Monthly Archives: May 2015

A Range of Decorative Hair Combs for the 19th Century Gentlewoman.

Tortoise shell hair comb, circa 1860.

Tortoise shell hair comb, circa 1860.

Victorian hair comb, circa 1860, decorated with high-karat gold and diamonds in fleur-de-lis pattern.

Victorian hair comb, circa 1860, decorated with high-karat gold and diamonds in fleur-de-lis pattern.

Victorian decorative hair comb, circa late 1800s, natural horn with a pressed design.

Victorian decorative hair comb, circa late 1800s, natural horn with a pressed design.

Dr Scott's Electric Hairbrush

Dr Scott’s Electric Hairbrush

Hair Comb with pearls

Jet Hair Comb for use during mourning.

Victorian Algerian comb.

Victorian hair comb

19th Century Tortoise shell carved cameos hair comb

19th Century tortoise shell hair comb with carved cameos

Antique Victorian Bohemian Garnets Crescent Shaped Hair Comb Tiara | eBay

Antique Victorian tortoiseshell hair comb with garnets

No article, just a bunch of pretty pictures for inspiration.


Filed under Bling, Fashion, Jewellery, Steampunk Genre, writing

Blonde, Brunette or Blazing Red: A Steampunk Perspective of Victorian-era Hair (Part Two)


Mary Ingalls

Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word. – Laura Ingalls Wilder “By the Shores of Silver Lake”

This image of a shorn Mary Ingalls stayed with me for years. In a lot of Victorian-era novels, you read of girls with a fever having their hair cut, as their hair was ‘draining their strength’. Anna Karenina has her hair cut while she has a fever, and it marks the change in her fortunes from respectable woman to ‘hysterical’ mad woman. There is the dramatic hair cutting scene in Jane Eyre, with poor Julia made to cut off her natural curls. The various types of symbology relating hair is a goldmine for a writer.

 This is how Alice should look.

Because long hair was the fashion for the 19th century, the cutting of a woman’s hair was a big deal. It was shocking to see a woman with short hair, as glorious long hair symbolised a woman’s youthfulness, femininity, and health. It would only be cut off for illness, including ‘brain fever’ or madness, or as a terrible punishment, because it was physically destroying her beauty and femininity. It could have a greater impact as seeing a woman today with her head shaved bald. This was why Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables, was kept at home after she cut her hair after the dreadful dye experiment. This was why Jo from Little Women was making such a great sacrifice when she cut her hair to make money for her mother’s trip to see Jo’s father. Both Anne and Jo regretted the loss of their hair, their ‘one beauty’.


As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

Your hair! Your beautiful hair! Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty. My dear girl, there was no need of this. She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!

As everyone exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush and trying to look as if she liked it, “It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth. It will be good for my vanity, I getting too proud of my wig. It will do my brains good to have that mop taken off. My head feels deliciously light and cool, and the barber said I could soon have a curly crop, which will be boyish, becoming, and easy to keep in order. I’m satisfied, so please take the money and let’s have supper.”

“Tell me all about it, Jo. I am not quite satisfied, but I can’t blame you, for I know how willingly you sacrificed your vanity, as you call it, to your love. But, my dear, it was not necessary, and I’m afraid you will regret it one of these days,” said Mrs. March. – Louisa May Alcott

With hair seen as a woman’s ‘crowning glory, it isn’t hard to imagine that hair was something of a Victorian obsession. I’ve mentioned hair jewellery before, but it is worth mentioning again. Hair was often used to create keepsakes, particularly of the deceased. Locks of hair were given out for friends and family to treasure, often at the request of the dearly departed. Or the living would give up a precious lock to create a love token.

Woven Hair Jewellery

Woven Hair Jewellery

Mourning locket, gold,  hairwork, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England, circa 1826. In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Mourning locket, gold, hairwork, seed pearls, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England, circa 1826. In the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

Bouquet Brooch made with the hair of 15 individuals including 2 men and 7 children.

Bouquet Brooch made with the hair of 15 individuals including 2 men and 7 children.

Hair was a large part of a woman’s public persona, which was another reason why cutting it short was so shocking. When women started bobbing their hair in the 1920s, it was a public signal of their freedom from the restrictions society had placed them in. When Victorian women criminals entered prison, their hair was shorn, it was claimed for reasons of ‘cleanliness’, but it was also the quickest way of shearing away a woman’s confidence, making her docile and compliant to the prison’s discipline. Women fraternizing with the enemy had their head shorn as punishment, ruining their allure and making their shame public. Shorn hair was a very public way of highlighting a statement (or showing you were a bit over enthusiastic with the curling iron and have burnt off all your hair).

