In the mid nineteenth century, a spate of poisonings began to raise alarm in the newspapers. Almost anybody was at risk, and the culprit was, as yet, unclear. But the source of the poison was no Victorian arch criminal; it was a far subtler, domestic killer, hidden in plain sight.
(Image from wikimedia commons)
In May 1869, an article appeared in the St James’ Magazine, provocatively titled ‘Poisonous Hosiery’. ‘Poison, Poison everywhere’, exclaimed the author. ‘Poison in the food we eat, poison in the liquors we drink, poison in the air we breathe’. Now, it seemed, not even clothes were sacred. With the inherent danger in almost every facet of life, it was a wonder, they went on, that civilised people were not poisoned off the face of the earth! The matter was reported in newspapers from Dundee to Essex.
The story began when a London surgeon, one ‘Dr Webber’ approached the London Guildhall, after detecting what he described as ‘a probable source of much injury to the public health’. The source of this danger was neither poor sanitation nor contagion. It was socks. According to Webber, certain pairs of coloured socks (including fashionable mauve and magenta!) were then on sale, which contained dye obtained from the poisonous substance aniline ‘the cause of much constitutional and local complaint to many people’.
Webber claimed that the poison caused swelling and irritation. In one case, the boots of one of his patients had to be cut off because the feet had swollen so much. Youths in London, Oxford and Cambridge, reportedly suffered ulcers and sores on their feet.
The presiding alderman, Mr Dakin, sat and listened with some bemusement. ‘He himself had never felt any ill effects from the wearing of coloured socks’, nor from any other coloured garments, so it simply could not be true. Going further, he chided the surgeon for potentially disconcerting the public, or ‘interfering with honest intentioned tradesmen’, unless he could provide hard evidence of the danger.
But Webber was not finished, and sent samples to eminent chemists, who carried out tests. These investigations proved the surgeon’s fears were not unfounded. Experiments by a prominent chemist proved that the offending dyes did indeed contain compounds of arsenic.
A committee was swiftly formed to investigate the subject, and advertisements placed in the Times newspaper, calling for all those who suspected they might have been affected by poisonous hosiery to come forward. Something of the scepticism of Alderman Dakin lingered in the advertisement. The potential list of suggested ‘persons who may have suffered’ included ‘the dandy whose delicately tinted foot coverings have irritated and erupted his skin [and] the girl…whose flaming stockings have given rise to pimply outbursts’. All were called upon not only to describe their symptoms for the betterment of their fellow creatures, but to ‘sacrifice their favoured chausettes upon the hygienic altar’…i.e. send their underwear in for examination!
But reports continued to emerge from other sources. The Lancet reported the case of a ballet dancer appearing in The Doge of Venice who had suffered a ‘cutaneous eruption’ on one foot. Further investigation suggested that the heat of her foot had acted upon the dye to affect the skin. Crucially, the shoe of the affected foot was bright red, whilst the other foot, wearing a white shoe, had ‘absolute immunity. A Coventry physician, Dr McVeagh, noted that a patient suffered almost unbearable pain and discomfort from his feet, after buying a pair of socks in Birmingham “in the Marquis of Hastings colours’. Even despite efforts to remove them from sale, ‘some of the mischievous goods’ were clearly still at large.
A battery of further tests was commissioned on a wider range of hosiery, and soon the Victorian fixation with hygiene gradually overtook scepticism about the possibility that socks could be deadly. A well-known French chemist, M.L. Roussin, and a physician Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, subjected suspect socks and hose to a barrage of experiments, extracting the dye, before evaporating it and extracting a substance that proved to be a poison ‘of not insignificant power’. The author of the St James article noted with distaste the effects of the poison on unfortunate animals, including dogs, rabbits and frogs (‘Alas! Poor brutes – tortured for an idea’), which included stomach disorders, fevers, weakness and, in some cases death.
(Image from Wellcome Images)
On humans, the French chemists asserted that, although no deaths had actually occurred, the substance within the socks was certainly capable of doing so. More than this, they used their experiments to caution about the dangers of ‘progress’ in ‘which the incessant progress of the chemical arts’ could lead to increasing risks to the human race and health of mankind. The College of Physicians was entreated to swiftly come up with a name for the condition.
Some enterprising retailers leapt upon the opportunity offered by potentially deadly underwear, and took out their own advertisements for alternative ‘safe’ products. One advert in 1879 (with the un-alluring headline ‘Poisonous Stockings’) argued that while ‘medical testimony’ had proved that coloured stockings were injurious to health, all risk could be avoided by simply purchasing “Balbriggan silk embroidered’ socks or half-hose, which were coloured by harmless vegetable dyes.
Once the offending substances had been identified and isolated, steps were taken to ensure that hosiery was no longer potentially fatal, and the crisis gradually abated. But the next time you hear yourself saying ‘my feet are killing me’, spare a thought for the diligent Dr Webber and be grateful it isn’t literal.
From the late 1600s until well into the nineteenth, one particular premises, a former coffee house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, was a must-see on the list for visitors. Famous for its ‘cabinets of curiosities’, the ‘museum’ was known colloquially by the name of its proprietor. Thus, ‘Don Saltero’s’ was a fixture of the London landscape for over two centuries. But who was the mysterious ‘Don Saltero’, and what sorts of things could visitors marvel at?
(A print of Don Saltero’s Coffee House, signed by some of its famous visitors, including Hans Sloane: Image copyright of New York Public Library)
As contemporaries remarked, the name Don Saltero had exotic Spanish connotations. But the owner and proprietor was certainly not Spanish – he was an English barber, tooth-drawer and sometime servant to the prominent physician Sir Hans Sloane. His name was the less-exotic James Salter!
By 1715, the premises of ‘James Salter the Coffeeman’ had become a notable place of resort for the literati, and prominent figures of the day. Alongside his coffee and punch-making skills, it was reported that he could shave, bleed, pull teeth and stumps, and play the fiddle as well as any man in England. But it was his growing collection of curios that began to draw the great and the good from Georgian society to Cheyne Walk.
Salter’s collection began when Sloane started to donate a few curios of his own for Salter to display in his shop. In fact the adorning of barber and apothecary shops was nothing new. As Patrick Wallis’s study of London apothecary premises has shown, visitors might encounter anything from holy relics to stuffed crocodiles, and the display of such items served to cement the worldly and slightly mysterious image of the medical practitioner in the customer’s mind.
(Image from Daily Telegraph)
Amongst the treasures in the Wellcome Library is the 35th edition of ‘A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Don Saltero’s Coffee House in Chelsea’ – a complete list of the contents of Saltero’s museum, down to individual shelves, cupboards and cases. It gives us a fascinating insight into what visitors would have encountered in the home of the self-styled ‘gimcrack whim collector’, and also what sorts of things were considered as prime curiosities.
