Among the most colourful characters in early modern medicine were the ranks of medical mountebanks and quacks that traversed the country selling all manner of dubious pills, potions and preparations. A vast range of medical substances were available with everything from the ‘Catholick Pill’ to the ‘Hercolean Antidote’ offering frightened (and gullible) patients a chance to escape the heavy burden of their conditions. The subject of quacks has been well covered over the years – perhaps most famously by the late Roy Porter – and quack remedies are always appealing to a popular audience. There is perhaps something within us that sympathises with the sheer cheek of these characters, even though we might question their motives as well as their remedies.
It was common for quacks to move around; in fact it was common sense. Once people realised that they had been duped it was probably not a good idea…
As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War approaches, we are constantly reminded of the horror of trench warfare. A raft of new books, articles, websites and programmes will be devoted to charting the conflict. All of the big questions will be revisited, from the motives for going to war to the fitness of those in charge to lead their men. Much attention has already been paid to the lives of ordinary ‘Tommies’ in the trenches and the recent publication of diaries, such as that of Harry Drinkwater vividly bring to life the experience of living in the shadow of battle.
In the discussions of action, however, the day-to-day experience of living in the trenches, the ordinary routines of life, are sometimes overlooked. How did men keep themselves clean, for example? In the muddy quagmire of battle trenches, did the usual routines of washing and grooming still…
I’ve always been fascinated by marginalia in manuscripts – the comments written in the margins, the little drawings or doodles that someone absent-mindedly scribbled onto a piece of paper, in all likelihood blissfully unaware that someone would be reading them centuries later.
Remedy collections have always been a fruitful source for marginalia. The utilitarian nature of remedies invited comments and it’s common to find little notes about how well (or not) a particular remedy worked. This can be specific comments: One of my favourite was the addition ‘This I lyke’ next to a remedy for a cold I once came across. In another instance, an unfortunate patient had noted – next to a particular purge – that it was ‘too hot’ for him! Other things can include the pointing hand (known as a ‘manicule’) next to a favoured remedy, the word ‘probatum’, meaning ‘it is proved’ or, in other words, ‘it works’, and even a smiling face.
(image from http://collation.folger.edu/2015/05/a-spoonful-of-sugar-helps-the-medicine-go-down/)
This week I’ve been working at the wonderful archive in the Barber Surgeons’ Hall in London. It’s a treasure trove of all sorts of documents relating to the history of the barber-surgeons, from account books to apprentice registers, wills, details of fines and freedoms, portraits, artefacts…even a box full of antique razors. It was great to spend time there, and to see some of the wonderful things in their collection: A huge Holbein painting, for example, or a cup that Samuel Pepys once quaffed from.
On this visit I was looking for information about barbers after the 1745 split, so was looking through various manuscripts. Occasionally, though, and usually when you’re not particularly looking for it, you come across a document that stops you in your tracks. On the desk was a 19th-century manuscript book comprising of notes taken from medical lectures given by John Abernethy, at the anatomy theatre in St Bartholomew’s hospital, London. Abernethy (1764-1831) was an English surgeon and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Having founded the medical school in St Bartholomew’s hospital in London, and been elected principal surgeon there in 1815, he had become lecturer in anatomy at the RCS in 1814.
(Image taken by author – used by permission)
The note taker was one E. Long – part of a family hailing from Barham, Canterbury. Long was meticulous and methodical in his note taking. His pages were well ordered, neat and tidy, written in a fine Victorian script, with writing on just one side of each page, leaving the other blank. I’m not sure if Long continued his studies or went into practice afterwards, but the book remained in the family. There it might have stayed and perhaps still found its way into the archives as a fascinating record of the lectures of a prominent Victorian surgeon.
But at some point, perhaps years after, Long’s habit of leaving every other page blank proved tempting to certain younger members of the family. And they didn’t just add a few doodles on the odd page; they filled the reverse side of every page in the book with drawings, paintings, draft letters, copied passages from verses and even practised their writing. The book probably contains hundreds of these drawings, but I’ve picked just a few out.
