Zounds how you scrape! Being shaved in Georgian Britain.

Last week, for the first time in my life, I was the lucky recipient of a wet shave with a cut throat razor. As part of my duties as a BBC/AHRC ‘New Generation Thinker’ I was making a short film about shaving in Georgian Britain, the conclusion of which sees me having my beard shorn off in the Pall Mall barbers in Fitzrovia, central London, a traditional barbers’ shop with a history dating back to the nineteenth century. http://www.pallmallbarbers.com/  (I don’t usually go in for endorsements in the blog, but will make an exception here and say a big thanks to Richard and his team for looking after us. Much appreciated guys).

For someone who has always used safety razors, I must admit that I was slightly nervous. After all, sitting recumbent in a chair while someone sweeps a lethally sharp blade over your neck might not immediately seem like a good plan. I needn’t have worried. My barber, Michael, was an expert and, after a bit of preparatory work with hot towels and various creams and lotions, six months’ worth of beard was gone(smoothly and painlessly) in less than half an hour.

Under the knife!

But the experience was interesting for me on another level. Having been researching and writing in various ways about shaving for the past five or six years, this was a chance to get close to the experience of men in the past. Maybe sixty or seventy years ago, the cut throat razor was still extremely popular. Today, being shaved by a barber is something of a luxury. As I sat there in the comfortable chair, being shaved with a modern blade that was…well…razor sharp, I was reminded that this wasn’t always the experience of stubbly men in the past.

In Georgian Britain, shaving could be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Steel razors were already in use in the first half of the eighteenth century. These were often made of a type of steel called ‘shear steel’, which was made through an older process involving heating iron with layers of charcoal so that it absorbed the carbon. Whilst tough, this type of steel was prone to be brittle and not best suited to holding an extremely sharp edge for long. It needed constant re-sharpening with a strop –a leather strap which was held while the razor was swept up and down in long strokes.

After 1750, a new type of steel – cast steel – began to be introduced. Cast steel was more uniform in quality, capable of carrying a sharper edge, and had the added benefit of being capable of carrying a high polish. This meant that razors could look good, as well as working well. This is a model by the prominent razor maker and metallurgist James Stodart.

Image from http://www.taylors1000.com/index.htm, used with permission.
Image from http://www.taylors1000.com/index.htm, used with permission.

But even despite the availability of new razors, and the increasing habit of auto-pogonotomy (shaving yourself!), the barber was still the mainstay of shaving services. The problem was that the quality of barbering was, like the razors, not always uniform in quality. In fact, unlike today, barbers had something of a bad reputation for the treatment sometimes meted out to men coming into their shop for a shave!

Part of the problem was the routine use of blunted razors. Anyone who has ever tried to use a razor with modern disposable blades one too many times will probably sympathise with the uncomfortable rasping feeling as the blade scrapes, rather than cuts through the beard. So it was with a blunted cutthroat. Unlike today, there were no ‘lubricating strips’ in razors to help it glide. Shaving soaps and powders were used, and doubtless helped a bit but the poor customer was in for 30 minutes or so of severe discomfort if the barber had ignored the strop. The caption in this cartoon says it all: “Zounds how you scrape!”

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Even once the shave had finished the ordeal might not be over. Many would have left with a prodigious shaving rash, not to mention the nicks and cuts that would be difficult to cover.  By the 1780s, some perfumers like Robert Sangwine of the Strand were beginning to sell various pastes and potions to soothe smarting skin.

18th-century classified ads...see if you can find Sangwine's advert!
18th-century classified ads…see if you can find Sangwine’s advert!

On a more serious note, a visit to the barber could be a threat to health. Razors might be washed between customers, but not in clean water. Matter such as blood and debris left on the surface of the razor, and its handle, could easily be transferred to the next customer, perhaps even into a cut, leaving them susceptible to infection.

It is also likely that, even with well-sharpened cast steel razors, the shave would not be as close as those experienced by modern men. It is also unlikely that the majority of men either shaved themselves or visited a barber more than a couple of times a week. As such, even though beards were extremely out of fashion, a few days growth of beard could well have been the norm. It is interesting to note, though, that a ‘five o’clock shadow’ could render you a target. The prominent Whig politician Charles James Fox was almost always depicted with heavy stubble, partly to highlight his status as a ‘man of the people’. If nothing else, this does suggest that ‘ordinary’ men, especially lower down the social order, were routinely stubbly. Fox is the figure at the far left.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

But barbers were sometimes unpopular for other reasons. A raft of satirical cartoons poked fun at barbers who paid little attention to the sufferings of their customers or, worse still, paid little attention to their customers at all! In this cartoon, the barber is lost in his own conversation, talking about an acquaintance in Amsterdam. ‘Hulloa there’ cries the poor customer, ‘don’t you know that you’re about to cut off my nose?”!

Barber

This was also a time when barbers were in a period of transition. After splitting from the barber-surgeons’ company in 1745 to create their own occupational identity, the shift away from medicine was also marked by a move towards specialisation in hair dressing. Indeed, the term ‘hairdresser’ was increasingly becoming common towards the end of the eighteenth century. The extent to which hairdressers still provided shaving services for men is one of the questions I’ll be addressing in my new project on the history of shaving in Britain between 1700 and 1918.

In any case, I’m getting used to beardless life again after six months of facial hirsuteness. Many times in the course of my work as a historian of seventeenth-century medicine and surgery I’ve had cause to be thankful for modern biomedicine. My experience at the hands of a modern barber has given me the same feeling with my work on the history of shaving!

‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question’: Beard haters in the 1860s!

