Banning the Beard.

Last month it was reported that an officer in the Belfast Police was taking the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to an industrial tribunal over a matter of personal appearance. More specifically, the tribunal will consider the legality of a rule stipulating that officers cannot wear beards or moustaches.

The PSNI argue that the rule is based on practical concerns for the safety of its members. In some circumstances, officers may need to wear respiratory protective equipment to avoid them accidentally inhaling dangerous substances. As has been argued in cases of the banning of facial hair in the modern military, facial hair can prevent masks, inhalators and respirators from functioning properly, by acting as a barrier to a close fit. It’s not clear yet what the outcome of the case will be.

But this is certainly not the first time that Irish police officers have come out in support of the beard. In the mid nineteenth century, a group were also actively petitioning against a ban and, remarkably, their grounds for complaint were also based on health. On that occasion, however, rather than beards potentially damaging health, they were in fact seen as protecting officers against dust and disease.

Liverpool Police

(Image from http://liverpoolcitypolice.co.uk/photo-galleries/4551684190)

In February 1854, a small article appeared in the Leader newspaper, reporting an appeal by members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police to the commissioners. More than 400 officers signed this statement:

“We, the undersigned, believing that almost all, if not all, diseases of the respiratory organs are in great part, if not altogether, caused by the practice which obtains of shaving off the beard; that the discontinuance of the practice would greatly conduce to their comfort, exposed as they are to the clemency of the weather, as well as save a great deal of trouble and sometimes considerable difficulty; that Nature having supplied man with such an adornment manifestly never intended that he should disfigure himself by the use of a razor, respectfully and earnestly request the Commissioners of Police to permit them entirely to discard it, and henceforth to wear their beards’.

7d747d80794ef06d5ff81a1d12a497cd--old-photos-vintage-photos

(Image copyright Tyne and Wear Archives)

The arguments made in the statement neatly encapsulate virtually all of the supposed benefits ascribed to the wearing of beards, just as they began to reach the height of their popularity during the Victorian ‘beard movement’. First was an emphasis upon the dangers of shaving. To scrape off facial hair was, it was argued, was a dangerous, if not outright foolhardy act. Shaving was argued to weaken a man’s body, ridding it of vital spirits and strength. Not only this, cuts caused by shaving could act as ‘little doors’, into which infection could enter, and demise swiftly follow. Hard medical evidence was brought to bear, citing scientific studies of groups of men who had apparently shaved off their beards as an experiment, and swiftly fallen prey to a whole range of ‘thoracic and pectoral woes’.

One of the key arguments made by a wide variety of medical and lay commentators alike, was that men had been endowed with a beard by God and Nature. It had a specific purpose,  to protect men from the vicissitudes of weather, climate and environment. Victorian men were told that beards were nature’s filter against all manner of dust, disease and germs. A thick crop of facial hair would, they were assured, protect the face, teeth, neck and throat from extremes of temperature. In summer, the beard was said to keep the face cool, by wicking away the sweat; in winter, it protected from the numbing cold and biting wind.  As if all this wasn’t enough, the beard was set up as the most manly of all attributes; the ‘hairy honours of the chin’, as one writer colourfully put it. To wear a beard was to reflect physicality and rugged manliness.

With all this going on amongst their civilian counterparts, small wonder then that the Dublin police officers sought permission to start cultivating their own manly tufts. One issue was that of the health protection afforded by beards. Out in all weathers, and at all hours of the day and night, surely the beard was a vital part of the uniform? What’s more, it would cost the commission nothing, whilst preserving the health of the men. How could the Commissioners argue with Nature?

Around this time too, police forces across Britain and Ireland were keen to promote the physicality and athleticism of their officers. A report in the late 1830s had noted that the Dublin City Police in particular derived great power from the size and muscular strength of their men, believing it to be a great advantage in subduing suspects – who were more likely to come quietly to a powerful, beefy constable than a 7-stone weakling – and controlling disturbances. Muscular, athletic bodies were more intimidating. So, implied the Dublin officers in 1854, were beards.

bobbies_with_horse

(Image from Old Police Cells Museum – http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/content/history/police_history/life_in_the_19th_century_england-2)

What happened next is unclear; I’ve yet to find an article stating what the outcome was. Given the overwhelming support for beards across the rest of society, though, and the recommendations on medical grounds that men who worked outside, or in difficult environments should grow them, it seems unlikely that the Dublin Commissioners would not have relented. If anyone can shed light on the outcome, I’d be pleased to hear.