(Author’s photograph of original document in Wellcome Library – copyright belongs to them)
Many items were small objet d’art – curious pieces of pottery from far-flung places, or unusually exquisite or highly crafted pieces. Glass Case number 1, for example, contained ‘a cup and saucer, a drinking cup with a foot, a jar and snuff box, all made of cherry stones’. There were all manner of other types of cups and jars in the case, a crystal bottle and tobacco stopper. Tiny instruments, such as the ‘exceeding curious pair of steel scissors’ weighing just 1 and a quarter grains, or the ‘travelling clock, which is 36 hours going down’.
Adorning the walls were a wide variety of prints and portraits. These included images of unusual animals, like the Brazilian Toucan, or the flying squirrel, as well as prints of historical documents such as the signed death warrant of Charles I, and portraits of famous artists, such as ‘a print of the famous Corelli’. Hanging from the ceiling were all manner of mummified animals, fish and birds, along with replica boats, giant shells and ‘the King of Morocco’s tobacco pipe’.
Animal and human curiosities formed another important part of the collection, offering visitors the chance to feast their eyes on the skeletons or stuffed figures of strange and exotic animals. Mummy’s hands, or saint’s relics were particularly prized, and probably pretty standard fare in other types of museum. But Saltero’s had other treasures such as ‘the head of the spatula bird’, ‘a curious horse-shoe fish’, ‘the pizzle of a racoon’, ‘a lizard 20 inches long’ and even (for Georgian Harry Potter fans!) ‘the ‘basilisk, supposed to kill with his eyes’!
Items that seemed to defy nature were particularly prized. Amongst these were the ‘handkerchief made of the asbestos rock, which fire can’t consume’, and the ‘piece of rotten wood not to be consumed by fire’. ‘Several pieces of the holy cross’ were on display in one room, along with other ‘relicks from Jerusalem’, and even ‘the Pope’s candle’. If all that weren’t enough, one cabinet claimed ‘the flaming sword of William the Conqueror’.
In other cases, exhibits tended more towards things that literally seemed ‘fantastic’: Item number 24 was ‘A curious sword set with polished steel, presented by the king of Lilliput to Capt. Gulliver’. Anticipating Tolkien’s Middle Earth by two centuries, astonished visitors could also gaze upon ‘An elf’s arrow’.
Some items, though, defy easy categorisation. Nuns for example, seem to feature fairly prominently! Saltero’s collections included ‘a pair of nun’s stockings’, ‘a nun’s pincushion’ and various other objects made by nun’s. Religious figures such as nun’s perhaps excited interest since they were inaccessible, even exotic figures, who were shut away from society. Likewise, items with connections to royalty gave people a glimpse into another sort of closed world. William III’s coronation shoes gave a taste of the occasion for those who weren’t invited, while those interested in the size of Elizabeth I’s feet could gaze with wonder at one of her stirrups. Quite why ‘a piece of Queen Catherine’s skin’ was on display, or how it was obtained, is unfortunately not recorded!
(Cheyne Walk looking East – image copyright of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea http://www.rbkc.gov.uk)
Saltero’s was a feature of the London landscape for over 100 years – long after Salter himself died in 1728. By 1799 the collection had begun to be dispersed and sold. Neverthless, the tavern continued to be known as Don Saltero’s well into the nineteenth century. In 1866, John Timbs’ Club Life of London noted that the last few gimcracks were left until about 1825, when we were informed on the premised they were thrown away!’. But, even then, ‘the house is now a tavern with the sign of “The Don Saltero’s Coffee House”’. Long after his death, the spirit of Saltero, and his exotic collections of curios, continued to reign over Cheyne Walk.
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!
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 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.
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.
As my project on the health and medical history of facial hair rolls ever forward, I’ve recently turned my attention to barbers and their role in shaping and managing facial hair through time. Amongst the many questions I’m looking at are how they were trained, what their shops were like, and how much they charged. Further posts will follow on those matters!
As I’ve said many times before on this blog, one of the joys of being an historian are the stories that you come across accidentally while you’re looking for something else. So it has proved to be with barbers, who seem to crop up in a dizzying array of sources and contexts. Recently I’ve been looking through the records of the Old Bailey, to check for unwitting testimony about shop practices or activities. There is actually a lot that can be gleaned from witness testimonies and the details they can provide. But, along the way, I’ve seen lots of evidence to suggest that barbers were often the targets for thieves.
Whilst a barbershop might not immediately spring to mind as a tempting target, lots of barbering goods were actually desirable, and easy to put out through the fence.
In some cases basic things like shop linen and cloths could be targeted. In 1732, Catherine Sanders of St Dunstan’s parish, was indicted for stealing a haul of shop linen, including ‘shaving cloths’ to the value of 7s and 6d. These were the cloths put around the customer’s neck, both to catch the soap, and sometimes for the barber to wipe his razor on. Given that the average London labourer’s wage was around 20-30 pence per day, the value of these goods was virtually a week’s wages. It’s easy to see why some were tempted into crime by the promise of a fast buck. Being caught risked a high price though. In January 1735, Mary Collings was arrested after stealing three shaving cloths from the London barber William Day. She was sentenced to transportation.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Razors, and especially high end, silver tipped, models, were another favourite. At the beginning of the eighteenth century razors were relatively hard to come by. They did not appear in advertising much before the mid eighteenth century, and tended to be bought by barbers from specialist artisan makers, and cutlers. They could be relatively expensive items too, meaning that purloined examples could be easily sold. July 1682 saw John Scroby lift a ‘case of silver tipt razors’ from the barber shop of William Thomson…valued at the substantial sum of eight pounds! When he was caught he denied having any razors on his person. On being searched, and the items found, he claimed to have been given them…but, conveniently, he couldn’t remember who by. The following year saw eleven silver tipped razors stolen from Richard Plat’s Barbican shop, and quickly pawned by the thief. In fact, razors feature commonly amongst lists of stolen goods in Old Bailey cases.
Looking glasses – mirrors – were an expensive, luxury item. As historian Margaret Ezell has pointed out, modern mirrors, understood as a reflective coating over a glass surface, did not come into being until the end of the seventh century. Before then a ‘looking glass’ was likely to be a polished metal surface, and also not necessarily flat, giving a potentially distorted or unclear reflection. Even small glass mirrors were prohibitively expensive; Pepys’ gift of a small looking glass for his wife cost the equivalent value of over one hundred pounds in modern currency. It’s not surprising to find looking glasses on early modern thieves’ wish lists therefore. David Cooke and his accomplice Jonathan Robinson, knew what they were looking for when they broke into Edward Burrows’ barber shop in 1716, making off with razors, a parcel of hair (valued at £5) and a ‘lookeing glass’ worth 30 shillings.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Even the most basic items could prove tempting for opportunists. In Bridewell Hospital in June 1716, Margaret Morgan decided it would be a good idea to try and steal ‘a shaveing bason, two razors and a towel’. On catching her in possession due to her not ‘giving any good account of herself otherwise’ her victim, the barber Thomas Ward of Little Britain, had her charged. Even the most basic items of barbering equipment, such as the hone used to maintain the razor’s edge, could prove too tempting for some thieves.
