Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Egyptomania of the Victorian Era: a Steampunk Perspective – Or “Are you my mummy?

The Victorian era was a time of great exploration as well as innovation, which is why it is so popular with the Steampunk genre. Napoleon’s contribution to exploration and science is often overlooked by modern ‘pop-culture’ historians, but his Egyptian Campaign from 1798 to 1801 created a fad for all thing Egyptian. The impact of this Egyptomania has lasted right up to the present, but its strongest influences were during the Victorian era.

However, Egyptomania did not mean that artefacts were treated with respect. Indeed, Capitalism and commercialism will often find a way to make economic gains without showing any sympathy or sensitivity to the historical significance of what the culture they are plundering. The Victorians, with their hearty belief that they could do no wrong, were soon making money by methods we would find horrific by today’s standards.

Martin Drolling’s ‘Interior of a Kitchen’ – painted with Mummy Brown

Mummy Brown Paint: In previous blog articles, I have detailed how painters often use quite lethal and toxic substances in their quest for the perfect pigment. But I don’t think anything can beat Mummy Brown for its historical significance; it was a tint between burnt umber and raw umber, and it was one of pigments favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites. And it was made from actual mummies. Mummy Brown paint was originally made from white pitch, myrrh, and the pulverized remains of Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Just to set modern-day artists’ minds at rest, the modern equivalent that is sold as “Mummy Brown” is composed of a mixture of kaolin, quartz, goethite and hematite. This change in composition is because the popularity of the pigment took a dive when artists found out that – for once – the name written on the jar wasn’t poetic licence but an actual description of the contents.

Mummies as Fertilizer: In 1888, a local farmer hit the mother lode (pun intended). Due to the popularity of making offerings to the cat-headed goddess Bast, as well as to both Osiris and Isis, many cats and kittens were killed and converted into mummies. (Being the animal worshipped by thousands isn’t always the high life as advertised.) Once people figured out there was very little in the way of gold or other precious items to be found with these mummies, hundreds and thousands of these mummified felines were converted into fertilizer to be used both in Egypt and abroad, particularly England. The rest were sold to tourists as cheap souvenirs. As previously mentioned, some of the mummies ended up in the Mummy Brown pigment.

Yep. You read that correctly. The Victorians fertilised their roses with priceless historical artefacts. It is the equivalent of using cash to light a cheap cigar. If you want to read more about this heinous crime against archaeology, try:

Mummy Unwrapping Parties: These parties are subject to several misconceptions in popular culture. The Victorians didn’t buy mummies and unwrap them at social events, giving away any amulets discovered as party favours. For one thing, unwrapping a mummy makes a dreadful mess and can actually be hazardous to your health without proper precautions; very few fashionable society matrons would agree to risk having smelly bitumen and dust spread over her carpets, and possibly killing her guests. It would simply ruin her social standing. For another, those amulets were just a bit too valuable to hand away as presents.

Mummies were purchased to be unwrapped. But they were unwrapped in somewhat more academic settings, for the most part. They were unwrapped in university lecture theatres, not parlours. These unwrapping ceremonies were fashionable, particularly when Egyptomania was at its peak, and well attended by academics and the curious alike. Human beings seem to be fascinated by death and the grotesque, from the Egyptians right up until today.

Mummies as fuel: Again, there is a kernel of truth here surrounded by a lot of pop culture mythology. Mark Twain is responsible for most of the ‘wrong’ facts. Mummies were never used to fuel locomotives.

“The fuel use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and . . . sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D–n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent–pass out a King!’” – Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad

 Victorian England never used mummies for fuel. However, in Egypt, with its lack of trees to supply fuel, it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that mummies were burnt for warmth (though the thought of eating a meal cooked over a mummy is revolting to me). Bones do burn beautifully, that is the origin of the word ‘bonfire’.

Mummy Paper: This is another urban legend, based in America in Victorian times, but it easy to see how it might have originated. The very best quality paper is made from rags. Paper was invented by the Egyptians, using papyrus – hence the name. Mummies were in great supply, and unwrapping them resulted in lots of ‘waste’ in the form of linen ‘rags’. It is easy to see how such a story might have gained credence. However! These rags were heavily impregnated with bitumen and other less pleasant substances, and were too frail for use in making paper. As well, there are no existing records of paper mills buying mummies, or photographs of mummies or mummy wrappings at any paper mills.

