Do you need a doctor? Applying for medical jobs in the eighteenth century

Filling in job application forms must rank as one of the world’s least rewarding pastimes…unless, of course, you get the job! There is the matter of displaying your own competence for the role, addressing your experience, evidence of your skills, ability to fit in with the recruiting organisation and, importantly, providing people who will attest to your obvious brilliance. It feels like a very modern thing to do. Whilst we increasingly acknowledge that people in the past could be ambitious, we don’t often get chance to actually glimpse the process in action – especially the further back you go. Some fantastic sources in Northumberland Archives, though, give us the chance to do just that. Better still, the aspiring job applicants were medical practitioners!

Bamburgh Castle

In 1774 a vacancy arose for the position of Surgeon-Apothecary at an infirmary in North East Britain. The infirmary was a charitable institution set up for the ‘relief of the sick and lame poor’, and was located in the magnificently austere Bamburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast. The post had become available on the departure of the previous incumbent and, on the face of it, might not have seemed an ideal move. But something about this job appears to have resonated with the practitioner population of late eighteenth-century northern Britain. Perhaps it was the chance to work with the Reverend Dr John Sharp – administrator of the Lord Crewe Trust and the man who established the infirmary. Perhaps it was a genuine desire to do good for the poor people of rural Northumberland, who were far the nearest hospital in Newcastle. Or perhaps it was the lure of a decent salary and some authority within in institution, with their own staff to command! Whichever it was, news of the job appears to have spread fast, and letters poured in to Dr Sharp. Typical of the speculative applicants was Arthur Gair from Alnwick. Keeping his letter short and to the point, Gair nonetheless threw his hat firmly into the ring:

“25th June 1774. Reverend Sir, As I am informed the place of Surgeon-Apothecary for the Charity of Bambro’ Castle is now vacant, I beg leave to offer myself as a Candidate for the same & till I have the pleasure of paying my respects to you at the Castle which I intend to do on Monday next, I take this method to declare myself , reverend Sir, your most obedient and humble servant”.

Dr Sharp

(Image from the excellent Bamburgh Castle Research Project blog =

Others were less circumspect. Only three days later than Gair, the good Dr Sharp received the following letter from a Dr William Rennick. Unlike Gair, Rennick was not one to hide his light under a bushel.

“I beg leave to signify, that as there are rather too many physical practitioners in this place, I should be inclined to settle in Belford provided I could be favoured with the benefit, lately possessed by Mr Edmonton, at Bamborough – If you are willing to permit me to succeed him on satisfactory recommendation I should ever make it my study to merit your approbation of my conduct, and to display a grateful sense of the solicited obligation. I have been settled here as a Surgeon-Apothecary & man midwife near two years; my qualification in which professions, as well as the tenor of my moral conduct will, I flatter myself, bear the strictest enquiry. I am a native of Berwick & married. My attendance on some particular patients prevents my being able to wait on you in person.
I am with respectful esteem, Sir, your most humble servant”

Rennick’s was a slightly unusual pitch; pointing out that there was too much competition in his area was perhaps a risky pitch. But the rest of his letter is a work of polite (if slightly oily!) genius. Stressing that he would ‘ever make it my study’ to make his boss happy, it is possible to overdo it…and Rennick overdid it!

Some applicants were keen to provide character references. William Stoddart of Alnwick endorsed John Wilson’s application, stating Wilson was a “young man of sobriety and diligence in his profession. I would by no means have given you the trouble of this, but I could not tell how to deny him what I thought I might say with so much truth”. One William Green also tried his hand with a ‘celebrity’ referee – persuading a powerful local gentleman, Sir John Eden of County Durham, to write him a reference. “As there is a vacancy in the Castle of Bambrough” Eden wrote “I am desir’d to recommend to your notice Mr William Green”. That Eden was ‘desir’d’ to recommend Green suggests that his reference was not given entirely without coercion.

It is also interesting, however, just how far news spread. John Sharp’s brother Dr William Sharp was a prominent surgeon in St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and often advised his brother on medical matters relating to the infirmary. In September 1774, William was visited by a naval surgeon, originally from the Bambrough area, who had learned of the position and asked William to petition his brother on his behalf. Although William did not know the man personally, “appearances were in his favour”.
Ultimately all of these approaches, entreaties and salutations were in vain; the job was filled and the successful candidate was a Dr Trumbull, for a time, before the role was taken by the aptly-named ‘Mr Cockayne’!

