftover spaghetti-and-meatballs, or last night’s Chinese takeout, to the office or school with you, easily. They’re also great as a conversation-piece in their own right, since most people outside of Asia have never seen them.

Do these things leak?

Honestly? Yeah, some probably do. They were never designed to be airtight, so if you do buy one, best to transport it standing UPRIGHT. If you’re only carrying dry-ish foods which don’t have a lot of sauce or soup, knocking it over or laying the carrier on its side shouldn’t be a problem, but don’t try that with anything that has a lot of liquid in it.

The interior of the carrier, and the empty frame. The inside walls of the containers are lined in white enamel whereas the outside is in blue.

“Why should I buy one instead of say…a box?”

Good question, 99! A tiffin carrier has many advantages over a box, or even a thermos-flask! (does anybody use those anymore?).

For one thing, it’s bigger. You can put more stuff in it. Yummy!

For two things, it’s compartmentalised. Your food tastes and smells won’t get mixed up. Your chocolate muffin won’t taste like last night’s beef stroganoff, and those delicious cookies that your wife baked as a treat won’t get soggy when they’re separated from your spaghetti by another one or two bowls in between, which no doubt hold the meatballs, and the shredded cheese that you want to put on top of your spaghetti.

For three things, each container in the carrier is its own individual bowl. No need to decant the contents of your thermos into something else before eating it, or to try and recreate Aesop’s fable of the fox and the stork.

Do tiffin carriers keep food warm, then?

Uh, no. Traditional ones do not. But you can buy modern ones with insulated sides, which will. Antique carriers were usually wrapped in cloth, or stored in a metal tube or casing, to keep the food warm. This had the added advantage of protecting the carrier from damage while it was being transported. The tiffin wallahs of India still use this method today when they transport lunches to office-workers in Bombay.

So, why did you buy this?

I guess because I’ve always been nonconformist and unconventional. I have never liked doing what ‘everybody else’ does, just because they’re doing it, and it’s the ‘in thing’ or whatever. And I suppose that extends to the type of antiques I like collecting. I like collecting, owning and selling things which are just…different, and weird. Or unusual. Tiffin carriers are hardly known in the western world, and the chance to buy a really good bargain was just too great to pass up. Plus, they’re a link to my own family’s culture and history, so why not?

Will you use it?

Uh, probably not. It’ll mostly be used as a photography prop, as a decorative piece, and a conversation starter, but hey, it’s still cute, yeah?

Uh, don’t you already have one of these?

Yuh-huh! Sure do! Here they are together:

So, what’s the difference? Well, there are a few differences, if you pay attention. The biggest, and most obvious one is colour, of course. The one on the left is punched steel, coated in enamel paint. The one on the right is just plain, polished brass. The interior on the left is white enamel. The interior on the right is tin-plated brass.

Size-wise they’re just about the same. The one on the right is exactly 18 inches tall, so the one on the left is a bit more, maybe 19 inches, or 18.5in.

The other thing you might notice is the slightly different design of the lids. The one on the left is a flat, plate-style lid, whereas the one on the right has yet another little compartment on top (used for storing spices, sauces, etc).

“I want an antique tiffin carrier too! Where do I get one!?”

Uh…ahem…uhm…huh.

*scratches head*

That’s a DAMN good question.

You can always try eBay. That’s a good start. But to find them in places like antiques shops or flea-markets and such, you really have to go to the ‘source’. Next time you’re on holiday, go to India, or Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, etc. Tiffin carriers of a WIDE variety of styles were used throughout this region for a LONG time, and that’s where you’re most likely to find them ‘in the wild’, like I did.

How much do they cost?

Eh…it really depends. A simple one is probably under $100? A really fancy, or rare one (either in design, style, decorations, condition, etc), could be going for nearly $1,000.

How do you tell an antique from a modern one?

There are various ways. Usually, it’s pretty obvious, just based on size, style, colour, materials, etc.

