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

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 paid to the aesthetics of the hand. This is surprising because, in many ways, the hands were both literally and symbolically important in the enlightenment.

Baptista - Hand

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the body became more ‘polite’. It was important for people to look a certain way; to dress in particular clothes certainly, but also to try and achieve an ideal body shape. Any sort of bodily deformity or deficiency was socially undesirable and carried connotations of immorality or low status. An increasing range of corrective products was being manufactured and marketed for people desirous of a socially pleasing form.

An important component of the ‘polite body’ was the hand. Nicholas Andry was one of the first to define the ideal hand, in his famous work Orthopaedia. Andry dedicated long passages of his book to defining the perfect shape for various limbs. One section, for example, was titled ‘What shape the ARMS, HANDS, FINGERS and NAILS ought to have to appear handsome’. For Andry, hands should be ‘well-shaped…delicate, pretty long and not square’. Some hands, he argued, looked like ‘shoulders of mutton on account of their breadth and length’. Whilst useful for catching things they were, he reasoned, the worst shaped.

Andry

The hand should be covered with a ‘fine smooth skin…and the fingers should have an Air of Freedom and Mobility’, and be long and fleshy. The knuckles should leave small dimples when the fingers are extended. A long section was dedicated to the perfect proportions of the fingers. The index finger, when stretched out, for example, should end precisely at the root of the nail of the middle finger. All this was important, argued Andry, since the hands were the ‘Principal Organs of Touch’. In an age that privileged the senses above all things, this was a vital point.

Books instructing artists on the correct proportions of the hands were also appearing in an age where painters like Joshua Reynolds were busily establishing rules of composition and ideals of appearance. A white, smooth and delicate hand bespoke refined living and sound attention towards personal grooming. A rough, calloused hand was the domain of the manual worker. We can only imagine the thinly-disguised distaste at taking the hand of a lady at a society ball, only to find rough nails, warts and ‘onions’. It sounds frivolous, but was actually a very serious matter.

The importance of the hands is reinforced in other ways, not least in the increasing marketing of products for hand and nail care. From around 1750, for example, a range of practitioners began to specialise in hand and nail care, and advertised their services. In the seventeenth century and before, corns, callouses, warts and ingrown toenails were dealt with by so-called ‘corn cutters’. A range of techniques might be used, from incising the offending callouses off, to attempting to treat with various creams or pastes. By the later 18th century, however, the first ‘chiropodists’ were beginning to appear.

the-corn-doctor-1793

One of the most prominent was D. Low of London, chiropodist and author of his own book on the treatment of ‘Corns, Onions, Callosities and Warts’. Low offered a range of services to the paying public, claiming that his ‘process is safe and easy, without the least unpleasing sensation or danger’. It had, he argued, been met with universal approbation. A number of other specialists quickly jumped on the bandwagon. J. Frankel of Germany arrived in high feather from Germany and ‘acquainted the nobility, gentry and others’ that he was ready to serve them. He was keen to stress that he was ‘Famous for cutting nails…without the least pain or drawing blood’.

Medical self-help books were full of recipes to beautify the hands and preserve their delicate appearance. Works such as Amelia Chambers’ 1775 The Ladies Best Companion contained a number of recipes such as beatifying waters, containing a range of ingredients from white wine to lemons, leeks and lillies, which softened the skin of both face and hands. The exotically-named Toilet of Flora, published in 1775, contained a similar range of preparations from ‘Venice toilet water’ to a beautifying wash, and a paste to remove freckles from the skin. Ready-made potions such as ‘Dr Solomon’s Balsamic Corn Extract’ promised to remove callouses and warts without the need for cutting, and were available for a shilling or two per box.

Dr Solomon

As ‘principle organs of touch’ the hands were important in the eighteenth century. Those able to afford to do so lavished much expense and attention upon them, at least. How the lower orders cared for their hands, if they did at all, is far more difficult to recover, but the ready presence of beauty washes in remedy collections, and the lively culture of sharing medical recipes, hints that people, perhaps especially women, paid attention to them. More work needs to be done to tease out the hidden meanings of the body, and the types of materials, goods and processes involved in bodily self-fashioning. I’m certainly on the case….and I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.

Sorry. I’ll get my coat.

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5 thoughts on “The Hand of History: Hands, fingers and nails in the eighteenth century

  1. ‘For Andry, hands should be ‘well-shaped…delicate, pretty long and not square’. Some hands, he argued, looked like ‘shoulders of mutton on account of their breadth and length’. Whilst useful for catching things they were, he reasoned, the worst shaped.’

    The question, of course, is whether most of the population would agree with Andry. Presumably large, well-calloused hands would be seen by many as ‘shapely’ in that they indicated an ability and willingness to work hard and support one’s family. Strong, ‘manly’ hands were surely attractive to many people, even if they were less likely to write lengthy treatises on the subject.

  2. Thanks Brodie – a good point. I think you’re right, and the difficulty is knowing how far these views of bodily elegance filtered down (and across) the social scale. In elite, and polite, circles though, the continual pattern across many different areas of the body is that of a bodily ideal. Anything that deviates from this, for example, bodily excresences, lumps, bumps and bends, is seen as ripe for ‘correction’, and there is usually something for sale to do the job!

  3. Reblogged this on Dr Alun Withey and commented:

    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.

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