‘Set the spirit alight’: Victorian festive science

Ah, Christmas! A time for peace, goodwill, and setting fire to chemicals. I was intrigued the other day by Rupert Cole’s article at the Guardian about the crossover between the cultures of science and Christmas during the Victorian period, so I’ve unearthed some festive scientific amusements recommended by 19th-century newspapers. How heartwarming it is to see the time and trouble people will go to in order to give their loved ones a Christmas full of wonder, laughter, and hospitalisation. Don’t try these at home. (Or, if you do, I take no responsibility for the inevitable consequences.)  

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THE FIERY MASK

Into a bottle containing one ounce of sweet oil, put a drachm of phosphorus; let it stand a few days, and it will be fit for use. If a sponge dipped into this liquid be passed lightly over the face, it will present an awful appearance in the dark. This is a harmless experiment if used carefully, and will not fail to create a great deal of merriment. This preparation is also called the “Luminous Bottle.” If the stopper be removed, it emits a light sufficient to discern the figures on a watch.

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BREATHING FLAME

One of the most ancient feats of magic, was to breathe a flame; a feat now looked upon by many as a miracle. This feat is performed more simply by the modern magician, thus: having rolled together some flax or hemp, so as to form a ball the size of a walnut, he sets it on fire, and allows it to burn until it is nearly consumed; he then rolls around it some additional flax, and by these means, the fire may be retained in it for some considerable time. At the beginning of his exhibition, he introduces the ball into his mouth, and while he breathes through it the fire is revived, and a number of sparks projected from his mouth, which do no material injury.

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TO BLOW AN EGG FROM ONE WINEGLASS TO ANOTHER

Place an egg in a wineglass, the thicker end downwards. Then put an empty wineglass immediately in front of the other glass. The trick is to blow the egg from the one glass into the other. It is easily done, at least after a little practice. The lips should be placed close to the rim of the glass containing the egg. Then the experimenter should blow strongly and sharply, directing the air, as far as possible, between the egg and the side of the glass. The egg, if the experiment is well done, will jump out of one glass into the other. It is wise to use a hard-boiled egg for this experiment. 

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A SELF-PEELING BANANA

When dessert is served, much interest can be excited by the following simple trick. Challenge your friends to peel a banana without touching it. Naturally, they will consider such a feat impossible, and you will then proceed to show them how easy it is. Procure a bottle with a neck about the thickness of a banana, and drop into it some alcoholic spirit. Set the spirit alight, and, while it is burning, place in the neck of the bottle the smaller end of a banana, on which you have secretly made four longitudinal incisions. To the utter amazement of the company, the banana will gradually disappear into the bottle, shedding its skin as the invisible force drags it down. The trick is performed by purely natural means. The fire in the bottle produces a partial vacuum, and the outside atmosphere presses the fruit into the empty space.

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FIERY FOUNTAIN

If twenty grains of phosphorus, cut very small, and mixed with forty grains of powdered zinc, be put into half an ounce of water, and two drachms of concentrated sulphuric acid be added thereto, bubbles of inflamed phosphorated hydrogen gas will quickly cover the whole surface of the fluid in succession, forming a complete fountain of fire.

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EXPERIMENT WITH A PIPE

Compose a powder with one ounce of saltpetre, one ounce of cream of tartar, and one ounce of sulphur, pulverised singly, then mixed. Put a single grain of this powder into a tobacco-pipe, and when it takes fire, it will produce a very loud report without breaking the pipe.

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THE EXPLODING BUBBLE

If you take up a small quantity of melted glass with a tube (the bowl of a common tobacco-pipe will do), and let a drop fall into a vessel of water, it will chill and condense with a fine spiral tail, which being broken, the whole substance will burst with a loud explosion, with injury either to the party that holds it, or him that breaks it; but if the thick end be struck, even with a hammer, it will not break.

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THE WONDERFUL BOTTLE THAT POURS FORTH ALTERNATELY WINE AND FIRE

Get a tinsmith to make you a trick bottle, that is, a double bottle, or bottle containing a smaller bottle inside. The outer compartment must be made to contain wine or any other liquor; in the inner compartment there must be a hole from the neck to the bottom of the bottle. Procure a table in which is a hole of exactly the same size as the one in the bottle. Show the bottle to the assembled company, and offer them some wine; pour it out, and then place the bottle over the hole in the table. Your confederate, who is concealed under the table, then thrusts a squib through the hole in the table into the bottle. You set fire to it, apparently accidentally, and as soon as the fire has ceased to shower, and while it is yet smoking, take up the bottle again and pour out more wine. Well executed, this is one of the best tricks ever invented.

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Sources: ‘A Budget of Christmas Tricks,’ The Kentish Gazette, Tuesday 24 December 1861 ‘Scientific Amusement for Christmas.’ The Chelmsford Chronicle, Friday 26 December 1851 ‘Some Amusing Experiments for Christmas Parties.’ The Manchester Times, Friday 18 December 1891 ‘Christmas Science.’ The Northampton Mercury, Friday 20 December 1895