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.

The Evans Brothers and the ‘Cardigan Cancer Cure’.

It’s the start of a new year, and the start of what I hope will be a sustained revival for my blog. 2018 was a bit of a busy year, one which saw me writing and researching for my project on the history of facial hair, busy with lots of fab and fun media stuff, as well as taking up the full-time lectureship at Exeter. With all of that, my poor blog has been a bit neglected of late.

So, with my new year’s resolution firmly in place, time to make good and post the first of hopefully many for the 2019 blog season. And, to celebrate the publication of a new article on Welsh medical practitioners, I thought it might be nice to start the year off by returning to Welsh medicine with a nice little story from the archives (courtesy of my friend Dr Andy Croll in the University of South Wales).

In February 1907, an article appeared in the Weekly Mail, with the attention-grabbing headline ‘New Cancer Cure: Fame achieved by two Cardigan farmers’. The story centered upon two brothers, John and Daniel Evans, ships’ carpenters by trade. Brought up in the countryside, in the parish of Verwig near Cardigan, according to the article, ‘they studied the nature of herbs, gaining such proficiency that they soon became noted in their immediate locality, for cures effected of sores &c’.

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(Image from The National Library of Wales Newspaper Database – https://newspapers.library.wales)

As their reputation grew, the brothers began to treat ‘graver cases’ of illness and, by the end of the nineteenth century, were treating external cancers. Their reputation had clearly spread far beyond Cardiganshire. By 1907 they claimed to be treating patients not only from all across Wales, but from London and other parts of England. Not only this, offers of fees were flooding in from patients across the country, asking the brothers to attend them at their own homes, but these were refused by John and Daniel, who said they were already at full stretch at Cardigan ‘where the numbers of patients who visit them is very considerable’.

When asked how many they had cured, the brothers replied that many hundreds had been sent away restored, with only two patients lost. With the successes that they had apparently had, John and Daniel Evans had now turned to treating internal cancers which, it was reported, was already yielding good results. Despite having once been offered the enormous sum of twenty thousand pounds to effect a cure (which they refused), there was no formal charge, and patients were simply asked to pay what they could afford, or what they felt was a suitable amount.

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(Image from The National Library of Wales Newspaper Database – https://newspapers.library.wales)

According to the report, several hospitals, including London, Cardiff and Liverpool were even sending patients to Cardigan to be treated by the brothers, when the medical faculty acknowledged that there was no more that they could do. By the early twentieth century they were also selling their own medicinal compound, based on a secret recipe, known as the ‘Cardigan Cancer Cure’.

In their studies of herb lore, the Evans brothers belonged to a long tradition in Welsh (and indeed broader) medical history, of self-taught proficiency in healing. Although not referred to as such in the article, they were, essentially, ‘cunning men’ – popular practitioners who gained local reputations as specialists in particular conditions, or more generally as lay healers. Cunning folk, bonesetters, healers and charmers were undoubtedly an important element in medical provision in Wales throughout the early modern period, and well into the nineteenth century. Reputation was often the single most important factor in the popularity of such people, whose fame grew along with the numbers of apparent cures and subsequent recommendation.

The language of the article indeed reveals many echoes of reports of popular healers from centuries before. It noted, for example, several cases of patients who had been referred to the Evans brothers after being written off as incurable by the medical profession. In the seventeenth century, popular healers often claimed to succeed where medicine had failed, or where the patient had been ‘given over’ by physicians. The emphasis on charity and, if necessary, treating the poor gratis, was another important element of the cunning man’s practice – and also a popular trope in medical advertising in the early modern period and eighteenth century. The fact that that John and Daniel were brothers also fitted in with dynastic or family traditions of healers that was common in Celtic countries, and especially in Ireland, but also in Wales.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the surprisingly uncritical tone of the Weekly Mail’s report. By the end of the nineteenth century, the earlier traditions of folk medicine were of great interest to Victorian antiquarians, who collected records of charms, remedies and practices. Whilst some were sympathetic to early healing practices, others took the chance to poke fun, taking to the pages of newspapers, journals and society ‘transactions’ to highlight the ‘weird’, ‘backward’ or ‘ignorant’ medicine of their predecessors. Here, however, the article apparently accepted the validity and success of the brothers’ treatments, neither making fun of their methods or beliefs, or treating the herbal basis of their practice as inferior to ‘official’ medicine.