In one of the supplements in the UK’s Times newspaper last weekend was a brief article making predictions in fashion for the coming year. Amongst them was suggestion (welcomed by the reviewer!) that we might finally see the end of the ‘Hipster’ beard trend. At the moment, however, there seems to be little sign of this, and the current penchant for facial topiary continues unabated. I’ve even got one myself. It’s worth mentioning that the Guardian were asking the same question in Summer 2013! http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2013/jul/24/have-we-reached-peak-beard

But the journalist’s question does raise the interesting and important point that beards just naturally annoy some people. Perhaps the longevity of the current pogonophilic trend is partially the problem. How many men grew beards out of curiosity or perhaps for a bit of fun, then discovered that they liked them…then decided to keep them? If you are not a fan of facial hair then you are certainly not alone. For such a visible and emblematic symbol of masculinity, they have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Even in the 19th century, when it seemed that all the world had huge beards, there were dissenting voices – even from other men.

One was William Carter of London, who fancied himself as something of a poet. In 1868, at the very height of beard fashion in Britain, Carter published his ‘Rhythmical Essays on the Beard Question’ – a set of seemingly humorous poems but often with sinister undertones!

rhythmicalessay00cartgoog_0005

Right from the off Carter didn’t pull his punches. The point of his work, he argued in the third line of his introduction was to ‘remove the grim vestiges of barbarity from the human face divine’. Beardless men in the early 1800s had, according to Carter, better health and were ‘noble looking, fine specimens of humanity’.

While some were arguing that beards were healthy, catching and filtering out germs, soot and smuts before they could attack the throat, Carter was unequivocal. ‘When the mental grandeur of the face is enveloped in the rude untutored animalism of savage life, health is destroyed’. Hipsters beware!

The first of his poems was a general rant against beard wearers.

‘Wherever these long-beard growers you meet/define if you CAN their boundless deceit/Could they lengthen their ears as they lengthen their hair/A cross ‘twixt an Ass and a Grizzly Bear’!

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

At this point things began to take a turn for the sinister, and his descriptions of beards start to feel a little less waggish! Over successive pages he vented his spleen upon facial hair in a series of quite astonishing comparisons. Some examples: In one stanza beards were ‘the rank overgrowth of a tropical soil, concealing within the miasma of death.’

The very breath of beard wearers he found disgusting. Whereas a ‘tinkling noise’ accompanied the breathing of the clean-shaven, a ‘sickening, disgusting and unpleasant sound, like the croaking of frogs which in summer abound’ was the unfortunate lot of the hirsute. Unable to breathe fresh air because of the stifling effects of their beard they were a ‘grim-looking cadaverous class who, whenever you meet them, look sickly and pale’. It’s worth mentioning at this point that we haven’t got to the end of page 3 yet!

The references to health are interesting and refer to the ongoing debates in the nineteenth century about the potential health benefits of beards. See my other posts for longer examples, but contemporary wisdom had it that beards were filters against all manner of diseases. They supposedly captured germs before they could enter the mouth and throat, and protected teeth against the acrid industrial air of the ‘modern’ city. As evidence it was put forth that miners and industrial workers grew beards, which caught all of the dust and particles that would otherwise cause damage. As a result, they were cited as some of the healthiest men in England. Other health benefits of beards were given as protection from sunburn, natural health for the skin and a means to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. None other than Charles Darwin cited his beard as his friend through cold nights while on expedition.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

But others, like Carter, argued that it made no more sense to suggest that beards acted as filters than to suggest that they equally attracted dust and disease to the face, collected and kept it there. Carter even had economic arguments, suggesting that the continuation of the beard-growing trend would signal the end of the cutlery trade in England, and the ruination of eminent scientific men who had devoted their life to the art of the razor.

Carter’s other ‘poems’ covered a range of topics. One discussed the good men of the ‘great cotton shire’ of Lancashire who, in imitation of a local magnate, all refused to wear facial hair that, according to him, increased their labour and made them content. By page 27 he was back on form. If men continued to grow their beards the land would ‘sink into ruin and infamous shame/and famine diffuse its poisonous breath/producing a horrible lingering death’.

We could carry on, as Carter does, for another fifty or so pages, but we get the picture by now. Then, as now, beards were proving a contentious issue. Unluckily for Carter the Victorian beard was there for the duration, and was still a prominent feature of the male face fully thirty years after he wrote. Will the current beard trend continue through another year? Only time will tell!

Beards, Whiskers and the History of Pogonotomy – BBC Free Thinking Transcript

This is a transcript of the paper I gave at the BBC ‘Free Thinking’ Festival in Sage Gateshead, November 2014. Enjoy!

Free thinking

Something beardy this way comes! Love them or loathe them it seems that beards are everywhere at the moment. Walk down your local high street and before you’ve gone too far it’s a fair bet that you’ll be met by a veritable sea of hairy faces. In many ways 2014 may well prove to be the year of the beard. After a fairly long period in the wilderness, facial hair has returned. It may well have passed you by but there is actually a World Beard Day, dedicated to the celebration of the hairy chin. In Bath in September was held the British Beard Championships, a virtual X-Factor for beard-wearers, where owners of mighty examples of facial topiary submitted themselves to the scrutiny of a panel of pogonotomists. For whatever reason – and there are potentially many – beards are back.

How long can this last? Questions were beginning to be raised in spring 2013 as to whether ‘peak beard’ had been reached. This is the point at which some theorists think that beards become so ubiquitous as to render them unfashionable again. There are certainly no signs of change at the moment. Only a few weeks ago came the startling revelation that, in the past year, manufacturers of razors and related goods such as shaving foam, have seen a drop in sales of more than £72 million pounds. Market analysts IRI noted that men’s shopping habits were changing and, even though the total market still accounted for 2.2 billion pounds, this was a substantial dent. The cause of this change? Beards.