Long hair

In my own Steampunk narrative, my main character has unfashionable red hair … and a calm and rational temperament. Alice is a deliberate break from the stereotype of the short-fused Scottish redhead, but her hair is long and glossy. I am toying with the idea of her deliberately cutting her own hair as part of a disguise. It will need to be a much more emotional scene than if a girl was to cut her hair today. But I can use the cutting of her hair as a symbol of cutting away her restrictions within a Patriarchal society. 

If you are a Steampunk Enthusiast, I also have a site on Facebook where I share articles and images:


Filed under Analogy, Author, Fashion, Historical Personage, History, Jewellery, Metaphors, Steampunk

Blonde, Brunette or Blazing Red: A Steampunk Perspective of Victorian-era Hair (Part One)

The Sutherland Sisters

The Sutherland Sisters

Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer…

Lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot

 Long hair

We tend to think the Hippie Era was all about hair, but they had nothing on the Victorians. They were very serious about their hair, as it was considered one of the great beauties for both men and women. There was a great deal of marketing of hair care products, and there were personalities famous for their amazing hair that were used to ‘brand’ these products.

The American Seven Sutherland Sisters were probably the best known of these celebrity spruikers. The sisters were a singing group, but they were much more famous for their incredible long and luxuriant hair, and the hair tonics and scalp cleansers marketed in their name. All seven women did have remarkable hair, with the second oldest sister, Victoria, had over two metres length of hair and the fifth sister, Naomi, had hair so thick she could ‘wear it like a garment’ (in the words of some of the advertising of the time). Make no mistake, such hair was considered very sexy. They toured the world with their singing act, with local newspapers falling over themselves to print images of the sisters’ hair.


Thanks to lots of different historical invasions, Britain has the whole range of hair colour from platinum blonde to inky black, with Scotland being the most likely place on this planet to find a natural redhead. Red hair occurs naturally in 1–2% of the population, while in Scotland, 10% of the population have red hair and approximately 35% carry the recessive redhead gene. Alas, I have the red-headed skin without the benefit of having beautiful red hair, thanks to my Scottish ancestry. It may be this Scottish connection that gave rise to the myth that redheads have a fiery temperament.

In the Victorian era, red hair was often associated with sexually licentious behaviour, as many soiled doves dyed their hair red. It wasn’t considered a fashionable shade for most of the era, and generally was considered ugly and unlucky, and associated with bad tempers. However, the Pre-Raphaelites favoured red-haired models, even though red hair was not in favour. The Pre-Raphaelite artists depicted glorious, luscious, and romantically-flowing red locks; who wouldn’t want hair that fabulous?

My youngest child and my brother had platinum or flaxen blonde as a babies. Blonde hair tends to turn brunette with age, so adults with natural blonde hair are rare and make up approximately 2% of the world’s population. In the Victorian era, particularly in literature, blonde hair was associated with beauty and goodness; it is only in recent times that blondes are considered dumb or that gentlemen prefer blondes. In fairy stories written in the 19th century, fairies tended to be blond and blonde, and fairies also stole way children and maidens with fair hair. In Britain, fair hair is usually linked to fair skin; this isn’t the case worldwide, where blonde hair crops up nearly everywhere.

    It seems that in olden days (those happy olden days!) there were many more blondes than there are now. Do you wish to know why, even in northern countries, the hair becomes darker century after century? “Heaven,” says a humourist, “sent a great many golden-haired women on the earth to charm the other half of humanity. Seeing this, the devil, who hates man, sent us cooks: they with their sauces and ragouts have disordered the human hair, and these disorders manifest themselves outwardly by the sombre colour of the hair.” Some grain of truth may perhaps lie hidden under this absurdity. – The Lady’s Dressing Room, by Baroness Staffe, translated by Lady Colin Campbell, 1893 – Part II

Brown and black hair dominates humanity, with black hair being the most common hair colour. However, in Victorian-era Britain, brown dominated, rather than black. The most common colour was ‘mouse’ brown – a light brown with no red or golden highlights, often greying. Luxuriant, glossy brown hair was considered one of a woman’s great beauties, and there were many hair products marketed to keep one’s hair healthy, and to improve its colour without the use of dyes. A rinse of water steeped in rosemary or chamomile would add shine and colour to hair, as well as adding a pleasant perfume.

Hair Keepers

Hair Keepers

The fashionable Victorian women did not have an equivalent of modern shampoo and conditioner, but they did want to keep their hair clean and fresh. Modern shampoo tends to strip away all the natural oils in hair, so Victorian women could get away with washing their hair once a week or longer. Then they used mild soap, or black tea, or apple cider vinegar. In one article, it was suggested that some women used rum to wash their hair … which I would have thought would be impractical as alcohol would be very harsh and expensive, unless it was used greatly diluted. And – of course – there were a multitude of hair tonics available. If you were too poor to afford tonics, a good brushing was recommended to keep your hair healthy.

