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Een paar minuten zuigen en blazen brengt je een uur verder

Niet lang geleden publiceerde ik een wetenschappelijk artikel over een curieus verschijnsel uit de Nederlandse taal: het uur gaans. Wat is een uur gaans? En waarom is het zo interessant? Dat wil ik hier laten zien aan de hand van een paar voorbeelden uit een bekend boek.

Een van de populairste Nederlandse schrijvers van de negentiende eeuw was Hildebrand, pseudoniem van Nicolaas Beets. In zijn jonge jaren schreef Beets een serie komische essays en verhalen over het dagelijks leven in zijn tijd, verhalen die tijdens zijn leven vele malen werden herdrukt en door hemzelf ook af en toe werden aangevuld met nieuwe verhalen en voorwoorden, bijvoegsels en commentaren die steeds lieten zien hoezeer dat dagelijks leven onderhevig was aan de voortsnellende geschiedenis.

Een van de bekendste opstellen van Beets is ‘Varen en rijden’ uit 1837. Het is het pleidooi van een ongeduldige, wat verveelde student voor een zo snel mogelijke invoering van de spoorwegen.* In Engeland waren die er al maar in Nederland nog niet. In Nederland was de trekschuit nog het gewone passagiersvervoersmiddel, ook voor een student als Beets die ermee naar zijn universiteitsstad Leiden forenste. In 1839 kwam het eerste passagiersspoor van Nederland daadwerkelijk tot stand. Beets blij. Alles ging nu een stuk sneller, hoopte hij.

Maar al in 1840 veranderde hij van gedachten over de trekschuit en de spoorwegen. De oude trekschuitbedrijven begonnen namelijk het een na het ander failliet te gaan. En dat speet hem toch wel, schreef hij in het portret ‘De veerschipper’. Hij had namelijk goede herinneringen aan de veerschippers die die schuiten bestuurden. Zij hadden altijd als vaders voor hem gezorgd op hun schuit, die vaak een tweede huis voor Beets was, en ze vertelden de aardigste verhalen.

Een van die schippers, Rietheuvel, werd volgens Beets eens uitgedaagd door een van zijn eigen passagiers:

‘Je zelt haast gedaan hebben, schippertje!’

– ‘Hoe zoo, juffrouw?’ vroeg de kapitein.

– ‘Wel, met die Spoorwegen’

– ‘Spoorwegen! juffrouw da’s geen duit waard. As ‘t anders niet was; die hebben haast gedaan. Maar dat nieuwe.’

– De juffrouw wist ter wereld niets nieuwer dan spoorwegen, en ‘men zou er haar ook niet opkrijgen’.

– ‘Ja maar,’ merkte Rietheuvel aan, ‘in dat nieuwe ga je wèl. Je hebt ommers wel gelezen van dien Onderaardschen Schietblaasbalk?’

– ‘Van die wat?’ vroeg de juffrouw, haar bril van den neus nemende, ‘van die wat?’

– ‘Wel, van dien Onderaardschen Schietblaasbalk?’ riep de schipper, zoo hard als zijn verweerde stem gedoogde. ‘Heerlijk hoor! Je hebt pijpen, buizen, kanalen; onderaardsche, weetje? ‘k zel zeggen van Amsterdam na Rotterdam, en vicie versie; dat zijn de twee grootste. Nou heb je dan ook korte, voor Halfweg, Haarlem, Leiën,… dat begrijpje, na venant.’

– De juffrouw spitste de ooren en opende den mond.

– ‘Best; je komt in ‘t ketoor; je ziet een partij luiken in de’ vloer, met groote letters, beschilderd; al de plaatsen, weetje, die staan der op. Halfweg, Haarlem, Leiën, allemaal. Je ziet een groote schaal hangen en een knecht in leverei, netjes as ‘t hoort, der bij. Waar mot de juffrouw nou b.v. wezen? Zeg maar wat!’

