About Me

I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Eighteenth-century women chemists


A recipe for lovely skin; or eighteenth-century women chemists

Cucumber pomatum 

Take hogs’-lard a pound, ripe melons and cucumbers of each three pounds, verjuice half a pint, two pippins pared, and a pint of cows’ milk. Slice the melons, cucumbers and apples, having first pared them; bruise them in the verjuice, and together with the milk and hogs’-lard put them into an alembic, and let them stand to infuse in a vapour bath eight or ten hours. Then squeeze out the liquor through a straining cloth while the mixture is hot; expose the pomatum to the cold air, or set it in a cool place to congeal, then pour off the watery part that subsides. And wash it in several waters till the last remains perfectly transparent. Melt the pomatum again in a vapour bath several times, to separate from it all its humid particles, and every extraneous substance, or else it will soon grow rancid. Keep it for use in a gallipot tied over with a bladder. 

The Toilet of Flora, 1775

This is a long and demanding process, and would have resulted in a not unpleasant skin cream. The lard and milk would have provided protein and the vegetables would have been probably beneficial to the skin. The process would have been carried out by women - The Ladies Dictionary (1694) states that:

Every young Gentlewoman is to be furnished … with very good stills, for the distillations of all kinds of waters, which stills must either be of tin, or sweet earth, and in them she shall distil all manner of waters …

Eight or ten hours watching over the first distillation in stills not of glass but of opaque material, so that you could not see what was happening – so presumably you learned to judge the heat appropriately so the mixture did not burn, no small skill in itself. And then washing it several times, and then melting it several times. What we are looking at here is effectively an industrial chemical process, carried out at home, dependent upon skill and judgement for its success; a wealthy home too if they could afford melons. It was clearly a process which could fail, since the result of such a failure is described (it will soon grow rancid). Thus it was important to know how to get it right. Where did the women get their training in this, other than by watching and helping their elders? The inference is that the eighteenth century was a period in which women were passing on skills in chemistry that were used for their own applications.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Weight-loss, seventeenth-century style


As the days begin to lengthen and the light comes streaming in through the bedroom window, we may find ourselves surprised by the shape that we recognise in the mirror. We recognise it, but it cannot surely be us. But, yes, it is.

Here is a recipe for weight loss from former times:

Body when too fat, how to reduce it to a beautiful form and handsome proportion 

No-one can think it a very pleasing sight to see a soul struggling under a mountainous load of flesh and the body stretched to such proportions as renders it almost out of shape.  And if they were nothing more than the encumbrance, it were sufficient to deter any one from so unwieldy a a magnitude, yet here in too legible characters those that can read conclude Sloth and Voluptuousness occasioned it; for whene’er the carcase swells itself into a bulk too voluminous idleness is there described in Folio. Ladies then be careful to keep your bodies in a due proportion, and if ever they enlarge themselves to extravagant limits, use the directions to reduce them to their former bounds, so you may regain both your credits and your beauties; Bodies of such proportions, must rise early in the morning, be exercised to sweating, be spare in diet, not eating sweet things, but rather salt, sharp or bitter, especially sauces; lie not over soft at night; bleed in the right arm pretty largely in the  Spring, and in the left in Autumn; purge pretty strongly in those seasons; and once a week take some laxatives; and in winter mornings the powder thus composed: Bray aniseeds, fennel agnus castus, caraway, rue and cumin, nutmegs, pepper, mace, ginger, galingale, and smallage, dry’d marjoram, gentian, round-birthwort, of each an equal part, and by drying, beating and sifting, bring it into a powder, and take in a glass of white wine a dram of it half an hour before meals; and to the heart and liver, as you see cause, lay cooling applications, such as the juice of plantaine, shepherds-purse, lettuce, and the like; and if anyparticular part be more corpulent then the rest, take cerus, fullers-earth, and white lead, mix them with the juice of henbane and oil of myrtle, and when the part has been bathed with vinegar, anoint the place, and the success will be evident.

