For a short time only you can buy all three of my miscellanies — The Book Lovers’ Miscellany, A Library Miscellany and A Museum Miscellany direct from the Bodleian Library shop for the bargain price of £25 (they are usually £9.99 each). What’s more they come tied in a fancy ribbon! This book bundle would make the perfect gift for book, library and museum lovers everywhere.
The creative urge is seen as something that can’t be ignored, and yet over the years a number of hugely talented writers and artists have walked away from writing, poetry or the art world. Some cited disillusionment, others fatigue, while a few never explained their reasoning at all. Below are a number of writers and artists who quit:
Bad boy French poet Arthur Rimbaud had a difficult relationship with his mother and railed against convention, three times running away from home as a child and travelling to Paris. Aged 17 he left home and moved into the Paris residence of poet Paul Verlaine, embarking on a tumultuous affair with the older man (much to Verlaine’s wife’s dismay).
Rimbaud’s poetry was ground-breaking. His modernist take on life and his play with language and orthodox verse had a huge impact on the literary scene, making him something of a poster boy for the Surrealist and Symbolist movements.
Rimbaud wrote his two hugely influential collections of poetry A Season in Hell and Illuminations by the age of 21 and thereafter wrote no more. The reasons for this are somewhat of a mystery. He set off travelling, working and enlisting in the army before moving to Ethiopia (then known as Aden) where he was one of the first European traders in the area. He lived and worked there, trading coffee and firearms until his death from cancer aged 37 in 1891.
Scholars have pored through Rimbaud’s later letters for any glimpse or references to poetry, but they are nearly all solely concerned with business, as if his previous incarnation as the enfant terrible of the French literary scene had never happened at all.
Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world with his surrealist work, most famously with his urinal-based work Fountain (1917) which presented and reframed a manufactured urinal as a piece of art. Duchamp however expressed disregard for painting and the avant-garde scene (which he famously derided as ‘a basket of crabs’) and from 1918 began retreating from the art world and devoting his energies to chess. For twenty-five years Duchamp played chess professionally, even competing for the French national team, seemingly content to leave his previous life as an artist and provocateur in the past.
However Duchamp’s retreat from the art world was not quite as complete as would seem, despite no longer publicly participating in art he continued to work in secret on a single work, Étant donnés, which took him 20 years to complete. This unusual assemblage has been on show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969 and invites visitors to approach a ramshackle wooden door with peep holes cut into it. On peering through visitors can glimpse a tableau featuring a nude woman holding a gas lamp.
Lee Lozano gained fame in the 1960s for her subversive art featuring machinery, genitalia and cartoonish facial features but she soon became disillusioned with, and increasingly critical of, the New York art scene. In protest she began documenting her retreat from the art world as a work in itself.
In General Strike (1969) she listed a countdown of her final art-related appearances and in her final work Dropout Piece (1972) she wrapped up her studio and withdrew forever. Unfortunately her grand gesture was ahead of its time and led her to be largely forgotten. Only recently, in part in thanks to the attentions of critic Lucy Lippard, has interest in her subversive work been revived.
J D Salinger
J D Salinger published a number of short stories and novellas before hitting the big time with Catcher in the Rye (1951). His writing had been much admired in literary circles but his insistence that editors not change a single word of his compositions made him difficult to work with – his first contract for Catcher in the Rye with Harcourt Brace was broken off by Sallinger after the publisher ordered some rewrites and it was finally published by Little, Brown who agreed to leave the text alone.
Salinger abhorred the limelight and the greater the book’s success the more he shrank from publicity. He refused requests to use an author photograph on the book’s cover and eschewed all interview requests, save one with a local high school newspaper The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger effectively became a recluse, saying ‘It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.’ He subsequently published a smattering of short stories and novellas but never again wrote another novel before his death in 2010.
Charlotte Posenenske was a German Jewish artist who grew up during the Second World War. Family friends hid her from the Nazis after her father committed suicide. Posenenske developed into an influential modernist artist, moving from painting to sculpture, for which she is today best known.
Her sculptural works of corrugated cardboard and steel are almost industrial in shape and ultimately, she felt, could be assembled by anyone – her presence at exhibitions or even ownership of the pieces becoming increasingly irrelevant to her. Posenenske felt art had become futile and did little to actively address social injustice, as a result in 1968 she stopped working as an artist entirely and devoted the rest of her career to working as a sociologist.
Posenenske’s work was not shown again until after her death in 1985 as she had refused to take part in any exhibitions, but today her art is back on display showing her important place in the history of Modernism.