Hier wachtte de verhaler op een antwoord, maar de juffrouw wist niet wat ze zeggen zou, en vreesde dat het geheele verhaal een strik was om hare onnoozelheid te vangen.

– ‘Nou goed; as je ‘t dàn maar weet. Ik zel maar zeggen: je mot te Rotterdam zijn. Je krijgt een kaartje. Best. Belieft u maar op de schaal te stappen.’

– Hier kon de juffrouw zich niet bedwingen: ‘Op de schaal, schipper?’ riep zij uit, en hare oogappels werden van verbazing zoo groot als tafelborden, ‘wat mot ik op de schaal doen?’

– ‘Dat zel je hooren. u e. wordt gewogen. Je bent nog al dikkig. Goed. Zooveel pond, zooveel kracht op de’ blaasbalk. Belieft u maar op dat luikie te gaan staan. Pof! je zakt in de’ grond. Ruut! daar ga je, hoor! Je ziet niks niemendal as egyptische duisternis. ‘t Hoeft ook niet. Tien menuten! knip, knap, gaan de veeren. Daar sta je weer in een ketoor; je denkt in ‘t zelfde? Mis! Je bent te Rotterdam. Is ‘t waar of niet, Piet?’

Op dit beroep antwoordt de aangesprokene, die als knecht met den Mottige [=de schipper] vaart, niet anders dan door het hoofd te schudden en een pruimpje te nemen.

– ‘Piet wordt er Weger bij,’ vervolgt de schipper: ‘je kunt er de teekening van zien; ‘t zou al lang ingevoerd wezen, me lieve juffrouw! maar ‘t het motten wachten totdat die wije mouwen uit de mode waren.

Beets tekende het op als een van de humoristische verzinsels van deze lievelingsschipper. Maar in 1865 kwam hij erop terug in zijn ‘Brief van Hildebrand aan schipper Rietheuvel’. Aanleiding was het nieuws uit Engeland, dat land waar die eeuw al wel meer ongelooflijks uit over was komen waaien.

Alfred E. Beach, print showing the testing of the London Pneumatic Despatch at Battersea (1861), available on Wikimedia Commons. Net als in Beets’ verhaal wordt hier de zaak even haarfijn aan dames uitgelegd.

De schipper had in de jaren 1830 zijn ‘goede luim’ gered onder alle dreigende voorspellingen dat zijn schuit het spoedig zou afleggen tegen de veel snellere trein, door daar het futuristische denkbeeld van de ‘Onderaardschen Schietblaasbalk’ tegenover te zetten. Díe was zo snel dat-ie alle aanjagers van de spoorwegen al spoedig in hun hemd zou zetten.

Beets was verheugd het nieuws aan Rietheuvel te kunnen overbrengen: zijn eigen uitvinding was verwezenlijkt! Weliswaar niet in Nederland, maar dat maakte het belang van de uitvinding alleen maar groter. Londen was immers de grootste stad ter wereld:

Engelands groote hoofdstad Londen, waarvan het u wel bekend zal wezen dat zij alleen eene oppervlakte beslaat van een uur of zes, zeven in ‘t rond, nergens van eenig kanaal of trekvaart doorsneden!… Geen nood! Zij heeft hare talrijke omnibuslijnen, die haar in alle richtingen doorkruisen; zij heeft hare spoorweglijnen, over hare hemelhooge huizen heen en tusschen hare ontelbare schoorsteenen door, zoowel als hare spoorweglijnen onder den grond; doch thans ook; wie is het geweest, Rietheuvel! die uw denkbeeld gestolen, die uw echt Hollandsche vinding, onder den grond, onder den bodem der zee door, naar Brittanje overgevoerd heeft, en er tot zijn eigen profijt hoogstwaarschijnlijk bij het Engelsche parlement een patent op gevraagd, dat u van alle voordeelen uitsluit? – thans heeft zij ook haar Onderaardschen Schietblaasbalg

Maar hoe groot is die enorme stad nu precies?

