Mimi Matthews

  • cat 33667
    During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a time when electric streetcars shared the road with mounted riders, horse-drawn carriages, and streetcars pulled by teams of horses. Many interesting animal stories have come out of this brief period of crossover between horsepower and the rise of the modern machine. Naturally, the bulk of these stories feature horses, but one of the most bizarre accounts I have found involves not equines, but felines. According to the September 6, 1893 edition of the Edinburgh Evening News, 19th century cats in the city of San Francisco had “grown so big and so numerous as to constitute a nuisance and a menace.” The cause of their enormous size? The introduction of electric streetcars!

    Introduced to San Francisco on April 27, 1892, the SF & SM Railway (San Francisco and San Mateo Railway) was the city’s first electric streetcar system. According to Walter Rice at the Virtual Museum of San Francisco, the line ran from the “Union Ferry building at the foot of Market Street” via a circuitous route all the way to 30th Street. Electric power for the streetcars was supplied by “General Electric dynamos” and the motors were powered by “coal fired Corliss type stationary steam engines.”

    railwaycar 40968San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway Car, 19th Century.

    There was no electricity in the rails themselves, yet the 1893 Edinburgh Evening News reports that each evening, when the cars stopped running for the night, cats from all over the city would congregate at the tracks and lick the rails – with what some might call electrifying results. As the article relates:

    “Carefully selecting a suitable spot on the rail, the cat will lick the rail and then lie down upon it a few minutes. Pretty soon he will roll over and will stand with all four feet upon the rail and with wild eyes, arched back and distended tail, will yowl and dance, and amuse himself for an hour at a time.”

    horses 9d3beA Horsecar and an Electric Streetcar, New York

    So bizarre was this nightly occurrence that an “expert electrician” was consulted on the subject. The electrician’s opinion? The Edinburgh Evening News reports:

    “…he could not imagine what the cats could get out of the rails, but whatever it may be, the cats of the city are said to be attaining an enormous size, unheard of before, and to keep themselves in wonderful condition.”

    catstory 3b4fdEdinburgh Evening News, Sept. 6, 1893. (©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

    Is there any truth at all in this strange story? I really do not know. However, as someone born and raised in the California Bay Area, common sense tells me that if the cats congregated at the tracks at all, it was likely to curl up on them and absorb some residual warmth. San Francisco can be quite chilly in the fall and winter. As for cats yowling, dancing, and growing to an enormous size as yet unheard of in the 19th century? I’ll let you be the judge. 

    This piece was originally published on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted with permission.

    top photo: Hissing Cat from Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.

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  • Ladies Taking Tea by Joseph Scheurenberg Date unknown f7905

    In the Victorian era, Halloween parties were rife with games designed to help young ladies see into their marital futures. These games were generally played at co-ed Halloween celebrations. There were even some which could be played by gentlemen. The bulk of these games, however, were geared toward marriage-minded females. It is therefore not surprising to find descriptions of Halloween parties—or Halloween Teas—that were strictly for women.

    The November 5, 1898 edition of the Western Mail describes a Halloween tea held by a young lady by the name of Anna Leighton. Miss Leighton is reported to have invited sixteen of her female friends to “an early candlelight tea.” The guests arrived to find the Leighton’s parlor decorated with autumn leaves, fruits, nuts, and ears of corn. There were jack-o-lanterns arrayed on the mantel and candles burning under crepe paper shades. As the article relates:

    “The decorations of the dining-room were unusually pretty, the walls being draped in soft red and yellow, with wreaths and garlands of autumn flowers and leaves gracefully festooned on the wall, and from each corner were suspended Jack-o’-lanterns cut from immense pumpkins.”

    Wax candles illuminated the table and, beside every place setting, there was a cluster of red and yellow roses tied with ribbons and accented with a “silver horsehoe stick-pin” that could be taken home as a souvenir. In addition, attached to each set of roses, was a hand-painted card which revealed the respective guest’s fortune. The Western Mail reports that one such card was drawn with four-leaf clovers and read:

    “The man you’ll marry is full of pluck;
    He has gone to Klondyke and had good luck.”

