Frostiana by George Davis

Last month, I posted a pair of articles on the last Frost Fair ever to be held on the River Thames in London. During that fair, a number of printers set up on the frozen river to print and sell souvenirs of the event to fair-goers. One of those printers, George Davis, wrote, or had written, a small book which he entitled Frostiana. Some believe that he printed and sold many copies of that book at the Frost Fair of 1814. For several years, I sought a copy of Frostiana, both in local libraries and on the Internet, with no success. Then, only a few days ago, I happened upon a copy of it, in the most unlikely place.

Speculation on the true origins and a brief review of Frostiana, as well as how to get your own digital copy …

The full title of this little book is Frostiana:   or a History of The River Thames in a Frozen State with an Account of the Late Severe Frost; and the Wonderful Effects of Frost, Snow, Ice and Cold, in England and Different Parts of the World Interspersed with Various Anecdotes. To which is added The Art of Skating. According to the title page, it was "Printed and published on the Ice on the River Thames, February 5th, 1814, by G[eorge] Davis. Though Davis was the publisher, it is unknown if he was also the author, or if he commissioned someone to write or compile the text of the book for him. Though all related to cold in some way, the various chapters in this 124-page souvenir book are quite eclectic.

The pages of Frostiana would have been handset using cold metal type, in below freezing temperatures, then hand printed on sheets of hand-made rag paper using a common press. Several scholars are of the opinion that only the title page was printed out on the frozen river, while others believe the entire book was type-set and printed in George Davis’ makeshift printing stall out on the ice. Based on the usual process for printing books during the Regency, I believe that both of those scenarios are wrong. My theory is that only twelve pages of the 124-page book were type-set and printed in that small printing stall on the ice. The remainder of the book was printed and assembled in George Davis’ regular print shop after the fair was over.

There are a number of reasons why I believe only part of Frostiana was published on the frozen Thames. The book was dated 5 February 1814, the last day of the Frost Fair. Though Frostiana was a relatively small book, it would have been impossible to type-set and print full copies of all 124 pages in a single day, particularly on the last day of the fair. By that afternoon, the ice was beginning to break up and in some areas, large chunks had already started drifting downstream. By then, George Davis and his assistants would have been much too busy trying to save their press and the other contents of the stall. There was little time left to continue printing Frostiana by that afternoon. Even had the river remained frozen, it is unlikely that the tiny, cramped printing stall which Davis had set up on the ice would have been large enough to spread out vast numbers of printed sheets to allow the ink to dry when they were pulled off the press. Though the ink would have dried fairly quickly in the very cold, dry air, it would still not have been fast enough to facilitate printing the front and back of all the sheets necessary for the 124 pages of the text of Frostiana.

The size of this small souvenir book was a duodecimo, which would have been approximately 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 inches high by 5 to 4 1/2 inches wide, depending on how deeply the text block was trimmed for binding. A duodecimo book, also called a twelvemo, was printed with twelve pages on each side of a larger sheet of paper, resulting in a total of 24 pages per sheet. To see the imposition format for the printing of a duodecimo sheet, click here, and scroll down to the bottom of the page. The "v" next to the page numbers on these imposition formats stands for verso (Latin for "left page") while the "r" stands for recto (Latin for "right page"). One side of the sheet would be printed with the first twelve pages, then set aside to allow the ink to dry. When all the sheets needed for those twelve pages were printed, the forme which held the type would be removed from the printing press and the next forme for the next twelve pages would be locked in. When the ink was dry, the sheets with the first twelve pages would then each be put back through the press to print the next twelve pages on the other side. When the ink on the second side of the sheet was dry, it would be folded down into a quire, or signature. And so it would go, until all the pages of the book were printed, quire by quire. The folded quires would then be gathered together, in order, to create the complete text block of the book.

The Frost Fair began on 1 February 1814, and according to its title page, Frostiana was printed on 5 February 1814. Even if George Davis had hired a half-dozen writers to prepare the text for his souvenir book, it seems unlikely they could have churned out the full 124 pages in less than four days. Which means that even if the river ice had not started to break up, it is quite unlikely that Davis could have managed to type-set and print a complete book, even if he had the full text from his writers. From the late eighteenth century right through the Regency, it had been very common to purchase books by subscription. Those who wanted a copy of a book would pay for it in advance, which enabled the publisher to afford the paper and other expensive supplies needed to print it. What I believe happened in George Davis’ printing stall on the frozen Thames on 5 February 1814 is that he had type-set the first twelve pages of Frostiana, set them into the forme which he locked into the press. He, or one of his assistants, began printing those first twelve pages, spreading the printed sheets around the stall to dry. They were thus on view to interested fairgoers who could then decide if they wanted a complete copy of the book. If they did want a copy, they would pay Davis all or part of the book price of three shillings, giving him their name and direction so he could send them their copy or advise them when it was ready to be collected from his London shop.