een uur of zes, zeven in ‘t rond

Dat betekende: te voet zou het zes of zeven uur duren om om de stad heen te lopen. Het ‘uur’ was dus een lengtemaat, en een afstandsmaat. Nu zeggen we tegenwoordig nog steeds wel eens dat iets een ‘uurtje lopen’ of een ‘uurtje met de trein’ is. Maar in eerdere eeuwen was het ‘uur’ of het ‘uur gaans’ echt een vastgelegde afstandsmaat, onafhankelijk van hoe snel je als individu een afstand in de praktijk aflegde. Dat toont wel het vervolg van Beets’ brief:

Het moet een treffend oogenblik geweest zijn, waarde vriend! toen, voor weinige weken, na eenige voorloopige proefnemingen met levenlooze pakjes en ongevoelige zakken, de eerste personentrein van het zoogenaamde Holborn afging om, men mag zeggen ‘in een zucht’, en niet alleen ‘in een zucht’, maar nu ook ‘door middel van een zucht’, een afstand af te leggen van meer dan een half uur gaans, en dat heen en terug.

Mike Peel, foto (2010) van een later teruggevonden wagentje van de Pneumatic Despatch Company (1862-1866), nu in The Postal Museum, Londen, voorwerpnr. 2004-0138.

In een zucht, dat wil zeggen, in een paar minuten, legde het wagentje een afstand af die volgens Beets ‘meer dan een half uur gaans’ mat. Met het nieuwe vervoermiddel kon je dus binnen een uur meerdere ‘uren’ afleggen.

In Londen sprak men overigens van ‘miles’ en ‘yards’: het ‘uur’ lijkt binnen Europa voornamelijk een afstandsmaat in de Nederlandse en Duitse taal te zijn geweest – in het Duits: ‘Wegstunde’.

Ook in een ander verhaal van Beets zien we deze magische truc, maar dan omgekeerd: de ‘Limburgsche voerman’, een geduldig figuur die de hoofdrol speelt in Beets’ gelijknamige schets, legt rustig uit dat het tochtje met de huifkar dat Beets gaat maken ‘drie uren gaons’ is.

‘dats begens vierde-half uur met de ker.’

Zoals Beets vervolgt:

Men merkt op dat de huifkar een uitmuntend middel van vervoer is voor personen die niet gaarne willen dat al wat zij voorbijrijden hun geel en groen voor de oogen wordt.

Maar nog even terug naar de Londense buizenpost. Is er nou echt een ondergronds vervoersmiddel geweest dat mensen tussen Londense stations heen en weer blies en zoog? En dat al in de negentiende eeuw? Het klinkt als een Jules Verne-verhaal, of een twintigste-eeuwse steampunkfantasie.

Wonderlijk maar waar: in de jaren 1860 zijn er inderdaad een paar jaar kleine wagentjes heen en weer geschoten tussen een aantal stations binnen Londen. Maar Beets nam ook wel wat dichterlijke vrijheid. Meestal bevatten die wagentjes slechts post en kleine pakjes. Daar waren ze voor ontworpen. Van een personentrein was geen sprake. Alleen nam op de eerste lijn blijkbaar eens een verder niet bij naam genoemde dame plaats in een van de wagentjes. En later als openingsstunt bij een nieuwe, bredere tunnel deed ook de voorzitter van het bedrijf dat, en op verzoek ook nog weleens andere nieuwsgierigen.

De dienst was ook zeker geen lang leven beschoren. Waarschijnlijk leverde hij toch niet genoeg tijdswinst op tegenover alle andere infrastructuren die al bestonden, en die ook passagiers en grotere goederen konden vervoeren: de stoomspoorwegen, de waterwegen, de landwegen. Maar kleinere pneumatische buizen zijn op allerlei plaatsen wél in gebruik gebleven. Onlangs kwam ik er nog een tegen in mijn lokale apotheek, die doosjes medicijnen van achter in de zaak naar de klantenruimte blies. Ook in ziekenhuizen wordt het systeem nog volop gebruikt.