The success of Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell’s only novel was a phenomenon – it sold over 50,000 copies in one day and ultimately went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide. The book had been a long time in writing for Mitchell, she wrote it in bits and pieces over 9 years while working as a journalist. Once picked up for publication it began a roller coaster that Mitchell was not prepared for.
The massive success that Gone with the Wind enjoyed took Mitchell by surprise, turning her life upside down. She refused to do promotional activities and rarely signed copies of the book, finding the limelight too much to bear. The attention was further increased by the scramble to buy the film rights and the subsequent success of the film. Mitchell had had enough and vowed never to write another book, her time now taken up with replying to the thousands of fan letters she received.
By the late 1940s the initial whirl of attention had begun to wane and Mitchell began to think about writing again. Unfortunately on 11 August 1949 she was hit by a car and later died of her injuries, robbing the world of a great writer and any potential that she might take up her pen again.
If you enjoyed this article check out my other book-related posts such as 10 Best-selling Books Written in less Than Two Months, Literary Orphans of Note or What Happened when Charlotte Bronte met Thackeray.
I was delighted and pleasantly surprised to find that my nonfictioness blog had been included in Feedspot’s Top 25 Nonfiction Blogs.
There are some excellent other nonfiction blogs for readers and writers in the list so do check it out and visit some of the other blogs listed.
On 14 July 1789, in what would become a defining moment of the French Revolution, Parisians stormed the Bastille prison – a symbol of the ancien regime’s authority and despotism. Within days a local builder, Pierre-François Palloy, and his team of masons began to dismantle the old prison, taking away the stones, chains and debris, and leaving nothing but a space where this once imposing building stood.
Palloy described himself as a patriot, self-identifying by signing his name ‘patriot Palloy’, and he chose to use the debris from the hated to prison to create a series of revolutionary relics. He used the stones to inscribe portraits of the king, revolutionary figures and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He melted down the chains and cast medals of freedom. He even used the stones from the windowsill of the Bastille governor’s office to make a set of dominoes which he presented to the dauphin. Palloy used these stones as symbols of the revolution – transforming a once despotic symbol into one of freedom.
The Bastille as a Symbol of Revolution
On 15 July 1789, the day after the storming, the newspaper Révolutions de Paris stated that the prison would be ‘entirely annihilated and, in its place, a monument to august Liberty will be raised’. This indicates that the public immediately felt a need to memorialise and transform the space inhabited by the Bastille. The storming of the Bastille signified a moment when individuals came together against tyranny and were victorious – it signalled a huge shift in power.
Yet, very few people, in terms of the whole population of France, were actually present at the storming of the Bastille. Palloy recognised this, and saw the importance of the Bastille as a symbol of the Revolution and the opportunity it presented to amplify and spread the revolutionary message across France. By using the stones from the Bastille itself to create models of the prison, Palloy was forming portable material objects memorialising this momentous event. These models were then sent to every department in France, allowing people from all over the nation to feel part of this revolutionary moment.
The physical bulk of the prison had loomed large over Paris, and its destruction left a gap, both actually and metaphorically, that needed to be filled. Prior to the Revolution the monarchy had used a series of symbols, such as the fleur-de-lys, to lend themselves legitimacy, authority and allude to tradition. As the Revolution exploded into life, new symbols were required. These symbols came in many shapes – clothing, such as the revolutionary bonnet; monuments, such as liberty trees; and art, such as paintings of revolutionary figures. But where do Palloy’s objects fit? In his many speeches and pamphlets, Palloy defined his objects in a number of ways, embracing their multi-faceted meaning. He named them ‘reliques patriotiques’, which conjures images of sacred objects, and yet also plays on the idea that they are items from the past of historic value. He also referred to them as ex-votos (an offering to a saint or divinity) which again sacralises the stones. Additionally, Palloy called the stones ‘relics of freedom’, a name which recognised their new form and meaning.
The Revolution created a new political culture which saw groups of people who had not previously engaged with politics emerge, this meant that Revolutionary propaganda became essential, not only to commemorate the key events of the Revolution but also to unite people and spread revolutionary ideals. Palloy did just that by creating smaller, multiple models of the Bastille. He demonstrated his agency and mastery over the despotic prison by defeating this once huge building and recasting it, in smaller form, anew. At the same time, Palloy was treating these transformed stones with reverence, ordering that they be celebrated as symbols of freedom, and therefore using them to unite people in common purpose.