The Ladies Dictionary, 1694

Large parts of this were pinched from Thomas Jeamson’s Artificial Embellishments, 1665, whose cure was as follows:

Rise early in the mornings and use some violent exercise to sweat often; fast much, rise half-satisfied from your meals; let your first course be oily and fat things, so that the appetite may be soon satiated, and the body kept soluble [free from constipation]; the second course sharp, salt and bitter things; eat all your meats [i.e. foods] with vinegar, pepper, mustard, juice of oranges and lemons; sleep at night on a quilt.

Not bad advice; which I intend to follow, starting next week. Or soon after.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Little-ease and the Secrets of Beauty


Stays, if rightly used and shaped, undoubtedly do good, it is only misuse and faulty design that is injurious. I hold that most of the corsets at present on the market are quite wrong in design, and do not allow the free expansion of the lungs, nor do they do much to improve the graceful contour of the figure. They are, in fact, instruments of torture, not aids to beauty. But is it fair to condemn altogether the use of this article of attire because some patterns are badly designed? Is it right that we should forego the advantages of binding because some stays press on the wrong place?

The Secrets of Beauty, 1914, Cora Brown Potter

Ms Potter goes on to say


As to the aesthetic effect of the corsets such as I advocate, all I have to say is that I have always worn them. I have lived in the public eye for many years, I have visited every nation,and dwelt under every sky, so in your hands, gentle sisters, do I leave the verdict.

In the seventeenth century people were well aware of the pain a corset could cause. John Bulwer, in Man transform’d: or the artificial changeling (1653) wrote:

Another foolish affectation there is in young virgins, though grown big enough to be wiser, but that they are led blindfold by custom to a fashion pernicious beyond imagination; who thinking a slender waist a great beauty, strive all that they possibly can by straight-lacing themselves to attain unto a wand-like smallness of waist, never thinking themselves fine enough until they can span their waist. By which deadly artifice they reduce their breasts into such straights that they soon purchase stinking breath; and while they ignorantly affect an angust or narrow breast, and to that end by strong compulsion shut up their waists in a whale-bone prison, or little-ease; they open a door to consumptions, and a withering rottenness.


John Bulwer was a pioneering student of the nature of human gesture and of the potential for communication by deaf people. His study of the processes of artifical modification of the human body uses examples from all over the known world, and ultimately criticises British fashions for using the same restricting actions applied by less developed cultures. A ‘whale-bone prison, or little-ease’ was a corset, made from the baleen plates from whales’ mouths. 

'Little-ease' was the name of prison cell in London's Guildhall in which unruly apprentices were in effect tortured; the space was too restricted to allow an individual to stand, sit or lie comfortably. Curiously, the first citation for it in the OED runs: 

a1529   J. Skelton Colyn Cloute (?1545)   
Lodge hym in Lytell Ease 
Fede hym with beanes and pease!  

And feeding someone of beans and peas (interesting etymology on that word too) would over time make him or her fatter, and thus more discomforted.

The Illustrated Police News 25 June 1870 carried the story of a woman who ‘died from the effects of tight lacing which impeded the action of her heart’.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

How to balance weight loss


Should you find yourself suddenly losing weight in one area, to the detriment of the balance of your body, you may care to try this late-seventeenth-century remedy.

Bodies unequally thriving

Bodies sometimes fall away in one part, and not in another; if so to bring your Body to even terms: take an ounce and a half of oil of foxes, oil of lilies, and capons grease, and goose grease, of each twoounces; pine, rosin, Greek pitch and turpentine, of each two ounces; boil them together in an earthen glazed vessel; adding then an ounce of the oil of elder, being taken hot from the fire; add someVirgin’s-wax to them, as much as will stiffen the mass, into a searcloth, and when it is almost cold, spread it and apply it to the place that languishes, or does not equally thrive.

