Shadowbox: Luxury

Luxury. As necessary in 1832 as it is today.

Some of the items treasured back then have remained the same, while others were yet to be invented. When we think of luxury consumer goods today the usual suspects arise, glittering in the mind’s eye:

  • The Aston Martin;
  • The Cartier;

So far beyond the pocket of any ordinary person they might as well be made of magic.

Aston Martin Vanquish. 'nuff said.

Those of us who are mere mortals make do with lesser treasures: Belgian chocolates, French wine, a first-class rail ticket for a day trip, even an added shot of syrup in our once-a-week latte. Many moons ago I used to treat myself to a fresh melon once a fortnight. Bliss.

Back in 1832 there was a similar disparity in luxury.

For the wealthy, this meant racehorses, vineyards, sugar plantations in the Caribbean and slaves to work them, mansions and country estates such as Highclere Castle, hounds with which to hunt foxes thereupon, servants to run those households, silks and perfumes and jewelled music-boxes and kaleidoscopes.

The ornately gilded coaches used by the Royal Family for state occasions fall into this category.

Scottish State Coach. Not Stage Coach. That's a bus company.

Those of us at the broader end of the social scale had sugar, cakes and sweets and jam. We had gin and ribbons. Fine china in small quantities, linen and glassware and perhaps a horse or a stout pair of boots for transport.

Destitution was, according to Dickens and Zola, close on the heels of many. Luxury for those was a dry bed and a hot meal.

And the luxury of freedom, of democracy, of self-determination, was denied to many more who contributed their labour to the fortunes of the wealthy.

More fragile items have not lasted these past 200 years. Few copies exist of the handbooks Giovanni Belzoni distributed at the exhibition of his replica of the tomb of Seti I, for all the hundreds he had printed. (I have actually held one of those copies. The archaeologist in me was thrilled!)

Wooden dollies, cheap toys, tinderboxes and lace-trimmed bonnets – rust and mildew take the poor woman’s treasures faster than those of the rich.

But even perfumes evaporate, over time, or go rancid. The recipes used by perfumers in 1832 make use of natural products no longer available, such as musk. The synthetic scent used today cannot match the power and complexity of the raw odour.

Likewise ivory, once used in copious quantites for piano keys, billiard balls, the inlaid panels on firearms. Whale oil, cleanest fuel for lamps, and ambergris – another perfume ingredient from the past. Cochineal and Tyrian purple.

Tyrian purple in action.

Plastics and synthetics – chemicals – take the place of these natural items nowadays. Luxury has moved on.

And chemicals are another element of the story in SHADOWBOX which overshadows the characters, starting with the medication Louis Beauregard relies on.


Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: No Sleep Till Medtime.

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Published in: on June 18, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Luxury  
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