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

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

Dr Alun Withey

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

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

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

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Barbers and Shaving in early modern Britain.

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

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

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(Image courtesy of – Wellcome Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Image taken by author)

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

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

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

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