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.






Seeing History: The rise of spectacles in early modern Britain.

The percentage of people in the UK requiring either spectacles or contact lenses has risen over successive decades. It is difficult to put exact figures on this; some estimates suggest that over 68% of the population in Britain currently wear glasses or lenses, and this varies dramatically within age groups. Around 29% of 16-18 year olds require some sort of visual aid; a 2005 report put the figure for the age group 65 and above as high as 98%. It seems that spectacles today have largely shed their pejorative connotations and even become desirable, helped by many high-profile celebrity spec-wearers. Indeed, opticians have even reported a growth in sales of spectacles with blank lenses over recent years, to cater for those who see glasses as a fashion item. This apparent love affair with spectacles is not consistent, however.

A prosthetic eye, possible 17th century.

Until the seventeenth century, eye complaints were troublesome and painful, and effectively seen as a form of disability. The virtual plague of ophthalmic conditions in early modern Britain is attested to by the ubiquity of remedies for eye complaints in remedy collections. Common were remedies for sore eyes, which were often treated (in line with the ‘doctrine of sympathies’) by using substances of a similar constitution to the eye. Remedies using snails were popular; one common example was to impale a garden snail on a pin and let the juice run into the eye. Another recommended using fresh goose dung, its gelatinous consistency resembling the watery eye. Yet another suggested the blowing of dried hen’s dung into the afflicted party’s eye just before they went to sleep. For more on the uses of animal substances in remedies, see Lisa Smith’s excellent blog post on the subject.

Opthalmic surgery was also in its infancy, with a procedure known as ‘couching’ or ‘cooching’ being one of the most invasive operations undertaken, being used for the treatment of cataracts. Here, a small silver instrument called an itinerarium was passed into the sufferer’s eye. The intention was to physically push the cataract film back away from the lens of the eye and thus clear the vision. This was doubtless uncomfortable and seems almost impossible to imagine – bearing in mind the patient was awake and conscious at the time. We shouldn’t assume that it was necessarily dangerous though. The seventeenth-century diarist Walter Powell of Llantilio Crossenny, in Monmouthshire, endured the procedure three times and still carried on with his diary afterwards, so presumably his vision was little worse if it wasn’t much better.

The wearing of spectacles was certainly known in Tudor times. Most typically, these were armless and sat on the bridge of the wearer’s nose. There were other types of device that could be used. Fearing he was losing his sight after years of close working in extremely bad light, Samuel Pepys tried a revolutionary new device in 1668 (the “tubespecticall”) which involved reading through three-inch long paper tubes, which eliminated glare and excess light.  Essentially, however, these were items connected with a physical disability – the same as prosthetic limbs, bandages or trusses.

The 17th century, though, witnessed the beginning of a shift towards people being more comfortable with what was essentially a form of disability, and this was especially noticeable in portraiture. Fashion was a factor to some extent. In previous blog posts I have noted the use of steel as a desirable material, and shining steel spectacles represented a desirable fashion item. As such, steel spectacles could also be a mark of literacy and wealth.

Eighteenth-century spectacle makers also needed to adapt to the times, and produce items that could fit with current fashions. One of the most important exponents of this, and indeed in many ways a forefather of the modern spectacle designs, were ‘Martin’s Margins’, invented by the London maker Benjamin Martin. These were fairly revolutionary. Rather than sitting on the wearer’s nose, they had spring-loaded arms which enabled them to adhere seamlessly to the head, with less chance of falling off and being damaged.

Martin’s Margins

The eighteenth century was in fact an age of innovation in opthalmics. The optical instrument maker James Ayscough invented frames with long, folding arms to reach around the head, also known as ‘railway spectacles’. ‘Wig spectacles’ were designed with arms to slide into the fibres of a wig, and keep them in place – especially important given the increasingly ebalorate coiffeurs of the elites. The gradual introduction of steel springs in nose-pieces also helped fitting. The lenses of spectacles also developed through the eighteenth century. Around a third of the lens in a pair of ‘Martin’s Margins’, was filled with ox horn, to restrict light. Other developments included D-shaped spectacles in the 19th-century, which had side visors which provided protection from dust and light. A self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds depicts him wearing a pair of wig-spectacles:

Reynolds Self Portrait © PCMAG

To be depicted in spectacles drew attention to the eyes, and the vision of the subject, perhaps literally or notionally. Conversely, though, spectacles could also be used in morality paintings to emphasise undesirable traits, such as miserliness. This portrait of Benjamin Franklin shows him squinting to read a document through his new-fangled spectacles:

There was also a medical aspect to the use of spectacles: too much light was seen as potentially injurious to vision, and spectacles were sometimes designed to restrict the amount of light entering the eyes. Tinted lenses, especially green, were considered to be therapeutic in the 17th century (note the green lenses in the ‘Martin’s Margins’ above too).

So today’s fashion for spectacles has a long gestation, and it is interesting to see how perceptions of eye complaints have shifted over time. In fact, opthalmics has tended to move away from a strictly ‘medical’ field; the optician is now a common feature of the high-street and eye-tests and fittings can be done virtually on a drop-in basis. It is also interesting to note that the wearing of spectacles for fashion is not new. I heartily recommend a visit to the MusEYEum in the Royal College of Optometrists in London, where there is a fascinating library of artefacts and books about the history of spectacles, as well as some rare portraits of spectacle-wearers through history. The blog of its curator, Neil Handley, can be found here: