Winter: the word conjures many different images. If adverts are to be believed they involve cold dark nights spent inside, cosy and warm surrounded by friends/family or on your own, and indulging in chocolate, wine, or another seasonal food. Back in the 1820s one such cosy gathering may have involved an amusement or two from Philosophical recreations : or, Winter amusements by John Badcock. This little book contains 301 activities including scientific experiments, card tricks, craft projects, mathematical puzzles, mind reading tricks, and a few pieces that don’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the book.
The only illustrations in the book are featured on the frontispiece (see below for the full image),where 20 diagrams demonstrate how some of the recreations should be fashioned. Figs. 13 and 14, shown here, are for “The Magical Cascade” and “The illuminated fountain, that plays when candles are lighted and stops when they are extinguished”. One of the figures is recognisable as a magic lantern (fig.16) while others are a bit harder to work out without consulting the book (well they are for me anyway). Fig. 11 just looks like a wedge of cheese but is actually showing how “The magic mirror” should be constructed.
Two of the more strange items in the book involve fire. “Ladies clothes catching fire, to extinguish” involves backing up the advice, by way of an experiment, that should a lady’s dress catch fire she should be made to lie down. Take two pieces of muslin or paper and set fire to both of them at one end, hold one piece upright and throw the other to the ground so it lies horizontally. Then notice how the upright piece burns a lot quicker than the piece on the ground, therefore demonstrating that lying down is the better option. However, this advice does come with a warning: “A current of air always prevails near the floor, particularly between the door and fire-place, and therefore it must be kept in mind, not to run out of the room nor to open a window, in such cases, as that would be fatal”.
This fact leads helpfully on to the second fire related piece, which is pictured here, “To enter a room which may be on fire without injury to one’s person”. Along with these items, the books also gives instructions on how to wash grease spots out of clothing, clean silk flowers, how to teach drawing and writing to young people, and how “To send carp and pike alive to any distance”. To do this, fill the fishes mouth with bread soaked in brandy and wrap them in straw and linen. Once they reach their destination they should be thrown into a tub of water and after 15 minutes will have completely recovered.
The book contains details of how to perform some experiments, as well as descriptions of some well known ones. There is an account of Robert Boyle’s air pump experiment on a Viper which demonstrates that the author is against the use of animals in experiments and he “will not stain our pages by recommending such cruelties…”. The author also describes Mr Symmer’s research on electricity which involved him doing various things with silk stockings. On the chemical side there is instruction on fulminating mercury which involves dissolving some over heat with nitrous acid, mixing it with alcohol and when a powder is formed it can be “struck on an anvil with a hammer, explod[ing] with a sharp stunning noise”.
Just to make this book fit even better with the season, it has been inscribed “To John Balfour from his affectionate friend, W.Reid” so perhaps it was a Christmas gift intended to keep him entertained over the long winter nights.