Religion & the Sickness Experience in Early Modern Britain.

Over the years, a number of studies have been made of the sickness experiences of clergymen and religious figures as recorded in their diaries. One of the most well known is that of the diarist Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earl’s Colne in Essex. Another, lesser known, diarist I studied in the course of researching my book was Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire, a puritan minister whose mid seventeenth-century diary covers a time of great religious upheaval, but also goes into great detail about his sicknesses. I also uncovered the records of an eighteenth-century Welsh Methodist preacher, who recorded the behaviours of his sick parishioners, naturally viewed through the lens of his own religious beliefs.

In every case, it is clear not only how central religious beliefs were in interpreting and understanding sickness, but how individual experiences could be affected by denomination.

For Puritans like Phillip Henry, for example, sickness was a test from God and it was up to the individual to interpret the message being given to them. In many ways sickness was to the body what sin was to the soul – both needed firm and definite action. As Henry wrote in 1657 “They that are whole need not a Physician…sin is the sickness of the soule, and sin-sick soules stand in great need of a Physician, and that Physician is none other than Jesus Xt”.

(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When ill, Henry constantly monitored his symptoms and looked for causes in his behaviour. If he had a cold, he might wonder whether this was a result of the sin of pride. In other cases he felt that illness had been brought on by his over-attachment to wordly goods, or laxity in prayer. In almost every case, he viewed his body as the instrument through which God was correcting him.

If anything impressed the Godly in the sickness behaviours of others it was fortitude and stoicism. If people were penitent, so much the better. The clergy were especially pleased when the sick attended church, despite their afflictions, even if they had to be carried in, and limped out!

In the 1730s, John Harries, Methodist rector of Mynydd Bach and Abergorlech in Carmarthenshire, kept a journal in which he recorded his visits to sick parishioners (National Library of Wales MS 371B, Register of Mynydd Bach Chapel). Harries paid careful attention to the behaviour and comportment of the sick. When Morgan Evan Morgan ‘departed this life 23rd December 1736/7’, Harries noted that he had ‘behaved himself very sivil and sober’ despite being in a ‘lingering distemper about eight years’. Catherine Richard likewise ‘behaved herself inoffensive’, while Joyce Evan ‘was very cheerful…expected but to live, but hoped to be saved’.

In other cases, however, it is clear that Harries was looking to the sick for signs he could interpret of his own destiny. When Mary John died in October 1737 he noted that she ‘relied wholly on Jesus X for her soul and behaved very patient’ but also noted that she was the first received to communion at the same time as him. As he noted, ‘I shuld take this into consideration’. Those who did not conform to expectation troubled him. When Mary Richard died in July 1742, Harries was keen to stress that ‘she was very wavering and inconstant in her profession [of faith], sometimes in and sometimes out’.

M0018191 Dying man in bed. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED Woodcut circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C. Cicero, Marcus T. Published: 1531 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
M0018191 Dying man in bed.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED
Woodcut
circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C.
Cicero, Marcus T.
Published: 1531
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

He took comfort in those whom he felt offered a glimpse into his own fate. The last moments of Ann Rees showed a woman who ‘behaved herself very lovely [and] told me a few hours before she dyed that shee hoped for salvation for God’s mercy’. Reflecting on this Harries wrote that ‘the Lord prepare me for death and judgement. I see both young and old are carried away to another world unobserved’.

Constantly keeping company with the dying and dead could actually have an effect on the health of ministers. Welsh Methodists were apparently prone to depressive illness, due to their intensive introspection and concentration upon their own failings and weakness. Phillip Henry reported his unease at having attended three dying parishioners within a few days in January 1651, and worried that this was leaving him was a diminished sense of his own spirituality. Other ministers like the Manchester Presbyterian Henry Newcome, found the continual round of deathbed sittings and funerals overwhelming.

But it was not only ministers who applied their religious tenets to sickness. A lucky find in Cardiff University library’s collection was a transcription of the diary of Sarah Savage, Phillip Henry’s daughter. (J.B. Williams, Memoirs of the Life and Character of Mrs Sarah Savage, London: Holdsworth and Hall, 1829). Like her father, Sarah was quick to seek the hidden meanings in her symptoms. In 1691 she was “all day at home having got an ill cold in my head”. Clearly feeling ill she fretted that “My heart was a little let out in love and praise to my Redeemer”, but reassured herself that this was “but a fit [and] soon off again”.

