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Picture of the Month



Illustration by Daniel Chodowiecki, 1770s

I do try not to present 18th century pictures too often, but when I select Pictures of the Month, I usually choose those where I think "Wow, that's interesting!", and since I'm a fan of the 18th century, well...

Usually I crop all the background, but in this case, I've found it necessary to keep it: We are looking at a burning building, a fact that is essential to understanding the costume depicted. I know Chodowiecki was a very productive illustrator for novels who worked in and around Berlin in the 1770s and 1780s, and that this is one of his illustrations. If I only knew what novel it was for! I can only deduce who the people are by looking at their clothes. The people facing right seem to belong together as a family. The woman to the left and the man in the middle appear to be lower to middle class: Skirt, jacket, apron and large cap on one, shapeless justaucorps and huge shoes (compare to boot size of the man on the right) on the other. The man on the right appears to be a stranger or guest of a higher class.

Anyway, it is obvious that the people in the picture have been surprised by a fire late at night and only just escaped. It happened all the time since candles were the only source of light and fire the only source of heat. Making fire required striking flintstone with a striker iron until a spark caught on tinder. After that, much blowing was required to make the spark grow into a flame. So if you had to go to the loo at night but couldn't find your way there in the dark, you left a candle burning. Only two days ago I tried to extinguish a candle upon going to bed. To make sure it was really extinguished, I licked my fingers and pinched the wick. A small, glowing piece of wick got stuck on my fingers and flew into a gap of the wicker chest on which the candle holder was standing. I had a minute or two of panic before it winked out without setting fire to anything - but it could have turned out worse. That's taught me how easily a fire could get started, and if it got started in one of those wood-based and sometimes centuries-old, dried-out buildings... whoosh! and that was it.

But back to the clothing. Why do I assume that the fire started late at night rather than in daytime or the middle of the night? Because the woman on the left, the man in the middle and the man on the right appear to be fully clothed, as if they hadn't been to bed (yet), while the second woman from left is barefoot, wearing only a shift and a jacket. The shift doubled as day underwear and nightshirt.

We can safely assume that the woman depicted here has dressed in the face of danger, i.e. she only donned whatever she deemed essential: shift, jacket, neckerchief, cap. The few items she is wearing are the very items that many modern-day re-enactors go without; the items she is not wearing are the ones that those same re-enactors think sufficient for an 18th century impression: skirt and bodice. Food for thought...


Pictures of the month archive

If you want to find older Pictures of the Month, use one of the above links to jump to a previous edition, and from there to yet older ones etc.

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