(The story doesn’t quite end there though. As I was finishing this post, I was made aware of another protest in support of facial hair. In France in the early 20th century, Parisian waiters went on strike, demanding the right to wear moustaches – a right usually denied to those in low paid, domestic or manual occupations. For the full story on the ‘Great French Moustache Strike’, click here

Advertisements

Barbers and their Shops in Early Modern Britain.

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua
V0019646 A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A barber’s shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aquatint. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Barber shops are proving to be one of the big growth industries of the past few years. All across the country, and indeed across the world, it seems that there has been a marked return in what we might think of as ‘traditional’ barber shops. Not only this, many barbers have also now begun to return to what was certainly, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the task with which they were most synonymous – shaving. More about that in a future post.

But barbers are, and always have been, closely associated with their shops. When we think of those shops we also think of the signs of their trade, most notably the pole, but also the barber’s chair, mirror and paraphernalia. (See Lindsey Fitzharris’s great post about the barber’s pole) The barber’s shop was (and still is) an important social space, somewhere to meet and gossip, as well as to purchase ‘product’.  This too was no different in the past. In the early modern period, the barber was an important source of goods. It was, for example, pretty much the only place where men could legitimately buy cosmetic products, such as shaving lotions or soaps, and perhaps even razors, as well as having them applied as part of the service.

Other things were sold by barbers to boost their incomes, including alcohol and foodstuffs. As Margaret Pelling has shown too, music was an important part of the barber’s shop experience, and some even had house instruments that customers could use to kick up a sing-song. Eleanor Decamp’s recent book ‘Civic and Medical Worlds’ has also highlighted the ‘soundscape’ of the early modern barbershop, with the snip-snap of scissors, the click and slap of the barber’s hands as they did their work, and their notoriously incessant chatter.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 10.48.15

(Image copyright Wellcome Images)

But, as part of my project on the history of facial hair, I’ve been doing lots of research into the records of early modern barbers recently, and this is beginning to show a more complex picture than perhaps first thought. Despite the emphasis on shops, it is becoming clear that not all barbers in fact had shops. Indeed, there are good reasons why many might have chosen not to.

Fitting out a barber shop in the seventeenth century was actually extremely expensive and required quite a considerable outlay to get it up and running. In 1688, Randle Holme’s book Academy of Armoury set out the list of equipment in an idealized barbershop. It was quite substantial.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 10.43.25

Once established, the ongoing costs of maintaining the equipment must also have been onerous. Razors and scissors needed constant stropping and sharpening – a job likely to have been done by an apprentice. Waters and powders needed to be continually replenished, whilst shop fittings needed cleaning and repairing with the stress of daily use. To establish even a fairly modest business, therefore, needed money.

A search through the probate inventories of barbers in the 17th and 18th century reveals a wide range in size, quality, and equipment levels. There were certainly barber businesses in towns across Britain, for example, that did seem to follow Randle Holme’s ideal. In 1674, Edward Wheeler’s Salisbury barbershop contained three basins, some chafers and ‘barbers instruments’ valued at a total of ten shillings. Basins and chafing dishes were both requisites for warming and holding water for shaving. In Newark, Nottinghamshire, barber Thomas Claredge’s shop contained glass cases and furniture, a large number of hones, brushes and basins, wash balls and a quantity of shop linen. The inventory of the Nottingham barber William Hutchinson also gives a glimpse into a high-end barber’s business. Customers entering Hutchinson’s shop would have been greeted by a variety of furniture, including tables, chairs and benches, and shelves occupied by wig blocks, along with wigs, salve and powder boxes, and a number of pewter pots and candlesticks. Amongst Hutchinson’s equipment were 2 mirrors, 6 brushes, 13 razors and a hone, and a number of pairs of scissors and curling irons. A pile of ‘trimming cloths’ stood in readiness for use, whilst the customer’s eye might also be diverted by the ‘small pictures’ on the walls, or by the noisy occupant of the bird cage also noted by the inventory takers.