An attack of the smallpox the following year placed her and her family in mortal danger. Her daughter Ann, also a diarist, wrote that ‘when I had received the sentence of death within myself, surely the Lord as ready to save me”. Ann also felt that the experience had taught her a valuable lesson: “the mercies, the sweet mercies which I experienced in the affliction, I shall never forget”.

Lawrence Stone’s (now much criticised) book on early modern family life suggested that people were reluctant to invest much love in their offspring since they stood a good chance of losing them. A wealth of evidence has been put forward to refute this. Puritans, often portrayed as the most stony-faced of all Christian denominations were as troubled as anyone by illness in children. In July 1663 Henry visited a local household where a child was ‘ill of the convulsion fitts. I went to see him & O what evil there is in sin that produces such effects upon poor Innocent little ones’. With a troubled conscience he reflected ‘if this bee done to ye green tree what shall be done to the dry?’.

L0043760 Memento Mori Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The head and shoulders of a 'memento mori' corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury. 16th century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
L0043760 Memento Mori
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
The head and shoulders of a ‘memento mori’ corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury.
16th century Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

When family members, especially children, were ill, even the strongest of faith could be tested. After witnessing the sickness of other people’s children, he was forced to confront the death of his own young son from measles. It is one of the starkest and most moving diary entries I have ever encountered, and conveys the conflict between religious conviction and a parent’s desperation. Perhaps most strikingly, Henry looks to God to show him where he (Phillip) had strayed to be punished thus.

“At Sun-Sett this day hee dy’d, our first born and the beginning of our strength, a forward child, manly, loving, patient under correction. O that I could now be so under the correcting hand of my heavenly Father. Lord, wherefore is it that thou contendest, show mee, show mee? Have I over boasted, over loved, over prized? My heart bleeds. Lord have Mercy”.

Religion was a central part of the sickness experience, and coloured not only hopes and expectations of recovery, but also the actual, physical experience of illness. Ministers and lay individuals alike, albeit perhaps to different extents, looked to God to explain how they were feeling and what this might suggest about their own conduct.

Unhealthy Beards? Denouncing Facial Hair in History

Once again in the past week beards have made the headlines…and for all the wrong reasons. The Independent carried a story titled ‘Do beards really contain as much faeces as a toilet?’. For the Daily Mail the question was ‘how filthy is your beard? ‘Yes’, cried the Huffington Post, ‘our beard might be as dirty as a toilet seat’!

 CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male

CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male

Beard-2

The source of the controversy was a claim apparently made on a Mexican website, that beards can actually harbour more germs than the average toilet. Microbiologist John Golobic was quoted as saying that the ‘degree of uncleanliness’ was such that if the same levels were found in a supply of drinking water it would be turned off. Hipsters, Santa Claus, and other beard wearers, he suggested, should wash their hands frequently. As quickly as the beard was being accused, a rush of pogonophiles emerged to defend it. Many pointed out that the same germs inhabit the skin on the face, and pose no risk to health.

But this latest attack on beards is seemingly part of an emerging trend. Over the past few weeks several articles have appeared to encourage the move back to a clean-shaven look. Back at the start of April, CBS posed the question ‘Are Beards Bad for You’, quoting a New York physician as saying that they harboured bacteria, and advising men to wash their beards regularly. Even in last Wednesday’s Metro, for example, is a (albeit light-hearted) list of ’11 Reasons Beards are Wrong’. These range from the danger of confusing babies to making the wearer look older (or, perish the thought, resemble a Hipster) even to deceiving people and being unhygienic.

Beard

How long this current beard trend will last is a burning issue for journalists. This time last year came a slew of articles all confidently asserting that ‘peak beard’ had been reached; the same claim was being made in the summer of 2013, when the demise of facial topiary was first mooted. So far the beard has proved stubbornly resistant to attack. Indeed, if anything, the anti-pogonotomy trend has continued to grow. There is little evidence of men beginning to shave off their beards. In fact there has been a noticeable rise in products for beard care in the advertisements sections of men’s publications like GQ. It seems that, for the first time in the last few decades, the beard may become more than a passing fad of fashion.

It is interesting to note, though, that, just as there have always been beard trends, so have there always been detractors. There have always been those for whom facial hair is anathema. Often, when beards have apparently been most popular, some have sought to bring about their demise. In fact, peering back through history the parallels with the recent attacks on facial hirsuteness are often striking.

Shakespeare, for example, although a poster boy for the pointy goatee, allowed his characters to vent their spleen upon the hairy face. The character Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing exclaims ‘Lord! I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen’!