Antique ones were meant as day-to-day food-carriers. You took your lunch to the office with them. You took it to a friend’s house for pot luck, when they ask you to bring dessert. You gave them to the kids and they took them to school. That being the case, a lot of the antique ones are actually in quite bad repair. Most of them were used day in, day out, day in, day out, for DECADES, until they literally fell apart. That’s what makes functioning antique ones quite expensive.

But, to tell the difference, look for things like genuine wear and age. A real antique one will have wear on the lid, the rims, the bottom edge or base, the sides and along the security frame that holds the whole thing together. This will be caused by years of heavy use, years of rubbing, washing, opening, closing, stacking, unstacking, and of course – eating.

Antique ones were almost entirely made from either brass, or steel (the latter was almost always enameled, to prevent rusting, which would’ve been EXTREMELY common in the South Pacific, thanks to the humidity and sea air). Modern ones are made of stainless steel and plastic.

Look for things like markings and engravings. Modern tiffin carriers are all made in China or Thailand. Antique ones were mostly made in Europe, or India (brass ones were usually Indian or Burmese). A tiffin carrier with European markings is more likely to be an antique one. A tiffin carrier with Indian script on it is more likely to have come from the subcontinent.

What do I look for?

Look for damage, basically. Remember that antique tiffin carriers were used relentlessly, day after day, after day after day for years on end. Make sure that there are no cracks, chips, big rust-spots, bent frames, dents, scratches or missing parts. Check the hinges on the security clamp, check the state of the handle, check that the brackets that hold the containers to the frame are not damaged. Make sure that the bases of the bowls are not dented or deformed – if they are, they won’t stack properly.

A bent or misshapen frame can sometimes be repaired. Careful bending and reshaping will get it back to its original shape, and everything else should just fall into place accordingly, but do this with CARE – too much bending and the frame will just snap in half. Woops…

Be very careful with cleaning your carriers. Don’t remove any decals or paintwork on the sides, as these are often what give the carriers their VALUE. People collect the carriers with fancy decorations. If you’ve gone and scrubbed them off…well…I hope you like it, because other people might not.

Can I eat out of it?

That depends. If it’s in really good condition, then yeah, probably, if you want to. But carriers with serious rust, chipping, enamel loss, or damage to the frame, should only be used as display-pieces. If you have an antique brass carrier, then if you can find one, send it to a guy who does tin-plating (this is sometimes still a service provided, because people need to get their copper cookware retinned from time to time).

A fresh, solid coating of tin inside the brass interior should be all that you need to make a brass carrier usable again.

Concluding Remarks

Anyway, that finishes off this posting. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and found the photos interesting! Getting this back in one piece was challenging, but at least it didn’t take up too much space in my luggage. At least, not after I stuffed the insides of the carrier with rolled socks and T-shirts! It’s always easiest to bring back antiques that you can pull apart, or fill up.

Whistlin’ Dixey: Two-Draw Georgian-era Guillotine Pocket Telescope

 

Yarr-harr!! Avast, landlubbers! Belay thy squabblin’ and take heed:

This telescope was one of about half a dozen things I bought at the local flea-market this weekend. And ain’t she gorgeous!?

She is a Georgian, or very-early-Victorian two-draw pocket guillotine spyglass or telescope, with brass fittings and a wooden barrel. ‘Two-draw’ comes from the two, brass draw-tubes that comprise the telescope’s focusing mechanism. The ‘guillotine’ refers to the built-in lens-shutter that protects the glass from grit, rain and damage. It is a beautiful example of an early telescope, made in London by one of the best manufacturers of the age.

How do you KNOW it’s Georgian?

Good question, 99!

I know it’s Georgian, because of the way it’s constructed.

Most telescopes these days are solid metal. This one has a wooden barrel – a feature common to antique telescopes made during the 1700s and 1800s. By the later 1800s, telescope barrels were made more, and more out of brass (which was more expensive), rather than wood (which was plentiful, and cheap!), than wood. By the last decades of the 1800s, leading into the early 1900s, wooden barrels had almost entirely disappeared, replaced by brass barrels (sometimes clad in leather, to provide grip).

Secondly, I know that it is exceptionally old because of the built-in, sliding lens-shutters.