The letters are fascinating though, as they add a further dimension to the process whereby practitioners actively sought new positions in the eighteenth century, and shed some light on the methods they used to bolster their chances. We don’t know how the post was advertised, if at all – there is some evidence that the infirmary used the Newcastle Courant from time to time to share news and progress – but it is clear that some sort of grapevine existed. Many of the applicants stress how they have ‘heard’ about the vacant position – another reminder of the power of early-modern social networks.

The next time you’re applying for a job, perhaps take a line from some of these medics. Will you try the ‘short and sweet’ approach of William Gair, or the florid prose of Mr Rennick?! In either case, may your applications be more successful than theirs!

Polite Sickness: Illness narratives in 18th-century letters

I have always found letters a brilliant source of information about patients. If writing to friends, relatives and business contacts was commonplace, then one of the most common topics was the writer’s health. Illness was a natural topic to discuss. It was a worthy news item and served to keep the recipient updated with the latest symptom or condition. It could be pragmatic; some sufferers wrote directly to doctors and procured their medicines by post. But others used letters as a means to gather information about their illnesses, not from doctors but from others in their social networks. These would often elicit a stream of responses with favoured recipes, which had never yet failed or were ‘probatum’ (proved) to work.

But letters worked on another level. They gave sufferers the chance to assemble their illness into narrative, and sometimes even episodes. As I have argued in my book Physick and the Family, the eighteenth century  in particular witnessed the rise of what I term the ‘heroic sufferer’. Here, rather than simply listing symptoms, or providing a description, letter writers began to create sickness stories with themselves often as the hero. Sometimes the letters have a resigned air; the missives of the Morris brothers of Anglesey are a good case in point. Their letters commonly contain entries along the lines of ‘the end is near, remember your dear brother’, sometimes suggesting that this might be their last letter and, inevitably, carry on as normal thereafter. Also interesting in their case is the virtual competition that seemed to exist among them as to who could be the most ill! Another common trope was to represent oneself as the battered victim of sickness, nonetheless heroically battling on in the face of almost insurmountable misery.

Depending on the writer though, some sickness narratives take an almost humorous view of their symptoms, treating the reader to a light-hearted walk through what were almost certainly unpleasant episodes. To me these are the most engaging. One set of letters I came across in my research for my PhD fits into this category. They are letters from a Breconshire attorney, Roger Jones of Talgarth. I haven’t researched much about the man himself (maybe I will one day) but he was clearly a ‘man about town’ – in eighteenth-century parlance, a Beau Monde. One particular run of letters were fired off in rapid succession following an abortive trip to Hay on Wye. In February 1769 he wrote to his brother, clearly in some distress.

“Dear Brother…on the fifth day of last month I was visited with a palsy which advances upon me…I was going to the Hay market and before I went halfe a mile off I was taken with a numbness and a kind of stiffness(?) in my left hand. It surprized me much and I turned home. I was immediately bled and sent for my apothecary in ye town of Hay whose advised to contact a physician. I directly sent for Dr Applby(?) of Hereford who attended me on Saturday. I have been bled, cupped, blister’d [and purged] and yet without effect. My disorder has advanced that it now affects all of my left side, both arm and leg.”

Poor Roger. Advised by his physician to eat nothing but puddings(!) he was forced to cancel a trip to Bath, and asked his brother, a clergyman, to pray for him.  Judging from other letters, he was not a man who held physicians and their prescriptions in any great esteem.  In July 1770 he wrote to his brother that he was again “greatly afflicted in both mind and body”, and felt that his body was “gradually wearing out” and that he now had a most “melancholy life”. Despite this, some of his accounts are also comedic. Struck down with an attack of some mystery condition, he attempted to get his servant, Morgan, to help him take a vomit. Unfortunately, Morgan was ‘thick of hearing’ and clearly failed to grasp what his ailing master was trying to tell him. In the end Roger was forced to repair to the local inn, the Lyon, where a Mrs Morgan assisted in giving him “the puke”.!

A sample of Roger Jones's spidery writing. Copyright for this image belongs to the National Library of Wales. Please do not use without their permission.
A sample of Roger Jones’s spidery writing. Copyright for this image belongs to the National Library of Wales. Please do not use without their permission.

In August 1770 he was again sick and ailing at home, this time under the stewardship of a Dr Isaacs. He was first prescribed ‘opening pills’, presumably purgatives to try and drive the malady out of him. When these failed to take effect, Dr Isaacs subjected Roger to a veritable barrage of the 18th-century’s most potent medicines. He took a glister (an enema) which, as he ominously reported “worked”, which was repeated with a purge daily for a week! It is difficult to imagine today a treatment regime that subjected the already weak patient to seven days ‘worth of self-inflicted diahorrea and vomiting. Roger’s verdict? “I think I am rather better but am grown a great deal thinner”!

