The ‘Gimcrack whim collector’: Don Saltero’s Coffee House and Museum

From the late 1600s until well into the nineteenth, one particular premises, a former coffee house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, was a must-see on the list for visitors. Famous for its ‘cabinets of curiosities’, the ‘museum’ was known colloquially by the name of its proprietor. Thus, ‘Don Saltero’s’ was a fixture of the London landscape for over two centuries. But who was the mysterious ‘Don Saltero’, and what sorts of things could visitors marvel at?

Saltero's Coffee House NYPL

(A print of Don Saltero’s Coffee House, signed by some of its famous visitors, including Hans Sloane: Image copyright of New York Public Library)

As contemporaries remarked, the name Don Saltero had exotic Spanish connotations. But the owner and proprietor was certainly not Spanish – he was an English barber, tooth-drawer and sometime servant to the prominent physician Sir Hans Sloane. His name was the less-exotic James Salter!

By 1715, the premises of ‘James Salter the Coffeeman’ had become a notable place of resort for the literati, and prominent figures of the day. Alongside his coffee and punch-making skills, it was reported that he could shave, bleed, pull teeth and stumps, and play the fiddle as well as any man in England. But it was his growing collection of curios that began to draw the great and the good from Georgian society to Cheyne Walk.

Salter’s collection began when Sloane started to donate a few curios of his own for Salter to display in his shop. In fact the adorning of barber and apothecary shops was nothing new. As Patrick Wallis’s study of London apothecary premises has shown, visitors might encounter anything from holy relics to stuffed crocodiles, and the display of such items served to cement the worldly and slightly mysterious image of the medical practitioner in the customer’s mind.

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(Image from Daily Telegraph)

Amongst the treasures in the Wellcome Library is the 35th edition of ‘A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Don Saltero’s Coffee House in Chelsea’ – a complete list of the contents of Saltero’s museum, down to individual shelves, cupboards and cases. It gives us a fascinating insight into what visitors would have encountered in the home of the self-styled ‘gimcrack whim collector’, and also what sorts of things were considered as prime curiosities.

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(Author’s photograph of original document in Wellcome Library – copyright belongs to them)

Many items were small objet d’art – curious pieces of pottery from far-flung places, or unusually exquisite or highly crafted pieces. Glass Case number 1, for example, contained ‘a cup and saucer, a drinking cup with a foot, a jar and snuff box, all made of cherry stones’. There were all manner of other types of cups and jars in the case, a crystal bottle and tobacco stopper. Tiny instruments, such as the ‘exceeding curious pair of steel scissors’ weighing just 1 and a quarter grains, or the ‘travelling clock, which is 36 hours going down’.

Adorning the walls were a wide variety of prints and portraits. These included images of unusual animals, like the Brazilian Toucan, or the flying squirrel, as well as prints of historical documents such as the signed death warrant of Charles I, and portraits of famous artists, such as ‘a print of the famous Corelli’. Hanging from the ceiling were all manner of mummified animals, fish and birds, along with replica boats, giant shells and ‘the King of Morocco’s tobacco pipe’.

Animal and human curiosities formed another important part of the collection, offering visitors the chance to feast their eyes on the skeletons or stuffed figures of strange and exotic animals. Mummy’s hands, or saint’s relics were particularly prized, and probably pretty standard fare in other types of museum. But Saltero’s had other treasures such as ‘the head of the spatula bird’, ‘a curious horse-shoe fish’, ‘the pizzle of a racoon’, ‘a lizard 20 inches long’ and even (for Georgian Harry Potter fans!) ‘the ‘basilisk, supposed to kill with his eyes’!

Items that seemed to defy nature were particularly prized. Amongst these were the ‘handkerchief made of the asbestos rock, which fire can’t consume’, and the ‘piece of rotten wood not to be consumed by fire’. ‘Several pieces of the holy cross’ were on display in one room, along with other ‘relicks from Jerusalem’, and even ‘the Pope’s candle’. If all that weren’t enough, one cabinet claimed ‘the flaming sword of William the Conqueror’.

In other cases, exhibits tended more towards things that literally seemed ‘fantastic’: Item number 24 was ‘A curious sword set with polished steel, presented by the king of Lilliput to Capt. Gulliver’. Anticipating Tolkien’s Middle Earth by two centuries, astonished visitors could also gaze upon ‘An elf’s arrow’.

