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What Not to Wear: The Importance of Women’s Fashion in the Eighteenth Century and Today

By Matilda Embling

Women and fashion are often explicitly linked. One only has to consider the media coverage of the new Duchess of Sussex to uncover how frequently a woman’s identity is equated to, or even entirely subsumed by, the clothing she wears. In a recent Guardian article , the more conservative muted wardrobe she has opted for after her marriage was equated to the muting down of her opinionated, questioning personality.

This rhetoric is not new and has not been limited to public figures. In the letters of eighteenth-century women for example, descriptions of new female acquaintances are almost always accompanied by long reports of their dress. An East Anglian gentlewoman, Barbara Ward described a relative’s fiancé as ‘genteel and agreeable’ before immediately documenting her dress ‘the best cloths she has apeard in last sonday at church was blue and gold rich silk and black laced hood’.[i]

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Unintended research finds: the mustard bath

By Helen Sunderland | @hl_sunderland

Getting stuck into my summer reading, I have spent the last few weeks trawling through volumes of early twentieth-century teachers’ magazines. I am scouring these weekly periodicals for references to politics in the classroom. Hidden among the teaching tips, correspondence pages and reports on government activity, are examples of political topics in the curriculum, and even teachers and students displaying political views at school.

What fascinates me about this kind of research is the unexpected discoveries. Reading the magazines cover to cover has thrown up some good examples, from the amusing to the macabre. Schoolroom ‘panics’ caused by intruding dogs and even cows cropped up on more than one occasion. On a darker note, reports of pupils’ accidental deaths at school and suicides were disturbingly frequent.

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Gendered Play: The Girl Scouts of America

By Jess Rome

Modern-day Girl Scouts champion the importance of an ‘all-girl, girl-led’ environment in which girls can learn in ways tailored to their needs.[1] Juliette Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of America in 1912, had much the same attitude. Low saw Girl Scouting as providing girls with the adventure and activity of Boy Scouting, combined with womanly training through badges designed to teach proficiency in areas such as sewing and nursing, all within a safe and respectable female environment. The early Girl Scout movement was run by women who were often unmarried and had careers, providing girls with modern role models – ‘New Women’ who were challenging Victorian gender roles.

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Digging up coals, Down Under

By Matthew DJ Ryan

Growing up I would often take the eight-hour train ride from my home town in the ‘bush’ (country) down to Sydney, Australia. For at least half of that trip the train would zip past coal mine after coal mine, sharing the tracks with cargo trains carrying their fossilized loads, often hundreds of cars in length. Most people are aware that mining is a central feature of the Australian political economy – and a contentious one too, in the age of the ‘Anthropocene,’ and its accompanying environmental crisis.[1]

But even as people argue for the end of coal in Australia, very little is known about the origins of coal mining in the colonies. Passing the mines of the Hunter valley, New South Wales, I never once asked ‘how long have these mines been here?’ or ‘why did we start mining coal in the first place?’ While the disinterest of a teenager might be forgiven, the neglect of these questions by both historians and policymakers is far more concerning. So, what can we learn from the history of coal mining in the Hunter valley that might better inform our politics and policies?

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‘Go with your gut’? Reason and passion from the eighteenth century to the present day

By Madeleine Armstrong

If you’ve ever had to make a difficult choice, you’ll be familiar with the nauseating conflict between the head and the heart. You may have drawn a dozen pros-and-cons lists, only to go with the option that simply felt right. We are accustomed to seeing reason and passion in conflict, and always feel we need to choose one over the other. This is one of the reasons I, as a historian, am drawn to the eighteenth century: it is an era which appears caught in the crossfire between a ‘rational’ Enlightenment, and a cult of ‘sensibility’. But reason and passion were not always enemies. In the mid- to late-eighteenth century in Britain, many philosophers tried to bring the two together in harmony. The movement for ‘rational sentiment’ is an important and overlooked feature of the eighteenth century, and offers wisdom for our own time. Read more

The Great British Summer? A Historical Heatwave

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland

‘The Weather for some Days past is said by the Curious in such Observations, to have been several Degrees hotter than for these four Years past.’[1]

