Thomas Ribright: The Electrifying Optician of 18th-century London.

Over the years I’m occasionally asked about historical heroes and villains and, in particular, who my ‘history hero’ would be. People are often surprised at my answer. My choice is neither famous nor celebrated…in fact it’s a good bet you’ve never heard of him. But, when I stumbled across a report about him in an 18th-century newspaper, I knew he was the guy for me.

Our tale is a cautionary one, involving a very modern form of antisocial behaviour, malice and nuisance, but also retribution. Depending on how you look at it, this is a Georgian story of instant karma…of what might be categorised on a Youtube clip as ‘instant justice’.

It takes place in London in 1789, the heart of Georgian polite society and culture. London was in many ways the Georgian city, with its vibrant social scene of parties, events and balls, its elegant shops, neat pavements for promenading, and huge range of newly desirable goods on offer, from the latest homewares and decorations to fashion and jewellery. Once the polite customer was suitably shopped out, they could repair to one of the many local tea and coffee houses for a restorative libation!

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‘Miseries of Human Life’ – Image from Lewis Walpole Digital Collection

Amongst the many shops lining the Poultry in Cheapside, London, a thriving commercial area near London Bridge, was the ‘mathematical, optical and philosophical instrument’ business, belonging to Thomas Ribright. Scientific instruments were very much the ‘coming thing’ in the second half of the eighteenth century. For a true Beau Monde, knowing your telescope from your orrery (and preferably owning a couple of each) was the mark of the aesthete and the person of taste. Cities like London and Bath regularly hosted public demonstrations of scientific instruments to rapt audiences, who delighted in the latest ‘magick’ discovery.

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Trade card of Thomas Ribright – John Johnson Collection

Ribright was an optician by trade, describing himself on his elaborate trade card as ‘Optician to the Prince of Wales’. In 1749 he had patented his own form of spectacles, along with other instruments. By the 1750s he was a regular advertiser in the London newspapers, selling a range of optical devices. His ‘Brazil pebble spectacles’, for example, were available in ‘fine Venetian green glass’. Nestled in amongst advertisements for ‘Bears Fat’, country dancing instruction and razor straps, an entry in the Gazette and New Daily Advertiser in 1765 shows that he was an agent for a range of different and new-invented instruments, such as the ‘New and Correct Globes’.

In the summer of 1789, however, a very modern type of nuisance plagued the residents of the Poultry, in the form of a young grocer, Peter Wheeler (a shady character known locally as ‘Lord Fig’ for his habit of affecting airs and graces). Wheeler was an early exponent of what, in 1970s Cardiff, we used to call ‘Knock Knock Ginger’ – ringing doorbells and running away. [Disclaimer: The young Dr Withey was far too well-behaved a child ever to have considered doing anything remotely like this, and does not advocate such a vile practice in any way, shape or form. I might have left fake notes for my neighbours’ milkman once or twice, but that’s another story]. Wheeler added his own twist by ringing the bells violently in the middle of the night, which, as Mr Ribright reported in a letter to the Times in 1789, greatly alarmed his family. After suffering this menace night after night, Thomas Ribright had enough. “I resolved, if possible, to punish the disturber of my rest.” At this point, Wheeler was messing with the wrong guy.

One particular night, Wheeler once again made his way to the Poultry after nightfall, preparing himself for another evening of terrorising the poor optician’s family. Perhaps trying a couple of other houses first, he arrived at the threshold of Ribright’s shop, perhaps chuckling quietly to himself, reached out his hand for the bell. Perhaps he noticed his shoe catching on a strange patch of metal filings on the doorstep but, in any case, his hand reached out for the bell…

This night, however, something was different. Before going any further, let’s take a look at a 1780 advertisement of Thomas Ribright, giving a clue to one of his other skills:

“16th November, 1780

ELECTRICITY having of late been found of particular Use in the Cure of RHEUMATIC, PARALYTIC and HYPOCHONDRIAC complaints

Also for the removal of SPASMS, CONTRACTIONS, DEAFNESS and complaints incident to the TEETH,

RIBRIGHT AND SMITH

Optical, Philosophical and Mathematical Instrument Makers, Beg leave to Inform the Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, that they have fitted up a Compleat Apparatus, for performing the Operation by Shock, Spark or passing the Electric Matter through the human frame, locally or generally.”