Not everyone is a fan. In fact, as Jeremy Paxman found out to his bewilderment, beards have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Pogonophobia – the fear of beards – is apparently on the increase. What is it about beards that some people find so apparently distasteful? Some men – and women – just dislike the feel of beards. Most men can probably sympathise with the feeling, usually after the first week or so, that your beard is attacking your face with itching powder. Once that passes and some semblance of dermatological normality resumes there are the social problems to overcome. Small pieces of food lodged in a beard do not present a good look. So obsessed were the heavily-bearded Victorians with this problem that they invented all manner of devices and contrivances to cope. These included ‘moustache spoons’ to stop errant whiskers dipping into the soup course. Some people feel that beards are hiding something. There is, in fact, a long history of distrust. Henry VIII’s beard, for example, was allegedly extremely unpopular with Catherine of Aragon, who pleaded with him to shave it off. In fact, Henry’s emblematic beard was actually the result of a bet with Francis, king of France. Before their famous meeting on the field of the cloth of gold, both men resolved not to shave until the big day.

But the decision to wear or not wear a beard, moustache, whiskers etc is one that has long been a problem for men. Over time, attitudes to beardedness and, indeed, shaving have constantly shifted. Something so seemingly mundane as facial hair is actually bound up in a complex web of meanings. To paraphrase Karl Marx (a poster boy for the beard if ever there was one!) men don’t just act as they please; instead they behave according to the influences of the society they live in. Growing a beard is a conscious decision and can be for a variety of reasons from cultural to religious. In fact, although we’re concentrating more on other influences today, religion is very closely linked to beard wearing, especially for example in Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, and can even become a cultural stereotype. Some men might protest that they just got fed up with shaving…but the decision not to shave is an equally conscious one. However much we like to think we are all individuals, as a group we behave in predictable patterns. And, to be fair, we can’t blame the coalition for this one.

If we look back through history it is amazing how many periods have their own, immediately identifiable, facial hairstyles. In the Renaissance, for example, beard-wearing was a sign of masculinity and almost a rite of passage. To be able to grow a beard represented the change from boy to man. As the historian Will Fisher put it in his article on beards in Renaissance England,  “the beard made the man”. It is noteworthy, for example, that most portraits of men painted between, say, 1550 and 1650 contain some representation of facial hair – from the Francis Drake-style pointy beard to the Charles I ‘Van Dyke’. The beard was viewed as a basic mark of a man, but this was not just something fanciful. In fact, beards were strongly linked in with theories of medicine and the body. Early modern medicine saw the body as consisting of four fluid humours – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Facial hair was regarded as a form of bodily waste, which resulted from heat in the reins – the areas around the genitals, and the liver. As such, beards were strongly linked to sexual prowess and fecundity. A man’s sexual capabilities were writ large across his face. Nevertheless, beards were still not for everyone. Some prominent figures such as Thomas More and Oliver Cromwell preferred the clean-shaven look in line with austere religious beliefs. Indeed, 17th-century Puritans, never a group in love with display, viewed the beard as an unnecessary bauble on the face. For men in this period, therefore, the beard was not just some frippery; it was closely linked the very essence of manhood, and concepts of health, sexuality and the body.

The eighteenth century had been one where men were almost entirely clean-shaven. Here it was in fact the lack of facial hair that defined the ideal man. The face of the enlightened gentleman was smooth, his face youthful and his countenance clear, suggesting a mind that was also open. This was the age of the fop and the dandy, where the very idea of growing a beard would have been greeted with a furrowing of the be-wigged brow and a few choice words about impropriety and vulgarity. Interestingly, this was also the first period in history when men began to shave themselves, rather than see a barber. New, sharper razors were accompanied by the first signs of anything like an advertising campaign by razor makers. Growing a beard at this point would only have been a deliberate act done purposefully to convey a message. John Wroe, for example, leader of the Christian Israelite group, let his beard grow wild to signify his withdrawal from society. In this sense beards, and their removal, were closely linked to technology and culture, and to the expanding world of enlightened science and innovation.

By the mid-Victorian period, however, the beard made a spectacular return to favour. Sometime around the 1850s, concepts of masculinity itself began to change. Something strange was happening to men in this period and they were under new pressures to reassert their authority and status. This was the age of industrialization which brought with it new challenges, not least in the need to create hierarchies and structures of authority to cope with the sheer numbers of men who could now work within a single company. But men were also increasingly nervous about women. If, as was beginning to happen, women were finding a voice and beginning to agitate for greater levels of independence, this would be a significant threat to the status quo. Men needed to react. And they did.

One of the ways they did this was to place a new emphasis upon the physical characteristics and strength of men. According to the new view, men should reflect what has been termed ‘muscular Christianity’. In came a new vogue for athleticism, sports and game playing. The underlying theory was, as EM Forster put it that sport encouraged ‘well developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts’. Vigorous, vital and athletic men were exactly the sorts of stout fellows needed to swell the ranks of the army, and defend and expand the Empire. Whilst the connections might not immediately be clear, the beard played a strong part in this process; in fact, it virtually became the emblem of the Victorian man. Central to this was the belief that the beard was simply the ‘outward mark of inward qualities’ of masculinity, such as independence, hardiness and decisiveness. A man’s character and strength was visible upon his face in the form of a large bushy beard. A range of new sources stressed the scientific basis behind men’s ‘natural’ authority, alleging irrefutable proof that women were the weaker sex and should therefore know, and keep, their place. This was the age of Darwin, who argued that man was essentially the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. The beard was a God-Given marker of man’s ‘natural’ strength and fitness to be the dominant sex. Not only this, Victorian thinkers called on science to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that man had come to be the masters of the world simply because he was the best equipped to do it. How could women argue against the pure logic of science and nature and the morality of religion when the very emblem of masculinity was literally staring them in the face?