But there was an unfortunate twist in the tale. Keen to stamp out what it saw as quack medicines and arcane practices, the British Medical Association summonsed the Evans brothers to London and denounced them as frauds. They apparently returned to Wales distraught and disillusioned, abandoning both their practice and the medicine soon after.

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The BMA headquarters in Tavistock Square, London – Image from https://peopleshistorynhs.org/encyclopaedia/the-british-medical-association/)

The example of the survival of traditional healing in Wales demonstrates the longevity of what is sometimes (unsatisfactorily) referred to as ‘folkloric’ medicine, despite the growth of hospitals in Wales at the time, and the overwhelming shift towards biomedicine. But as the reaction of the BMA shows, there has long been a tension between what we might call ‘official’ and ‘lay’ or popular medical practices. As the popularity of the Evans brothers’ treatments suggests people across the country, and not just in Wales, were perfectly ready to consider alternatives where biomedicine had apparently failed them…a willingness which, it could be argued, is no less potent today, with the availability of a vast range of alternative therapies and treatments.

Whatever the truth behind their methods and successes may be, the case of the Evans brothers of Verwig reminds us of the dangers of viewing the history of medicine as some long journey of progress out of darkness and into some sort of modern medical enlightenment. The reality is often far more complex.

Barbers and Advertising in the 18th century.

Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time looking at polite advertising in the 18th century. During that period, a whole range of retailers advertised their goods and services to appeal to ladies and gentlemen of taste. Without discussing anything so base as price or money, they instead gently coaxed, cajoled and complimented their customers to become regular visitors. Politeness was, in many ways, a performance. Both customer and retailer played the game, turning shopping into something of an experience, often involving being served tea while you perused the items on show.

One of the primary ways of enticing customers back was the trade card. These were small printed pamphlets or bills, handed out to the customer after purchase as a reminder to them to visit again. Combining polite language with elegant neoclassical imagery, they stressed the world of goods available, the opulence of the surroundings, and the care and attention promised to be lavished on the customer.

Thousands of these trade cards exist for all sorts of businesses. Unsurprisingly these were often high-end businesses. But even some small, prosaic trades also adopted the card, and examples can be found for anything from dentists to skeleton sellers!

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(Trade card of Nathaniel Longbottom, skeleton seller – Wellcome Images)

One type of business that appears to have steadfastly resisted the trade card, however, was the barbershop. On the face of it (excuse the pun!) barbers should surely have been just the sort to benefit from attracting regular, returning custom.  As shavers of men, they played a pivotal role in the face of the polite gentleman. Indeed, dictionaries throughout the entire eighteenth century often gave the primary definition of barbers as ‘shavers’. Towards the end of the eighteenth century too, ‘hairdressers’ were important figures, especially in shaping female appearance. In other words, more than perhaps any other trade, it was barbers who helped men and women to meet new ideals of appearance, readying them for public view. And yet they chose not to bother with trade cards. Why might this have been?

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Image from Wellcome Images

It has been argued that barbering as a profession was in decline in the eighteenth century. It has long been assumed that the split between the barbers and surgeons in 1745 elevated the surgeons, at the same time as relegating the barbers to mere ‘mechanics’. The extent to which this is true is up for question; (it’s certainly something I’m interested in as part of my project on the history of facial hair). Certainly, in popular culture, though, the barber was often portrayed as a rustic tradesman – the stereotypical bumbling, inept fool who did more damage to his customers appearance than good. In fact, barbers were sometimes singled out and mocked for trying to affect airs and graces.

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(Lewis Walpole Digital Images)

But did barbers actually even need trade cards in the first place? The business relied, first and foremost, on footfall and passing trade. A given street in an eighteenth-century English town might contain several barbershops of various size and quality to suit the pockets of a variety of customers.  Such accounts and references that do survive suggest strongly that people tended to keep to one particular barber, building a relationship over time…in fact quite similar to today. This being the case, was there in fact any need to remind the customer of where they had their last haircut or shave?