Beatrice and Benedick

In the eighteenth century facial hair fell spectacularly from favour. ‘The caprices of fashion’ wrote William Nicholson in 1804, ‘have deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards’. The face of the Georgian Beau Monde was clean-shaven, smooth and elegant, reflecting new ideals about politeness and appearance. To be stubbly was considered vulgar. The Whig politician Charles James Fox was lampooned in satires for having a heavy growth of stubble; in fairness this was a man whose own father had described him as resembling a monkey when he was a baby! How would our perceptions of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband et al be affected if they had appeared on televised debates sporting full Hipster beards? It’s not an attractive thought I confess.

The tax levied on beards by the Russian monarch Peter the Great in the eighteenth century is often cited. Peter was keen to modernise his nation and saw the beard as a symbol of earthy roughness – the exact opposite to the image he wanted to portray of a modern, European nation. This seemingly was not the last tax on facial hair though. In 1907, a report claimed that a member of the New Jersey state legislature had introduced a bill for a graded tax on facial hair. The unnamed politician claimed not only that men with beards had something to hide, but had ‘base and ulterior motives’ for growing them. It was bearded men, he claimed, who had recently carried out a series of notorious murders. What further proof was needed?

Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images
Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images

Perhaps more striking was the graded scale of the tax. For an ‘ordinary beard’ the tax was levied at $1 per year. This was fairly straightforward. But, from then on, things got a bit strange. For those men whose whiskers exceeded six inches long the charge was $2…per inch. A bald man with whiskers was punished to the tune of $5, while goatee beards were clearly high on the undesirable list, coming in at a hefty $10 levy. The final (and rather inexplicable) stipulation was that, if any man sported a ‘red beard’ (i.e. ginger), an extra 20% was chargeable. What happened to the bill (and indeed whether it was ever meant to be a serious piece of legislation) is unclear.

Some feared that the trend for facial hair might lead to the weakening of British moral fibre! In 1853 a barber calling himself ‘Sibthorp Suds’ complained that the “movement for German beards and Cossack Moustachios” would lead to nothing less than a “farewell to the British Constitution”. If this continued, he argued, he and others like him should be entitled to “‘demnification”!

Health and hygiene issues surrounding beards have also long been a bone of contention. In the 1660s the English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller was referring in print to the beard as “that ornamental excrement under the chin”. Sound familiar? Even as the Victorians were in the grip of a ‘beard movement’ in the mid nineteenth century, a raft of claims were being made about how healthy the beard was, as well as being the ultimate symbol of male authority. ‘The Beard that has never been cut is beautiful’ opined one author in ‘The Crayon’ periodical. Not only that, the beard protected men from infections of the nose and throat by trapping bacteria before they could enter the mouth.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

But others were swift to cry down the beard. If facial hair could filter germs, might it not also act as a magnet, which merely collected them around the face, where they could do most damage? Keeping the beard clean was certainly a consideration. In Cardiff in 1870 a barber prosecuted for shaving on a Sunday (against the law!), argued that he was doing a service since a man attending church with a dirty beard was a blackguard.

All of this raises questions about why some people apparently dislike beards so much. They clearly have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Cleanliness – or otherwise – is clearly one issue. Another is that of the element of hiding, or disguise. Some simply dislike the aesthetics of the beard. It will be interesting to see whether, by 2016, the decline of the beard will have begun. Whenever (indeed if!) this occurs, it will simply be the passing of another episode in the chequered love affair between man and his facial hair.

Edging the Competition: Surgical Instruments in the 18th-Century

As I’ve written about in other posts about razors and posture devices, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the introduction of cast steel transformed products for the body. Steel had many physical properties that rendered it very useful across a range of instruments. Unlike its predecessor, blister or shear steel, which was of uneven quality and could be brittle, cast steel was durable and capable of carrying a very sharp edge. It could also be polished to a mirror-like shine, making it very attractive to wear as ‘brilliant’s – imitation diamonds.

Many of the instruments I’ve written about, from razors to spectacles, were things that people bought to use upon their own bodies. But there was another group of instruments that was transformed, but one which people generally did their best to avoid – surgical instruments.

The surgeon’s knife held something of an ambiguous position within medicine. For patients the briefest glimpse of a scalpel or, worse, an amputation knife, was enough to send them into a swoon. Some surgeons argued that people would much rather subject themselves to the dubious ministrations of the quack than to the slice of the blade. Surgeon’s instruments also suffered from the taint of the manual craft. It was argued that almost anyone could wield a knife or a saw, without any need for theoretical knowledge of the body. As such, surgical instruments were little more than tradesmen’s tools.