Occasionally things took an almost comic turn. In April 1729, Sam Salmon took to his heels with his pockets stuffed with 43 washballs, the property of the barber William Barnard. Washballs were small, compacted balls of soap powder and other ingredients, used to create the lather to shave. Caught in the act by Barnard’s neighbours, he was pursued up the street, the washballs doubtless spilling out of his pockets as he ran. His failure to get ‘clean’ away cost him a voyage on a transportation ship.
(Notorious 18th-century criminal Jack Sheppard…not sure if he ever stole from barbers, but just in case! – Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps the most lucrative item of all for thieves, however, were wigs, and the parcels of hair used to make them. Edward Kent stole four wigs, two razors and five ounces of human hair, after convincing the barber and peruke maker Moses Freeman that he wished to learn the trade of wigmaker. Among the haul of Cornelius Barret in 1686 were a ten-shilling periwig and a ‘bever hat’. One Robert Milksop pinched a periwig valued at 30 shillings from the box being carried by Thomas Parks, as the two men passed each other in Cheapside. In 1692, a criminal known only as “B.J.” broke into the house of Bryant Brandon, and made off with three razors, but also ‘twenty two pounds in weight’ – valued at an eyewatering 100 pounds. The case against “B.J.” was difficult to prove, so he escaped with a branding for his trouble.
Perhaps my favourite case of all, however, concerns the theft of a range of goods including books, a hammer and a flower tub, as well as twelve razors by a Fulham schoolmaster, Ephraim Mansell. The case actually revolved around the razors, and whether Mansell had borrowed them (as he claimed), or stolen them. The name of the victim? Mr Blunt.
 Margaret Ezell, ‘Looking Glass Histories’, Journal of British Studies, 43:3 (2004), 323.
Historians have done lots of work in recent years on health and medical care in the family in early modern Britain. As such we know much more about what life was like for the sick in the early modern home, how patients were cared for and by whom. The family provided ready sources of both physical medicines and care.
The Servant, by Wenceslas Hollar (Copyright Shakespeare Folger Digital Images)
As Mary Fissell and others have argued, the burden of responsibility for looking after the sick often fell on women, and could involve a great deal of extra work, such as in washing, preparing medicines and so on. Other historians, such as Lisa Smith (and me!) have also noted the important role played by men in domestic medicine, noting that men were important gatherers and collectors of remedies, and were sometimes forced into a caring role when their wives fell sick – something that early modern medical literature didn’t necessarily prepare them for.
There is one group of patients, however, who sometimes slip through the net. What happened when servants fell sick? Who cared for, and looked after them? How far did employers pay for their care or treatment? In some ways the question might seem redundant. Servants were considered part of the family unit. When Pepys opened his diary in 1660, he noted “I lived in Axe Yard, having my wife and servant Jane, and no more family than us three”. It’s easy to miss the significance of this; Jane, their servant, was fully part of the Pepys family. As part of the family, therefore, they could surely expect to be looked after.
In economic terms it certainly made sense to treat a sick servant, if for no other reason than to return them to productivity as quickly as possible. In large houses or estates, for example, a spate of sickness amongst servants and labourers could be potentially disastrous for productivity. But is there evidence to suggest that care went beyond this purely pragmatic view? Through my work on medicine in early modern Wales, I came across a number of examples.
Surviving records from the account book of William Davies of Clytha, Monmouthshire, certainly suggest that he went beyond the call of duty. In May 1718 he took on a boy, William Prosser, to his service at the wage of two pounds and four shillings per year. Davies was diligent in recording a range of entries concerning his servant. It is clear, for example, that he gave Prosser what might today be regarded as pocket money on occasions. In one instance he recorded giving Prosser 6 shillings to visit Usk Fair. On another occasion he provided 2 shillings for the boy to play cards. He paid for new stockings and the mending of shoes, and allowed Prosser time off to go to Monmouth, and also to visit his sister when she was sick.
Davies, however, also noted occasions when Prosser was himself sick, and the duration. One entry reads “You were sick in Aprill 7 dayes”, and another “you were sick and you lost 11 dayes”. On one level this might be seen as an employer monitoring his servant, and keeping a tally of their sick days…an approach that would not feel unfamiliar in a modern workplace! But, also just like a modern employer, it seems that Davies provided sickpay – “June ye 15th I gave you one shilling when you were sick’. Was this the norm, or was Prosser simply lucky in having an apparently benevolent employer?
There is other evidence to suggest that some were prepared to allow sick employees to move into their households for treatment. The probate inventory of the Cardiff labourer William Cozens shows that, during his last sickness, he was living in the house of his employer, and receiving care. Note that Cozens was a labourer, and not a domestic servant, suggesting that he ordinarily did not live with the family.
Gentry household accounts certainly suggest that provision of medicines for sick servants was routine. The accounts of Lord Herbert, the 9th earl of Pembroke, give a running list of the many preparations and remedies ordered from a London apothecary John Jackson. (Between 1744 and 1747 there were a total of 848 different prescriptions!). Amongst the many for Lord Herbert and his wife, were entries for William Colly and Jenny White, both presumably servants, as well as medicines for the ‘coachman’ and ‘housemaid’.
The coachman at Chirk Castle was another recipient of treatment, involving a ‘botle of physic from Dr Puleston’, and when the ‘boy Thomas was swoll’n under the chin’, an entry in the accounts paid for a man to fetch the apothecary from nearby Wrexham.
R.C. Richardson’s study of servants in early modern England found similar evidence to suggest that employers were usually keen to look after their charges. Those who failed to do so properly were denounced as ‘cursed and hard-hearted persons’ whose threshold the prospective servant should be wary to cross. Preachers, such as William Perkins, considered it the ‘Christian duty’ to care for a servant who ‘In time of his service be sicke’.
Admittedly some were not so sympathetic. Thomas Ffoulkes of Holywell, Flintshire, kept close tabs on his maid, apparently suspicious of her claims to be ill. In January 1724 he noted “My mayd Margarett Jones fell sick this day, and next day, and did not get out of bed. Munday morning, being the 8th, she went unknown to me to her mother’s and did not returne till Friday”. Ffoulkes’s scathing last line “she went rambling home severall other times” suggested he thought that Margarett was pulling the early modern equivalent of a ‘sickie’!
In general, however, sick servants were the recipients of often quite generous levels of care. On one level, as part of the family this might be expected. But these were also, ultimately, employees, and therefore reliant on the goodwill of their masters and mistresses for this to be provided. It would be interesting to find out more about the changing dynamic, when employees had to provide physical care for their servants. Presuming there were no others available, how must it have felt for the mistress of the house to tend the sickbed of her housemaid? Perhaps the subject for a future post.