If Victorian men also needed new bearded heroes then they found a ready source amongst the ranks of explorers and hunters. This was the age of exploration, of hunters, climbers and explorers. As rugged adventurers began to tackle the terra incognita of far-flung continents, they would immerse themselves in wild nature, letting their beards run riot. The beard became a symbol of rugged manliness and men began to emulate their bewhiskered heroes. Albert Smith was the Englishman who went up a mountain and came down…with a beard. Smith was an author and entertainer but also a mountaineer who, in 1851, had climbed Mont Blanc. He was also the inspiration for the Victorian craze for mountain climbing. As a new exemplar of the mastery of men over nature, Smith personified the Victorian masculine ideal.

By 1850, however, beards were becoming valued not just for their cosmetic attributes, but their health benefits too – and doctors were beginning to encourage men to grow their facial hair as a means to ward off illness. As Christopher Oldstone-Moore points out, the Victorian obsession with air quality saw the beard promoted as a sort of filter. A thick beard, it was reasoned, would capture the impurities before they could get inside the body. Others saw it as a means of relaxing the throat, especially for those whose work involved public speaking. Some doctors were even recommending that men grew beards to avoid sore throats. Clergymen who shaved, according to one correspondent in the Hampshire Advertiser in 1861, invited all sorts of ‘thoracic and pectoral woes’!

For the Victorians, beards were closely linked not only to new ‘scientific’ ideas of male dominance and ‘natural’ authority; they also drew on age-old themes of the beard as the ultimate symbol of manhood. A Victorian man unable to grow some sort of beard was scarcely a man at all!

The twentieth century brought a variety of styles. In the first decades after 1900, moustaches were definitely in vogue. Part of this was to emulate the rugged masculinity of British military. It was in fact a military regulation that British soldiers must wear a moustache, until General Sir Neville Macready, who hated the moustache, repealed the order in 1916. The 1920s saw Chaplin’s toothbrush moustache achieve notoriety. Some speculate that a certain Austrian corporal Hitler actually took his inspiration from Chaplin, whose work he admired. In the 40s, bushy fighter pilot moustaches were all the rage, but the improved availability and quality of razors was making shaving easier, more comfortable, and increasingly popular. By the 1960s the beard was the ultimate symbol of the tuned in, turned on and dropped out hippy. Everyone from John Lennon to the Joy of Sex man was heavily hirsute and proud of it.

The 80s introduced designer stubble. This was the decade when razor advertising crossed into popular culture. Electric razor advertisements were full of speedboats, motorbikes and parachuting heroes. We also learned from Victor Kyam that the humble razor could be the inspiration to buy a whole company! The 90s gave us the goatee…about which, the less said the better!

But where once beard styles could last decades, the pattern in the past 10 years or so has been more towards months. That is why the endurance of the current crop of beards is actually quite interesting. Whatever the current, vogue for facial hair tells us about men today it is clear that beards, moustaches and whiskers are not just a quirky sidenote; in many ways they are in fact central to a range of important themes in history. One of the most constant of these has been emulation. In the early modern period monarchs provided a bearded (or indeed clean-shaven) ideal. By the Victorian period powerful and fashionable figures, and new types of industrial and military heroes, offered men something to aspire to. Now, with almost unlimited access to the lives of celebrities through the voracious media and internet, the opportunities to find ‘heroes’ to emulate are almost limitless. If history tells us anything it is that nothing stays the same for long. How long this current trend will last is difficult to say. What is more certain is that men’s relationship with their facial hair will continue to change and evolve, and provide us with a unique way to access the thoughts and feelings of men through time.

WitheyR3

‘Worems in the teeth’: Toothache, dentistry and remedies in the early modern period.

According to an article on the BBC Website today, dentists are now beginning to think that drill-free dentistry may soon be possible. Emerging technology will use electricity to force minerals into enamel and encourage the tooth to repair itself. Eventually teeth may even be able to regrow. For the thousands of people with a genuine fear of visiting the dentist, this would be a welcome development.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27866399

The poor quality of people’s teeth in the past has long been acknowledged. In the seventeenth century, mouths full of blackened, rotting stumps would not be uncommon. As sugar became more common in the eighteenth century, dental decay became even more problematic, especially amongst the well to do. There is a good reason why people in portraiture do not often display a toothy grin; in many cases their teeth would have looked like a row of condemned houses! Here’s Jean-Etienne Liotard’s engagingly honest self-portrait!

Jean Etienne Liotard self portrait

Tooth care was rudimentary and a range of medical interventions existed to try and soothe smarting teeth. In the seventeenth century, it was widely believed that toothache was the result of worms in the teeth. In fact, a condition called ‘teeth’ was a recognised medical affliction and was regularly quoted as a cause of death in the Bills of Mortality. Sometimes they were as high as the fifth or sixth highest cause of death!

As with many aspects of early modern medicine, prevention was better than cure, and a range of techniques were used to keep teeth clean. One method to whiten teeth was to make a mixture of vinegar, honey and salt, add it to a cloth and rub vigorously…but not enough to make the gums bleed. For daily maintenance things like rubbing the teeth with tree bark or chewing herbs such as parsley offered ways to get problematic bits out of the teeth, or to sweeten the breath. The toothbrush did not appear until the end of the eighteenth century in Britain, being an imported fad from France. People were thus forced to use other means.

