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.

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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.

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(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.

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When Marmalade was Medicinal.

I must admit to a guilty pleasure – hot buttered toast with a (very!) thick covering of marmalade. Worse than that, I’m even fussy; it absolutely has to be a certain brand, and a particular type…none of your weedy shredless stuff for me!

But it seems that I’m not alone. Marmalade has recently made something of a comeback. It’s now become a serious foodie’s ingredient with all sorts of artisan flavours and combinations.

Now admittedly marmalade might not leap to mind for its potential health benefits. But in the early 1800s, it was nothing less than a revolutionary health food. In fact, marmalade was originally created as a medicinal substance.

To discover the origins of marmalade we need to go back to the eighteenth century and the increasing problem of scurvy in the British Navy. Scurvy, caused by a lack of Vitamin C, was a major killer in the period, and was even argued to cause the deaths of more sailors than enemy action. The disease caused a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath and bone pain, lethargy and changes to digestion, loss of teeth and hair and, eventually, death. The problem of getting and keeping fresh fruits and vegetables rendered long sea voyages potentially dangerous for crews.

The link between fruit and vegetables as a prevention against scurvy was already known in the seventeenth century, but it was a naval surgeon, James Lind, who first suggested citrus fruits as a viable option for ships’ crews. Throughout the eighteenth century, experiments with different types of foodstuffs (including, famously, sauerkraut by Captain James Cook on his 1768-71 expedition) began to have an impact on instances of the disease.

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James Lind FRSE, FRCPE (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

One of the key issues was being able to provide foods that were easy to keep and store, but which also retained enough nutrients to be beneficial. Marmalade (originating from the Portuguese word ‘Marmelo’) had become a popular means of preserving fruit in Britain as early as the seventeenth century. In 1732, Charles Carter’s Compleat City and Country Cook contained a recipe for various marmalades, including apple, pear and apricot, and even cherry and currant.

In 1776 the physician Alexander Hunter wrote about preventing disease using carrot marmalade! A mere spoonful, he asserted, could cure fevers and scurvy, and prevent putrescence. An advertisement also appeared that year in the London Chronicle, titled ‘A Preparation of Carrots for the Use of Seamen in Long Voyages’, of which the ‘finest sort’ could be procured for sixpence a pound.

By the late eighteenth century grocers were beginning to latch on to a public appetite for marmalade as a luxury good. Portuguese Quince Marmalade was one of the many exotic-sounding products available at Joshua Long’s Grocery Warehouse near the Royal Exchange in London. Customers at Long’s shop could also treat themselves to a veritable cornucopia of other delights, from ‘Genoa sweetmeats’ to candied pineapples. Rather confusingly, the publishers of Volume 7 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in March 1791 also included a line at the bottom of their advertisement, telling customers of their ‘Fine Orange Marmalade, just made’, available at the booksellers.

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But it wasn’t long before health came back to the fore. Seeing an opportunity, advertisers began to extol the virtues of marmalade as a restorative and preventative. An advertisement for the ‘Real Scotch Marmalade’ in 1813 listed many benefits. It was, said the advert, excellent for persons of weak constitutions, and those leading sedentary lives’. Not only this, marmalade was the perfect replacement for butter, which ‘never fails to create bile on the stomach, the forerunner of all flatulency’! A decade later, physicians were even recommending Scotch marmalade as a cure for colds! Levy and Salmon advertised their Scotch marmalade, for example, as being excellent for those troubled with bile or indigestion, and also as something to be given as a general health-preserver to children and the elderly.

Around this time marmalade also became genteel – the preserve of choice for the discerning Victorian household. ‘Mr Newton’ boasted in 1826 that his orange marmalade has been concocted to the ‘highest perfection’. ‘Hickson’s Shaddock Marmalade’ was, the advertisement claimed, met with ‘universal approbation’ from the nobility and gentry. In 1832, Mrs Wedderspoon’s ‘Genuine Orange Marmalade’ was available only from Capper’s Tea and Foreign Fruit Warehouse in the Strand, supplier of the ‘finest sauces and epicurean condiments’. Just like today, marmalade was fast becoming the preserve a la mode, the ideal accompaniment to a high tea, or family gathering.