Through the words of Roger’s letters we get a very intimate and human image of him; something of the character of the man comes out and he speaks to us very directly through more than 200 years’ distance. As we read letters from patients like Roger it is striking how little human nature has changed. We are all still obsessed with our symptoms and will readily tell everybody about them. What has changed are the means of communications; the quick-fire nature of texts and emails are not suited to the construction of sickness narratives. But next time you are in a doctor’s waiting room, see how willing complete strangers are to tell others all about their symptoms and treatments, maybe share the name of a favourite tablet! Treatments might have changed; we haven’t

Eighteenth-Century fashionable diseases, and the dangers of crowded rooms.

“Fashion, like its companion luxury, may be considered as one of those excrescences which are attached to national improvement; Whilst one part of a polished nation is assiduously engaged in cultivating the arts and sciences, another part is not less busily employed in the invention and regulation of its fashions”.

So wrote James McKittrick Adair in 1790 at the beginning of his Essays on Fashionable Diseases. Adair was a medical luminary. According to the blurb at the start of his book he was variously a member of the Royal Medical Society, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Physician to the Commander in Chief of the Leeward Islands and colonial troops, a judge on the Court of King’s Bench…the list went on.

As a physician to the wealthy Adair was in prime position to observe the types of conditions that afflicted his clients, but also the types of conditions that were becoming fashionable. The eighteenth century was perhaps the golden age of the ‘trendy’ disease. Where once sickness had been something feared and malign, some conditions were now becoming if not desirable then not unwelcome either. This was the age of the ‘heroic sufferer’; letters became filled with narratives of illness, commonly with the writer fashioning themselves into the role of embattled victim, wrestling with almost overwhelming symptoms and constantly surprised that they even had strength to hold a pen. These were the types of people who seemingly darkened the door of McKittrick Adair’s consulting rooms.

Of the evil influence of ‘fashion’, Adair was in no doubt. No longer was it just contained to dress, but influenced manners, politics, morals, religion and, worst of all in his view, even medicine was becoming enthralled to the “empire of fashion”. Whereas fashion had long influenced people in their choice of doctors, it was now influencing their choice of diseases too. This is how Adair explained the rise of fashionable diseases.

When doctor and patient were both persons of fashion, the patient would enquire of the doctor what condition their symptoms displayed. The doctor, not wishing to offend the polite patient’s ear with a lengthy medical discourse (or perhaps even not knowing!) gives the symptoms a general name – e.g. nervousness. As sickness and symptoms are a popular topic for discussion, the patient speaks to others and ascribes similarities where, Adair argued, none exist, but soon the condition becomes widespread…and fashionable!

In the early part of the eighteenth century “spleen, vapours or hyp was the fashionable disease”. Thirty years previously, a treatise on nervous diseases had been published by a professor of physic at Edinburgh. “Before this”, Adair argued, “people of fashion had not the least idea they had nerves”. At some stage an exasperated apothecary of his acquaintance, bowed under the weight of symptoms from a wealthy patron exclaimed “Madam, you are nervous!”. As Adair put it “the solution was quite satisfactory, the term became fashionable and spleen, vapours and hyp were forgotten”.  But the process didn’t end there…

The 'faces' of nervousness and biliousness.
The ‘faces’ of nervousness and biliousness. (Courtesy of Wellcome Images

“Some years after this, Dr Coe wrote a treatise on biliary concretions, which turned the tide of fashion: nerves and nervous diseases were kicked out of doors, and bilious became the fashionable term. How long it will stand its ground cannot be determined”.

In many ways Adair was forward looking, and questioned the role of his fellow practitioners and their ministrations. He was particularly frustrated by the old Galenic practices of bleeding and purging, which still clung on in the late eighteenth century. “The idea of bleeding and purging each spring and fall, to prevent fevers and other diseases, was formerly very general in this country”. This was due to the “ignorance and knavery” of rural medicators who, he argued, feathered their nests by “disciplining whole parishes” in this way.

Worse still, many patients who only suffered slight complaints were now given to violently purging themselves using an array of potent substances from magnesia, salts and rhubarb to James’s purging pills, which destroyed the very health that they were trying to preserve! Adair’s point was that people were simply overdoing it with medicines. Instead of the odd purge, potion or pill, people were taking them every day, ill or not, to the extent almost that the cure became the kill!

Adair had other words of warning for the fashionable, in terms of their continued attendance at packed society balls. In places like Bath, where Adair had his practice, fashionable functions were everywhere and life for the well-heeled was a constant round of parties, balls and visits. Danger, however, lurked in this lifestyle.