As I write this piece under another cloudless Cambridge sky with temperatures soaring well into the high twenties, this July 1757 report from the London Evening Post seems oddly familiar. The UK’s unusually long spell of dry, warm weather has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, ranging from the serious – such as the two major moorland fires in Lancashire – to the less so. Brits should apparently brace themselves for an impending lettuce shortage and, of course, revive the obligatory ‘how hot does it have to get for a day off work?’ debate. The summer of 1976, which saw over two weeks of consecutive plus-thirty-degree temperatures, has reached an iconic place in popular memory when it comes to this much-loved subject. But looking back a couple of centuries earlier, does our national obsession with the weather have deeper roots? Read more

A tale of two cultures: a historian’s guide to Bolzano

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

As part of my research fieldwork this year, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the city of Bolzano in Northern Italy. This South-Tyrolean city provides a perfect example of how small, provincial cities often have rich and diverse histories which make them prime points of study for enquiries into historical change throughout Europe.

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Hay fever: An irritating history

 By Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys)

‘About the beginning or middle of June in every year the following symptoms make their appearance, with a greater or less degree of violence. A sensation of heat and fulness is experienced in the eyes…until the sensation becomes converted into what may be characterized as a combination of the most acute itching and smarting…a general fulness is experienced in the head, and particularly about the fore part; to this suceeds irritation of the nose, producing sneezing, which occurs in fits of extreme violence, coming on at uncertain intervals’ – John Bostock, ‘Case of a periodical affection of the eyes and chest’, 16 March 1819.

If, like me, this summer has reduced you to Googling ‘why is my hay fever so bad this year?’ and ‘when will it stop?’ then the above symptoms may sound familiar. Partly because of the recent dry, warm, and windy weather, this year’s hay fever season is set to be the worst in twelve years, and many of us are suffering for it. Unable to find a contemporary cure for this affliction, I sought distraction by looking at how people had dealt with it in the past.  Read more

World at their Feet: The World Cup and History

By Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

For any football fan, and even for many who don’t usually indulge in the ‘beautiful game’, the arrival of the World Cup every four years provides pure escapism. Even in England, the disappointment of a predictable penalty shoot-out defeat is assuaged by the tournament’s association with long hot summer days, the colours and sounds of packed stadia, and the creation of iconic images on the pitch below. Simply put, the World Cup seems to exist in a vacuum which transcends any given moment in world history. This year’s tournament perhaps exemplifies this fact – at a time when tensions between Russia and ‘the West’ are at their highest since the Cold War, representatives from all over the world can gather on Russian soil to play football. Murmurings about corruption, boycotts, and hooliganism bubble under the surface, but in the build-up to kick-off excitement about the sport itself takes over, along with a shared sense that the show must go on. Read more

Constructing an archive: a reflection on British Library collections

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

As historians, we are often used to thinking about an archive as a fixed set of documents kept in a static physical location. An appropriate historical source is often considered as such only if it can be verified by ‘real’ material from a ‘real’ archive.[1] Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database.[2] For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites.[3] World historians, and specifically those working on the social and cultural history of empire, often contend with the colonial archive and are required to read along the archival grain, as Ann Stoler puts it.[4] One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.

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Theatre History: Out of the Archives and Onto the Stage

by Holly Dayton |  hollyedayton@gmail.com

Few people know that Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother, was a playwright. If they happen to know of her, they only know her as the mother of Winston Churchill. Yet she wrote three plays over the course of her life: His Borrowed Plumes (1909), The Bill (1913), and Between the Devil and the Deep Sea (1920). Though her first two plays were produced on the West End and all three were donated to the Churchill Archive Centre in 2012, they have never been studied in detail.

This is not wholly surprising, as Lady Randolph was part of a community of female playwrights from the turn of the century that are barely remembered or discussed. Yet, by the late 1800s, more women were playwrights than ever before, attracted by the potential to make a significant profit through their work. Whereas in the early first few decades of the 1800s, a playwright would only receive a small lump sum upfront for their text, by the end of the century one could reasonably hope to receive 10% of the gross profits from a production. A female playwright could, ostensibly, make a tidy profit from a successful play. However, few female playwrights received financial arrangements equally generous as those given to men. Read more

The Grand (Archival) Tour

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

One of the many advantages of being a historian who studies other countries is the ample opportunities for travel. My work focuses on artisans and material culture in sixteenth-century Verona, and I have therefore spent a lot of time in Veronese archives. However, I am also interested in how Renaissance culture travelled, especially through the Alps and into Germany. As part of a major fieldwork trip this year, I decided to follow the route of my research to Germany, visiting archives of interest along the way. In total, I visited thirteen archives in three different countries. During this time, I went from eating lunch outside in the piazzas of Italy, to walking through the snow in -14 degrees Celsius in Germany. No two archives were the same and I learnt a vast amount about research, travel, and independence. Here, I will share some of the most important things I learned. Read more

Staging History: Mary Stuart

Harriet Lyon (@HarrietLyon) reviews Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, adapted and directed by Robert Icke.