It’s November, and that time of year when men all over the world will be donning moustaches to raise money for, and awareness of, prostate cancer, through Movember. Get ready for a raft of valiant efforts, with some maybe even graduating to the moustache wax and twirly ends! Moustache newbies can take advantage of the huge range of products now available to shape, style and otherwise pamper their facial hair.
Not, however, that there’s been much of an extra incentive needed in recent times for men to rediscover the love for their facial hair. As I’ve repeatedly suggested here on the blog, and elsewhere, there is little sign that beards are diminishing in popularity; if anything they seem to be going from strength to strength, with new styles emerging over recent months to replace the ‘Hipster’/Lumberjack beard of 2 or 3 years ago.
Events like ‘Movember’, though, remind us of the prosthetic nature of facial hair – beards and moustaches are easy to adopt…you just have to stop shaving and there they are. And, just as easily as they can be put on, they can be shaved off in a few minutes. Wearing them (or not) can dramatically alter facial features and, as the continuing studies into the supposed attractiveness of beards keep suggesting, this can affect how individual men are viewed by others. This is in fact something that I’ve been exploring in my research recently. One thing that I find particularly interesting is the use of false facial hair by men.
At various points in history, being unable to grow a beard has certainly been severely stigmatised. In Tudor and Stuart Britain, beardlessness was a state connected with either immaturity or effeminacy. A man whose beard was thin and scanty might be insulted with terms such as ‘smock face’, or regarded as a mere ‘beardless boy’. In the eighteenth century, although most men were clean-shaven, the ability to grow a beard was still a vital element of masculinity. Even if you didn’t grow it, you had to at least be able to show that you could! In Victorian Britain, at the height of the beard movement, beardless men were again subject to suspicion.
What, though, could men whose facial hair was somewhat lacking do to avoid the barbs? At least in the nineteenth century some help was available. One easy method was to visit one of the many theatrical suppliers in large towns and cities, from whom a fairly realistic false moustache could be bought.
Theatrical retailers like C.H. Fox in 1893, sold a range of styles to suit every taste. These included ‘Beards and Moustaches on wire, ordinary’, ‘beards best knotted on gauze’, ‘sailors beards’ and ‘moustaches on hair net foundation, the very best made, perfectly natural, suitable for Detective Business’, costing the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence.
(image from ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ by Charles Dillon, available on Google Books)
A number of enterprising artisans began to manufacture false beards, moustaches and whiskers to cater specifically for those whose facial hair steadfastly refused to make an appearance. In 1865 Henry Rushton lodged an application for…
THE APPLICATION OF A CERTAIN KIND OF GOAT’S HAIR IN IMITATION OF HUMAN HAIR TO THE MANUFACTURE OF HEAD DRESSES, MOUSTACHES, AND ALL KINDS OF FALSE HAIR, AND THE PROCESSES OF PREPARING THE SAME
Rushton proposed a set of chemical processes to prepare mohair for various uses which “I apply in imitation of human hair for covering the foundations and forming plain ‘back’ or ‘Brighton Bows’ or any other plain hair head dresses, and apply the same also in manufacture of various kinds of false hair, such as ringlets, coronets, head dresses, whiskers, moustaches, and the like. Another patent from Thomas Bowman in 1800 even proposed a contrivance with a set of mechanical springs and elastic components, to enable wigs and false whiskers to stick closely to the head and face.
So important were moustaches and whiskers to the military that they supplied their own false articles, often made of goat’s hair, to fresh-faced, stubble-free recruits, to ensure that the whole regiment was suitably hirsute, and ready to face the enemy.
But another, often forgotten, group also found the portability and ease of false facial hair vital in their professional lives….criminals! The face-altering properties of facial hair were particularly useful to criminals. In the days before DNA testing, CCTV and fingerprinting, a fleeting glimpse of a criminal’s face was often all a victim had to go on. A thick beard, dramatic whiskers or a droopy moustache were all notable features by which a criminal could be identified and brought to justice. But what happened if they weren’t real?
It’s clear from records and reports that many criminals recognised the value of facial hair in hiding their true faces. In 1857 James Saward and James Anderson appeared at the Old Bailey accused of forgery. Part of their disguise was the adoption of a wig and ‘false whiskers’ to ensure that they avoided detection. Part of the defence of Thomas Cuthbert, accused of theft in 1867, was that the false whiskers and moustache he was wearing when arrested were not put on by him, but were applied by another man, when Cuthbert was dead drunk! Many other cases record the discovery of false whiskers, beards or moustaches amongst the possessions of criminals, or their use in trying to defy identification. ‘It can’t have been him your honour, the man who attacked me had a huge beard!’
Perhaps the most sinister case is that of the physician Thomas Neill, indicted for murder in 1892, and known by the alias of Dr Cream. Various witness attested to having known the doctor, some testifying that he sometimes wore a moustache, others that he had dark whiskers, and another that he was clean-shaven. One witness, however, a Canadian traveller named John Mcculloch, noted meeting Neill in his hotel, after he called for a physician when feeling unwell. After supplying Mcculloch with antibilious pills, the two men began to chat about their respective businesses. The doctor showed the man his medical box and pointed to a bottle of poison. “For God’s sake, what do you do with that?” asked the shocked traveller, to which Dr Cream replied “I give that to the women to get them out of the family way”.
By now shocked and suspicious the traveller continued to question the doctor: “he stepped backwards to the trunk and produced a pair of false whiskers, or divided beard without mustaches—I said, “What do you use these for?”—he said, “To prevent identification when operating”—he led me to believe previous to that that he procured abortion”. None of this helped the evil Dr Cream; he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, his false whiskers proving no escape from the law.
So as Movember gets underway it will be interesting to see how many men put on their moustaches and, equally, how many remove them again at the end of the month! Some don’t get on with them, but others are pestered by their partners to lose the fuzz; a common complaint is that it makes a man look older, or otherwise alters their appearance too much. Another recurring themes amongst opponents of beards is that they make men look as though they have something to hide. This is one of the reasons that politicians don’t usually grow them. As the examples shown here suggest though, many bearded men actually did have something to hide.
In a recent article in the UK’s Independent newspaper, the cosmetics industry for men in Britain was estimated to be worth over £30 million a year, after growing over 300% in 2014/15. Even so, this is a drop in the ocean, in a global market for male pampering which accounts for an eye-watering 14.8 BILLION pounds per year. The sheer numbers of male aftershaves, scents and colognes are bewildering, and carry the heft of major league celebrity endorsements, from the likes of David Beckham and Johnny Depp.
I’m a child of the 70s, a time when aftershave choices were, shall we say, limited. At Christmas and birthdays my poor father was the regular recipient of a) Brut b) Blue Stratos or C) Old Spice, with a runner’s up prize of ‘Denim’ if Boots had run out of any of them. This was despite the fact that he had (and still has) a beard!