An engraved silver hand mirror, engraved silver backed hair brushes,  and a comb, together with a pair of silver backed clothes brushes

Girl children wore their hair down, while an adult woman put her hair up. Because not every woman was blessed with thick hair, women often collected the hair on their brushes to make hair pieces; which isn’t cheating, when you think about it. When a woman claimed ‘it is all my own hair’, she was being completely truthful (if not actually honest). Hair keepers were part of the toiletry items used by fashionable women.

Teenage girl not yet 18. Shorter hems and her hair is neatly braided up not in an up-do.

Teenage girl not yet 18. Shorter hems and her hair is neatly braided up not in an up-do.

This young lady has the long skirts and the upturned hair that marks her as an adult woman.

This young lady has the long skirts and the upturned hair that marks her as an adult woman.

This is the first part of a two-part article

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Filed under Fashion, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk

Normal service will be resumed…

Once I recover from a bout of the dreaded lurgy.

Purple seat and green foliage

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Filed under Personal experience

Update on the Steampunk Work In Progress

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

To be completely honest, I’m frozen at the moment. I have so much work I need to do, after the slash and burn of the first three chapters, I’m scared I will ‘ruin’ what I have left, even though I know I had to get rid of the fatty, useless info dumps, and put a fire under the slow build up.

I’ve been doing extra research, which won’t be wasted, but it is really just avoidance behaviour. I work on other things to fulfill a sense of achievement. I’ve applied for a couple of dream jobs right out of my reach (they can only say ‘no’). I’ve even gone and cut off all my hair – usually a sure fire method to perk up my muse (it didn’t, but I look amazing). But I still feel like my Alice is running the Red Queen’s Race. I’ve been doing a lot of work without really feeling like I am getting anywhere.

So, I’m taking my own advice. I am going to step back for a couple of weeks, and give myself a chance to catch my breath. It won’t stop me from thinking about the WiP, but it will give my muse a busman’s holiday. With any luck, I will be able to jump back into the narrative with renewed enthusiasm.


Filed under Steampunk Work-in-Progress

The Black and White (and Gray) Truth of Victorian Teeth: a Steampunk Perspective

Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth,

And spotted the dangers beneath

All the toffees I chewed,

And the sweet sticky food.

Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth. – Pam Ayres


I started researching this blog post when I saw an online article about how the Victorians liked to have blackened and rotting teeth as a sign of a high status. I’ve searched and searched, but I can’t find a definitive historical source referring to this practice, but I have found a whole lot of information about teeth and dentistry in the Victorian era. As always, the truth is much more complex than I first suspected.

It is hard to know where to begin, but let’s first look at original source, since it inspired this post: In the Victorian Era, it was fashionable to have rotting dentistry. Having black teeth displayed your affluence and ability to afford sugar products and confectionaries. Some upper-class citizens used to paint their teeth black to emphasise the effect.

Firstly, there is some evidence that might support this. There was a heavy tax on sugar as a commodity, and the tax wasn’t repealed until 1874. So being able to indulge in sweet and sticky foods was probably linked to high status before 1874. And where there is toffy, there is tooth decay.

The modern habit of using all foods sloppy or artificially prepared has much to answer for in the way of dirty teeth. Notice the difference between such a simple thing as whole-meal bread and white bread! The former is much less likely to stick between the teeth, and the flakes in it have a scrubbing action on the enamel, which white flour bread has not. The black bread of the peasants of other lands, and of England in bygone times, not only from its chemical constituents, but from its mechanical action, did much for the preserving of the teeth, and as a result the best teeth are not to be found among the higher classes who take the most artificial care of them, but among those peasant races that live on the hardiest teeth-cleaning foods. Quite an unsuspected cause of dental decay is the use of flesh foods and soft starch foods. The fibres of the flesh get between the teeth, and there rapidly decay. This constitutes the great difference between the fibres of meat and the fibres of the liquorice root. The latter cleanse and do not decay, the former decay and do not cleanse. The best thing to do is to see that the daily food contains something or other which will give teeth work of a cleansing character. A thick piece of wholemeal bread is fairly good; but the chewing of liquorice root, or sugar cane, or some other fibrous substance (like tough celery) is still better. If using a toothpick, use a quill or a bamboo splint, or a thorn from a hawthorn bush. Don’t use pins or needles, or metal or any sort. – Mothers and Daughters, 1890

Secondly, the Victorian era saw a sudden increase in scientific methods applied to the act of dentistry, like powered drills and tooth keys for extractions; this implies that there was a dire need for dentistry. Dentistry evolved from being a trade into a highly respected profession, and so the British government began to regulate it by the end of the 19th century, with the Dentist Act was passed in 1878 and the British Dental Association formed in 1879. This increased respectability implies that the upper classes were eager to go to the dentist – well, eager to have the pain of rotting teeth alleviated.