The Making of the Models
Palloy’s Bastille stones were not only direct relics from the Bastille, and therefore were witness to years of oppression, but they were also then transformed by the hands of revolutionaries themselves. Palloy’s models were collectively created in his workshop by masons who had actually taken part in the demolition of the prison. These men who had torn down the stones were now remaking them in a new image which embodied both the despotic past, and the idealistic revolutionary actions of the present, at the same time. This fact lent the stones a whole new level of meaning, a meaning which could only be communicated if people knew of the context of their creation. Palloy ensured the provenance of the stones were announced at each models’ unveiling. In a speech given to mark the arrival of one of Palloy’s Bastille stones in the department of the Cote d’Or, the president of the administrative assembly, Navier, alluded to their power of evocation: ‘At the appearance of this monument, they believe they see the sombre dungeons; the noise of chains strikes their ear; the long wails of the victims resound in their hearts: a salutary horror will keep away tyrants everywhere.’
As the Revolution continued, and competing factions vied for ascendancy, there was a need to narrate and define the transformation of power. Not only this but an end point was required at which revolution would stop and the new society could emerge and move forwards. Palloy himself was clear that his intention with his revolutionary relics was to use them as symbols of liberty even as the dominant ideology shifted around him, in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in October 1791 he said: ‘I have immortalized every epoch of the Revolution with trophies that I have dedicated to freedom.’ A simple model of the prison would serve only as a reminder of the old order. Palloy’s models were the Bastille crushed and remade, their meaning transformed by the hands of the demolishers themselves.
Palloy: The Barnum of the Bastille
The speed with which Palloy swooped in and took control of the demolition of the Bastille and appointed himself as custodian of its rubble has led some to claim Palloy was hoping to commodify and profit from the fall of the Bastille. Tom Stammers even referred to him as the ‘Barnum of the Bastille’, and it is true there was something of
the ringmaster in the way Palloy managed the Bastille models and dictated their celebration and display. However, Palloy was not actually reimbursed by the government for the demolition of the Bastille until 1791/2, and between 1789 and 1799 Palloy published over 100 pamphlets and tracts of speeches, posters and designs for monuments he wanted to erect on the site of the Bastille, all at his own expense. In his 1794 autobiography Palloy wrote that the demolition of the Bastille, the distribution of the relics and the publication of his writings had left him financially ruined – which all attest to his life-long commitment to his vision of spreading the revolutionary message through his relics of the Bastille. When Palloy was mistakenly arrested and imprisoned by the Commune over alleged embezzlement, he clearly thought he might become a victim of the guillotine and, revealing his passion for the Bastille relics, he asked that he be buried under a Bastille stone inscribed ‘Here lies Palloy, who in his youth laid siege to the Bastille, destroyed it, and scattered the limbs of this infernal monster over the face of the Earth.’
Today a number of Palloy’s Bastille models survive, some in museums, others built into the fabric of public buildings – their significance lessened by the passing of time, their curious provenance reduced to a historical footnote. Yet during the Revolution itself, thanks to the monumental efforts and vision of one man, these very same objects served to embody multi-faceted meaning. Palloy ensured through his speeches, pamphlets, festivities and parades that these multiple, miniature models of the Bastille could cast their Revolutionary message across France, to all levels of society. Their ability to represent past, present and future combined with Palloy’s talent for propaganda allowed these very simple objects to tangibly represent a victory over despotism.
 Révolutions de Paris, (Paris, 15 July 1789) quoted in Richard Clay, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs, (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012), p. 26.
 Claude-Bernard Navier, Procés-verbal de ce qui s’est passé a la séance du 13 Novembre 1790, (1790).
 Pierre-François Palloy, speech to the Constituent Assembly (October 1791)
 Tom Stammers, ‘The bric-a-brac of the old regime: Collecting and cultural history in post-revolutionary France’, French History, vol 22, Issue 3, (2008), pp. 295–315.
 Pierre-François Palloy, printed defence, (Paris, 1794).
‘Monkeys are not very agreeable domestic pets, as they are extremely fond of mischief, and are very frequently vicious and spiteful to children.’ So wrote Mrs Loudon in her 1851 pet-keeping manual Domestic Pets their Habits and Management. Despite views such as these, in the Victorian era monkeys proved to be popular pets.
Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them by Arthur Patterson (London, 1888) advises that that the chief importers of monkeys to Britain were Cross, Carpenter, and Johnson of Liverpool or Jamrach and Abrahams of London. Monkeys were brought to Britain by sailors or dealers alongside traditional cargo from South America, India and south east Asia. Patterson’s book includes a price list for various breeds of monkeys, revealing that marmosets could be had for 15 shillings whereas an orangutan could be as much as £100.