Just as blacksmiths, bakers and glassmakers were weakened by the excessive heat of their trades, he argued, so the cramped, airless fug of the ballroom was deeply injurious to the human body. Heat and fire could only hurt the delicate constitution so, once again, in their quest to be fashionable, the dandies and fops of Bath society were putting their health in danger.

Part of the problem was the noxious air that became trapped in crowded rooms. The smell of sweaty, unwashed bodies mixed with stale perfume, alcohol and coal smoke to produce a toxic miasma that threatened to overwhelm those delicate constitutions. The very atmosphere of Bath made the whole situation worse, surrounded by hills and therefore trapping the residual warmth and creating a cauldron-like atmosphere. The steam from the hot baths added to this, as did the fires caused by so many visitors in their lodging houses. Bath was the modern Babylon as far as McKittrick Adair was concerned.

His book is interesting as it sits right on the cusp of change. He was ‘modern’ enough to see the changes in medicine and disease, but still essentially rooted in ideas of the past, e.g. the concept of bad airs and heat. He wrote as a professional who criticised other professionals but still took the same position as did elite physicians of the 16th and 17th centuries, who complained constantly about quacks and empiricks.  Most of all Adair’s book fizzes with Enlightenment style and language, but also seems oddly familiar in tone. Even at 200 years distance, it feels like we could hold an interesting conversation with this man.  What stories would he be able to tell us about his clients?!

Shopping and advertising in Georgian Britain

Oh Noooooooooo!

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, it’s the festive season. There are clearly two meanings of Christmas; the religious one…and the retailers’ one. This is the season when we are expected to spend, whether we are jolly, wish peace and goodwill to all mankind, or indeed whether we’ve been naughty or nice. Shops and businesses want our money and will go to almost any lengths to get it. Pity the poor guys currently standing on roundabouts near where I live, dressed as ‘comedy’ reindeer and clutching advertisements for mobile phone deals in their freezing paws. The Christmas TV advertisements start in early October, the lights are all on in the high street and it seems, as many people remark, that Christmas is getting earlier each year.

The concept of high street shopping seems like a modern invention, but it in fact has a long history. Whilst descending en masse to the Christmas sales is certainly more recent, the high streets were very much open for business in Georgian Britain. In fact, in many ways, this was a golden age of shopping, where visiting the right shops, buying the right thing and even behaving in the right way inside shops were all important matters.

In many ways, the Georgians invented shopping. This was an era where towns were expanding and also becoming more self-consciously genteel. Old tumbledown buildings were being removed and replaced with elegant neo-classic facades   – all pillars and pediments. The high street, in its modern incarnation of rows of shops began to appear in the eighteenth century. Pavements were widened to allow the well-to-do to promenade in comfort, and especially to allow them to browse far enough away from passing coaches and carts so as not to get their elegant costumes muddy. By the late eighteenth century, shoes and boots with extra thick soles were becoming available which allowed people to walk through puddles without their clothes dragging in the dirt. Browsing was a serious business.

Shop windows and interior displays certainly became more elaborate. Businesses began to use their shop fronts, and especially their window displays, as advertising spaces. Funeral directors, for example, might well display a fully decorated coffin with all its accoutrements, to show off the finery of their craftsmanship. Makers of scientific instruments might put special pieces in the window to attract attention, from telescopes to orreries or microscopes. The idea was to make the shop enticing and draw people inside to browse.

The process of ‘polite’ buying was markedly different to today, not least in the role of the shop assistant and the matter of money. The place of a shop assistant in a Georgian retailer was to serve the customer, but through a very well defined set of rules. Browsing, for example, was common and involved the seller providing a range of goods for the customer to pore over. A ‘polite’ customer was well versed in quality and fashion; their own taste and sagacity should draw them to the quality of the goods on sale. The shop assistant was full of flattery and would gently coerce to secure a sale. But, the question of money was considered too base , so it would be rare in polite premises to find an Enlightened equivalent of the ‘Apprentice’-style sales technique. Instead, any goods chosen would be sent on the customer’s house by courier, and paid for later on account, since cash transactions were not usual. The browsing session would often finish with tea being served to the customer, adding a further formal ritual to the proceedings. In some ways this has echoes in the coffee shops found in department stores today.

Another apparently modern concept is that of advertising but, again, eighteenth-century retailers were well versed in the art of distance selling. Just as today, retailers took advantage of cheap print to fill newspaper columns with row after row of goods and services. It is worth taking a look inside a single page from a typical (and familiar-sounding) publication, The Sun, from March 7th 1793.