One image, for example, depicts Victorian soldiers (“of the 93rd”)- perhaps copied from a book. The figure on the right, with his curly hair and beard, seems to have been the subject of particular attention.
(Image taken by author – used by permission)
Another shows various heads in profile. Elsewhere in the book there are strong suggestions that some of these images were drawn from life, with an aunt and nanny being mentioned.
(image taken by author – used by permission)
Another shows writing being practised, together with a less defined (and dramatically elongated) body, perhaps betraying the hand of a younger artist.
(image taken by author, used by permission)
This next page of sketched faces reminded me strongly of the Dickensian ‘Boz’ character faces, with slightly grotesque, grimacing features.
(image taken by author, used by permission)
Sometimes the children didn’t even pick a blank page. Was this their own house?
(Image taken by author – used by permission)
A final one intrigued me: Captioned ‘Dick’s Drive to Dover’, with ‘The Accident’ written underneath, it seems like it might have been copied out of a novel or magazine. If anyone can identify it, I’d be delighted to know!
Aside from the obvious charm of the children’s additions, the book stands as a fascinating example of the multiple uses to which historical documents could be put and also, more broadly, the continued utility of books over long periods of time. This is something that early modernists are familiar with. Books – even manuscripts – were lent, gifted, exchanged, bequeathed and, in many cases, continued to be added to over years…sometimes even centuries. Remedy collections can be particularly long-lived in this respect. The Long family book shows the same process, with two completely different authors, the children’s drawings in sharp contrast with the stark medical language of the lectures. What would those children make of their drawings being ‘discovered’ 150 years later? Perhaps more importantly, what was Mr Long’s reaction when he found his lecture notes had become a child’s scribble pad?!
Today’s a big day for the blog – it has just had its 100,000th visitor!
This seems utterly incredible. When I started it I was completely unsure what I was doing (in fact I’m still not sure!), and didn’t really think that anyone would want to read it. I was completely bowled over when it got to 100 views, and then to 1000.
I’ve been talking to colleagues and students recently about blogging, and how rewarding it can be. It’s great to be able to share some of the fascinating material that we have in our archives, but that might not necessarily be suitable for academic writing. My blog posts have ranged over everything from medical remedies and practitioners, beards and razors, early modern social history, family history and even a 1940s séance!
I find writing the blog, and indeed keeping it going, is a great way of maintaining regular writing. Sometimes, if the academic writing isn’t coming along, a blog post can get things moving again. I’ve also made many great contacts through the blog, and the comments that the post have received have often provided food for thought and raised questions for future research.
But, the main point of this is to say a MASSIVE ‘thank you’ to everyone who’s read, shared, commented on and supported the blog. You’re all fab, and I’m very grateful.
I was talking to a colleague recently about what first got us fired up about history. I’ve loved history since childhood, and it was probably inevitable that it would end up as a career. As an undergraduate, though, I vividly remember a turning point – a brilliant lecture I attended on life in the South Wales coalfields, which began with an image of a miners’ protest in the early 20th century. The lecturer began with a simple question: ‘what was it like to be there?’ He went on to talk about the men, the town and environment, the sights and smells and the conditions they lived in, bringing it all vividly to life.
But why does history matter? What is the ‘point’ of history? What is the value of humanities in a modern society? Depressingly, these are questions that historians increasingly have to face, and face them we do. A recent post by Laura Sangha gives a great response to just these sorts of questions.
Despite abundant evidence of the public appetite for ‘popular’ history, academic historians are under constant pressure to defend our discipline in the face of threats to funding, the need to recruit students and bring in research income. Sometimes it is easy not only to lose touch with why history matters, but what it was that got us enthused about it in the first place. For me, though, a chance encounter in an antiquarian bookshop in London last week has gone a long way towards bringing back the excitement I first felt when I first became interested in the past, and the people who inhabited it.