Some items, though, defy easy categorisation. Nuns for example, seem to feature fairly prominently! Saltero’s collections included ‘a pair of nun’s stockings’, ‘a nun’s pincushion’ and various other objects made by nun’s. Religious figures such as nun’s perhaps excited interest since they were inaccessible, even exotic figures, who were shut away from society. Likewise, items with connections to royalty gave people a glimpse into another sort of closed world. William III’s coronation shoes gave a taste of the occasion for those who weren’t invited, while those interested in the size of Elizabeth I’s feet could gaze with wonder at one of her stirrups. Quite why ‘a piece of Queen Catherine’s skin’ was on display, or how it was obtained, is unfortunately not recorded!

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(Cheyne Walk looking East – image copyright of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea http://www.rbkc.gov.uk)

Saltero’s was a feature of the London landscape for over 100 years – long after Salter himself died in 1728. By 1799 the collection had begun to be dispersed and sold. Neverthless, the tavern continued to be known as Don Saltero’s well into the nineteenth century. In 1866, John Timbs’ Club Life of London noted that the last few gimcracks were left until about 1825, when we were informed on the premised they were thrown away!’. But, even then, ‘the house is now a tavern with the sign of “The Don Saltero’s Coffee House”’. Long after his death, the spirit of Saltero, and his exotic collections of curios, continued to reign over Cheyne Walk.

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Overcrowded and Underfunded: 18th-Century Hospitals and the NHS Crisis

One from the archives, as we brace ourselves for the annual winter onslaught on the NHS.

Dr Alun Withey

The problem of overcrowded hospitals in Britain is now an annually recurring one. Every year, especially in winter, operations are cancelled, treatments postponed and patients sent home because there simply isn’t bed space for them. A combination of increased admissions of the elderly in the winter months, seasonal outbreaks such as flu and norovirus, and the impact of weather-related accidents all serve to pile on the pressure to an already-embattled healthcare system.

Embattled Doctor!

According to the BBC, NHS and social care services are ‘at breaking point’, with an open letter warning the government that ‘things cannot go on like this’.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29501588. The story is now a perennial one. Every year (and in fact every couple of months) a mix of underfunding, overcrowding and staff stress puts the NHS in the headlines. Winter almost always exacerbates the problem. A year ago the outgoing NHS Chief Executive David Nicholson warned that the “toxic overcrowding”…

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The Great Georgian Snuff Debate

One from the archives – the ‘Vaping’ of the 18th century!

Dr Alun Withey

We’re used to debates about tobacco. In any given week it’s a fair bet that smoking/cigarettes/e-cigarettes will be food for editorial thought. What the UK’s Guardian recently called a ‘global epidemic of tobacco’ is, according to their statistics, a bigger killer than Malaria, TB and AIDS…combined. Recent scare stories have surrounded e-cigarettes, prompting tabloids to ruminate over the question of whether they might even act as baby steps to full-strength cigs. The central problem with tobacco is its undoubted potential to kill. We think of this as a modern debate about a modern affectation. But, in fact, debates about the healthiness of tobacco have raged for centuries. Three hundred years ago, snuff was at the centre of the storm.

One of the most quintessential emblems of the eighteenth century dandy or fop is the snuffbox. By the mid eighteenth century the practice was ubiquitous…and not to everyone’s taste. In 1754…

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Thomas Ribright: The Electrifying Optician of 18th-century London.

Over the years I’m occasionally asked about historical heroes and villains and, in particular, who my ‘history hero’ would be. People are often surprised at my answer. My choice is neither famous nor celebrated…in fact it’s a good bet you’ve never heard of him. But, when I stumbled across a report about him in an 18th-century newspaper, I knew he was the guy for me.

Our tale is a cautionary one, involving a very modern form of antisocial behaviour, malice and nuisance, but also retribution. Depending on how you look at it, this is a Georgian story of instant karma…of what might be categorised on a Youtube clip as ‘instant justice’.

It takes place in London in 1789, the heart of Georgian polite society and culture. London was in many ways the Georgian city, with its vibrant social scene of parties, events and balls, its elegant shops, neat pavements for promenading, and huge range of newly desirable goods on offer, from the latest homewares and decorations to fashion and jewellery. Once the polite customer was suitably shopped out, they could repair to one of the many local tea and coffee houses for a restorative libation!