The nineteenth century also saw the beginnings of some familiar brands, still in existence today. Keiller’s was formed in the 18th century, and became widespread (sorry!) during the 19th. Francis (Frank) Cooper started his marmalade production in the 1870s, whilst Wilkin and Sons Tiptree factory began producing jams, preserves and marmalades in 1885.

Paddington

So, it seems that Paddington Bear might have been right all along, in making sure that he always had “plenty of marmalade sandwiches to keep me going”! Perhaps, too, marmalade could indeed be the way to a healthy, as well as a happy, breakfast. That’s what I’m going to keep telling myself!

What About Whiskers? The forgotten facial hair fashion of 19th-century Britain.

In 1843, an article appeared in the New Orleans ‘Picayune’ newspaper, titled ‘Whiskers. Or, a clean shave’. Dwelling on their utility as ‘ornamental appendages to the human face’, the authors sought to discuss how they contributed to the ‘”masculineness” of manhood’. They even – jokingly – referred to an, as yet undeveloped branch of natural sciences; ‘Whiskerology’.

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Victorian carte d’visit depicting unknown man with HUGE whiskers – recently used in our ‘Age of the Beard’ exhibition

Taking a long view of facial hair fashions since the 17th century, it’s broadly true that beards and moustaches began to decline after around 1680, and disappeared completely through the eighteenth century, until, first the moustache, and then the beard returned with full vigour in the middle of the nineteenth century. So, from bearded, to beardless and back again in around 200 years.

But that’s actually not quite the case. Around the turn of the nineteeth century, male facial hair made what might be regarded as an initial skirmish, before the full frontal facial assault of the 1850s. It was not long-lived; by no means was there a ‘whisker movement’. But, for the first decade of the 19th century, whiskers were definitely a ‘thing’.

There is sometimes confusion about what whiskers actually are, and how they differ from beards. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably. Even in contemporary articles whiskers could be used as a catch-all for beards or for beard hairs. But technically they refer to different things. Whilst beards are of the cheeks and chin, whiskers are specific to the sides of the face, and jawline. Also, whilst beards are generally a single entity, whiskers, like moustaches, come as a pair.

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(Image from Wikipedia: Edward Askew Southern as ‘Lord Dundreary’)

The fashion for whiskers seems to have begun quite abruptly around 1800. There were sneering reports, for example, of a new trend amongst young men about town, for cultivating their side -whiskers, and showing them off in public. To a polite society still embracing ideals of neatness and smooth, manly elegance, this was little less than scandalous. The desirability of whiskers, however, was such that the wigmaker Ross of Bishopsgate took to the Times to advertise his new contrivance of a wig with whiskers attached through ‘such remarkable adhesion as cannot be discovered from Nature itself’. This ‘new invented whisker’ could be combed to suit any fashion, but came at the high price of three pounds and three shillings – a full pound dearer than his standard, un-whiskered perukes

By 1808, so popular had whiskers become, that even women were apparently trying to get in on the act. Several fashion journals (such as the popular ‘Le Belle Epoque’) reported a coming trend for ladies to train their lovelocks down the side of their faces ‘in imitation of whiskers’. For some this was a step too far. ‘I am at a loss to conceive what a gentleman will be pleased with in a lady’s whiskers’. Nonetheless, this was clearly a popular fashion. Whether it was ‘The Countess Dowager of B—s whiskers’ which were apparently ‘already in great forwardness’, or the ‘belles of Cockermouth’, a set of whiskers was seriously a la mode. At one stage it was suggested that an enterprising perfumer was even selling preparations ‘To Ladies of Fashion ‘who have tried various preparations for changing the hair, whiskers and eyebrows, without success’, but this proved to be an error of phrasing, as the Satirist magazine were happy to poke fun at!

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There were certainly products aimed specifically at cultivating whiskers though. By 1808, ‘Prince’s Russia Oil’ and ‘Macassar Oil’ were in demand, and advertisers claimed that they were specifically designed to ‘promote whiskers’ and prevent damage or discolouration caused by frequent wetting.