I wasn’t even to go in to the shop. But, with a little time to kill before lunch, I wandered in, and asked the owner if he had a section on health and medicine. He looked apologetic and said he had a few on some shelves at the back of the shop, but “mostly vintage stuff’”. What he actually had were two bookcases full of treasures; all manner of 17th and 18th-century medical and surgical treatises, histories of the body, anatomical works, medical lectures, books of remedies and pharmacopoeia…for a historian of medicine, a little shop of dreams!
One, in particular, caught my eye – an original 1667 copy of John Tanner’s Hidden Treasures of the Art of Physick. I pondered for a little while about whether to buy it…I’ve long worried about buying these old books (especially from places like Ebay) and whether it is right to own something that should ideally be in a museum. But, before long, it was coming home with me!
Unwrapping the book from its packaging at home gave me time to look at it in detail, but also to reflect on the incredible journey that it’s had. More than that it reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with history in the first place. Here, on my desk, next to me now in fact, is a tangible artefact – a survivor from another world.
(Thomas Wyck – ‘Old St Paul in Ruins’, Image from Wikimedia Commons)
It rolled off the press in Clerkenwell, London one day in 1667, in a city still in shock after the dual calamities of the plague and the Great Fire of the previous year. What would an imaginary visitor to London that year have seen? Everywhere were burnt-out buildings, piles of rubble and devastated streets still in the process of being cleared. In January that year Samuel Pepys noted that there were still ‘smoking remains of the late fire’ with ‘the ways mighty bad and dirty’. Even as late as the 28th of February Pepys was still having trouble sleeping because of ‘great terrors about the fire’, and observed ‘smoke still remaining of the late fire’ in the City. On the skyline was the devastated, but still recognisable, symbol of old London – the first St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst the once noted sea of church spires across London was diminished. Clerkenwell itself, however, largely escaped the fire. It was a fairly upmarket area, containing some affluent houses and businesses. Clerkenwell green was a fashionable area, home to some of the nobility.
What, then, of the book’s author and publishers? John Tanner who, according to the blurb, was a ‘student of physick and astrology’ wrote it. In fact, Tanner was a practising physician who resided in Kings Street, Westminster. In other sources he was referred to as a ‘dr in physic’ and a ‘medicus’, possibly even a member of the Royal College of Physicians in February 1675. When he died in 1711, Tanner had done pretty well for himself, leaving gold, silver and money, together with valuable goods, to his children. In his house, according to his inventory, were a ‘Physick room, Chirurgery room and still house’, the last used to distil waters for medicinal use. Tanner was the author of ‘my’ book, but he likely never touched it.
Someone who potentially had more to do with the physical book, however, was its publisher John Streater, a prolific producer of medical texts and brother of Aaron Streater, a noted physician and ‘divine’. Streater often worked in tandem with the bookseller George Sawbridge ‘at his House on clerken-well-Green’. Sawbridge was an eminent bookseller and publisher of medical books by luminaries such as Nicholas Culpeper. According to Elias Ashmole, Sawbridge had been a friend of the ‘English Merlin’ (or the ‘Juggling Wizard and Imposter’, depending on your source!) William Lilly. When he died, Sawbridge was worth around £40,000 – a colossal amount of money in the seventeenth century. It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to picture Sawbridge in his shop, surrounded by shelves and shelves of leather and calf-bound volumes, handing the book over to its first owner.
Who owned it? It’s impossible to say, but let’s speculate. A book like Tanner’s Treasury was meant for a general readership. It’s aim was to help the ‘diligent reader’ attain a good understanding of physick and the body, synthesising a range of different authors. Its medical content might have made it appealing as an easy reference work for a medical practitioner, but far more likely is that it found its way into the library of a local gentleman…perhaps even one of the Clerkenwell nobility who lived hard by. Medical texts were common inclusions amongst the libraries of gentlemen; medicine was one of the accepted intellectual pursuits of elite men. In fact there is only one signature inside the book, which is now, sadly illegible. Only the word ‘boak’ (book) and the date 1726 are now discernible, but show that it was still being used, or at least referred to, at that date. There is also only one slightly unclear annotation, which appears to say ‘used above [unclear] but are fare’. I’ve included the image below.