Het ‘uur gaans’ mag nu een begrip zijn uit vervlogen tijden; het buizentransport doet nog steeds zo geavanceerd aan dat we maar moeilijk kunnen geloven dat het stamt uit de negentiende eeuw.

In mijn artikel zoek ik precies uit wanneer het ‘afstandsuur’ werd gebruikt en wat dat zegt over het gevoel voor afstanden dat onze Nederlandse voorouders hadden: ‘The Language of Distance: Itinerary Measures in Europe, before and after the Coming of the Railways. With Special Reference to the Distance-­Hour’ in Environment, Space, Place, jg. 12, nr. 1, 2020, pp. 25-51.

Samenvatting van dat artikel:
The introduction of the kilometer in nineteenth-­century Europe, within a context of broader processes of standardization and capitalism and the proliferation of maps and railways, has been associated with the disembodiment, deindividuation and decontextualization of travel. This article offers a critique of this notion by examining the various meanings different units of distance had for travelers; to what extent these units were related to the body and the physical activity of travel; and whether these relations changed between the 1770s and 1910s. Focusing on texts of instruction and texts about travelers’ own journeys, written in the Dutch, German, English and French languages, the article argues that a number of more embodied ways of describing distances survived alongside more standardized measures.

Beets’ stukken kunnen worden gevonden in de DBNL.

* Een grotendeels ironisch pleidooi overigens.

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The male chatterbox. By Lewis Carroll, feminist

It’s international women’s day, and I have just finished reading the complete works of Lewis Carroll. This Bible-like tome had been on my shelves for many years. Don’t worry: I also read works by women. But being an admirer of Alice in Wonderland, it was high time that I became familiar with the other novels, stories, poetry and popular articles of its author. Now, how suitable are his works for women’s day? Do they make any contribution?

Lewis Carroll did not completely escape the misogyny of his era. In his many stories and magazine articles there are a few snide remarks that echo his era’s prejudices. What to think, for instance, of his advice about letter writing:

don’t try to have the last word! […] N.B.—If you are a gentleman, and your friend a lady, this Rule is superfluous: you wo’n’t get the last word!

[Carroll loved to emphasise words typographically.]

Another example is the short story ‘The Blank Cheque’, which you can read for yourself if you like (first editions of this fable are sold online for 750 US dollars. That may not be quite what it’s worth).

Yet his great work itself, Alice in Wonderland, is quite memorable for containing a wide variety of female characters, among whom some of the most formidable in the book – the Queen, the Duchess, the Cook – as well as some of the more sympathetic characters – Alice herself, her cat Dinah, the Pigeon protecting her young against serpents, as well as the absent Mary Ann, the White Rabbit’s housemaid. They don’t quite make up half the cast, but they certainly do better for themselves than most picture books and children’s books.

The same goes for Carroll’s lesser-known novel Sylvie and Bruno. The second volume, published in 1893 but decades in the making, contains an interesting chapter in this regard. It is called ‘Jabbering and Jam’, and the scene takes place at an English dinner-party of eighteen distinguished eaters. After a dinner filled with banter and philosophical discussion, the women leave the table and the men ‘[c]lose up the ranks’ for their port.

Henry Cole, The Dinner Party (mid-nineteenth-century). Reproduction provided by Bridgeman Images, original by Philip Gale Fine Art, Chepstow, Wales.

This gender separation was very common. Nineteenth-century British society was to a large degree organised along homosocial lines: men consorting with men, women with women. Men conducted much of their life, business and leisure with only other men, and ditto for women. This is frequently remarked upon in the context of Jane Austen’s novels: the fact that they are all about social interaction among women is supposedly because she did simply not know how interaction amongst men proceeded. (Novels about the social interactions among men generally invite less explaining.)

Carroll knew very well what men did. But what does he make of it?