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‘Miseries of Human Life’ – Image from Lewis Walpole Digital Collection

Amongst the many shops lining the Poultry in Cheapside, London, a thriving commercial area near London Bridge, was the ‘mathematical, optical and philosophical instrument’ business, belonging to Thomas Ribright. Scientific instruments were very much the ‘coming thing’ in the second half of the eighteenth century. For a true Beau Monde, knowing your telescope from your orrery (and preferably owning a couple of each) was the mark of the aesthete and the person of taste. Cities like London and Bath regularly hosted public demonstrations of scientific instruments to rapt audiences, who delighted in the latest ‘magick’ discovery.

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Trade card of Thomas Ribright – John Johnson Collection

Ribright was an optician by trade, describing himself on his elaborate trade card as ‘Optician to the Prince of Wales’. In 1749 he had patented his own form of spectacles, along with other instruments. By the 1750s he was a regular advertiser in the London newspapers, selling a range of optical devices. His ‘Brazil pebble spectacles’, for example, were available in ‘fine Venetian green glass’. Nestled in amongst advertisements for ‘Bears Fat’, country dancing instruction and razor straps, an entry in the Gazette and New Daily Advertiser in 1765 shows that he was an agent for a range of different and new-invented instruments, such as the ‘New and Correct Globes’.

In the summer of 1789, however, a very modern type of nuisance plagued the residents of the Poultry, in the form of a young grocer, Peter Wheeler (a shady character known locally as ‘Lord Fig’ for his habit of affecting airs and graces). Wheeler was an early exponent of what, in 1970s Cardiff, we used to call ‘Knock Knock Ginger’ – ringing doorbells and running away. [Disclaimer: The young Dr Withey was far too well-behaved a child ever to have considered doing anything remotely like this, and does not advocate such a vile practice in any way, shape or form. I might have left fake notes for my neighbours’ milkman once or twice, but that’s another story]. Wheeler added his own twist by ringing the bells violently in the middle of the night, which, as Mr Ribright reported in a letter to the Times in 1789, greatly alarmed his family. After suffering this menace night after night, Thomas Ribright had enough. “I resolved, if possible, to punish the disturber of my rest.” At this point, Wheeler was messing with the wrong guy.

One particular night, Wheeler once again made his way to the Poultry after nightfall, preparing himself for another evening of terrorising the poor optician’s family. Perhaps trying a couple of other houses first, he arrived at the threshold of Ribright’s shop, perhaps chuckling quietly to himself, reached out his hand for the bell. Perhaps he noticed his shoe catching on a strange patch of metal filings on the doorstep but, in any case, his hand reached out for the bell…

This night, however, something was different. Before going any further, let’s take a look at a 1780 advertisement of Thomas Ribright, giving a clue to one of his other skills:

“16th November, 1780

ELECTRICITY having of late been found of particular Use in the Cure of RHEUMATIC, PARALYTIC and HYPOCHONDRIAC complaints

Also for the removal of SPASMS, CONTRACTIONS, DEAFNESS and complaints incident to the TEETH,

RIBRIGHT AND SMITH

Optical, Philosophical and Mathematical Instrument Makers, Beg leave to Inform the Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, that they have fitted up a Compleat Apparatus, for performing the Operation by Shock, Spark or passing the Electric Matter through the human frame, locally or generally.”

Thomas Ribright was therefore a specialist in ‘medical electricity’, and his shop was bristling with the latest models. Being electrocuted back to health was becoming popular towards the end of the eighteenth century. The ‘patient’ would be attached to the machine, which would be fired up, giving them a shock, ranging from mild to intense. Suitably ‘electrified’, the patient would leave the shop a shilling lighter and hopefully cured, though perhaps with their hair standing a little on end. Such was the fascination of this procedure that this could sometimes even draw a crowd.

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18th-Century electrical machine – although bigger than Mr Ribright’s! Image from Wikimedia Commons

And so back to the Poultry. Determined to have his revenge on the troublemaker, Mr Ribright had set up an elaborate trap. First he “pasted some tin filings upon the pavement before my door”, to act as a conductor. Next he “made a communication between the handle of the bell and an electrical machine, and charged a large jar to be ready for his reception”. His timing was perfect.

