Beard Sculpting in the 19th Century.

Over the course of the past four or five years or so, one of the biggest growth areas in the personal grooming industry has been in products for cleaning, styling, or beautifying the beard. A whole host of options are now available, including beard oils, moisturisers and styling waxes, specially dedicated beard trimmers, and even templates, offering a myriad of different options for sculpting the preferred look.

As I’ve been studying the history of men’s personal grooming in the past, I was interested to see if beard grooming was just a modern thing, or if there was a historical precedent. The obvious place to start was in the Victorian period, when large numbers of men were sporting prodigious facial hair. Surely, with all these huge beards on show, keeping them pristine must have been important?

As I’ve mentioned many times in other posts, the Victorian beard was a statement of manliness. It spoke of supposed natural male authority, strength and even virility.  It was, as H.W. said in 1855, in his article ‘Beards and their Bearers’, a “cherished ornament”. And this was a case where bigger was regarded as better. Men were extolled to let their beards grow long, full and ‘natural’, an outward symbol of the power that lay within.

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(Unidentified man from a Victorian carte d’visit – author’s own collection)

But therein also lay an important point. The emphasis upon ‘natural’ suggested that, rather than being clipped, shaped, oiled or waxed, beards should be left to do their own thing, as prolix and rampant as possible. In the early 1850s, there were sustained attacks on shaving, which was set up as a potentially dangerous act – one that robbed the body of a key source of protection against dust or germs but, even more importantly, sapped the strength from a man’s body. With shades of the Biblical character Sampson, the American Presbyterian minister and dietary reformer Sylvester Graham argued in 1849 that the “habitual shaving of the beard diminish[ed] the physiological powers of man”.

At the same time as attacks on shaving, came stern warnings to men about the dangers of artifice in appearance. Whilst they should by no means be slovenly, neither should men be too absorbed or finical in their appearance ‘from whence commences vulgarity’. There were also sexual connotations. Victorian men who spent too much time in front of a mirror, or were too keen on cosmetics, risked suspicions of effeminacy.

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(Advertisement for Hovenden and Sons in the Hairdresser’s Chronicle – author’s own image)

But this is not to say that beard care was entirely absent from discussion. Men’s etiquette and conduct manuals did contain some advice about how to manage and care for a beard. Above all things, most authors agreed that beards should be kept clean.

Brushing was important, not only in keeping the beard luxuriant and shiny, but also in rescuing small bits of food that had become trapped in the undergrowth. As the authors of ‘Good Manners’ suggested in 1870, “The beard should be carefully and frequently washed, well-trimmed and well combed, and the hair and whiskers kept scrupulously clean, by the help of clean, stiff hair brushes, and soap and warm water”.

Special ‘whisker brushes’ were available to do the job properly, advertised in newspapers. In one advertisement in the Greenock Advertiser, ‘whisker brushes’ could be bought for the knock-down price of five and a half pence. In Bell’s Weekly Messenger in December 1850, ‘whisker brushes’ were included in a broader advertisement for ‘Christmas Presents this Month’. Clearly the ideal present for the whiskerando who has everything!

A little trimming or clipping was permissible, to keep everything neat and tidy since having a scruffy, unkempt beard suggested slovenliness, and it was considered ‘quite the usual business of a man’s person to trim the beard’. For those who could afford it, a valet or manservant might also do the job. As Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Managementpointed out, a good valet should “brush the hair, beard and moustache, where that appendage is encouraged, arranging the whole simply and gracefully according to the age and style of countenance”.

Buckingham's dye

(Image Copyright of Wellcome Collection)

Applying any cosmetics to the beard, though, was actively frowned upon, and there were even some suggestions that the products themselves were unpleasant. An article in the Hairdresser’s Journal in July 1868 noted the use of iron dye, containing hydrosulphate of ammonia and hartshorn for colouring beards and moustaches but noted that the ‘abominable odour’ and ‘putrid smell’ of the ingredients meant that ‘any fellow who would apply this hateful thing to his facial hair must be strong of stomach, and not over delicate as to the sense of smelling’.

Indeed, although there were many (often delicately scented) products for shaving available across the nineteenth century, there are only fleeting references to cosmetic products specifically for beards.

