Cuts, Rashes & Chatter! The Pain of the 18th-century Shave!

Unless there are particular reasons, for example a skin condition, or a faulty razor, shaving today is usually a pretty mundane – if not a pleasant – experience. Indeed, the rise of traditional barbershops over the past few years, offering shaving as an experience, together with an increasingly elaborate range of rituals, head massages and exotic products, makes it almost a form of beauty treatment for men. But what was shaving like 300 years ago? What did it feel like to be shaved with a Georgian razor? 

Before the end of the 18th century, and indeed for many men for quite a long time afterwards, the mainstay of shaving was the barber. Barbers were readily available across Britain, in shops of various size and quality, or sometimes operating with a couple of chairs in the backrooms of their houses. With shaving paraphernalia expensive to buy and bothersome to maintain, it was often simply easier, and potentially much cheaper, to simply go to the barber. Here men could not only have a shave, a haircut, have their earwax removed, tongues scraped and boils lanced, but could meet with other men to gossip, eat and drink and generally shoot the breeze.

Image Copyright Lewis Walpole Library

But if all this sounds cosy and convenient, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the shave itself could be a far less than comfortable experience.

For a start, much depended on the quality and state of repair of the razor. Early 18th century races common razors were made from a type of steel that could be brittle and, unless regularly maintained, could quickly lose its edge. Inventories of higher-end barber’s shops in the 17th and 18th century sometimes show whole cases of razors, along with sharpening strops and hones, meaning that their use could be rotated. Smaller barber businesses, however, might only have a couple of razors…and if these blunted, and with a queue forming, corners (and faces!) were likely to be cut. Whilst a sharp razor cut cleanly through beard hairs, a blunted one rasped away at the layers of skin, literally scraping the hair rather than cutting it. 

Trade card of John Best, Razor Maker, Copyright Wellcome Images

Some comfort could be derived from the type of shaving soap that the barber used. Like razors, the quality of these varied dramatically. Whilst high end soaps had unctuous, perfumed creamy lather, which helped the razor glide across the face and neck, there were complaints about the lather of cheaper soaps, that reportedly just fell off the face, doing little good to the poor punter in the chair.  

Another important consideration was whether the shave was performed with hot or cold water. There were heated debates amongst razor makers in the 18th century as to which was more suitable. Some thought that hot water causes the razor to expand, increasing its efficiency. Others protested that it was cold water that better suited the minute particles in the razor. Again, for the poor man in the chair, this could be a crucial decision. Whilst being shaved with hot water can be pleasant, a cold water shave is something more to be endured than enjoyed!

Once the shave had been completed, the customers face would be towelled dry, and he would be sent on his way. Depending on the nature of the ordeal, he was by this stage either fresh-faced and clean-shaven or cut to ribbons and sporting a conspicuous and painful shaving rash. In the latter case, unfortunately, there was little remedy. Domestic remedy collections show no evidence of specific preparations for shaving rashes…or even any recognition of the condition. With no commercially available after-shave balm or lotion, the best a man could hope for would be to apply one of the many soothing skin remedies that existed for redness or swelling in the face.

Perhaps the best way to view contemporary attitudes towards being shaved by the barber is through depictions in 18th century satirical cartoons. Whilst these give us extremes, rather than typical experiences, they tell us enough about what could go wrong to be able to understand the potential plight of our ancestors!

For a variety of reasons, barbers were particular targets for the pensions of cartoonists. The incessant chatter of the barber, for example, attracted particular criticism. Cartoons often poked fun at the dangers of being at the hands of a razor-wielding barber, so absorbed by his own conversation that he risked accidentally injuring the customer.

In Rowlandson’s ‘Damn the Barber’, the customer in the chair winces as the barber holds him by the nose, about to shave him. On the left an apprentice holds a mirror to a man, to show the results of his work. The customer has his fingers in his ears, perhaps removing hair and lather…but also perhaps blocking out the barber’s chat.

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Damn the Barber!’ – Copyright Wellcome Trust


A worse fate is about to befall the poor punter at the hands of a barber in this second Rowlandson cartoon, so absorbed in his diatribe about news from Amsterdam that he fails to notice his razor blade sinking into his customer’s nose. “Halloh! You sir!” cries the man “what are you about? Are you going to cut my nose off?” (Lewis Walpole.

