Barbers and Shaving in early modern Britain.

As the beards project rolls merrily forward, I’ve recently been turning my attention to barbers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over the past few months I’ve been looking at a large number of sources relating to barbers and barber-surgeons, and have been looking at questions of how they trained, guild membership and, at the moment, what we can learn from their shops from probate inventories.

In the early modern period, barber-surgeons were firmly part of the world of medical practice. In fact they were probably the most numerous of all practitioners. It was they who dealt with medical tasks from patching up wounds and minor surgery, to bloodletting, digging out earwax, scraping the tongue and combing the dandruff and scurf out of sweaty, unwashed heads. On the barbering side, they also cut hair and shaved.

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(Image courtesy of – Wellcome Images)

In fact I’m also currently looking at the question of barber occupational titles, and especially those who were ‘just’ barbers. It’s long been argued that, outside London, there was little difference in practice between barbers and barber-surgeons. I’m finding some evidence that there were differences in what barbers did, as opposed to barber-surgeons. Still, that’s a matter for later on in the project.

One question I’m particularly interested in is that of how often men went to the barber in the 17th and 18th centuries and, more specifically, how often they shaved. Why does it even matter? Well, for instance, the degree of stubble raises interesting questions about what was the ‘normal’ state of a man’s facial appearance. That is, was ‘stubbly’ in fact the default position for early modern men, rather than what we today think of as clean shaven? In the eighteenth century, men didn’t wear beards. But, if only shaved once every 3 or 4 days, this would be very different to shaving every day.

Part of the problem lies in actually finding shaving within contemporary sources. Some diaries give us a little evidence. Samuel Pepys, for example, notes his various experimentations with shaving, including one fairly short-lived experiment of rasping the beard hairs away with a pumice stone. Parson James Woodforde leaves quite a lot of detail about his shaves, including buying shaving equipment, visiting the barber, and doing the job himself.

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In terms of barber visits though, the way that payments were made serves to obscure how often men actually went. Rather than, like today, payment being taken at each visit, early modern barbers were often paid quarterly on account – known as the barber’s ‘quarterage’. For barbers this had the advantage of enabling them to establish long term working relationships with clients, and to guarantee income for some periods of time.

For customers, barbering was a profession that relied on trust. Submitting yourself to lie still while a stranger hovered a lethally sharp blade over your jugular required some estimation of their ability! So visiting the same barber for a long period of time enabled the relationship to build over time.

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The problem with barbers’ quarterage though, is that it doesn’t tell you how many visits were included. So, in 1655, when Giles Moore noted in his journal that he had ‘payd for barbouring for six moneths, 7s and 6d’, we don’t know how many times he had been. At the same time in Oxford, Anthony Wood regularly paid four shillings for his barber’s ‘quarteridge’, on one occasion also mentioning a further 2s and 6d ‘for powder and mending of my periwige’.

These sources raise a further problem, which is that of terminology. How can we separate shaving out from other tasks. To take the example of Giles Moore, when he paid for ‘barbouring’, what was included? Was this a shave? A Haircut? A head shave or wig dressing, or a combination of any or all? Matters are complicated by the elastic definitions attached to terms. The Rev. Oliver Heywood’s early eighteenth-century diary has repeated references to his being ‘trim’d’ by his barber. ‘Trimming’ is often taken to refer to hair cutting, but contemporaries understood that it equally referred to cutting the beard. Even ‘shaving’ is not reliable since heads could be shaved in preparation for a wig. So, when Sir Thomas Tyldesley paid ‘Tom Ordds pro shaveing’ in 1712, we can’t be sure whether this was his face or his head.

One source perfectly illustrates the frustrations. A barber’s bill for Sir William Kingsmill in 1681 contains a list of payments, which, at first appear straightforward. Every day over two months has an unspecified payment of one shilling, whilst every third day has the entry ‘shav’d’, with the higher price of 2s and 6d. So, at first glance it might seem that Sir William’s face was shaved once every 3 days, with the barber attending every day for other reasons – maybe bloodletting, wig-dressing etc.