Nineteenth-century men, then, didn’t really go in for beard sculpting, in the belief that the beard was best left to grow ‘natural. And whilst today the idea that beards might be dirty still resurfaces from time to time, the Victorians had that covered. As ‘Xerxes’ wrote in the Folly and Evil of Shaving in 1854, “the beard keeps away nearly the whole of the dirt from the face, [and] does not prevent soap and water from penetrating beneath it to remove what dirt may accumulate there”. As such, they reasoned, “it follows that that portion of the face covered by the beard must be cleaner than the part not so covered, as well as cleaner than the head”. So, there you have it. Bearded men are the cleanest around!

A Hidden History of Beard Terms!

2020 will be a milestone for me, as it sees the completion of my research, and the submission of my book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900, in many ways bringing an end to my project on the history of facial hair – a huge, and in many ways life-changing undertaking, which has occupied me for the past 7 years. It’s been quite a journey, covering a huge range of source material, archives all over the country, conferences, public lectures and media appearances. It’s been fantastic, both academically, and personally.

One of the absolute joys of researching this topic has been discovering the wealth of gems hidden away in archives, with fantastic stories, anecdotes or even just little insights into the lives of people in the past. As you might have noticed, blog entries have sadly suffered a bit over the past year or two, as I’ve been preoccupied with full-time teaching, research and book writing. It’s time to kick start things again and to use the blog to highlight some of this material that I haven’t been able to use in the book, but which definitely deserves to see the light of day.

So, I thought I’d use today’s post as a little teaser, by revealing some of the most unusual terms I’ve come across for beards, barbers and shaving. This a whistle-stop tour through the lexical history of facial hair.

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

‘Imperbicke’ – In Henry Cockeram’s English Dictionary or An Interpreter of Hard English Words of 1623, ‘Imperbicke’ was defined as being ‘without a beard’ or ‘beardless’. In the early modern period, as in fact at many other points throughout history, being unable to grow a beard was often viewed negatively. In the seventeenth century, the lack of a beard suggested that a man lacked inner heat. In the humoural system of the body, beard hair was actually a waste product – a sort of exhaust gas left over from the production of sperm deep in a man’s body. Heat caused it to rise upwards, solidifying as it did, to become beard hair. So, a beard was an outward demonstration of a man’s generative power, or even virility. So, if a man could not grow a beard, it was assumed that he was lacking in sexual potency, and potentially effeminate, or at least carried more female than male characteristics. The fact that there was a specific term designated to this, shows its importance in beliefs about the body.

‘Lanuge’ – One of the most important stages in a young man’s life, and one that heralded the transition from boyhood to manhood, was the first appearance of beard hair during puberty. In Cockeram’s dictionary, again, was the word ‘lanuge’, which he defined as ‘downe, or the beard when it appears to grow’. There were other words for the first appearance of beard hair. One was ‘probarbium’, in John Barrow’s 1749, Dictionarium medicum universal. The stage of initial beard growth was also given a name: in Nathaniel Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, the fluffy-faced youngster was ‘impubescent’.

‘Barbigerous’ – various appellations have been attached to the actual wearing of beards, moustaches and whiskers. My favourite of all, again from Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum was ‘barbigerous’, making beard-wearing sound a bit violent. Beard hair itself could sometimes be referred to as ‘barb’, as in Thomas Browne’s Union Dictionary in 1800, and a bearded man could be described as ‘barbed’. These all derive from the Latin term ‘barba’, from which we also supposedly (although there is some debate) get ‘barber’. On the matter of barbers, this is how William Toone described the term in his Glossary and Etymological Dictionary of Obsolete and Uncommon Words (London: Thomas Bennett, 1832), 81-2

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Barber to shave or trim the beard. This ornament (for it was so considered when worn) was an object of great attention about three centuries ago, and was fashioned to a variety of shapes. Taylor, called the Water Poet, mentions them as cut to resemble a quickset hedge, a spade, a fork, a stiletto, a hammer &c. Much time was spent “in starching and landering” them, and such care was taken to preserve them in proper shape, that cases were put on to enclose them, which were put on at night, that they might not be disarranged by sleeping. The fashion of wearing beards declined in the reign of Charles II and was gradually discontinued. Barbers were employed to trim and adorn the beard, and so called from barba, a beard, and to barber was to shave or put the beard in order, and not to powder, as Dr Johnson suggests.

All this sounded better than John Wilkins’ rather curt dismissal of barbers in his Alphabetical Dictionary of 1668, describing them as ‘hair cutting mechanics’.

Smock-Faced – Returning to the issue of being beardless, ‘smock faced’ was a common insult term levelled at smooth-chinned men and beardless boys alike. Even after beliefs in the humours had started to decline, a lack of beard hair could raise suspicions about a man’s…manliness. In defining the term ‘beardless’, Thomas Dyche used it for “one that has no hair visible on the chin, as children, women and effeminate men”.