As for celebrity endorsements, these were also fairly limited. In the Brut corner was Former British Heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, who invited you to ‘splash it all over’, alongside mulleted football star Kevin Keegan and the accident-prone superbike champion, Barry Sheen. None perhaps matched the kitsch glamour of Tabac’s advert with the sartorially elegant, and magnificently coiffured, Peter Wyngarde – star of the ‘Jason King’ series.
How long, though, has aftershave been with us? Have men always slapped on the scent or slathered on the lotion after shaving? In fact, shaving preparations have a surprisingly long history and, more than this, can actually tell us some important things about attitudes to men’s personal grooming.
Before the eighteenth century, the concept of applying ‘product’ as a means to beautify the skin after shaving simply didn’t exist. Shaving was a basic, quotidian activity, done for necessity. It was also probably a painful experience. Rather than shaving themselves, men visited the barber, whose services were available everywhere from large towns and cities to small villages. The quality of the shave available differed dramatically, leading to satires about the clumsy barber whose razors were as blunt as oyster knives. It is possible that some provision might be made to soothe the skin after the shave, or maybe apply a little lavender water, but evidence for individual shaving routines is fairly sparse.
(Image copyright Lewis Walpole Library)
Nevertheless, there were options within domestic medicine, which might allow men to soothe their suppurating skin once the barber had done with it. Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, remedy collections included recipes for beauty washes and pastes, and ‘washballs’ for the skin. There are some great examples on ‘Madam Gilflurt’s’ blog: http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2016/05/bathing-in-age-of-extravagance-make.html Although usually meant for women, there was nothing in principal preventing men from slathering on some home-made preparation to calm their skin.
The later eighteenth century, however, saw things begin to change. The disappearance of beards meant that shaving was not only more common, but was beginning to be done by individuals, as well as the barber. The appearance of new, sharper types of steel razor made this a more comfortable experience. But it also gave rise to a new market. Whilst razor makers saw opportunities in targeting men who shaved themselves, perfumers and hairdressers jumped on the bandwagon and started to puff their own products for young shavers.
In 1752 Richard Barnard of Temple Bar claimed to be the inventor of the ‘True original shaving powder’. A rival powder, advertised the same year by J. Emon, claimed to ‘make razors cut easy and [was] very good for tender faces’. The perfumer Charles Lillie’s 1744 advertisements for ‘Persian (or Naples) soap’ claimed to be extremely useful in soothing smarting skin after shaving, while others like ‘Paris Pearl Water’ was claimed to freshen men’s skin and brighten their complexion. Perhaps the most exotic sounding was “Elenora’s Lavo Cream” advertised in 1801, which was ‘particularly agreeable to Gentlemen after shaving, as it cools and heals the remaining heats’.
There was, however, a delicate balancing act to male toilet. On the one hand was the need to conform to expectations of polite manliness. Neatness of appearance, elegance, a smooth, open countenance and a grasp of etiquette and manners were all expected of the polite gentleman. On the other, there were fears that British men were slipping into effeminacy, too affected by Frenchified fashions and adopted airs. Overuse of cosmetics was satirised in cartoons of the extreme form of eighteenth-century manhood – the Macaroni, or Fop. Interestingly though, shaving was strongly connected with masculinity and manly self-control. It was part of the expected conduct of a gentleman; a little bit of cream to soothe delicate features was perfectly acceptable.
Fast forward to the 1850s, though, and beards were back with a vengeance. Given that Victorian men were sporting huge crops of beard en masse, the concept of aftershave might seem to have been redundant. It is worth remembering though (thinking of the current beard trend) that for all the beard wearers there were probably still many who preferred to shave. In fact, even at the height of the beard movement a number of aftershave lotions and scents were available.
(Glasgow Herald, 7th June 1852)
From the 1820s right through the rest of the century, a popular product was Rowland’s Kalydor, advertised widely in various newspapers and publications. A variety of testimonials accompanied the advertisement. “One of our first physicians, sixty years of age, whose face was in a continual state of inflammation, so as to render shaving impossible, has been entirely cured and is much gratified’. Other types of product were available; an advert in the Literary Digest heralded a particular brand of talcum powder which ‘positively won’t show white on the face’, making you ‘feel cool fresh and clean’.
Some played upon the popularity of science to claim the efficacy of their products. ‘Carter’s Botanic Shaving Soap’ was supposedly the ‘result of many years study and practical experiment’ by its creator, and advertisements played on its neutralisation of alkalis (which ‘made shaving a torture to all who have a delicate and tender skin’).
(More associated with mouthwash today, Listerine was originally used as shaving lotion. Image from WWW.Kilmerhouse.com)
The ingredients in some preparations contained tried and tested ingredients like glycerine to soothe the face. ‘Cherry Laurel lotion’ containing distilled cherry laurel water, rectified spirit, glycerine and distilled water, ‘used to allay irritation of the skin, particularly after shaving’. Others included ‘Lotion Prussic Acid’ and the equally unattractive-sounding ‘essence of bitter almonds’. The problem with these particular substances was the ingredients. Both, according to an 1873 study of cosmetics by Arnold Cooley, contained the deadly potassium cyanide – and made worse by the fact that the liquids apparently tasted very pleasant. Cooley suggested that both products should correctly be labelled ‘Poison’!
By way of conclusion it’s worth mentioning that aftershaves have been blamed for all manner of ills. In 1963, a GP (Dr B.E. Finch from London) wrote to the British Medical Journal, noting that several patients (mostly young men) had reported symptoms of dizziness after shaving, similar to “slight intoxication, similar to that which occurs after imbibing an alcoholic drink”. On further investigation Finch found this to be a common occurrence, and theorized that alcohol-based aftershaves were being absorbed through the shaven skin, causing mild intoxication. A reply in the following month’s edition suggested that, due to the highly volatile nature of those liquids, it was more likely the fumes than the absorption that were causing the problem!
I was talking to a colleague recently about what first got us fired up about history. I’ve loved history since childhood, and it was probably inevitable that it would end up as a career. As an undergraduate, though, I vividly remember a turning point – a brilliant lecture I attended on life in the South Wales coalfields, which began with an image of a miners’ protest in the early 20th century. The lecturer began with a simple question: ‘what was it like to be there?’ He went on to talk about the men, the town and environment, the sights and smells and the conditions they lived in, bringing it all vividly to life.
But why does history matter? What is the ‘point’ of history? What is the value of humanities in a modern society? Depressingly, these are questions that historians increasingly have to face, and face them we do. A recent post by Laura Sangha gives a great response to just these sorts of questions.