Some of the arguments made for whiskers during this period were also in fact remarkably similar to those later made for beards. Echoing later claims for the innate masculinity of beards, whiskers were said to be ‘grave and manly’. Whiskers had been venerated by ‘the ancients’, lending them an air of authority and wisdom. It was, as one commentator noted, ‘silly to oppose so ancient a custom in an age so attached to antiquity’. Moreover, the ‘cruelty of shaving’ was matched by the dangers of the shaking hands of ‘unskilled operators’ (barbers). Most of all, it was argued, whiskers were beautiful, especially when set against the ‘unfringed faces of the present day’.

Gentleman with whiskers

(Image from Pinterest – owner of original copyright unknown)

At the same time whiskers were beginning to be held up as a desirable characteristic of the male face. A man obtaining goods under false pretences was described in 1811 as of ‘gentlemanly appearance’, and of ‘handsome countenance, who wears black whiskers’. A report of the suicide of Royal Footman Andrew Tranter in 1810 noted his reputation for ‘neatness and cleanliness’ in his dress and appearance, and that he ‘wore very large whiskers and was considered a handsome young man’. Such seemingly innocuous reports in fact hides an important transition; after more than a century, facial hair was again aesthetically and socially pleasing but, more than this, cleanly.

In 1813, ‘The Spirit of Public Journals’ reported the ‘Growing custom of encouraging whiskers’ and the barbed criticisms levelled at them by critics. It was apparently even suggested that an Act of Parliament should be made to curtail the fashion. Even then, the subject of male facial hair was contentious! Fortunately, the author argued, the ‘Whiskerandos’ outnumbered their tormentors and merely increased in proportion to the opposition levelled against them.

Despite the ‘Spirit’s enthusiasm, however, it seems that the fashion for side-whiskers had abated by the end of the 1810s. It’s not clear why it declined; perhaps Victorian society was not quite ready for the hirsute revolution of the mid century. But it is interesting to consider whiskers, not only as a sort of trial run for what came later, but also as an often-forgotten element in men’s facial hair fashions. It wasn’t all beards and moustaches.

Chin Curtain beard

(Image from Pinterest – owner of original copyright unknown)

As the current beard style continues to change, at the moment with beards seemingly getting smaller and more closely trimmed, will we see the return of such fantastic styles as the ‘Dundreary’ whiskers or (please no!) the ‘chin curtain’? Perhaps the Whiskerandos will rise again. If they do, you can be sure that this particular ‘Whiskerologist’ will be there to document it.

Movember Special: Hiding Behind the Beard

It’s November, and that time of year when men all over the world will be donning moustaches to raise money for, and awareness of, prostate cancer, through Movember. Get ready for a raft of valiant efforts, with some maybe even graduating to the moustache wax and twirly ends! Moustache newbies can take advantage of the huge range of products now available to shape, style and otherwise pamper their facial hair.

Not, however, that there’s been much of an extra incentive needed in recent times for men to rediscover the love for their facial hair. As I’ve repeatedly suggested here on the blog, and elsewhere, there is little sign that beards are diminishing in popularity; if anything they seem to be going from strength to strength, with new styles emerging over recent months to replace the ‘Hipster’/Lumberjack beard of 2 or 3 years ago.

flowery-hipster

Events like ‘Movember’, though, remind us of the prosthetic nature of facial hair – beards and moustaches are easy to adopt…you just have to stop shaving and there they are. And, just as easily as they can be put on, they can be shaved off in a few minutes. Wearing them (or not) can dramatically alter facial features and, as the continuing studies into the supposed attractiveness of beards keep suggesting, this can affect how individual men are viewed by others. This is in fact something that I’ve been exploring in my research recently. One thing that I find particularly interesting is the use of false facial hair by men.