Secondly, the nature of the barbering trade was arguably different to those of other, even related, trades. Wig (or peruke) makers, for example could trade on their range of the stock, the quality of their hair, and the service element of their business. Some cards survive for perukemakers, which demonstrate their easy assimilation into the world of polite advertising. For barbers, however, aside from selling the odd cake of soap, glass of beer, or keg of butter, they were unlikely to adopt (or need) the fawning, obsequious style of metropolitan shop owners.

Perhaps for the same reasons, barbers did not seem to take advantage of the opportunities for relatively cheap advertisements in Georgian newspapers. If they appear at all, it is usually as an agent for some or other product – usually related to their trade, such as shaving soap, pomatum or even razors and other goods. But, as to their tonsorial skills….virtual silence.

If not trade cards or newspaper advertisements, then, did barbers even advertise at all? In fact, it could be argued that barbers had the most striking advertisements of all, hidden in plain sight: the pole. I must admit to having doubts about the origins of the barber’s pole colours, and its red and white striped design. It’s often said that the pole represents the bloodletting process. Here the red signifies the blood being taken, the white denotes the bandages, and the pole itself is said to be the ‘fillet’ – the small stick gripped by the patient whilst their vein was being opened. It’s a story that was certainly in circulation by the late eighteenth century, and vigorously and enthusiastically repeated by Victorian antiquarians. It’s just that hard evidence is somewhat more difficult to come by. Perhaps we’ll never really know. There is some evidence, for example, that the pole sometimes had blue and white stripes, although this might suggest it represented the vein about to be cut. Whatever the origins, evidence for large, protruding poles outside barbershops can be found far back into the seventeenth century.

V0019646 A barber's shop, Alresford. Coloured reproduction of an aqua

(Wellcome Images)

So, it does seem that barbers were not necessarily ‘polite’ in the eighteenth century; perhaps they didn’t need to be; perhaps they didn’t even want to be! It’s interesting, nonetheless, to see how certain businesses relied on different means in order to advertise their services.

For more about the history of barbershops, have a look at Lindsey Fitzharris’s excellent articles on the subject, e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-lindsey-fitzharris/the-bloody-history-behind-barbers-pole_b_3537716.html

The killer socks of 1868.

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

Victorian street

(Image from wikimedia commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Image from Wellcome Images)

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

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

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

When Marmalade was Medicinal.

I must admit to a guilty pleasure – hot buttered toast with a (very!) thick covering of marmalade. Worse than that, I’m even fussy; it absolutely has to be a certain brand, and a particular type…none of your weedy shredless stuff for me!

But it seems that I’m not alone. Marmalade has recently made something of a comeback. It’s now become a serious foodie’s ingredient with all sorts of artisan flavours and combinations.

Now admittedly marmalade might not leap to mind for its potential health benefits. But in the early 1800s, it was nothing less than a revolutionary health food. In fact, marmalade was originally created as a medicinal substance.

To discover the origins of marmalade we need to go back to the eighteenth century and the increasing problem of scurvy in the British Navy. Scurvy, caused by a lack of Vitamin C, was a major killer in the period, and was even argued to cause the deaths of more sailors than enemy action. The disease caused a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath and bone pain, lethargy and changes to digestion, loss of teeth and hair and, eventually, death. The problem of getting and keeping fresh fruits and vegetables rendered long sea voyages potentially dangerous for crews.

The link between fruit and vegetables as a prevention against scurvy was already known in the seventeenth century, but it was a naval surgeon, James Lind, who first suggested citrus fruits as a viable option for ships’ crews. Throughout the eighteenth century, experiments with different types of foodstuffs (including, famously, sauerkraut by Captain James Cook on his 1768-71 expedition) began to have an impact on instances of the disease.

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James Lind FRSE, FRCPE (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

One of the key issues was being able to provide foods that were easy to keep and store, but which also retained enough nutrients to be beneficial. Marmalade (originating from the Portuguese word ‘Marmelo’) had become a popular means of preserving fruit in Britain as early as the seventeenth century. In 1732, Charles Carter’s Compleat City and Country Cook contained a recipe for various marmalades, including apple, pear and apricot, and even cherry and currant.