As soon as the ladies at the party in Sylvie and Bruno have left the table, one man pronounces:

“They are charming, no doubt! Charming, but very frivolous. They drag us down, so to speak, to a lower level. They——”

“Do not all pronouns require antecedent nouns?” the Earl gently enquired.

“Pardon me,” said the pompous man, with lofty condescension. “I had overlooked the noun. The ladies. We regret their absence. Yet we console ourselves. Thought is free. With them, we are limited to trivial topics[.]

Carroll here caricatures the high notion some of his fellow males had of themselves. The man continues:

With them, we are limited to trivial topics—Art, Literature, Politics, and so forth. One can bear to discuss such paltry matters with a lady. But no man, in his senses—” (he looked sternly round the table, as if defying contradiction) “—ever yet discussed WINE with a lady!” He sipped his glass of port, leaned back in his chair, and slowly raised it up to his eye, so as to look through it at the lamp. “The vintage, my Lord?” he enquired, glancing at his host.

The Earl named the date.

“So I had supposed.[”]

Apart from caricaturing self-importance and pretense, Carroll also seems to enjoy himself showing the triviality of some of the all-male conversations he had experienced. He does so by parodying a discussion about the intricate modulations, tones and flavours of wine by a bunch or self-appointed experts – themselves, least of all, understanding what they are on about. In order to make absolutely certain the reader understands his intentions, Carroll replaces wine with jam: a substance just as recognisable to his Victorian audience as wine, but one that would not be mistaken for a serious theme, in a culture that did not pay much interest to the creations of women. So we are now witnessing a heated debate about jam:

[Another man,] quite hoarse with excitement, broke into the dialogue. “It’s too important a question to be settled by Amateurs! I can give you the views of a Professional—perhaps the most experienced jam-taster now living. Why, I’ve known him fix the age of strawberry-jam, to a day—and we all know what a difficult jam it is to give a date to—on a single tasting! Well, I put to him the very question you are discussing. His words were ‘cherry-jam is best, for mere chiaroscuro of flavour: raspberry-jam lends itself best to those resolved discords that linger so lovingly on the tongue: but, for rapturous utterness of saccharine perfection, it’s apricot-jam first and the rest nowhere!’[”]

After two pages of this wonderful dribble, the desperate host intervenes:

“Let us join the ladies!”

Never mind that this was not Carroll’s best work and that he has the narrator somewhat superfluously add:

“A strange dream!” […] “Grown men discussing, as seriously as if they were matters of life and death, [such] hopelessly trivial details […] What a humiliating spectacle such a discussion would be in waking life!”

The point is that Carroll has us strongly doubt the pleasures of Victorian all-male company, even though one would have thought these to have been mightily valued in the country where he lived, with its boys’ schools, its universities, its army, its parliament, its banks, its offices… that is, mostly all of the elite’s self-chosen company outside the family. Carroll himself never married and was employed at the still all-male university of Oxford. In this chapter, however, he mocks this men’s world. It strongly suggests that he preferred mixed company, for its perceived power to stem his fellow country-men’s tendencies towards self-importance and triviality. The rest of his oeuvre only strengthens this impression.

It looks like Carroll certainly participated in the feminist thinking that was happening all around him in the late nineteenth century. He did so in a somewhat hesitant manner, perhaps, but nevertheless more than I had expected. Late-nineteenth-century feminism has gained most fame for winning women more educational and political participation. But women’s cultural and intellectual participation were also on the agenda. Carroll’s contribution reaches us from the other side: he gave the feminist cause further ammunition by undermining the self-evidence of interesting male chatter.

Is this what a feminist looks like?

Hubert von Herkomer, posthumous portrait of Lewis Carroll, based on photographs (c. 1898). Now in Christ Church, Oxford. Black-and-white reproduction via Wikimedia Commons.
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The fifth hand, Or: what happens when queer histories are mainstreamed

It’s Valentine’s Day and LGBT+ History Month. An excellent time to see what history can teach us about love today.