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(Image copyright Wellcome Collection)

Spanopogones – In the spirit of saving the best till last, this one is perhaps the most unusual term that I’ve come across. It appeared in John Barrow’s 1749 medical dictionary, and was defined as ‘persons whose beards are thin, or whose hairs fall off from their chins’. It again points to the importance of being able to grow a beard, even if you ultimately chose to shave it off. As to how it is pronounced, I am still none the wiser!

So, with the research files bulging, and lots of stuff to share, I will endeavour to be a better boy at updating the blog. Thanks to you all for not deserting me and, as ever, for so many of your kind comments about the blog, and my work.

Halloween Special: Shaving the Dead in Irish Folklore

Shaving the dead in Irish folklore

The Irish Folklore Collection archive in University College Dublin contains a massive volume of documents, sound-recordings and other material collected under the auspices of the Irish Folklore Commission and other bodies since the 1920s. Two of the main elements of the archive are the Schools Folklore, compiled by schoolchildren in the 1930s, and the Main Collection, the work of folklorists working in communities throughout the state. These volumes are in the process of being digitised and transcribed – all of the examples here are from the Schools Collection at www.duchas.ie.

The archive incorporates a huge volume of material on folk medicine, magical cures, care for the dying, and the laying out, waking and burial of the dead. The work of laying out was rarely done by family members. Neighbours or local specialists, usually women, would wash and shroud the remains, and might also be involved in preparing the house for the wake. Great care was taken with the water used to wash the dead. Many accounts suggested it should be disposed of carefully, usually beneath a bush, in a corner, or somewhere where people didn’t normally walk, as it might cause the ground it touched to grow ‘fear gorta’, hungry grass, that would make passers-by feel faint or shaky, or create a ‘stray sod’ that would cause anyone walking over to become lost (‘go astray’). The things used during this time also needed to be treated carefully. Dying people were often placed on a woven straw mat, which would be burned or otherwise disposed of. The soap and towels used might be burned, buried, or placed in the fork of a tree.

Strictly-observed customs also surrounded the shaving of the dead and the things of shaving. In some areas it seems that all dead men were shaved, while elsewhere only those who had been clean-shaven during life were shaved after death. For example,in Carne, Co. Wexfordin the 1930s‘If a man was wearing a moustache or side whiskers it was shaved off’,[1]and in Sraheen, Co Mayo, it was even said ‘that if a man is not shaved before he is buried he will not go to heaven’.[2]  However, in Kilcommon, Co. Tipperary,‘A man who shaved during life is shaved, while those who wore beards are left there just as in life.’[3]The job of shaving the dead seems usually to have been done by a man, even if women did the washing. Most accounts mentioning shaving the dead agree that the razor used should be given to the man who did the job, though in some places, like Shancurry, Co. Leitrim, it was buried‘no matter how good it is’:[4]some add the detail that no payment should be asked for this work. Shaving a dead person seems to have been considered a tricky matter (cuts and nicks would doubtless displease the relatives). It might be said of a person who was good at sharpening tools that ‘He could put an edge on a scythe that would shave a corpse’.[5]

The association of men with shaving the dead is also evidenced in stories concerning encounters between mortals and the ‘Good People’ – the fairies – whose reputation for malevolence and caprice made them widely feared well into the twentieth century. While women might be detained by the fairies to act as midwives or nurses, men were more likely to be roped in to play games or music or, on occasion, to carry corpses or shave the dead – the latter is perhaps understandable in light of the Good People’s alleged aversion to iron. From Shrule, Co. Galway, comes the story of Pat Doherty:

There was once a man coming home from a wake. He had to cross a hill and on the top of the hill there was a little house. When he was near the house he heard a voice saying “Pat Doherty will shave the dead man”. Out ran the fairies from the house and brought him in. Then he shaved the dead man and the fairies gave him tea. When he was going home the fairies struck a weed and it turned into a horse. He got up on the horse and went home. He was putting in the horse into the stable and he disappeared. Then he went in and went to bed.[6]