A few moments after, as I suspected, [he] made an attempt as usual; but instead of accomplishing what he intended, he received the full contents of the jar”.

So, as the young offender touched the bell, there was a loud crack, and he received a full charge from Mr Ribright’s electrical machine, propelling him loudly and swiftly back into the street, where he was seen staggering around. When Mr Ribright opened the door to his shop he was treated to the gratifying sight of his tormentor “leaning against one of the supporters of the door and exclaiming What! You shoot people eh?…damn ye”.

 A small crowd had by now gathered, lauging and pointing and, it was reported, applauded Mr Ribright for his efforts, as the (literally) shocked ‘Lord Fig’ was led away by the local constable to await his fate.

And so, for his ingenuity, innovation and dispensation of ‘instant justice’, THAT is why Thomas Ribright is my history hero.

What About Whiskers? The forgotten facial hair fashion of 19th-century Britain.

In 1843, an article appeared in the New Orleans ‘Picayune’ newspaper, titled ‘Whiskers. Or, a clean shave’. Dwelling on their utility as ‘ornamental appendages to the human face’, the authors sought to discuss how they contributed to the ‘”masculineness” of manhood’. They even – jokingly – referred to an, as yet undeveloped branch of natural sciences; ‘Whiskerology’.

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Victorian carte d’visit depicting unknown man with HUGE whiskers – recently used in our ‘Age of the Beard’ exhibition

Taking a long view of facial hair fashions since the 17th century, it’s broadly true that beards and moustaches began to decline after around 1680, and disappeared completely through the eighteenth century, until, first the moustache, and then the beard returned with full vigour in the middle of the nineteenth century. So, from bearded, to beardless and back again in around 200 years.

But that’s actually not quite the case. Around the turn of the nineteeth century, male facial hair made what might be regarded as an initial skirmish, before the full frontal facial assault of the 1850s. It was not long-lived; by no means was there a ‘whisker movement’. But, for the first decade of the 19th century, whiskers were definitely a ‘thing’.

There is sometimes confusion about what whiskers actually are, and how they differ from beards. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably. Even in contemporary articles whiskers could be used as a catch-all for beards or for beard hairs. But technically they refer to different things. Whilst beards are of the cheeks and chin, whiskers are specific to the sides of the face, and jawline. Also, whilst beards are generally a single entity, whiskers, like moustaches, come as a pair.

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(Image from Wikipedia: Edward Askew Southern as ‘Lord Dundreary’)

The fashion for whiskers seems to have begun quite abruptly around 1800. There were sneering reports, for example, of a new trend amongst young men about town, for cultivating their side -whiskers, and showing them off in public. To a polite society still embracing ideals of neatness and smooth, manly elegance, this was little less than scandalous. The desirability of whiskers, however, was such that the wigmaker Ross of Bishopsgate took to the Times to advertise his new contrivance of a wig with whiskers attached through ‘such remarkable adhesion as cannot be discovered from Nature itself’. This ‘new invented whisker’ could be combed to suit any fashion, but came at the high price of three pounds and three shillings – a full pound dearer than his standard, un-whiskered perukes

By 1808, so popular had whiskers become, that even women were apparently trying to get in on the act. Several fashion journals (such as the popular ‘Le Belle Epoque’) reported a coming trend for ladies to train their lovelocks down the side of their faces ‘in imitation of whiskers’. For some this was a step too far. ‘I am at a loss to conceive what a gentleman will be pleased with in a lady’s whiskers’. Nonetheless, this was clearly a popular fashion. Whether it was ‘The Countess Dowager of B—s whiskers’ which were apparently ‘already in great forwardness’, or the ‘belles of Cockermouth’, a set of whiskers was seriously a la mode. At one stage it was suggested that an enterprising perfumer was even selling preparations ‘To Ladies of Fashion ‘who have tried various preparations for changing the hair, whiskers and eyebrows, without success’, but this proved to be an error of phrasing, as the Satirist magazine were happy to poke fun at!

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There were certainly products aimed specifically at cultivating whiskers though. By 1808, ‘Prince’s Russia Oil’ and ‘Macassar Oil’ were in demand, and advertisers claimed that they were specifically designed to ‘promote whiskers’ and prevent damage or discolouration caused by frequent wetting.