Despite abundant evidence of the public appetite for ‘popular’ history, academic historians are under constant pressure to defend our discipline in the face of threats to funding, the need to recruit students and bring in research income. Sometimes it is easy not only to lose touch with why history matters, but what it was that got us enthused about it in the first place. For me, though, a chance encounter in an antiquarian bookshop in London last week has gone a long way towards bringing back the excitement I first felt when I first became interested in the past, and the people who inhabited it.
I wasn’t even to go in to the shop. But, with a little time to kill before lunch, I wandered in, and asked the owner if he had a section on health and medicine. He looked apologetic and said he had a few on some shelves at the back of the shop, but “mostly vintage stuff’”. What he actually had were two bookcases full of treasures; all manner of 17th and 18th-century medical and surgical treatises, histories of the body, anatomical works, medical lectures, books of remedies and pharmacopoeia…for a historian of medicine, a little shop of dreams!
One, in particular, caught my eye – an original 1667 copy of John Tanner’s Hidden Treasures of the Art of Physick. I pondered for a little while about whether to buy it…I’ve long worried about buying these old books (especially from places like Ebay) and whether it is right to own something that should ideally be in a museum. But, before long, it was coming home with me!
Unwrapping the book from its packaging at home gave me time to look at it in detail, but also to reflect on the incredible journey that it’s had. More than that it reminded me of exactly why I fell in love with history in the first place. Here, on my desk, next to me now in fact, is a tangible artefact – a survivor from another world.
(Thomas Wyck – ‘Old St Paul in Ruins’, Image from Wikimedia Commons)
It rolled off the press in Clerkenwell, London one day in 1667, in a city still in shock after the dual calamities of the plague and the Great Fire of the previous year. What would an imaginary visitor to London that year have seen? Everywhere were burnt-out buildings, piles of rubble and devastated streets still in the process of being cleared. In January that year Samuel Pepys noted that there were still ‘smoking remains of the late fire’ with ‘the ways mighty bad and dirty’. Even as late as the 28th of February Pepys was still having trouble sleeping because of ‘great terrors about the fire’, and observed ‘smoke still remaining of the late fire’ in the City. On the skyline was the devastated, but still recognisable, symbol of old London – the first St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst the once noted sea of church spires across London was diminished. Clerkenwell itself, however, largely escaped the fire. It was a fairly upmarket area, containing some affluent houses and businesses. Clerkenwell green was a fashionable area, home to some of the nobility.
What, then, of the book’s author and publishers? John Tanner who, according to the blurb, was a ‘student of physick and astrology’ wrote it. In fact, Tanner was a practising physician who resided in Kings Street, Westminster. In other sources he was referred to as a ‘dr in physic’ and a ‘medicus’, possibly even a member of the Royal College of Physicians in February 1675. When he died in 1711, Tanner had done pretty well for himself, leaving gold, silver and money, together with valuable goods, to his children. In his house, according to his inventory, were a ‘Physick room, Chirurgery room and still house’, the last used to distil waters for medicinal use. Tanner was the author of ‘my’ book, but he likely never touched it.
Someone who potentially had more to do with the physical book, however, was its publisher John Streater, a prolific producer of medical texts and brother of Aaron Streater, a noted physician and ‘divine’. Streater often worked in tandem with the bookseller George Sawbridge ‘at his House on clerken-well-Green’. Sawbridge was an eminent bookseller and publisher of medical books by luminaries such as Nicholas Culpeper. According to Elias Ashmole, Sawbridge had been a friend of the ‘English Merlin’ (or the ‘Juggling Wizard and Imposter’, depending on your source!) William Lilly. When he died, Sawbridge was worth around £40,000 – a colossal amount of money in the seventeenth century. It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to picture Sawbridge in his shop, surrounded by shelves and shelves of leather and calf-bound volumes, handing the book over to its first owner.
Who owned it? It’s impossible to say, but let’s speculate. A book like Tanner’s Treasury was meant for a general readership. It’s aim was to help the ‘diligent reader’ attain a good understanding of physick and the body, synthesising a range of different authors. Its medical content might have made it appealing as an easy reference work for a medical practitioner, but far more likely is that it found its way into the library of a local gentleman…perhaps even one of the Clerkenwell nobility who lived hard by. Medical texts were common inclusions amongst the libraries of gentlemen; medicine was one of the accepted intellectual pursuits of elite men. In fact there is only one signature inside the book, which is now, sadly illegible. Only the word ‘boak’ (book) and the date 1726 are now discernible, but show that it was still being used, or at least referred to, at that date. There is also only one slightly unclear annotation, which appears to say ‘used above [unclear] but are fare’. I’ve included the image below.
This copy of Tanner’s Treasury has had a long journey to this point. It has been passed down – perhaps gifted, bequeathed, sold, resold, lent, scores of times. At some point it ended up in a Birmingham library, and was potentially read by countless scholars, before its journey took it back to where it began – a London bookseller, where an interested party (me!) couldn’t leave it on the shelf. Rest assured that it’s found a good home, and will be carefully looked after.
To me, things like this little book are the reasons I love doing what I do. To be sure, the contents are important, giving us a window into the medical worldview of the time, and the sorts of individuals practising, writing and publishing medicine. The remedies are fascinating (and indeed one of my academic research interests). But there’s more to it than that. The book itself lets us literally touch the past and make contact with an object that was actually there. The people who wrote, sold, bought and passed it on have long gone, but we can still hold and appreciate something that was once important to them. It’s a line of direct contact back through the centuries. For all the academic theorising about grand narratives, discourses, theories and the rest, it’s nice to be reminded now and again of the simple, visceral thrill of letting a source fire up your imagination of what it was like in the past.
Last month saw the publication of my new book, Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Refined Bodies (London: Palgrave, 2015). By way of introducing it, I thought I’d write a post to introduce some of its main themes.
The eighteenth century saw dramatic changes in attitudes towards bodily alteration. Once, impaired bodies were viewed as a fait accompli, their owners condemned forever to endure whatever vagaries God or Nature had seen fit to send. In the early part of the century, debates raged about the dangers of pride and vanity, as well as the morality of trying to interfere with God’s work. But by the mid 1750s there were changes in attitudes. Where once managing appearance, including treating deformities and visible impairments, symbolised vanity and pride, new enlightened themes like ‘improvement’, self-control and mastery made conquering the body a noble and justifiable endeavour.
At the same time as these broader social and cultural changes, new technologies in metallurgy opened up a range of possibilities for products aimed at shaping the body. What might be termed ‘technologies of the body’ proliferated. These encompassed everything from large apparatus for altering bodily shape, posture and gait, as well the smallest, quotidian items of personal grooming such as tweezers and nail nippers. In some cases new technologies transformed the design of instruments; in others, it was the instruments themselves that took on important new meanings as vectors through which individuals could aspire to changing ideals of the body.
