The Hand of History: Hands, fingers and nails in the eighteenth century

One from the archives – a post all about how the appearance of even small areas of the body, such as hands, or even fingernails, could be very important, and tell us a great deal about attitudes towards the body in the past.

Dr Alun Withey

Firstly, apologies for the hiatus from the blog; it’s proving to be a busy summer, and this is my first post as a BBC/AHRC ‘New Generation Thinker’ – no pressure then!

I’ve now started work on my second book, which relates to the history of technologies of the body in the eighteenth century. The book will look at the ways in which people increasingly used objects to fashion their bodies, and the relationship between these objects and new materials, such as steel. There are chapters, for example, on razors, spectacles, rupture trusses and bodily ‘ephemera’.

As I’ve been building up my secondary reading on eighteenth-century views of the body, it occurred to me that very little work has been done on the history of the hands. Lots of articles refer to hands as metaphors or explore, for example, the importance of hands in manufacturing. But far less attention has been…

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Barbers and Shaving in early modern Britain.

As the beards project rolls merrily forward, I’ve recently been turning my attention to barbers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over the past few months I’ve been looking at a large number of sources relating to barbers and barber-surgeons, and have been looking at questions of how they trained, guild membership and, at the moment, what we can learn from their shops from probate inventories.

In the early modern period, barber-surgeons were firmly part of the world of medical practice. In fact they were probably the most numerous of all practitioners. It was they who dealt with medical tasks from patching up wounds and minor surgery, to bloodletting, digging out earwax, scraping the tongue and combing the dandruff and scurf out of sweaty, unwashed heads. On the barbering side, they also cut hair and shaved.

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(Image courtesy of – Wellcome Images)

In fact I’m also currently looking at the question of barber occupational titles, and especially those who were ‘just’ barbers. It’s long been argued that, outside London, there was little difference in practice between barbers and barber-surgeons. I’m finding some evidence that there were differences in what barbers did, as opposed to barber-surgeons. Still, that’s a matter for later on in the project.

One question I’m particularly interested in is that of how often men went to the barber in the 17th and 18th centuries and, more specifically, how often they shaved. Why does it even matter? Well, for instance, the degree of stubble raises interesting questions about what was the ‘normal’ state of a man’s facial appearance. That is, was ‘stubbly’ in fact the default position for early modern men, rather than what we today think of as clean shaven? In the eighteenth century, men didn’t wear beards. But, if only shaved once every 3 or 4 days, this would be very different to shaving every day.

Part of the problem lies in actually finding shaving within contemporary sources. Some diaries give us a little evidence. Samuel Pepys, for example, notes his various experimentations with shaving, including one fairly short-lived experiment of rasping the beard hairs away with a pumice stone. Parson James Woodforde leaves quite a lot of detail about his shaves, including buying shaving equipment, visiting the barber, and doing the job himself.

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In terms of barber visits though, the way that payments were made serves to obscure how often men actually went. Rather than, like today, payment being taken at each visit, early modern barbers were often paid quarterly on account – known as the barber’s ‘quarterage’. For barbers this had the advantage of enabling them to establish long term working relationships with clients, and to guarantee income for some periods of time.

For customers, barbering was a profession that relied on trust. Submitting yourself to lie still while a stranger hovered a lethally sharp blade over your jugular required some estimation of their ability! So visiting the same barber for a long period of time enabled the relationship to build over time.

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The problem with barbers’ quarterage though, is that it doesn’t tell you how many visits were included. So, in 1655, when Giles Moore noted in his journal that he had ‘payd for barbouring for six moneths, 7s and 6d’, we don’t know how many times he had been. At the same time in Oxford, Anthony Wood regularly paid four shillings for his barber’s ‘quarteridge’, on one occasion also mentioning a further 2s and 6d ‘for powder and mending of my periwige’.

