Whilst not strictly a Mechanical Puzzle this sheet of ephemera illustrates some of the fascinating HISTORY, FUN, & PUZZLING that can be found in the Puzzle Museum's Library.

The sheet above was folded up and sold in the wrapper below.

  • The aircraft in the lower left of the wrapper looks early 20th Century so how did this picture come to be sold during December 1843?
  • What are the big round things with crowns on top?
  • What are "Twelfth Night Characters"?

Christmas became popular in the mid 19th Century; but before then Twelfth Night was the time for mid-winter celebrations in England. Left over from pre-Christian times and then absorbed into the Christian calendar it became the last of 12 days of celebrations which ended on 6th January. In the early to mid 19th century these sheets of riddles were sold for the Twelfth Night celebrations in colourful wrappers.

The wrappers usually show scenes of seasonal merriment, drinking and Twelfth Night Cakes; they also frequently show caricatures of amusing events of the past year. The cake shown is always of gigantic proportions. I suspect the size is symbolic rather than literal. There was a custom which appears to have still been widespread around 1700, less so by 1800, and extinct by 1900, in which a bean was hidden in the Twelfth Night Cake. He who got the slice with the bean was King of Twelfth Night. A role not dissimilar to the old Lord of Misrule. This is the origin of the "Bean Feast" and in slang "Beano". Mrs Beeton in her famous book "Household Management" gives a recipe for Twelfth Night Cake without the bean, which seems to be the last remnant of what was the major festival of the midwinter.

The wrapper also shows numbers and symbols for a fortune-telling "Oracle". Visitors to this page may be able to help us as to how the Oracle was consulted. I guess that one shut ones eyes and stuck a pin in the print to select a number which one then looked up in the table which was included in the wrapper. Typical responses were "A blonde is a blockhead", "A dark haired man doubtful", "You will have two husbands and ten children".

The "Characters" were to be cut out and sent to your friends with their invitation to your party. They then had to come dressed as, and playing the part of, the character shown until midnight. Failure to keep up the act not doubt resulting in appropriate forfeits.

The riddles beneath each character set the tone for the evening's revelry and are just as silly as today's cracker jokes.

Here are four sample riddles:

14 Why is a lover like a gooseberry?
15 When is cheese most like a college?
16 Why are Jews at a feast like a brewer?
17 Why is a dandy like a haunch of venison?

The answers:

This is not an April Fool, it is true!

You probably thought that the Wright Brothers invented the aircraft; but, if so, you are wrong. The Wright brothers made the first manned flight; but the first powered flight was made 60 years earlier by two men William Henson and John Stringfellow from Chard in Somerset, UK.

In the 1840s they launched world's first commercial airline: "The Aerial Transit Company"

They tried to finance the company by selling tickets to India. Their proposed machine was to weigh 3000lbs with a 6000 Sq.Ft. lifting surface and a 30 horsepower steam motor. (see Illustrated London News 1st April 1843).

Search the web to discover more about their amazing achievements. Visit the museum in Chard and London Science Museum aeronautics gallery to see full size replicas of the aircraft and its steam engine.

These great pioneers were ridiculed by many people. This drawing shows improbaby giant cakes and waving passengers on top of the wings. One contemporary anonymous verse went:-

It matters not, I understand, whichever way the wind is,
 They'll waft you in a day or so, right bang into the Indies!
Or you may dine in London now, and then if you're romantic,
 Just call a ship and take a trip right over the Atlantic.


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