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(Image taken by author)

But one single entry gives a further clue. In April 1681, one entry notes ‘head shav’d’ at 2s 6d. So, a more likely alternative is that the barber shaved Sir William’s face every day, at the lower price of 1s, then shaved his head at the higher price every 3 days.

Some sources, though, are more explicit. Sir John Lauder’s 1670 journals note several examples of paying the barber ‘for razeing me’, together with a price of sixpence. In a range of entries, sixpence occurs very frequently and, whilst it is certainly possible that this refers to having the head shaved, the face seems more likely. In 1674, William Cunningham paid his barber several shillings ‘for razeing and haircutting’, separating the two tasks out specifically.

In the coming months I’m heading back out into the archives, to look at more evidence of barber shops and their role both as medical practitioners and ‘managers’ of men’s bodies and appearance. I’m also going to be looking at how the barber’s role changed after the split from the surgeons in 1745, and how shaving was affected as the ‘hairdresser’ began to emerge in the later eighteenth century.

By way of conclusion though, one entry in Thomas Tyldesley’s diary, though, gives us a wonderful example of a man clearly in the wrong job. In January 1718, Tyldesley wrote that he had blood taken from his arm, as he was suffering from a ‘could and a stitch’. Sadly this proved too much for the unfortunate barber, since ‘Tom Tomlinson, barber, who shaved mee, was frighton with the sight of ye blood’!

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Movember Special: Hiding Behind the Beard

It’s November, and that time of year when men all over the world will be donning moustaches to raise money for, and awareness of, prostate cancer, through Movember. Get ready for a raft of valiant efforts, with some maybe even graduating to the moustache wax and twirly ends! Moustache newbies can take advantage of the huge range of products now available to shape, style and otherwise pamper their facial hair.

Not, however, that there’s been much of an extra incentive needed in recent times for men to rediscover the love for their facial hair. As I’ve repeatedly suggested here on the blog, and elsewhere, there is little sign that beards are diminishing in popularity; if anything they seem to be going from strength to strength, with new styles emerging over recent months to replace the ‘Hipster’/Lumberjack beard of 2 or 3 years ago.

flowery-hipster

Events like ‘Movember’, though, remind us of the prosthetic nature of facial hair – beards and moustaches are easy to adopt…you just have to stop shaving and there they are. And, just as easily as they can be put on, they can be shaved off in a few minutes. Wearing them (or not) can dramatically alter facial features and, as the continuing studies into the supposed attractiveness of beards keep suggesting, this can affect how individual men are viewed by others. This is in fact something that I’ve been exploring in my research recently. One thing that I find particularly interesting is the use of false facial hair by men.

At various points in history, being unable to grow a beard has certainly been severely stigmatised. In Tudor and Stuart Britain, beardlessness was a state connected with either immaturity or effeminacy. A man whose beard was thin and scanty might be insulted with terms such as ‘smock face’, or regarded as a mere ‘beardless boy’. In the eighteenth century, although most men were clean-shaven, the ability to grow a beard was still a vital element of masculinity. Even if you didn’t grow it, you had to at least be able to show that you could! In Victorian Britain, at the height of the beard movement, beardless men were again subject to suspicion.

How d'ye like me?

What, though, could men whose facial hair was somewhat lacking do to avoid the barbs? At least in the nineteenth century some help was available. One easy method was to visit one of the many theatrical suppliers in large towns and cities, from whom a fairly realistic false moustache could be bought.

Author's image from item in Wellcome Collection, ephemera.
Author’s image from item in Wellcome Collection, ephemera.

Theatrical retailers like C.H. Fox in 1893, sold a range of styles to suit every taste. These included ‘Beards and Moustaches on wire, ordinary’, ‘beards best knotted on gauze’, ‘sailors beards’ and ‘moustaches on hair net foundation, the very best made, perfectly natural, suitable for Detective Business’, costing the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence.

