Sit up Straight! Bad posture and the ‘Neck Swing’ in the 18th century.

Posture is a problematic issue for medicine. Having established a link between ‘bad’ posture and all manner of conditions, from spinal curvature and back pain to nerve damage and headaches, slouching is high on the government’s hit list. Why? Let’s be clear about it, back pain is as much an economic issue as a medical one. While clearly there are many causes for back pain, the BBC recently calculated that it costs the NHS over £1.3 million every day. Add to that the costs to businesses of lost working time and it is painful to the economy as well as the body. It is no coincidence that the NHS website has a number of micro-sites dedicated to suggestions for improving the way we sit and stand.

Posture chart

All manner of devices can be bought with the aim of straightening us up. Leaf through the pages of those glossy little free catalogues that often appear in the post (the ones which routinely have walk-in baths, shooting sticks and things for kneeling on in the garden…you get the picture?) and you’ll notice a panoply of postural devices. There are corsets to force you back into position, as well as all manner of back braces to pull your shoulders back. You can buy cushions for your favourite chair that encourage you to sit in a ‘better’ (for which read less comfortable!) way, as well as special chairs that encourage you to kneel. Even, recently, desks that you stand at, instead of slumping in front of the PC screen. All tested. All clinically proven. All, usually, very expensive. Someone is making money off our drooping shoulders and crooked spines.

But devices to make us sit or stand ‘straight’ are certainly nothing new. As we’ll see, the Stuarts and Georgians got there first with a variety of more or less painful solutions. What have changed are attitudes towards posture. For the Georgians, posture was partly medical, certainly, but perhaps more of a social and cultural issue. Put another way, the ‘polite’ body stood straight and tall; to hunch over was unnatural and uncouth.

In the eighteenth century, the ideal body was straight and well proportioned. But even a cursory glance around the inhabitants of a Georgian town would confirm that many – perhaps the majority – were very far from this ideal. Vitamin deficiency caused by poor diet stunted growth, while a variety of diseases experienced through life could leave their mark. Accidents and bone-breakages might be cursorily treated, but a broken leg could easily leave a person with a limp. Also, many conditions, which today are easily treatable, were then left to run rampant through the body. All this meant that the ‘standard’ Georgian body was often far from the ideal.

It would be easy to assume that people simply accepted their lot and got on with their lives. Doubtless many did. But the eighteenth century also witnessed an increasing willingness to shape the body to try and bring it more in line with this elusive ideal. In 1741, Nicholas Andry published his famous ‘orthopedia’, in which he likened the human body to a tree, which needed support as it grew and, later, as it declined. His famous image of the so-called ‘Tree of Andry’ illustrates this well.

The eighteenth century was a golden age of corrective devices. Just like today you could buy a vast number of corsets and stays, which aimed not only to correct medical deformities, like ruptures, but to help women to try and meet the most fashionable body shape, of a miniscule waist and broad bust. The experience of wearing some of these devices must have been at best uncomfortable and, at worst, excruciating.

There were, for example, steel ‘backs’ – large plates of metal inserted and lashed inside the back of the wearer’s clothing, which ‘encouraged’ them to stop slouching. Metal ‘stays’ gave the illusion of a harmonious form while simultaneously forcing the sufferer’s body back into a ‘natural’ shape. Here’s a typical advert from an eighteenth-century newspaper showing the range of available goods:

“London Daily Post and General Advertiser, February 16th, 1739
‘This is to give NOTICE
THAT the Widow of SAMUEL JOHNSON, late of Little Britain, Near West Smithfield, London, carries on the Business of making Steel Springs, and all other Kinds of Trusses, Collars, Neck Swings, Steel-Bodice, polish’d Steel-Backs, with various Instruments for the Lame, Weak or Crooked.
N.B. She attends the Female Sex herself”

Perhaps some of the most uncomfortable devices were those to correct deformities of the neck. For both sexes, having a straight neck was extremely desirable. For men, keeping the chin up was a sign of masculine strength, poise and posture. Those who slouched were mumbling weaklings, destined never to get on in business or the social sphere. The allure of the soft female neck, by contrast, lay in its swan-like grace; a crooked neck ruined the allusion of femininity and threatened the chances of a good match.