    Teatime by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta n.d. via Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana e1540769368468 504f2Teatime by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, n.d. (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana)

    In keeping with the holiday theme, the menu for the Halloween tea consisted primarily of “nuts, fruit, and candy.” The guests were also served “fancy cakes” and ices which contained “either a needle, thimble, dime, or ring.” According to the Western Mail:

    “The needle and thimble indicated that the ones who happened to take them would remain spinsters for another year; the dime and ring meant either an engagement or marriage.”

    There were other chances for young ladies to divine their romantic futures, many of which revolved around cups of tea. For example, to find out how many years she might have to wait until she married, a young lady balanced a dry spoon on the edge of her teacup. A second spoon was filled with tea and “holding it above the balanced spoon,” she slowly dropped the tea into the first spoon until it overbalanced. Each drop represented a year.

    Another tea-related marriage game was said to reveal how soon one’s lover might call. As the Western Mail explains:

    “If a tea stalk floats in the cup it is called a lover, and when this is seen maids should stir their tea very rapidly round and round, and then hold the spoon upright in the centre of the cup. If the tea stalk is attached to the spoon and clings to it he will call shortly, and maybe, this very evening; if the tea stalk goes to the side of the cup he will not come, and you will not have a proposal this year.”

    After an evening of tea drinking and marriage forecasting, the young ladies at Miss Leighton’s party gathered around a coal fire and roasted marshmallows. They then told ghost stories. The young lady who told the scariest story was awarded a prize consisting of a pair of toy slippers accompanied by a card which read:

    "Before retiring to-night,
    Place your slippers in the form of a T.
    And to-night you, your love will see;
    The colour of his hair and the suit he will wear
    The night he is wedding to thee.”

    Tea Party by Louis Charles Moeller 1905 e1540766741246 e2df4Tea Party by Louis Charles Moeller, 1905.

    Though I’m not a fan of the endless games of marriage forecasting, I confess that the idea of a Halloween tea party for ladies does sound appealing. I hope some of you might consider reviving the tradition. Who knows? If we all take part, one day Gallowen might even become popular enough to rival Galentine’s Day.

    Top image: Ladies Taking Tea by Joseph Scheurenberg, n.d.

    This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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  • Quarreling c. 1874 76 by James Tissot. cropped 1bc07

    Nobody likes to be shouted at or spoken to in an abusive, combative tone. In the Victorian era, however, such behavior was especially distasteful when engaged in by a man and directed at a woman. Men were generally larger in size and more powerful in position. It was seen as their duty as gentlemen to treat women with respect, whether those women be the lowliest of servants or the grandest of ladies. 

    Etiquette books of the day offered plenty of advice on the subject of a gentleman’s behavior toward the so-called weaker sex. For instance, in his 1873 book The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Cecil B. Hartley states that “civility is particularly due to all women,” even those women who were abusive or provoking. He explains, “The greatest man would justly be reckoned a brute if he were not civil to the meanest woman. It is due to their sex, and is the only protection they have against the superior strength of ours.”

    This sentiment is echoed in the 1877 book The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, in which Eliza Bisbee Duffey argues that “a true gentleman” should always be “helpful and protecting to the weak.” As such, “Women—all women, of whatever age or condition—claim his respectful care and tender and reverential regard."

    arrufos by belmiro de almeida 1887 e1538346436724 bd092The Spat by Belmiro de Almeida, 1887. (Museu Nacional de Belas Artes)


     There was no excuse for a man to speak harshly, either to a woman or in the presence of one. No matter the circumstances, a true Victorian gentleman was always supposed to control his temper and moderate his tone. According to the 1889 Hand-Book of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington, “Exhibitions of excitement, impatience or anger in the presence of ladies are a disrespect, no matter what may have happened.”

    Gentlemen of fiery disposition were advised to keep a firm hold on their tempers when in company with women. Hartley instructs his male readers, “Learn to restrain anger. A man in a passion ceases to be a gentleman, and if you do not control your passions, rely upon it, they will one day control you.”


    An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera by Jean Georges Beraud 1889 fbe36An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1889.