Nevertheless there was an increasing demand for instruments in Britain in the later eighteenth century. Across Europe numbers of medical students were swelling. In France the numbers of surgeons nearly tripled between 1700 and 1789. By the early years of the nineteenth century, around 300 students per year were enrolling in London hospitals, as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow. As well as the increasing numbers, medical education was changing, especially in the matter of dissection. Before the 1750s, anatomisation was generally a theatrical event where the dissection was carried out by a surgeon, watched over by a crowd of enthralled and doubtless, sometimes, nauseated crowd.

But changes in medical education meant that trainee surgeons were increasingly given access and encouraged to get their hands dirty. Reading books about anatomy was fine as far as it went, but could never replace empirical observation and experience. This was also an age where views of the body were changing, and the human form was likened to a machine. As Thomson’s The Art of Dissecting the Human Body, in a plain, easy and compendious method dissection manual put it, there were only two possible ways to discover the workings of a machine. One was to be taught by its creator…difficult in this case! The other was simply to take it to bits and put it back together again.

Surgical manuals began to set out the requisite kit for the gentleman surgeon. One was to purchase a set of pocket instruments containing the most commonly-used items. The German anatomist Lorenz Heister advocated a pocket set including lancets for opening veins and abcesses, straight and crooked scissors, forceps, probes, a razor and needles. A similar kit was popular in London, containing knives ‘made of best steel’, lancets and scissors, as well as a salvatory and plaster box. Clearly some surgeons were apt to keep buying until they had amassed a huge number of instruments. The surgeon and author Benjamin Bell cautioned against such acquisitiveness, arguing that too many instruments confounded the surgeon under the pressure of the operation.

Image from http://collectmedicalantiques.com/gallery/cased-surgical-sets
Image from http://collectmedicalantiques.com/gallery/cased-surgical-sets

The increasing demand for instruments opened up a range of new opportunities for the makers of instruments. Traditionally cutlers had been the mainstay of surgical instrument manufacture. With their experience in making edged tools and of tempering metals to exact requirements, they were the best qualified. But by 1763 the Universal Director, a directory of London trades, was describing surgical instrument manufacture as ‘a distinct branch from the common cutler’. By 1800 the first dedicated surgeon’s instrument catalogues were being produced by prominent makers such as J.H. Savigny of the Strand in London. Savigny’s catalogue contained a wide variety of different instruments from knives and saws to catheters, tourniquets and even apparatus for the recovery of the apparently dead!

Image from Savigny's instrument catalogue, 1800
Image from Savigny’s instrument catalogue, 1800

Surgical instrument makers were also keen to puff their products in newspapers. The market for these products was fairly narrow and specialised; these were not items marketed for the public. Nevertheless it is noticeable that makers did their best to clothe their advertisements in the language of polite commerce, and include popular and elegant designs in their trade cards. The language of advertisements was all polite puffery. The tone of advertisements for ‘Thurgood’s Surgeon’s-Instrument Manufactory’ in Fenchurch Street was deferential, seeking to reassure ‘any professional gentlemen’ that ‘nothing shall be wanting on his (Thurgood’s) part to render full satisfaction’. Many other adverts were targeting ‘gentlemen of the faculty’ and seeking to encourage their business.

Advertising also offered opportunities for illustration. The trade card of John Chasson of London depicts a variety of amputation knives, saws and other instruments set against an elegant rococo surround. The razor and surgical instrument maker Henry Patten’s card shows a range of instruments, including lancets, hanging from branches of its elaborate frame. Given their associations with manual trades, it is noticeable that advertisements began to pay attention to the form as well as the function of instruments. John Chasson’s instrument cases, for example, could be bought in elegant boxes covered in fashionable shagreen (sharkskin). The handles of knives and saws began to change from traditional wood and bone to more exotic and expensive products like ebony, ivory and tortoiseshell.

M0015899 Surgical instrument maker's trade card, 18th century.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Perhaps the most surprising claim made by some makers, however, was that their products lessened pain and improved the experience of patients. In 1778, J. Savigny advertised his newly-invented lancets to the faculty. Stressing his metallurgical skills, Savigny argued that they were ‘wrought to such a degree of accuracy, as will greatly lessen the pain of the patient, and totally remove all apprehension of disappointment in the operator’. In another, he argued that the ‘extraordinary degree of accuracy’ in their edge would lead to the ‘approbation of the patient and reputation of the phlebotomist’. It’s interesting to note that the patient comes first. Many surgeons agreed that speed was of the essence in any surgical technique, and that this could only be achieved by keeping instruments maintained since, as Benjamin Bell noted, they were ‘injured with every use.