Barber shop 2

(Copyright Wellcome Images)

But in many cases too, there were clearly more basic surroundings. Some shops, like that of the Chippenham barber Thomas Holly in 1697, were clearly very basic, with an entry for ‘the shoppe’ listing just ‘2 chaires 1 lookeing glasse [and] 1 stool’, valued at five shillings. In Chepstow, in 1697, Roger Williams’ shop contained only a looking glass, a basin, some razors, one hone and a small amount of ‘trimming cloth’, while the Nottingham barber Thomas Rickaby’s shop inventory contained ‘1 lookeing glass, some razours, three old chaires’ and three wigs. Such examples suggest small, part time or occasional businesses, capable of attending only a few customers at one time.

Some sources suggest that barbers simply used space in their own houses to trim customers, keeping a bare minimum of equipment to use at need, avoiding the need to equip a ‘formal’ shop space altogether. Here trimming was likely a simple expedient. Customers would turn up ad hoc and be shaved, but perhaps without the frippery and frills of the high-end barber

But equally, as Susan Vincent has noted, there was actually little need for barbers to run a shop since this was an activity that could be performed at any time of day, and in the customer’s own house. Barbers were effectively on call at any time of day. Until at least the early nineteenth century itinerant ‘flying’ barbers offered shaving services to customers, either in their own homes or even in ad hoc stalls in town centres and markets. In 1815 John Thomas Smith reported the dying trade of the ‘flying barber’ in his study of London. Their standard equipment was reported to be a basin, soap and napkin, and ‘a deep leaden vessel, something like a chocolate pot’, enabling them to move relatively swiftly to find custom. Many barbers were likely able to eke out a living by providing a mobile service in this way, rather than operating from fixed premises. Securing a regular contract with a wealthy gentry family, for example, providing shaving services in the comfort of their own country pile, could be lucrative and might dispense with the need for a shop altogether.

The history of barbershops, then, may be more complex than has previously been assumed. Barber businesses varied greatly. Some were well-equipped, almost luxury affairs, with pots of pastes and lotions, powder and pomatum and a bustling atmosphere. Others were smaller, cheaper and more prosaic. But many barbers had no shop at all, simply fulfilling a demand in their community, and building up a reputation, as was the case with medical practitioners in general. The need for the weekly trim ahead of Sunday service (the ‘hebdomadal shave’) meant that there was almost always a need for a parish barber. It also reminds us of the changing landscape of shaving and haircutting through time though, and the fact that, three centuries ago, you didn’t necessarily go to the barber’s and sit in a queue. If you had the means, they came to you.

 

 

Hiding Behind the Beard. Facial hair and Physiognomy.

One of the most consistent arguments made against the beard has long been the sense that bearded men are not to be trusted. It’s actually one of the main reasons that politicians don’t wear beards, (with one notable exception!) since the danger of looking shifty to the voting public is too big a risk to take. The nub of the complaint is that some men grow beards to somehow ‘hide’ behind them – almost like a mask, or disguise.

It’s certainly not a new argument. In fact, in the late eighteenth century, and again in the nineteenth, amidst new ideas about physiognomy and ‘reading’ facial features, beards were an awkward problem. Why? Because they got in the way. In the 1700s this wasn’t so much of a problem since this was largely a beardless age. Whilst old men and derelicts might be seen in public sporting some grey or tatty fronds, the enlightened gentleman was smooth-faced; an open countenance to show an open mind.

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 07.31.54

Johan Casper Lavater (Wellcome Images)

But although divining character through look, expression and general mien had been around for centuries, it was the eighteenth century that saw the beginnings of trying to make a science of it. During this periodthe head and face took on new meanings as sites of authority and symbols of inner character. It was supposed that there were links between facial characteristics and personality traits, ranging from intelligence to morality and temper. Some even believed that there was a hidden ‘language’ of facial features and expression waiting to be discovered. Despite the fact that hardly any men had them, beards had a part to play in physiognomic investigation. As Lavater noted in assessing portraits of famous villains, ‘even the[ir] beard bears a character of sternness and inflexibility’.