Image Copyright Lewis Walpole Library

Perhaps one of my favourite of all satirical images of shaving, however, and the one perhaps most suggests the discomfort that could be visited upon the 18th-century shavee, is this 1804 etching of a barber shaving a man in his shop. As the barber’s blunted razor rasps across the poor man’s chin he cries out in pain…”Zounds! How you scrape!”.

V0019687 A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://images.wellcome.ac.uk A barber shaving a man in his shop. Etching, 1804. 1804 Published: 25 June 1804 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Barbers and (the lack of!) Polite Advertising

Over the past few years, I have spent much time looking at ‘polite’ advertising in the 18th century. During this period, a whole range of retailers advertised their goods and services to appeal to ladies and gentlemen of taste. Without discussing anything so base as price or money, they instead tried to coax, cajole and compliment their customers to become regular visitors.

One of the most common ways of doing this was the trade card. These were small printed pamphlets or bills, handed out to the customer after purchase as a reminder to them to visit again. Combining the refined language of ‘politeness’ with elegant neoclassical imagery, they reminded the customer of the world of goods available, the opulence of the shop surroundings, and the care and attention lavished on the customer.

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

Trade card of Nathan Colley, Skeleton Seller, Copyright Wellcome Images

One type of business that appears to have steadfastly resisted the trade card, however, was the barbershop. On the face of it (excuse the pun!) barbers might be seen as just the sort to benefit from attracting regular, returning custom.  As shavers of men, they were key practitioners in fashioning polite appearance. The face of the gentleman in the eighteenth century was expected to be smooth and shaved; facial hair at this point signalled a rougher version of masculinity, far away from the delicacy and sensibility of the Beau monde. Evidence from the eighteenth century suggests that gentlemen visited barbers to be shaved up to three times per week. Indeed, dictionaries throughout the eighteenth century often defined barbers as ‘shavers’. In other respects, then, barbers could lay claim to be key practitioners in the construction of the polite, public face, helping men to meet new ideals of appearance. And yet they chose not to bother with trade cards. Why might this have been?

It has been argued that barbering as a profession was in decline in the eighteenth century. It has long been assumed that the split between the barbers and surgeons in 1745 elevated the surgeons, at the same time as relegating the barbers to mere ‘mechanics’. In reality this is far from being the case, and barbers in fact remained extremely busy throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, remaining key figures, and especially for men. What actually happened is that hairdressers attempted to position themselves as polite practitioners, fashioning the wigs and curls of beaus and belles, whilst also consciously distancing themselves from the rough and ready trade of barbers. One thing that hairdressers were particularly keen to avoid was shaving. 

Trade card of Colley, ‘Hair Cutter’ – Image copyright British Museum – https://media.britishmuseum.org/media/Repository/Documents/2014_11/10_14/575bba3a_9a15_4329_9b19_a3df00e9d286/mid_01511033_001.jpg

It could also be argued that, as self-shaving became gradually more widespread in the later eighteenth century, barbers moved more towards men lower down the social scale. In popular culture too, the barber became something of a figure of fun, often portrayed as a rustic tradesman – the stereotypical bumbling, inept fool who did more damage to his customers appearance than good. In fact, barbers were sometimes singled out and mocked for trying to affect airs and graces. 

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

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

Image from R.W. Proctor, The Barber’s Shop (London: 1883) – author’s photograph

If not trade cards or newspaper advertisements, then, did barbers even advertise at all? In fact it could be argued that barbers had the most striking advertisements of all, hidden in plain sight: the pole. Without wishing to be a ‘pole denier’ I do have some reservations about the origins of the red and white striped design, and the idea that it represents the bloodletting process. Whilst it’s a nice idea (the red signifying the blood being taken, the white denoting the bandages, and the pole itself is said to be the ‘fillet’ – the small stick gripped by the patient whilst their vein was being opened) it seems a little bit TOO convenient. Evidence can be found for barbers’ pole outside shops in the sixteenth century; the story of the colours was certainly in circulation by the late eighteenth century, and vigorously and enthusiastically repeated by Victorian antiquarians. Hard evidence, though, is somewhat more difficult to come by. There is some evidence, for example, that the pole sometimes had blue and white stripes, although this might suggest it represented the vein about to be cut.