Once toothache had taken hold, a large body of remedies existed to try and relieve the pain. The popular author Gervase Markham recommended taking daisy roots, stamping them in a cloth before adding salt and liquid, putting this into a quill and ‘snuff it up into your nose’.

Remedies for toothache seem to have attracted some fairly dangerous substances. Mrs Corlyon, author of a domestic remedy collection dating from 1606 advocated boiling sliced henbane roots in vinegar, then heating the roots from underneath to cook away most of the moisture, before holding one of the slices between the teeth until the remaining liquid dripped onto it. Henbane, also known as ‘Stinking Nightshade’ is poisonous and can cause hallucination and some severe psychoactive effects!.

tooth drawer

Another remedy, this time from the commonplace book of a Welsh gentleman, Phillip Howell of Brecon, c. 1633, appears even more risky. His remedy involved taking 3 drams of mercury, grinding it on a stone and putting it into a glass bottle. The patient then needed to drop some of the mercury ‘granules’ into the afflicted teeth 3 times a day over two or three days ‘and it will kill the worm and the tooth ache and never troble you ageine’. The patient should take care, cautioned Howell, not to swallow any of it, but spit it out. An early mercury filling…but potentially offering bigger problems than the toothache.

As is also common, remedies did not necessarily have to be applied to the body part afflicted. One recipe for toothache involved putting some ‘Burgamy pitch’ onto leather, sprinkling some nutmeg over it and then applying it to the soles of the feet.

If you had loose teeth and wanted them to stay in your mouth, then Markham suggested first letting some blood through the gums, before taking hartshorn or ivory and red pimpernel (a type of the herb saxifrage), bruising them together in a linen cloth and then laying the cloth to the teeth, promising that this would ‘fasten the teeth’. He neglected the rather vital instruction of how long the patient should do this for however!

Removing teeth was obviously problematic…and painful. Recognising this, some medical writers turned to medical preparations to loosen teeth without the need to forcibly pull them. ‘To Draw Teeth Without Iron: Take some of the green of the elder tree, or the apples of oak trees and with either of these rub the teeth and gums and it will loosen them so as you may take them out’.

If the worst came to the worst though, a range of practitioners were ready, willing and able to pull the offending tooth out. Whist there were no specific dentists, specialist tooth-drawers were often on hand to do the job. Some advertised their services, emphasising their skill in removing teeth without pain. In the 1760s, R. Maggerrus advertised his services in the Public Advertiser as an ‘Operator for the Teeth’ having an ‘infallible method’ and ‘cureing the poor gratis’.

But there were other less obvious candidates. Blacksmiths often ran a lucrative sideline in tooth-removal; they had the upper body strength to pull the offending tooth out, together with the metal instruments to deal with any stubborn ones. Travelling mountebanks criss-crossed the country offering to cure symptoms. Robert Bulkley, a 17th-century Anglesey diarist, noted that he had paid one such figure a penny to cure his toothache. Two days later the mountebank was long gone, but Bulkeley still had his toothache.

Tooth extractor

Perhaps the day of the ‘regrowing tooth’ is not far away and, for many, this will be a relief. Next time you grin for the camera, though, spare a thought for our ancestors…and offer up a silent prayer that you live in an age of relatively pain-free dentistry!

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

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

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

As I’ve been building up my secondary reading on eighteenth-century views of the body, it occurred to me that very little work has been done on the history of the hands. Lots of articles refer to hands as metaphors or explore, for example, the importance of hands in manufacturing. But far less attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the hand. This is surprising because, in many ways, the hands were both literally and symbolically important in the enlightenment.

Baptista - Hand

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

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

Andry

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

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

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

the-corn-doctor-1793

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

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

Dr Solomon

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

Sorry. I’ll get my coat.

17th-century remedies and the body as an experiment

I have long argued that, for people in the past, the body was a site of experiment. Today, we are constantly told that medicines should be handled with caution. In the accompanying (usually terrifying) leaflets included with most medicines, we are told in great detail how to use them, how not to use them and, most worryingly, the list of possible side-effects, which often seem to outweigh the benefits. One of the potential side-effects in my box of mild painkillers, for example, is a headache…the reason I usually head for the painkillers! But medicines, say the manufacturers, should only be used as directed by a medical professional. Care should be taken with the dosage, and they should not be used for more than a few days. If symptoms persist, head for the nearest A&E and don’t book any holidays!

Image from http//:www.theboredninja.com
Image from http//:www.theboredninja.com

We are a society who is certainly prepared to self-dose – something attested to by the shelves full of proprietary medicines in modern pharmacies. Indeed there is a broader issue of distrust with modern biomedicine, leading people to try out alternative and healers. The resurgence of medical herbalism in recent years, the popularity of herbal ‘magic bullets’ from Royal Jelly to Glucosamine and treatments from acupuncture to Yoga all attest to our willingness to consider alternatives.