This French naval telescope, from the 1840s or 50s, has a removable, spun brass lens-cap, common to telescopes made from the second half of the 1800s, to the modern day…

Most telescopes you buy today – and most antique telescopes – have removable, round lens-caps. Some of the older ones also have swing-open, kidney-shaped lens-shutters over the eyepieces, to keep out dust. But only the really old telescopes have what some people have called ‘guillotine’ shutters. That means that the lens-shutters are built into the body of the telescope itself, and when the telescope is in operation, they simply slide up, out of the way, and then snap back down again (like a guillotine, hence the name), when the telescope isn’t being used.

I don’t know why that particular aspect of telescope design died out…I think it’s a pretty cool feature, actually. But that’s how it is. At least it’s a useful dating tool.

…however, this other telescope has a different type of sliding, ‘guillotine’-style lens shutter, which is only found on much older models.

The third reason I know that it’s Georgian is because of what’s engraved on the draw-tubes, the maker’s mark of “DIXEY / LONDON”, a company that was established in Georgian times, and which is still going today (more about them in a minute).

The fourth reason I give for saying that this telescope is Georgian is how the lenses are fitted into the telescope.

Most lenses these days are either screwed in, with washers to hold them tight, or are glued in with clear adhesive (as was the case, starting from the Victorian era). However this telescope’s lenses are neither. They’re turned in.

By that, I mean that someone fitted the lenses into the telescope, an then secured them in place by spinning a brass rim directly against the glass. This would’ve been an easier construction technique than having to cut threads and grooves to make the lenses drop and pop and screw in with washers, but it also meant that if the lenses BREAK…you can’t replace them. A bit of a problem…

Fortunately, the lenses on this telescope are in great condition, so I’m not worrying!

So how do I know it’s Georgian? That’s it! How it’s made, what it’s made from, and what features were included in the telescope during construction.

These are the sorts of things you need to learn, if you’re going to date antiques, even if it’s only a general ballpark number.

‘C.W. Dixey & Son – LONDON’

Telescopes were extremely common during the Georgian and Victorian eras. At a time when all international travel was done by sailing ship, or steam-powered ocean-liner, it was vital for members of the crew to own telescopes of quality. And at any rate, passengers who frequented the seas with any regularity, would likely have one as well, if only for sightseeing. Telescopes, although larger and bulkier, had a much further range than most binoculars of the day, and had much greater magnification.

The first draw-tube, with the maker’s mark of C.W. Dixey & Son.

Before the days of accurate maritime navigation (in the late 1700s), sailors found their way by ‘line-of-sight’ navigation – telescopes were used to sight landmarks such as buildings, cliffs, land-formations and rocky outcrops. Telescopes were therefore vital for safe navigation, when sailors ‘hugged the coasts’ of continents, to prevent their ships from being wrecked on reefs and rocks.

Engraved on this telescope are the words “DIXEY” and “LONDON”.

‘Dixey’ refers to C.W. Dixey & Son, an 18th century family firm of opticians, established in London in 1777. Although they don’t make telescopes anymore, the company still exists, as a manufacturer of eyeglasses. Among others, C.W. Dixey & Son made optical gear for the Qianlong Emperor of China (a telescope), Winston Churchill (a pair of spectacles), famous author Ian Fleming, Napoleon Bonaparte, and several British monarchs. It’s rather thrilling to own a telescope made by such a famous manufacturer!

Restoring the Telescope

The telescope required very little work to make it function properly, which is surprising, given its age. A good general polishing, blowing out dust, cleaning the lenses, and wiping down the draw-tubes with oil to remove interior grime, was all that was required to fix it and make it function like new! The sight down the barrel is clean and crisp, and the lens-shutters open and close smoothly and firmly, and the draw-tubes open and close without problems.

Cleaning off all the grime on the telescope of course wasn’t really possible – it would’ve required far more disassembly than I wanted to endeavour, but the end-result is pleasing enough. Now, it works, and it looks nice, and that’s really all you could hope for!

The finished telescope with its brass all polished and clean!