Patterson recounts an anecdote on how wild monkeys were said to be caught in Brazil:
Some fanciful yarns are told, how that the natives repair to the vicinity of the haunts of the monkeys with pots of water, and also some containing an equivalent to glue. They begin washing their faces, turning the water out, and leaving the other. Upon retreating, down come the imitating monkeys, and pitch in for a wash with the gum. Of course their eyelids become fastened together, and the wretched animals are taken an easy prey.
Numerous monkeys were trapped and shipped to England to be sold at the docks or via exotic pet shops, their expensive price tag ensuring they were the preserve of the rich. An exotic pet monkey was highly desirable to the Victorians and Patterson sums up their allure: ‘A more comical and entertaining pet cannot possibly be kept, if but under proper control; and you have a fertile source of never-ending drollery at your disposal.’
‘The right place for a monkey, in civilised society, is in a cage.’ So says Patterson, going on to point out that leaving a monkey to live loose in the house like a cat or dog is folly, stating that soon the whole house will be in ‘uproar’. Many people kept their pet monkeys on a barrel and pole – this involved a long wooden pole for the monkey to climb with a barrel with a hole in at the top for the monkey to sleep in. The monkey was chained to the pole with a belt around its waist. Patterson however advised against this set up, calling it ‘barbarous’ and warning that the monkey may ‘pelt you with refuse from his larder’ and ‘be objectionable’.
Patterson instead suggests a secure wooden cage with a wire front, but warns that extra wire should be added when housing a large monkey as they are apt to jump. Patterson advocates a trapeze to keep your monkey amused.
Recommending the best breed of monkey, Patterson says of the brown Capuchin: ‘As clean, well-coated, and least repulsive and objectionable pets, with very little of the dirty insinuations of the Catarrhines.’ He cautions against keeping baboons: ‘their large size, superior strength, subtle cunning, and often filthy practices, giving ample reason for exclusion from general favour.’
As for feeding, the author warns: ‘the monkey is a glutton’ and should not be let loose unfettered on the kitchen cupboards. Patterson instead endorses a diet of boiled rice and milk, bread and milk, and boiled potatoes ‘which are most highly prized by them’. He also highly recommends onions which he thinks are a good ‘cleansing food’, however he notes that ‘American monkeys detest the smell of an onion’. He goes on to recount that not all monkeys are satisfied with a vegetable diet and that on one occasion his pet capuchin got loose and killed a ‘fine macaw, and partly stripped it before it was recaptured; whilst an unfortunate canary was literally devoured alive.’
Patterson proposes the following names for your pet monkey: Bully, Peggy, Mike, Peter, Jacko, Jimmy, Demon, Barney, Tommy, Dulcimer, Uncle or Knips.
To tame your pet monkey and gain his trust the author recommends that you let a friend go up to the monkey’s cage violently brandishing a stick in order to frighten the animal. ‘In the midst of this nonsense, rush forward, and pretend to take the part of your pet, thrash your friend to within an inch of his life with the very stick he has been using, and put him out. Next take the monkey some savoury morsel, such as a date, or an apple, and sympathise with it. You are sworn friends from that time.’
Patterson suggests that when your pet monkey dies, should their coat be in reasonable condition you might choose to stuff them and mount them for display. He goes on to describe, in quite some detail, the agonies of a monkey’s death:
The tail end of a monkey’s earthly career, as with all flesh, is its death. This is an exceedingly human-like affair, the little sufferer often holding its head in its last illness, and gasping pitifully for breath, turning its dulled eyes up towards its keeper with an expression that seems to say “What have I done?” or, “We all of us come, at last, to this!” I haven’t always had the heart to see the end of it all; for, when a monkey is past cure, the sooner its sufferings are ended the better. My method of giving the coup de grace may savour of the barbarous, but I know of no quicker or better way to finish off the poor wretch than by giving it a sharp, heavy blow, with an iron bar, on the back of the neck, just below its connection with the skull. But a bungling or nervous hand had better not attempt a job of this kind, for adding torture to its dying pangs is cruel in the extreme.
Although to modern readers keeping a wild monkey as a pet seems unnecessarily cruel, it is clear from Patterson’s closing thoughts that despite his misguided ideas he did have a genuine affection for monkeys:
Lastly, I would urge upon the reader not to neglect his little friend: to give him all the room and exercise possible; to provide him with a plentiful supply of clean, sweet food; always keep his domicile in a clean condition – in fact, in every possible way to make the little prisoner, who is entirely at his mercy, as happy as possible.
It is with great excitement that I announce my next book: The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms.