Whatever the origins, the lack of trade cards might be taken as evidence that barbering itself was not a ‘polite’ trade; but equally it might just reflect that fact that barbers were so busy that no such expense or trouble was needed.

The ‘Celebrated Inventions’ of Alexander Ross.

One thing that has continually fascinated me throughout all of my research on medical practitioners, barbers and retailers in the long eighteenth century, is the extent of what historians call ‘occupational diversity’. Rather than having one occupation, people might have several…and often at the same time. This was particularly common amongst certain types of shop owner, who routinely diversified into other trades. Sometimes these could be related trades, but often they seemed to bear no relation to each other. So, you might find an apothecary doubling up as a mercer, or cloth trader, or a barber-surgeon also selling candles. It’s also possible to find wonderful hybrids: Mr Dade of Norwich who, in the late 18th century, was a perfumer, tobacconist, haberdasher and umbrella maker!

copyright Wellcome Images

Mr Dade’s example raises one group that I’ve become particularly interested in recently, which is perfumers. It’s easy to think about perfumers as people who ‘just’ sold perfumes, but actually they often diversified. Many perfumers were also hairdressers. Some were chemists or druggists. But many also specialised in what were then called ‘toys’. Rather than the modern sense of children’s playthings, the 18th-century meaning of ‘toy’ referred to small items, trinkets, and daily objects for the body and personal grooming.

In the 18th century some perfumers became particularly prominent, with connections to Royalty or the literati and glitterati of the day. As William Tullet’s recent book has shown, Charles Lillie of London was famed for his snuff, as well as his many perfumed products, but was also celebrated in publications such as the Spectator. Others, such as William Bayley, Richard Warren, Charles Emon and William Yardley established their own businesses, and frequently advertised their products.

Trade tokens for bear’s grease – copyright Wellcome Images

Another big name in perfumery in the 18th century was Alexander Ross. Ross was a specialist in ‘Bear’s Grease’ – a product for hair growth made from the fat of bears. Some London barbers and perfumers even apparently kept live bears in their own shops to promote their products…something that occasionally caused public order problems. But it was Ross’s son, also Alexander, who arguably rose to even greater prominence than his father, and grew the business to include a whole range of other products.

Alexander Ross the Younger, for example, established his ‘Ornamental Hair Warehouse’ in Bishopsgate in 1814, from where he sold products such as his Grecian Volute Head Dress. Ross was also a prolific writer, authoring tracts about hairdressing, looking after the skin and managing fingernails. He had his own magazine – the alluringly-titled ‘Ross’s Toilet Magazine’ which, according to its ad, was ‘full of toilet secrets’.

But it also seemed that he diversified into a range of machines for the body. The advertisements for these contrivances, and the testimonials from people who had used them, shed fascinating light onto both the side-interests of a perfumers, and the lengths that people would apparently go to in order to try and look good.

Image from Google Books

One of what Ross himself termed his ‘celebrated inventions’ was the ‘nose machine’ apparently a device for straightening the nose. This was available for ten shillings and sixpence, but promised to improve the features. The advertisement included supposed letters from satisfied customers. “I obtained the nose machine and am very much pleased with it” wrote one. “thanks to your machine” said another “my nose has achieved a tolerably symmetrical shape”.

It wasn’t just the nose that Ross’s products offered to reshape. His ‘ear machine’ was said to ‘have the characteristic that it gives the exact amount of pressure required to make the ears properly positioned’. Fingers could be beautified and pressed into good form by Ross’s ‘Finger shapers’. Feet could be ‘improved in form, the toes straightened and the ankles strengthened’ by ‘appliances worn during the night or any leisure time’. If all this wasn’t enough, he even sold ‘chin and cheek improvers’ to force jowly jaws back into a socially-pleasing form.

Bad posture and form were also bodily defects that various of Ross’s products tried to remedy. One was a ‘simple contrivance for improving the figure and drawing back the shoulders’, a snip at 7s and 6d. A slightly more mysterious process was offered for what Ross termed ‘over-stoutness’. Here he promised that excess weight would be dispersed by ‘carrying out regulations as given by Mr Ross’ and ‘weighing from certain time to time’. ‘Hip bands’ promised to transform hips that were ‘squatty and inelegant into good shape’.