These sources raise a further problem, which is that of terminology. How can we separate shaving out from other tasks. To take the example of Giles Moore, when he paid for ‘barbouring’, what was included? Was this a shave? A Haircut? A head shave or wig dressing, or a combination of any or all? Matters are complicated by the elastic definitions attached to terms. The Rev. Oliver Heywood’s early eighteenth-century diary has repeated references to his being ‘trim’d’ by his barber. ‘Trimming’ is often taken to refer to hair cutting, but contemporaries understood that it equally referred to cutting the beard. Even ‘shaving’ is not reliable since heads could be shaved in preparation for a wig. So, when Sir Thomas Tyldesley paid ‘Tom Ordds pro shaveing’ in 1712, we can’t be sure whether this was his face or his head.

One source perfectly illustrates the frustrations. A barber’s bill for Sir William Kingsmill in 1681 contains a list of payments, which, at first appear straightforward. Every day over two months has an unspecified payment of one shilling, whilst every third day has the entry ‘shav’d’, with the higher price of 2s and 6d. So, at first glance it might seem that Sir William’s face was shaved once every 3 days, with the barber attending every day for other reasons – maybe bloodletting, wig-dressing etc.

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(Image taken by author)

But one single entry gives a further clue. In April 1681, one entry notes ‘head shav’d’ at 2s 6d. So, a more likely alternative is that the barber shaved Sir William’s face every day, at the lower price of 1s, then shaved his head at the higher price every 3 days.

Some sources, though, are more explicit. Sir John Lauder’s 1670 journals note several examples of paying the barber ‘for razeing me’, together with a price of sixpence. In a range of entries, sixpence occurs very frequently and, whilst it is certainly possible that this refers to having the head shaved, the face seems more likely. In 1674, William Cunningham paid his barber several shillings ‘for razeing and haircutting’, separating the two tasks out specifically.

In the coming months I’m heading back out into the archives, to look at more evidence of barber shops and their role both as medical practitioners and ‘managers’ of men’s bodies and appearance. I’m also going to be looking at how the barber’s role changed after the split from the surgeons in 1745, and how shaving was affected as the ‘hairdresser’ began to emerge in the later eighteenth century.

By way of conclusion though, one entry in Thomas Tyldesley’s diary, though, gives us a wonderful example of a man clearly in the wrong job. In January 1718, Tyldesley wrote that he had blood taken from his arm, as he was suffering from a ‘could and a stitch’. Sadly this proved too much for the unfortunate barber, since ‘Tom Tomlinson, barber, who shaved mee, was frighton with the sight of ye blood’!

Birthday Celebration!

Happy-BirthdayToday is my blog’s 5th birthday! I can clearly remember writing the first post with some trepidation, wondering whether anybody would bother to read it, or would even find it. It’s been so much fun, and with over 100,000 views to date, from more than 120 countries, it’s gone from strength to strength.

And so, a massive thanks to everyone who has read, commented on and shared my posts. I’m SO grateful and it’s great to be able to share some of the wonderful sources that I come across in archives. Doing the blog has been (and continues to be) a real learning experience for me, and has often led to some great opportunities to do other things.

So, happy birthday blog, and here’s to the next 5 years!

‘He is gone from his service before his time’: Medical Apprenticeships in Early Modern Britain

One from the archives – new posts to follow soon…promise!

Dr Alun Withey

One of the biggest frustrations in studying Welsh medical history is the lack of institutions. In the early modern period Wales was unique amongst the individual nations of the British Isles in having no universities and no medical training facilities. Unlike England, Scotland and Ireland there were no colleges of physicians or surgeons. Why was this? One of the main reasons was the lack of large towns. Wrexham, in north Wales, was by far the largest town in early modern Wales, with a population of around 3500 in 1700. There were many other smaller Welsh towns but, without large populations to cater for, there was no need for practitioners to form trade gilds or corporations.

Over the past few weeks, however, I’ve been turning my attention to the Welsh Marches – the border between England and Wales – and doing some research on large towns such as Shrewsbury and Chester…

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Sit up Straight! Bad posture and the ‘Neck Swing’ in the 18th century.

