Today, one might find important current events memorialized on a T-shirt, a mug, a poster or a mouse pad. Though none of those items existed two centuries ago, there were still plenty of objects that could be pressed into service for the purpose of capitalizing on the public’s interest in a significant event. And in 1815, if not the entire Regency, there was probably no event more significant than the final Allied victory over Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée at the Battle of Waterloo. For well over a year after the battle, the public could not get enough. No matter how elegant or tawdry the object, someone would almost certainly buy it.
A brief overview of Waterloo commemorative objects . . .
It is important to remember that while he held power, Napoleon Bonaparte was probably the most feared and hated man in all Europe. The certainty that Bonaparte had finally been defeated, once and for all, was a monumental relief to many people, particularly the majority of the British population. There was also a tremendous amount of pride felt by many in Britain, not only because a large portion of the Allied armies were English or Scottish, but also because the victorious Commander-in-Chief was an Englishman, the Duke of Wellington. Though the death toll during that campaign was staggering, Britain had been at war for the better part of fifteen years and the prospect of real peace was welcomed by everyone.
Certainly, many merchants and tradesmen saw an opportunity to profit from the victory at Waterloo, but it is also true that they were also meeting a need within the populace to have a memento of this hard-won and decisive victory. Some of these mementos were simple, small or inexpensive, but others were ornate, large and/or costly. As I wrote last week, a panorama of the battle went on view in Edinburgh two hundred years ago this month, another would go on display in London in March of 1816. Both drew thousands of visitors for months on end. A bridge under construction over the Thames River in London was named Waterloo Bridge when it was dedicated in 1817. Several streets in cities and towns across the British Isles were named or re-named Waterloo, as were terrace houses and other structures. There was a plan to erect a column similar to that erected to commemorate Lord Nelson, but it came to nothing when the necessary finances could not be raised.
On a much smaller scale, jewelry which memorialized the Waterloo victory was very popular. Rings, bracelets, armlets, lockets, brooches cuff links, and other jewelry were made with images of the heros of the battle. The Duke of Wellington was the most popular, but the Prussian General, von Blücher, and Tsar Alexander I were also to be seen, as were some of Wellington’s better known senior officers. Curiously, though he was not popular in England, perhaps due to the euphoria of the victory, even the bust of the Prince Regency was to be seen on some of this commemorative jewelry. Military objects were also reproduced in miniature to decorate jewelry. For example, a miniature of a military sword, engraved with the word "Waterloo" on one side and "Wellington" on the other, hung from a brooch pin on a tiny chain. Some of these pieces of jewelry were just simple gold or silver, while others were ornamented with enamel, cameos and/or precious or semi-precious gemstones. In addition to jewelry, goldsmiths and silversmiths were also able to capitalize on the rage for all things Waterloo by making tableware. Spoons appear to be the most popular, though there were a few full sets of flatware made with a Waterloo theme.
A host of personal trinkets were also made as Waterloo mementos. Some of the most popular were fans, buttons, snuff boxes, vinaigrettes, thimbles, comfit boxes, pencil and pen boxes, watches and fobs. As with jewelry, many of these objects were decorated with the portraits of Wellington, Blücher, Alexander I, the Prince Regent, and prominent military officers. The words "Waterloo" and "Wellington" were seen most often on these mementoes. Military motifs were also popular, such as swords, cannon, and regimental insignias. A wide range of materials was used to produce these objects, from metals, such as pewter, brass, silver and gold, to wood, papier-mache, paper, glass and porcelain. Some were plain and simple, while others were elegantly designed and richly decorated. Items were available in an array of prices so that nearly anyone who wanted a Waterloo memento could afford one.
