Poor deluded, sentimental Harriet Smith: preserving precious treasures, made into  sacred relicts, simply because they were  once touched by the hand of her “beloved”

She held the parcel towards her, and Emma read the words Most precious treasures on the top. Her curiosity was greatly excited. Harriet unfolded the parcel, and she looked on with impatience. Within abundance of silver paper was a pretty little Tunbridge-ware box, which Harriet opened: it was well lined with the softest cotton; but, excepting the cotton, Emma saw only a small piece of court plaister.

“Now,” said Harriet, “you must recollect,”

“No, indeed I do not.”

“Dear me! I should not have thought it possible you could forget what passed in this very room about court plaister, one of the very last times we ever met in it! It was but a very few days before I had my sore throat — just before Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley came; I think the very evening. Do not you remember his cutting his finger with your new penknife, and your recommending court plaister? But as you had none about you, and knew I had, you desired me to supply him; and so I took mine out and cut him a piece; but it was a great deal too large, and he cut it smaller, and kept playing some time with what was left, before he gave it back to me. And so then, in my nonsense, I could not help making a treasure of it; so I put it by never to be used, and looked at it now and then as a great treat.”

“My dearest Harriet!” cried Emma, putting her hand before her face, and jumping up, “you make me more ashamed of myself than I can bear. Remember it? Aye, I remember it all now; all, except your saving this relick: I knew nothing of that till this moment — but the cutting the finger, and my recommending court plaister, and saying I had none about me! Oh! my sins, my sins! And I had plenty all the while in my pocket! One of my senseless tricks! I deserve to be under a continual blush all the rest of my life. Well” (sitting down again) “go on: what else?”

“And had you really some at hand yourself? I am sure I never suspected it, you did it so naturally.”

“And so you actually put this piece of court plaister by for his sake!” said Emma, recovering from her state of shame and feeling divided between wonder and amusement. And secretly she added to herself, “Lord bless me! when should I ever have thought of putting by in cotton a piece of court plaister that Frank Churchill had been pulling about! I never was equal to this.”

Emma, Chapter 40

But what exactly was court plaister? I confess I’ve always been intrigued by this and when I saw a small packet of it years ago in a display of 18th century life at the Mozart Gebursthaus Museum in Salzburg I’ve longed for my own pretty pink packet of the stuff!

It was in fact an early form of  sticking plaster, made from small pieces of silk, coated with a substance which became sticky when wetted  and would have been used just as we do Band Aids today to protect a small cut: the sort of cut you could easily get from a penknife as Mr Elton did.

It could be brought commercially; apothecaries sold it. Here is an advertisement  for court plaister ( among other interesting items ) from the newspaper, The Cumberland Packet, dated April 22nd 1777:

Court plaister, 6d and 1s. KENNEDY’s Corn Plaister ** Issue Plaisters which stick without **isting, 1s the box.  Orange turned Peas for Issues, 4s per hundred.  The Original DR. GODFREY’s Cordial, for Children &c. 6d.

And here is a link to the apothecary’s shop at Colonial Williamsburg: among the items listed for sale in this 1774 advert form that site is court plasiter :

“Anchovies, Capers, Allspice, Pepper, Ginger, Best Sallad and Barbers Oil, Durham Mustard, Sago, Salop, Saltpetre, Cloves, Cinnamon, Nutmegs, Honey, Lavender, and Orange Flower Waters, Anodyne Necklaces, Court Plaister, White and Brown Sugar Candy, Barley Sugar, Candied almonds, Carraway Comfits, Orange Chips, Prunes, Essential Salt of Lemons, which make good Punch, and takes all Kinds of Stains and Spots out of Linen, &c. Anderson’s, Lockyer’s, and Keyser’s Pills, Eau de Luce, Hill’s Balsam of Honey, Do. Tinctures of Valerian, Golden Rod, Elixir Bardana, and Essence of Water Dock, Turlington’s Balsam, Godfrey’s and Freeman’s Cordials, James’s Fever Powders, Bateman’s and Jesuit’s Drops, British Oil, Stoughton’s Bitters, Blackrie’s Lixivium for the Stone and Gravel, Squire’s and Daffey’s Elixirs, Dickenson’s Drops for Convulsion Fits, Copperas, Logwood, Borax, Birdlime, Red and White Lead, Verdigrise, Prussian Blue, French and Pearl Barley, Breast Pipes, Nipple Glasses, Urinals, Smelling Bottles, Tooth Brushes, Antimony, Brimstone, Spelter, Zink, Rotten Stone, Pewter, Syringes, Lancets, Crucibles, Black Lead Pots, Pill Boxes, Vials, Gallipots, Glister Pipes, &c.”

But it could be made at home.

Here is a recipe for court plaister from The New Family Receipt Book.

This was published in  1810 by Jane Austen’s publisher John Murray. It was meant as a companion piece to our friend, Mrs Rundells’s New System of Domestic Cookery. Some people think she was also the author of this work: comparing the styles of the two books, I’m not so sure.

The New Family Receipt-Book offered  comprehensive practical advice on a mind boggling range of subjects all relating to domestic economy; they  included brewing-how  to prevent beer from going flat-, building-how to preserve churches from dilapidation-, food, clothes, perfumes, rats and the destruction of vermin, drowning-method of recovering persons apparently drowned as recommend by the Humane Society-, remedies for various ailments and illnesses, horticulture, agriculture –how to prevent haystacks taking fire–  angling-to prevent taking cold from angling-,  the care  of books-how to remove grease from the leaves of books and, possibly my favourite:

Rules for collecting curiosities on sea voyages...

This was another success for John Murray and he published further editions in 1815, 1818, 1820, 1824, and 1837. This is the 1815 edition.

Making court plaister,as you can see, is not particularly complicated but the right ingredients have to be obtained. Isinglass is the interesting one : isinglass is a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish. Chemically it is a form of collagen. Today it is used mainly for the clarification of wine and beer.

Isinglass was originally made exclusively from sturgeon, especially Beluga sturgeon, hence its name Russian Isinglass. However in  1795 William Murdoch, the Scottish engineer and inventor and member of the Lunar Society in Birmingham,  created a cheap substitute using the swim bladders of cod . This was extensively used in Britain in place of Russian isinglass as it was cheaper. Here is a photograph of  some isinglass:

The bladders, once removed from the fish, processed and dried, are ready to be used to make your court plasiter. Today you can if you want to recreate   the plaister, obtain isinglass from  specialist art dealers , like Cornelisson in London

…which is where this packet  was purchased.

We used them as a setting agent in  making jellies on Ivan Day’s Regency Food course. Whether the jelly was as delicious it looked I leave it to yourself to determine….

Back to court plasiter.

On a slight detour from Harrriet’s relicts, you may be interested to know that in the 18th century court plasiter had a far more decorative alternative use: it was used to make patches to be worn cosmetically, to hide a spot, to improve one’s appearance or even to indicate one’s political affiliations (Whigs wore them on the left of their faces, Tories wore them on the right..or  so is it is believed.)

Patches were kept in small boxes  complete with looking glasses in the lids , to facilitate  the wearer attaching them to that all important “correct’ spot.

So there you are: that tiny piece of discard court plasiter is all poor old Harriet had to “remember” her unrequited “love” for Mr Elton (to whom we say boo, hiss)

It would be akin today to someone keeping the slivers of protective plastic  that cover the sterile surface of a band aid.

No wonder Emma is amused/horrified.