And just what did those erstwhile fairgoers find in the book which George Davis entitled Frostiana? The contents consisted of an Advertisement (what would be called a Preface today), an Introduction and six chapters. The Advertisement and each of the chapters opened with a quote from poetry or literature on the subject of frost, snow or cold. It is curious that the first listing in the Table of Contents is "Introduction, containing an Account of the late Frost," that "late" frost being the one which resulted the Frost Fair of 1814. That brief "account" was actually part of the front matter, and does not comprise even one full chapter in Frostiana. However, that Introduction does provide a lot of information about the severe weather which led up to the Frost Fair of 1814, including the widespread thick icy fog which settled over London and southeastern England at the end of the previous year.

The first chapter in the book, "Frost," offers information not only on the freezing of water and its behavior in that state, but a history of several previous London frost fairs. The 1814 Frost Fair is included in this chapter, but it is essentially a list of events which took place at the fair, in chronological order. However, this listing runs from 31 January through 7 February, two days after the publication date printed on the title page, which further suggests that only the first twelve page of this book were actually printed on the ice. This chapter also includes a chronological list of severe frosts across Europe dating back to the third century. Chapter 2 covers the topic of snow and its various uses, including bathing in snow. There is also a section on the making of artificial snow with aqua fortis and silver filings, which sounds rather dangerous, as well as the experiences endured by people caught in severe snow storms.

Chapter Three is my favorite, since it focuses on Ice, in a wide range of aspects, one of which is Ice Cream. There is a section on the Ice Hills of St. Petersburg in Russia, as well as sections on Ice Palaces, Icebergs, Ice Houses and Glaciers. This chapter includes a recipe for ice cream which is completely natural and free of all additives. Three parts cream is blended with one part fruit juice or preserves, then strained through a cloth, poured into a pewter mold or bowl, at which point a little lemon juice is added. The covered mold or bowl is immersed in a mixture of crushed ice and salt water and agitated frequently for about thirty minutes over all. It was then left to "subside" for a half hour before serving. Ice cream made from that recipe may have been a bit icy, if it was not briskly agitated while immersed in the cold water, but it was all-natural and must have tasted fresh and delicious. Another section in this chapter describes the great ice palace which the Russian Empress, Anne, had constructed in 1740, along the bank of the Neva River. A very useful section in this chapter has detailed instructions on how to site and build an ice house. In this case, the house is not made of ice, it is built to store ice.

"Cold" is the focus of Chapter Four. Here is explained the effects of cold on humans, birds and even vegetables. The cold in both Lapland and Siberia are discussed. Chapter Five is entitled "Northern Winters," and has several sections, each devoted to the winter in specific places in Northern Europe or Russia. The last chapter may have been a last minute addition, according to the full title of the book:   Frostiana; or, A history of the River Thames, in a frozen state; with an account of the late severe frost; and the wonderful effects of frost, snow, ice, and cold, in England, and in different parts of the world; interspersed with various amusing anecdotes. To which is added, the art of skating. Chapter Six is entirely devoted to skating, divided into two parts, the history of skating and rules for those learning to skate. Perhaps it was included in the book to fill out the text in order to justify the price of three shillings.

The overall theme of Frostiana, as one might expect, is cold, in all its many aspects, in England and beyond. I believe that George Davis himself decided on the topics for the chapters of his book. He then contracted with several writers to produce the contents. More than likely, he had each of them write a chapter, or compile it from other sources, based on the topics he had already chosen. Thus, he could typeset the title page, the Advertisement and the Table of Contents, which comprised the twelve pages he would print in his stall on the frozen Thames. Meanwhile, the contract writers were somewhere warm, busily writing the remaining contents, which Davis then later typeset and printed in his heated regular print shop in Paternoster Row. A large run of this book was printed and it was on sale at several London book-sellers for more than a year after the Frost Fair ended.

Though there were many copies of Frostiana printed in 1814, it does not appear to have been reprinted after that, so the only copies which survive are all first editions. A number of private collectors own copies of this book. It is also part of the collections of several major libraries and archives, where it is typically classed as a rare book with limited access. However, in recent years, some libraries have scanned Frostiana, but most have made those digital copies available only to their patrons in closed collections. It has only been very recently that one library has made their digital copy available on the World Wide Web. However, this is not a library whose collections I would have immediately thought to search, which is why it took me so long to find it. Though, of course, it was quite obvious to me why that particular library held a copy when I thought more about it.

Frostiana is a book about the weather, among other things. A digital version of Frostiana; or, A history of the River Thames, in a frozen state; with an account of the late severe frost; and the wonderful effects of frost, snow, ice, and cold, in England, and in different parts of the world; interspersed with various amusing anecdotes. To which is added, the art of skating, which was partially published by George Davis in his printing stall on the ice at the 1814 Frost Fair, can be found in .PDF format, at the online rare book collection of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is an agency of the United States Department of Commerce whose primary mandate is to understand weather and how climatic conditions affect the world. Thus, it makes perfect sense why they would have a copy of this book in their library. And, they have scanned it into digital format and made it available to the public at their web site. If you would like to download your own copy of Frostiana, for free, you can do so at:   http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/rarebooks_1600-1800/GB13985G7F761814.pdf

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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9 Responses to Frostiana by George Davis

  1. Fascinating piece of detective work on your part! I’ve done some traditional printing so I can see what an appallingly difficult job it would be to print the whole lot on the ice, as you say, impossible. Thanks for the link to the downloadable copy! what an amazing resource, I wonder what else they have there…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      As someone with experience with traditional printing, I am glad to know you agree with my theory.

