Sit up Straight! Bad posture and the ‘Neck Swing’ in the 18th century.

Posture is a problematic issue for medicine. Having established a link between ‘bad’ posture and all manner of conditions, from spinal curvature and back pain to nerve damage and headaches, slouching is high on the government’s hit list. Why? Let’s be clear about it, back pain is as much an economic issue as a medical one. While clearly there are many causes for back pain, the BBC recently calculated that it costs the NHS over £1.3 million every day. Add to that the costs to businesses of lost working time and it is painful to the economy as well as the body. It is no coincidence that the NHS website has a number of micro-sites dedicated to suggestions for improving the way we sit and stand.

Posture chart

All manner of devices can be bought with the aim of straightening us up. Leaf through the pages of those glossy little free catalogues that often appear in the post (the ones which routinely have walk-in baths, shooting sticks and things for kneeling on in the garden…you get the picture?) and you’ll notice a panoply of postural devices. There are corsets to force you back into position, as well as all manner of back braces to pull your shoulders back. You can buy cushions for your favourite chair that encourage you to sit in a ‘better’ (for which read less comfortable!) way, as well as special chairs that encourage you to kneel. Even, recently, desks that you stand at, instead of slumping in front of the PC screen. All tested. All clinically proven. All, usually, very expensive. Someone is making money off our drooping shoulders and crooked spines.

But devices to make us sit or stand ‘straight’ are certainly nothing new. As we’ll see, the Stuarts and Georgians got there first with a variety of more or less painful solutions. What have changed are attitudes towards posture. For the Georgians, posture was partly medical, certainly, but perhaps more of a social and cultural issue. Put another way, the ‘polite’ body stood straight and tall; to hunch over was unnatural and uncouth.

In the eighteenth century, the ideal body was straight and well proportioned. But even a cursory glance around the inhabitants of a Georgian town would confirm that many – perhaps the majority – were very far from this ideal. Vitamin deficiency caused by poor diet stunted growth, while a variety of diseases experienced through life could leave their mark. Accidents and bone-breakages might be cursorily treated, but a broken leg could easily leave a person with a limp. Also, many conditions, which today are easily treatable, were then left to run rampant through the body. All this meant that the ‘standard’ Georgian body was often far from the ideal.

It would be easy to assume that people simply accepted their lot and got on with their lives. Doubtless many did. But the eighteenth century also witnessed an increasing willingness to shape the body to try and bring it more in line with this elusive ideal. In 1741, Nicholas Andry published his famous ‘orthopedia’, in which he likened the human body to a tree, which needed support as it grew and, later, as it declined. His famous image of the so-called ‘Tree of Andry’ illustrates this well.

The eighteenth century was a golden age of corrective devices. Just like today you could buy a vast number of corsets and stays, which aimed not only to correct medical deformities, like ruptures, but to help women to try and meet the most fashionable body shape, of a miniscule waist and broad bust. The experience of wearing some of these devices must have been at best uncomfortable and, at worst, excruciating.

There were, for example, steel ‘backs’ – large plates of metal inserted and lashed inside the back of the wearer’s clothing, which ‘encouraged’ them to stop slouching. Metal ‘stays’ gave the illusion of a harmonious form while simultaneously forcing the sufferer’s body back into a ‘natural’ shape. Here’s a typical advert from an eighteenth-century newspaper showing the range of available goods:

“London Daily Post and General Advertiser, February 16th, 1739
‘This is to give NOTICE
THAT the Widow of SAMUEL JOHNSON, late of Little Britain, Near West Smithfield, London, carries on the Business of making Steel Springs, and all other Kinds of Trusses, Collars, Neck Swings, Steel-Bodice, polish’d Steel-Backs, with various Instruments for the Lame, Weak or Crooked.
N.B. She attends the Female Sex herself”

Perhaps some of the most uncomfortable devices were those to correct deformities of the neck. For both sexes, having a straight neck was extremely desirable. For men, keeping the chin up was a sign of masculine strength, poise and posture. Those who slouched were mumbling weaklings, destined never to get on in business or the social sphere. The allure of the soft female neck, by contrast, lay in its swan-like grace; a crooked neck ruined the allusion of femininity and threatened the chances of a good match.