In 1776 the physician Alexander Hunter wrote about preventing disease using carrot marmalade! A mere spoonful, he asserted, could cure fevers and scurvy, and prevent putrescence. An advertisement also appeared that year in the London Chronicle, titled ‘A Preparation of Carrots for the Use of Seamen in Long Voyages’, of which the ‘finest sort’ could be procured for sixpence a pound.

By the late eighteenth century grocers were beginning to latch on to a public appetite for marmalade as a luxury good. Portuguese Quince Marmalade was one of the many exotic-sounding products available at Joshua Long’s Grocery Warehouse near the Royal Exchange in London. Customers at Long’s shop could also treat themselves to a veritable cornucopia of other delights, from ‘Genoa sweetmeats’ to candied pineapples. Rather confusingly, the publishers of Volume 7 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in March 1791 also included a line at the bottom of their advertisement, telling customers of their ‘Fine Orange Marmalade, just made’, available at the booksellers.

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But it wasn’t long before health came back to the fore. Seeing an opportunity, advertisers began to extol the virtues of marmalade as a restorative and preventative. An advertisement for the ‘Real Scotch Marmalade’ in 1813 listed many benefits. It was, said the advert, excellent for persons of weak constitutions, and those leading sedentary lives’. Not only this, marmalade was the perfect replacement for butter, which ‘never fails to create bile on the stomach, the forerunner of all flatulency’! A decade later, physicians were even recommending Scotch marmalade as a cure for colds! Levy and Salmon advertised their Scotch marmalade, for example, as being excellent for those troubled with bile or indigestion, and also as something to be given as a general health-preserver to children and the elderly.

Around this time marmalade also became genteel – the preserve of choice for the discerning Victorian household. ‘Mr Newton’ boasted in 1826 that his orange marmalade has been concocted to the ‘highest perfection’. ‘Hickson’s Shaddock Marmalade’ was, the advertisement claimed, met with ‘universal approbation’ from the nobility and gentry. In 1832, Mrs Wedderspoon’s ‘Genuine Orange Marmalade’ was available only from Capper’s Tea and Foreign Fruit Warehouse in the Strand, supplier of the ‘finest sauces and epicurean condiments’. Just like today, marmalade was fast becoming the preserve a la mode, the ideal accompaniment to a high tea, or family gathering.

The nineteenth century also saw the beginnings of some familiar brands, still in existence today. Keiller’s was formed in the 18th century, and became widespread (sorry!) during the 19th. Francis (Frank) Cooper started his marmalade production in the 1870s, whilst Wilkin and Sons Tiptree factory began producing jams, preserves and marmalades in 1885.

Paddington

So, it seems that Paddington Bear might have been right all along, in making sure that he always had “plenty of marmalade sandwiches to keep me going”! Perhaps, too, marmalade could indeed be the way to a healthy, as well as a happy, breakfast. That’s what I’m going to keep telling myself!

The ‘Gimcrack whim collector’: Don Saltero’s Coffee House and Museum

From the late 1600s until well into the nineteenth, one particular premises, a former coffee house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, was a must-see on the list for visitors. Famous for its ‘cabinets of curiosities’, the ‘museum’ was known colloquially by the name of its proprietor. Thus, ‘Don Saltero’s’ was a fixture of the London landscape for over two centuries. But who was the mysterious ‘Don Saltero’, and what sorts of things could visitors marvel at?

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(A print of Don Saltero’s Coffee House, signed by some of its famous visitors, including Hans Sloane: Image copyright of New York Public Library)

As contemporaries remarked, the name Don Saltero had exotic Spanish connotations. But the owner and proprietor was certainly not Spanish – he was an English barber, tooth-drawer and sometime servant to the prominent physician Sir Hans Sloane. His name was the less-exotic James Salter!

By 1715, the premises of ‘James Salter the Coffeeman’ had become a notable place of resort for the literati, and prominent figures of the day. Alongside his coffee and punch-making skills, it was reported that he could shave, bleed, pull teeth and stumps, and play the fiddle as well as any man in England. But it was his growing collection of curios that began to draw the great and the good from Georgian society to Cheyne Walk.

Salter’s collection began when Sloane started to donate a few curios of his own for Salter to display in his shop. In fact the adorning of barber and apothecary shops was nothing new. As Patrick Wallis’s study of London apothecary premises has shown, visitors might encounter anything from holy relics to stuffed crocodiles, and the display of such items served to cement the worldly and slightly mysterious image of the medical practitioner in the customer’s mind.