The skin was certainly not forgotten, with various of Ross’s skin tonics, ‘bloom of roses’ and ‘pimple removers’ (using his ‘vegetable skin pill’ to give a ‘transcendent complexion’). Directions for getting rid of red noses, bruises and scars and even removing tattoos, were all available from Mr Ross’s emporium in Lamb’s Conduit Street in London.

Perfume bottle – copyright Wellcome Images

Various other products offered to colour or beautify the hair, remove it or make it grow on bald places. These included his ‘golden hair wash’, ‘Spanish fly ointment’ and ‘Cantharides oil’. For the truly brave, Ross offered his ‘Magneto Electric Machine’ for 21s, the regular use of which he claimed would stop hair falling out and promote its growth. How many hopeful customers ended up with hair standing to attention on their heads by over-winding the machine?!

There are many more product in his list, but I’ve left my favourite until last. Those feeling a bit down in the dumps were pointed towards Ross’s own ‘tonic medicine’. For a mere 5s and 6d…or 70 stamps, customers were promised ‘hilarity of spirits and a permanent animated tone for the features’. After a year of lockdown, couldn’t we all do with a bottle of this?

I think that perfumers are a fascinating occupational group, and there is much more to be said about them. I also think that the extent to which retailers diversified in the past is interesting, and reminds us that job titles by themselves can’t always tell us everything about what people actually did.

**And if you’d like to hear this as a podcast, click below**

The Celebrated Inventions of Alexander Ross, perfumer. Dr Alun Withey

This podcast is all about a 19th-century perfumer, Alexander Ross, who not only sold loads of perfumes (as you might expect!) but also created his own range of strange machines, to push, pull and force the body into a socially acceptable shape!
  1. The Celebrated Inventions of Alexander Ross, perfumer.
  2. Finding Your Beard Style in the 19th Century

Barbers and their Shops in Early Modern Britain.

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 10.48.15

(Image copyright Wellcome Images)

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 10.43.25

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

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

Barber shop 2

(Copyright Wellcome Images)

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

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

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

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

 

 

Barbers and Advertising in the 18th century.

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 10.10.22

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

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

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

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

Barber

(Lewis Walpole Digital Images)

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

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

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

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

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

(Wellcome Images)

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

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

Thomas Ribright: The Electrifying Optician of 18th-century London.

Over the years I’m occasionally asked about historical heroes and villains and, in particular, who my ‘history hero’ would be. People are often surprised at my answer. My choice is neither famous nor celebrated…in fact it’s a good bet you’ve never heard of him. But, when I stumbled across a report about him in an 18th-century newspaper, I knew he was the guy for me.

Our tale is a cautionary one, involving a very modern form of antisocial behaviour, malice and nuisance, but also retribution. Depending on how you look at it, this is a Georgian story of instant karma…of what might be categorised on a Youtube clip as ‘instant justice’.

It takes place in London in 1789, the heart of Georgian polite society and culture. London was in many ways the Georgian city, with its vibrant social scene of parties, events and balls, its elegant shops, neat pavements for promenading, and huge range of newly desirable goods on offer, from the latest homewares and decorations to fashion and jewellery. Once the polite customer was suitably shopped out, they could repair to one of the many local tea and coffee houses for a restorative libation!

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‘Miseries of Human Life’ – Image from Lewis Walpole Digital Collection

Amongst the many shops lining the Poultry in Cheapside, London, a thriving commercial area near London Bridge, was the ‘mathematical, optical and philosophical instrument’ business, belonging to Thomas Ribright. Scientific instruments were very much the ‘coming thing’ in the second half of the eighteenth century. For a true Beau Monde, knowing your telescope from your orrery (and preferably owning a couple of each) was the mark of the aesthete and the person of taste. Cities like London and Bath regularly hosted public demonstrations of scientific instruments to rapt audiences, who delighted in the latest ‘magick’ discovery.

