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.






7 ‘Curious Particulars’: Useful knowledge in the 18th Century.

The eighteenth century brought with it a new interest in science and, perhaps more importantly, brought science into the public domain for perhaps the first time. Whereas scientific experiments had once been the domain of dilettante gentlemen, locked away in august institutions such as the Royal Society, more people were becoming aware of just how interesting – and indeed fun –science could be. Public demonstrations were one means through which people could learn about the latest ideas and inventions.

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Visitors to the Isaac Newton’s Head public house in London in 1748, for example, could marvel at Francis Watkins’ ‘lately finished and most complete Electrical Machine’. For sixpence they could purchase their own account of all the electrical experiments lately carried out in the Royal Society. In Hart Street, Covent Garden in 1784, amazed onlookers could view marvellous and curious inventions such as the ‘mechanical bird’ of which ‘nothing similar was ever presented in the world’. Mr Cox’s London Museum offered visitors such pleasures as the mechanical machine that played God Save the King.

Alongside this, however, were books of useful knowledge which began to include directions for people to conduct their own experiments. Books of this sort had been around for a long time, often aimed at women and including lots of medical information, along with domestic knowledge, from cleaning pots and pans to directions to make washballs. But the emphasis upon science, and also upon systems of classification, brought diverse types of recipes together, covering everything from medicine and domestic life to experiments designed for no other reason than to entertain onlookers!

One such volume was The British Legacy: or fountain of knowledge, printed in 1754, and which contained ‘upwards of two hundred other curious particulars of the utmost service’ to the ‘Gentleman, the Scholar, the Mechanick and, in a word, every member of society so deeply interested in the Improvement of Arts and Sciences’.

Title Page of the 'British Legacy'
Title Page of the ‘British Legacy’

“Besides upward of two hundred Miscellaneous articles of great, nay inestimable value” the reader was promised “the most useful treatise on Farriery ever published”, and well as a ‘certain cure for the Glanders’. What, then, was amongst this panoply of knowledge? Here’s ten items to give a flavour of what the informed Georgian might find useful.

A certain Cure for the most severe flux:
Take a quantity of water cresses and boil them in clear water for fifteen minutes, strain them off, and drink about half a pint of the decoction every now and then, about milk warm.

The flux referred to severe diarrhoea, which was still a common and dangerous problem during this period. Medical remedies for the flux abounded in the early modern period, and belonged to a long tradition of recipe sharing. In fact water cresses can be found in recipe collections for diarrhoea well over a century before this date. Including medical recipes fitted well with the concept of medicine as useful knowledge of the sort it would be useful to keep handy.

To keep arms or any other polish’d metals from Rust:
One ounce of Camphire, two pounds of hog’s lard: dissolve them together and take off the scum; mix as much black lead as will bring them to an Iron colour; rub your Arms &C over with this and let it lie on 24 hours: them clean them with a linen cloth, and they will keep clean many months.

This one might appear strange but, in fact, rusting metal was a constant problem. Before the invention of stainless steel in the later nineteenth century, iron and steel was extremely prone to rusting. Imagine the scene; you’re awoken in the night by housebreakers. You fumble around for your pistol, which has been hanging around for years in a damp room, only to find the mechanism rusted and seized. Keeping metal goods of all sorts polished and rust free was important, and lots of commercial preparations were available to keep iron and steel from rusting.

To destroy and prevent Buggs, and other vermin, by Mr Selberg, Member of the Academy of Sweden:
Mix with the solution of Vitriol, the Pulp of Colquinta, and apply the mixture to all the crevices which serve as a Nursery to vermin; the Solution alone has prov’d effectual; but if apply’d to stone or brick walls, it may be mix’d with lime, which will give it a lively yellow, and insure its success.

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Here again, in houses often infected with cockroaches, bedbugs and lice, anything to mitigate the problem was welcomed. The attribution to the eminent Mr Selberg was a common device, often used in medical recipes, to give weight to the provenance and efficacy of the recipe.

Dr Dover’s Excellent Cure for the Itch:
Sweet sublimate one drachm; cream of Tartar one ounce, Let these infuse two or three days in a pint of Spring Water; then bathe the parts broke out therewith, Morning and Evening, for four or five days, and the Cure will be completed.

Another medical remedy here but this time one for the itch – or venereal disease. Whilst promiscuity was certainly frowned upon, there was an acknowledgement that these things happened. It was far less embarrassing to treat yourself from a book than to dangle your putrefying privy parts in front of a physician

Other items appear slightly more perplexing:

To Make Artificial Thunder and Lightning:
Mix a quantity of the spirit of Nitre and Oil of Cloves, the least drop of the former is sufficient; as to Quantity in the latter you need not regard; for, when mixed, a sudden Ferment, with a fine flame, will arise; and sometimes if the Ingredients be very pure and strong, there will be a sudden explosion like the report of a Great Gun.


As an afterthought, the author included the following public health warning!

“It is a little dangerous to the person who undertakes the experiment, for when the effluvia of acid and alkaline bodies meet each other in the air, the fermentation causes such a rarefaction as makes it difficult to breathe for all those who are near it”.

The very next recipe was one ‘To make an artificial earthquake”, which involved 20 ounces of sulphur which, it was promised, after eight or ten hours buried in the ground would ‘Vomit flame and cause the earth to tremble all around the place to a considerable distance”. Don’t try this at home kids!

And one last one that might appeal to anyone who had one of those kids’ science/ chemistry kits that let you grow your own crystals. Ladies and gentleman, straight from the pages of history, I give you…

The Philosophical Tree
Fine silver one ounce; Aqua Fortis and Mercury, each four ounces; in this, dissolve your silver in a vial, put therein a Pint of Water, close your Vial, and you’ll have a curious Tree spring forth in branches which grows daily.