Thomas Ribright was therefore a specialist in ‘medical electricity’, and his shop was bristling with the latest models. Being electrocuted back to health was becoming popular towards the end of the eighteenth century. The ‘patient’ would be attached to the machine, which would be fired up, giving them a shock, ranging from mild to intense. Suitably ‘electrified’, the patient would leave the shop a shilling lighter and hopefully cured, though perhaps with their hair standing a little on end. Such was the fascination of this procedure that this could sometimes even draw a crowd.

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18th-Century electrical machine – although bigger than Mr Ribright’s! Image from Wikimedia Commons

And so back to the Poultry. Determined to have his revenge on the troublemaker, Mr Ribright had set up an elaborate trap. First he “pasted some tin filings upon the pavement before my door”, to act as a conductor. Next he “made a communication between the handle of the bell and an electrical machine, and charged a large jar to be ready for his reception”. His timing was perfect.

A few moments after, as I suspected, [he] made an attempt as usual; but instead of accomplishing what he intended, he received the full contents of the jar”.

So, as the young offender touched the bell, there was a loud crack, and he received a full charge from Mr Ribright’s electrical machine, propelling him loudly and swiftly back into the street, where he was seen staggering around. When Mr Ribright opened the door to his shop he was treated to the gratifying sight of his tormentor “leaning against one of the supporters of the door and exclaiming What! You shoot people eh?…damn ye”.

 A small crowd had by now gathered, lauging and pointing and, it was reported, applauded Mr Ribright for his efforts, as the (literally) shocked ‘Lord Fig’ was led away by the local constable to await his fate.

And so, for his ingenuity, innovation and dispensation of ‘instant justice’, THAT is why Thomas Ribright is my history hero.

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.

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(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.

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(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.

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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’.

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(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 gentile 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.

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.

‘Gymnasticks’ and Dumbbells: Exercise in early modern Britain

As we begin to draw near to the end of the Olympics, questions will probably begin to be asked about the ‘legacy’ of the games, and how far they will inspire people to take up sport and exercise. After the 2012 London games, a report noted that 1.4 million more people in Britain had taken up a regular sport since the UK had won its bid to host in 2005. In fact, as the British Olympic team return to the UK next week, the broadcaster ITV and the National Lottery are planning ‘nation’s biggest sports day, the former switching off all of its channels for an hour, to encourage people to follow in the footsteps of Team GB, and take up sports.

Team GB

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Exercise is now deeply entrenched in British culture. Last year the Guardian reported that spending on gym membership was up by 44%, whilst a host of new sports (including open water swimming) along with things like running clubs and organised park runs, was painting a picture of ‘a nation of gym goers’. How many of these new devotees fell by the wayside a couple of weeks after their New Year’s resolution is not, unfortunately, recorded!

We might think of the concept of exercise, and particularly as an aide to health, as a thoroughly modern invention. In fact though, (leaving to one side the original, ancient, Olympic games!) it has a long history.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, the importance of exercise was well known. Popular perceptions of the ‘plague doctors and leeches’ aspect of early modern medicine obscure what was in fact a sophisticated and logical system of understanding the body. Much emphasis is often laid upon ‘weird’ remedies whilst, in reality, prevention was viewed as vastly preferable to cure. A great deal of importance was attached to the concept of ‘regimen’; this was effectively a holistic system for wellbeing, encompassing sleep, rest, eating as well as exercise.

