London on Ice: The Georgian Frost Fairs Held on the River Thames

Thomas Wyke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States
Thomas Wyke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain in the United States

During the winter of 1563, the River Thames froze into a solid sheet of ice. Queen Elizabeth I, availing herself of royal privileges, ordered her servants to set up an archery field on the frosty surface and tried her hand shooting at marks. Reportedly, she was a very good shot.

The unusual setting for the sport was forged by average winter temperatures in Europe that were as much as 2°C lower than today. The cold caused London’s main waterway to freeze into a thick platform for spectacular winter festivals called frost fairs. “Of booths there were a great number, which were ornamented with streamers, flags, and signs, and in which there was a plentiful store of those favorite luxuries, gin, beer, and gingerbread,” wrote George Davis, a London printer.

Is his 1814 book Frostiana: or A History of the River Thames in a Frozen State, Davis provides a first-hand account of one of these lively winter carnivals, during which Londoners abandoned the city streets and stepped onto the ice to indulge in food, spirits, and fun. A hedonist atmosphere prevailed: Men huddled around roaring fires to spin yarns while women filed into drinking tents to sip grog. Sporting enthusiasts, like Queen Elizabeth I, showed up for hare hunting, nine-pin bowling, and football, while fiddlers belted out jigs. The frozen wonderland was set against a backdrop of the 19-arch London Bridge and the irresistible aroma of spit-roasted meats. The fair even had its own main street: “The grand mall or walk was from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge; this was named ‘The City Road,’ and lined on each side with tradesmen of all descriptions,” Davis wrote.

the Little Ice Age

Sports on a frozen river
Aert van der Neer, Metropolitan Museum of Art Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 // Public Domain

Frost fairs emerged during a nearly six-century-long cold spell—the Little Ice Age—when Europe experienced some of its coldest, harshest winters on record. The chill was brought on by a number of factors, including periods of low sunspot and volcanic activity in Indonesia that spewed sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere and cooled temperatures. George Adamson, a lecturer in geography at King's College London, says fluctuations in the jet stream may have also played a role. “Sometimes we get larger ‘meanders’ in the jet stream which mean that the whole of the UK is located to the north of it,” he tells Mental Floss. “Within these conditions, colder air is brought in from Siberia.”

The hydrodynamics of the river also played a role. The old London Bridge’s closely spaced piers thwarted water flow, causing ice to build up beneath its stone archways. The bridge had a dam-like effect on the river, allowing it to freeze to the point where it could handle the weight of thousands of people—and even an occasional elephant—during the winter carnivals.

“The floating masses of ice with which we have already stated the Thames to be covered, having been stopped by London Bridge, now assumed the shape of a solid surface over that part of the river which extends from Blackfriars Bridge to some distance below Three Crane Stairs, at the bottom of Queen-street, Cheapside,” Davis reported.

Scenes at a Frost Fair

When the frigid winters brought the usual rhythms of commerce to a halt, frost fairs presented an economic opportunity for tradespeople and artisans. With their river routes were temporarily blocked with winter ice, ferrymen earned a few pence by offering sledge rides to fairgoers and selling books, toys, and trinkets from market stalls. Barbers, fruit peddlers, and goldsmiths also set up their shops on the ice. Printers hauled out huge clunky presses to crank out personalized fair tickets, poems, and cards that played up the novelty of publishing atop a frozen river. One of the frosty commemoratives read:

"Behold the river Thames is frozen o'er,
Which lately ships of mighty burden bore;
Now different arts and pastimes here you see,
But printing claims the superiority."

The 1814 fair—the last known frost fair on record—might have been a welcome break for Londoners weary of hearing about Napoleon’s victories in Europe, according to historian Sean Munger. “London was not a fun place to live in 1814,” he tells Mental Floss. “The country was at war, the economy was depressed, and the king was insane. On top of that, there had been a terrible snow storm right before the fair that caused the city’s water mains to freeze and everything ground to a halt. The fair was kind of an escape where people could get away from their misery for a couple of days.”

The End of the Frost Fairs

As the 19th century wore on, it became less likely that thick ice would form on the Thames. The medieval London Bridge was torn down and replaced with a new one that allowed the river to flow more freely. In 1870, the Victoria Embankment was constructed along the Thames upstream from Blackfriars to relieve congestion on riverside streets, which narrowed the river and further increased its current. Along with milder winter temperatures, the new infrastructure made the frost fair of 1814 the last one on record.

Since then, the Thames has frozen over a few times—most recently in 1963. But whether frost fairs will ever return is anyone’s guess. As Earth’s climate continues to change and Europe gets warmer, the long-term outlook doesn’t look too cool.

10 Must-Have Trivia Games for Any Interest

Amazon
Amazon

Whether you’re a TV lover, serial killer aficionado, or a history buff, there’s a trivia game out there to suit your interests (even if those interests are as niche as wild turkey hunting). Check out these 10 trivia games you can enjoy with your friends and family, no matter how specific your tastes may be.