Sheldrake illustration

Many makers supplied products to help sufferers of neck problems. Metal collars, hidden under clothing, forced the chin up. If it sagged, it would rest on an uncomfortably hard metallic edge. Perhaps the most extreme of these devices, however, was the ‘neck-swing’ supposedly introduced into England from France by one ‘Monsieur Le Vacher’. This heavy apparatus fitted around, and supported, the wearer’s head and neck, after which they were suspended, feet off the ground, in an effort to elongate the spine and promote a straighter back. We have one unique testimony of someone who tried it. She described how, every morning, she was: “suspended in a neck- swing, which is merely a tackle and pulley fixed to the ceiling of the room; the pulley is hooked to the head-piece of the collar, and the whole person raised so that the toes only touch the ground”. In this awkward position she remained, sometimes for long periods of time.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for postural devices in the eighteenth century, to the extent that they even entered popular culture. In the anonymous Village Memoirs: In a Series of Letters Between a Clergyman and his Family in the Country, and his Son in Town, the titular clergyman noted the vagaries of bodily fashions: “To remedy the ill effects of a Straight line, an uniform curve is now adopted – but alteration is not always improvement – and it reminds me of the conduct of the matron, who, to prevent her daughter from dropping her chin into her bosom, threw it up into the air by the aid of a steel collar – Hogarth’s Analysis has as yet been read to very little purpose’

It is therefore interesting to note how the dialogue of posture has changed over time. Georgian postural devices sought to return the body to a state of nature, or meet an ideal of appearance. While they certainly encouraged the returning of sufferers to productivity, this was less important than creating the impression of a harmonious whole. Today it might be argued to be the other way around. While cosmetic appearance is undoubtedly important, the emphasis is firmly upon health and minimizing the pressure on a creaking health servce. Our impressions of the body rarely remain static. How will the bodily ‘ideal’ translate itself in future?

“MOVEMBER” Special: J.H. Savigny and innovation in eighteenth-century shaving

It’s ‘Movember’. Like many others I’m currently sporting a handlebar moustache for charity. Unlike many others, mine is ginger, and white at the tips. I can’t decide if it makes me look distinguished or like a third-rate drug peddler. Here’s the link to my ‘Mospace’ – you decide (and please feel free to make a donation – it’s for a very worthy cause).  http://mobro.co/4243057

If I was to be sporting this particular piece of facial topiary in eighteenth-century polite society, it is highly likely that I would be frowned upon. As I’ve detailed in a previous post, facial hair of any sort fell dramatically from favour sometime around the mid eighteenth century. The reasons for this are complex, and by no means mutually exclusive. One strong possibility is a shift in concepts of masculinity. As ‘polite’ society became refined, so fashions for men became increasingly feminised. This was the era of the bag wig, silk hose and face powder – at least for those in the upper levels of society. Facial hair connoted rough, earthy types and was not a feature of the polite gentleman’s visage.

Medicine, too, might have played a part. In the early modern period, facial hair was viewed as a form of excreta resulting from too much heat in the liver. Like any other form of bodily waste, it was being expelled and so to remove it was to rid the body of a potentially harmful substance. But another interesting point is that this period also witnessed an astonishing shift in the technologies available for shaving, mostly made possible by the potential of new types of steel – most notably cast steel, often referred to as crucible steel because of its manufacturing process. Unlike its predecessor shear steel, which could be brittle and of uneven quality, cast steel had perfect properties for the manufacture of razors. It was capable of being sharpened to an extremely keen edge and, more than this, could be polished to a mirror-like shine, meaning that cast steel razors could look beautiful, as well as being functional. But the availability of new materials was not, on their own, enough; what was needed was a new breed of technologically-savvy makers to develop new products. In fact, this was exactly what happened.

London, in the mid-eighteenth century, was a hub of technological and manufacturing expertise. But, we should not think of this in modern terms of factories or large-scale production lines. Instead, there were hundreds of individual small artisanal workshops involved in a multiplicity of trades, many of which required metallurgical expertise. Watch and clock makers, for example, required steel for their tiny components, but also in the tools needed to manufacture them. Makers of scientific instruments likewise needed precision tools to make their highly specialised products, as did surgical instrument manufacturers. It is important to note that many carried out their own experiments with metals tailored to their own individual needs, and this made London a centre for metallurgical innovation. Many trades became concentrated into certain parts of London making mini clusters of expertise.  Into this milieu we can place razor makers and some notable names in particular.