This copy of Tanner’s Treasury has had a long journey to this point. It has been passed down – perhaps gifted, bequeathed, sold, resold, lent, scores of times. At some point it ended up in a Birmingham library, and was potentially read by countless scholars, before its journey took it back to where it began – a London bookseller, where an interested party (me!) couldn’t leave it on the shelf. Rest assured that it’s found a good home, and will be carefully looked after.
To me, things like this little book are the reasons I love doing what I do. To be sure, the contents are important, giving us a window into the medical worldview of the time, and the sorts of individuals practising, writing and publishing medicine. The remedies are fascinating (and indeed one of my academic research interests). But there’s more to it than that. The book itself lets us literally touch the past and make contact with an object that was actually there. The people who wrote, sold, bought and passed it on have long gone, but we can still hold and appreciate something that was once important to them. It’s a line of direct contact back through the centuries. For all the academic theorising about grand narratives, discourses, theories and the rest, it’s nice to be reminded now and again of the simple, visceral thrill of letting a source fire up your imagination of what it was like in the past.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a common complaint against medical practitioners was that they effectively picked the pockets of the sick, whilst doing little for them in return. As the Helmontian physician George Starkey remarked in the middle of the seventeenth century, the patient was “like to pay the price of the doctor fully with his life” – which Starkey regarded as a brave acte’!
But medics, just like anyone else, could sometimes be victims of crime. The records of the Old Bailey contain a fascinating list of these unfortunate practitioners, and the list of crimes and calumnies they suffered. More than this, however, they can offer an alternative glimpse into the world of early modern medical practice.
(Old Bailey in the 19th century – image from Wikimedia Commons)
Sometimes, for example, physicians and other practitioners found themselves the victims of petty crime. In 1686, Edward Newgent of St Clement Danes pinched the periwig of an unnamed ‘Doctor of Physick’. The good doctor testified that he had been walking along the street in the evening, when the assailant whipped off his hat and wig, and pelted away down the street with them. The doctor gave chase and had the thief arrested. For this seemingly innocuous crime, the unlucky Newgent was sentenced to death!
Another victim of circumstance was Richard Allen of Holborn. In 1675, hearing a disturbance in the street, Allen, ‘by profession a Sea-Chirurgeon’, opened his door and was attacked by a mob (including bayliffs on the hunt for a person to serve a writ). Allen, was set upon by the men, ‘they hacking and hewing him without any mercy, that they left him dead upon the place’. So ‘mortal and dangerous’ were his wounds, that a ‘good part of his skull was taken clean off’.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
At other times, the medicines or very tools of their trade might be targets for thieves. Surgeons, and their instruments, seem to have been a particular target. Instruments, especially high end examples, could be expensive and decorous, and were therefore worth taking. Consider the case of William Marriott, surgeon, whose house was broken into in October 1693 by the terrible trio of Batson, Dando and Bedford, ‘about 3 o’clock in the morning in a rude manner’. Swearing ‘great oaths’ and ‘offering to send his Soul to Hell’ they relieved him of £42 in cash, a gold locket and ‘a pair of forceps val. 4s, and other surgeons instruments besides’. All were acquitted.
March 1679 saw a “mischievous youth” slip into a barber-surgeon’s shop and observing that the barber was in another room, he made off with a “case of instruments, most of them tipt with Silver”. Crime didn’t pay for the errant youth; he was burnt in the hand for his trouble. A trio of thieves also relieved a London practitioner Peter Hillery of a “case of Chirurgeon’s Instruments” along with his sword. Hillery testified that he was “drinking in a Brandy shop” with one of the thieves, when he found the items missing. Quite why he felt the need to take his instruments to the pub with him is, unfortunately, not recorded.
(Image from Lewis Walpole Library)
Accosted by the highway robber, Daniel White, one John Delaphont was forced to stand and deliver ‘two boxes of surgical instruments, together with his hat, coat and shirt!