Here is a taster of what to expect:
The English language is rich with eponyms – words that are named after an individual – some better known than others. This book features 150 of the most interesting and enlightening specimens, delving into the origins of the words and describing the fascinating people after whom they were named.
Eponyms are derived from numerous sources. Some are named in honour of a style icon, inventor or explorer, such as pompadour, Kalashnikov and Cadillac. Others have their roots in Greek or Roman mythology, such as panic and tantalise. A number of eponyms, however, are far from celebratory and were created to indicate a rather less positive association – into this category can be filed boycott, Molotov cocktail and sadist.
Encompassing eponyms from medicine, botany, invention, science, fashion, food and literature this book uncovers the intriguing tales of discovery, mythology, innovation and infamy behind the eponyms we use every day. The Real McCoy is the perfect addition to any wordsmith’s bookshelf.
You can read more about it here in the latest catalogue for Bodleian Library Publishing and you can pre-order a copy here. The Real McCoy will be out in October 2018.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) was a leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which he co-founded with Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848. Rossetti was a talented painter, poet and writer but his work was not always appreciated in his lifetime. With his strong views, and tumultuous love life, Rossetti typified a romantic, idealised image of ‘the artist’.
Rossetti met budding artist and model Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) in c.1849 and entered into a long, and sometimes tortured, love affair. Their relationship was documented in many of Rossetti’s sketches, paintings and poems, immortalising her fragile, flame-haired beauty, and forever linking her image with the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Rossetti and Siddal’s relationship was punctuated by Siddal’s lengthy bouts of illness and eroded by Rossetti’s affairs with other women and Siddal’s addiction to laudanum. In February 1862, Siddal died from an overdose, having spiralled into a depression after the loss of her baby. Friend of the couple, Hall Caine, described Rossetti taking a book of his poems and placing them next to the cheek of his dead wife, entwining some of her celebrated red curls around them and requesting that they be buried with her. Caine here created a tender and tragic image of the distraught artist, placing his precious poetry in his muse’s coffin. This type of artistic self-sacrifice appealed to Victorian ideals and the macabre act of burying his work with his wife was also tinged with the Gothic.
Rossetti felt enormous guilt over the death of Elizabeth and his mental health began to suffer but as time passed his guilt was surpassed by a yearning for his lost poetry. By 1869 his agent Charles Augustus Howell gently encouraged Rossetti to put an exhumation in motion so as to retrieve the poems from the grave. Howell was perhaps motivated by his own hopes of financial gain but also wished to alleviate Rossetti’s considerable mental anguish.
Permission for the exhumation was swiftly granted as Rossetti knew the then Home Secretary Henry A. Bruce and was able to circumvent the usual rules which would have required his gaining the consent of his mother to desecrate the family plot. Rossetti clearly knew how badly the exhumation would reflect on him were it to come out and keeping it from his mother likely helped him to keep away from awkward questions regarding his motivations.
Rossetti, keen for the literary fame the publication of the lost poems could offer him, yet crushed by the desecration the retrieval required, was not present at the exhumation, and in fact kept himself at one remove by signing power of attorney over to Howell on this matter.
The exhumation went ahead on 5 October 1869, during the dead of night so as to avoid offending any mourners at the cemetery. A large bonfire was built at the graveside to light the way and provide warmth. A lawyer, Tebbs was present to ensure no foul play took place and Dr Llewelyn Williams was engaged to receive the ghastly book and disinfect it to prevent any germs from the dead spreading to the living.
Howell was also present and reported, in what can only be a figment of his imagination, that when the coffin lid was removed Siddal was found ‘quite perfect’ – a myth which later grew to include reports that her golden hair had continued to grow until it filled the coffin.
Howell’s retelling puts a Gothic, supernatural spin on the exhumation but the reality soon unravels his storified version when we consider that the manuscript was quite sodden and had to be taken away to be disinfected. When Rossetti was finally reunited with the book two weeks later, it reeked of disinfectant and decay and had a number of large worm-holes obscuring some of the text. One can only imagine the very vivid illustration this offered of the reality of where the book had lain for the past seven years, and it is telling that once the poems were transcribed, Rossetti had the manuscript destroyed.
The truth of the exhumation did not come out to the public until after Rossetti’s death in 1882. Caine Hall recalled that Rossetti regretted the exhumation, citing rather damningly his ‘weakness of yielding to the importunity of friends, and the impulse of literary ambition’. Ultimately however, the vivid Gothic imagery of an uncorrupted Siddal over-shadowed the grim reality of the act and instead of damning Rossetti it fed into the myth surrounding this truly Victorian couple.
 Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, (London: André Deutsch, 2004)
At the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852, the enormous hearse was pulled by twelve black horses, each sporting a dramatic plume of prime black ostrich feathers. The feathers harked back to traditional medieval baronial funerals and their inclusion in the spectacular parade, which was witnessed by 1.5 million people, was hugely influential on Victorian funereal customs. The fashion for ostrich feathers ultimately dripping down through the classes, becoming an essential element of ‘respectable’ Victorian funerals.
Before the 1860s all of the ostrich feathers that reached Britain were taken from wild birds, slaughtered during a hunt. Across the Sahara and in South Africa where the birds were common, riders on horseback would hunt down the birds, kill them and pluck their feathers. These feathers would then be bundled up, transported by camel caravan to North Africa and then shipped into France or Italy and then on to London where they would be sold.
The demand for feathers was so high that concerns were raised that ostriches would be hunted to extinction, like the dodo before it. This scarcity only served to make ostrich feathers yet more desirable.
It was not only for funerals that ostrich feathers were required, a number of military regiments also used the feathers in their uniforms but by far the biggest market for ostrich feathers was the fashion trade.
In the 1860s the French Court began to wear ostrich feathers on hats, as trim on dresses, as jackets and boas. The feathers could be dyed any colour of the rainbow and added exoticism and luxury to any outfit. Naturally where Paris went, the world followed and soon the demand for ostrich feathers outstripped supply, lending them yet further cache.
Due to the value of ostrich feathers some canny colonial farmers at the Cape in South Africa saw an opportunity. If the ostrich could be domesticated and farmed they would have a ready supply of feathers which could be plucked from the bird without harming it and regrow anew. The first experiments began in the region of Oudtshoorn and by 1865 they had found some success with 80 domesticated birds.
The problem was the safe rearing of ostrich chicks — the ostriches tended to get spooked and destroy their own eggs, or simply fail to incubate them properly, leading to a difficulty in expanding the number of domesticated ostriches. This problem was solved in 1869 when Arthur Douglass, a pioneering ostrich farmer and the first to list ostrich farming as his sole occupation, invented the ostrich incubator.
This technological leap allowed farmers to safely hatch numerous chicks, greatly expanding their flocks and by 1875, there were 20,000 domesticated ostriches in the Oudtshoorn region alone.
After the success of these early farmers many colonists at the Cape switched from sheep farming to ostrich farming, the returns at this point seemingly much better and the conditions in South Africa proving ideal. By the 1880s ostrich feathers had become South Africa’s fourth largest export after gold, diamonds and wool.
Each ostrich could provide two crops of a feathers a year, the feathers being plucked or cut from the birds would then regrow. Each bird gives 1 lb of feathers on plucking — 50 quill feathers (with about four fancy-coloured in each wing), plus 75 to 100 feathers in the tail and 6 ounces of drabs.
Port Elizabeth flourished with the new trade, as the money raised from taxes levied on the export of the feathers allowed new municipal buildings to be constructed. Many made their fortune from the trade and they built huge, luxurious houses, known as ‘feather palaces’ with the spoils.
London was the hub of the ostrich feather trade. Huge crates of sorted feathers would arrive each week from the Cape plus a smaller number still traded up the caravan routes from wild Saharan birds.
Warehouses at Cutler Street and Billiter Street in East London displayed the sorted feathers for merchants to inspect before they were sold at monthly auctions in commercial sale rooms in Mincing Lane.
The feathers were sorted and washed at the Cape before being transported and would be displayed at the warehouses divided into classes of feathers. Some of the feather classes included:
- Prime Whites — the largest most valuable feathers from the wings of male birds
- Feminas — wing feathers from female birds with soft flowing hairs extending from the central quill
- Spadones — lower grade wing feathers, less full in look.
- Blacks — body feathers from male ostriches
- Drabs — shorter body feathers used for feather dusters and such like
Merchants would inspect the feathers before the sale and then bid for the lots of their choice. These merchants would then sell on their feathers to manufacturers where they were dyed, curled and layered up and sewn together to create plumes. The industry supported not just the farmers at the Cape but the merchants plus numerous artisanal trades people (often young women) who processed the feathers before they reached the retailers.
Boom and Bust
Initially prices remained high with a one sale in October 1882 seeing Prime Whites go for between £22 and £26 per lb, however before long as ostrich farming grew in popularity, the market began to get flooded with feathers and as a result profits fell.
The fashion for wearing feathers continued and between 1870 and c.1885 London was the very profitable hub of this burgeoning industry, selling feathers on to France, Germany and America.