Typical of this new breed of metallurgical innovators was John Horatio Savigny of Pall Mall in London. Savigny was likely of Huguenot descent, his family coming to London in the seventeenth century. The ancestral trade of the Savignys was surgical instrument manufacture, and several others of the family were engaged in similar manufacturing trades. But John Henry, or JH, Savigny as he was often referred to was perhaps the most prominent and widely esteemed.

From his base at number 129 Pall Mall, Savigny was continually involved in the manufacture of a range of metallic goods. In 1778, for example, he advertised his new type of lancet which, he informed “Gentlemen of the Faculty” were made using “a method […] lately contrived whereby these instruments are brought to such a degree of accuracy as will greatly lessen the pain of the patient and totally remove all apprehension of disappointment in the operator”.  Notice the emphasis upon his “new method”, referring to his experimentation with steel.

In 1776, Savigny referred directly to his new methods of manufacture in another advertisement for lancets. Again addressed to “Gentlemen of the Faculty” – i.e. London Physicians, he laid special emphasis upon the fact that “he has invented a new Vertical Machine, particularly calculated for the perfection of Lancets”.  His “Cast Steel Convex Penknives”, according to a 1775 advertisement, had “received the Approbation of the most eminent Writing Masters”, and could be bought in person from Savigny at his shop near the Haymarket.

But it was razor manufacture that really made Savigny’s name and, once again, his experimentation with steel lay at the heart of his advertising pitch. By 1764, his “Razors tempered by means of a new discovered process” could also be bought from his shop. Tempering suggests the remelting and refinement of steel, a difficult and intricate process requiring specialist equipment and knowledge. These new razors were functional and attractive. More than this, they appealed to a new market of male toilette, one in which polite gentlemen were increasingly beginning to shave themselves, rather than visit a barber. A range of new products was becoming available to them, from shaving powders to soothe the face, to travelling kits and even beautifully carved and constructed shaving tables.

Shaving table from 18th-century furniture catalogue

A raft of advertisements followed, with razors often prominent among the products listed. By 1800, Savigny could boast an entire printed catalogue of products, aimed at enticing customers to browse, and hopefully to buy.

Image from Savigny’s instrument catalogue, 1800

But Savigny was keen to diversify beyond instruments, and evidence from patent records shows that he introduced a range of other products. In 1800, Savigny proposed a steel tourniquet to stop bleeding “more effectually than has hitherto been done”. In 1784, he proposed “  A METHOD OF MAKING OF SKAITS, AND PARTICULARLY FOR FIXING THEM ON WITH MORE EASE, SAFETY AND EXPEDITION THAN HATH HITHERTO BEEN DISCOVERED.

Savigny was rapidly becoming an authority on steel, so much so that his expertise was sought by the Birmingham manufacturer and luminary Matthew Boulton, of the Boulton and Watt company. Boulton sought Savigny’s advice on the quality of some new types of steel that he was purchasing from India. Indeed, it was not only in metallurgy that Savigny was seemingly making a name for himself. These adverts suggest that he was an amateur actor, perhaps of less talent than his main business!

John Horation Savigny as Selim

All this adds up to a picture of a man who was typical of the new enlightened breed of manufacturers, interested not only in their own businesses, but in the possibilities and opportunities of their age.

In 1789 he attempted to patent his own steel razor. This is an extract from the patent (BL Patent 1716):

“A RAZOR OF AN ENTIRE NEW CONSTRUCTION, FOR THE SHAVING THE FACE AND HEAD WITH MUCH GREATER EASE AND SAFETY THAN ANY OTHER RAZOR OR INSTRUMENT HITHERTO FOUND OUT, INVENTED OR DISCOVERED”

…In the manner following:- Of the purest steel that can be procured, which is to be forged (with very moderate and often repeated immersions in the fire, so that its substance may receive no injury from a separation of its particles by excess of heat, but on the contrary be rendered as dense as possible), into the form of a razor, differing in form from all other razors heretofore made in the cutting part of the blade”.