    For those gentlemen who needed added incentive to remain civil toward a provoking woman, Hartley offers the following advice: “If you are ever tempted to speak against a woman, think first—‘Suppose she were my sister!'”

    Men who verbally attacked women were no gentlemen. Even worse, they were seen as cowardly. The sort of fellows who, according to Hartley, would “absolutely be afraid, to speak against a man, or that same woman, had she a manly arm to protect her.”

    Instead, gentlemen were urged to take an almost paternalistic view toward the women they encountered. It was more than refraining from shouting at a woman or holding the occasional door. There were hundreds of little services a Victorian gentleman might perform. Anything and everything, from offering his arm to help a lady cross a street to giving up his seat on a public conveyance.

    Today, there is greater (though still not perfect) equality between the sexes. Most women prefer to be treated as equals rather than put on a pedestal. Nevertheless, the sight of a man being verbally aggressive toward a woman still makes many of us uncomfortable. Is it because the behavior is ungentlemanly? Or because—given the physical and power differential—it’s downright abusive? As always, I’ll let you be the judge.


    Top image:Quarreling by James Tissot, c. 1874-76. (Private Collection)

    This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted with permission. 

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  • Dinner by Albert von Keller 1891 e1543187905718 76762

    With the holiday season well under way, it seems an appropriate time to review a few of the many Victorian era rules for dining in company. The etiquette of the table hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. Some rules are merely a matter of basic common sense. Nevertheless, we could all do with a refresher now and then. To that end, I’ve gathered ten tips from various Victorian era etiquette books and articles addressing the basics of dining etiquette. I present them to you below.

    1) Remove Your Gloves

    “At the time of taking refreshment, of course, they must be taken off. No well-educated person would eat in gloves.” — Etiquette for Ladies, 1843.

    2) Don’t Eat Too Much or Too Little

    “Be careful to avoid the extremes of gluttony or over daintiness at table. To eat enormously is disgusting; but if you eat too sparingly, your host may think that you despise his fare.” — The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1874.

    3) Eat and Drink Quietly

    “It is decidedly vulgar to make a noise, either in taking the food into the mouth, in its mastication, or in swallowing.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    4) Don’t Chew with Your Mouth Open

    “Do not fill your mouth so full that you cannot answer if you are addressed; nor open your mouth so wide during the process of chewing that your opposite neighbor may see the semi-chewed viands, which, if she be a delicate lady, might destroy her appetite altogether.” — The Golden Rule and Oddfellows Family Companion, 1847.

    5) Don’t Abstain from Taking the Last Piece

    “Avoid also, that most vulgar habit which prevails among half-bred country people, of abstaining from taking the last piece on a dish. It amounts almost to an insult toward your host, to do any thing which shows that you fear that the vacancy cannot be supplied and that there is likely to be a scarcity.” — Etiquette for Gentlemen, 1847.

    6) Don’t Blow Your Nose at the Table

    “If the handkerchief must be used, let it be very quietly; in case that is not possible, leave the table for a moment, which may be done in case of a sharp attack of coughing, sneezing, or the like, without asking permission, the cause being manifest.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    7) Don’t Pick Your Teeth

    “It is a mark of rudeness to pick your teeth at the table, and it should always be avoided. To hold your hand or napkin over your mouth does not avoid the rudeness of the act.” — Our Deportment, 1882.

    8) Don’t Monopolize the Conversation

    “For one or two persons to monopolize a conversation which ought to be general is exceedingly rude.” — Our Deportment, 1882.

    9) Avoid Controversial Topics

    “No argumentative or in any way unpleasant topic should be broached at the table.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    10) Refrain from Reading at the Table

    “Letters, newspapers or books should never be brought to the table; though a very important message may be received and attended to, permission being asked of the hostess.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    There are countless others rules for Victorian dining, including those on what to serve, what to wear, and how to use one’s knives and forks. At some point in future, I’ll go into those in more depth. Until then, I hope the above rules—most of which are still applicable today—have given you a small taste of how Victorian ladies and gentlemen comported themselves at table.

    Top Photo: Dinner by Albert von Keller, 1891.

    This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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