Medicines

But all of these ‘alternatives’ are controlled. When we buy over-the-counter remedies they are generally mild and, unless deliberately consumed in large quantities, not dangerous. They are also strongly regulated, and have to pass years of testing before they make it onto the shelves. Alternatives are now generally regulated, with professional practitioners, while herbal medicines from health food shops are also subject to increasing regulation and scrutiny. Alternative practitioners now have available qualifications and endorsements. All in all, while we certainly consider alternatives, we are doing so within a defined, controlled and measured environment.
Early-modern people, however, held a different view of both their bodies and the concept of how medicine worked. In their view, medicine was a process and one that required continual experimentation to find what worked and what didn’t. Even a cursory glance over an early-modern remedy collection confirms this. Some remedies are highlighted – sometimes by a pointing hand or a face, to signify their value. Sometimes words like ‘probatum’ (it is proved) attest to their efficacy, or even notes like ‘this cured me’ or, my favourite, the simple ‘this I like’. Others, however, were clearly unsuitable and might be crossed out many times with thick strokes, highlighting the dissatisfaction of the patient.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 71113, p.10. See article by Elaine Leong at http://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/lady-anne-fanshawe
A page from Wellcome Library MS 71113, p.10. See article by Elaine Leong at http://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/lady-anne-fanshawe

It is worth mentioning that the whole concept of ‘working’ has shifted over time. Today, a remedy ‘works’ if it makes us feel better. In the seventeenth century, however, a medicine ‘worked’ if it had an effect. Therefore if a purgative was taken as a measure against, say, a cold, then provided it made the subject purge it was regarded as having ‘worked’, regardless of whether the cold got better. In this sense medicine was experimental. People consistently adapted, modified and changed recipes, adding or replacing substances, until they found something they were happy with.

This process of experimentation was, though, potentially deadly. Use too much of the wrong type of herb, plant or substance, and the results could truly be dangerous. It is often forgotten that plants are full of chemicals. It is entirely easy to suffer an overdose using plant material as it is with modern tablets. The contents of early-modern remedies are often the butt of jokes. Using everything from animal matter, live or dead, to breast milk, spiders’ webs and so on is difficult to fathom from several centuries distance, even though it was perfectly logical to people at the time. In fact, little actual work has yet been done to assess exactly how much damage could potentially be done by people using things like animal or human dung in their efforts to make themselves better. It would be interesting to actually work out the levels of various compositions in some medical remedies, to gauge their potential for harm. This is not helped by the often vague doses provided in recipes. Whilst some directions might be fairly specific in terms of weight measurements, others might rely on including ‘as much as will lye on a sixpence’ or, worse, a handful. Depending on the size of the recipe-preparer’s hand, this could vary considerably!

But this experimentation also meant that virtually everyone was a scientist, involved in testing and measuring remedies against their own bodies. In some cases, though, the element of experiment was literal. Many elite gentlemen followed an interest in science, and especially chemistry, as part of their wider intellectual pursuits. In the early 1700s, the wealthy London lawyer John Meller, latterly of Erddig in Flintshire, kept a notebook entitled ‘My Own Physical Observations’ in which he recorded details of his chemical experiments, and sometimes upon himself! Some of his experiments, for example, appear to be related to finding substances to purge himself. On more than one occasion he seems to have gone too far and suffered the consequences. We can only imagine the circumstances which led him to record that one purge had “proved too hot” for him!
17th century toilet from Plas Mawr, Conwy (image from education.gtj.org.uk

Our early-modern ancestors were arguably more in tune with their bodies than we are today. They continually sought new ways to relieve themselves of illnesses and symptoms, accumulating those that seemed to make things better and discarding the rest. Whilst we also do this to some degree, the stakes were much higher for them. We are protected to some degree by the various safeguards in place, and also perhaps by a reluctance to put our own health at risk.
Many early-modern remedies must, though, have been harmful and some might have resulted in permanent damage to internal organs, or even death.

Sickness and medicine are often referred to in military terms, with ‘magic bullet’ cures helping people to ‘battle’ their illnesses. In a sense though our forebears were engaged in single combat, each remedy, each experiment, carrying both high risk and high reward. Remember this the next time you reach for your packet of painkillers!

2013 EAHMH Book Award for Physick and the Family

Ok, ok, this is self-promotion of the worst kind but, if you can’t do a little self-publicity on your own blog then what is the world coming to? To be fair, this is a special post for me. I’m absolutely delighted to have been awarded, last month, the 2013 European Association for the History of Medicine and Health Book award for my book Physick and the Family: health, medicine and care in Wales, 1600-1750.

The prize is awarded biennially for the best medical history monograph relating to Europe in the preceding four years to the award. It’s only the second time that the award has been made and the first to a work of British history. I’m obviously very proud. Here is a link to the Association’s website with the details of the prize. http://www.eahmh.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=57&Itemid=62

Aside from the prize itself though, I’m very proud that my little book about Welsh medicine has punched above its weight and, I hope, it goes some way towards demonstrating the value of regional histories. The book grew out of my PhD research and is indeed based on my thesis. From the outset the whole point of the book was not simply to say ‘here are a load of Welsh sources, I hope you enjoy them’ but rather to use Wales to explore broader questions and issues within medical and social history of the early modern period. As such the books addresses an undeniable gap in Welsh history but has always been intended as a book about medicine, the family, care, the community and so on more broadly.  That it has been awarded such a prestigious prize hopefully means that objective has been realised.

Onwards and upwards and, heartened by this, I need to do better in updating the blog more often!
p.s. Oh what the Hell, let’s go the whole hog – ‘Physick’ is just out in paperback at £14.99

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Physick-Family-Health-Medicine-Wales/dp/0719085462

Finding medical practitioners in early-modern Britain.

History has been likened to dropping a bucket over the side of a ship, attached to a long chain. What comes up is a microcosm of life deep below the waves. So it is with an historical source. It offers a tiny little glimpse – a snapshot in time – of one particular event, or one person. On its own, though, it doesn’t give us a full picture. It is a frustrating fact but many people, in fact the majority of people, left little or no trace in the historical record. Even when one or two documents survive, it is often difficult to get much more than bare facts. Does this mean, though, that we shouldn’t bother even trying to piece together the lives of people in the past?