There are, for example, a number of advertisements for products, and medicines were amongst the most common. From Mr Moulter of 96 the Strand in London, a perfumer, could be purchased “The Devonshire Tooth Tincture and Powder”.  From Thomas Taylor in Blackfriars could be bought “Leake’s Patent Pills” for “venereal and scorbutic complaints” which, attested a certain Mr Thomas Lloyd “The taking of one box only, gave me considerable relief”.

James Rymer, a surgeon of Soho, boasted of the royal patent he had been granted  for his “Cardiac and Nervous Tincture” which allegedly cured “Disorders of the head, stomach and bowels, viz: Headach, confusion and giddiness; Indigestion and Loss of Appetite with bilious crudities and retchings; Yellowness of the eyes and skin; gripings, heartburn, colic and costiveness”. The list of potential conditions continues for another four paragraphs! Rymer included a long list of agents from whom the product could be bought and also found space to peddle his latest book A Treatise upon Indigestion and the Hypocondriack Disease.

But on the same page could be found other interesting advertisements and snippets of news. “Mr Charles, artist to his royal highness the prince of Wales” would take “A most perfect resemblance of the Face in Fifteen minutes in Miniature for Lockets, rings etc in a masterly manner”. What better present to give a loved one that a locket with a painted portrait set within it…guaranteed to set your beloved lady in a swoon! For those suffering from the discomfort of ruptures (hernias), “Dowling’s Improved Elastic Breeches” were warranted to bring relief and “fitted in the neatest manner and in the best workmanship”.

Coincidentally, if you had visited Baker’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley in London in March 1793, you could also have encountered  one Robert Withy, perhaps a forebear of mine, who offered “Opinion and Advice on Money Business” and sought to rescue the unenlightened from “The many frauds daily committed by advertising money lenders”. It appears that the problems of unscrupulous money lenders and ‘payday loans’ are equally nothing new. Amongst the other notes were a programme for ‘Longman and Brodrips Comic Opera” called “Hartford Bridge or the Skirts of the Camp”, then playing at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

It is surprising how modern much of this indeed sounds. Georgian shoppers, just like us, could head out for the high street, dressed up to the nines, to browse, to see and be seen, and to buy. Although the mechanics of shopping and buying have changed, the basic structures of shop display, the use of shop space to encourage browsing, and the role of the assistant in guiding purchase were all present. Advertising was very much in vogue and eighteenth-century consumers were bombarded with advertising and puffery, all desperate to entice them to part with their money.

As we dodge the charity muggers, the ‘comedy’ reindeer, the dreadful music, the bands, the ‘Gluhwein’ stalls, the “quality wrap, fifteen sheets for a pound” and the constant dialogue of advertisers, it’s worth remembering that much of this is not a modern plague…we can blame our eighteenth-century advertisers.

And Christmas IS getting earlier every year!

Advertising razors in Georgian Britain

This seemingly mundane advertisement appeared in the General Advertiser in May 1752. Daniel Cudworth was one of the many London business owners to take advantage of increased advertising opportunities to push his ‘flat razor strap’. On the surface, there seems little unusual here; a product, some notes about its quality and durability and a list of suppliers. And yet Cudworth’s advertisement actually pinpoints a turning point in male personal grooming. His advert is, as far as I can ascertain, the first example of a product targeted at men who ‘shave themselves’.

Up to this point, the barber was the main source of shaving for the majority of men. There aren’t many personal records to suggest how often men actually visited barbers, but it seems likely that many did so every week, if not every few days. Surviving barber’s accounts also tend to point towards a frequency of every few days, often done on an account settled monthly or even annually.

But, around the mid eighteenth-century, shaving – and male toilette in general, was beginning to attract a range of new products. The availability of cast steel meant sharper, more durable razors. Older steel razors were sometimes brittle and easily blunted; shavers complained about inept barbers whose lack of concentration could prove painful!

But now men could buy their own, high-quality shaving equipment from specialist retailers, who also sold a range of ancillary goods. Cudworth’s main line were razor-straps (strops), long pieces of leather which were used to keep razors in pristine, sharp condition. Shaving with blunt razors was an extremely uncomfortable experience. He makes reference to the poor quality (“thin things”) passed off as steel razors, requiring repair every few months, and notes the importance of maintenance in keeping a sharp edge. Clearly, a razor was becoming something to keep, rather than a throwaway item – disposable razors were not in vogue.

But Cudworth also sold shaving powders, the point of which was to soothe a smarting face but also to give it a smoother appearance. On one level these are clearly functional items. But they also represent something of a sea-change in attitudes towards male grooming. Rough masculinity was beginning to be displaced by a predilection for pampering.