This photo of Edward Carpenter is often used to champion gay rights:

Carpenter and Merrill by Alfred Mattison (c. 1900). Available on Wikimedia Commons. Print kept in Sheffield City Council archives, s09113.

Yet it is a mysterious photo.

At first sight, it simply depicts the intimacy between a man and another man. On the left: nineteenth-century celebrity Edward Carpenter, proto-gay-rights activist and writer. On the right: George Merrill, home-maker and previously employed in an ironworks. The two lived together in the turn-of-the-century English Peak District for thirty years. They present a picture from the past that gives hope for the future.

Still, such pictures are often used in a manner that simplifies past lives. This simplification actually limits the variety of sexual and gendered lives that we can imagine for our future.

History institutions on queer sexualities

As said, this photo pops up in many recent publications on LGBTI+ and queer histories, often by heritage institutions that do not in the first instance focus on queer histories. There, it is used to show not only that gay love existed in the nineteenth century already, but that it was in some cases fairly widely accepted. This was the time of the Oscar Wilde trials, and yet Merrill and Carpenter lived openly together and Carpenter published highly appreciative texts about same-sex love.

Such institutional publications as the photo appears on are often the work of a variety of people with different motives and expertise. Apart from being used to ‘uncover our histories’ and inspire present-day activism, this particular photo also provides a suitable image for institutions that wish to profile themselves as progressive and inclusive, yet at the same time feel a need to protect their position as respectable authorities among those less charmed by the present project of social inclusiveness. Carpenter and Merrill are quite helpful here: they present themselves as two well-dressed, to twenty-first-century eyes even fairly formally dressed men; a pair of white middle-class British home-owners, with hat, beard and pipe, quietly seated in their own garden. Their picture shows us an established, even somewhat stern couple; not people from whom we should expect any ‘trouble’. In sum: the photo helps make diversity respectable.

One venerable institution in whose publications the photo recently featured, was the British Royal Historical Society. The Royal Historical Society had just published their report on LGBT+ Histories and Historians and launched a collections of resources to go with it. These aim to assist teachers and researchers in their work on “LGBT+ and queer” histories, as well as everyone else in the heritage industry and historical profession who wants to be sensitive to their own and to their colleagues’, students’ and visitors’ diverse genders and sexualities. In the article in which it appears, the photo is included for illustrative purposes: it is not discussed in the text that it accompanies, and was probably added by the editors of the site rather than the author of the article. Whereas the text of the article speaks of a range of gendered and sexual experiences, and their strangeness to present-day western-European expectations, the photograph is in the first instance a simple picture of two men demonstrating their domestic relationship.

The fifth hand

However, if this were the full story of the photo, you may ask, what are that fifth hand and that fifth knee doing on that garden bench? We see Merrill’s hand on Carpenter’s shoulder but Carpenter’s own hand is on someone else’s knee, and a fifth arm is sticking into the picture.

Here is another one. (Please open the link to the Sheffield archives repository, whose permission I do not have to reproduce the photo here.)

Again, a photo of Edward Carpenter, taken by Alfred Mattison. This time, however, Carpenter is sitting close to George Hukin, who was a razor grinder and, at least at some point in their lives, in a loving relationship with Carpenter.

I have seen this photo used for the same purpose as the first, of illustrating the reality of past homosexual relationships. And again: there is that fifth hand.

As may have been obvious to you for some time now, these are one and the same photo. On the one with Merrill, it is Hukin’s hand against Carpenter’s arm and Hukin’s knee underneath Carpenter’s hand. On the one with Hukin, it is Merrill’s hand on Carpenter’s shoulder. The complete photo, too, can be found in the Sheffield city archives (Carpenter/Photograph Box 8/52), but they are almost always presented as two separate ones. Carpenter cut in half.

The full picture?