The project I’m now working on at the University of Exeter is a study of medical practitioners in the early modern period. In fact, it is the largest concentrated study of practitioners probably yet undertaken in Britain. The aim is to try and identify all those engaged in the practice of medicine in England, Wales, Ireland and (later) Scotland between roughly 1550 and 1715. It is a massive undertaking. Who, for example, will be included? The list is enormous. Physicians, apothecaries, surgeons, barbers, barber-surgeons, chirurgeons, chymists, druggists, surgeon-apothecaries, cunning folk, medical entrepreneurs and quacks…and all points in between. Dr Peter Elmer, formerly of the Open University and now a senior research fellow at Exeter has already collected over 12,000 names, many with individual biographies. I’ve been charged with finding Welsh practitioners and, after eight months, the list already stands at more than 600 – and this for a country that reputedly had very few doctors. You can keep up with progress on the project at our website here: http://practitioners.exeter.ac.uk/

How are these people being located? The majority of my work is done in archives and on online catalogues. At the moment it is the sheer number of practitioners coming to light that is most surprising. They were, quite literally, everywhere. The problem lies in the deficiency of records and their limitations in offering much more than a glimpse of an individual’s life. Parish registers, for example, are often the only record that someone ever existed. In some cases, they might contain occupational data, and this begins to give some context. The Montgomeryshire parish registers are a useful case in point, with around 60 references to medical practitioners between the dates noted above.

Amongst the Montgomeryshire names are men like Arthur Jones of Berriew, a barber who died in 1697, Richard Evans of Brithdir “Physition” who died in 1701 and John Humphreys of Llanfechain, “chirurgeon” who died in 1660. Given that occupational data in parish registers is relatively rare, it seems fair to assume that recorded occupations suggest that these were the primary occupations of the people concerned. In each case, however, these are the only references to each man that I can find. No further evidence of their practice, their social status or indeed their lives, can be firmly established. At the very least though, and when aggregated, even this bare data does begin to allow us to see something of the landscape of medical practice in a given area. In Montgomeryshire, for example, is a rare reference to the occupation of midwife – one Catherine Edward of Glynceiriog, who died and was buried in April 1688. Midwives seldom appear in the historical record in Wales, so even brief references are interesting.

In other cases, though, it is possible to build up a broader picture of an individual practitioner’s life. The baptisms of children give both an indication of family formation as well as placing a person within a given area for a fixed number of years. Richard Ellis, for example, was a barber in Newtown, now in Powys. No record can be found for his birth or death, but the baptisms of his children William, Sarah and George between 1732 and 1737, in each of which he was referred to as a barber, tell us that he was at least practising between those dates. Also, it might be inferred (although by no means certain) that this was at the earlier end of his career given that children tended to be associated with marriage and the establishment of a household. The Newtown apothecary Thomas Kitchen provides a similar example, with the baptisms of his children Edward, Eusebius and Margaret between 1733 and 1737. Whilst we can’t tell anything about his business from this, we can at least fix him both geographically and temporally.

Other types of sources can unwittingly provide testimony to the businesses and social networks of medical practitioners. Wills and probate inventories can certainly be revealing about shop contents but, by looking further at things like the names of benefactors and even the signatories to wills it is possible to discern networks. In early-modern Wrexham, for example, a cluster of seventeenth-century wills reveal close links between practitioners in the same town, suggested by debts but also by their acting as executors or appraisers for colleagues. In some cases, for example that of Godfrey Green of Llanbeblig, died 1699, his entire shop and business found its way into the possession of another apothecary, John Reynolds, where it was still described as being the shop goods formerly of Godfrey Green when Reynolds himself died in 1716.

The best evidence can often be found where a picture can be built up using a variety of different documents. I’m currently working on an article about medical practitioners in early-modern Cardiff and especially their role within the early modern urban environment. Town records are generally better than for rural areas, but it is interesting to note the depth to which medical practitioners were often involved in town business. One Edward Want of Cardiff, an “barber-chirurgeon”, appears variously in documents in the second half of the seventeenth century. From parish registers we have his dates of birth and death, as well as the fact that he took over his business from his father of the same name. From hearth tax records we can tell that he was based in the affluent West Street area of the town, while a 1666 town survey further reveals that he was charged 6d  half a burgage in that area – the small plot probably indicating a shop. At some point he had occupied a mansion house near the corn market, a fact attested to by a land lease document, further suggesting wealth and status. References in the wills of two other Cardiff traders indeed refer to him as an Alderman, and Cardiff borough records also list him as a juror. We can also tell that his son Sierra Want was apprenticed to a Bristol barber surgeon, a common practice for the sons of middling-sort South Walians. Whilst his will contains nothing  of his medical practice, the use of a variety of documents can help us build up a real picture of the commercial and personal life of Edward Want.

In pulling the bucket up from the depths it is often difficult to glean much more than the barest facts; we often need more to really start to close in on the lives of our early-modern forebears. With practice, a little ingenuity and a great deal of luck though, even the smallest of extra facts help us to piece together a picture not just of how many people were practising medicine in Britain, and perhaps especially in rural Britain where records are fewer, but also something of their lives, occupations and statuses within their communities.

“Medicine in Medieval Wales” Dr Alun at the Hay Festival, May 31st 2013

Apologies for the flagrant self-promotion but, if you enjoy the blog, you might be interested in coming along to my session at Hay this year, based around my book and research. Talk of dangerous and disgusting remedies will abound, as will unusual doctors and nasty diseases!