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(Image from Daily Telegraph)

Amongst the treasures in the Wellcome Library is the 35th edition of ‘A Catalogue of the Rarities to be seen at Don Saltero’s Coffee House in Chelsea’ – a complete list of the contents of Saltero’s museum, down to individual shelves, cupboards and cases. It gives us a fascinating insight into what visitors would have encountered in the home of the self-styled ‘gimcrack whim collector’, and also what sorts of things were considered as prime curiosities.

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(Author’s photograph of original document in Wellcome Library – copyright belongs to them)

Many items were small objet d’art – curious pieces of pottery from far-flung places, or unusually exquisite or highly crafted pieces. Glass Case number 1, for example, contained ‘a cup and saucer, a drinking cup with a foot, a jar and snuff box, all made of cherry stones’. There were all manner of other types of cups and jars in the case, a crystal bottle and tobacco stopper. Tiny instruments, such as the ‘exceeding curious pair of steel scissors’ weighing just 1 and a quarter grains, or the ‘travelling clock, which is 36 hours going down’.

Adorning the walls were a wide variety of prints and portraits. These included images of unusual animals, like the Brazilian Toucan, or the flying squirrel, as well as prints of historical documents such as the signed death warrant of Charles I, and portraits of famous artists, such as ‘a print of the famous Corelli’. Hanging from the ceiling were all manner of mummified animals, fish and birds, along with replica boats, giant shells and ‘the King of Morocco’s tobacco pipe’.

Animal and human curiosities formed another important part of the collection, offering visitors the chance to feast their eyes on the skeletons or stuffed figures of strange and exotic animals. Mummy’s hands, or saint’s relics were particularly prized, and probably pretty standard fare in other types of museum. But Saltero’s had other treasures such as ‘the head of the spatula bird’, ‘a curious horse-shoe fish’, ‘the pizzle of a racoon’, ‘a lizard 20 inches long’ and even (for Georgian Harry Potter fans!) ‘the ‘basilisk, supposed to kill with his eyes’!

Items that seemed to defy nature were particularly prized. Amongst these were the ‘handkerchief made of the asbestos rock, which fire can’t consume’, and the ‘piece of rotten wood not to be consumed by fire’. ‘Several pieces of the holy cross’ were on display in one room, along with other ‘relicks from Jerusalem’, and even ‘the Pope’s candle’. If all that weren’t enough, one cabinet claimed ‘the flaming sword of William the Conqueror’.

In other cases, exhibits tended more towards things that literally seemed ‘fantastic’: Item number 24 was ‘A curious sword set with polished steel, presented by the king of Lilliput to Capt. Gulliver’. Anticipating Tolkien’s Middle Earth by two centuries, astonished visitors could also gaze upon ‘An elf’s arrow’.

Some items, though, defy easy categorisation. Nuns for example, seem to feature fairly prominently! Saltero’s collections included ‘a pair of nun’s stockings’, ‘a nun’s pincushion’ and various other objects made by nun’s. Religious figures such as nun’s perhaps excited interest since they were inaccessible, even exotic figures, who were shut away from society. Likewise, items with connections to royalty gave people a glimpse into another sort of closed world. William III’s coronation shoes gave a taste of the occasion for those who weren’t invited, while those interested in the size of Elizabeth I’s feet could gaze with wonder at one of her stirrups. Quite why ‘a piece of Queen Catherine’s skin’ was on display, or how it was obtained, is unfortunately not recorded!

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(Cheyne Walk looking East – image copyright of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea http://www.rbkc.gov.uk)

Saltero’s was a feature of the London landscape for over 100 years – long after Salter himself died in 1728. By 1799 the collection had begun to be dispersed and sold. Neverthless, the tavern continued to be known as Don Saltero’s well into the nineteenth century. In 1866, John Timbs’ Club Life of London noted that the last few gimcracks were left until about 1825, when we were informed on the premised they were thrown away!’. But, even then, ‘the house is now a tavern with the sign of “The Don Saltero’s Coffee House”’. Long after his death, the spirit of Saltero, and his exotic collections of curios, continued to reign over Cheyne Walk.

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.