The killer socks of 1868.

In the mid nineteenth century, a spate of poisonings began to raise alarm in the newspapers. Almost anybody was at risk, and the culprit was, as yet, unclear. But the source of the poison was no Victorian arch criminal; it was a far subtler, domestic killer, hidden in plain sight.

Victorian street

(Image from wikimedia commons)

In May 1869, an article appeared in the St James’ Magazine, provocatively titled ‘Poisonous Hosiery’. ‘Poison, Poison everywhere’, exclaimed the author. ‘Poison in the food we eat, poison in the liquors we drink, poison in the air we breathe’. Now, it seemed, not even clothes were sacred. With the inherent danger in almost every facet of life, it was a wonder, they went on, that civilised people were not poisoned off the face of the earth! The matter was reported in newspapers from Dundee to Essex.

The story began when a London surgeon, one ‘Dr Webber’ approached the London Guildhall, after detecting what he described as ‘a probable source of much injury to the public health’. The source of this danger was neither poor sanitation nor contagion. It was socks. According to Webber, certain pairs of coloured socks (including fashionable mauve and magenta!) were then on sale, which contained dye obtained from the poisonous substance aniline ‘the cause of much constitutional and local complaint to many people’.

Webber claimed that the poison caused swelling and irritation. In one case, the boots of one of his patients had to be cut off because the feet had swollen so much. Youths in London, Oxford and Cambridge, reportedly suffered ulcers and sores on their feet.

The presiding alderman, Mr Dakin, sat and listened with some bemusement. ‘He himself had never felt any ill effects from the wearing of coloured socks’, nor from any other coloured garments, so it simply could not be true. Going further, he chided the surgeon for potentially disconcerting the public, or ‘interfering with honest intentioned tradesmen’, unless he could provide hard evidence of the danger.

But Webber was not finished, and sent samples to eminent chemists, who carried out tests.  These investigations proved the surgeon’s fears were not unfounded. Experiments by a prominent chemist proved that the offending dyes did indeed contain compounds of arsenic.

Poison bottle.jpg

A committee was swiftly formed to investigate the subject, and advertisements placed in the Times newspaper, calling for all those who suspected they might have been affected by poisonous hosiery to come forward. Something of the scepticism of Alderman Dakin lingered in the advertisement. The potential list of suggested ‘persons who may have suffered’ included ‘the dandy whose delicately tinted foot coverings have irritated and erupted his skin [and] the girl…whose flaming stockings have given rise to pimply outbursts’. All were called upon not only to describe their symptoms for the betterment of their fellow creatures, but to ‘sacrifice their favoured chausettes upon the hygienic altar’…i.e. send their underwear in for examination!

But reports continued to emerge from other sources. The Lancet reported the case of a ballet dancer appearing in The Doge of Venice who had suffered a ‘cutaneous eruption’ on one foot. Further investigation suggested that the heat of her foot had acted upon the dye to affect the skin. Crucially, the shoe of the affected foot was bright red, whilst the other foot, wearing a white shoe, had ‘absolute immunity. A Coventry physician, Dr McVeagh, noted that a patient suffered almost unbearable pain and discomfort from his feet, after buying a pair of socks in Birmingham “in the Marquis of Hastings colours’. Even despite efforts to remove them from sale, ‘some of the mischievous goods’ were clearly still at large.

A battery of further tests was commissioned on a wider range of hosiery, and soon the Victorian fixation with hygiene gradually overtook scepticism about the possibility that socks could be deadly. A well-known French chemist, M.L. Roussin, and a physician Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, subjected suspect socks and hose to a barrage of experiments, extracting the dye, before evaporating it and extracting a substance that proved to be a poison ‘of not insignificant power’. The author of the St James article noted with distaste the effects of the poison on unfortunate animals, including dogs, rabbits and frogs (‘Alas! Poor brutes – tortured for an idea’), which included stomach disorders, fevers, weakness and, in some cases death.


(Image from Wellcome Images)

On humans, the French chemists asserted that, although no deaths had actually occurred, the substance within the socks was certainly capable of doing so. More than this, they used their experiments to caution about the dangers of ‘progress’ in ‘which the incessant progress of the chemical arts’ could lead to increasing risks to the human race and health of mankind. The College of Physicians was entreated to swiftly come up with a name for the condition.

Some enterprising retailers leapt upon the opportunity offered by potentially deadly underwear, and took out their own advertisements for alternative ‘safe’ products. One advert in 1879 (with the un-alluring headline ‘Poisonous Stockings’) argued that while ‘medical testimony’ had proved that coloured stockings were injurious to health, all risk could be avoided by simply purchasing “Balbriggan silk embroidered’ socks or half-hose, which were coloured by harmless vegetable dyes.

Once the offending substances had been identified and isolated, steps were taken to ensure that hosiery was no longer potentially fatal, and the crisis gradually abated. But the next time you hear yourself saying ‘my feet are killing me’, spare a thought for the diligent Dr Webber and be grateful it isn’t literal.

Warehouses and Shopping in Georgian England

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the vibrant consumer culture of eighteenth-century Britain. Amanda Vickery has explored gendered consumption, and in particular the types of goods desired and bought by Georgian men and women. Jon Stobart, has looked at shopping and ‘politeness’, and the ways through which newly-desirable goods were marketed using polite language. Other historians (including me!) have also looked at how certain types of goods, and the materials they were constructed from, became fashionable and desirable in their own right.


(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In many ways the eighteenth century was a golden age for shopping. In large towns across Britain, streets were being redeveloped to cater specifically for shoppers and browsers. Pavements were widened, to allow polite shoppers a fighting chance of avoiding a cascade of mud and filth from passing coaches. Streets were widened, shop fronts became bigger and their displays more ornate.