1. Inspirational Women Trivia Game; $10

Inspirational women trivia card game
Uncommon Goods

Accomplished women have often gone overlooked in history books. This game brings attention to the women you may not have known, spotlighting inspirational figures like Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mount Everest; Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the British suffrage movement; and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of one of the first-ever private schools for African-American girls. With three levels of difficulty, you can either play with a younger audience eager to learn or test the knowledge of some of your history buff friends.

Buy it: Uncommon Goods

2. Friends Trivia; $33

Friends trivia.
Lacesi/Amazon

Friends is one of the most quotable series from the '90s, but if you think your knowledge of the classic sitcom is on another level, it's time to put it to the test. In The One With All the Questions, Friends fans will have 342 questions to prove who the real Geller expert is. This one should fill the Central Perk-shaped hole in your heart while you wait for the show to return to streaming on HBO Max later this year.

Buy it: Amazon

3. The Logo Game; $45

Logo Game on Amazon.
Spin Master Games/Amazon

With more than 1200 questions about brand logos, slogans, and television commercials, this game is for anyone who knows their Taco Bells from their Del Tacos. Race around the board to beat up to five other players in a challenge to see who knows the most about modern brands.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Cinephile; $20

Illustrated Cinephile game cards
Cory Everett and Steve Isaacs/Amazon

Movie lovers, look out for Cinephile, a card game that challenges players with five different gameplay options. In the easiest version of the game, called Filmography, you simply have to name more of an actor’s past movie roles than your opponent. But take the chance to brush up on your film trivia before you tackle the hardest method of gameplay—Six Degrees. In this mode, you’ll play a version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in order to connect any two random actors from different eras.

Buy it: Amazon

5. ... I Should Have Known That! Trivia Game; $16

I Should Have Known That! trivia game
Hygge Games/Amazon

How do you say Japan in Japanese? What does GPS stand for? What side of the boat is starboard? This game quizzes you on things you feel like you should know—but often don’t. Challenge your friends with 400 questions about everything from Facebook to fairy tales. Want an extra edge when you go to play the game? Prepare yourself by reading these amazing facts that we think everyone should know.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Wine IQ; $19

Wine IQ trivia game
Helvetiq/Amazon

To most of us, a $15 bottle of wine tastes exactly the same as a $100 bottle. But if you’re one of those few people who can actually tell the difference, this might be your game. With tricky multiple-choice questions like “What is a raisined grape?” and “What should be avoided while tasting wine?” (answer: wearing perfume), this trivia game will challenge even the most avid vino buffs. Wine not your thing? Don’t worry—Amazon also sells a trivia game for beer lovers.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Trekking the National Parks: The Family Trivia Game; $30

Trekking the National Parks trivia game
Underdog Games/Amazon

Even if you know absolutely nothing about national parks, you can still enjoy this trivia game that’s kind of like The Price Is Right meets Jeopardy! meets a Patagonia store. All the answers are numerical, so even if you don’t know the exact year that Yellowstone was established as a national park (1872) or the elevation of the tallest mountain in the United States (20,308 feet), you still have a shot at winning if your guess comes closest to the actual answer.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Sussed Lifeology; $13

SUSSED Lifeologies self-exploration trivia game
SUSSED/Amazon

To win this game, you’ll have to prove you know the most about your fellow players. Does Uncle Frank prefer poetry, biographies, or fiction? Would your friend Abby rather be a Formula One racer, a top-seeded tennis player, or a chess grandmaster? Mix things up with the All Sorts and Wonderlands expansion packs, which offer 1000 additional questions suitable for both adults and young children.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Hella '90s; $15

'90s trivia game on Amazon.
Buffalo Games/Amazon

Finally, an excuse to proudly flaunt your knowledge of Nintendo 64 controllers, Bill Clinton’s cat, and Tamagotchis. With 400 questions on the cringey fashion, music, and social trends of the time, this game isn’t for novices—you’ve got to be fully immersed in all things ‘90s to stand a chance. And if you want to set the right mood, you can scan a code on the box to listen to the game’s decade-appropriate soundtrack on Spotify.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Death By Trivia; $24

Death by Trivia game on Amazon.
Headburst/Amazon

What was the American folklore-inspired name for the operation conducted in response to the ax murder of two U.S. soldiers by North Korea in 1976? If you answered Paul Bunyan, you're correct! You're also probably full of more macabre knowledge perfect for Death by Trivia, a game that actually rewards you for knowing all about ax-murderers, mad scientists, serial killers, and other grisly bits of history. So grab a couple like-minded friends and see who comes out on top in this twisted test of trivia.

Buy it: Amazon

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9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

iStock
iStock

It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


iStock

In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

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