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(image from ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ by Charles Dillon, available on Google Books)

A number of enterprising artisans began to manufacture false beards, moustaches and whiskers to cater specifically for those whose facial hair steadfastly refused to make an appearance. In 1865 Henry Rushton lodged an application for…

THE APPLICATION OF A CERTAIN KIND OF GOAT’S HAIR IN IMITATION OF HUMAN HAIR TO THE MANUFACTURE OF HEAD DRESSES, MOUSTACHES, AND ALL KINDS OF FALSE HAIR, AND THE PROCESSES OF PREPARING THE SAME

Rushton proposed a set of chemical processes to prepare mohair for various uses which “I apply in imitation of human hair for covering the foundations and forming plain ‘back’ or ‘Brighton Bows’ or any other plain hair head dresses, and apply the same also in manufacture of various kinds of false hair, such as ringlets, coronets, head dresses, whiskers, moustaches, and the like. Another patent from Thomas Bowman in 1800 even proposed a contrivance with a set of mechanical springs and elastic components, to enable wigs and false whiskers to stick closely to the head and face.

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So important were moustaches and whiskers to the military that they supplied their own false articles, often made of goat’s hair, to fresh-faced, stubble-free recruits, to ensure that the whole regiment was suitably hirsute, and ready to face the enemy.

But another, often forgotten, group also found the portability and ease of false facial hair vital in their professional lives….criminals! The face-altering properties of facial hair were particularly useful to criminals. In the days before DNA testing, CCTV and fingerprinting, a fleeting glimpse of a criminal’s face was often all a victim had to go on. A thick beard, dramatic whiskers or a droopy moustache were all notable features by which a criminal could be identified and brought to justice. But what happened if they weren’t real?

It’s clear from records and reports that many criminals recognised the value of facial hair in hiding their true faces. In 1857 James Saward and James Anderson appeared at the Old Bailey accused of forgery. Part of their disguise was the adoption of a wig and ‘false whiskers’ to ensure that they avoided detection. Part of the defence of Thomas Cuthbert, accused of theft in 1867, was that the false whiskers and moustache he was wearing when arrested were not put on by him, but were applied by another man, when Cuthbert was dead drunk! Many other cases record the discovery of false whiskers, beards or moustaches amongst the possessions of criminals, or their use in trying to defy identification. ‘It can’t have been him your honour, the man who attacked me had a huge beard!’

Beard generator

Perhaps the most sinister case is that of the physician Thomas Neill, indicted for murder in 1892, and known by the alias of Dr Cream. Various witness attested to having known the doctor, some testifying that he sometimes wore a moustache, others that he had dark whiskers, and another that he was clean-shaven. One witness, however, a Canadian traveller named John Mcculloch, noted meeting Neill in his hotel, after he called for a physician when feeling unwell. After supplying Mcculloch with antibilious pills, the two men began to chat about their respective businesses. The doctor showed the man his medical box and pointed to a bottle of poison. “For God’s sake, what do you do with that?” asked the shocked traveller, to which Dr Cream replied “I give that to the women to get them out of the family way”.

By now shocked and suspicious the traveller continued to question the doctor: “he stepped backwards to the trunk and produced a pair of false whiskers, or divided beard without mustaches—I said, “What do you use these for?”—he said, “To prevent identification when operating”—he led me to believe previous to that that he procured abortion”. None of this helped the evil Dr Cream; he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, his false whiskers proving no escape from the law.

So as Movember gets underway it will be interesting to see how many men put on their moustaches and, equally, how many remove them again at the end of the month! Some don’t get on with them, but others are pestered by their partners to lose the fuzz; a common complaint is that it makes a man look older, or otherwise alters their appearance too much. Another recurring themes amongst opponents of beards is that they make men look as though they have something to hide. This is one of the reasons that politicians don’t usually grow them. As the examples shown here suggest though, many bearded men actually did have something to hide.

Splash it all over: A brief history of aftershave.