As well as the crimes themselves, some cases offer us a view into the world of what might be termed ‘irregular’ or ‘unorthodox’ practice. The descriptions of individuals are sometimes telling. In October 1679, for example, “several Bottels of a medicine called Elixar Vite” (otherwise known as ‘elixir vitae’ – a strong distilled water) were stolen from “a very ancient Itallian Gentel Man who has long professed Physick in this Kingdom”. The Italian was Salvator Winter, one of a string of European itinerant practitioners, who toured Britain in the mid seventeenth century, peddling their wares. In other sources, Winter was described as a ‘medical licentiate’, and signed letters testimonial to the skill of other practitioners. The servant of the unfortunate Winter was indicted, but later acquitted.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Another ‘unorthodox’ practitioner named Blagrave – “a pretender to physick” was relieved of a “Gold chain, a Medal, divers pieces of plate, several rich Cloaths, some Money &c”. The richness of the pickings from Blagrave highlights what a lucrative profession the practice of medicine could potentially be. To possess this level of goods suggested a man of means.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic however. As the records sometimes tell, medical practitioners could sometimes be tempted away from the path of righteousness. The exotically-named Toussaint Felix Urvoy was indicted of the heinous crime of stealing three china dishes in 1760. The case was complicated since Urvoy was owed money by the complainant, and claimed the dishes had been lent to him. Another witness described him as ‘a quack doctor’ who had befriended him in a public house (a pattern seems to be emerging here!) and said he ‘had some particular nostrums by which he could cure several disorders’.
Consider, though, the cautionary tale of the surgeon Stephen Wright, born to a wealthy Irish family, given a good education, versed in arithmetic and classics and sent to Dublin to be apprenticed to a prominent Irish surgeon. All was going well until…
“Unhappily for Stephen he chose to go by the Way of London, and to acquaint himself a little with England, the Place of his Nativity, whence his Forefathers came; tho’, as he said, his Father had a pretty good Estate, besides a handsome Sum of Money in Ireland, to which he was Heir, but by his desperate Misbehaviour, he has effectually prevented his inheriting either one or the other. For some Time after his coming to England, he served a Surgeon in the Country in Surrey, and might have done well, had he kept to his Business and been industrious, as he had good Education, and seemed capable of his Profession. His Friends had advanced to him 180 l. to bear his Expences at the Colleges in Paris. But he not content with that, resolved to improve this Sum, tho’ the Project he fell upon was wrong and foolish, and had no Success answerable to his Desire. In Effect he went to a Gaming-House in Covent-Garden, where in two or three Days, or at most a few Days, he lost the 180 l. designed to bear the Expence of his Travels, and then having no Money left, and not knowing what to do, but being destitute of the Grace of God, he resolved upon desperate Courses of Robbing.”
Given that so much focus is often upon the occupational lives of medical practitioners, it is interesting to see glimpses of their world through another lens. Lists of stolen items, for example, can be extremely useful in gauging what sorts of equipment physicians and surgeons owned, and where they took them. The terms by which medics were referred to and known is also revealing, not least in the colourful characters who sometimes inhabited the margins of medicine. The reason that I particularly like these records, though, is that they offer an intimate insight into the daily lives, frailties and misfortunes of a group of individuals, showing us a side of their lives not often reflected in the usual records of their medical occupation.
Last month saw the publication of my new book, Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Refined Bodies (London: Palgrave, 2015). By way of introducing it, I thought I’d write a post to introduce some of its main themes.
The eighteenth century saw dramatic changes in attitudes towards bodily alteration. Once, impaired bodies were viewed as a fait accompli, their owners condemned forever to endure whatever vagaries God or Nature had seen fit to send. In the early part of the century, debates raged about the dangers of pride and vanity, as well as the morality of trying to interfere with God’s work. But by the mid 1750s there were changes in attitudes. Where once managing appearance, including treating deformities and visible impairments, symbolised vanity and pride, new enlightened themes like ‘improvement’, self-control and mastery made conquering the body a noble and justifiable endeavour.