Amputation

The late eighteenth century, then, was something of a golden age in the manufacture of surgical instruments. As the medical faculty sought desperately to separate itself from accusations of quackery and establish itself as an learned profession, the need for new instruments, based on the latest scientific and philosophical principles, was key. Likewise, with an expanding market and greater opportunities to promote their products, surgical instrument makers were continually engaged in developing and refining their products. Whether it would be of any comfort to a poor patient to know that the knife about to saw their leg off was made of the latest cast steel, however, is a moot point!

Crooked or Straight: Creating the ideal posture in 18th-century Britain

“There are few diseases which afflict the Human Body, attended with greater disadvantages, than those produced by Distortion. It gives not only an unpleasing appearance, but innumerable complaints generally follow”. So ran an advertisement titled ‘Distortion’ in the True Briton newspaper of January 1800.

In the eighteenth century, good posture was becoming an important issue. Sloppy posture which, in John Weaver’s Anatomical and Mechanical Lectures Upon Dancing (!), included ‘holding down the head’, putting out the chin, stooping in the shoulders, bending too much forwards and thrusting out the belly’, were not good signs. The vagaries of early modern life left their mark on the human form in various ways. Various medical conditions could leave bodies in a far worse state than they found them. Diseases in childhood, such as rickets, affected gait, while accidents could lead to poorly formed limbs. Well-meaning but botched medical interventions could leave highly visible traces. Poor diet and harsh living conditions affected health and appearance. In all respects the eighteenth-century body was a product of its time.

Bath Stays or the Lady's Steel Shapes

A ‘crooked’ body left its owner open to a cruel raillery of insults. David Turner’s excellent book on disability in the eighteenth century details some of the terms of ridicule that could be levelled at those whose bodies did not conform to erect ideals.James Caulfield’s 1793 dictionary of slang included terms such as ‘lord and lady’ to denote a ‘crooked or hump back’d person’. A ‘lame or limping man’ might be referred to as ‘Mr Hopkins or Hopping Giles’. In literature, ‘deformed’ people were treated to highly pejorative terminology from ‘a creeping creature’ to various other plays upon ‘crookedness’, lameness or distortion. Having a ‘crooked’ body could also be a potential social barrier. For a woman marital prospects could be hampered. For men, the emphasis upon hardy male traits such as elegance of form and posture – as well as a general mien – made standing up straight a key consideration.

Image from Wellcome Images
Image from Wellcome Images

But, as with many other areas of daily life in the eighteenth century, where there was a problem, there lurked a ‘specialist’ to sell you something for it. Georgian newspapers contained a raft of devices designed to help people shape their own bodies. Key to this process were conceptions of ‘correction’ and ‘concealment’. One of the biggest areas of the market was for devices to ‘cure’ hernias. In many ways the eighteenth century was a golden age for the ‘rupture’. New types of industrial processes, the harsh, physical nature of manual labour and even the demands of new environments such as the navy led to a virtual plague of ruptures. The problem with inguinal hernias was the fact that they could lead to large, painful and highly visible swellings in the groin. No surprise then that truss makers often sought to emphasise the strength of their products in concealing the problem.

Guy Nutt

In 1790, Mr Dowling “Improved Patent Elastic Truss Maker’ of St Martin’s Lane, London, begged leave to acquaint the public that he had brought his trusses to ‘so great a degree of perfection that the most troublesome rupture can be kept up with ease and safety’. Unlike tight waistbands which worked by ‘forcing the contents of the abdomen downwards’, making them uncomfortable to the wearer, Dowling’s ‘Improved Elastic Breeches Straps’ were just the ticket to keep everything held up and in place. Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Double Springed Elastic Truss’ was claimed to ‘keep the largest rupture up with less inconvenience than a small one can be kept up with any other Truss’.

An important consideration for wearers was that of discretion. To be seen wearing an unwieldy truss would merely draw attention to the afflicted parts. As ever, makers were ready. J. Meares of Ludgate Hill reassured customers that his devices were so discrete that ‘even the most intimate companion cannot discover it’. Others designed their products to be ‘indistinguishable from nature’.