At the upper levels of society, it is likely that servants performed the task. A whole set of shaving paraphernalia also became available for gentlemen who travelled, including sets of instruments and even portable shaving cases, including a mirror and bowl to allow the man to perform his task in comfort. Cudworth’s advert makes reference to this new trend; his ‘travelling boxes’ were small enough to be carried in a pocket, allowing businessmen and Grand Tourists alike to take their razors, scissors etwees and so on with them on their peregrinations.

Examples like this remind us that even the mundane and everyday can be fascinating. Even individual advertisements can be revealing about not only products for sale, but changing popular attitudes and social mores. It is often through these little snapshots of history that we can gain a better understanding of the bigger picture.

Steel and the body in the Enlightenment:

Whilst I was a research fellow at the University of Glamorgan, working with Professor Chris Evans, I was lucky enough to be part of a project far away from my usual research on Welsh medical history, but one which opened my eyes to an extraordinarily fruitful and fascinating area of research.

As the sociologist Richard Sennett commented, the eighteenth-century body was a ‘mannequin’ upon which were hung conventions of fashion, taste and politeness. Historians, however, have been slow to recognise the important influence of ‘enlightened’ manufactured goods in this process. New industrial technologies yielded products aimed specifically at the body, of which articles made from steel were central. Steel is not often thought of in terms of its contribution to culture, but rather as a prosaic industrial material. Technological breakthroughs between the 1680s and 1740s (such as Huntsman’s crucible steel) made steel an increasingly abundant and important good. It was, however, a material that could actually play a role in the fashioning of a new, refined self, and was indeed 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.

Razors were a prime example of this. Better steel enabled razor-makers to produce blemish-free, durable and more comfortable blades. Pre-crucible steel razors tended to blunt quickly and, although sharp, were not superbly keen. Part of the reason for this was the use of pre-Bessemer cementation steel, which was more brittle due to the less than uniform distribution of carbon. Crucible (or cast) steel razors were far superior; not only could they carry a much sharper edge, they could be polished to a mirror-like shine, making them far more aesthetically pleasing for consumers.

Indeed, when advertising their wares in popular publications, it was to domestic consumers rather than professional barbers that they most often appealed. Personal razors allowed their owners to meet expectations of refinement and social order. Shaving the face evinced gentlemanly neatness and elegance, while shaving the head prepared it for the wearing of a wig – an expression of genteel masculinity.

Cast steel had effects in other ways. Its ability to take a sharp edge also influenced the design of surgical instruments, for example, and this led to changes in operative techniques, which had implications for both the patients and practitioners of surgery. The amputation knife was one such instrument. The standard amputation knife around the mid eighteenth century was long and straight – something resembling a chef’s knife today! But advances in steel allowed a new, curved design. This allowed surgeons to use a more natural cutting stroke around the leg, cutting through the soft tissues more quickly, before sawing through the bone. Given the risk of losing a patient through hypovolemic shock in pre-anaesthetic surgery, speed was of the essence.

The springy strength of steel was likewise indispensable for medical paraphernalia from trusses to deportment collars. Here, steel was a pure Enlightenment good, scientifically honed to improve or correct nature’s vagaries. As makers of ‘elastic steel trusses’ frequently emphasised, steel was the only material with which they could claim to cure hernias or ruptures. Steel ‘neck swings’ could be used to force the body back into its ‘natural’ shape, while deportment collars and steel ‘stays’ encouraged young ladies and gentlemen to stand up straight.

Other devices benefitted from the development of new types of steel. It could, for example, be employed in fixing correctional devices to the body, such as the flexible springs in spectacles’ side arms. Spectacles became a permanent part of costume, with an aesthetic value in their own right. In this process, they ceased to be indicators of bodily deficiency and acquired more positive associations (learning and sagacity), as archival and artefactual collections at the College of Optometrists can demonstrate.

One of the most visible uses of steel, though, was in costume jewellery. By the mid eighteenth-century, jewellery was strongly in vogue amongst the upper echelons of society. As Marcia Pointon has noted, diamonds were the very height of luxurious and conspicuous consumption, and costume jewellery reflected a range of social mores and rituals related to society ritual and appearance. Prohibitively expensive, the potential market for these precious stones was therefore extremely limited.  But steel offered new possibilities as an ersatz precious metal; here was a material which could offer all the decorative allure of diamonds, but at a fraction of the price. Cut and faceted into imitation stones known as ‘brilliants’, cast steel sparkled. With flat surfaces polished, it shone like a mirror.