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 07.32.37

From J. Parsons, Human Physiognomy (Wellcome Images)

In a period of increasing interest in the ‘foreign’ bodies of other races, and of systems of classification of man and the natural world, another argument (made by David Ritchie in 1780, was that Europeans chose to shave as a mark of their superiority, giving them ‘a more significant physiognomy to their smooth chins’. Hair and beards were important markers of difference between races. Despite the fact that they shaved, the ability to grow a beard was still important, and bearded Europeans regarded themselves superior to sparsely-bearded, or beardless peoples.

But it was the 19thcentury that saw the beard drawn more purposefully into debates about face and character, amidst a revival of interest (even something of a golden age) in physiognomy. The early 1800s had seen the proliferation of small, cheap and accessible physiognomical texts, most notably reprints and editions of Lavater’s key works. According to Sharona Pearl, physiognomy became so popular in the nineteenth century, across the whole of society, that it became a ‘widely understood visual language’Not only this, it became a popular pastime to ‘read’ the faces of people in the street and try to determine their characters. ‘Look at that man’s eyebrows Mamma…he simply MUST be a poisoner’!

Just as the shape of the eyes, nose, ears, eyebrows and so on were important indicators of character, so the lower face could also reveal much. According to Samuel Well’s 1871 New Physiognomy, the shape, size and movement of the mouth and lips spoke volumes about an individual’s character and temperament. Whilst coarse, irregular lips, for example might suggest strength, small, smooth and delicate lips implied delicacy of character. A narrow, closed mouth could indicate lack of affection and reserve, whilst an open mouth showed a frank, outspoken disposition. The shape, angle and outline of the chin were also principal components in the estimation of character. The chin, as some Physiognomical texts stressed was nothing less the ‘index of love’!

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 07.36.29

Socrates, from Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (Wellcome Images)

But, when they returned with a hairy flourish around 1853, beards presented physiognomists with an irritating problem. The practice of popular physiognomy relied on being able to ‘read’ the whole of the face. Since beards obscured virtually the all of the mouth, chin and lips, the ‘book’ was therefore firmly snapped shut. An 1859 article in the American Gazette, (provocatively titled ‘Physiognomy Annihilated by Beards’) moaned about facial hair. If he had only foreseen the extent to which men would once again ‘disfigure’ their chins by growing beards, grumped the author, Lavater would surely have put aside his toils. ‘He whose chin, mouth and lips are rendered invisible, by neglecting the daily use of the razor, wears a mask, which conceals his character from the observer’. Others simply tried to pretend that they didn’t care. As ‘some captious critics’ had stated, argued one article in 1863, ‘whiskers and beards do not, properly speaking, fall under the head of physiognomical features’, since they were entirely under the control of the wearer, and were thus useless as indicators of character. The literary equivalent of going home AND taking your ball.

Supporters of the beard, attempted to fight back, arguing that a beard was actually useful precisely because it allowed a weak physiognomy to be concealed. In 1866 Arnold Cooley argued that a beard could certainly be useful in concealing ‘the defects of an ill-formed or ungraceful chin’. The skill of the diligent amateur physiognomist to see through the disguise and divine the true form underneath. The other problem with the physiognomy craze was the whole issue of actually being open to scrutiny. Some Victorians were actually going to increasing lengths to hide their faces, tiring of the intrusive gawp of strangers. For men, the beard perhaps offered a mask, an opportunity to disguise the face…a chance to hide.

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 07.42.54.png

Fear mingled with wonder, Bell’s Physiognomy (Wellcome Images)

It’s well known that the beard is a ‘prosthetic’, something that can be put on and taken off – a fact that’s been put to use by criminals for centuries! In the records of the Old Bailey online are several examples of criminals putting on ‘false whiskers’ to disguise themselves. It’s clear from records and reports that many criminals recognised the value of facial hair in hiding their true faces. In 1857 James Saward and James Anderson appeared at the Old Bailey accused of forgery. Part of their disguise was the adoption of a wig and ‘false whiskers’ to ensure that they avoided detection. Part of the defence of Thomas Cuthbert, accused of theft in 1867, was that the false whiskers and moustache he was wearing when arrested were not put on by him, but were applied by another man, when Cuthbert was dead drunk!