This was the age of ‘politeness’, where ‘polite’ manners and behaviours were entwined with the ownership of the right goods, wearing of the right clothes and attendance of the right social events. Whilst conversation, education and manners were essential to early conceptions of polite behaviours, appearance and form were also important. In this sense dress, appearance and adornment acted as vectors to project politeness onto the body. Could, however, politeness extend to the bodily fabric itself?
(‘The Art of Dancing, 1724)
Some like the Swiss physician Samuel Tissot thought so, and he dedicated an entire chapter to ‘disorders most frequent in people of fashion’ and drew a distinction between the hardy body of the labourer, through its constant exposure to the harsh elements, versus the somewhat slight, fey body of the gentleman. If this latter was physically slighter, however, it was also delicate and refined.
While contemporaries never directly referred directly to bodies as being polite, they did acknowledge the role and importance of the body in articulating it. An essay on the characteristics of politeness in the Universal Magazine in 1775 argued that it was a holistic concept governing not only ‘temper of mind and tenour of conduct’ but bodily appearance, posture and mien. A polite gentleman (the essay was addressed to men) should embody the posture of a fencer, the gait of a dancer, the ear of a musician and the mind of a philosopher. Such a person ‘walks by rules of art, dictated by nature’.
But as well as being informed by politeness, other characteristics were prized. Neatness, elegance and harmony of appearance, were central in conveying inner character and sensibility. The body’s surfaces should be kept neat, clean, plucked and shaved. For both sexes the removal of facial hair and management of facial features such as eyebrows showed fastidiousness and a desire to create a body that was socially pleasing. As attitudes towards the smile changed, management of the teeth became important. Likewise, as the appearance of hands was held to imply character and breeding, the care of hands, especially fingernails, was vital.
But Nature was also at the heart of debates about bodily form. Some saw it as a body closest to the state of nature, in the bodies of the poor, or inhabitants or far-flung nations whose bodies had been untouched by artificial devices. Indeed, some even saw viewed interference with, or alteration of, the body as inherently unnatural. This was reinforced by the twisted and bent bodies caused through over zealous use of trusses, bandages and stays. On the other hand, much effort was expended in attempting to ‘correct’, conceal or otherwise give the illusion of a ‘natural’ form – a claim made by the makers of many postural devices. Paradoxically, therefore, a ‘natural’ body often required unnatural means to achieve.
Central to the question of technologies is the role of steel. Technological innovations between the 1680s and 1740s made steel an increasingly abundant and important good, but also a component in the fashioning of a new, refined self. While crucible (or cast) steel is understood as an innovative industrial process, its uses are rarely considered. Yet steel was vital for some of the most personal rituals of everyday life. It was the metal with which people had the closest, even the most intimate, physical contact.
Cast steel’s physical properties allowed people, for example, to fashion their bodies in new ways, to reflect changing ideals of bodily shape and form. A range of corrective devices was available to correct posture, utilising the tensile strength of steel. Visible deformity and disability were not only uncomfortable to the sufferer, but carried pejorative connotations that left the ‘crooked’ open to ridicule. If there was an ideal human form it was generally straight, erect and symmetrical. Whilst the treatment of hernias had brought about the introduction of a range of elastic and steel trusses, the period also witnessed a burgeoning market for devices to improve posture. These included items worn within or underneath clothing, such as back ‘monitors’, large metal plates inserted into clothing. Steel collars thrust the chin upwards to give the illusion of a straight posture. But there were other more radical treatment, such as ‘neck swings’. These involved locking the patient’s head into a steel apparatus, and suspending them off the ground, where they would remain dangling for hours at a time. These were even available for people to use in their own homes.
One of the primary audiences for such devices was children whose parents, recognising the social limitations arising from deformity, were keen to mould the bodies of their offspring into an acceptable form. In the name of fashion, children’s bodies were trussed, bandaged, bound, calipered and twisted. Adults were also prepared to take steps to intervene in the shaping of their own bodies. As advertisements from the manufacturers of postural devices attest, a new domestic market was emerging, which targeted individuals who sought to ‘treat’ themselves without recourse to a medical practitioner.
Neatness and elegance of appearance were exemplified in the face and, in particular the vogue for shaving, and the almost total disappearance of facial hair from men’s faces. New types of steel razors were instrumental in this process. Where once the barber had been the sole provider of shaving services, the period saw men beginning to shave themselves. Razor makers took advantage of newspaper advertising space to puff their new products, using both the language and imagery of polite consumption, but also foregrounding their metallurgical expertise in manufacturing. The use of cast steel in razors became a selling point, along with references to the scientific and philosophical credentials of the manufacturer.
(Trade card of Holmes and Laurie, London Truss Makers, author’s image)
Personal grooming was growing in importance in the broader context of the eighteenth century obsession with the body beautiful. As increasing attention was paid to the minutiae of appearance, so different parts and surfaces of the body came to prominence, as did the instruments used to transform them. Regarded by the orthopaedic specialist Nicholas Andry as the ‘Principal organs of touch’, hands and fingernails were seen as important symbols of beauty and virtue. Mangled and bitten nails were hardly aesthetically pleasing. The old fashioned way was to pare nails with a penknife – a process that could be dangerous, and caused several deaths!
New types of nail nippers were safer, and began to carry more ornate designs, belying their quotidian function. On the face, the most public of bodily surfaces, eyebrows were seen as barometers of character, and tweezers to maintain them were important items of toilette. It is interesting to note that 18th-century tweezers often included ear spoons for digging out unsightly wax, combining two grooming routines into one. As changing attitudes towards the smile rendered the teeth more visible, toothpicks and brushes were also essential pieces of kit. All could be purchased in kit form and could be hung on elaborate and delicate chatelaines about the person, making them at once public and private goods.
Spectacles offer a different outlook on the public projection of the polite self. Steel-framed spectacles, for example, began to appear around the mid eighteenth century, makers such as Benjamin Martin and James Ayscough utilised the springy strength of steel to transform the design of spectacles from their traditional armless Pince Nez design, to a new form with side arms that used pressure to stay tightly adhered to the wearer’s temples. Martin’s new ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, introduced around 1760, could be highly polished to give a pleasing appearance, whilst other sorts of ‘wig spectacles’ were designed to help myopic macaronis attend society functions in comfort and safety. As spectacles became more decorous they also became more public. The growth of reading and coffee house culture placed spectacles at the heart of intellectual debate. Vision and sight exemplified the quest for knowledge. Once a symbol of deficiency, whilst never becoming desirable items of fashion, spectacles shook off pejorative connections and became connected with learning, sagacity and the enlightened search for knowledge through reading and ‘seeing’ the world.