Still, as a writer, the thought of mummy paper is rather interesting, if gruesome. Imagine if someone had painted on mummy paper using Mummy Brown paint.

4 Deathhacks for an Egyptian Mummy The ground up remains of Egyptian mummies got a reputation for possessing superior medicinal properties in the Middle Ages. Medieval doctors and healers believed that the chemicals used by ancient Egyptians in the embalming process gave the remains medicinal value.  They used mumia, the powder made from mummies, in medicinal preparations.   Doctors and pharmacies sold mumia as late as 1908. Picture of a container of mumia.

Mummies used in Pharmaceuticals: As crazy as this might sound, this is completely true. Many medical practitioners believed the chemicals used to preserve mummies had beneficial properties, and used mumia, the powder made from mummies, in medicinal preparations. Doctors and pharmacies sold mumia as late as 1908. Wikipedia states that ‘additional by-products of mummies include the distillation of the bodies to produce aromatic oils, such as olibanum and ambergris, which can be made into machine oils, soaps or even incense.’ I so do not want to wash or perfume myself with the remains of people; I’m pretty sure that’s morally and ethically evil, as well as sounding gruesome.

The best thing about being a writer is that you can use historically incorrect information and turn it into golden prose. Every single one of these mummy-inspired industries could be the base of a Steampunk narrative, with Gothic overtones. Personally, I am using this premise as the basis of the wealth of my villainous family in my Steampunk work-in progress. How is that for layering their characterization? If a reader can’t ‘spot the villain’ after discovering how they earn their mess of pottage, they aren’t keeping up.


Filed under Historical Personage, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, writing

The Adventures of Viola Stewart: Three Short Stories.

Highly recommended.

My Wonder Emporium

Karen Carlisle is due to release three exciting short stories of mystery and adventure! I’ve been flicking about on her website and Facebook, eagerly awaiting news of a cover reveal… and here it is…


A steampunk adventure, of sorts, the short stories are based around Viola, a female optometrist with an eye for investigating.

1. Day of the Dirigible – a train, a dirigible landing AND a mysterious stranger.
2. An Eye for Detail – peril, a murder on the gaslit streets of London, secrets and Viola Stewart – a GREAT recipe for adventure!
3. The Magic Lantern – Lord and Lady Hearst have disappeared! While enjoying the latest entertainment, the Magic Lantern Show, Viola joins Dr John Collins in the investigation – why should men have all the fun?

Don’t these stories sound intriguing, and fun? I can’t wait for publication.

You can follow Karen Carlisle here


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Harold Cazneaux – Father of Modern Australian Photography

Random Phoughts

Day 327 of Colourisation Project – March 30

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Eminent Australian photographer Max Dupain, acknowledged him as the “father of modern Australian photography.” In 1911, the leading British pictorial journal, Photograms of the Year, ranked him equal to world renowned American Pictorialist, Alfred Stieglitz.

In 1937, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain – the ultimate photographic accolade.

Born this day, 30 March 1878, in Wellington, New Zealand, Harold Cazneaux was one of Australia’s greatest photographers and one of the main proponents of the Pictorialist photographic movement in Australia, which held that photography was a form of high art, closely linked to painting.

Harold CazneauxSelf Portrait ~ Harold Cazneaux 1904 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Born into an artistic family, he was the son of  Pierce Mott Cazneaux…

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Hyde Park demonstration

Suffrage Postcards

Hyde park demonstration - front

Front text:

Hyde Park Demonstration, Sunday June 21 1908.

Mrs Pankhurst, Mrs Wostenholme Elmy.

The demonstration in Hyde Park on 21 June 1908 (‘Women’s Sunday’) was the first major event in support of women’s suffrage. Estimates of the number of people attending the event varies but it seems to have attracted 200-300,000 people. There were numerous marches and stages set up for speeches by the Pankhursts and other leading figures.