One Mayo tale told of a man inveigled into both shaving a corpse for some supernatural women and carrying his coffin. Tom Coffey ‘was put astray’ on his way home one night and, exhausted, sought shelter in a house. An old man there died just after Tom arrived, and the two women attending him told Tom ‘he would have to shave him and he said that he never shaved a man in his life. They said that he would have to shave him.’ The women then obliged Tom to make a coffin. ‘They got a rope then and put it around the coffin. They told Tom that he would have to carry it and he [said he] would not be able. They said that he would. They put it on his back. He carried it all night until cock-crow. They told him to leave down the coffin and he did. The two women and the coffin disappeared.’[7]

Image from J. Jacobs, Celtic Folk and Fairy Tales

Another theme of which there are a few examples in the folklore archive concerns the man who braves a haunted house, only to meet a ghostly or otherworldly barber[8]or to be pressed into service as a barber himself. Seamus de Brun of Croom, Co Limerick told the story of a courageous tramp.

There was this great house, and nobody could stay there, because it was haunted. There was a notice on the gate stating that the person that would stay there three nights would get a thousand pounds.

There was a tramp walking the road and he saw the notice on the gate and read it. He went and told the owner that he would stay there. The first night the owner of the house gave him a bottle of whiskey. When he went in, he put down a big fire and sat down on a chair. At twelve o’clock a man dressed in black stood above on the stairs. The tramp said, what are you doing there, but he got no reply. He held on saying that until he fell asleep.

Next morning the owner unlocked the door and left out the tramp. Next night the owner gave him another bottle of whiskey. At about twelve o’clock, four men [came in] and a coffin on their shoulders. They set down the coffin and departed, and a corpse stood up from the coffin and asked him if he would shave him. He said he would, but he had no razor. The man in the coffin said that [it] was all right, as he himself had one. The tramp set to work and shaved him. Thanking him the corpse said that he had been coming here a long time, but had met no man with courage enough to shave him. The corpse told him where there were three crocks of gold and told him keep two for himself, and give one to the owner of the house. Next morning he done as he was told and got the thousand pounds. He was a rich man afterwards.[9]

Clearly prohibitions against payments for shaving the dead did not apply in the case of walking corpses.

Dr Clodagh Tait, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick

[1]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5009243/5001110/5122935

[2]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428066/4374474/4462894?ChapterID=4428066

[3]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922168/4857879/5018873

[4]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4605955/4605645/4644054

[5]The Irish Press, 2 June 1979, p.7.

[6]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5260385/5244869/5261376

[7]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4427950/4360421

[8]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5105151/4996451

[9]https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922034/4920807

The Barber and the Abusive Parrot!

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the chattering barber was a comic stereotype. All sorts of satires and images lampooned the loquacious shaver, more intent on the sound of his own voice than the customer’s comfort. But in 1869 an unusual case came before the Greenwich Magistrates. Here, it wasn’t the barber’s chatter that caused the problem…but another talkative inhabitant of the shop.

barber

(Image from Wellcome Images)

The case centered upon a dispute between Stephen White, and Edwin Fox, a barber. White was accused of using foul language towards the barber and fleeing the shop without paying for his shave. Fox was determined to get his fee and have his day in court. So far, this all sounds fairly mundane – the sort of routine case doubtless heard in magistrates’ courts across the land. But the circumstances surrounding this particular case were anything but routine.

The dispute arose began as White was in the chair in Fox’s shop, with the barber busily removing his stubble, and doubtless chatting away. According to Fox, the defendant ‘suddenly moved from his seat’, causing him to move the razor rapidly away. Remembering that he had once before cut Mr. White quite severely when the man had wriggled around in the chair, he cautioned him to sit still, or risk another painful accident.

Upon this, Mr. White leapt from his seat, and let rip a furious tirade of profanities and oaths, threatening to ruin the barber in his business, before running out into the street, with the angry and bemused barber in hot pursuit. Fearful that the customer would carry out his threats both to his business and person, Fox felt compelled to bring the matter to court. It seemed like an open and shut case.

When he came to the stand, however, Mr. White’s version of events was somewhat different. The cause of his outrage, he argued, was ‘the indelicate conduct’ of the barber’s two pet parrots, one of which he described as ‘irritating and annoying’.

Parrot

(Parrot of Carolina on Cypress Tree, 1731, Wellcome Images)

White claimed to have been feeling out of sorts, due to a recent bout of gout and bronchitis, and was in no mood to be provoked that day. All initially seemed well. But, just as the shave commenced, one of the parrots apparently called out ‘Fox, I shan’t be able to pay for this shave till Saturday night!’.