The problem with innovation is that it can be copied. Whether Savigny ‘invented’ the cast steel razor is unclear, but he certainly had competitors.  Amongst these was John Stodart another London razor maker. In 1788, Stodart himself was forced into some measure of quality control:

“STODART begs gentlemen who send for the above articles, will be so obliging as to observe that his name is stamped on the Blade. This caution is made necessary, by his having had Repeatedly razors sent to be exchanged which never were purchased at his shop. It is with infinite satisfaction, he is able to add, that since the above method of tempering, he finds no difficulty in supplying Gentlemen with Razors, which with the assistance of a good strap, perform at all times agreeable to their wishes. “

The razor market was becoming highly competitive by the late eighteenth century, and many other makers rose to prominence, such as James Stodart, Benjamin Kingsbury and Daniel Riccard, all of whom used the ubiquitous newspaper advertisement columns to push their products. Others, like Edward Greaves of Sheffield in 1804, continued to develop the razor, this time suggesting springs to create three lockable positions, making the razor more functional and adaptable.

But the salient point here is how far facial hair, and specifically its removal, carried significance in the eighteenth century. Much time, energy, money and advertising space was expended by manufacturers keen to make their products most prominent. The process of shaving was loaded with social significance; to be facially hirsuite, as I have said, was undesirable. It could therefore be argued that the humble moustache or beard played a central role in spurring metallurgical innovation in Georgian Britain. Far from being a mundane everyday experience, the history of shaving can actually reveal much more about past societies than we might usually think.

If you enjoyed this post, a pre-publication draft of my new academic article on the history of shaving and masculinity during the Enlightenment can be viewed in the papers section of my Academia.edu page here: http://exeter.academia.edu/AlunWithey

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

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

A prosthetic eye, possible 17th century.

Until the seventeenth century, eye complaints were troublesome and painful, and effectively seen as a form of disability. The virtual plague of ophthalmic conditions in early modern Britain is attested to by the ubiquity of remedies for eye complaints in remedy collections. Common were remedies for sore eyes, which were often treated (in line with the ‘doctrine of sympathies’) by using substances of a similar constitution to the eye. Remedies using snails were popular; one common example was to impale a garden snail on a pin and let the juice run into the eye. Another recommended using fresh goose dung, its gelatinous consistency resembling the watery eye. Yet another suggested the blowing of dried hen’s dung into the afflicted party’s eye just before they went to sleep. For more on the uses of animal substances in remedies, see Lisa Smith’s excellent blog post on the subject. http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2012/05/the-puppy-water-and-other-early-modern-canine-receipts.html

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

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

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

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

Martin’s Margins

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

Reynolds Self Portrait © PCMAG

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

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

So today’s fashion for spectacles has a long gestation, and it is interesting to see how perceptions of eye complaints have shifted over time. In fact, opthalmics has tended to move away from a strictly ‘medical’ field; the optician is now a common feature of the high-street and eye-tests and fittings can be done virtually on a drop-in basis. It is also interesting to note that the wearing of spectacles for fashion is not new. I heartily recommend a visit to the MusEYEum in the Royal College of Optometrists in London, where there is a fascinating library of artefacts and books about the history of spectacles, as well as some rare portraits of spectacle-wearers through history. The blog of its curator, Neil Handley, can be found here: http://www.college-optometrists.org/en/knowledge-centre/news/blog/index.cfm/id/199E66BA-4091-4C98-A53907402DE66669

Steel and the body in the Enlightenment:

Whilst I was a research fellow at the University of Glamorgan, working with Professor Chris Evans, I was lucky enough to be part of a project far away from my usual research on Welsh medical history, but one which opened my eyes to an extraordinarily fruitful and fascinating area of research.

As the sociologist Richard Sennett commented, the eighteenth-century body was a ‘mannequin’ upon which were hung conventions of fashion, taste and politeness. Historians, however, have been slow to recognise the important influence of ‘enlightened’ manufactured goods in this process. New industrial technologies yielded products aimed specifically at the body, of which articles made from steel were central. Steel is not often thought of in terms of its contribution to culture, but rather as a prosaic industrial material. Technological breakthroughs between the 1680s and 1740s (such as Huntsman’s crucible steel) made steel an increasingly abundant and important good. It was, however, a material that could actually play a role in the fashioning of a new, refined self, and was indeed vital for some of the most personal rituals of everyday life. It was the metal with which people had the closest, even the most intimate, physical contact.