Ribright
Trade card of Thomas Ribright – John Johnson Collection

Ribright was an optician by trade, describing himself on his elaborate trade card as ‘Optician to the Prince of Wales’. In 1749 he had patented his own form of spectacles, along with other instruments. By the 1750s he was a regular advertiser in the London newspapers, selling a range of optical devices. His ‘Brazil pebble spectacles’, for example, were available in ‘fine Venetian green glass’. Nestled in amongst advertisements for ‘Bears Fat’, country dancing instruction and razor straps, an entry in the Gazette and New Daily Advertiser in 1765 shows that he was an agent for a range of different and new-invented instruments, such as the ‘New and Correct Globes’.

In the summer of 1789, however, a very modern type of nuisance plagued the residents of the Poultry, in the form of a young grocer, Peter Wheeler (a shady character known locally as ‘Lord Fig’ for his habit of affecting airs and graces). Wheeler was an early exponent of what, in 1970s Cardiff, we used to call ‘Knock Knock Ginger’ – ringing doorbells and running away. [Disclaimer: The young Dr Withey was far too well-behaved a child ever to have considered doing anything remotely like this, and does not advocate such a vile practice in any way, shape or form. I might have left fake notes for my neighbours’ milkman once or twice, but that’s another story]. Wheeler added his own twist by ringing the bells violently in the middle of the night, which, as Mr Ribright reported in a letter to the Times in 1789, greatly alarmed his family. After suffering this menace night after night, Thomas Ribright had enough. “I resolved, if possible, to punish the disturber of my rest.” At this point, Wheeler was messing with the wrong guy.

One particular night, Wheeler once again made his way to the Poultry after nightfall, preparing himself for another evening of terrorising the poor optician’s family. Perhaps trying a couple of other houses first, he arrived at the threshold of Ribright’s shop, perhaps chuckling quietly to himself, reached out his hand for the bell. Perhaps he noticed his shoe catching on a strange patch of metal filings on the doorstep but, in any case, his hand reached out for the bell…

This night, however, something was different. Before going any further, let’s take a look at a 1780 advertisement of Thomas Ribright, giving a clue to one of his other skills:

“16th November, 1780

ELECTRICITY having of late been found of particular Use in the Cure of RHEUMATIC, PARALYTIC and HYPOCHONDRIAC complaints

Also for the removal of SPASMS, CONTRACTIONS, DEAFNESS and complaints incident to the TEETH,

RIBRIGHT AND SMITH

Optical, Philosophical and Mathematical Instrument Makers, Beg leave to Inform the Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, that they have fitted up a Compleat Apparatus, for performing the Operation by Shock, Spark or passing the Electric Matter through the human frame, locally or generally.”

Thomas Ribright was therefore a specialist in ‘medical electricity’, and his shop was bristling with the latest models. Being electrocuted back to health was becoming popular towards the end of the eighteenth century. The ‘patient’ would be attached to the machine, which would be fired up, giving them a shock, ranging from mild to intense. Suitably ‘electrified’, the patient would leave the shop a shilling lighter and hopefully cured, though perhaps with their hair standing a little on end. Such was the fascination of this procedure that this could sometimes even draw a crowd.

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18th-Century electrical machine – although bigger than Mr Ribright’s! Image from Wikimedia Commons

And so back to the Poultry. Determined to have his revenge on the troublemaker, Mr Ribright had set up an elaborate trap. First he “pasted some tin filings upon the pavement before my door”, to act as a conductor. Next he “made a communication between the handle of the bell and an electrical machine, and charged a large jar to be ready for his reception”. His timing was perfect.

A few moments after, as I suspected, [he] made an attempt as usual; but instead of accomplishing what he intended, he received the full contents of the jar”.

So, as the young offender touched the bell, there was a loud crack, and he received a full charge from Mr Ribright’s electrical machine, propelling him loudly and swiftly back into the street, where he was seen staggering around. When Mr Ribright opened the door to his shop he was treated to the gratifying sight of his tormentor “leaning against one of the supporters of the door and exclaiming What! You shoot people eh?…damn ye”.

 A small crowd had by now gathered, lauging and pointing and, it was reported, applauded Mr Ribright for his efforts, as the (literally) shocked ‘Lord Fig’ was led away by the local constable to await his fate.

And so, for his ingenuity, innovation and dispensation of ‘instant justice’, THAT is why Thomas Ribright is my history hero.