The British governmental organisation Historic England, which cares for part of England’s built heritage, has a similar section on their website, called “Pride of Place”, showcasing examples of “queer heritage” in their properties. This website rightly makes a lot of effort to situate past sexual and gendered lives in their historical context. The page about Carpenter’s home, consequently, does present the full photo. Here, we also find another sitter who is usually left out of online renderings of the picture: a dog, who remains nameless on the caption. The photo makes us very curious about this ensemble of people: their relations, their routines, their feelings. Yet the site only talks of Carpenter as promoting the freedom to have “gay relationships”. This would have been a great opportunity to talk about other aspects of his “queer” life as well.

The circle of Friends of Edward Carpenter, too, shares a number of photos on their website that show Carpenter as simultaneously intimate with more than one person. Yet in the texts on the site, his life is described as one defying norms of sexuality specifically in terms of “living openly with his lover [George Merrill] and writing bravely about it”.

To anyone interested in the precise romantic configurations of Edward Carpenter’s life, I wholeheartedly recommend Sheila Rowbotham’s Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2008). She writes about two of his friends, female friend Fannie Hukin and male lover George Hukin – the two a married couple:

There were no known patterns for their criss-crossing emotions. Yet somehow, without any maps to guide them, they had contained the pain and prevented it from breaking out in ugliness and anger. This must have required a tremendous effort of will on the part of all three of them.

Palatable diversity

When we write new gay (L, B, T, …) histories, or canonise new gay heroes, we often lose sight of what made them so unacceptable in the first place, and why those parts of their lives are so often forgotten: the fact that they took the freedom to diverge from accepted models of living. This is what that word “queer”, which the Royal Historical Society chooses to use, means: everything for which we do not have a name; everything we cannot put our finger on; everything incorrigibly odd.

Queer histories already lose some of that oddness when we write about them and devise names for them. When queer histories are adopted by large institutions, even more is perhaps bound to disappear. In this case even an entire person on a photo. In order to put them on our national heritage and professional society websites, we make these stories understandable first. We make them palatable, by removing those elements that do not fit the new acceptabilities that we have grown used to: gay rights, for instance, but only in the form of the monogamous gay couple, sharing home and garden.

And yet the Royal Historical Society writes:

LGBT+ histories and perspectives in all their diversity need to be represented in teaching and university-based research, as well as in museums, galleries, archives and libraries. [my italics]

True, this photo helps make diversity acceptable. As is so often the case, however, diversity becomes acceptable only by making it less diverse. Not only by choosing a picture of two ‘presentable gentlemen’, but also by modifying it in such way that it conforms to present-day social norms.

Although ironic, the fact that diversity is made less diverse may not come as a surprise. Still, that the Royal Historical Society, an institution dedicated to the furthering of the historical profession, gives us only a cut-out from a photo with no mention of the original shape of this source or even its origins, surprised me. It is even more remarkable that this happens on a website dedicated to the acceptance and promotion of teaching and research into the diversity of relationship forms that have existed across time – which truly do form a cornucopia for any history buff.

The fact that Edward Carpenter, George Hukin and George Merrill were intimate with more than one person at a time, and with knowledge both of their partners and of those who were allowed a peek into their family album, is something that by such practices continues to be erased from historical accounts. They were proud enough to take this picture. Now let us be brave enough to look at it.

A different version of this post also appeared in Lover Magazine. With thanks to the editors.

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Comment on ‘From dainty cup to sturdy mug’

Reader I. contributed this photo of some of the twentieth-century tea and coffee services she owns, in response to recent post From dainty cup to sturdy mug.

From left to right: mixed service, entered the family c. 1920 | Rosenthal tea and coffee sets, respectively, bought in 1976 | tea service bought in 1952.

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From dainty cup to sturdy mug

It’s January 2021: the holiday season is over for many; it’s freezing cold in much of northern hemisphere; and almost everywhere, CoViD-19 (19!) is still rampant. Meanwhile, work goes on. Whether you work in a (home) office or with your hands, chances are that one of your comforts these days is a warm mug of coffee or tea in your hands.