Razors were a prime example of this. Better steel enabled razor-makers to produce blemish-free, durable and more comfortable blades. Pre-crucible steel razors tended to blunt quickly and, although sharp, were not superbly keen. Part of the reason for this was the use of pre-Bessemer cementation steel, which was more brittle due to the less than uniform distribution of carbon. Crucible (or cast) steel razors were far superior; not only could they carry a much sharper edge, they could be polished to a mirror-like shine, making them far more aesthetically pleasing for consumers.

Indeed, when advertising their wares in popular publications, it was to domestic consumers rather than professional barbers that they most often appealed. Personal razors allowed their owners to meet expectations of refinement and social order. Shaving the face evinced gentlemanly neatness and elegance, while shaving the head prepared it for the wearing of a wig – an expression of genteel masculinity.

Cast steel had effects in other ways. Its ability to take a sharp edge also influenced the design of surgical instruments, for example, and this led to changes in operative techniques, which had implications for both the patients and practitioners of surgery. The amputation knife was one such instrument. The standard amputation knife around the mid eighteenth century was long and straight – something resembling a chef’s knife today! But advances in steel allowed a new, curved design. This allowed surgeons to use a more natural cutting stroke around the leg, cutting through the soft tissues more quickly, before sawing through the bone. Given the risk of losing a patient through hypovolemic shock in pre-anaesthetic surgery, speed was of the essence.

The springy strength of steel was likewise indispensable for medical paraphernalia from trusses to deportment collars. Here, steel was a pure Enlightenment good, scientifically honed to improve or correct nature’s vagaries. As makers of ‘elastic steel trusses’ frequently emphasised, steel was the only material with which they could claim to cure hernias or ruptures. Steel ‘neck swings’ could be used to force the body back into its ‘natural’ shape, while deportment collars and steel ‘stays’ encouraged young ladies and gentlemen to stand up straight.

Other devices benefitted from the development of new types of steel. It could, for example, be employed in fixing correctional devices to the body, such as the flexible springs in spectacles’ side arms. Spectacles became a permanent part of costume, with an aesthetic value in their own right. In this process, they ceased to be indicators of bodily deficiency and acquired more positive associations (learning and sagacity), as archival and artefactual collections at the College of Optometrists can demonstrate.

One of the most visible uses of steel, though, was in costume jewellery. By the mid eighteenth-century, jewellery was strongly in vogue amongst the upper echelons of society. As Marcia Pointon has noted, diamonds were the very height of luxurious and conspicuous consumption, and costume jewellery reflected a range of social mores and rituals related to society ritual and appearance. Prohibitively expensive, the potential market for these precious stones was therefore extremely limited.  But steel offered new possibilities as an ersatz precious metal; here was a material which could offer all the decorative allure of diamonds, but at a fraction of the price. Cut and faceted into imitation stones known as ‘brilliants’, cast steel sparkled. With flat surfaces polished, it shone like a mirror.

By the late eighteenth-century demand for cut-steel jewellery reached across Europe and appealed to royalty as well as affluent middling sorts with disposable income to match their social aspirations. Fashionable gentlemen increasingly bought cast steel watch chains, both to support their newly modish gold and silver watches, but also as a costume adornment in their own right. Added to these chains were a further range of accoutrements such as seals and lockets, which further served to draw attention to the means of the wearer. In the 1760s, chatelaines made from ‘blued steel’ presented a ‘gamut of metallic hues’. Glistening steel buttons also became an essential part of the dress of the Beau Monde, so much so that their effulgence was satirised in cartoons such as Coups de Bouton, showing a society lady cowering in the face of the blinding light reflected in the buttons of her rakish companion. But this perhaps also worked on a deeper level. Steel jewellery reflected the light but, in doing so, it also perhaps somehow reflected the spirit of the age – literal enlightenment.

It is often surprising what even the most basic of materials can reveal about society and culture, as well as the technological processes involved in making them. Steel was in many ways a ‘crossover’ between technology and culture; it was both a product of the enlightenment, and something that acted as a vector for enlightened ideals, through the various uses to which it was put.