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.

Has An Element Ever Been Removed From the Periodic Table?

lucadp/iStock via Getty Images
lucadp/iStock via Getty Images

Barry Gehm:

Yes, didymium, or Di. It was discovered by Carl Mosander in 1841, and he named it didymium from the Greek word didymos, meaning twin, because it was almost identical to lanthanum in its properties. In 1879, a French chemist showed that Mosander’s didymium contained samarium as well as an unknown element. In 1885, Carl von Weisbach showed that the unknown element was actually two elements, which he isolated and named praseodidymium and neodidymium (although the di syllable was soon dropped). Ironically, the twin turned out to be twins.

The term didymium filter is still used to refer to welding glasses colored with a mixture of neodymium and praseodymium oxides.

One might cite as other examples various claims to have created/discovered synthetic elements. Probably the best example of this would be masurium (element 43), which a team of German chemists claimed to have discovered in columbium (now known as niobium) ore in 1925. The claim was controversial and other workers could not replicate it, but some literature from the period does list it among the elements.

In 1936, Emilio Segrè and Carlo Perrier isolated element 43 from molybdenum foil that had been used in a cyclotron; they named it technetium. Even the longest-lived isotopes of technetium have a short half-life by geological standards (millions of years) and it has only ever been found naturally in minute traces as a product of spontaneous uranium fission. For this reason, the original claim of discovery (as masurium) is almost universally regarded as erroneous.

As far as I know, in none of these cases with synthetic elements has anyone actually produced a quantity of the element that one could see and weigh that later turned out not to be an element, in contrast to the case with didymium. (In the case of masurium, for instance, the only evidence of its existence was a faint x-ray signal at a specific wavelength.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Graham Crackers Were Invented to Combat the Evils of Coffee, Alcohol, and Masturbation

tatniz/iStock via Getty Images
tatniz/iStock via Getty Images

Long before they were used to make s’mores or the tasty crust of a Key lime pie, graham crackers served a more puritanical purpose in 19th-century America. The cookies were invented by Sylvester Graham, an American Presbyterian minister whose views on food, sex, alcohol, and nutrition would seem a bit extreme to today's cracker-snackers. Much like the mayor in the movie Chocolat, Graham and his thousands of followers—dubbed Grahamites—believed it was sinful to eat decadent foods. To combat this moral decay, Graham started a diet regimen of his own.

Graham ran health retreats in the 1830s that promoted a bland diet that banned sugar and meat. According to Refinery29, Graham's views ultimately inspired veganism in America as well as the “first anti-sugar crusade.” He condemned alcohol, tobacco, spices, seasoning, butter, and "tortured" refined flour. Caffeine was also a no-no. In fact, Graham believed that coffee and tea were just as bad as tobacco, opium, or alcohol because they created a “demand for stimulation.” However, the worst vice, in Graham's opinion, was overeating. “A drunkard sometimes reaches old age; a glutton never,” he once wrote.

Graham’s austere philosophy was informed by the underlying belief that eating habits affect people’s behaviors, and vice versa. He thought certain foods were "overstimulating" and led to impure thoughts and passions, including masturbation—or “self-pollution,” as he called it—which he believed to be an epidemic that caused both blindness and insanity.

Illustration of Sylvester Graham
Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Graham's views directly influenced Victorian-era corn flake inventor John Harvey Kellogg, who was born a year after Graham died. Like his predecessor, Kellogg also believed that meat and some flavorful foods led to sexual impulses, so he advocated for the consumption of plain foods, like cereals and nuts, instead. (Unsurprisingly, the original recipes for both corn flakes and graham crackers were free of sinful sugar.)

In one lecture, Graham told young men they could stop their minds from wandering to forbidden places if they avoided “undue excitement of the brain and stomach and intestines.” This meant swearing off improper foods and substances like tobacco, caffeine, pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish, and peppermint. Even milk was banned because it was “too exciting and too oppressive.”

So what could Graham's followers eat? The core component of Graham’s diet was bread made of coarsely ground wheat or rye, unlike the refined white flour loaves that were sold in bakeries at that time. From this same flour emerged Graham's crackers and muffins, both of which were common breakfast foods. John Harvey Kellogg was known to have eaten the crackers and apples for breakfast, and one of his first attempts at making cereal involved soaking twice-baked cracker bits in milk overnight.

Slices of rye bread, a jug of milk, apples and ears of corn on sackcloth, wooden table
SomeMeans/iStock via Getty Images

However, Kellogg was one of the few remaining fans of Graham’s diet, which began to fall out of favor in the 1840s. At Ohio’s Oberlin College, a Grahamite was hired in 1840 to strictly enforce the school’s meal plans. One professor was fired for bringing a pepper shaker to the dining hall, and the hunger-stricken students organized a protest the following year, arguing that the Graham diet was “inadequate to the demands of the human system as at present developed.” Ultimately, the Grahamite and his tyrannical nutrition plan were kicked out.

Much like Kellogg’s corn flakes, someone else stepped in and corrupted Graham’s crackers, molding them into the edible form we now know—and, yes, love—today. In Graham’s case, it was the National Biscuit Company, which eventually became Nabisco; the company started manufacturing graham crackers in the 1880s. But Graham would likely be rolling in his grave if he knew they contained sugar and white flour—and that they're often topped with marshmallows and chocolate for a truly decadent treat.

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