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’!

‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question': Beard haters in the 1860s!

In one of the supplements in the UK’s Times newspaper last weekend was a brief article making predictions in fashion for the coming year. Amongst them was suggestion (welcomed by the reviewer!) that we might finally see the end of the ‘Hipster’ beard trend. At the moment, however, there seems to be little sign of this, and the current penchant for facial topiary continues unabated. I’ve even got one myself. It’s worth mentioning that the Guardian were asking the same question in Summer 2013! http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2013/jul/24/have-we-reached-peak-beard

But the journalist’s question does raise the interesting and important point that beards just naturally annoy some people. Perhaps the longevity of the current pogonophilic trend is partially the problem. How many men grew beards out of curiosity or perhaps for a bit of fun, then discovered that they liked them…then decided to keep them? If you are not a fan of facial hair then you are certainly not alone. For such a visible and emblematic symbol of masculinity, they have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Even in the 19th century, when it seemed that all the world had huge beards, there were dissenting voices – even from other men.

One was William Carter of London, who fancied himself as something of a poet. In 1868, at the very height of beard fashion in Britain, Carter published his ‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question’ – a set of seemingly humorous poems but often with sinister undertones!

rhythmicalessay00cartgoog_0005

Right from the off Carter didn’t pull his punches. The point of his work, he argued in the third line of his introduction was to ‘remove the grim vestiges of barbarity from the human face divine’. Beardless men in the early 1800s had, according to Carter, better health and were ‘noble looking, fine specimens of humanity’.

While some were arguing that beards were healthy, catching and filtering out germs, soot and smuts before they could attack the throat, Carter was unequivocal. ‘When the mental grandeur of the face is enveloped in the rude untutored animalism of savage life, health is destroyed’. Hipsters beware!

The first of his poems was a general rant against beard wearers.

‘Wherever these long-beard growers you meet/define if you CAN their boundless deceit/Could they lengthen their ears as they lengthen their hair/A cross ‘twixt an Ass and a Grizzly Bear’!

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At this point things began to take a turn for the sinister, and his descriptions of beards start to feel a little less waggish! Over successive pages he vented his spleen upon facial hair in a series of quite astonishing comparisons. Some examples: In one stanza beards were ‘the rank overgrowth of a tropical soil, concealing within the miasma of death.’

The very breath of beard wearers he found disgusting. Whereas a ‘tinkling noise’ accompanied the breathing of the clean-shaven, a ‘sickening, disgusting and unpleasant sound, like the croaking of frogs which in summer abound’ was the unfortunate lot of the hirsute. Unable to breathe fresh air because of the stifling effects of their beard they were a ‘grim-looking cadaverous class who, whenever you meet them, look sickly and pale’. It’s worth mentioning at this point that we haven’t got to the end of page 3 yet!

The references to health are interesting and refer to the ongoing debates in the nineteenth century about the potential health benefits of beards. See my other posts for longer examples, but contemporary wisdom had it that beards were filters against all manner of diseases. They supposedly captured germs before they could enter the mouth and throat, and protected teeth against the acrid industrial air of the ‘modern’ city. As evidence it was put forth that miners and industrial workers grew beards, which caught all of the dust and particles that would otherwise cause damage. As a result, they were cited as some of the healthiest men in England. Other health benefits of beards were given as protection from sunburn, natural health for the skin and a means to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. None other than Charles Darwin cited his beard as his friend through cold nights while on expedition.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

But others, like Carter, argued that it made no more sense to suggest that beards acted as filters than to suggest that they equally attracted dust and disease to the face, collected and kept it there. Carter even had economic arguments, suggesting that the continuation of the beard-growing trend would signal the end of the cutlery trade in England, and the ruination of eminent scientific men who had devoted their life to the art of the razor.

Carter’s other ‘poems’ covered a range of topics. One discussed the good men of the ‘great cotton shire’ of Lancashire who, in imitation of a local magnate, all refused to wear facial hair that, according to him, increased their labour and made them content. By page 27 he was back on form. If men continued to grow their beards the land would ‘sink into ruin and infamous shame/and famine diffuse its poisonous breath/producing a horrible lingering death’.

We could carry on, as Carter does, for another fifty or so pages, but we get the picture by now. Then, as now, beards were proving a contentious issue. Unluckily for Carter the Victorian beard was there for the duration, and was still a prominent feature of the male face fully thirty years after he wrote. Will the current beard trend continue through another year? Only time will tell!

The New York Beard Tax and Other Strange Beard Facts!

Rutherford

It’s ‘Decembeard’ and time to get the beard growing to raise money for research into bowel cancer. It’s a fantastic cause and, in its honour, here are some beardy sidenotes from history to get us inspired…and donating!

http://decembeard.org

1) Peter the Great’s tax on beards in the eighteenth century is well known. Few people probably know that New York apparently nearly had its own version in the early twentieth century.

In 1907 a member of the New Jersey State Legislature introduced a bill for the graded taxation of men with beards. The mystery legislator argued that men who grew beards not only had something to hide but, worse still, grew their beards for ‘ulterior and often base motives’. The preamble to the bill pointed out that such evil ‘celebrities’ as ‘Holmes the Trunk Murderer’ and ‘Palmer the Poisoner’ were amongst prominent whisker-wearers. As far as the legislator was concerned this was prima facie evidence that beardy men were a criminal class. His proposal was for a tax on facial hair that ran along a sort of scale of what he clearly considered levels of nastiness.

