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How did 18th Century people react to eclipses?

Updated Friday 6th March 2015

With jokes, with panic, with searches for religious meaning: A collection of contemporary responses to eclipses from 18th Century publications.

A view of London in 1748, with diagrams of an eclipse Creative commons image Icon Wellcome Library, London under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license A view of London in 1748, with diagrams of an eclipse

Some saw an educational money-making opportunity...

"The eclipse which will happen on Friday next made plain to the meanest capacity (with respect to its various appearances) by a scheme that is just published from a copper plate; whereby is represented 24 different pictures of the Sun, 12 if them explaining the increase, and 12 more the decrease, of the eclipse, after such a manner as will be not only useful in observing it on that day, but may be acceptable afterwards to keep in memory so remarkable a phenomena. Done by a private Gentleman. Sold by J. Nutting at the Crown near Water Lane, and Tho. Taylor at the Golden Lyon, both in Fleet Street, and most other print shops. Price 6d."
- Advertisement in Post Man and The Historical Account, issue 11050, April 16, 1715 - April 19, 1715

... others just wanted to help people understand ...

"To lessen the consternation that people, ignorant of the cause of the eclipse, may be put into at the appearance of the great and total eclipse of the sun, which will happen this day the 11th of May, in the afternoon, when it will be so dark that the stars will be seen:

An exact curious draught, showing, at one view, the whole gradual passage of the moon over the sun's body, as it will appear in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, and other parts of Europe.

Given gratis at Mr Garway's Original Shop, the sign of the practical scheme, at the Royal Exchange Gate, on Cornhill Side, Up One Pair of Stairs; at the sign of the Anodyne Necklace for Children's Teeth; next to the Rose Tavern without Temple Bar; at Mr Greg's, Bookseller, next to Northumberland House at Charing Cross; and at R Bradshaw's (who is the author's servant) at his home next to the King's Head, in Crown Street, right against Sutton Street End, just by Soho Square.

Note: it will not be given to any boys or girls."
- Advertisement in Daily Journal, issue 1031, May 11, 1724

... some linked events in the heavens with events in the Heavens ...

"This day is published a dissertation on the eclipse mentioned by Phlegon; or, an enquiry into whether that eclipse had any relation to the darkness which happened at our saviour's passion. By Arthur Ashley Sykes, DD… price 1s 6d"
- Advertisement in Daily Courant, issue 5056, June 23, 1732

... there was an attempt to balance science with dire warnings - won't someone think of the horned cattle? ...

"Black Thursday, July 14, 1748.

Eclipse of the sun, very formidable, when it will be so DARK

- that the stars will appear, and birds in the air fall to the ground.

- with the seven different Occultations for above 4 hours, during the whole course and progress of the MOON's body, over the SUN, from the beginning to the End, represented in SEVEN curious CUTS, finely engraved. It has always been observed that a great ECLIPSE of the SUN has been followed by some very remarkable events.

In 1715, was a great ECLIPSE of the SUN, and was presently followed by the rebellion at Preston.

And, in 1745, was another great ECLIPSE of the SUN, and presently after, was the rebellion in Scotland.

And the late terrible mortality, amongst the horned cattle.

So here, from the (then) position of the Heavens (Jupiter being at that time Lord of the Ascendent) is plainly showed, the influence of this ECLIPSE on PEACE or WAR.

Also, how to look at it, without prejudicing the eye, and when TWO MORE SUCH ECLIPSES will be visible to us, again.

But, tho' we here, pretend to tell, like GYPSIES,
How often will appear such strange eclipses,
Tho, if by chance, we should, in our astrology,
Tell FALSE, let THIS at least, be our apology
That, since to TRUTH we do not swear a tittle,
We be excused, if chance, we LIE A LITTLE.

A mile, or 2, more, or less of a distance, between the sun, moon and Earth, is a mistake, very easily excused.

This so very remarkable ECLIPSE, will cause a general consternation, and be frightful to those who know not the cause."
- Advertisement, Penny London Post or The Morning Advertiser, issue 753, March 4, 1748 - March 7, 1748

... and some people took those dire warnings very seriously indeed ...

"The beginning of the week, an elderly woman at Enfield, being terrified with some silly account of the eclipse, locked herself up in a room and cut her arm in such a manner that she bled to death."
- London Evening Post, issue 3229, July 12, 1748 - July 14, 1748

... but clearly, the public was hugely interested in these events ...

The London General Advertiser published instructions for safe viewing the solar eclipse of July 14th, 1748; demand was so great the paper sold its entire print run and so republished its instructions the following day.

... although not everyone understood what was going on ... 

"The great eclipse of the sun in 1764, occasioned the very following ludicrous circumstance in Ireland: The Earl of H-----------; (still living) who, like some of our English Nobles, was much better skilled in driving four in hand than in astronomy, was met in Dublin by the facetious George Nangle on the morning of the eclipse:
- 'Where so fast, my Lord?', cried George
- 'To the College', answered the Peer, 'to see the eclipse'
- 'Then you will be disappointed,' replied George, 'for it is absolutely put off till tomorrow!'
His Lordship immediately turned his phaeton round and drove home, while George proclaimed the joke throughout the city, to the infinite mirth of the public, at his Lordship's expense."
- London Packet or New Lloyd's Evening Post, issue 3754, September 4, 1793 - September 6, 1793

... but there were people making serious, scientific observations and sharing these ...

"The eclipse of the moon on Wednesday night was visible, not only to us, but to the inhabitants of all the states and kingdoms in Europe and Africa, together with the Western parts of Asia, and the Eastern parts of America; but in Siam, China, Chinese Tartary, and the Eastern parts of Asia, the foreparts were only visible, the moon setting with them before the eclipse was over.

At London, Royston and Cambridge, the moon just touched the shadow of the Earth, and the eclipse began at precisely ten o'clock in the evening. The total darkness began at 58 minutes after 10; the middle of the eclipse was at 48 minutes after 11; and the total darkness was over at 37 minutes past 12; the eclipse was over at 35 minutes after 1 in the morning by solar or apparent time. The whole eclipse continued 3 hours and 35 minutes, and the total darkness was 1 hour and 39 minutes. The time at Lincoln was 2 minutes, at York 4 minutes, and at Edinburgh 13 minutes sooner."
- Bath Chronicle, issue 1365, January 11, 1787

... though you get the impression there were a few who enjoyed the idea of people being spooked...

"An account of the visible solar eclipse on Friday the next 15th of June:

This eclipse in the northern parts of the Earth will be both central and total, which to the inhabitants along the track of central appearance will doubtless be very terrible, for they will be surprised with a very gloomy darkness, for more than the space of two minutes, like that of midnight."
- Moore's Almanack of 1787, quoted in the Whitehall Evening Post, June 12, 1787 - June 14, 1787

Don't be afraid of falling birds or darkness at noon - get to know the Sun and Moons a little better with our free courses

 

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