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A Brief Overview of the War of 1812


..And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof, through the night, that our flag was still there…
The Defence of Fort McHenry
Francis Scott Key

Although it would be difficult to discern, simply from reading her novels, the world Jane Austen lived in was one constantly at war. During her lifetime (1775-1817) she saw the American war for independence (known as the Revolutionary War) the French Revolution, Britain’s war with France (fighting Napoleon from 1803-1815) and the War of 1812, which is largely forgotten in light of the other, “major” wars which overshadow it, in both British and American history.

With the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 (and no, the 1812 overture was not written for this war– it was written in Russia, in 1880, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, commemorating Russia’s battle and eventual triumph over Napoleon’s forces) and the introduction of the newest American Girl Doll, Caroline Abbott, interest has been renewed in this war which saw not only at British invasion of Washington D.C., with troops burning the White House, but also the battle which inspired the poem, The Defence of Fort McHenry, which would later be titled The Star Spangled Banner, and adopted as the United States’ national anthem.

war of 1812
The battle which inspired the poem, The Defence of Fort McHenry, by Francis Scott Key.

War of 1812

The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States and those of the British Empire. The United States declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions brought about by Britain’s ongoing war with France, the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion, outrage over insults to national honour after humiliations on the high seas, and possible American desire to annex Canada. Tied down in Europe until 1814, the British at first used defensive strategy, repelling multiple American invasions of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. However, the Americans gained control over Lake Erie in 1813, seized parts of western Ontario, and ended the prospect of an Indian confederacy and an independent Indian state in the Midwest under British sponsorship. In the Southwest, General Andrew Jackson destroyed the military strength of the Creek nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 on April 6, the British adopted a more aggressive strategy, sending in three large invasion armies. The British victory at the Battle of Bladensburg in August 1814 allowed them to capture and burn Washington, D.C. American victories in September 1814 and January 1815 repulsed all three British invasions in New York, Baltimore and New Orleans.

The White House in Washington D.C. after being burned, 1814

The war was fought in three principal theatres: (1) at sea, warships and privateers of both sides attacked each other’s merchant ships, while the British blockaded the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and mounted large-scale raids in the later stages of the war; (2) both land and naval battles were fought on the American–Canadian frontier, which ran along the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence River; and (3) the American South and Gulf Coast also saw major land battles in which the American forces defeated Britain’s Indian allies and repulsed a British invasion force at New Orleans.

Both sides invaded each other’s territory, but these invasions were unsuccessful or temporary. At the end of the war, both sides occupied parts of the other’s land, but these areas were restored by the Treaty of Ghent.

American General Andrew Jackson leads his troops in Louisiana

Early 1800’s in the United States

In the United States, victories at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and in the Battle of Baltimore of 1814 (which inspired the lyrics of the United States national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”) produced a sense of euphoria over a “second war of independence” against Britain. Peace brought an “Era of Good Feelings” in which partisan animosity nearly vanished. Canada also emerged from the war with a heightened sense of national feeling and solidarity, having repelled multiple American invasions. Battles such as the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of Crysler’s Farm became iconic for English-speaking Canadians. In Canada, especially Ontario, memory of the war retains national significance, as the invasions were largely perceived by Canadians as an annexation attempt by America seeking to expand US territory. In Canada, numerous ceremonies are scheduled in 2012 to commemorate a Canadian victory. The war is scarcely remembered in Britain today; as it regarded the conflict as sideshow to the much larger Napoleonic Wars raging in Europe. As such it welcomed an era of peaceful relations and trade with the United States.

From Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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“Christmas gambol: raisins and almonds being put into a bowl of brandy, and the candles extinguished, the spirit is set on fire, and the company scramble for the raisins.”

Francis Grose
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

Snap-dragon (also known as Flap-dragon, Snapdragon, or Flapdragon) was a parlour game popular from about the 16th to 19th centuries. It was played during the winter, particularly on Christmas Eve. Brandy was heated and placed in a wide shallow bowl; raisins were placed in the brandy which was then set alight. Typically, lights were extinguished or dimmed to increase the eerie effect of the blue flames playing across the liquor. The aim of the game was to pluck the raisins out of the burning brandy and eat them, at the risk of being burnt. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) describes it as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. According to an eighteenth-century article in Richard Steele’s Tatler magazine, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.” Snap-dragon was played in England and the United States, but there is insufficient evidence of the practice in Scotland, or other countries.

The liquid used in Snap-dragon was typically brandy, although similar flammable liquors could also be used. Traditionally, raisins were the treat to be snatched; William Sandys specifies Málaga raisins. Other treats, however, could also be used. Of these, almonds were the most common alternative or addition, but currants, candied fruit, figs, grapes, and plums also featured. Salt could also be sprinkled in the bowl. The low bowl was typically placed in the middle of a table to prevent damage from the inevitable splashes of burning brandy. In one variation a Christmas pudding is placed in the centre of the bowl with raisins around it.

Most sources describe Snap-dragon as a Christmas tradition, however Blain suggests that in the United States it was played at Halloween instead and Platt notes that

‘The game was one particular to Halloween or Christmas or Twelfth Night; I will not specify which, because in the first place I do not know, and in the second place if I were to make a mistake I would be held up to ridicule and all my statements overthrown”

There were several other traditions surrounding the game of Snap-dragon. Mary F. Blain describes the belief that the person who snatches the most treats out of the brandy will meet their true love within a year. In another tradition, one of the raisins contains a gold button and becomes ‘the lucky raisin’. The person who fishes the raisin out can claim a reward or boon of their choosing. In the short story Master Sandy’s Snapdragon by Elbridge S. Brooks, Snap-dragon is played in the royal household of James I of England. Young Prince Charles (later Charles I of England) catches the lucky raisin and, after much prevarication, asks for the freedom of Walter Raleigh.