Many Europeans will associate the drinking of hot beverages with the cup and saucer. Like this:

Girl with Tea Cup (after 1740). Painting by/in the style of Philippe Mercier. Currently in the National Galleries of Scotland, who have also provided the photo

And yet, who drinks their tea or coffee (or chocolate!) like this still?

What happened to the dainty saucers and the dainty cups with the dainty handles (not yet on the painting above: they developed later), that used to be stacked up precariously in our china cupboards, taken out and balanced on trays, and carefully washed (don’t spoil the gold trimming!), for afternoon breaks on the sofa and especially for family visits?

Let’s start by looking how they entered the scene in the first place.

Tea and coffee became a popular drink among the wealthy in Christian Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Of course, they had been drunk for much longer in places like China or the Ottoman Empire.) They were served in coffee houses and in the salons of the nobility and of rich merchants. There, they were drunk from china cups, which increasingly often had a handle and a saucer to go with them. This was a change from the small cups in which tea was drunk in China, for instance, or the glasses that held coffee in many western Asian countries. The drinks were prepared by servants and served in expensive pots with matching accessories. Drinking them was usually a social occasion and demonstrated the good taste, wealth and fashionableness of the host.

Yet very soon, coffee and tea were also drunk by the not so wealthy. They were drunk in different circumstances, too: during the family evening meal, or during breaks from work. And as might be expected, they also took off in the army.

All these different usages brought with them new equipment. In some circumstances, cups and saucers could be used, and were used, but where equipment had to be carried to the workplace, or surfaces were uneven, or the drink itself was made at home and had to be carried to the workplace in closed flasks, there was reason to let go of saucer, and sometimes of handle, and use a bigger container of a simpler and sturdier design. One specific design that has become familiar, also among campers, was the metal army mug.

But even at home or in the office, mugs have some clear advantages: because of the bigger size and thicker wall, your drink keeps warm for longer and you have to make fewer trips to the kitchen. The handle is larger too, which makes a mug easier to, well, handle. Apart from being generally practical benefits, this also makes mugs especially suited for people without servants, secretaries, or full-time home-makers – that is: for most people. Most people have to make their own hot drinks, and also carry it to their chair themselves, and therefore the fewer such trips, most people would consider, the better.

This is exactly the change we have seen over the past few decades. The mug is winning from the cup big time. Not coincidentally, I think, these were also the decades in which well-to-do men in Europe lost access to those free, or cheap forms of constant service in the home and the office – the servant, the secretary, the full-time home-maker. At a time that more people had to do more everyday tasks in the home and office themselves, the mug has meant technological progress.

Of course, those cheap forms of labour used for preparing hot drinks are still available, for example at the railway coffee counter or in the office cafe. But those ways of getting a coffee still involve more work from the drinker themself: they have to move around the station or the office, paper cup in hand… which, again, necessitates that this paper cup be shaped, not like a coffee-cup or tea-cup at all, but like a mug.

So the same mechanism applies: because the location of labour has shifted, our crockery has changed.

There may also be a second influence at work here. Our social life at home has become hugely more informal: if my personal impression of this trend is correct, visits to friends and even family are increasingly fine now without cups and saucers, and without being dressed at one’s Sunday’s best.

It is only in cafes, when we take our hot drink ‘in’, seated at a table, that we are usually still presented with cup, handle and saucer. There, fashion, and social ritual, and the ability to depend on the work of others, are all still in place.

But elsewhere, it is ‘workers’ crockery’ that reigns supreme. It has moved out from the hands-on workplace to include offices and homes. It has moved from the workday to also include breakfast, after-dinner lounging, and afternoon tea with biscuits. And it has moved from the informal everyday, to shaping drinking rituals anytime, including slightly more formal occasions.

And as a corollary to all those practical reasons, doesn’t that new shape encourage us ever so much more to hold on directly to that warm, comforting surface?

Mug (2007). Photo by Henning Makholm, available on Wikimedia Commons.