Medical self-help books extolled the virtues of exercise, and in particular motion, as a means to keep the body healthy. Alexander Spraggot’s Treatise of Urine recommended that those in sedentary positions (especially students) needed to keep moving in order to avoid the dangerous settling accumulation of foul humours. Some recommended walking, others riding.

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For A.B, author of the 1611 Sick Man’s Jewel, ‘Exercise ought to be moderate, nei|ther too gentle, nor too vehement, neither too quick, nor too slow.’ The activity should be vigorous enough to get the ‘benefit of motion’, to make the face florid and for ‘hot vapours[…] to break forth’. Exercise was considered useful in treating conditions such as Scurvy and diseases of the liver. It also prevented the accumulation of ‘gross, vicious humours, heaped up in the body’. It should never be too vigorous, however, since this could deplete the vital spirits. Neither should exercise be undertaken straight after food.

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(image from Google Books)

In 1711 Francis Fuller published an entire book devoted to the ‘power of exercise’. For Fuller, a life spent in lazy, supine repose was dangerous. For the body to be vigorous and vital it needed continual stimulus, ‘since the vigour of the parts is acquir’d by use’. Exercise was therefore vital since it ‘promotes the digestion, raises the spirits, refreshes the mind and strengthens and relieves the whole man’.

But what sorts of exercise was involved? Fuller was vague. ‘By Exercise, then, I understand all that motion or agitation of the Body of what kind ‘soever’. Promisingly, for those who set the bar low, he considered both hiccoughing and laughing as legitimate forms of exercise. The ‘best and noblest of all exercises for a sick person’ was riding. It was both an active and passive exercise, combining movement and the automatic stretching of limbs. For the more energetic, tumbline and rope-dancing offered a good means to get the perspiration flowing.

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(Final set tie-break, 17th-century style! Image from Wikimedia commons)

In 1794, in his book on the science of muscular action, John Pugh separated exercise into various degrees. The strongest of these were ‘tennis, cricket, fencing running &c, where great muscular action is necessary’. Next down were activities including walking, riding on horseback or in a carriage and, rather confusingly, reading aloud. In the third category was sailing.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the increasing fixation upon ‘machines’ offered new possibilities for shaping the body. The use of artificial weights was one, perhaps surprising, means by which to exercise. The origin of the term ‘dumbbell’ was actually literal – it referred to the swinging of weights resembling bells with their clappers removed. Philip Jones’ 1788 ‘Essay on Crookedness’ commented on ‘swinging the dumb bells’ as a means to cure spinal distortion and ‘crookedness’. Whilst Jones recognised that some success had been obtained, he was keener on the new trend for sea bathing as a means to keep the body in good order. To promote good posture, the physician James Parkinson advocated exercising with dumb bells, and horse riding. Anticipating 21st century ideas about the healthiness of gardening, however, he also suggested ‘the culture of a flower garden’!

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(Copyright Lewis Walpole Digital Image Collection)

Also popular was the ‘chamber horse’ – a chair with a bellows mechanism in which the ‘rider’ sat and then, through the power of the bellows, bounced up and down. For a great post and image of the ‘chamber horse’ on the ‘Two Nerdy History Girls’ blog, click here.

Riding the wave of popularity for ‘gymnastic’ exercise, some enterprising Georgian artisans began to create and patent new equipment. The London merchant Abraham Buzaglo made his name as a maker of patent stoves in the second half of the eighteenth century. But, Buzaglo also used his metallurgical expertise to diversify into other areas. In February 1779 he lodged a patent for a device for ‘Muscular health and strength restoring exercise by the means of machines, instruments and necessaries for practising the same. The apparatus involved a system of plates, bags and poles, attached to the wall, to exercise the limbs. They were especially recommended for the treatment of gout. A contemporary satire depicts the use of ‘gymnastick’ equipment by ‘gouty persons’.