The relationship between the beard and physiognomy is quite complex. At times it was simply ignored, but at others was central to debates about the face and character. It’s something very much on my mind at the moment as I write my own book on the history of facial hair. But whether the beard hides the face underneath, or instead adds a certain gravity and maturity to the wearer’s countenance, its meanings are seldom uncomplicated.

The ‘heroic sufferer’; sickness narratives in early modern letters

One from the archives – a post about ‘heroic’ sufferers, and the ways that they construct their illness, and present themselves.

Dr Alun Withey

I mentioned in my last post about the concept of the ‘heroic sufferer’. Patient narratives are very much the coming thing in medical history. ‘Off Sick’, for example, a recent collaboration between Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan has looked at the voices of the patient over time. The historiography of disability is re-engaging with the often indistinct voices of disabled people in the past. Even in popular history, it’s often these ‘voices’ that people want to hear about – ‘Voices of the Great War’ and so on. Overall, there has been an impetus to learn about the sickness experience through those who had that experience; not those who treated them.

In my own work, I’ve looked at sickness narratives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the letters that sufferers wrote to friends and relatives. Other than actual conversation (or even perhaps more than conversation), letters allowed people…

View original post 699 more words

Splash it all over: A brief history of aftershave.

One from the archives – something very much on my mind at the moment, as I look at the history of men’s cosmetic products.

Dr Alun Withey

In a recent article in the UK’s Independent newspaper, the cosmetics industry for men in Britain was estimated to be worth over £30 million a year, after growing over 300% in 2014/15. Even so, this is a drop in the ocean, in a global market for male pampering which accounts for an eye-watering 14.8 BILLION pounds per year. The sheer numbers of male aftershaves, scents and colognes are bewildering, and carry the heft of major league celebrity endorsements, from the likes of David Beckham and Johnny Depp.

I’m a child of the 70s, a time when aftershave choices were, shall we say, limited. At Christmas and birthdays my poor father was the regular recipient of a) Brut b) Blue Stratos or C) Old Spice, with a runner’s up prize of ‘Denim’ if Boots had run out of any of them. This was despite the fact that he had (and still…

View original post 1,099 more words

Barbers and Advertising in the 18th century.

Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time looking at polite advertising in the 18th century. During that period, a whole range of retailers advertised their goods and services to appeal to ladies and gentlemen of taste. Without discussing anything so base as price or money, they instead gently coaxed, cajoled and complimented their customers to become regular visitors. Politeness was, in many ways, a performance. Both customer and retailer played the game, turning shopping into something of an experience, often involving being served tea while you perused the items on show.

One of the primary ways of enticing customers back was the trade card. These were small printed pamphlets or bills, handed out to the customer after purchase as a reminder to them to visit again. Combining polite language with elegant neoclassical imagery, they stressed the world of goods available, the opulence of the surroundings, and the care and attention promised to be lavished on the customer.

Thousands of these trade cards exist for all sorts of businesses. Unsurprisingly these were often high-end businesses. But even some small, prosaic trades also adopted the card, and examples can be found for anything from dentists to skeleton sellers!

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 10.10.22

(Trade card of Nathaniel Longbottom, skeleton seller – Wellcome Images)

One type of business that appears to have steadfastly resisted the trade card, however, was the barbershop. On the face of it (excuse the pun!) barbers should surely have been just the sort to benefit from attracting regular, returning custom.  As shavers of men, they played a pivotal role in the face of the polite gentleman. Indeed, dictionaries throughout the entire eighteenth century often gave the primary definition of barbers as ‘shavers’. Towards the end of the eighteenth century too, ‘hairdressers’ were important figures, especially in shaping female appearance. In other words, more than perhaps any other trade, it was barbers who helped men and women to meet new ideals of appearance, readying them for public view. And yet they chose not to bother with trade cards. Why might this have been?