Notwithstanding the fact that it came from a bird, White took clearly took the remark personally, seeing it as a slur on his creditworthiness. He believed that the barber had primed the parrot with the phrase deliberately for him. It was this, he claimed, that ‘irritated him and caused him to move his seat’.

Flying Barber

(Bob Foster, the Cambridge Flying Barber (!), Wellcome Images)

But worse was to come. Just as Mr. White ‘felt the razor passing across his flesh under the chin’, the parrot delivered its perfectly-timed coup de grace: “Fox…cut his throat!’ White ‘felt naturally alarmed at the recommendation of the bird and hastened his exit’.

Struggling to keep a straight face, the chief clerk of the court asked Mr. Fox if he kept parrots, and whether they were capable of such language. If so, said the clerk, it might be necessary to bind the barber over in sureties for the birds’ good behaviour. [general merriment in court]

With his feathers clearly ruffled, Mr Fox indignantly admitted that he did indeed own two parrots but was unable to explain their linguistic capacity.

The judge had heard enough and sent the two men on their way, telling them to settle their squabbles themselves, leaving ‘the whole court convulsed with laughter’. The parrots, it seems, escaped being brought before the beak!

 

Uncovered: The First ever Beard and Moustache Competition?!

Last week, hordes of hirsute men descended upon Antwerp in hopes of securing a prize at the World Beard and Moustache Championships. This has become a major event, attracting thousands of entrants, and headlines all across the world. It has also spawned a whole host of smaller versions which, again, prove extremely popular. (I can speak from experience here, having been lucky enough to be a guest judge in the Devon and Cornwall beard and moustache competition a couple of years ago!) The first world championship was held in 1990.

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(Image my copyright)

But, quite by accident, whilst trawling through Victorian journals in the British Library, I’ve chanced upon an earlier example than that. In fact, quite a lot earlier. Actually… nearly 150 years ago!

In 1873, advertisements began to appear in newspapers around the country for “The First Beard and Moustache Show” to be held at North Woolwich Gardens in London on 30 July. The idea came from its proprietor – William Holland – theatre owner, impresario, and regular organiser of public entertainments for working class East Londoners. With thanks to Lee Jackson, (owner of the fab Victorian London site, and author of ‘Palaces of Pleasure’) for sharing some of his gems, amongst Holland’s other recent events had been a ‘beautiful baby’ show and even a ‘Barmaid show’, which involved being served drinks by different barmaids and voting for whichever you thought was the best!

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(A Victorian pleasure garden, c. 1850 – image from Wikimedia Commons)

The advertisements advised suitably bearded men (and the public) of the date and venue, and Holland clearly had hopes of attracting a big audience. Prize medals were promised for all winners, and the event was to be judged by a “jury of ladies”, drawn at random from the expected crowds, who were to determine the “best cultivated hirsute appendage”!

Generally, the idea seemed to be quite well received. A journalist in the Sporting Times wrote of his disappointment at not being able to attend the event, fully supporting the need for such a show, and even offering advice for the judges. It was not necessarily the biggest, longest or thickest beard or moustache that should win, he suggested, but whichever’s “colour, form and cut” was most aesthetically pleasing. But, noting the comments of a female friend who pointed out that, as a rule, ladies preferred “plenty of hair on the male subject”, he seemed resigned to the fact that the “shaggiest monster” would likely win the prize!

A hack in the East London Observer was less impressed. “The novelty of the thing will no doubt make it a profitable speculation, but what about those who go to show themselves and, still more, who are they who will go to look at them? Beards and moustaches, disgusting”.

According to one report there were around thirty entrants. Unable to attend on the day, one hairy hopeful, apparently a “Mr Charles Chaplin, resident somewhere in Essex” (but unlikely to be THAT Charles Chaplin!) even sent a “specimen of his beard” by post, which was over forty inches long. Another entrant claimed to have a moustache that dangled down sixteen inches on either side of his face…an impressive 32 inches from end to end!

Despite this promising start, however, it seems that things didn’t necessarily go so well on the day. First, it seemed that the event had not attracted the large audience that it probably merited, and reports suggested that it was quite thinly attended.

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(A late 19th-century ‘carte d’visit of an unknown gentleman – image my copyright)

But worse still, sniffy reports also appeared in the press suggesting that the show itself hadn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success. According to Reynolds’ Newspaperon the 3rdAugust, there were only six competitors; five who showed up on the night, plus the man entering by post. The winner was one “Mr Gordon, blessed with a fine, glossy, flowing beard”. But in the moustache category there was only one entrant – a moustachioed man with a wooden leg, forcing Mr Holland to stand in order to at least make a contest of it. Holland was apparently renowned for his own trademark moustache, and “Holland’s points [were] known all over London”. According to the report, “the prize was generously conceded to the gentleman short of a limb”.

