Technology, Self-Fashioning and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century Britain


Last month saw the publication of my new bookTechnology, 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.

Sheldrake illustration
The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine’, 1783

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.


(A pair of ‘Martin’s Margins’ spectacles, with spring-loaded temple pieces. c. 1760. Image © College of Optometrists, MusEYEum)

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.






Crooked or Straight: Creating the ideal posture in 18th-century Britain

“There are few diseases which afflict the Human Body, attended with greater disadvantages, than those produced by Distortion. It gives not only an unpleasing appearance, but innumerable complaints generally follow”. So ran an advertisement titled ‘Distortion’ in the True Briton newspaper of January 1800.

In the eighteenth century, good posture was becoming an important issue. Sloppy posture which, in John Weaver’s Anatomical and Mechanical Lectures Upon Dancing (!), included ‘holding down the head’, putting out the chin, stooping in the shoulders, bending too much forwards and thrusting out the belly’, were not good signs. The vagaries of early modern life left their mark on the human form in various ways. Various medical conditions could leave bodies in a far worse state than they found them. Diseases in childhood, such as rickets, affected gait, while accidents could lead to poorly formed limbs. Well-meaning but botched medical interventions could leave highly visible traces. Poor diet and harsh living conditions affected health and appearance. In all respects the eighteenth-century body was a product of its time.

Bath Stays or the Lady's Steel Shapes

A ‘crooked’ body left its owner open to a cruel raillery of insults. David Turner’s excellent book on disability in the eighteenth century details some of the terms of ridicule that could be levelled at those whose bodies did not conform to erect ideals.James Caulfield’s 1793 dictionary of slang included terms such as ‘lord and lady’ to denote a ‘crooked or hump back’d person’. A ‘lame or limping man’ might be referred to as ‘Mr Hopkins or Hopping Giles’. In literature, ‘deformed’ people were treated to highly pejorative terminology from ‘a creeping creature’ to various other plays upon ‘crookedness’, lameness or distortion. Having a ‘crooked’ body could also be a potential social barrier. For a woman marital prospects could be hampered. For men, the emphasis upon hardy male traits such as elegance of form and posture – as well as a general mien – made standing up straight a key consideration.

Image from Wellcome Images
Image from Wellcome Images

But, as with many other areas of daily life in the eighteenth century, where there was a problem, there lurked a ‘specialist’ to sell you something for it. Georgian newspapers contained a raft of devices designed to help people shape their own bodies. Key to this process were conceptions of ‘correction’ and ‘concealment’. One of the biggest areas of the market was for devices to ‘cure’ hernias. In many ways the eighteenth century was a golden age for the ‘rupture’. New types of industrial processes, the harsh, physical nature of manual labour and even the demands of new environments such as the navy led to a virtual plague of ruptures. The problem with inguinal hernias was the fact that they could lead to large, painful and highly visible swellings in the groin. No surprise then that truss makers often sought to emphasise the strength of their products in concealing the problem.

Guy Nutt

In 1790, Mr Dowling “Improved Patent Elastic Truss Maker’ of St Martin’s Lane, London, begged leave to acquaint the public that he had brought his trusses to ‘so great a degree of perfection that the most troublesome rupture can be kept up with ease and safety’. Unlike tight waistbands which worked by ‘forcing the contents of the abdomen downwards’, making them uncomfortable to the wearer, Dowling’s ‘Improved Elastic Breeches Straps’ were just the ticket to keep everything held up and in place. Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Double Springed Elastic Truss’ was claimed to ‘keep the largest rupture up with less inconvenience than a small one can be kept up with any other Truss’.

An important consideration for wearers was that of discretion. To be seen wearing an unwieldy truss would merely draw attention to the afflicted parts. As ever, makers were ready. J. Meares of Ludgate Hill reassured customers that his devices were so discrete that ‘even the most intimate companion cannot discover it’. Others designed their products to be ‘indistinguishable from nature’.

Apart from trusses, a range of products was available to encourage the body into a straight, erect form. It was seen as important to catch children early and teach them (by means of forcing them!) to stand properly. Leg irons, to be found amongst the stock of J. Eddy of Soho, were one means of forcing bandy legs into a socially-pleasing form. ‘Elastic bandages’ and stays worn under the garments used their properties to force an errant body into submission. As children got older and went to school, the process accelerated. Parents of girls were especially obsessed with achieving the graceful swanlike neck so desired by artists such as Joshua Reynolds and his ‘serpentine line’. Amongst the products for achieving this were steel collars, that literally forced the chin up into the air. Steel ‘backs’ and ‘monitors’ were strapped to the back and made it next to impossible for a young person to slouch. Exercising with ‘gymnastick’ equipment including dumb bells was advocated to open up the chest. In 1779, one Abraham Buzaglo patented his ‘machines &c for gymnastick exercises’.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Many of these devices were extremely uncomfortable to the wearer. The Reverend Joseph Greene complained that his truss chafed the sensitive skin of his inner thighs and ‘bruis’d ye contiguous parts’. Writing in 1780, Henry Manning commented on the popularity of such devices, which, he argued, were of little practical help. Indeed, according to Manning, the patient frequently became unhealthy and died in an exhausted state, or was forced to live out a miserable existence confined to chair or bed! Makers were forced to respond by stressing how light, durable and comfortable were their products. J. Sleath was at pains to reassure ladies that his steel backs and collars ‘of entire steel’ were ‘peculiarly light, neat and durable’!

The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake's 'Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine', 1783
The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine’, 1783

By far one of the most painful devices ever marketed was the ‘neck swing’. Swinging was recommended by surgeons as a means of stretching the spine. The ‘neck swing’ operated by encasing the sufferer’s head in a steel cap and frame, by which they were suspended off the ground for hours at a time. A surviving account by a young English girl highlights how uncomfortable this could be.

“I remained 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 position, she spent much of the day. After two decades of treatment, it was reported that her spine had actually decreased by six inches!

People were prepared to go to great lengths to achieve a straight body, even if it meant enduring excruciating pain to do it. The eighteenth century was indeed a period when people were increasing turning to new technologies in order to shape their own bodies, from razors and personal grooming instruments to postural devices and even new types of surgical instrument. Today we still have a strong sense of ‘straightness’ as a bodily ideal and a large market exists for products to help us sit straight, particularly in the workplace. Whilst the ‘neck swing’ may have long gone, we’re still obsessed with body shape and the need to conform to what any given society deems to be ideal.

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?