However the glut in feathers began to tell after 1885 and prices began to drop as this once scarce and exotic commodity became plentiful. Many ostrich farmers went out of business and numerous speculators out in the Cape who had invested in the new craze went bust. Some farmers battled on but the industry heard its death knell in 1914.
The over-supply of feathers, the changing fashion, the introduction of the automobile which meant flamboyant headresses were no longer practical, and the outbreak of World War One all played their part. Farmers were suddenly faced with huge flocks of ostriches with no discernible value. Many were slaughtered for pet food and efforts were made to market the meat for human consumption and the leather as a fashionable alternative to traditional leathers, and this met some success.
Ultimately however the ostrich feather had fallen out of fashion and the days of the enormous ostrich farms of the Cape, the monthly auctions and the inflated prices were over. The majority of ostrich farms went back to sheep or goat farming, the provision of wool and mohair seemingly less subject to the fickle fancy of fashion.
Duke of Wellington’s funeral car via King’s College, London
Ostrich: Nouvelles illustrations de zoologie (1776) via BHL
Ostrich hat via http://www.victoriana.com/victorian-feather-hats/
Ostrich feather dye picture: The Practical Ostrich Feather Dyer by Dr M. Frank (Philadephia, 1888), photographed by me.
All other pictures from Ostrich Farming in South Africa by Arthur Douglass (London, 1881) photographed by me.
Zui haui literally translates as ‘the guilty pagoda tree’ and it was so-named as it was from this tree that the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, was said to have hung himself in 1644. The tree was thence considered guilty for allowing the death of the emperor.
Zhu Youjian (1611–44) known as the Chongzhen Emperor, was the last emperor of the great Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). He came to power aged just sixteen after the death of his brother, the Tianqui Emperor, who had ruled from 1620 to 1627. Chongzhen inherited an empire in disarray and decline, and Tianqui was in part responsible.
Illiterate and uninterested in state matters, Tianqui had neglected his official role,
instead spending all his time on his passion – woodworking. Tianqui was a great craftsman and spent many hours perfecting his art, even asking his servants to secretly and anonymously sell his carpentry at the market to see how much they would fetch. While Tianqui lavished time on his hobby, a powerful court eunuch, Wei Zongxian took control of the Imperial Court, purging all those who opposed him and promoting those loyal to him, ensuring Tianqui was but a puppet-ruler.
In the resultant power vacuum, other self-serving courtiers saw their opportunity to further themselves. One such opportunist was Madame Ke, Tianqui’s beloved childhood nurse. Madame Ke wanted to make sure she stayed in the emperor’s good graces by preventing any other women from gaining his ear. To this end she imprisoned Tianqui’s concubines, starving them to death, and she supposedly poisoned the pregnant empress causing her to miscarry, leaving Tianqui heirless. Despite these Machiavellian dealings, Tianqui would not hear a word said against Madame Ke or Wei Zongxian, he ignored the numerous complaints against them and refused to curb their power.
Under Wei Zongxian conditions in the country worsened. Not only was there widespread social unrest, but the empire was beset with countless other problems, not all of them man made. The Manchu were launching incursions into the north of China, devastating flooding caused by inclement weather and a dip in the global economy saw the silk industry collapse, which caused food prices to rise and unemployment grew. With this uncertain backdrop Wei did not improve relations with Tianqui’s subjects instead he wielded his power to execute hundreds of Donglin Confucian scholars and their supporters who had campaigned for an end to oppression.
It was against this sorry background that Chongzhen came to power. Sixteen-year-old Zhu Youjian was given the official name Chongzhen (meaning ‘lofty and auspicious’) and
at first he tried to maintain the status quo left by his brother and kept Wei as an adviser. However Wei’s excessive power and heavy-handed dealings meant that many complaints from officials came to light and Chongzen took action to have Wei arrested. Wei, learning of his imminent capture, took control of his own fate and hung himself from the rafters of the inn where he was staying. Madame Ke, meanwhile, was demoted to working in the palace laundry and before long she was found dead, having apparently been beaten to death.
Despite ridding the country of the pernicious influence of Wei Zongxian and Madame Ke, rebellions sprung up all over his empire and Chongzen was at first unable to pay or supply his army to quell the uprisings. In desperation, Chongzhen ordered his subjects to provide more conscripts and pay higher taxes. Unsurprisingly these demands on an already depressed and stretched population served only to turn more people towards rebellion. By 1644 Chongzhen had been betrayed by many of his generals and a rebel army led by Li Zicheng had begun to close in on the Forbidden City in Beijing.