According to Robert Chambers’ Book of Days (1879) the game was accompanied by a chant:
Here he comes with flaming bowl,
Don’t he mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Take care you don’t take too much,
Be not greedy in your clutch,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

With his blue and lapping tongue
Many of you will be stung,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

For he snaps at all that comes
Snatching at his feast of plums,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

But Old Christmas makes him come,
Though he looks so fee! fa! fum!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Don’t ‘ee fear him but be bold —
Out he goes his flames are cold,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!

The first reference to Snap-dragon explicitly as a parlour game is in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811): “Christmas gambol: raisins and almonds being put into a bowl of brandy, and the candles extinguished, the spirit is set on fire, and the company scramble for the raisins.”

By the mid-19th century Snap-dragon was firmly entrenched as a Christmas parlour game, and it is in this sense that it is referenced in 1836, in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and in 1861, in Anthony Trollope’s novel Orley Farm. Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) describes “A snap-dragon-fly. Its body is made of plum pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy.”

In the English play Lingua (1607) the practice is said to come from classical antiquity: “when Hercules had killed the flaming dragon of Hesperia with the apples of that orchard, he made this fiery meat; in memory whereof he named it Snapdragon.” Brooks’ Master Sandy’s Snapdragon suggests another mythical origin, relating the fire of snap-dragons to Saint George and the dragon.
Chambers suggests that it hearkens back to druidic fire-worship. According to the Oxford English Dictionary entry for flapdragon, “the original sense may have been identical with a dialectal sense of snapdragon, viz. a figure of a dragon’s head with snapping jaws, carried about by the mummers at Christmas; but of this there is no trace in our quot[ation]s”.

Michael Faraday, in his essay The Chemical History of a Candle (1860), suggested that the raisins in Snap-dragon act like miniature wicks. The concept is similar to that of burning brandy on top of Christmas puddings — the brandy is burning, but is not burning at a high enough temperature to consume the raisins. Nevertheless, children often burnt their hands or mouths playing this game, which may have led to the practice mostly dying out in the early 20th century.

Snapdragon is a dangerous game and should not be played without proper preparation and supervision. Some suggestions for safer play can be found here:
School of the

Historical information supplied by Wikipedia

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Become a Regency Beau

Mr. Jenkins' suit by Marie Bernadette Strang, The Regency Gent

Regency Wear for Modern Gentlemen

Mr. Jenkins' suit by Marie Bernadette Strang, The Regency Gent
When attending a function requiring period dress the first question is, of course, “What should I wear? Followed by, “What did the men of Jane Austen’s period wear?”

In most cases, the answer to the first question is easy – whatever you are comfortable wearing. The second is a bit more difficult – we have to look at the years represented and your position in society.

For men with a basic wardrobe at their disposal (business attire and weekend variations), I would recommend keeping it simple. Perhaps a dark suit or dark slacks and a dark sport coat, a white or lightly colored shirt and a tie. If you have one, a bow tie is a nice addition. To men who own a more varied collection, I would recommend a tuxedo or “white tie and tails.”

There are a few easy changes men with a more adventurous spirit might make. Perhaps the lady in your life is willing to put in some extra effort. First, you could add a vest. It could be dark, light or even brightly colored. The “higher” the vest is cut or the more buttons it has the better. Next replace the tie with a cravat. A cravat is a piece of cloth 2-4 inches wide and about three feet long. It can be made of almost any fabric and color. It could even be made of lace for an extra bit of flair.

Half-knot with pin

Lace stock

Tying a cravat is fairly simple, but a little hard to describe. Start by folding it lengthwise so that it is only about two inches wide. Then, holding the fabric in front of your neck wrap it once around so the ends are again in front. Now, tie it like a bow tie or with a half knot. If the ends are long they can be tucked into the vest. If tied with a half knot, a stick pin or tie pin at the knot is a nice touch.

For men more adventurous still, pants could be replaced by knee breeches with knee socks/stockings. Dark pants with white socks or stockings are preferred. “Stretch” pants with under-foot loops (they look just like woman’s stirrup pants) are also an option. Baseball socks work very well for the knee socks/stockings. A good period look is pants (normal, stretch, knickers), a white shirt (collared, wingtip, or collarless), a vest (black or colored), a black tail coat, and cravat.

Before you start to worry, I would like to tell you a story. A number of years ago I was attending a formal 1860’s ball. Shortly after the ball began I noticed a man standing at the door. He was looking in and looking quite concerned. I should point out that he was wearing khaki pants and an Hawaiian shirt. He stood there for quite a few minutes.
Less Formally AttiredI went over and asked if I could be of assistance. He told me that he had bought a ticket for the ball; however, when he asked someone about attire they responded with – Oh! Don’t worry, anything festive. He told me that he felt a little foolish walking in to a room filled with men in white tie and tails and ladies in ball gowns, dressed as he was. I told him that he did not need to worry; he was welcome however he was attired. After a few minutes of chatting he decided to come in. He had a great time and made many friends that evening. The moral? It is more important to come to the party than to spend all evening worrying about what to wear.

Marc Casslar is the founder and director of the Vintage Dance Society. Mr. Casslar is involved in the development of theatrical performances (for both stage and film) and the recreation of period social events. He has been involved in a variety of historic dance forms since 1977 and has performed throughout the United States and Japan. He is currently helping to coordinate JASNA-CT’s first “assembly”. You can visit his website at

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