      I suspect there may be other useful weather-related resources at the NOAA Library site, but I have not had a chance to peruse them. With any luck, I will have some time in the next couple of weeks.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. A plot bunny comes hopping along… Upon reading “Frostiana” in the title of the book, the figure of a female appeared before my inner eye, a kind of Ice Goddess or Snow Queen. So…our hero, rich and handsome Lord X., highest price on the marriage market, meets a beautiful lady at the Frost Fair. She, however, is icily civil toward him and gives him the cold shoulder.
    Her cold behaviour irks him. He tries to lure her out of her reserve by flirting with her and by addressing her by the made-up name “Frostiana” (“Fair Frostiana” might be a way he addresses her). The lady is not amused, and gives him a sharp set-down. Lord X., not at all used to women not falling for his charms, now sets out to win her heart in earnest.
    Much to his amusement, a few days after the encounter with the beautiful lady he finds the book of George Davies, titled “Frostiana…..”. He buys it and sends it to her with his compliments. Will the book win her over – or will have Lord X. many more miles to go before he can melt her cold heart? And will his own heart be changed by her, too?
    Now, I am going to read the chapter on ice cream in “Frostiana”… .

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I like that plot bunny very much indeed! I confess, I particularly like the term Frostiana, but had not thought to connect it to a lady. What a good idea. Rather like how Queen Elizabeth I was known as “Gloriana.” And, I like the idea of a handsome hero having to put himself out to win Fair Frostiana. :-)

      If it helps, even though the Frost Fair ended in early February, it remained quite cold in England in 1814, well into the spring. So even the weather could help your story along with a distinct chill in the air.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. chasbaz says:

    Fascinating piece and good digging! I agree that setting type by hand in those temperatures would have been very difficult and uncomfortable. Low temperatures in places with water (January experiences in places like Yellowknife and Winnipeg come chillily to mind) are that much worse because of the dampness.
    I liked the Frostiana bunny a lot. Reminded me of ‘the fair miss Frigidaire’.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Nice to hear from you! I was rather hoping you might comment, since I know you have experience with traditional printing. My condolences for having to spend time in those very cold places, typed the native Arizona girl. ;-)

      I had not thought about the possibility of dampness in such cold weather since here in New England, the lower the temperature, usually the drier the air. I assumed such would have been the case at the Frost Fair of 1814. If it was not, and the humidity was high, that would have made printing even a few sheets for Frostiana very slow going and thus made it even less likely that the entire book could have been printed at the fair.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. chasbaz says:

    They probably had braziers going but still a problem I’m sure. Also the daylight was pretty poor in those very cold years I believe due to the poor air quality brought about by the eruptions and general pollution. In northern Alberta, from whence I just moved to more temperate climes, -40C is bearable because the air is very dry. In Yellowknife it definitely is not!
    Best wishes from BC!

  5. ULTRAGOTHA says:

    This is so interesting! Thank you. There were several articles around the internet in early February in addition to yours and this booklet brings it so much more to life.

    From Page 24, after describing the break-up of the ice on the 5th through the 7th:
    “While we are now writing (half past 2 p.m.) a printing press has been again set up on a large ice-island, between Blackfriars and Westminster-bridges. At this new printing-office, the remainder of a large impression of the Title-page of the present work is now actually being printed, so that the purchasers of FROSTIANA will have this additional advantage.”

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I read many of those Frost Fair articles, but most of them seemed to give it the once-over-lightly, which I did not think would be all that helpful for Regency authors. At least in my humble opinion, it is the details which make a scene, so I tried to gather together every detail that I could find. That way, authors can embellish any scenes they write about the last Frost Fair with those small historical details which I think most readers look for in historical fiction. I am glad to know you enjoyed the article.

      I just wish that the “we” who were writing that passage in Frostiana had identified themselves, so we would have some idea who wrote this little book, or at least part of it. Though “they” said that “…the remainder of a large impression of the Title-page…” was being printed, in my experience the term “title-page” was used by printers to refer to the first sheet of pages printed for a book, which usually included the title page. My interpretation of “large impression” is that they were printing as many copies of that first sheet, or impression, as they could out on the ice island. One certainly has to give whoever was doing the printing credit for great courage. I would definitely not want to work on any island of ice, no matter how large, floating in a river, on which was set up a heavy iron printing press. Whoever printed those pages of Frostiana really earned their money!

      Regards,

      Kat

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