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. I’m on the case and will report back in a later post! (Thanks to Dr Martin Johnes of Swansea University for alerting me to this)

2) 19th-century industrial life could even have an impact upon facial hair. In 1833, a report on workers in the cotton mills of England painted a black picture of the effects that factory life could have on the human body. Any man, stated the author of the report, who stood at noon at the exit of one of the mills and watched the denizens of the looms pour out, would be greeted by mere shadows of humanity.

Image from bbc.co.uk
Image from bbc.co.uk

Underfed and overworked, factory inmates had sallow complexions, bowlegs and poor posture, raised chests and ungraceful limbs. Perhaps most interestingly, though, it was noted that their ‘hair was thin and straight – many of the men having but little beard, and that in patches of a few hairs, much resembling its growth amongst the red men of America.

3) Bearded ladies have often been the subjects of attention. In the early modern period they might be regarded as ‘wonders’, perhaps a judgement from God relating to immoral behaviour on the part of parents. In fact, at a time when men’s and women’s bodies were viewed as being essentially the same – a woman’s body was effectively the same as a man’s…but inside out! – it was viewed as entirely possible that a woman could have facial hair as a form of extreme femininity.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

By the nineteenth century, though, bearded ladies were more likely to end up making a meagre living as part of a travelling ‘freak’ show. But it wasn’t just bearded ladies; there were even bearded children!

In 1866, a traveling exhibition of ‘Living Wonders’ included the ‘Swiss bearded lady and here son the BEARDED BOY’, along with another mystery performer called ‘the Swiss Warbler’. The boy was reputedly 12 years old with a beard over an inch long. This may be the same boy, named as Albert Ghio, described as ‘one of the greatest curiosities of the world’ who was initiated into that most august of institutions, the Sunderland ‘Loyal Antediluvian Buffaloes’ in 1867.

It wasn’t only boys either. In 1877, visitors to the Hotel Province in London’s Leicester Square, could feast their eyes upon the ‘most extraordinary freak of nature in the world’ in the form of ‘PASTRANA – the Mexican bearded girl’.

4) In the eighteenth century, men were only just beginning to shave themselves. Far more common was to visit the barber to be shaved. The problem with this was the discomfort that the poor ‘patient’ often had to suffer at the hands of sometimes-clumsy and cack-handed barbers. Before the introduction around the 1760s of newer, sharper types of cast steel razors, examples before then were made of steel that was brittle, easily blunted and more difficult to achieve an extremely keen edge. As such, customers complained about being shaved with blades as blunt as oyster knives, which left them with stubbly faces as well as a prodigious shaving rash! Cartoonists and satirists had a field day with country barbers.

Image from Wellcome Images
Image from Wellcome Images

5) Moustaches have had a long history and connection with the military. Eighteenth-century French soldiers in some regiments grew large, bushy moustaches to represent their rugged masculinity. It was no accident that burly, moustachioed recruits were often at the head of a marching column, their mighty facial hair used to strike fear into the heart of potential attackers.

Another reason for adopting moustaches was inspired by the British Empire. Indian men were proud of their moustaches and were apt to mock their shaven-faced British invaders as fresh-faced adolescents. As a reaction British soldiers began to adopt moustaches as a means of enforcing authority. In 1854 the East India Company’s Bombay army made moustache-wearing compulsory and, in the 1860s, moustaches became compulsory across the British army. In fact, the order was not repealed until 1916. There was some initial resistance on the home front to the wearing of facial hair by men. For some, the adoption of facial hair was a sign that the British were “going native” and adopting foreign customs. By the 1850s, however, the ‘beard and moustache movement’ was in full flower.

6) In history pulling another man’s beard has been a serious insult. More than this, it could actually incite violence! Persian warriors were apparently renowned for their skill in pulling enemy soldiers off their horses by their beards. http://thehistoryofthehairsworld.com/barbers_history.html

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beard pulling was an insult as well as a common source of aggravation. In Tudor times, tweaking another man’s beard carried a fine of two shillings.

Part of the problem was that, like the Persians, assailants recognised the usefulness of the beard as a beard as a useful grip. In 1896 a gang of robbers whilst shopping in Bermondsey set upon the unfortunate James Walkenden. As the man struggled to prevent his assailants from grabbing his watch and other valuables, one of the robbers spotted an opportunity and grabbed Walkenden’s beard, using it to hold his head steady while he punched the man in the face.

Mountebank of Old London

At this point it’s also worth mentioning Edward Wingfield of the James Fort, Virginia, involved in a firefight with local Indians in 1607. Overwhelmed by ‘over 200 savages’ Wingfield was part of a cadre of eleven men trapped in the fort, whose situation looked precarious. Sporting a large beard he made a seemingly easy target for a sharpshooter. But he was lucky. The Indian gunman aimed too low, missing Wingfield’s face, but shooting straight through his beard. This left him with a round hole in his beard and, no doubt, a story to tell his grandchildren!