Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain


Last month saw the publication of my new bookTechnology, 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.

Sheldrake illustration
The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine’, 1783

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.


(A pair of ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, with spring-loaded temple pieces. c. 1760. Image © College of Optometrists, MusEYEum)

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.






Declining Beards?! Right of Reply.

Since my project on the history of beards was launched last September it has attracted a lot of media attention. It received great coverage across all sorts of platforms, from major online news sites to television and radio news across the world. In so many different ways it’s been wonderful to be given the opportunity to share the research questions, and some of the great stories, along the way, and to speak to so many different audiences. This is the absolute upside of what I do, and the benefit of researching in a subject area perceived as slightly quirky.

One question I’m often asked by journalists is how long I think the current beard trend will last. How long will it be before beards disappear again? My answer has always been consistent. I think beards will be around for some time yet. I don’t see any signs of decline and, indeed, there are reasons to think that they continue to go from strength to strength. In some liminal way they’ve become acceptable; as facial hair has become ubiquitous over the past couple of years it’s ‘otherness’ has perhaps diminished. I think it’s noticeable that whilst beards are still abundant, people seem to be talking about them less. The growth of products for beard care, as well as outlets offering shaving and beard care services, are another strong suggestion that the market expects men to keep their beards for a while longer.

What I have also repeatedly said, however, is that history shows that beard trends don’t last forever. Also, importantly, as we come forward in time, the duration of these trends has become markedly shorter. So, between around 1700 to 1830 men the fashion for men was to be clean shaven, with brief forays into chin whiskers. When the Victorian ‘beard movement’ brought huge patriarch beards back into fashion around 1850, it lasted fully half a century. Moustaches were in vogue for around twenty years at the start of the 20th. But, by the end of the Millennium, facial hair trends had shortened to a few years at most. Hippie beards of the late 60s, for example, came and went. In the 1970s big beards were again in vogue, but largely gone again by the early 80s. Goatee beards made a (thankfully) brief appearance in the 90s.

That is why this current beard trend is in fact so interesting. Beginning around 2013 it has lasted the longest since, probably, the 1970s and has almost become a cultural symbol. It has its own name – the ‘Hipster beard’ – with all the cultural baggage that the term carries, and has almost become a symbol for a particular type of lifestyle. In years to come I think this beard style may well become synonymous with the 2010s.

But, to repeat, history suggests that beard trends are transient. This is what the author of the 1853 text ‘A Plea for Beards’ had to say on the matter:


(Author’s own photograph)

The fact remains the same: at some point, it is likely that men will either change the style of facial hair (maybe shorter beards, moustaches) or that the clean shaven look will return. The relevant phrase there is “AT SOME POINT”! This is VERY different to saying that this beard trend is now over.

Late last year, a major newspaper ran a story which took this element of what I said and printed it in such a way so as to suggest that I predicted the imminent demise of beards…despite the fact that this ran counter to the rest of the article, and did not follow from what I was actually saying. At the time that part of the article made little impact, beyond a couple of disgruntled comments from beard wearers, saying that they’d never part with their whiskers. But, over recent weeks, this story has re-emerged and has now found its way into various prominent newspapers and sites.

Some of the coverage is light hearted, with some even welcoming the end of bushy beards, whenever it arrives. Worse for me, though, is that the story has begun to be embellished by successive authors to the extent that my research is now being cited as the ‘scientific’ basis for the end of beards!!

Taking quotes chopped from an interview with the American news site CNBC, for example, (ironically one in which I took the opportunity to point out the misquotes and clarify that I didn’t think beards were on the way out!), one site this week quotes me as saying that “based on historical patterns and years of data, a major decline in the popularity of beards should happen right around now. That’s right. Now.” Given that I only started my research in September 2015, and it’s purpose is in fact to chart the health and hygiene history of facial hair between 1700-1918, it is a little far fetched to suggest that I will use my ‘years of data’ to predict the future fashions of facial hair.

Another article on the website of a major Australian newspaper quoted me as saying that beards had become unfashionable. This despite my never having spoken to them, much less made the comment! I’ve fielded several requests for interviews this week, all asking for comment on why I think beards are in decline. I’ve had to gently break it to them that I don’t!

I actually think the question of when beards will decline is a very interesting one, along with what will come next. Will moustaches make a comeback? Will men’s faces once again be the ‘slave of cold steel’ as one Victorian anti-shaving text put it. But (let me say it clearly again) I DON’T see beards in decline at the moment.



Detoxing in History: the morning after the night before!

For those who may have overindulged over the festive season, a post from 2014 about some of the more dubious ‘remedies’ for hangovers and too much rich food!

Dr Alun Withey

Detoxing in history: the morning after the night before.

It’s January. After the festive season is over it’s that time of year when we take stock, count the calories and do our best to offset some of the costs to our body of overindulgence. Up and down the country people will be joining gyms (as my fitness trainer says “entering like lions but leaving like lambs”), doing too much too soon and quitting before the soles of their Nikes even get scuffed. Others will be starting their healthy eating regimes, cutting out the chocolate, cakes and dairy and starting ‘holistic’ mind and body routines to try and ‘zen’ their way back to health, wealth and happiness. It’s human nature to overdo it, and it’s certainly nothing new.

Image from Image from
In the seventeenth century, overindulgence was frowned upon. Gluttony is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins and people were…

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