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(Copyright Wellcome Images: Three men wearing orthopaedic apparatus, by Paul Sandby)

So as the final events take place in Rio, and perhaps as you lace up your shoes and head for the weights rack, inspired, you’re actually following in the footsteps of health-conscious early modern people, for whom exercise was an important part of health and regimen. It’s interesting to note, for example, the long and close relationship between exercise and health, rather than just recreation. Often the key element has been that of movement or motion. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, motion was needed to prevent an accumulation of foul humours or, in a sense, to prevent the body stagnating. Little has actually changed. The tagline of the Government’s current UKActive programme is… “let’s get moving”!

Fowl Medicine: The early modern ‘pigeon cure’

In October 1663 news spread around London that Queen Catherine was gravely ill. Fussed over by a gaggle of physicians and priests, things got so bad that Her Majesty was even given extreme unction in the expectation that she might not pull through. In an effort to turn things around, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on the 19th October, “pigeons were put to her feet”. In another diary entry in 1667, Pepys recorded visiting the dying husband of Kate Joyce who was in his sick bed, his breath rattling in his throat. Despairing (for good reason) for his life his family “did lay pigeons to his feet while I was in the house”.

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(Image from Wikipedia)

Pigeons? Laid to the feet? Was Pepys mistaken, or was there a misunderstanding of his complicated shorthand? Actually, pigeons were a surprisingly common ‘ingredient’ in medicine and were even recommended for various conditions in the official pharmacopoeia (catalogue) of sanctioned remedies. But what were they used for, and how?

Remedies for the treatment of the plague certainly called for the use of pigeons. No less a publication than the London Pharmocopoeia issued by the College of Physicians in 1618, contained a remedy for the plague which involved pulling off the feathers of living pigeons, holding their bills shut and holding the bare patch to the plague sore “until they die and by this means draw out the poison”.

William Kemp’s 1665 ‘Brief Treatise of the Nature and Cure of the Pestilence’ noted that some writers advised cutting a pigeon open, and applying it (still hot) to the spine of a person afflicted with melancholy, or to a person of weak intellect. The English Huswife of 1615 advised those infected with the plague to try applying hot bricks to the feet and, if this didn’t work, “a live pidgeon cut in two parts”. Even the by-products of pigeons could come in useful. Physicians treating the ailing Charles II applied a plaster to his feet containing pigeon dung.

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(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Several sources suggest that the ‘pigeon cure’ was often a remedy of last resort. Writing of the last illness of her father in 1707 (dying of a “broken heart, which the physicians called a feaver”, Alice Thornton reported that, just before his death, pigeons were cut and laid to the soles of his feet. Seeing this her father smiled and said “Are you come to the last remedy? But I shall prevent your skill”. The diarist John Evelyn, in the ‘Life of Mrs Godolphin’ noted that ‘Neither the cupping, nor the pidgeons, those last of remedyes [my emphasis], wrought any effect’.

The ‘cure’ was evidently so popular that it made its way into popular culture, such as in Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi’. Speaking to the ‘Old Lady’, the character Bosola says that he would “sooner eate a dead pidgeon, taken from the soles of the feete of one sicke of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting”.

What were the perceived medical benefits of the pigeon and its various products? Some prominent physicians had plenty to say on the matter. William Salmon’s Pharmacopoeia Londonensis, Or the New London Dispensatory in 1716, (p. 200) held that “cut in the middle and laid to the feet, [pigeons] abate the heat of burning fevers, though malignant, and so laid to the Head, takes away Headaches, Frenzy, Melancholy and Madness. On the matter of pigeon dung, Dr Alleyne’s Dispensatory of 1733 stated that “we may judge of the nature of this [dung] from that of the birds…consists of subtle hot parts, which open the pores where it is applied, and by rarifying and expanding them, occasion a greater flux of fluid that way”. In other words the hot dung caused the body to open its pores and expel the bad humours causing the illness.