In a recent article in the UK’s Independent newspaper, the cosmetics industry for men in Britain was estimated to be worth over £30 million a year, after growing over 300% in 2014/15. Even so, this is a drop in the ocean, in a global market for male pampering which accounts for an eye-watering 14.8 BILLION pounds per year. The sheer numbers of male aftershaves, scents and colognes are bewildering, and carry the heft of major league celebrity endorsements, from the likes of David Beckham and Johnny Depp.

I’m a child of the 70s, a time when aftershave choices were, shall we say, limited. At Christmas and birthdays my poor father was the regular recipient of a) Brut b) Blue Stratos or C) Old Spice, with a runner’s up prize of ‘Denim’ if Boots had run out of any of them. This was despite the fact that he had (and still has) a beard!

Cooper and Sheen

As for celebrity endorsements, these were also fairly limited. In the Brut corner was Former British Heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, who invited you to ‘splash it all over’, alongside mulleted football star Kevin Keegan and the accident-prone superbike champion, Barry Sheen. None perhaps matched the kitsch glamour of Tabac’s advert with the sartorially elegant, and magnificently coiffured, Peter Wyngarde – star of the ‘Jason King’ series.

tabac_001

How long, though, has aftershave been with us? Have men always slapped on the scent or slathered on the lotion after shaving? In fact, shaving preparations have a surprisingly long history and, more than this, can actually tell us some important things about attitudes to men’s personal grooming.

Before the eighteenth century, the concept of applying ‘product’ as a means to beautify the skin after shaving simply didn’t exist. Shaving was a basic, quotidian activity, done for necessity. It was also probably a painful experience. Rather than shaving themselves, men visited the barber, whose services were available everywhere from large towns and cities to small villages. The quality of the shave available differed dramatically, leading to satires about the clumsy barber whose razors were as blunt as oyster knives. It is possible that some provision might be made to soothe the skin after the shave, or maybe apply a little lavender water, but evidence for individual shaving routines is fairly sparse.

Barber

(Image copyright Lewis Walpole Library)

Nevertheless, there were options within domestic medicine, which might allow men to soothe their suppurating skin once the barber had done with it. Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, remedy collections included recipes for beauty washes and pastes, and ‘washballs’ for the skin. There are some great examples on ‘Madam Gilflurt’s’ blog: http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2016/05/bathing-in-age-of-extravagance-make.html Although usually meant for women, there was nothing in principal preventing men from slathering on some home-made preparation to calm their skin.

The later eighteenth century, however, saw things begin to change. The disappearance of beards meant that shaving was not only more common, but was beginning to be done by individuals, as well as the barber. The appearance of new, sharper types of steel razor made this a more comfortable experience. But it also gave rise to a new market. Whilst razor makers saw opportunities in targeting men who shaved themselves, perfumers and hairdressers jumped on the bandwagon and started to puff their own products for young shavers.

In 1752 Richard Barnard of Temple Bar claimed to be the inventor of the ‘True original shaving powder’. A rival powder, advertised the same year by J. Emon, claimed to ‘make razors cut easy and [was] very good for tender faces’. The perfumer Charles Lillie’s 1744 advertisements for ‘Persian (or Naples) soap’ claimed to be extremely useful in soothing smarting skin after shaving, while others like ‘Paris Pearl Water’ was claimed to freshen men’s skin and brighten their complexion. Perhaps the most exotic sounding was “Elenora’s Lavo Cream” advertised in 1801, which was ‘particularly agreeable to Gentlemen after shaving, as it cools and heals the remaining heats’.

What-is-This-my-Son-Tom-1774
Image Wikipedia – creative commons

There was, however, a delicate balancing act to male toilet. On the one hand was the need to conform to expectations of polite manliness. Neatness of appearance, elegance, a smooth, open countenance and a grasp of etiquette and manners were all expected of the polite gentleman. On the other, there were fears that British men were slipping into effeminacy, too affected by Frenchified fashions and adopted airs. Overuse of cosmetics was satirised in cartoons of the extreme form of eighteenth-century manhood – the Macaroni, or Fop. Interestingly though, shaving was strongly connected with masculinity and manly self-control. It was part of the expected conduct of a gentleman; a little bit of cream to soothe delicate features was perfectly acceptable.