At the same time as these broader social and cultural changes, new technologies in metallurgy opened up a range of possibilities for products aimed at shaping the body. What might be termed ‘technologies of the body’ proliferated. These encompassed everything from large apparatus for altering bodily shape, posture and gait, as well the smallest, quotidian items of personal grooming such as tweezers and nail nippers. In some cases new technologies transformed the design of instruments; in others, it was the instruments themselves that took on important new meanings as vectors through which individuals could aspire to changing ideals of the body.
This was the age of ‘politeness’, where ‘polite’ manners and behaviours were entwined with the ownership of the right goods, wearing of the right clothes and attendance of the right social events. Whilst conversation, education and manners were essential to early conceptions of polite behaviours, appearance and form were also important. In this sense dress, appearance and adornment acted as vectors to project politeness onto the body. Could, however, politeness extend to the bodily fabric itself?
(‘The Art of Dancing, 1724)
Some like the Swiss physician Samuel Tissot thought so, and he dedicated an entire chapter to ‘disorders most frequent in people of fashion’ and drew a distinction between the hardy body of the labourer, through its constant exposure to the harsh elements, versus the somewhat slight, fey body of the gentleman. If this latter was physically slighter, however, it was also delicate and refined.
While contemporaries never directly referred directly to bodies as being polite, they did acknowledge the role and importance of the body in articulating it. An essay on the characteristics of politeness in the Universal Magazine in 1775 argued that it was a holistic concept governing not only ‘temper of mind and tenour of conduct’ but bodily appearance, posture and mien. A polite gentleman (the essay was addressed to men) should embody the posture of a fencer, the gait of a dancer, the ear of a musician and the mind of a philosopher. Such a person ‘walks by rules of art, dictated by nature’.
But as well as being informed by politeness, other characteristics were prized. Neatness, elegance and harmony of appearance, were central in conveying inner character and sensibility. The body’s surfaces should be kept neat, clean, plucked and shaved. For both sexes the removal of facial hair and management of facial features such as eyebrows showed fastidiousness and a desire to create a body that was socially pleasing. As attitudes towards the smile changed, management of the teeth became important. Likewise, as the appearance of hands was held to imply character and breeding, the care of hands, especially fingernails, was vital.
But Nature was also at the heart of debates about bodily form. Some saw it as a body closest to the state of nature, in the bodies of the poor, or inhabitants or far-flung nations whose bodies had been untouched by artificial devices. Indeed, some even saw viewed interference with, or alteration of, the body as inherently unnatural. This was reinforced by the twisted and bent bodies caused through over zealous use of trusses, bandages and stays. On the other hand, much effort was expended in attempting to ‘correct’, conceal or otherwise give the illusion of a ‘natural’ form – a claim made by the makers of many postural devices. Paradoxically, therefore, a ‘natural’ body often required unnatural means to achieve.
Central to the question of technologies is the role of steel. Technological innovations between the 1680s and 1740s made steel an increasingly abundant and important good, but also a component in the fashioning of a new, refined self. While crucible (or cast) steel is understood as an innovative industrial process, its uses are rarely considered. Yet steel was vital for some of the most personal rituals of everyday life. It was the metal with which people had the closest, even the most intimate, physical contact.
Cast steel’s physical properties allowed people, for example, to fashion their bodies in new ways, to reflect changing ideals of bodily shape and form. A range of corrective devices was available to correct posture, utilising the tensile strength of steel. Visible deformity and disability were not only uncomfortable to the sufferer, but carried pejorative connotations that left the ‘crooked’ open to ridicule. If there was an ideal human form it was generally straight, erect and symmetrical. Whilst the treatment of hernias had brought about the introduction of a range of elastic and steel trusses, the period also witnessed a burgeoning market for devices to improve posture. These included items worn within or underneath clothing, such as back ‘monitors’, large metal plates inserted into clothing. Steel collars thrust the chin upwards to give the illusion of a straight posture. But there were other more radical treatment, such as ‘neck swings’. These involved locking the patient’s head into a steel apparatus, and suspending them off the ground, where they would remain dangling for hours at a time. These were even available for people to use in their own homes.