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Saint Gregory (and a pigeon!) – image from Wikimedia Commons

The particular significance of the pigeon is interesting too. One hint is given by the apparently strong connections in folklore between the pigeon and death, ranging from the belief that pigeons flying near a person – or indeed landing on their chimney – were supposed to indicate approaching death, to the “common superstition” (recorded in 1890) that no one can die happy on a bed of pigeon’s feathers. The symbolic power of the pigeon may therefore have been applied in reverse. Killing the bird perhaps imparted its vital power onto the dying person. Beliefs in the power of ‘anima’ – the vital life spirit – being able to be transferred from animals to humans were common in the early modern period.

If some of this seems like it belongs firmly to the 17th century, it is worth mentioning that the ‘pigeon cure’ was still apparently in use in Europe in the 20th century. A fleeting and poignant reference in Notes and Queries refers to a woman in Deptford in 1900, who unsuccessfully attempted to use the cure on her infant son when the medical attendant pronounced that there was no hope for him. He died shortly afterwards of pneumonia.

An article in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1900, though, reported that a Paris physician was casually told by one of his patients that she had “tried the pigeon cure for meningitis”, with some success. The physician, one Dr Legue, expressed his ignorance of the cure, and the patient described it to him.

“The head of the patient to be treated is shaved, and then the breast of the (freshly-killed) pigeon is ripped open by the operator, and the warm and bleeding carcass immediately applied to the bared skull”.

More than this, Dr Legue apparently discovered a shop in the city’s Central Market, where a Madame Michel ran a shop selling nothing but live pigeons, specifically for the purpose of the cure. On interviewing Madam Michel, the good doctor ascertained that she was on the point of retirement after making a “small fortune” from her business, since “the pigeon cure is considered a sovereign remedy for Influenza”, and she had been struggling to keep up with demand. The term ‘sovereign remedy’ takes us straight back to the 17th century but, before the article finished, Madam Michel mentioned one last use for the pigeons. In the case of Typhoid fever, she suggested, two pigeons were necessary. And they should be tied to the soles of the feet.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

As uncomfortable as they might sometimes appear to our eyes, early modern medicine involved all manner of plants, animals and substances, alive or dead. Rather than viewing them as ‘weird’, people at the time saw them as valuable ingredients, often with special properties, which they could use to help them in the fight against disease.

Beards…or no Beards?

StateLibQld_2_174867_Sketch_entitled,_The_New_Queensland_Ministry.jpg

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s summer 2016, and beards are still pulling headlines in the news. A report on last week’s Financial Times website suggested that men are spending 20% more year on year, on niche products. One observer notes that the market for men’s grooming products is likely to top £1bn by 2018. The Guardian claim to be able to read personality through different beard styles, while other sites range from calling the end of the Hipster beard, to a report that one man wants to see the return of the beard tax.

There have been some signs of slowdown in recent months; a friend (and owner of a traditional barber shop) tells me that the numbers of men coming in for beard grooming has begun to fall, but also that the style has began to change towards shorter beards. Men who have beards are not removing them altogether, but seemingly cutting them back.

Shaving

(Image – Wikimedia Commons)

All of this has me thinking back to periods of beard ‘trend’ in history, and questions about actually how many men participate. Over the past few years we have seen an apparently huge rise in the popularity of beards. When a new trend starts it becomes literally remarkable. This certainly happened (and to some extent is still happening) with beards. Media, advertising, imagery all serves to build up a sense of momentum, beards became more noticeable on the high street and they begin to become associated with identity and lifestyle. But at some stage a tipping point is reached. This is essentially the idea behind so-called ‘peak beard’ – the point at which they become so popular that they lose their status as an alternative to what has gone before, and become…well…normal.

But even at their height this time around (probably 2014/5), how many men actually had beards? It’s impossible to quantify, but I’d be surprised if it went much about 25/30%. A study of 6500 European men in 2015 suggested that 52% had some form of facial hair, but such a small sample can hardly be considered bulletproof. (It was in the Daily Mail too by the way!)