At various points in history, being unable to grow a beard has certainly been severely stigmatised. In Tudor and Stuart Britain, beardlessness was a state connected with either immaturity or effeminacy. A man whose beard was thin and scanty might be insulted with terms such as ‘smock face’, or regarded as a mere ‘beardless boy’. In the eighteenth century, although most men were clean-shaven, the ability to grow a beard was still a vital element of masculinity. Even if you didn’t grow it, you had to at least be able to show that you could! In Victorian Britain, at the height of the beard movement, beardless men were again subject to suspicion.

How d'ye like me?

What, though, could men whose facial hair was somewhat lacking do to avoid the barbs? At least in the nineteenth century some help was available. One easy method was to visit one of the many theatrical suppliers in large towns and cities, from whom a fairly realistic false moustache could be bought.

Author's image from item in Wellcome Collection, ephemera.
Author’s image from item in Wellcome Collection, ephemera.

Theatrical retailers like C.H. Fox in 1893, sold a range of styles to suit every taste. These included ‘Beards and Moustaches on wire, ordinary’, ‘beards best knotted on gauze’, ‘sailors beards’ and ‘moustaches on hair net foundation, the very best made, perfectly natural, suitable for Detective Business’, costing the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence.

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(image from ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ by Charles Dillon, available on Google Books)

A number of enterprising artisans began to manufacture false beards, moustaches and whiskers to cater specifically for those whose facial hair steadfastly refused to make an appearance. In 1865 Henry Rushton lodged an application for…

THE APPLICATION OF A CERTAIN KIND OF GOAT’S HAIR IN IMITATION OF HUMAN HAIR TO THE MANUFACTURE OF HEAD DRESSES, MOUSTACHES, AND ALL KINDS OF FALSE HAIR, AND THE PROCESSES OF PREPARING THE SAME

Rushton proposed a set of chemical processes to prepare mohair for various uses which “I apply in imitation of human hair for covering the foundations and forming plain ‘back’ or ‘Brighton Bows’ or any other plain hair head dresses, and apply the same also in manufacture of various kinds of false hair, such as ringlets, coronets, head dresses, whiskers, moustaches, and the like. Another patent from Thomas Bowman in 1800 even proposed a contrivance with a set of mechanical springs and elastic components, to enable wigs and false whiskers to stick closely to the head and face.

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So important were moustaches and whiskers to the military that they supplied their own false articles, often made of goat’s hair, to fresh-faced, stubble-free recruits, to ensure that the whole regiment was suitably hirsute, and ready to face the enemy.

But another, often forgotten, group also found the portability and ease of false facial hair vital in their professional lives….criminals! The face-altering properties of facial hair were particularly useful to criminals. In the days before DNA testing, CCTV and fingerprinting, a fleeting glimpse of a criminal’s face was often all a victim had to go on. A thick beard, dramatic whiskers or a droopy moustache were all notable features by which a criminal could be identified and brought to justice. But what happened if they weren’t real?

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! Many other cases record the discovery of false whiskers, beards or moustaches amongst the possessions of criminals, or their use in trying to defy identification. ‘It can’t have been him your honour, the man who attacked me had a huge beard!’

Beard generator

Perhaps the most sinister case is that of the physician Thomas Neill, indicted for murder in 1892, and known by the alias of Dr Cream. Various witness attested to having known the doctor, some testifying that he sometimes wore a moustache, others that he had dark whiskers, and another that he was clean-shaven. One witness, however, a Canadian traveller named John Mcculloch, noted meeting Neill in his hotel, after he called for a physician when feeling unwell. After supplying Mcculloch with antibilious pills, the two men began to chat about their respective businesses. The doctor showed the man his medical box and pointed to a bottle of poison. “For God’s sake, what do you do with that?” asked the shocked traveller, to which Dr Cream replied “I give that to the women to get them out of the family way”.

By now shocked and suspicious the traveller continued to question the doctor: “he stepped backwards to the trunk and produced a pair of false whiskers, or divided beard without mustaches—I said, “What do you use these for?”—he said, “To prevent identification when operating”—he led me to believe previous to that that he procured abortion”. None of this helped the evil Dr Cream; he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, his false whiskers proving no escape from the law.