Fast forward to the 1850s, though, and beards were back with a vengeance. Given that Victorian men were sporting huge crops of beard en masse, the concept of aftershave might seem to have been redundant. It is worth remembering though (thinking of the current beard trend) that for all the beard wearers there were probably still many who preferred to shave. In fact, even at the height of the beard movement a number of aftershave lotions and scents were available.

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(Glasgow Herald, 7th June 1852)

From the 1820s right through the rest of the century, a popular product was Rowland’s Kalydor, advertised widely in various newspapers and publications. A variety of testimonials accompanied the advertisement. “One of our first physicians, sixty years of age, whose face was in a continual state of inflammation, so as to render shaving impossible, has been entirely cured and is much gratified’. Other types of product were available; an advert in the Literary Digest heralded a particular brand of talcum powder which ‘positively won’t show white on the face’, making you ‘feel cool fresh and clean’.

Some played upon the popularity of science to claim the efficacy of their products. ‘Carter’s Botanic Shaving Soap’ was supposedly the ‘result of many years study and practical experiment’ by its creator, and advertisements played on its neutralisation of alkalis (which ‘made shaving a torture to all who have a delicate and tender skin’).

lmw-ad-after-shaving from kilmerhouse.com

(More associated with mouthwash today, Listerine was originally used as shaving lotion. Image from WWW.Kilmerhouse.com)

The ingredients in some preparations contained tried and tested ingredients like glycerine to soothe the face. ‘Cherry Laurel lotion’ containing distilled cherry laurel water, rectified spirit, glycerine and distilled water, ‘used to allay irritation of the skin, particularly after shaving’. Others included ‘Lotion Prussic Acid’ and the equally unattractive-sounding ‘essence of bitter almonds’. The problem with these particular substances was the ingredients. Both, according to an 1873 study of cosmetics by Arnold Cooley, contained the deadly potassium cyanide – and made worse by the fact that the liquids apparently tasted very pleasant. Cooley suggested that both products should correctly be labelled ‘Poison’!

By way of conclusion it’s worth mentioning that aftershaves have been blamed for all manner of ills. In 1963, a GP (Dr B.E. Finch from London) wrote to the British Medical Journal, noting that several patients (mostly young men) had reported symptoms of dizziness after shaving, similar to “slight intoxication, similar to that which occurs after imbibing an alcoholic drink”. On further investigation Finch found this to be a common occurrence, and theorized that alcohol-based aftershaves were being absorbed through the shaven skin, causing mild intoxication. A reply in the following month’s edition suggested that, due to the highly volatile nature of those liquids, it was more likely the fumes than the absorption that were causing the problem!

Can’t Stay Moustache: Bans on Facial Hair in Medieval Ireland

In 1457 Dublin’s city council issued an ordinance that ‘men with bardys [beards] above the mowth’, as well as Irishmen and their horses and horsemen, should not be lodged within the city walls.

St Audoens

St Audoens and Dublin’s City Wall [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASt._Audoen’s_Church_Over_Dublin_City_Wall_and_Gate.JPG

By Eric Fischer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Men with moustaches were persona non grata in the city. At first glance, this seems a strange matter for the council to concern itself with. Most of Dublin’s civic ordinances from this period dealt with the regulation of commerce, the city’s economic life-blood, or more patently dangerous problems like fuel storage, always a concern in medieval cities due to the fire risk, the disposal of sewage, or controlling pigs, which might dig up gardens and cemeteries and even attack unattended children.

However, it seems that moustaches were considered similarly dangerous, and in 1523 Galway’s council jumped on the anti-moustache bandwagon, and ruled no man should be made a citizen ‘unlesse he can speche the Englishe tonge and shave[s] his upper lipe wickly (weekly)’.