I was talking recently to Christopher Oldstone-Moore (author of the recent book ‘Of Beards and Men’) and he argues that, even in times when beards are extremely popular, many (most?) men actually still don’t have them. I’ve been looking recently at Victorian photographic portraits of men across different levels of society, and different regions of the country. The period between 1850 and 1890 was the height of the ‘beard movement’ in Britain; a wide range of contemporary literature goes into great detail about the social, cultural and economic reasons why men should grow beards. As I’ve explored in other posts, these range from arguments that the beard filters out germs, protects the throat, chest and teeth, stops sunburn and even saves the economy millions by restoring the working hours lost in shaving!

Hat

(Image https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/481533385133628358/)

But I’ve actually been struck by the amount of clean-shaven portraits that I’ve seen. For all the whiskers, moustaches, chin beards, Dundreary whiskers and all the rest, many men clearly did still prefer to shave. We can’t rule out the possibility that some were shaved specifically for their portrait, but this can’t account for all cases. So were these men freakish? Did their clean-shaven faces make them prominent when all other men were apparently sporting large patriarch beards?

There is certainly evidence to suggest that not all men viewed beards positively. In 1851, for example, just as the beard fashion was beginning to gather pace, a correspondent to the CS Leader and Saturday Analyst, complained at the ill treatment meted out to him by passers by, who took his beard as a sign of ‘foreignness’. As he walked through the streets he was hissed and laughed at, and particularly objected to someone shouting ‘French Dog!’ when, as he pointed out, he was not French and had served his country in the British army for many years. Neither were the jibes from children; his assailants included ‘well dressed and grown-up people, especially by ladies, and shopkeepers’ clerks’.

Those who still preferred the razor were well served by products available for them; in a previous post I mentioned shaving creams like the popular Rowland’s Kalydor, which were marketed throughout the nineteenth century. So were various kinds of razors. In fact, it could be argued that some of the biggest advances in razor technology occurred when beards were at their most popular. Of course some shaving was still necessary for certain styles, especially chin beards and whiskers, but it also suggests a ready market for the clean shave.

The Georgian period is renowned as a beardless age – lasting from the slow decline of beards and moustaches around the 1680s, to the start of the ‘beard movement’ in 1850. But was this actually the case? In Georgian Britain the majority of portraits we have are of the upper classes and elites; can we be sure that rural labourers did not hold on to their beards? In fact, part of the reaction against beards was that they made polite gentlemen resemble rustics. This suggests that the rustic look could be bearded. This point is made, for example, in a 1771 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘A Bearded Man’. The purpose of the painting is unclear, but it is unusual in depicting a beard at a time when being clean-shaven was the norm. According to the Tate Gallery, the sitter was a beggar named George White, perhaps explaining his unkempt appearance.

A Man's Head c.1771-3 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792
A Man’s Head c.1771-3 Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00106

 

Another eighteenth-century portrait, by Balthasar Denner, also depicts a bearded man in the eighteenth century. This time the stubbly face represents the ageing man – a common artistic allusion but, again, suggests that clean-shaven may not have been the ubiquitous state it might at first appear from the sources.

Balthasar_Denner-_Portrait_of_an_Old_Man_-_Eremitage.jpg

(Balthasar Denner, ‘Head of an Old Man’: Image from Wikimedia Commons)

As I delve deeper into the history of facial hair it becomes ever more clear that things are rarely as clear cut (sorry!) as they appear. Periods in history that we associate with certain facial hair styles do not necessarily speak for all men. Just as today, when by no means all men are sporting luxuriant Hipster beards, so not all Tudor men had ‘Stilletto’ beards, not all Victorians had ‘Cathedral’ beards, and not all Georgians were clean shaven. Instead, decisions to wear (or not wear) facial hair are bound up in a complex web of meanings and influences. I’m looking forward to the next stage in the development of beards!

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.

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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’.

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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!