Some of the arguments made for whiskers during this period were also in fact remarkably similar to those later made for beards. Echoing later claims for the innate masculinity of beards, whiskers were said to be ‘grave and manly’. Whiskers had been venerated by ‘the ancients’, lending them an air of authority and wisdom. It was, as one commentator noted, ‘silly to oppose so ancient a custom in an age so attached to antiquity’. Moreover, the ‘cruelty of shaving’ was matched by the dangers of the shaking hands of ‘unskilled operators’ (barbers). Most of all, it was argued, whiskers were beautiful, especially when set against the ‘unfringed faces of the present day’.

Gentleman with whiskers

(Image from Pinterest – owner of original copyright unknown)

At the same time whiskers were beginning to be held up as a desirable characteristic of the male face. A man obtaining goods under false pretences was described in 1811 as of ‘gentlemanly appearance’, and of ‘handsome countenance, who wears black whiskers’. A report of the suicide of Royal Footman Andrew Tranter in 1810 noted his reputation for ‘neatness and cleanliness’ in his dress and appearance, and that he ‘wore very large whiskers and was considered a handsome young man’. Such seemingly innocuous reports in fact hides an important transition; after more than a century, facial hair was again aesthetically and socially pleasing but, more than this, cleanly.

In 1813, ‘The Spirit of Public Journals’ reported the ‘Growing custom of encouraging whiskers’ and the barbed criticisms levelled at them by critics. It was apparently even suggested that an Act of Parliament should be made to curtail the fashion. Even then, the subject of male facial hair was contentious! Fortunately, the author argued, the ‘Whiskerandos’ outnumbered their tormentors and merely increased in proportion to the opposition levelled against them.

Despite the ‘Spirit’s enthusiasm, however, it seems that the fashion for side-whiskers had abated by the end of the 1810s. It’s not clear why it declined; perhaps Victorian society was not quite ready for the hirsute revolution of the mid century. But it is interesting to consider whiskers, not only as a sort of trial run for what came later, but also as an often-forgotten element in men’s facial hair fashions. It wasn’t all beards and moustaches.

Chin Curtain beard

(Image from Pinterest – owner of original copyright unknown)

As the current beard style continues to change, at the moment with beards seemingly getting smaller and more closely trimmed, will we see the return of such fantastic styles as the ‘Dundreary’ whiskers or (please no!) the ‘chin curtain’? Perhaps the Whiskerandos will rise again. If they do, you can be sure that this particular ‘Whiskerologist’ will be there to document it.

How Welsh medicine helped to create America!

A post about one of Wales’ early medical pioneers.

Dr Alun Withey

How is Welsh medicine linked to the establishment of a global superpower? On the face of it the two don’t appear to have much in common! As an historian of Welsh medical history it’s not often that I can make grandiose claims about Welsh practitioners. One of my colleagues once suggested that Galen was actually a mistranscription and that the supposed Graeco-Roman physician was actually G. Allen from Cardiff. Wales, and not ancient Greece, in his view, was the true seat of medical knowledge. With the subject of this post, however, Wales (and Welsh medicine) can lay claim to an important figure in the early history of the United States – Thomas Wynne of Ysceifiog, Flintshire.

Wynne was born in 1627 in Bron Vadog in the parish of Ysceifiog in North Wales, the son of a freeholder. Details of his early life are sometimes obscure. It seems that his father…

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The Case of the Severed Finger: Callow vs Heane, 1634

One from the blog archives for a sunny Monday!

Dr Alun Withey

In my last blog post I looked at a libel case between two Exeter medical practitioners. It was interesting to see how professional reputations were at stake and the ways in which practitioners called each other’s skills into question. For this post I’m staying on a similar theme, but this time a medical practitioner plays the part of a key witness in a bitter dispute between two ‘Gentlemen’ from the Welsh marches in the 1630s.

In September 1634, members of the families of Heane and Callow were enjoying an evening’s revelry in an alehouse in Brockweir, Gloucestershire. No doubt oiled by good sack, a discussion about the wardship of a young member of the Heane family quickly became a debate….and inevitably a dispute which quickly got out of hand.

Alehouse

At some point a £10 wager was made and a member of the Heane family declaimed, loudly, that ‘the Heanes were…

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