Apart from trusses, a range of products was available to encourage the body into a straight, erect form. It was seen as important to catch children early and teach them (by means of forcing them!) to stand properly. Leg irons, to be found amongst the stock of J. Eddy of Soho, were one means of forcing bandy legs into a socially-pleasing form. ‘Elastic bandages’ and stays worn under the garments used their properties to force an errant body into submission. As children got older and went to school, the process accelerated. Parents of girls were especially obsessed with achieving the graceful swanlike neck so desired by artists such as Joshua Reynolds and his ‘serpentine line’. Amongst the products for achieving this were steel collars, that literally forced the chin up into the air. Steel ‘backs’ and ‘monitors’ were strapped to the back and made it next to impossible for a young person to slouch. Exercising with ‘gymnastick’ equipment including dumb bells was advocated to open up the chest. In 1779, one Abraham Buzaglo patented his ‘machines &c for gymnastick exercises’.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Many of these devices were extremely uncomfortable to the wearer. The Reverend Joseph Greene complained that his truss chafed the sensitive skin of his inner thighs and ‘bruis’d ye contiguous parts’. Writing in 1780, Henry Manning commented on the popularity of such devices, which, he argued, were of little practical help. Indeed, according to Manning, the patient frequently became unhealthy and died in an exhausted state, or was forced to live out a miserable existence confined to chair or bed! Makers were forced to respond by stressing how light, durable and comfortable were their products. J. Sleath was at pains to reassure ladies that his steel backs and collars ‘of entire steel’ were ‘peculiarly light, neat and durable’!

The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake's 'Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine', 1783
The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine’, 1783

By far one of the most painful devices ever marketed was the ‘neck swing’. Swinging was recommended by surgeons as a means of stretching the spine. The ‘neck swing’ operated by encasing the sufferer’s head in a steel cap and frame, by which they were suspended off the ground for hours at a time. A surviving account by a young English girl highlights how uncomfortable this could be.

“I remained suspended in a neck swing, which is merely a tackle and pulley fixed to the ceiling of the room; the pulley is hooked to the head-piece of the collar, and the whole person raised so that the toes only touch the ground” In this position, she spent much of the day. After two decades of treatment, it was reported that her spine had actually decreased by six inches!

People were prepared to go to great lengths to achieve a straight body, even if it meant enduring excruciating pain to do it. The eighteenth century was indeed a period when people were increasing turning to new technologies in order to shape their own bodies, from razors and personal grooming instruments to postural devices and even new types of surgical instrument. Today we still have a strong sense of ‘straightness’ as a bodily ideal and a large market exists for products to help us sit straight, particularly in the workplace. Whilst the ‘neck swing’ may have long gone, we’re still obsessed with body shape and the need to conform to what any given society deems to be ideal.

Zounds how you scrape! Being shaved in Georgian Britain.

Last week, for the first time in my life, I was the lucky recipient of a wet shave with a cut throat razor. As part of my duties as a BBC/AHRC ‘New Generation Thinker’ I was making a short film about shaving in Georgian Britain, the conclusion of which sees me having my beard shorn off in the Pall Mall barbers in Fitzrovia, central London, a traditional barbers’ shop with a history dating back to the nineteenth century. http://www.pallmallbarbers.com/  (I don’t usually go in for endorsements in the blog, but will make an exception here and say a big thanks to Richard and his team for looking after us. Much appreciated guys).

For someone who has always used safety razors, I must admit that I was slightly nervous. After all, sitting recumbent in a chair while someone sweeps a lethally sharp blade over your neck might not immediately seem like a good plan. I needn’t have worried. My barber, Michael, was an expert and, after a bit of preparatory work with hot towels and various creams and lotions, six months’ worth of beard was gone(smoothly and painlessly) in less than half an hour.

Under the knife!

But the experience was interesting for me on another level. Having been researching and writing in various ways about shaving for the past five or six years, this was a chance to get close to the experience of men in the past. Maybe sixty or seventy years ago, the cut throat razor was still extremely popular. Today, being shaved by a barber is something of a luxury. As I sat there in the comfortable chair, being shaved with a modern blade that was…well…razor sharp, I was reminded that this wasn’t always the experience of stubbly men in the past.

In Georgian Britain, shaving could be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Steel razors were already in use in the first half of the eighteenth century. These were often made of a type of steel called ‘shear steel’, which was made through an older process involving heating iron with layers of charcoal so that it absorbed the carbon. Whilst tough, this type of steel was prone to be brittle and not best suited to holding an extremely sharp edge for long. It needed constant re-sharpening with a strop –a leather strap which was held while the razor was swept up and down in long strokes.