It was published by Sandle Brothers, Empire House, Paternoster Row, London EC. On the reverse of the card it states ‘No. 104, Photo, Half Tones’.

Hyde park - front

Front text:

Hyde Park Demonstration, Sunday June 21 1908.

Miss Christobel Pankhurst, LL.B & Mrs Pethick Lawrence.

I have another card from this demonstration and McDonald has a copy of one of the cards on page 45. The Museum of London has images of this event. A postcard shows the crowd and another, a photograph

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Resurrection Time

Random Phoughts

What better time to resurrect this old blog than the present time with the resurrection of some old black and white photos. I can’t turn water into wine…yet… but I can turn black and white photos into colour! I have set myself the daunting challenge of colourizing old photos that are either in the public domain or in my own private domain…one for every day of the year.

The challenge is to keep within the lines. No really, the challenge is to publish daily a photo that has some significance around the day of publication. It could be someone’s birthday or an important historical event. I have set the ball rolling with a colourization of a black and white photo taken by Philip Barraud in 1893. It’s a portrait of the famous composer Peter Tchaikovsky born in 1840 which I published via my twitter account on the 174th anniversary of his birth on the 7th of…

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Wheels within wheels: Multi-layered Steampunk Characterization

gender equality ok .. but some women just have to learn the ABC of being clever!

One of the biggest problems with characterization is the fact that a character – one written down – is frozen in time and space. Once you have had them react in a situation, every time the reader comes back to reread that scene, that character is always going to react the same way. No surprises. This is an inescapable flaw built into the medium of the written text. So how can a writer overcome this?

Don't want to know you

One of the best methods is to hint at a character’s emotional uncertainly or ambiguity of her or his motivations. The character of Grace in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is an excellent example of this technique. We never really know if Grace Marks was a participant of the novel’s central crime or just another victim of the horrific circumstances. The ambiguity complicates the character of Grace, hinting at fleeting depths that the reader can only glimpse. Most of the heavy lifting of the characterization is done in the imagination of the reader, because Atwood never comes straight to the point as she crafts the Grace character. There is no resolution to this ambiguity, and so the reader is left to ponder.


Another method is to construct an elaborate setting and history (or background) that allows for the character to have a life ‘outside’ of the events of the narrative. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the best example of this I can think of, with Discworld providing a broad range of 3D characters that often interact with each other while wandering through the increasingly complicated landscapes and cities. This worked so well for Pratchett that even throwaway characters ended up with books of their own, such as The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. This is a lot of work for a writer, but it has the benefit of creating a worldscape you can visit again and again without getting boring. Other examples would be Tolkien’s Middle-earth and C S Lewis’s Narnia, and a Steampunk genre example would be Stephen Hunt’s the Kingdom of Jackals.

You can also base a character on a real life historical personage, like Grace from Alias Grace. Your character then comes with a ready-made background and setting, maybe even a plot. The drawbacks of this technique is that you are also limited by the reality of that personage, and you need to do a lot of research. Unless you’re playing it for laughs, the elderly Queen Victoria was not a secret ninja fighting against an invading horde of raygun-wielding goblins (though I wouldn’t mind reading a book like that, to be honest). In her later years, she was reclusive and depressed, and sought only the company of her family and trusted companions, which only makes her a better inspiration for a character, to my mind, because we tend to think of queens as powerful. Using Queen Victoria as inspiration also means you have a lot of information to deepen and add details to a characterization.

These aren’t the only techniques you can use, but these are the three I find the most helpful.

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Stories from The Lane of Unusual Traders

An opportunity that might interest my fellow writers.

Tiny Owl Workshop

Stage 2 of The Lane of Unusual Traders is open for submissions. We’re looking for 13 stories to help bring the world of Midlfell to life.

While you’re writing, some of the Lane’s denizens are throwing the doors to their Story Lots open: simply click on the links to read…

Lot 2 – Orran’s Music Emporium by M. M. De Voe

Lot 8 – Caesura by S. G. Larner

Lot 13 – Sugarman by Steve Toase

Lot 18 – Irrealty and Ferns by Robert G. Cook

And, don’t forget to check out the prologue by Chris White.

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