Sheldrake illustration

Many makers supplied products to help sufferers of neck problems. Metal collars, hidden under clothing, forced the chin up. If it sagged, it would rest on an uncomfortably hard metallic edge. Perhaps the most extreme of these devices, however, was the ‘neck-swing’ supposedly introduced into England from France by one ‘Monsieur Le Vacher’. This heavy apparatus fitted around, and supported, the wearer’s head and neck, after which they were suspended, feet off the ground, in an effort to elongate the spine and promote a straighter back. We have one unique testimony of someone who tried it. She described how, every morning, she was: “suspended in a neck- swing, which is merely a tackle and pulley fixed to the ceiling of the room; the pulley is hooked to the head-piece of the collar, and the whole person raised so that the toes only touch the ground”. In this awkward position she remained, sometimes for long periods of time.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for postural devices in the eighteenth century, to the extent that they even entered popular culture. In the anonymous Village Memoirs: In a Series of Letters Between a Clergyman and his Family in the Country, and his Son in Town, the titular clergyman noted the vagaries of bodily fashions: “To remedy the ill effects of a Straight line, an uniform curve is now adopted – but alteration is not always improvement – and it reminds me of the conduct of the matron, who, to prevent her daughter from dropping her chin into her bosom, threw it up into the air by the aid of a steel collar – Hogarth’s Analysis has as yet been read to very little purpose’

It is therefore interesting to note how the dialogue of posture has changed over time. Georgian postural devices sought to return the body to a state of nature, or meet an ideal of appearance. While they certainly encouraged the returning of sufferers to productivity, this was less important than creating the impression of a harmonious whole. Today it might be argued to be the other way around. While cosmetic appearance is undoubtedly important, the emphasis is firmly upon health and minimizing the pressure on a creaking health servce. Our impressions of the body rarely remain static. How will the bodily ‘ideal’ translate itself in future?

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(Dis)ability? Living with impairment in early modern Britain

It is perhaps too easy to view disability in terms of what a person cannot do, as opposed to what they can. Even the terminologies used to describe people (DISability, INcapacity, impairment) all carry negative connotations or suggest a deviation from an ideal or ‘normal’ body. Where sickness or congenital conditions have altered the fabric or capacity of individuals’ bodies, something is implicitly (or often explicitly) assumed to have been ‘lost’, whether physically or functionally.

Looking back at the sickness experiences of individuals through history, it is also too easy to assume that people simply gave up in the face of sickness, or that they were incapable of carrying out a normal life once sickness, injury or old age had afflicted or altered them. In the early modern period, it is highly likely that impairment far more visible than today. In fact, it could be argued that a (by today’s standards) ‘normal’ body would have been highly exceptional.

Given the ubiquity of potentially disabling conditions through sickness and poor diet, for example, skeletal deformities would probably have been much more common, with childhood conditions such as rickets being caused through lack of calcium and vitamin D. Any form of lameness was largely untreatable, except by crude support devices, leaving sufferers to make the best of what they had and, in severe cases, rely on the support and charity of others. As old age set in, the ability to work became restricted and decline could set in rapidly.

Life in pre-industrial society was also highly dangerous in terms of the potential for accidents. Any idea of a bucolic, rustic idyll is shattered by accounts of horrendous accidents caused by seemingly innocuous tasks. In the diary of the puritan minister Philip Henry of Broad Oak, Flintshire, in the mid seventeenth century, for example, is the account of a labourer killed when the man he was working next to swung his pickaxe backwards and took the man’s eye out. The young son of William Bulkeley of Dronwy, Anglesey, called Theophilus, had both of his legs broken when stacks of hay tumbled down on top of him. Theophilus was taken to see specialist bonesetters in Anglesey, but likely walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

There were any number of conditions that could hamper daily life, from skin conditions, lumps and excrescences, to painful and debilitating illnesses, from gout to cancer. With medical treatment for these conditions largely ineffective (at least in biomedical terms), the sick and afflicted were essentially left to shift for themselves. But evidence also suggests that, rather than simply giving up and taking to their beds, many people lived remarkably ‘normal’ lives in the face of seemingly insurmountable physical difficulties. In fact, the resilience of ‘disabled’ people through history is often remarkable.