After 1750, a new type of steel – cast steel – began to be introduced. Cast steel was more uniform in quality, capable of carrying a sharper edge, and had the added benefit of being capable of carrying a high polish. This meant that razors could look good, as well as working well. This is a model by the prominent razor maker and metallurgist James Stodart.

Image from http://www.taylors1000.com/index.htm, used with permission.
Image from http://www.taylors1000.com/index.htm, used with permission.

But even despite the availability of new razors, and the increasing habit of auto-pogonotomy (shaving yourself!), the barber was still the mainstay of shaving services. The problem was that the quality of barbering was, like the razors, not always uniform in quality. In fact, unlike today, barbers had something of a bad reputation for the treatment sometimes meted out to men coming into their shop for a shave!

Part of the problem was the routine use of blunted razors. Anyone who has ever tried to use a razor with modern disposable blades one too many times will probably sympathise with the uncomfortable rasping feeling as the blade scrapes, rather than cuts through the beard. So it was with a blunted cutthroat. Unlike today, there were no ‘lubricating strips’ in razors to help it glide. Shaving soaps and powders were used, and doubtless helped a bit but the poor customer was in for 30 minutes or so of severe discomfort if the barber had ignored the strop. The caption in this cartoon says it all: “Zounds how you scrape!”

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Even once the shave had finished the ordeal might not be over. Many would have left with a prodigious shaving rash, not to mention the nicks and cuts that would be difficult to cover.  By the 1780s, some perfumers like Robert Sangwine of the Strand were beginning to sell various pastes and potions to soothe smarting skin.

18th-century classified ads...see if you can find Sangwine's advert!
18th-century classified ads…see if you can find Sangwine’s advert!

On a more serious note, a visit to the barber could be a threat to health. Razors might be washed between customers, but not in clean water. Matter such as blood and debris left on the surface of the razor, and its handle, could easily be transferred to the next customer, perhaps even into a cut, leaving them susceptible to infection.

It is also likely that, even with well-sharpened cast steel razors, the shave would not be as close as those experienced by modern men. It is also unlikely that the majority of men either shaved themselves or visited a barber more than a couple of times a week. As such, even though beards were extremely out of fashion, a few days growth of beard could well have been the norm. It is interesting to note, though, that a ‘five o’clock shadow’ could render you a target. The prominent Whig politician Charles James Fox was almost always depicted with heavy stubble, partly to highlight his status as a ‘man of the people’. If nothing else, this does suggest that ‘ordinary’ men, especially lower down the social order, were routinely stubbly. Fox is the figure at the far left.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

But barbers were sometimes unpopular for other reasons. A raft of satirical cartoons poked fun at barbers who paid little attention to the sufferings of their customers or, worse still, paid little attention to their customers at all! In this cartoon, the barber is lost in his own conversation, talking about an acquaintance in Amsterdam. ‘Hulloa there’ cries the poor customer, ‘don’t you know that you’re about to cut off my nose?”!

Barber

This was also a time when barbers were in a period of transition. After splitting from the barber-surgeons’ company in 1745 to create their own occupational identity, the shift away from medicine was also marked by a move towards specialisation in hair dressing. Indeed, the term ‘hairdresser’ was increasingly becoming common towards the end of the eighteenth century. The extent to which hairdressers still provided shaving services for men is one of the questions I’ll be addressing in my new project on the history of shaving in Britain between 1700 and 1918.

In any case, I’m getting used to beardless life again after six months of facial hirsuteness. Many times in the course of my work as a historian of seventeenth-century medicine and surgery I’ve had cause to be thankful for modern biomedicine. My experience at the hands of a modern barber has given me the same feeling with my work on the history of shaving!

Fart catchers and Duck F***ers! The world of 18th-century slang

Often, whilst searching for sources in the archives, you come across something that you would perhaps never usually have found. This week was no exception. Whilst looking through Georgian books for evidence of bad posture I had a chance encounter with a rather unusual book –James Caulfield’s Blackguardiana or dictionary of rogues, bawds, pimps, whores, pickpockets, shoplifters etc (London: 1793).

Title page to 'Blackguardiana'

The stated aim of the book was to identify and catalogue the most notorious villains of the day, together with illustrations but, along the way, to provide ‘anecdotes, flash terms and cant songs’ all of which was ‘Intended to put society on their guard against Depredators’. It also sought to help unwary foreign travellers by equipping them with enough knowledge to guide them through the often-puzzling diversity of the English language. The book was fairly pricey, costing one guinea, and few copies were printed.