Then there was the Victorian practice of not smiling for a camera. At the start of the art of photography, the sitters had to remain still for some time and trying to maintain a smile was difficult. Even when photography improved to the point that it only took a few seconds to capture an image, people tended not to smile … and it is assumed this is because they were hiding their bad teeth. But doesn’t that go against the idea that bad teeth were a symbol of high status?

Queen Victoria is about as high status as you can get, and it is rumoured that she was mostly photographed with a closed mouth because of her poor teeth. Not so. She did have trouble with her teeth, but when she was a girl a small mouth was considered quite as lovely as lush, large lips are fashionable now. I’m guessing a lot of those prunes & prism mouths in photographs are due to ladies trying to maintain a fashionably small mouth. And there are photos of her smiling and her smile looks just fine.

Off topic, Queen Victoria had a brooch given to her by Prince Albert, made with the milk tooth of their daughter, Princess Victoria. This unusual and tiny brooch was made in the form of a thistle has, with the first milk tooth lost by their firstborn as the flower. An inscription on the reverse states the tooth was pulled by Prince Albert at Ardverikie (Loch Laggan), on September 13, 1847. I think this is a pretty way of having a keepsake of one’s child.

Back on topic! The British still have a reputation for bad teeth, but it wasn’t because they neglect them and ruin them with sweets and refined food. This reputation has lingered on into modern times.


TEETH by Spike Milligan


English Teeth, English Teeth!

Shining in the sun

A part of British heritage

Aye, each and every one.

English Teeth, Happy Teeth!

Always having fun

Clamping down on bits of fish

And sausages half done.

English Teeth! HEROES’ Teeth!

Hear them click! and clack!

Let’s sing a song of praise to them –

Three Cheers for the Brown, Grey, and Black.

It isn’t just the British upper classes who took to the practice of blackening teeth. Ohaguro is the historical Japanese custom of dyeing one’s teeth black. It was a popular practice in Japan until the Meiji era, when it was outlawed in 1870 – so it was still around in the Victorian era. Tooth painting was and is also known and practiced in the Southeast parts of China, the Pacific Islands and in Southeast Asia. Teeth dyeing was mainly for fashion or for special occasions, even though the practice was actually beneficial as it prevented tooth decay, in a similar fashion to modern dental sealants.

From a writer’s viewpoint, all this information is pure gold, and not just the dental kind. Nothing improves characterization or a setting like a little local colour (pun intended). Rotting teeth could signify a character rotten to the core.



Filed under Characterization, Historical Personage, History, Setting, Steampunk

Enjoying the Journey – Writing a Narrative

I think every writer knows this story, but I’m making a point, so hang in there. You hear about a lot of manuscripts that have been sent in the minute the author has written ‘The End’. And – most of the time – these first draft manuscripts are rejected. It is unlikely the writing will be marvellous. There will be awkward phrasing, week sentences and verbs, and major plot flaws that need smoothing over.

A first draft is all about enthusiasm and discovery, but it is also a walk in a dark forest with a torch. You are still finding your way. It is only the first part of the journey. The editing process is just as creative as the writing process, but it takes patience and concentration, so it has a bad reputation with people lacking in those virtues (I was one of them, once upon a time).

I’m only human – surprise, surprise! I used to prefer writing to editing. I sincerely believe this was due to my goal-orientated mindset; a mindset which does a serious writer no favours. Writing is a journey, not a race. And like every journey, you should enjoy the process just as much as reaching your goal. If you aren’t enthusiastic in the editing process, it will show up in your work as flaws and faults.

Just as very gem needs a polish, so does every story. I taught myself not to rush into sending off my work until I had actually spent some time rereading and editing it. Some things only need a few tweaks. At other times, I have a real ‘what was I thinking’ moment. And sometimes, I surprise myself with the gleaming words that resonate on several levels,

I’ve turned my own editing process into a treasure hunt, looking for the gold, because there is always some. Even the slash and burn of editing can give me a feeling of satisfaction, because I get a real buzz of cutting away the fat and weeds of a story, to reveal the true beauty lurking underneath. My first draft tends to be written with limitless freedom, and the editing process then refines and emphasizes the best parts of all that energy. And that be a lot of fun.


Filed under Love of words, Personal experience, The Writing Life, Writing Career