Between 1309 and 1814, with Europe in the grip of the cool period sometimes known as the Little Ice Age, the river Thames froze over 23 times. In five of these instances, the river’s ice was thick enough to support structures, and citizens of London took advantage of the circumstances to throw dayslong “frost fairs.” As part of the festivities, printers set up shop on the ice and sold engraved and letterpressed sheets of paper like those below. Harvard University’s Houghton Library recently acquired six such keepsakes.
The market created by these frost fairs encouraged printers to innovate. “The men who dragged their presses onto the ice and produced these keepsakes were a competitive lot, each trying to offer the most enticing product … Verses were borrowed liberally from one another, apt woodcuts added to the popular appeal, and blank spaces would be filled in with the names of individual recipients,” Karen Nipps of the Houghton Library writes.
Buying a souvenir from a printer was one of the tamer activities offered at the frost fairs, where eating, drinking to excess, raucous sports like bull-baiting, and general debauchery ruled. “Promiscuity and sexual license were constitutive elements of the frost fair,” writes Jonathan Schneer in his history of the river. Some of the tents set up on the ice were brothels, and Schneer finds record of Puritans who were “scandalized” by the goings-on that the frozen river festivals facilitated; in 1683, John Evelyn called that year’s frost fair a “bacchanalian triumph.”