Also, for perhaps the first time, shopping became a social activity in and of itself, complete with rituals that modern shoppers would recognise, from teashops within larger stores, to the culture of browsing, with obsequious shop assistants on hand to help the customer negotiate the myriad goods on offer. Something so base as money or price was second to polite conversation, and the art of choice.

It is easy to picture Georgian shops as small, poky places, and indeed many were. But, in large towns and cities, the floor and display space of shops was growing, with increasing emphasis upon the appearance and order of the interior. Images from eighteenth-century trade cards often show large spaces, filled with goods, neatly arranged and displayed.


(Image from Ambrose Heal, London Tradesman’s Cards…)

One type of retail space, however, was entirely new to the eighteenth century. Whilst small shops had long diversified in the types of products they sold, the Georgian ‘warehouse’ was a new innovation, where large numbers of goods could be sold within one, big, retailing space. Whilst not comparable in size, these were the ‘big sheds’ of the Georgian age, where customers could view a wide range of goods, often brought in bulk from producers across the country.


Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory – Image from Wikipedia

In many ways this actually fitted in with broader changes to working environments. Bigger was definitely viewed as better. In manufacture, for example, large-scale ‘manufactories’ exemplified both the successful individual, and the modern, industrialising (and industrious) society. Places such as Matthew Boulton’s Soho manufactory and Josiah Wedgewood’s Etruria ceramics works became places of resort in their own right. They were popular stops on the Grand Tour, giving polite, erudite visitors the chance to browse and buy, as well as to marvel at the new technologies on offer.

What, then, were these retail warehouses actually like, and what did they sell?

It is interesting to note that the earliest references to ‘warehouses’ in retail suggest, at best, modest premises, and often referred to places where quack medicines could be bought. In 1722, for example, an advertisement for a product to kill vermin (‘The True Antidote Against Bugs’!) could be purchased from the ‘Printing Office and Picture Warehouse’ in Bow, London. On closer inspection, the grand-sounding ‘Hungary Water Warehouse’ of 1724 was actually a comb-maker’s shop in Ludgate Hill. Likewise the ‘Dorchester Beer warehouse’, was located (unsurprisingly) in a pub in Cheapside.

At some point in the early 18th century, the term ‘warehouse’ began to be deployed as an advertising technique, perhaps to play up the size and scale of the business. By the late 1720s all manner of goods had began to justify their own warehouses. In 1729, Ann Young’s Snuff Warehouse promised ‘persons of quality’ that they would have ‘the greatest choice of any shop in England’.


(Image from Ambrose Heal, London Tradesman’s Cards…)

Abraham Henderson’s ‘Sturgeon Warehouse’ in Ludgate Hill sold the ‘best Hamborough Sturgeon’, and customers were assured that Henderson, himself, was on hand to serve them daily from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. Everything from tea, to candles, linen, carpets and saddles was beginning to justify its own, dedicated warehouse. In 1743, even the London hair merchant John Delaporte ‘beg[ged] leave to inform his customers, in his best eighteenth-century polite terms, that he had opened a new warehouse in St Martin’s Lane, and hoped for the ‘continuance of their friendship’.

In the later part of the eighteenth century, however, it seems that both the use and terminology of the warehouse began to shift. From being a single-purpose entity, the warehouse gradually expanded to house a range of goods. A number of multipurpose warehouses emerged across the country, catering for a wide range of fashionable and ‘polite’ items. In one sense these resembled the modern department store, insofar as they brought together popular brands under one roof, attracting those with the ready money who, perhaps, could not make the trip to the sources of goods, such as Sheffield or Birmingham.

The popularity of ‘toys’ was one of the drivers of this change, as was the growing desire to decorate the home. In the eighteenth-century, ‘toy’ referred to any one of the innumerable decorative objects that were becoming available, from small jewellery and equipage to utilitarian items like watches and spectacles. Toy retailers were located in fashionable towns across Britain, and toy warehouses were the go-to place to pick up a fashionable trinket.

In 1786, for example, the wonderfully-named Fillagree Pearce advertised his ‘Perfumery and Toy Warehouse’ in which could be found everything from bottle stands and card boxes to chimney ornaments and fire screens. More than this, ‘every article necessary for the use of ladies who are employed in so elegant an amusement’ as knitting and sewing, were catered for ‘on the lowest terms’.

Bromstead’s Toy Warehouse was located in Jermyn Street in London (one of my favourite streets in London), and sold a wide range of small steel goods and articles, as well as being an agent for the ‘Female Elixir’, which promised to ‘procure natural evacuations’!

In London, and also in larger resort towns like Bath, could be found large premises like the ‘Birmingham and Sheffield Warehouse’. These premises were dedicated to the elegant and decorative metalwares like those produced by Matthew Boulton, or the exquisite chinaware, ormolu and chintzware of Josiah Wedgewood. Here the prospective shopper could peruse the huge range of exotic goods on offer, without the uncomfortable prospect of a long journey to the Midlands. Premises like these commonly sold a range of smaller, personal items, including jewellery and even razors, all advertised in the genteel language of Georgian retail.

Dealing with the demands of the polite shopper required a special calibre of shop assistant. Applicants for a vacancy in the ‘Toy Warehouse near Bishopsgate church’ in 1796 were required to be of ‘an obliging disposition, and whose character will bear the minutest enquiry for honesty and sobriety’.

Like so many aspects of life that we consider ‘modern’, warehouse shopping was an important feature of Georgian consumption. As towns expanded, so did the range of goods available and the types of premises available to view them in. With more disposable income than their predecessors, Georgian middling sorts could engage in the new vogue for shopping, filling their homes with the fashionable trinkets of the day. It’s also interesting to see how the term ‘warehouse’ altered through time, and is still a feature of the language of shopping today.

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!