It was also reported in The Era, quoting Mr Holland himself, that some of the competitors proved nervous and reluctant to submit themselves to judgement. Candidate number one took the stage “looking very foolish and trembling at the knees”. Number four had “nothing worth calling a beard”, and the facial hair of another was “scrubbiest among the scrubby”. Only Mr Gordon, the eventual winner, stood out, “proudly conscious of his hairy superiority”. It was noted that, rather than staying to enjoy the approbation of the ‘crowd’, the entrants were keen to make their exit as swiftly and expediently as possible.

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(detail from ‘A Bearded Dandy Admiring the Ladies through his Monocle – from Wellcome Images)

Neither, it seems, were the jury of 12 ladies entirely enamored of their new role, appearing reluctant to touch the entrants’ hairy appendages, and generally seeming embarrassed to be there. All in all, as reports in several newspapers attested in similar terms –  “it wasn’t much of a success”.

If all this is true, it begs the question as to why? Why in what was, after all, a golden age for the beard, did Mr Holland’s innovative event not capture the public’s imagination and become a celebrated and regular event? The answer, I think, is simply that his timing was out.

By 1873, the great Victorian ‘beard movement’ was in its third decade – a long time for any fashion. The young bucks who formed its vanguard in 1853 were, by now, hurtling headlong into middle age. Some of the arguments made in support of the beard, once so compelling, had now began to lose their potency. As I’ve discovered in the process of my project on the history of facial hair too, by the last quarter of the 19th century, younger men were beginning to return to the shorter, neater styles of facial hair and, indeed, to the shaved face.

Sadly, it is likely that Mr Holland’s groundbreaking Beard and Moustache Show was probably around 15 years too late. To be fair, it doesn’t seem to have dampened his spirits, and he continued to put on all sorts of weird and wonderful entertainments for the discerning folk of London. So, out of respect to him and his innovative ideas, let’s instead say that William Holland was ahead of his time, and that it took the rest of the world 117 years to catch up!

 

 

Bitesized Blog Post #1 Automata & ‘The Turk!’

The eighteenth century was one of technological innovations. Popular interest in science, new inventions and technologies, had never been so strong, and saw the rising popularity of public science lectures, which often included demonstrations and live experiments. We can only imagine the wonder on people’s faces as they saw what must have seemed like magical phenomena take place in front of their very eyes.

One of the most popular subjects in public demonstrations were ‘automata’. Part of the new vogue for scientific instruments, and technological advances in the manufacture of things like clockwork mechanisms, these were often machines made to resemble animals or human figures, contrived  so as to appear animated and almost lifelike. Strange machines  such as ‘talking’ mechanical birds and robot-like human figures weren’t uncommon.

In 1775, for example, audiences in Westminster were invited to the see the ‘Incomparable Automaton Figures which represent the Grand Sultan and Sultana, which play different pieces of music in unison; and also a favourite solo’. Visitors to the New Promenade Rooms in London in 1801 could see ‘Maillardet’s Automaton’ – also known as the ‘Juvenile Artist’ that drew pictures in front of enthralled visitors’ very eyes. More than 200 years later it is still on display, now in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

(Henri Maillardet, ‘The Juvenile Artist’ – image from Wikipedia)

One of the most famous automatons of the age, though, was the ‘Turk’ an automatic chess-playing machine. Here, a lifesized dummy of an elaborately-dressed Turkish man stood with his arm resting on a large cabinet, on which was placed the chessboard. People were invited to make a move, at which point the ‘Turk’s’ arm would magically move, accompanied by music, and sometimes changes of expression. It even said ‘check’ in French at the opportune moment.

(An engraving of the Turk from Karl Gottlieb von Windisch‘s 1784 book Inanimate Reason – Image from Wikipedia)

All was not what it seemed however; the ‘Turk’ was a hoax. Concealed in the large cabinet below the dummy was a human operator, who used a system of levers and pulleys, to contrive the moves, and beat the punters.

Nevertheless, the deceit proved compelling, and the machine toured Europe, still being popular in the mid 19th century, before being destroyed by fire in Philadelphia in 1854. As the ‘Turk’ was consumed by fire, a witness claimed to hear a sepulchral voice repeating the fateful words… ‘echec! Echec!