Arranged alphabetically, the book takes us through a huge range of terms, spanning over 250 pages. There’s not room here to go through the lot, but some specific examples will be enough to get a flavour of the whole thing! Many, for example, are general terms covering a range of aspects of daily life. We learn that to ‘Sham Abram’ is to pretend to be ill. Someone who ‘casts up their accounts’ is vomiting, while someone ‘in their altitudes’ is drunk. A wife scolding her husband was offering him a ‘dish of rails’! To be hungry was to have ‘a long stomach’.

Image from Joanne Bailey's excellent blog -https://jbailey2013.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/embodying-marital-behaviour-in-the-eighteenth-century/
Image from Joanne Bailey’s excellent blog -https://jbailey2013.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/embodying-marital-behaviour-in-the-eighteenth-century/

Interesting along the way are the various slang names for occupations. A maid might be referred to as an ‘Abigail’, while a servant in general was known as a ‘fart catcher’ because of their habit of walking behind their masters. A parish clerk might be referred to as an ‘Amen Curler’, while an innkeeper could be a ‘bluffer’.

Golf_caddy

An eighteenth-century 'punk'!
An eighteenth-century ‘punk’!

Perhaps reflecting the general lack of love for the medical profession, medical practitioners do not fare well in slang terms. According to Caulfield to ‘talk like an Apothecary’ meant to spout nonsense ‘from assumed gravity and affectation of knowledge’. A long bill might be termed ‘an Apothecary’s bill’ while ‘Apothecary’s Latin’ was ‘barbarous’. The reasons why are unclear, but an army or navy surgeon might be known as either a ‘crocus’ or ‘crocus metallorum’.

The phrase ‘that’s the Barber!’ was ‘a ridiculous and unmeaning phrase in the mouths of common people, signifying their approbation of any action, measure or thing’. A midwife was a ‘rabbit catcher’ while a surgeon’s assistant laboured under the name of the ‘loblolley boy’, named after the gruel often doled out to the sick. Before we feel too sorry for the medics, spare a thought for the person who looked after the poultry aboard ship, who was colloquially referred to as the ‘Duck F**ker’!

Insults naturally feature quite prominently. A ‘beastly, sluttish woman’ might have the name Fusty legges’ levelled at her. A drunk person was a ‘pogy’. A punk, according to Caulfield ‘was a little whore’, while a ‘sad, ignorant fellow’ was regarded as a ‘looby’.

As well as name-calling the dictionary gives us some insight into the language of crime. To ‘give someone his bastings’ was to beat them up, as was to give them a ‘rib roasting’. A burly ‘puff guts’ waving a knife at you might threaten to ‘let out your puddings’, whilst if a highwaymen instructed you to ‘tip off your kicks’, it was advisable to remove your trousers (kicks) immediately. If you were ‘kimbawed’ then you had been cheated, Any unfortunate man who was ‘bastonaded in his bawbells’ was likely to have been the recipient of a hefty punch in the testicles!

Image from www.oldbaileyonline.org
Image from http://www.oldbaileyonline.org

Again, unsurprisingly, a great deal of space is reserved for sex! A woman ‘riding St George’ was ‘uppermost in the amorous congress’. Two bodies engaged in sex were referred to as the ‘plaister of warm guts’. A man putting his ‘plug tail’ into a woman’s ‘dumb glutton’…or worse still her ‘pratts’ , was engaged in practices against which the stricter clergy would certainly object!

There are, however, many familiar phrases. ‘Against the grain’ is used to denote something that someone does against their will. ‘Riff raff’ were ‘low, vulgar people’ while busy shopkeepers were said to be doing ‘a roaring trade’. Someone talking too much might be told to ‘Shut your potato trap!’ – from which the more common ‘shut your trap’ probably derives. Someone who could not make a choice was ‘in a quandary’.

It’s perhaps easy to see these as humorous examples of eighteenth-century trash talk. Many of them are extremely funny and often surprising. They even still have something of the power to shock. But in terms of historical value they are incredibly important in offering a window into the often-earthy common language, spoken by ordinary people. Our view of eighteenth-century manners and politeness has been created and reinforced through things like literature and advertising and gives us the polite speak of literate elites. Caulfield, however, takes us to the village inn as well as the salon, and lets us hear some of the choice slang, insults and names that were perhaps closer to the daily speak of individuals.

Now, ‘Teddy my Godson’, away before I ‘let out your puddings’!