Hope to see you there:

http://www.hayfestival.com/s-306-friday-31-may-2013.aspx?genrefilterid=0&categoryfilterid=

Appreciating the doctor in early modern Britain!

What was the position of the practitioner within the seventeenth-century community?  How did people regard both them and the services they provided? It has often been said that doctors were unpopular. It was, after all, the local doctor’s prescriptions that commonly made you either violently sick, gave you diarrhoea or otherwise left you similarly disadvantaged or distressed. ‘Damn the Doctor’ ran the title of one seventeenth-century satire. Advice given to Lord Herbert about his health in 1681 suggested that he “never see a damn’d doctor again as long as ye shall live”. According to the poet Bernard Mandeville, “Physicians value fame and wealth/above the drooping patient’s health”. Were doctors really disliked that much?

L0022226 'The poor doctor and the rich patient. 'You are very ill!'(Courtesy of Wellcome Images)

In fact, there is much evidence to show that people appreciated the services of their local practitioners. This was, remember, a world of sickness. Danger lurked in bad airs, unwholesome environments, noisome streets, unwashed bodies and verminous bedding. It has even been argued that most people felt ill in some way for most of the time.  The local doctor was by no means the answer to all of this; but, (s)he was one weapon in the continuing war waged upon sickness and disease.

It is difficult to access ‘ordinary’ people’s views about practitioners. One way we can do this is through their testimonies in prosecutions, giving a rare chance to hear the actual voices of patients. But, obviously, these only tell us of cases that had gone wrong. Finding testimonies to practitioners who had obviously done well is more challenging. One possible way to do this, though, is through the surviving records of community testimonials to the skills of their local practitioner.

For some doctors, to achieve some level of legitimacy (perhaps more for themselves than their patients) meant obtaining a licence to practice from either the Royal Colleges, the Archbishop of Canterbury or one of the various diocesan bishops. In theory, and indeed in law, all physicians should have obtained a licence, but this was neither practical nor easy to enforce beyond London and its surroundings. Nevertheless, one aspect of applying for a licence was providing some sort of proof of good, charitable or successful practice in a particular neighbourhood.

V0010971 A couple of country folk consulting a decrepit doctor, a ser

(Picture courtesy of Wellcome Images)

When David Davies of Llangurig applied for a licence to practice from the Bishop of Bangor in 1749, no less than three local vicars testified that the “said David Davies is a very usefull person in his neighbourhood, has performed several cures in surgery, and (as far as we are judges) we think him a person worthy to be licens’d”.  (National Library of Wales MS Bangor Episcopal B-SM-2).  The supporters of Richard Davies of Llanynys stressed that he was a “person of good character” and “hath performed several cures in surgery”. (NLW MS Bangor Episcopal B-SM-3). When Benjamin Powell of Brecon applied for a licence in 1708, a list of local parishioners supported his application, stating that he was “a p(er)son who is commendably instructed both in the art of Phisick and Chirurgery and is very much Experienced in both the sayd arts, as being one who hath undergone and p(er)formed severall great and desperate cures”. (NLW, Church in Wales Diocese of Llandaff episcopal 1, MS 1194).

It is worth mentioning too that it was not only men, nor ‘orthodox’ practitioners who could rely upon the support of their communities. In fact, where an unlicensed practitioner faced prosecution, the people of Ledbury in Herefordshire intervened and petitioned the Bishop of Hereford to try and save her from prosecution:

“Sir,

The bearer is an honest poor woman of ye parish of Ledbury, who is as far as we are informed, cited into your court for practising surgery. She sometime ago cured a pauper of our parish who had at that time seven small children of a sore breast, without any prospect of reward; and ye parish, hearing of ye service she had done them, ordered ye overseers of ye poor to give her five shill: wch is ye only act of this nature of we can hear she ever did. This matter being so very malitious, we request the favour she may be discharged. She is very poor therefore we hope it may be with as little expence as possible…” (NLW Bodewryd (2), MS 380)

In terms of financial gain, not all doctors were out to fleece their patients. It was not uncommon for practitioners to tailor their bills towards the financial means of their patients. A poor patient might even be treated free, or for a few pennies; a wealthy yeoman might have to spend a few shillings. Also, the local parish authorities could intervene to either bring a practitioner to attend to a sick parishioner or, alternatively, send a parishioner to a large town to secure the services of a well-known or well-respected doctor.

It is worth mentioning too that early-modern people had perhaps a different level of expectation with regard to what the doctor could do. Today, we go to the doctor and expect to be diagnosed – instantly – and sent on our way with a prescription for a ‘cure’. This worked slightly differently in the seventeenth century. When people went to the doctor, they engaged in a two-way dialogue to agree diagnosis and secure a receipt or preparation. Once this was obtained it is questionable whether the early-modern patient expected to be cured. Rather, they hoped to be cured but, if this didn’t work, there were plenty of other doctors and receipts to try – often gleaned from friends and neighbours. If they did recover, naturally they might attribute that recovery to the doctor and his preparation. This would then be retained for future use as a ‘probatum’ (proven) remedy. In this sense, the doctor might easily escape sanction if his cures failed, as the patient was only using his services as one of a range of options in any case.

Before we write off early-modern practitioners as figures of distrust, dislike or ridicule, it’s worth remembering that they were often valued members of a community whose efforts to help their fellow parishioners were appreciated. Often treating the poor for free, and providing an important source of medical knowledge and goods, they offered some degree of comfort in a world where sickness was ubiquitous.