So as Movember gets underway it will be interesting to see how many men put on their moustaches and, equally, how many remove them again at the end of the month! Some don’t get on with them, but others are pestered by their partners to lose the fuzz; a common complaint is that it makes a man look older, or otherwise alters their appearance too much. Another recurring themes amongst opponents of beards is that they make men look as though they have something to hide. This is one of the reasons that politicians don’t usually grow them. As the examples shown here suggest though, many bearded men actually did have something to hide.

Announcing…’The Age of the Beard”

I’m delighted to be able to announce the launch, in November 2016, of the exhibition linked to my Wellcome Trust project on the history of facial hair in Britain.

Between Mid November and March 2017, the Florence Nightingale Museum in London will host ‘The Age of the Beard’ – a photographic exhibition of some of the finest examples of Victorian facial hair, along with a range of other fantastic exhibits including Victorian razors and shaving paraphernalia, advertising and all sorts of other beard-related facts and figures.

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(Henry Wellcome, to whom I owe my career! – copyright Wellcome Images)

Along with the exhibition will be a series of public events, including talks, family activities and even a production of the pantomime ‘Bluebeard’.

Full details are available from the museum’s website here

I hope that many of you can come and join us, and celebrate the golden age of the hirsute face that was Victorian Britain!

Fowl Medicine: The early modern ‘pigeon cure’

In October 1663 news spread around London that Queen Catherine was gravely ill. Fussed over by a gaggle of physicians and priests, things got so bad that Her Majesty was even given extreme unction in the expectation that she might not pull through. In an effort to turn things around, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on the 19th October, “pigeons were put to her feet”. In another diary entry in 1667, Pepys recorded visiting the dying husband of Kate Joyce who was in his sick bed, his breath rattling in his throat. Despairing (for good reason) for his life his family “did lay pigeons to his feet while I was in the house”.

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(Image from Wikipedia)

Pigeons? Laid to the feet? Was Pepys mistaken, or was there a misunderstanding of his complicated shorthand? Actually, pigeons were a surprisingly common ‘ingredient’ in medicine and were even recommended for various conditions in the official pharmacopoeia (catalogue) of sanctioned remedies. But what were they used for, and how?

Remedies for the treatment of the plague certainly called for the use of pigeons. No less a publication than the London Pharmocopoeia issued by the College of Physicians in 1618, contained a remedy for the plague which involved pulling off the feathers of living pigeons, holding their bills shut and holding the bare patch to the plague sore “until they die and by this means draw out the poison”.

William Kemp’s 1665 ‘Brief Treatise of the Nature and Cure of the Pestilence’ noted that some writers advised cutting a pigeon open, and applying it (still hot) to the spine of a person afflicted with melancholy, or to a person of weak intellect. The English Huswife of 1615 advised those infected with the plague to try applying hot bricks to the feet and, if this didn’t work, “a live pidgeon cut in two parts”. Even the by-products of pigeons could come in useful. Physicians treating the ailing Charles II applied a plaster to his feet containing pigeon dung.

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(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Several sources suggest that the ‘pigeon cure’ was often a remedy of last resort. Writing of the last illness of her father in 1707 (dying of a “broken heart, which the physicians called a feaver”, Alice Thornton reported that, just before his death, pigeons were cut and laid to the soles of his feet. Seeing this her father smiled and said “Are you come to the last remedy? But I shall prevent your skill”. The diarist John Evelyn, in the ‘Life of Mrs Godolphin’ noted that ‘Neither the cupping, nor the pidgeons, those last of remedyes [my emphasis], wrought any effect’.

The ‘cure’ was evidently so popular that it made its way into popular culture, such as in Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’. Speaking to the ‘Old Lady’, the character Bosola says that he would “sooner eate a dead pidgeon, taken from the soles of the feete of one sicke of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting”.