Ceramics manufacturers across Britain also churned out thousands of Waterloo mementos. Ceramics objects were available in a range of prices to suit any pocketbook, from a single creamware tea cup to an entire porcelain tea or dinner set. Wellington, Blücher and Alexander I graced a number of ceramic objects, often in full color, made possible by the development of transferware. Large ceramic objects, like vases, pitchers and punch bowls, might display full color scenes from the battle. However, such views were not often applied to the plates and bowls of dinner services. It is likely that manufacturers assumed most people would not care to eat their meal from a battle scene. Some dinner services were made which depicted some of the locations from the battlefield, but those scenes did not show any soldiers or the battle in progress. The Wedgwood manufactory produced some very striking vases and other commemorative pieces. Quite a number of those objects were made with their distinctive jasperware stoneware, in which the white cameo designs were laid over a richly colored background. As with other Waterloo items, portrait busts of prominent leaders and officers, as well as military motifs were the most popular designs. One ceramic item which had been in intermittent production in Britain since early in the Napoleonic Wars became very popular again in the months after Waterloo. That item was a chamber pot with a three-dimensional half bust of Napoleon set in the bottom.
Not to be outdone by ceramics manufacturers, British glass-makers produced a whole host of Waterloo commemorative items in glass. Decanters, pitchers, pocket flasks, stemmed glasses, tumblers, plates, bowls, as well as cruets and casters were just some of the objects which were made etched with the most popular Waterloo motifs. Those who could afford it might purchase a complete set of a decanter and stemmed glasses, or a pitcher and tumblers with a Waterloo motif. A single item, such as a pocket flask or a cruet for the table might be all that those on a tight budget could afford, so, as with other forms of Waterloo items, there would be something available to nearly anyone who wanted a glass memento of the Waterloo victory.
There were even a few pieces of furniture made as Waterloo mementos, the majority of them chairs. The most famous of those chairs made in 1818. In that year, the great elm under which Wellington spent much of his time directing the battle, was struck by lightning and had to be cut down. Two chairs were made from the wood. One was given to the Duke of Wellington and is still in the collection of Apsley House. The other elm chair was presented to the Prince Regent and is still in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. A few other chairs were made in the period after Waterloo, some of them for regiments which fought in the battle, and were kept at the regimental headquarters.
Nor was literature ignored in the aftermath of Waterloo. Sir Walter Scott traveled to Belgium that August to tour the battlefield. He then traveled on to Paris where he met Wellington and some of the senior officers who had participated in the battle. In an effort to recover the costs of his journey, Scott wrote a series of fictional letters about his trip, which he published in 1816 as Paul’s Letters to His Kinsfolk. He also wrote a poem about the battle, the profits from which he intended to go to the widows and orphans of those who lost their lives during the campaign. The poem, titled The Field of Waterloo, was first published in October of 1815. Though it was panned by many critics, it went to a second edition in November. A joke circulated at the time that Scott, like Bonaparte, had met his greatest defeat at Waterloo. Lord Thomas Erskine is credited with the following in response to Scott’s poem:
On Waterloo’s ensanguined plain
Lie tens of thousands of the slain;
But none, by sabre or by shot,
Fell half so flat as Walter Scott.
Several other poems and prose writings appeared in the aftermath of the victory. And, in the years that followed, a number of participants in the final campaign against Napoleon published memoirs and other books on the event. At this same time, a plethora of prints were released, all of which sold well.
These Waterloo commemorative items appeared in large numbers from the time the news of the victory reached Britain about a week after the battle, in late June of 1815. The items ranged in quality of design and materials from the most elegant and sophisticated to the most crude and tawdry. There was something for every taste and budget and those objects sold quickly all across the country for almost a year after the battle. There is no evidence that any merchant or tradesman made their fortune on the sale of these objects, but many of them did get a much needed bump in profits at a time when the economy in the British Isles was under great stress.
Dear Regency Authors, there was such a wide range of Waterloo commemorative items made after the news of the victory, that you can invent just about any object you like, with any design to suit your story. If you can imagine it (though no T-shirts or mouse pads), it is highly likely that some merchant, tradesman, or tradeswoman, in Britain, did, too. And made and sold it in the months after Waterloo.