At all points, objects were playing a significant part in the purposeful management of the body. Some important questions must be raised, however. First, if there was some understanding of a polite body ideal, then how widespread was it? Was it an elite, metropolitan phenomenon? The problem with nearly all of the routines discussed here is that individuals seldom discuss them. In the normal run of things there would be little need to write down how well you shaved, plucked your eyebrows or how comfy your brand new Martin’s Margins specs were. The limited evidence available suggests that devices were available across Britain – and not just in major towns. Second, though, to what social depth did it apply? Again, evidence is lacking, but if we consider debates about emulation, there is little to suggest that bodily refinement was merely the preserve of elites. What may be different are the social and public contexts of the body across different levels of society.
The eighteenth century was an age when bodily technologies proliferated. But cultural and religious shifts also meant that intervening to alter the shape of the bodily characteristics that God had bestowed on a person was no longer taboo. As new corporeal ideals were defined, people had both the motivation and the means to transform their own bodies, through the introduction of cast steel. If this was the age of the body beautiful, however, it was also a time when the body was a site of transformation.
The continuing popularity of beards over the past two years or so has surprised many. A mere few months after beards first became apparent, several media articles suggested that ‘peak beard’ had already been reached, and that the decline of facial hair was imminent. That was Summer 2012 and, despite repeated claims of its impending demise (some wrongly attributed to me!), the beard is still apparent as we near 2016. Several interesting things have accompanied this ‘trend’. First, it is the most sustained period of facial for around thirty years. Second, the style – the so-called ‘Hipster’ or ‘Shoreditch’ beard – may well prove to be the defining facial hair style of this generation, in a way, say, that ‘designer stubble’ recalls the rampant consumerism of Thatcher’s 80s. Furthermore, where male grooming products for men have catered for removing facial hair, a new market has emerged for beard care, including oils, moustache waxes and even beard moisturisers.
Aside from the issue of ‘how long will it last’, ‘what do beards mean’ is a common question. Indeed, it is a question that has repeatedly been asked through the centuries. The relationship between men and their facial hair is complex, but is usually closely bound up with prevailing ‘ideals’ of masculinity. At times in history the beard has represented a basic component of masculinity and manliness. Will Fisher’s work has shown how facial hair in the Renaissance formed part of medical understandings of gendered bodies, and the function of the four ‘humours’. Viewed as a waste product (in fact a type of excrement) it was seen as resulting from heat in the ‘reins’ – the area including the genitals. A thick beard thus spoke of virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below. Not only was the beard held up as an ensign of manhood, it was a highly visible symbol of his ‘natural’ strength and authority.
Remarkably similar claims were made for beards in mid-Victorian Britain, when the beard made a spectacular return to favour as the ‘natural’ symbol of a man. Everyone from writers such as Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, to physicians like Mercer Adams, were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of this “badge of manly strength and beauty”. More than this, as Adams argued, a moustache was “nature’s respirator while the hair covering the jaws and throat is intended to afford warmth and protection to the delicate structures in the vicinity, especially the fauces and the larynx”. (A. Mercer Adams, ‘Is Shaving Favourable to Health?: Edinburgh Medical Journal, Dec 1861). Here again, facial hair was closely bound up with themes of masculinity, health, male appearance and conduct.
The eighteenth century, however, represents something of an anomaly in the relationship between man and his beard. While much of the sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries saw men wear at least some sort of facial hair, the eighteenth century has been described as the first truly beardless age in history. The exact reasons for this are unclear but, by 1750 beards, moustaches and whiskers were seriously démodé and, by 1800, the author William Nicholson was able to assert that “the caprice of fashion […] has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards”.
In many important ways, this flight from the beard seems to run counter to what should have represented the masculine ideal. First, humoural understandings of the beard still prevailed. As such it was, at least technically, still an important component of the man. To shave it off, then, was to remove this important ‘signal’ of masculinity. Secondly, the eighteenth century was a period obsessed with the damaging effects of effeminacy in British men, not least in their ability to fight. Importantly this was not effeminacy, with its modern connotations of homosexuality, but literally becoming more feminine. Anxieties surrounded the feminising effects of Frenchified fashions upon young British men. The extreme form of new fashions was the ‘Macaroni’ – the foppish, bewigged and affected dandy. Even wigs were a source of tension in terms of their effect on male appearance. And yet, shaving the face actually rendered it more smooth and feminine.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps most interesting, however, is the apparent conflict caused by concepts of the ‘natural’. Nature underpinned the enlightenment, and much time and effort was expended in trying to uncover its meanings, and apply this to new ideals. The body was certainly part of this. Straightness in posture and deportment was considered components of the ‘natural body’. The artist Joshua Reynolds lauded the symmetry of perfect nature, suggesting the ‘Serpentine line’ of beauty, and suggesting that nature was the true model. The face was the most public of bodily surfaces, and smoothness, neatness and elegance were prized. But all of this glossed over the fact that the beard was in fact the natural state; shaving was inherently unnatural. Logically, if the beard was natural, why then get rid of it?
There are several potential reasons for the decline of the eighteenth-century beard, each of which highlights the close relationship between facial hair and contemporary ideals of masculinity. Social status certainly played a part. Whilst neatness and elegance were badges of the refined gentleman, facial hair marked out the uncouth rustic, the hermit, or the elderly derelict. This also raises the important issue of control. Just as enlightened masculinity championed rationality and manners, it also emphasised self-control as a key male feature. According to conduct literature of the time, whilst delicate ladies might blush and swoon, a man should remain in control of his senses and be measured in his emotions. The new vogue for shaving, spurred on by newly invented, sharper razors, fits this well, in terms of mastery and control over one’s own body.
Changing aesthetic ideals also fed into the freshly shorn face. The veneration of ancient sculpture, identified by George Mosse as an important element in the construction of manliness, yielded admiration at the smoothness and tactility of the stone, as well as the subjects. The obvious paradox was that many statues of Greek and Roman heroes were bearded, but this did not seem to have an effect. Coupled with this was the so called ‘cult of youth’. To affect a delicate, fey appearance was highly sought after in the later eighteenth century; shaving the face immediately rendered it more youthful.
(Image ‘Statue of a youth in heroic repose – Mostra di Nerone, – from Wikimedia Commons)
More broadly, however, the shaven face almost literally reflected enlightened ideals of openness and enquiry. Shaving opened up the countenance to the world, in turn symbolising a mind open to new possibilities. In fact it was even acknowledged that beards were inherently masculine. What mattered, though, was the ability to be able to grow one, rather than the need to actually display it.
Through history, therefore, beards have been a central issue in the construction of masculinity and sexuality, but there is no simple, linear path to how they have been construed. At some points in time the beard has been the very symbol of sexual potency, authority and power. At others, however, the clean-shaven face has prevailed. In more recent times, indeed, shaving has become part of the grooming routines of men, and still strongly linked to health and hygiene.
One of the downsides of researching a topic like facial hair is that it carries perceptions of quirkiness. How, after all, can something as basic and mundane as the beard tell us anything about history? In fact, though, beards, moustaches, whiskers and beardlessness tell us a very great deal about the ways that masculinity, gender and sexuality have all shifted through time.