One from the archives: a post about bad posture and treatment in the 18th century

Dr Alun Withey

Posture is a problematic issue for medicine. Having established a link between ‘bad’ posture and all manner of conditions, from spinal curvature and back pain to nerve damage and headaches, slouching is high on the government’s hit list. Why? Let’s be clear about it, back pain is as much an economic issue as a medical one. While clearly there are many causes for back pain, the BBC recently calculated that it costs the NHS over £1.3 million every day. Add to that the costs to businesses of lost working time and it is painful to the economy as well as the body. It is no coincidence that the NHS website has a number of micro-sites dedicated to suggestions for improving the way we sit and stand.

Posture chart

All manner of devices can be bought with the aim of straightening us up. Leaf through the pages of those glossy little free catalogues…

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Warehouses and Shopping in Georgian England

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the vibrant consumer culture of eighteenth-century Britain. Amanda Vickery has explored gendered consumption, and in particular the types of goods desired and bought by Georgian men and women. Jon Stobart, has looked at shopping and ‘politeness’, and the ways through which newly-desirable goods were marketed using polite language. Other historians (including me!) have also looked at how certain types of goods, and the materials they were constructed from, became fashionable and desirable in their own right.

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(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In many ways the eighteenth century was a golden age for shopping. In large towns across Britain, streets were being redeveloped to cater specifically for shoppers and browsers. Pavements were widened, to allow polite shoppers a fighting chance of avoiding a cascade of mud and filth from passing coaches. Streets were widened, shop fronts became bigger and their displays more ornate.

Also, for perhaps the first time, shopping became a social activity in and of itself, complete with rituals that modern shoppers would recognise, from teashops within larger stores, to the culture of browsing, with obsequious shop assistants on hand to help the customer negotiate the myriad goods on offer. Something so base as money or price was second to polite conversation, and the art of choice.

It is easy to picture Georgian shops as small, poky places, and indeed many were. But, in large towns and cities, the floor and display space of shops was growing, with increasing emphasis upon the appearance and order of the interior. Images from eighteenth-century trade cards often show large spaces, filled with goods, neatly arranged and displayed.

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(Image from Ambrose Heal, London Tradesman’s Cards…)

One type of retail space, however, was entirely new to the eighteenth century. Whilst small shops had long diversified in the types of products they sold, the Georgian ‘warehouse’ was a new innovation, where large numbers of goods could be sold within one, big, retailing space. Whilst not comparable in size, these were the ‘big sheds’ of the Georgian age, where customers could view a wide range of goods, often brought in bulk from producers across the country.

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Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory – Image from Wikipedia

In many ways this actually fitted in with broader changes to working environments. Bigger was definitely viewed as better. In manufacture, for example, large-scale ‘manufactories’ exemplified both the successful individual, and the modern, industrialising (and industrious) society. Places such as Matthew Boulton’s Soho manufactory and Josiah Wedgewood’s Etruria ceramics works became places of resort in their own right. They were popular stops on the Grand Tour, giving polite, erudite visitors the chance to browse and buy, as well as to marvel at the new technologies on offer.

What, then, were these retail warehouses actually like, and what did they sell?

It is interesting to note that the earliest references to ‘warehouses’ in retail suggest, at best, modest premises, and often referred to places where quack medicines could be bought. In 1722, for example, an advertisement for a product to kill vermin (‘The True Antidote Against Bugs’!) could be purchased from the ‘Printing Office and Picture Warehouse’ in Bow, London. On closer inspection, the grand-sounding ‘Hungary Water Warehouse’ of 1724 was actually a comb-maker’s shop in Ludgate Hill. Likewise the ‘Dorchester Beer warehouse’, was located (unsurprisingly) in a pub in Cheapside.

At some point in the early 18th century, the term ‘warehouse’ began to be deployed as an advertising technique, perhaps to play up the size and scale of the business. By the late 1720s all manner of goods had began to justify their own warehouses. In 1729, Ann Young’s Snuff Warehouse promised ‘persons of quality’ that they would have ‘the greatest choice of any shop in England’.

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(Image from Ambrose Heal, London Tradesman’s Cards…)

Abraham Henderson’s ‘Sturgeon Warehouse’ in Ludgate Hill sold the ‘best Hamborough Sturgeon’, and customers were assured that Henderson, himself, was on hand to serve them daily from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. Everything from tea, to candles, linen, carpets and saddles was beginning to justify its own, dedicated warehouse. In 1743, even the London hair merchant John Delaporte ‘beg[ged] leave to inform his customers, in his best eighteenth-century polite terms, that he had opened a new warehouse in St Martin’s Lane, and hoped for the ‘continuance of their friendship’.