What were the perceived medical benefits of the pigeon and its various products? Some prominent physicians had plenty to say on the matter. William Salmon’s Pharmacopoeia Londonensis, Or the New London Dispensatory in 1716, (p. 200) held that “cut in the middle and laid to the feet, [pigeons] abate the heat of burning fevers, though malignant, and so laid to the Head, takes away Headaches, Frenzy, Melancholy and Madness. On the matter of pigeon dung, Dr Alleyne’s Dispensatory of 1733 stated that “we may judge of the nature of this [dung] from that of the birds…consists of subtle hot parts, which open the pores where it is applied, and by rarifying and expanding them, occasion a greater flux of fluid that way”. In other words the hot dung caused the body to open its pores and expel the bad humours causing the illness.

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Saint Gregory (and a pigeon!) – image from Wikimedia Commons

The particular significance of the pigeon is interesting too. One hint is given by the apparently strong connections in folklore between the pigeon and death, ranging from the belief that pigeons flying near a person – or indeed landing on their chimney – were supposed to indicate approaching death, to the “common superstition” (recorded in 1890) that no one can die happy on a bed of pigeon’s feathers. The symbolic power of the pigeon may therefore have been applied in reverse. Killing the bird perhaps imparted its vital power onto the dying person. Beliefs in the power of ‘anima’ – the vital life spirit – being able to be transferred from animals to humans were common in the early modern period.

If some of this seems like it belongs firmly to the 17th century, it is worth mentioning that the ‘pigeon cure’ was still apparently in use in Europe in the 20th century. A fleeting and poignant reference in Notes and Queries refers to a woman in Deptford in 1900, who unsuccessfully attempted to use the cure on her infant son when the medical attendant pronounced that there was no hope for him. He died shortly afterwards of pneumonia.

An article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1900, though, reported that a Paris physician was casually told by one of his patients that she had “tried the pigeon cure for meningitis”, with some success. The physician, one Dr Legue, expressed his ignorance of the cure, and the patient described it to him.

“The head of the patient to be treated is shaved, and then the breast of the (freshly-killed) pigeon is ripped open by the operator, and the warm and bleeding carcass immediately applied to the bared skull”.

More than this, Dr Legue apparently discovered a shop in the city’s Central Market, where a Madame Michel ran a shop selling nothing but live pigeons, specifically for the purpose of the cure. On interviewing Madam Michel, the good doctor ascertained that she was on the point of retirement after making a “small fortune” from her business, since “the pigeon cure is considered a sovereign remedy for Influenza”, and she had been struggling to keep up with demand. The term ‘sovereign remedy’ takes us straight back to the 17th century but, before the article finished, Madam Michel mentioned one last use for the pigeons. In the case of Typhoid fever, she suggested, two pigeons were necessary. And they should be tied to the soles of the feet.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

As uncomfortable as they might sometimes appear to our eyes, early modern medicine involved all manner of plants, animals and substances, alive or dead. Rather than viewing them as ‘weird’, people at the time saw them as valuable ingredients, often with special properties, which they could use to help them in the fight against disease.

Beards…or no Beards?

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(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s summer 2016, and beards are still pulling headlines in the news. A report on last week’s Financial Times website suggested that men are spending 20% more year on year, on niche products. One observer notes that the market for men’s grooming products is likely to top £1bn by 2018. The Guardian claim to be able to read personality through different beard styles, while other sites range from calling the end of the Hipster beard, to a report that one man wants to see the return of the beard tax.

There have been some signs of slowdown in recent months; a friend (and owner of a traditional barber shop) tells me that the numbers of men coming in for beard grooming has begun to fall, but also that the style has began to change towards shorter beards. Men who have beards are not removing them altogether, but seemingly cutting them back.

Shaving

(Image – Wikimedia Commons)

All of this has me thinking back to periods of beard ‘trend’ in history, and questions about actually how many men participate. Over the past few years we have seen an apparently huge rise in the popularity of beards. When a new trend starts it becomes literally remarkable. This certainly happened (and to some extent is still happening) with beards. Media, advertising, imagery all serves to build up a sense of momentum, beards became more noticeable on the high street and they begin to become associated with identity and lifestyle. But at some stage a tipping point is reached. This is essentially the idea behind so-called ‘peak beard’ – the point at which they become so popular that they lose their status as an alternative to what has gone before, and become…well…normal.