A number of legends have sprung up regarding the last moments of Emperor Chongzhen, some more favourable than others. One tells that Chongzhen on seeing the advancing rebel army, fled to his palace where he rang a bell to call his ministers to his side for a council. As the bell rang out Chongzhen waited in vain for his ministers to arrive and he soon realised he had been abandoned. It being clear the rebels would soon enter the palace, Emperor Chongzhen was said to have told his family and concubines to assemble for a final banquet. But as they sat down to eat, Chongzhen appeared armed with a sword and slayed them all.
Another version has Chongzhen on realising all is lost, telling his three sons to escape to safety before exhorting his wife, the Empress Zhou, to kill herself. His consort and concubine Yuan heard his terrible request and tried to escape but Chongzhen took his sword and stabbed her in the back. Distraught, he then went to the palace of his daughters and confronted the princess, asking her how she had come to have been born into such an unfortunate family. With no answer to give, Chongzhen cut her down with his sword. His final act before fleeing the Forbidden City was to send messages to his sister-in-law and mother, telling them too to kill themselves, ensuring all but his sons were dead.
With the blood of his family on his hands Chongzhen escaped the Forbidden City as the forces of Li Zicheng closed in. In despair and disarray Chongzhen, leaving his crown behind, hiked up through the forests of Coal Hill, a man-made peak created when the moats for the Imperial Palace were excavated in the eleventh century. Chongzhen came to a Pagoda Tree and with his reign in tatters, his family slain and his support vanished, Chongzhen hung himself from its low hanging branches.
A number of contemporary annals reported that the devastated emperor left a note, to the following effect, written upon the robes he wore:
I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven; the rebels have seized my capital because my ministers deceived me.
Ashamed to face my ancestors, I die.
Removing my imperial cap and with my hair dishevelled about my face, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people!
Chongzhen was perhaps not as alone as he thought, his most faithful eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng, followed him up the hill. On seeing his master’s lifeless body he too hung himself on a nearby tree. Wang Cheng ‘eng was not the only one to demonstrate his loyalty to his master in this way, as the rebels took hold of the city over 700 members of the Imperial household reportedly committed suicide in solidarity with their emperor.
For three days no one knew where the emperor was until a servant found his body under a pine tree on the hill. He was said to have been clothed in a blue silk robe, with red trousers and upon his robe in the emperor’s own hand were the characters ‘Tian zi’ – meaning son of heaven.
On taking control of the Forbidden City, Li Zicheng had Chongzhen and his empress quietly buried in the tomb of Chongzhen’s beloved concubine, Tian. In 1659 the new Qing dynasty, keen to imply their rule was merely a continuation of previous dynasties rather than the conquest it truly was, built a memorial to Chongzhen around the tomb. Unusually the eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng was afforded the honour of being buried just to the east of his master’s tomb, demonstrating the value placed upon his loyalty.
The Pagoda tree and stone stela which marked the place remained as a memorial to Chongzhen’s death and the end of the Ming Dynasty, and it was said that as late as the 1900s a chain used by Chongzhen to hang himself remained visible on the branches of the diminutive tree. Unfortunately the original ancient tree was deemed an unacceptable link to feudalism by Mao’s government and it was destroyed at some point during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).
A replacement tree was planted at the spot in 1981 and today it survives as a tourist attraction, with an explanatory history board announcing its significance.
 In Imperial China, eunuchs (men who had been castrated) were common at court as they were believed to be faithful servants because they could have no children of their own. Many poor families would have their young sons castrated in the hope of them gaining a position at the Imperial Court as a way to better the family. At the height of the Ming Dynasty some 100,000 eunuchs served the Imperial Court.
 In some versions of the story, one of Chongzhen’s daughters, Chang Ping survived the massacre despite losing her left arm as she tried to protect herself from her father’s blows.
 It was said that Chongzhen fled through the Shenwumen gate and so during the early part of the succeeding Qing Dynasty rule superstitions grew around the use of the gate and it was considered unlucky. Most people avoided using the gate, with only funerals passing through.
 Coal Hill is today part of Jingshan Park.
Tianqui Emperor: From collection in National Palace Museum
Chongzhen Emperor: He Li: Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, Asian
Art Museum San Francisco, 2008
Forbidden City: The Beijing Palace-City Scroll (北京宫城图), now held in the National Museum of China, Beijing. Painted in the mid-Ming Dynasty (c. 15th century), depicting figures including the chief architects of the Forbidden City.
Pagoda tree: Cyclopedia of American horticulture (1906)