It’s easy to assume that crazes are a modern phenomenon. But the 20th and 21st centuries by no means have a monopoly on them. As far back as the middle ages there were dance crazes, religious fervor crazes (one of which led to the so-called “Children’s Crusade” in the 13th century), and even botanical crazes (the enormous demand for tulip bulbs in 17th century Holland.)
Nor was the 19th century exempt from crazes. The world of fashion seemed especially craze-prone, often sparked by something quite unrelated to dress. For example, the publication in 1814 of Walter Scott’s first Scottish historical novel, Waverley, led to a passion for all things Scottish. Tartan fabrics were all the rage, as you can see from this young miss at the right.
But the Scottish craze didn’t end there. Especially smitten young female fans began to carry sporrans–the furry bags Scots wear in front of their kilts–instead of the dainty reticules that had previously been in vogue. So great was the demand for these bags, commonly made from badger fur, that Highland outfitters could hardly keep up and badgers were hunted mercilessly. Nor was that the only problem; the badger hides were often hurriedly and inadequately cured, and in time the Prince Regent banned them at court events because of the overwhelming stink that would arise in overheated ballrooms from be-sporraned guests.
Crazes weren’t limited to the fashion world. As the British empire expanded, items from all over the world began to appear in British markets. India was a major source due to the spread of British rule and influence over the sub-continent, and curries, chutneys, and other foods slowly gained an enthusiastic audience.
One short-lived but intense craze for an Indian import was betel-nuts. They took London by storm for a few months in mid-1838 after the attendance of two fabulously wealthy and much-admired maharajahs at Queen Victoria’s coronation. Betel-nuts are a mild stimulant (they give about the same buzz as a cup of coffee) and very popular in their native Asia, but their popularity was not long-lasting in England because of the need to spit out their chewed remains and the fact that they stain the mouth red. Nevertheless, the Queen reportedly was an enthusiastic adopter, though her former governess, Baroness Lehzen, could out-spit her quite handily. She had been in the habit of chewing caraway seeds before the betel-nut craze hit, so she’d had years of practice. However, Victoria could out-spit both her uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, and her prime minister, Lord Melbourne. Some historians have posited that Melbourne let her win, though Cambridge used to get quite red in the face when she won (and not from the nuts) so I don’t think he was holding back.
Legend also attributes betel-nuts with fertility-boosting powers–so perhaps the Queen’s brief flirtation with betel-nut chewing had something to do with her eventual family of nine children.