This detail in the Galway ordinance about speaking English, and further anti-moustache enactments passed by the Irish parliament provide context for these curious moustache bans. The central problem with moustaches was that they were worn by, and associated with, the Irish. In particular, the Irish favoured a luxuriant long moustache called the crommeal. Sixteenth-century renderings show Irishmen with these moustaches, like this image by the German artist Albrecht Dürer.

Durer

[Attach JPG https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGalloglass-circa-1521.jpg

By Альбрехт Дюрер [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

For the Irish moustache, see the three men on the right, who are, supposedly, Irish soldiers. They also wear the Irish ‘glibbs’ hairstyle, with a long fringe over the eyes.

Moustaches were banned alongside other visual signals of Irishness, like yellow saffron-dyed shirts or tunics and the hairstyle known as a cúlán. This elite Irish-warrior style entailed long-hair on the back of the head and short or shaved hair around the top and side, rather like an extreme mullet!

De Heere

[Saffron tunics, Lucas de Heere, ‘Irish as they stand accoutred being at the service of the late King Henry’,  circa 1575. Public Domain (http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/16th-century-images-of-irish-people/, after Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel par Luc Dheere peintre et sculpteur Gantois)]

The Irish parliament provided practical reasons for these bans on Irish attire and hairstyles. In 1447, for example, it banned moustaches for the English of Ireland and complained that ‘there is no difference in apparel between the English marchers and Irish enemies’. This allowed Irishmen to enter the colony as ‘marchers’ (settlers who lived on the extensive unsettled borderlands of the colony) and ‘rob and pillage by the high roads’. Moustaches threatened the very safety of the colony, and Englishmen who disobeyed the moustache ban suffered a harsh penalty. They lost the protection of English law, and could be captured along with their possessions and ransomed ‘as Irish enemies’. Essentially, if you looked Irish, you were treated that way.

This 1447 enactment provided an admirably clear definition of what precisely a moustache is (and all without using the word ‘moustache’ (!), which was not in English parlance in the fifteenth century). It stated that ‘no manner of man who will be accounted for an Englishman have any beard above the mouth, that is to say, that he have no hair upon his upper lip, so that the said lip be at least shaven within two weeks, or of equal growth with the nether lip’.

Mistaken identity was identified as a major problem with both moustaches and cúláns in a 1297 parliamentary enactment. It stated that colonists mistakenly killed other colonists wearing these Irish styles, assuming they were Irishmen. This was problematic because ‘the killing of Englishmen and of Irishmen requires different forms of punishment’. Englishmen faced capital punishment for killing fellow Englishman, but not Irishmen. If any restitution was provided for the deaths of Irishmen it was normally by payment of a fine. Therefore, an understandable mistake about someone’s ethnic identity could be deadly. These homicides within the colonial community also caused feuding and ‘rancor’ between settler families. All Englishmen in Ireland, therefore, were instructed to wear the ‘custom and tonsure of the English’.

The problem of mistaken identity and consequent threats to the property and even lives of English colonists was perhaps the most pressing reason for moustache bans (which continued into the sixteenth century), but it was not the only one. Enactments regulating appearance and visual display were passed alongside those regulating the use of the Irish language, intermarriage between the English and Irish, and other practices frowned on by the colonial administration. English outward appearance was part and parcel of English identity, which colonists feared was increasingly under threat in the later middle ages, as cultural exchange between the colonists and the Irish continued apace. The moustache was, for colonial authorities, an ominous marker of the erosion of ‘Englishness’ in Ireland.

 

Dr Sparky Booker is a postdoctoral researcher at Swansea University on the AHRC funded project ‘Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice, Britain and Ireland 1100-1750’. Her research for this project examines the legal capabilities, strategies and successes of Irish and English women in the English colony in Ireland from 1300-1500. Other research interests include relations between the English and Irish in late medieval Ireland; the Irish church; sumptuary law; and medieval understandings of race and ethnicity. Her monograph on cultural exchange and identity in ‘the four obedient shires’ of Ireland from 1399-1534 is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

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.