V0040698 Men being shaved and having their hair cut, styled and crimp
Image from Wellcome Images

It has been argued that barbering as a profession was in decline in the eighteenth century. It has long been assumed that the split between the barbers and surgeons in 1745 elevated the surgeons, at the same time as relegating the barbers to mere ‘mechanics’. The extent to which this is true is up for question; (it’s certainly something I’m interested in as part of my project on the history of facial hair). Certainly, in popular culture, though, the barber was often portrayed as a rustic tradesman – the stereotypical bumbling, inept fool who did more damage to his customers appearance than good. In fact, barbers were sometimes singled out and mocked for trying to affect airs and graces.

Barber

(Lewis Walpole Digital Images)

But did barbers actually even need trade cards in the first place? The business relied, first and foremost, on footfall and passing trade. A given street in an eighteenth-century English town might contain several barbershops of various size and quality to suit the pockets of a variety of customers.  Such accounts and references that do survive suggest strongly that people tended to keep to one particular barber, building a relationship over time…in fact quite similar to today. This being the case, was there in fact any need to remind the customer of where they had their last haircut or shave?

Secondly, the nature of the barbering trade was arguably different to those of other, even related, trades. Wig (or peruke) makers, for example could trade on their range of the stock, the quality of their hair, and the service element of their business. Some cards survive for perukemakers, which demonstrate their easy assimilation into the world of polite advertising. For barbers, however, aside from selling the odd cake of soap, glass of beer, or keg of butter, they were unlikely to adopt (or need) the fawning, obsequious style of metropolitan shop owners.

Perhaps for the same reasons, barbers did not seem to take advantage of the opportunities for relatively cheap advertisements in Georgian newspapers. If they appear at all, it is usually as an agent for some or other product – usually related to their trade, such as shaving soap, pomatum or even razors and other goods. But, as to their tonsorial skills….virtual silence.

If not trade cards or newspaper advertisements, then, did barbers even advertise at all? In fact, it could be argued that barbers had the most striking advertisements of all, hidden in plain sight: the pole. I must admit to having doubts about the origins of the barber’s pole colours, and its red and white striped design. It’s often said that the pole represents the bloodletting process. Here the red signifies the blood being taken, the white denotes the bandages, and the pole itself is said to be the ‘fillet’ – the small stick gripped by the patient whilst their vein was being opened. It’s a story that was certainly in circulation by the late eighteenth century, and vigorously and enthusiastically repeated by Victorian antiquarians. It’s just that hard evidence is somewhat more difficult to come by. Perhaps we’ll never really know. There is some evidence, for example, that the pole sometimes had blue and white stripes, although this might suggest it represented the vein about to be cut. Whatever the origins, evidence for large, protruding poles outside barbershops can be found far back into the seventeenth century.

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua

(Wellcome Images)

So, it does seem that barbers were not necessarily ‘polite’ in the eighteenth century; perhaps they didn’t need to be; perhaps they didn’t even want to be! It’s interesting, nonetheless, to see how certain businesses relied on different means in order to advertise their services.

For more about the history of barbershops, have a look at Lindsey Fitzharris’s excellent articles on the subject, e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-lindsey-fitzharris/the-bloody-history-behind-barbers-pole_b_3537716.html

The killer socks of 1868.

In the mid nineteenth century, a spate of poisonings began to raise alarm in the newspapers. Almost anybody was at risk, and the culprit was, as yet, unclear. But the source of the poison was no Victorian arch criminal; it was a far subtler, domestic killer, hidden in plain sight.

Victorian street

(Image from wikimedia commons)

In May 1869, an article appeared in the St James’ Magazine, provocatively titled ‘Poisonous Hosiery’. ‘Poison, Poison everywhere’, exclaimed the author. ‘Poison in the food we eat, poison in the liquors we drink, poison in the air we breathe’. Now, it seemed, not even clothes were sacred. With the inherent danger in almost every facet of life, it was a wonder, they went on, that civilised people were not poisoned off the face of the earth! The matter was reported in newspapers from Dundee to Essex.

