People were famous for their skill, power or money (think generals, presidents, kings), but a true celebrity could also be famous simply for being famous. Fame is fleeting, though, and many of the most celebrated individuals of earlier eras are all but forgotten now. Here are 10 19th century celebrities you should know.
George “Beau” Brummell born in 1778, was a Regency dandy and fashion leader, famous for his elegant dress, his witty remarks and his friendship with George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV.
His simple yet elegant and understated manner of dress, coupled with his natural wit, gained him entry to the Prince’s society. The life and the daily routine of most aristocratic men of the time included making one’s toilette and shopping in the morning; riding in Hyde Park or making the round of gentlemen’s clubs in the afternoon; followed by the theater, gambling at Almack’s or a private party, or visiting the brothels in the evening.
From this position, Brummell critiqued the gaudily colored menswear of the previous century, favoring the clean lines and muted colors of a double-breasted riding coat and boot-tucked trousers. His style caught on, evolving into the muted 19th and 20th-century men’s business suit. Brummell was famous for his wit, but infamous for his rudeness. It was this rudeness which eventually cost him the Prince of Wales’ regard. “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” he asked, referring to the Prince.
He famously got away with criticizing the Prince of Wales’ fashion, but when in 1813, he made one too many fat jokes about his patron’s portly mistress, he was cut off and eventually forced to flee to Calais, pursued by gambling debts. In France, he served a spell in debtor’s prison before a series of strokes left him fit only for the asylum, where he died in 1840.
Born in 1821, Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known by the stage name Lola Montez, was an Irish dancer and actress who became famous as a “Spanish dancer”, courtesan, and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her Countess of Landsfeld.
Marie Gilbert spent much of her girlhood in India but was educated in Scotland and England. At age 19 she eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James. The couple separated five years later, and in 1843 Gilbert launched a career as a dancer. Her London debut in June as “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer” was disrupted when she was recognized as Mrs. James. The fiasco would probably have ended the career of anyone less beautiful and determined, but Montez received additional dancing engagements throughout Europe. During her travels, she reputedly formed liaisons with Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas, among many others.
However, it was her 1847 affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria that made her famous (and scandalous) throughout Europe and beyond. She was behind many of Ludwig’s liberalizing and anti-Jesuit reforms—and gained the title “Countess of Landsfeld.”
In 1851 she set off to make a new start in the United States, where she was surprisingly successful at first in rehabilitating her image. She headlined in gold mining camps and lived in Grass Valley, California, where she kept a grizzly bear cub as a pet and penned a book titled “The Art of Beauty, or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating.” She died in New York City in 1861, a month before her 40th birthday.
Clara Barton was born in 1821, in Massachusetts. She was a teacher who worked in the U.S. Patent Office and was an independent nurse during the Civil War. However, she is best remembered for founding the American Red Cross.
Following the outbreak of the Civil War, she independently organized relief for the wounded, often bringing her own supplies to front lines where she earned the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield”. As the war ended, she helped locate thousands of missing soldiers and spent time identifying the dead at Andersonville prison in Georgia.
While visiting Europe, Clara Barton worked with a relief organization known as the International Red Cross. Some time after returning home to the United States, she began to lobby for an American branch of this international organization.
The American Red Cross Society was founded in 1881 and Barton served as its first president. As its leader, Clara Barton oversaw assistance and relief work for the victims of such disasters as the 1889 Johnstown Flood and the 1900 Galveston Flood.
One of the most popular intellectual pastimes in East Asia is “Go”, an ancient Chinese board game played with black and white stones on a simple square grid. By the 19th century, the game’s center was Japan, where four leading schools vied to produce the world’s greatest players. Arguably the greatest Go master of all time was a young man, Kuwahara Torajiro, who was born in 1829 in a village north of Hiroshima. After winning sponsorship from a local lord, he was sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) to further his studies at Honinbo, the most prestigious school of Go. There, the boy became known as Honinbo Shusaku, in honor of his school and his chief teacher.
Shusaku met Gennan Inseki, who is said to have been of Meijin strength, but had the bad luck of living in a time when there were several other extremely strong players, especially Honinbo Shuwa. In 1846, Shusaku played a series of games against Gennan Inseki, one of the era’s best players. There, with a single move, he sealed his fame. Playing from a weaker position, Shusaku placed a black stone at the center of an empty area of the board, an unorthodox move that subtly but brilliantly strengthened his position. A doctor observing the match noticed Gennan’s ears turn red after he realized the implications of Shusaku’s audacious play. Today the “Ear-Reddening Move” is viewed as one of the most important in the history of the game.
A lifelong explorer, Bird was the first woman to be a fellow in the Royal Geographical Society. She climbed volcanoes in Hawaii and caught typhoid fever crossing the desert to Mount Sinai. A one-eyed outlaw once professed his love to her in the mountains of Colorado. As an oft-quoted critic wrote in response to her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, “There never was anybody who had adventures as well as Miss Bird.” I doubt she accomplished such things in a Batik Floral Smocked Top.
Her life followed a general pattern: illness at home (coupled with lecturing and social work) and vigor abroad. Bird traveled to and published works about Japan, Australia, the Rocky Mountains, Malaya, Persia, Tibet, China, Korea, and Morocco. Her book on her Hawaiian adventures included careful botanical notes and observations on volcanic activity that won her acclaim from scientists.
Bird married at 50 but was widowed just six years later, at which point she resumed her journeying. In 1892 she became the first female fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Mary E. Walker
Born in 1832 Mary Edwards Walker was an American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war and surgeon. As of 2016, she is the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor.
Walker worked as a schoolteacher to pay her way through medical school, graduating from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. Soon after the Civil War began in 1861, Walker began volunteering as a nurse, working early on at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She took a break from volunteering her services in 1862 to earn a degree from the New York Hygeia-Therapeutic College in New York City but soon returned to the war effort where she possibly spied for her commander.
In April 1864, Mary Walker was captured and imprisoned by the Confederate Army. She was released that August, after being held in Richmond, Virginia, for several months.
Lingering injuries from her imprisonment made Walker unable to practice medicine after the war. For the rest of her life, she subsisted on fees as a public speaker on issues ranging from temperance to woman’s dress reform (she favored trousers). Her Medal of Honor was revoked in 1917 along with 910 others not received in uniformed combat but restored again in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.