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Let the winter parlour magic begin – Victorian style

Parlour magic

It’s January. The evenings remain long. How to fill them? Try some 19th-century parlour magic suggests Dr Karen Attar, Senate House Library’s (SHL) curator of rare books and university art.

Try typing ‘winter amusements’ as a title keyword into Library Hub Discover and some 19th-century solutions will crop up, in the form of stories, charades and other games, parlour magic, mental diversions, and instruction.

One of these is ‘Philosophical Recreations, or, Winter Amusements: a Collection of Entertaining & Surprising Experiments in Mechanics, Arithmetic, Optics, Hydrostatics, Hydraulics, Pneumatics, Electricity, Chemistry, Magnetism, & Pyrotechny, Or Art of Making Fire Works: Together with the Wonders of the Air Pump, Magic Lanthorn, Camera Obscura, &c. &c. &c. and a Variety of Tricks with Cards. The Whole Simplified and Clearly Elucidated so as to Suit Every Capacity’.

We know nothing about ‘J.B.’, the compiler of this work, except that the British Library has identified him as a certain John Badcock (known only through his works). We do know that the book must have been popular. The Harry Price Library at SHL has three copies, all with the same text block and all published by Thomas Hughes but all with differently worded imprints. The book furthermore attracted a sequel of scientific experiments and discoveries, Domestic Amusements, or Philosophical Recreations.

Of course, there is nothing particularly wintry about the content; the idea is merely that there will be no outdoor counter-attractions. The book contains 301 activities, from chemical experiments to arithmetical games, card tricks and other forms of legerdemain, and practical tips about millinery and dressmaking. Writing with invisible ink is a particular attraction, with ten recipes for preparing invisible ink of various colours in addition to advice on corresponding secretly by this method. Some amusements are distinctly practical. They include how to clean ruff-coloured cloth, how to make wax candles, how to detect counterfeit money, and how to mend china with a glue made of oyster-shell powder and the white of an egg.

Whether all the activities really constitute recreations or amusements may be queried. How ‘to enter a room which may be on fire without injury to one’s person’ (no .36) – indeed wintry, presupposing as it does a domestic fire – is admitted to be much more of an unfortunate necessity, when women’s dresses catch fire (whereupon the wearer should lie down because horizontal cloth burns more slowly than vertical cloth):

It is necessary to wear the hat, perhaps to wet it, if that can be done readily, as well as the gloves, wristbands, &c. Then stooping down, with the head as low as possible, crawling upon the knees, a person may penetrate an apartment with comparative safety, a current of air, or of atmosphere, always pervading the ground.

Other pastimes require more than an evening and are century-old production techniques, such as making paper (no. 100; an activity for students of the history of the book?):

Mr Boyle tells us that paper besides it common uses may be made into frames for pictures, fine embossed work, and other parts of furniture. For this purpose, a convenient quantity of the best white sort may be steeped for two or three days in water, till it becomes very soft, then reducing it by the mortar and hot water into a thin pulp, it is laid on a sieve to draw off its superfluous moisture, then putting into warm water wherein a considerable quantity of fresh glue, or common size has been dissolve, it may afterwards be put into moulds, to acquire the designed figure, and when taken out, may be strengthened as occasion requires with plaster or moistened chalk, and when dry, painted or overlaid.

Several scientific experiments are among the diversions. Some may appear magic because the cause is hidden, as for diversions depending on electric shocks, or because the viewer simply does not know of certain scientific properties, such as that iron will look like silver for a few hours if dissolved mercury is rubbed over it (no. 201). Others are presented without a sense of illusion. The relationship between air and weight (no. 67; 69) for example.

All three copies of the text at SHL formerly belonged to the psychic researcher Harry Price (1881–1948), who made it his mission rationally to explain apparently supernatural phenomena, from legerdemain to witchcraft. It is easy to see why this book is there, with Badcock sharing Price’s aims: ‘rendering the whole subserviant [sic] to some useful, practicable end, among which the ghost and goblin notions usually attached to matters of this sort are successfully ridiculed and exposed’.

As regards whiling away the winter hours, just choose your activity; investigate the whereabouts of the activities described in other sources, whether books of magic, juvenile science texts, or household manuals; or read the book more passively instead.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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