In the later part of the eighteenth century, however, it seems that both the use and terminology of the warehouse began to shift. From being a single-purpose entity, the warehouse gradually expanded to house a range of goods. A number of multipurpose warehouses emerged across the country, catering for a wide range of fashionable and ‘polite’ items. In one sense these resembled the modern department store, insofar as they brought together popular brands under one roof, attracting those with the ready money who, perhaps, could not make the trip to the sources of goods, such as Sheffield or Birmingham.

The popularity of ‘toys’ was one of the drivers of this change, as was the growing desire to decorate the home. In the eighteenth-century, ‘toy’ referred to any one of the innumerable decorative objects that were becoming available, from small jewellery and equipage to utilitarian items like watches and spectacles. Toy retailers were located in fashionable towns across Britain, and toy warehouses were the go-to place to pick up a fashionable trinket.

In 1786, for example, the wonderfully-named Fillagree Pearce advertised his ‘Perfumery and Toy Warehouse’ in which could be found everything from bottle stands and card boxes to chimney ornaments and fire screens. More than this, ‘every article necessary for the use of ladies who are employed in so elegant an amusement’ as knitting and sewing, were catered for ‘on the lowest terms’.

Bromstead’s Toy Warehouse was located in Jermyn Street in London (one of my favourite streets in London), and sold a wide range of small steel goods and articles, as well as being an agent for the ‘Female Elixir’, which promised to ‘procure natural evacuations’!

In London, and also in larger resort towns like Bath, could be found large premises like the ‘Birmingham and Sheffield Warehouse’. These premises were dedicated to the elegant and decorative metalwares like those produced by Matthew Boulton, or the exquisite chinaware, ormolu and chintzware of Josiah Wedgewood. Here the prospective shopper could peruse the huge range of exotic goods on offer, without the uncomfortable prospect of a long journey to the Midlands. Premises like these commonly sold a range of smaller, personal items, including jewellery and even razors, all advertised in the gentile language of Georgian retail.

Dealing with the demands of the polite shopper required a special calibre of shop assistant. Applicants for a vacancy in the ‘Toy Warehouse near Bishopsgate church’ in 1796 were required to be of ‘an obliging disposition, and whose character will bear the minutest enquiry for honesty and sobriety’.

Like so many aspects of life that we consider ‘modern’, warehouse shopping was an important feature of Georgian consumption. As towns expanded, so did the range of goods available and the types of premises available to view them in. With more disposable income than their predecessors, Georgian middling sorts could engage in the new vogue for shopping, filling their homes with the fashionable trinkets of the day. It’s also interesting to see how the term ‘warehouse’ altered through time, and is still a feature of the language of shopping today.

Sick Servants in Early Modern Britain

Historians have done lots of work in recent years on health and medical care in the family in early modern Britain. As such we know much more about what life was like for the sick in the early modern home, how patients were cared for and by whom. The family provided ready sources of both physical medicines and care.

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The Servant by Wenceslas Hollar (Copyright Shakespeare Folger Digital Images)

The Servant, by Wenceslas Hollar (Copyright Shakespeare Folger Digital Images)

As Mary Fissell and others have argued, the burden of responsibility for looking after the sick often fell on women, and could involve a great deal of extra work, such as in washing, preparing medicines and so on. Other historians, such as Lisa Smith (and me!) have also noted the important role played by men in domestic medicine, noting that men were important gatherers and collectors of remedies, and were sometimes forced into a caring role when their wives fell sick – something that early modern medical literature didn’t necessarily prepare them for.

There is one group of patients, however, who sometimes slip through the net. What happened when servants fell sick? Who cared for, and looked after them? How far did employers pay for their care or treatment? In some ways the question might seem redundant. Servants were considered part of the family unit. When Pepys opened his diary in 1660, he noted “I lived in Axe Yard, having my wife and servant Jane, and no more family than us three”. It’s easy to miss the significance of this; Jane, their servant, was fully part of the Pepys family. As part of the family, therefore, they could surely expect to be looked after.