But even at their height this time around (probably 2014/5), how many men actually had beards? It’s impossible to quantify, but I’d be surprised if it went much about 25/30%. A study of 6500 European men in 2015 suggested that 52% had some form of facial hair, but such a small sample can hardly be considered bulletproof. (It was in the Daily Mail too by the way!)

I was talking recently to Christopher Oldstone-Moore (author of the recent book ‘Of Beards and Men’) and he argues that, even in times when beards are extremely popular, many (most?) men actually still don’t have them. I’ve been looking recently at Victorian photographic portraits of men across different levels of society, and different regions of the country. The period between 1850 and 1890 was the height of the ‘beard movement’ in Britain; a wide range of contemporary literature goes into great detail about the social, cultural and economic reasons why men should grow beards. As I’ve explored in other posts, these range from arguments that the beard filters out germs, protects the throat, chest and teeth, stops sunburn and even saves the economy millions by restoring the working hours lost in shaving!

Hat

(Image https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/481533385133628358/)

But I’ve actually been struck by the amount of clean-shaven portraits that I’ve seen. For all the whiskers, moustaches, chin beards, Dundreary whiskers and all the rest, many men clearly did still prefer to shave. We can’t rule out the possibility that some were shaved specifically for their portrait, but this can’t account for all cases. So were these men freakish? Did their clean-shaven faces make them prominent when all other men were apparently sporting large patriarch beards?

There is certainly evidence to suggest that not all men viewed beards positively. In 1851, for example, just as the beard fashion was beginning to gather pace, a correspondent to the CS Leader and Saturday Analyst, complained at the ill treatment meted out to him by passers by, who took his beard as a sign of ‘foreignness’. As he walked through the streets he was hissed and laughed at, and particularly objected to someone shouting ‘French Dog!’ when, as he pointed out, he was not French and had served his country in the British army for many years. Neither were the jibes from children; his assailants included ‘well dressed and grown-up people, especially by ladies, and shopkeepers’ clerks’.

Those who still preferred the razor were well served by products available for them; in a previous post I mentioned shaving creams like the popular Rowland’s Kalydor, which were marketed throughout the nineteenth century. So were various kinds of razors. In fact, it could be argued that some of the biggest advances in razor technology occurred when beards were at their most popular. Of course some shaving was still necessary for certain styles, especially chin beards and whiskers, but it also suggests a ready market for the clean shave.

The Georgian period is renowned as a beardless age – lasting from the slow decline of beards and moustaches around the 1680s, to the start of the ‘beard movement’ in 1850. But was this actually the case? In Georgian Britain the majority of portraits we have are of the upper classes and elites; can we be sure that rural labourers did not hold on to their beards? In fact, part of the reaction against beards was that they made polite gentlemen resemble rustics. This suggests that the rustic look could be bearded. This point is made, for example, in a 1771 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘A Bearded Man’. The purpose of the painting is unclear, but it is unusual in depicting a beard at a time when being clean-shaven was the norm. According to the Tate Gallery, the sitter was a beggar named George White, perhaps explaining his unkempt appearance.

A Man's Head c.1771-3 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792
A Man’s Head c.1771-3 Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00106

 

Another eighteenth-century portrait, by Balthasar Denner, also depicts a bearded man in the eighteenth century. This time the stubbly face represents the ageing man – a common artistic allusion but, again, suggests that clean-shaven may not have been the ubiquitous state it might at first appear from the sources.

Balthasar_Denner-_Portrait_of_an_Old_Man_-_Eremitage.jpg

(Balthasar Denner, ‘Head of an Old Man’: Image from Wikimedia Commons)

As I delve deeper into the history of facial hair it becomes ever more clear that things are rarely as clear cut (sorry!) as they appear. Periods in history that we associate with certain facial hair styles do not necessarily speak for all men. Just as today, when by no means all men are sporting luxuriant Hipster beards, so not all Tudor men had ‘Stilletto’ beards, not all Victorians had ‘Cathedral’ beards, and not all Georgians were clean shaven. Instead, decisions to wear (or not wear) facial hair are bound up in a complex web of meanings and influences. I’m looking forward to the next stage in the development of beards!