What is history if not a series of contingencies? For every thing that happens, an infinite number of other possibilities are extinguished. But what if things had been different? Although writing history certainly involves a good dose of imagination, academic historians have generally tended to be nervous of counterfactuals and their capacity to re-imagine the past. Historical fiction, by contrast, has built a thriving industry on the question of ‘what if?’ What if Germany had won the Second World War? What if John F. Kennedy’s assassin had failed? What if there had been no Protestant Reformation?

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Tall Tales and Shaping the Research of the Future

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

When I first saw the University Library as a new Cambridge student last October it looked like something from a dystopian novel. The library tower loomed above me – a modernist monument to humanity’s pursuit of knowledge. With the addition of a few slogans on the walls, I thought, it would fit right into Orwell’s 1984. What this says about my sense of trepidation embarking on a PhD aside, the library tower has long been a focus of mystery and myth since it was completed in 1934. Now, the new exhibition Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, which opened at the University Library earlier this month, uncovers some of its secrets for the first time.

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Reorienting the Home Front: Spatial History and Collective Memory

By Clemency Anderson

Does the past sometimes feel ‘far away’? Can we ever ‘go back’? And ‘where’ did we come from?  These questions demonstrate that we often conceptualise and speak about history in spatial terms. That is, we describe the past as a place. History has famously been called a ‘foreign country’. Perhaps the more ancient the history, the more time we need to spend in transit – interpreting, translating, contextualising – to get there.

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Gossip, men, and Victorian politics

By Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton)

Gossip in politics today brings to mind the political rumour-mill from the fallout of Brexit, political infighting, or frequent leaks from the White House criticising the Trump administration. But gossip, the ability ‘to talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs’, isn’t unique to twenty-first-century politics.[1] In the Victorian period, it could even serve a more positive political purpose. Gossip facilitated intimacy not only between women but also men. The sharing and receiving of gossip allowed men to identify and participate in different political communities, such as in the gentleman’s club.[2]

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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

By Tom Smith  (@TomEtesonSmith)

Last Wednesday, 4 April, the world commemorated the assassination fifty years earlier of a man widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures. Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for having played an instrumental role in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. federal government, and for doing so through an unwavering commitment to non-violence and interracial cooperation. Accordingly, the shooting of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is seen to epitomize the tumultuous year of 1968 in U.S. history, during which opposition to the Vietnam War and ongoing racial antagonism saw American society turn from peace to violence, and from consensus to division.

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Expressions of “Russian exceptionalism”: a historical continuity?

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

Vladimir Putin was unsurprisingly victorious in this month’s presidential elections on the 18th of March. As with all political campaigns, candidates routinely utilise powerful self-branding images. In Putin’s case, historic forms of Russian exceptionalism were re-imagined to run on a distinct platform based on anti-Americanism, similar to his previous campaigns. Michael Bohm, in a 2013 article, suggested that Putin was determined to turn Russia into the only leading world power that can hold its own against the U.S. This anti-American branding of Russian exceptionalism alongside long held notions of Russian Orthodoxy and Holy Russia were harnessed to amass public support throughout the election. His conservative stance on gay rights and support of the Russian Orthodox church are indicative of this. Read more

England’s First Double Agents?

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith

The disturbing events which have recently unfolded in the small English town of Salisbury appear to belong more to the set of a Hollywood spy thriller or the pages of an Ian Fleming novel than to reality. From a historical perspective, the role of spies and informants on all sides during both the Second World War and the Cold War is well known. However, over the last twenty years, historians have increasingly come to recognise that it was during the early modern period that ‘modern’ methods and strategies of international espionage first began to develop. Stephen Alford, for example, has shone new light on Francis Walsingham’s role as Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’ – research which informed a three-part BBC series last year.[1] Similarly, a recent article by Sebastian Sobecki has uncovered the importance of an English spy, John Peyton, in providing intelligence on Spanish diplomatic activity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the turn of the seventeenth century.[2] Read more