One of the primary audiences for such devices was children whose parents, recognising the social limitations arising from deformity, were keen to mould the bodies of their offspring into an acceptable form. In the name of fashion, children’s bodies were trussed, bandaged, bound, calipered and twisted. Adults were also prepared to take steps to intervene in the shaping of their own bodies. As advertisements from the manufacturers of postural devices attest, a new domestic market was emerging, which targeted individuals who sought to ‘treat’ themselves without recourse to a medical practitioner.
Neatness and elegance of appearance were exemplified in the face and, in particular the vogue for shaving, and the almost total disappearance of facial hair from men’s faces. New types of steel razors were instrumental in this process. Where once the barber had been the sole provider of shaving services, the period saw men beginning to shave themselves. Razor makers took advantage of newspaper advertising space to puff their new products, using both the language and imagery of polite consumption, but also foregrounding their metallurgical expertise in manufacturing. The use of cast steel in razors became a selling point, along with references to the scientific and philosophical credentials of the manufacturer.
(Trade card of Holmes and Laurie, London Truss Makers, author’s image)
Personal grooming was growing in importance in the broader context of the eighteenth century obsession with the body beautiful. As increasing attention was paid to the minutiae of appearance, so different parts and surfaces of the body came to prominence, as did the instruments used to transform them. Regarded by the orthopaedic specialist Nicholas Andry as the ‘Principal organs of touch’, hands and fingernails were seen as important symbols of beauty and virtue. Mangled and bitten nails were hardly aesthetically pleasing. The old fashioned way was to pare nails with a penknife – a process that could be dangerous, and caused several deaths!
New types of nail nippers were safer, and began to carry more ornate designs, belying their quotidian function. On the face, the most public of bodily surfaces, eyebrows were seen as barometers of character, and tweezers to maintain them were important items of toilette. It is interesting to note that 18th-century tweezers often included ear spoons for digging out unsightly wax, combining two grooming routines into one. As changing attitudes towards the smile rendered the teeth more visible, toothpicks and brushes were also essential pieces of kit. All could be purchased in kit form and could be hung on elaborate and delicate chatelaines about the person, making them at once public and private goods.
Spectacles offer a different outlook on the public projection of the polite self. Steel-framed spectacles, for example, began to appear around the mid eighteenth century, makers such as Benjamin Martin and James Ayscough utilised the springy strength of steel to transform the design of spectacles from their traditional armless Pince Nez design, to a new form with side arms that used pressure to stay tightly adhered to the wearer’s temples. Martin’s new ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, introduced around 1760, could be highly polished to give a pleasing appearance, whilst other sorts of ‘wig spectacles’ were designed to help myopic macaronis attend society functions in comfort and safety. As spectacles became more decorous they also became more public. The growth of reading and coffee house culture placed spectacles at the heart of intellectual debate. Vision and sight exemplified the quest for knowledge. Once a symbol of deficiency, whilst never becoming desirable items of fashion, spectacles shook off pejorative connections and became connected with learning, sagacity and the enlightened search for knowledge through reading and ‘seeing’ the world.
At all points, objects were playing a significant part in the purposeful management of the body. Some important questions must be raised, however. First, if there was some understanding of a polite body ideal, then how widespread was it? Was it an elite, metropolitan phenomenon? The problem with nearly all of the routines discussed here is that individuals seldom discuss them. In the normal run of things there would be little need to write down how well you shaved, plucked your eyebrows or how comfy your brand new Martin’s Margins specs were. The limited evidence available suggests that devices were available across Britain – and not just in major towns. Second, though, to what social depth did it apply? Again, evidence is lacking, but if we consider debates about emulation, there is little to suggest that bodily refinement was merely the preserve of elites. What may be different are the social and public contexts of the body across different levels of society.
The eighteenth century was an age when bodily technologies proliferated. But cultural and religious shifts also meant that intervening to alter the shape of the bodily characteristics that God had bestowed on a person was no longer taboo. As new corporeal ideals were defined, people had both the motivation and the means to transform their own bodies, through the introduction of cast steel. If this was the age of the body beautiful, however, it was also a time when the body was a site of transformation.