The story began when a London surgeon, one ‘Dr Webber’ approached the London Guildhall, after detecting what he described as ‘a probable source of much injury to the public health’. The source of this danger was neither poor sanitation nor contagion. It was socks. According to Webber, certain pairs of coloured socks (including fashionable mauve and magenta!) were then on sale, which contained dye obtained from the poisonous substance aniline ‘the cause of much constitutional and local complaint to many people’.

Webber claimed that the poison caused swelling and irritation. In one case, the boots of one of his patients had to be cut off because the feet had swollen so much. Youths in London, Oxford and Cambridge, reportedly suffered ulcers and sores on their feet.

The presiding alderman, Mr Dakin, sat and listened with some bemusement. ‘He himself had never felt any ill effects from the wearing of coloured socks’, nor from any other coloured garments, so it simply could not be true. Going further, he chided the surgeon for potentially disconcerting the public, or ‘interfering with honest intentioned tradesmen’, unless he could provide hard evidence of the danger.

But Webber was not finished, and sent samples to eminent chemists, who carried out tests.  These investigations proved the surgeon’s fears were not unfounded. Experiments by a prominent chemist proved that the offending dyes did indeed contain compounds of arsenic.

Poison bottle.jpg

A committee was swiftly formed to investigate the subject, and advertisements placed in the Times newspaper, calling for all those who suspected they might have been affected by poisonous hosiery to come forward. Something of the scepticism of Alderman Dakin lingered in the advertisement. The potential list of suggested ‘persons who may have suffered’ included ‘the dandy whose delicately tinted foot coverings have irritated and erupted his skin [and] the girl…whose flaming stockings have given rise to pimply outbursts’. All were called upon not only to describe their symptoms for the betterment of their fellow creatures, but to ‘sacrifice their favoured chausettes upon the hygienic altar’…i.e. send their underwear in for examination!

But reports continued to emerge from other sources. The Lancet reported the case of a ballet dancer appearing in The Doge of Venice who had suffered a ‘cutaneous eruption’ on one foot. Further investigation suggested that the heat of her foot had acted upon the dye to affect the skin. Crucially, the shoe of the affected foot was bright red, whilst the other foot, wearing a white shoe, had ‘absolute immunity. A Coventry physician, Dr McVeagh, noted that a patient suffered almost unbearable pain and discomfort from his feet, after buying a pair of socks in Birmingham “in the Marquis of Hastings colours’. Even despite efforts to remove them from sale, ‘some of the mischievous goods’ were clearly still at large.

A battery of further tests was commissioned on a wider range of hosiery, and soon the Victorian fixation with hygiene gradually overtook scepticism about the possibility that socks could be deadly. A well-known French chemist, M.L. Roussin, and a physician Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, subjected suspect socks and hose to a barrage of experiments, extracting the dye, before evaporating it and extracting a substance that proved to be a poison ‘of not insignificant power’. The author of the St James article noted with distaste the effects of the poison on unfortunate animals, including dogs, rabbits and frogs (‘Alas! Poor brutes – tortured for an idea’), which included stomach disorders, fevers, weakness and, in some cases death.

Late_19th_century_Chemist's_shop_Wellcome_M0019040.jpg

(Image from Wellcome Images)

On humans, the French chemists asserted that, although no deaths had actually occurred, the substance within the socks was certainly capable of doing so. More than this, they used their experiments to caution about the dangers of ‘progress’ in ‘which the incessant progress of the chemical arts’ could lead to increasing risks to the human race and health of mankind. The College of Physicians was entreated to swiftly come up with a name for the condition.

Some enterprising retailers leapt upon the opportunity offered by potentially deadly underwear, and took out their own advertisements for alternative ‘safe’ products. One advert in 1879 (with the un-alluring headline ‘Poisonous Stockings’) argued that while ‘medical testimony’ had proved that coloured stockings were injurious to health, all risk could be avoided by simply purchasing “Balbriggan silk embroidered’ socks or half-hose, which were coloured by harmless vegetable dyes.

Once the offending substances had been identified and isolated, steps were taken to ensure that hosiery was no longer potentially fatal, and the crisis gradually abated. But the next time you hear yourself saying ‘my feet are killing me’, spare a thought for the diligent Dr Webber and be grateful it isn’t literal.