There are accounts of people, for example who, despite their conditions, endeavoured to carry on regardless, even in the face of severe illness. An entry in Philip Henry’s diary in February 1680 records that he preached twice one Sunday despite the fact that he ‘quakt of ye ague from 8. to 11’ and could not eat or drink in-between. In September 1661, he went to Chester where he developed severe ‘cold and tooth-ake” but still managed to “assisted in study, blessed bee God’. His daughter, also a diarist, noted in one 1692 entry that her elderly father ‘notwithstanding his illness…went on Sabbath June 12, limping to the pulpit’, clearly still intent on carrying out his ministerial duties.

But others in his community displayed a similar stoicism. Henry recorded, for example, the case of Matthew Jenkyn, a local conformist minister who, suffering from ‘a pining sickness…preacht to the very last, being carry’d in a chaiyr from his house to the pulpit’. It was not only religious figures who were keen to defer their opportunity to submit to sickness, perhaps even viewing the adoption of a sick role as inviting misfortune in the same vein as superstitions regarding the making of wills. In 1728, for example, Thomas Edwards, a bailiff from Llanfechell on Anglesey, was ‘indisposed…tho’ getts up every day, yet can hardly crawl from his room to the house & back agen immediately upon the bed’. Despite his obvious pain, Edwards clearly felt obligated to continue his duties and not withdraw from public life.

By the latter half of the eighteenth century, a raft of popular accounts attested to the often astonishing abilities of severely impaired or disabled people. In the 1720s and 30s, one Matthew Buchinger, the “famous little man” of 29 inches high, and born without hands, feet or thighs, made a living by performing a range of tricks and acts including writing, painting and playing musical instruments.  Thomas Pinington could reputedly shave himself despite having no hands, feet or legs, as could John Sear of London. William Kingston of Somerset had no arms, but instead used his feet for everything from shaving to boxing. Handling a lethally sharp blade without injuring oneself was difficult enough, and demonstrating the ability to do so with severe impairments required astonishing dexterity. Perhaps the emphasis upon shaving in accounts of such men as Sear and Kingston was a deliberate tactic given its potential danger, and introduce a frisson of danger, but the overall picture was one of surprise, and even admiration, at the dexterity and capability of such men.

Matthew Buchinger. (For a great blog post on Buchinger, see http://modernconjurer.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/little-man-of-nuremburg-matthew.html)

The figure of the doddering, elderly fool was a comic staple in early modern Britain as elsewhere, and people expected that age brought loss of facility. Even for the elderly, however,  it was often remarked upon how much they were able to do, rather than how little. Consider the ‘old grandfather’ of the Reverend Arthur Charlett of Oxford in 1716, who noted that the old man could still “shave without spectacles, crack nuts and make his bed” despite his advanced years.

 Such examples remind us that the terminology of ‘disability’ is often unhelpful. Firstly, in contemporary times, it is an often unhelpful and even patronising term. The problem lies in finding something neutral or, perhaps better still, removing the distinction. Secondly, however, such terminologies shift over time. People have understood physical impairment, sickness and deformity differently over time, and it is a mistake to back-project current ideas onto our forebears, or to assume a common experience. As these examples show, living with an impaired body, or an acute medical condition, certainly bore its own troubles, but sufferers adapted and, in many cases, lived normal lives.

By way of conclusion, I heartily recommend a new book, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 2012) on this subject by my friend, and former PhD supervisor, Dr David Turner of Swansea University. Many of the themes and issues I’ve raised here are covered in far more detail in his book and other recent articles for History and Policy. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-130.html