By the late eighteenth-century demand for cut-steel jewellery reached across Europe and appealed to royalty as well as affluent middling sorts with disposable income to match their social aspirations. Fashionable gentlemen increasingly bought cast steel watch chains, both to support their newly modish gold and silver watches, but also as a costume adornment in their own right. Added to these chains were a further range of accoutrements such as seals and lockets, which further served to draw attention to the means of the wearer. In the 1760s, chatelaines made from ‘blued steel’ presented a ‘gamut of metallic hues’. Glistening steel buttons also became an essential part of the dress of the Beau Monde, so much so that their effulgence was satirised in cartoons such as Coups de Bouton, showing a society lady cowering in the face of the blinding light reflected in the buttons of her rakish companion. But this perhaps also worked on a deeper level. Steel jewellery reflected the light but, in doing so, it also perhaps somehow reflected the spirit of the age – literal enlightenment.

It is often surprising what even the most basic of materials can reveal about society and culture, as well as the technological processes involved in making them. Steel was in many ways a ‘crossover’ between technology and culture; it was both a product of the enlightenment, and something that acted as a vector for enlightened ideals, through the various uses to which it was put.


The ‘heroic sufferer’; sickness narratives in early modern letters

I mentioned in my last post about the concept of the ‘heroic sufferer’. Patient narratives are very much the coming thing in medical history. ‘Off Sick’, for example, a recent collaboration between Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan has looked at the voices of the patient over time. The historiography of disability is re-engaging with the often indistinct voices of disabled people in the past. Even in popular history, it’s often these ‘voices’ that people want to hear about – ‘Voices of the Great War’ and so on. Overall, there has been an impetus to learn about the sickness experience through those who had that experience; not those who treated them.

In my own work, I’ve looked at sickness narratives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the letters that sufferers wrote to friends and relatives. Other than actual conversation (or even perhaps more than conversation), letters allowed people to construct their own narrative; their own sickness persona. Writing it down gave sufferers power over their own image; freed from the immediacy of speech, letter-writers could fashion themselves as literary sufferers. The results were often fascinating.

What strikes me most about these letters is the construction of a distinct persona, almost the creation of a different ‘sick self’. As I said in the previous post, it’s something that we do to a certain extent when we call in sick to work. There is perhaps an innate need to engender empathy, if not sympathy, and people are often very keen to detail even the most intimate symptoms to complete strangers. This seems to have been a constant for hundreds of years.

One of the most fruitful batches of letters for my purposes were those of the eighteenth-century Morris Brothers of Anglesey – Lewis, William and John. Lewis and William, especially, were prolific letter writers and, as was common for the time, health was a regular topic of conversation. Lewis Morris was a constant sufferer of sudden fits, coughing and giddyness, sometimes so bad that he could hardly get up. What struck me, though, was how far he was prepared to defend his right to be the unchallenged winner in any competition for worst symptoms. When William suggested that he was labouring under his own cough and ‘an asthma’, Lewis wrote back swiftly: “I own your asthma is heavy, but if you had such an asthma as I have, you would be unable to go to the office or even sit there”. In other words, my cough is worse than your cough!

Lewis was also the art exponent of the good old-fashioned wallow. In one letter complaining of various maladies, aches and pains, he was “scarce alive” but, stoically, would “trudge on while I live”.  Recovering from a “pleuritic fever” he told his brother he was “just returned from the shades of death”. When his brother asked him to check some papers, Lewis responded that he would do so if he recovered, having been suffering from an ague fit. Many times he began letters wearily, doubting that his life had long to run, but by the end of the letter was talking in fairly cheery terms about items of news and events.

Perhaps my favourite of all, though, were the letters of Roger Jones, an attorney from Talgarth in 1770s-Breconshire. Jones seems to have been something of a savant – a man of letters, constantly travelling around and involved in polite society (such as there was in eighteenth-century Breconshire!). His letters to his brothers reveal another side to sickness – that of the comedic narrative. Sickness was, at the time, far from funny, but Jones’s letters show a very modern sense of laughing at the profoundly un-funny, perhaps in a way to reduce its impact.

In 1771, for example, he set out on a journey to Hay on Wye, where he suddenly felt “weak and faynty and was obliged to give over”. A fever ensued, and he took pills and a glister to flush out his system. In the night he took a whey drink, which made him sweat profusely which “with the weakness occasioned by the fever, reduced me to a mere skeleton”.

Jones was certainly no fan of doctors. Whilst ill at Bath the previous year he had consulted a physician, who had prescribed glisters, opening pills, cordial drinks and purges which made him no better but a lot thinner. We can only guess at the frustration he encountered once when he lost his voice and tried to get help from his servant…who was deaf. Poor Roger was forced to repair to the local alehouse, where the landlady administered an emetic or, as he called it, “the puke”.