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Nicholas Maes, the Idle Servant – image from Wikimedia Commons

In economic terms it certainly made sense to treat a sick servant, if for no other reason than to return them to productivity as quickly as possible. In large houses or estates, for example, a spate of sickness amongst servants and labourers could be potentially disastrous for productivity. But is there evidence to suggest that care went beyond this purely pragmatic view? Through my work on medicine in early modern Wales, I came across a number of examples.

Surviving records from the account book of William Davies of Clytha, Monmouthshire, certainly suggest that he went beyond the call of duty. In May 1718 he took on a boy, William Prosser, to his service at the wage of two pounds and four shillings per year. Davies was diligent in recording a range of entries concerning his servant. It is clear, for example, that he gave Prosser what might today be regarded as pocket money on occasions. In one instance he recorded giving Prosser 6 shillings to visit Usk Fair. On another occasion he provided 2 shillings for the boy to play cards. He paid for new stockings and the mending of shoes, and allowed Prosser time off to go to Monmouth, and also to visit his sister when she was sick.

Davies, however, also noted occasions when Prosser was himself sick, and the duration. One entry reads “You were sick in Aprill 7 dayes”, and another “you were sick and you lost 11 dayes”. On one level this might be seen as an employer monitoring his servant, and keeping a tally of their sick days…an approach that would not feel unfamiliar in a modern workplace! But, also just like a modern employer, it seems that Davies provided sickpay – “June ye 15th I gave you one shilling when you were sick’. Was this the norm, or was Prosser simply lucky in having an apparently benevolent employer?

There is other evidence to suggest that some were prepared to allow sick employees to move into their households for treatment. The probate inventory of the Cardiff labourer William Cozens shows that, during his last sickness, he was living in the house of his employer, and receiving care. Note that Cozens was a labourer, and not a domestic servant, suggesting that he ordinarily did not live with the family.

Gentry household accounts certainly suggest that provision of medicines for sick servants was routine. The accounts of Lord Herbert, the 9th earl of Pembroke, give a running list of the many preparations and remedies ordered from a London apothecary John Jackson. (Between 1744 and 1747 there were a total of 848 different prescriptions!). Amongst the many for Lord Herbert and his wife, were entries for William Colly and Jenny White, both presumably servants, as well as medicines for the ‘coachman’ and ‘housemaid’.

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William Hogarth’s servants (Wikimedia Commons)

The coachman at Chirk Castle was another recipient of treatment, involving a ‘botle of physic from Dr Puleston’, and when the ‘boy Thomas was swoll’n under the chin’, an entry in the accounts paid for a man to fetch the apothecary from nearby Wrexham.

R.C. Richardson’s study of servants in early modern England found similar evidence to suggest that employers were usually keen to look after their charges. Those who failed to do so properly were denounced as ‘cursed and hard-hearted persons’ whose threshold the prospective servant should be wary to cross. Preachers, such as William Perkins, considered it the ‘Christian duty’ to care for a servant who ‘In time of his service be sicke’.

Admittedly some were not so sympathetic. Thomas Ffoulkes of Holywell, Flintshire, kept close tabs on his maid, apparently suspicious of her claims to be ill. In January 1724 he noted “My mayd Margarett Jones fell sick this day, and next day, and did not get out of bed. Munday morning, being the 8th, she went unknown to me to her mother’s and did not returne till Friday”. Ffoulkes’s scathing last line “she went rambling home severall other times” suggested he thought that Margarett was pulling the early modern equivalent of a ‘sickie’!

In general, however, sick servants were the recipients of often quite generous levels of care. On one level, as part of the family this might be expected. But these were also, ultimately, employees, and therefore reliant on the goodwill of their masters and mistresses for this to be provided. It would be interesting to find out more about the changing dynamic, when employees had to provide physical care for their servants. Presuming there were no others available, how must it have felt for the mistress of the house to tend the sickbed of her housemaid? Perhaps the subject for a future post.