These are the voices of the sick in the past, speaking to us in their own terms but, importantly, terms they have selected very carefully. They tell us plenty about the experience of being ill – but they tell us more about how sufferers wanted to represent themselves to others. They are brilliant (and often under-used) sources in medical history and, one day, I can feel an article coming on!

Beards, Moustaches and Facial Hair in History

 (This is not me by the way)

Today in the town of Bad Schussenried, Germany, will be held the World Beard and Moustache championships. Attracting hirsute entrants from across the globe, competitors can enter in no less than eighteen categories, from chin beards to Imperial moustaches. The Germans seem to be particularly adept at this competition, and have fielded a number of champions in recent years. Men’s relationship with the beard has changed a great deal over time and it is interesting to see how wearing (or indeed not wearing) some form of facial hair can often be linked to broader social and cultural trends.

In the Renaissance, for example, beard-wearing was a sign of masculinity and almost a rite of passage. To be able to grow a beard represented the change from boy to man. As Will Fisher put it in his article on beards in Renaissance England,  “the beard made the man”. It is noteworthy, for example, that almost every portrait of a man painted between, say, 1550 and 1650 contains some representation of facial hair – from the Francis Drake-style pointy beard to the Charles I ‘Van Dyke’. Beards were the coming thing.

The wearing of a beard, especially during this period, was actually linked to beliefs about the body. As people believed that the body consisted of four fluid humours in a perpetually precarious state of balance, so there were different ideas about how it got rid of waste material. Most people can associate bloodletting with the early modern period, and this was done to rid the body of excess blood, and carry with it any troublesome or dangerous waste. People routinely took laxatives and emetics to purge themselves of any potentially problematic substances.

Where does the beard fit in with this? Until at least the late seventeenth century it was widely believed that facial hair was aactually a form of excreta – a waste material generated by the body as a result of heat in the testicles! But this also provides the link with masculinity. Since the beard was linked to the genitals, it was an outward sign of virility and masculinity.

But in the eighteenth century something changed. For reasons that are so far obscure, men stopped wearing beards and, more than this, the beard even became socially unpopular. The eighteenth-century culture of politeness certainly played a part in this. The ‘man of letters’ was clean-shaven; the beard was seen as hiding the face, whereas shaving it left it clean and smooth and, therefore, more aesthetically pleasing. Having an ‘open countenance’ was also a metaphor for an open mind – the keystone of the enlightened thinker.

New shaving technologies also played a part. The invention of cast steel in the mid-eighteenth century meant that sharper and longer-lasting blades were available, making shaving a less uncomfortable experience. As newspaper advertising expanded, so razormakers capitalised on this new vogue for shaving, offering not just new types of razors ‘on philisophical principles’, but also a range of other goods. These included ‘razor strops’ to keep your shiny new razor sharp, to other things such as face creams, shaving powders and scents. We tend to think of male pampering as a modern thing, but the Georgians got there first!

A century later, though, the beard was back with a vengeance! In fact, in the Victorian period, there was even a ‘beard movement’. The reasons for this are more certain. By the mid-nineteenth century, the British Empire was in full flower, and the power of the British military was a matter of pride at home. Some military regiments had begun to wear moustaches, and British men began to imitate this style, with all its attendant military, masculine associations. There were other factors too. This was the age of explorers heading out into untamed lands and living amongst wild nature. Such men were the heroes of their day. Often unable to shave ‘in the field’ they sported large beards, and to imitate this was to link yourself to their rugged masculinity.

But there was also a rediscovery of the beard as both a symbol of natural virility and masculinity, and even in health terms. Rather than being a form of excreta, some writers now extolled the virtues of the beard in stopping disease before it could get to the face and mouth! The beard as a visual symbol of innate manliness also made a comeback in this period, and many popular writers of the day – from Trevelyan to Dickens – not only supported the beard, but sported fine examples. (See Christopher Oldstone-Moore’s excellent article on the Victorian beard movement in the Victorian Studies journal, 2005)

Fashions for facial hair seemed to change more rapidly in the twentieth century. In the 10s and 20s the fashion was for moustaches. By the 40s and 50s, the clean-shaven look was partially favoured before stunning ‘badger beards’ made a comeback in the 60s and 70s. My father sported a particularly fine ginger example c. 1975! But these things do show that facial hair has a history of its own. It is linked to the way men have experienced their own gender and sexuality, and how society and cultural values have intervened in the construction of male appearance. I’ve just finished an academic article on beards and shaving in the eighteenth-century, and it’s been an interesting journey.