The Ladies Dictionary, 1694

A searcloth was more clearly spelled 'cerecloth', originally a waxed cloth, but later one impregnated with some glutinous matter, which could act as a plaster.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

An Electrical Lady, 1838


The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser was a Chartist newspaper, operating between 1837 and 1852; it began as a protest against the Poor Law of 1834. In 1840 its editor Feargus O’Connor was imprisoned for 18 months for publishing ‘seditious libel’. However, the paperwas not averse to publishing curious stories of general interest, such as this, from 2 June 1838.

An Electrical Lady 

A respectable physician, in the last number of Silliman’s Journal, gives the following very curious account of an electrical lady. He states, that on the evening of January 28th, during a somewhat extraordinary display of the northern lights, the person in question became so highly charged with electricity, as to give out electrical sparks from the end of each finger to the face of each of the company present. This did not cease with the heavenly phenomenon, but continued for several months, during which time she was constantly charged, and giving off electrical sparks to every conductor she approached. This was extremely vexatious, as she could not touch the stove, or any metallic utensil, without first giving off an electrical spark, with the consequent twinge. The state most favourable to this phenomenon was an atmosphere of about 80 Fah., moderate exercise, and social enjoyment. It disappeared in an atmosphere approaching zero, and under the debilitating effects of fear. When seated by a stove, reading, with her feet upon the fender, she gave sparks at the rate of three or four a minute; and under the most favourable circumstances a spark could be seen, heard or felt, passed every second! She could charge others in the same way, when insulated, who could then give sparks to others. To make it satisfactory that her dress did not produce it, it was changed to cotton and woollen without altering the phenomenon. The lady is about thirty – of sedentary pursuits, and a very delicate state of health, having for two years previous suffered from acute rheumatism and neuralgic affections, with peculiar symptoms.

 There is no note as regards the feelings of the people to whose faces the sparks reached. It’s a wonderful science-fiction scene, and extremely Gothic – a woman in delicate health whose body becomes massively charged, sending out sparks to people’s faces. Especially in situations of ‘social enjoyment’ – she must have been a real cracker at parties.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A eighteenth-century celebrity sports goods manufacturer


While looking for something else I came across this in a volume of eighteenth-century Scots poems

The Goff. An Heroi-comical poem in three cantos

Goff, and the Man, I sing, who em’lous plies
The jointed club; whose balls invade the skies;
Who from Edina’s tow’rs, his peaceful home,
In quest of fame o’er Letha’s plains did roam.
Long toil'd the hero, on the verdant field,
Strain'd his stout arm the weighty club to wield;
Such toils it cost, such labours to obtain
The bays of conquest, and the bowl to gain.

O thou GOLFINIA, Goddess of these plains,
Great patroness of GOFF, indulge my strains;
Whether beneath the thorn-tree shade you lie,
Or from Mercerian tow'rs the game survey,
Or 'round the green the flying ball you chase,
Or make your bed in some hot sandy face;
Leave your lov'e abode, inspire his lays,
Who sings of GOFF, and sings thy fav'rite's praise.

North from Edina eight furlongs and more
Lies that fam'd field, on Fortha's sounding shore.
Here, Caledonian Chiefs for health resort,
Confirm their sinews by the manly sport.
Macd----d and umnatch'd D---ple ply
Their pond'rous weapons, and the green defy;
R--tt-y for skill, and C--fe for strength renown'd, 
St--rt and L--sly beat the sandy ground,
And Br--wn and Alst--n, Chiefs well known to fame,
And numbers more the Muse forbears to name.
Gigantic B-gg-r here full oft is seen,
Like huge Behemoth on an Indian green;
His bulk enormous scarce can 'scape the eyes,
Amaz'd spectators wonder how he plies.
Yea here great F---s, patron of the just,
The dread of villains, and the good man's trust,
When spent with toils in serving human kind,
His body recreates, and unbends his mind. 

Bright Phoebus now, had measur'd half the day
And warm'd the earth with genial noontide ray;
Forth rush'd Castalio and his daring foe,
Both arm'd with clubs, and eager for the blow.
Of finest ash Castalio's shaft was made,
Pond'rous with lead, and fenc'd with horn the head,
(The work of Dickson, who in Letha dwells,
And in the art of making clubs excels),
Which late beneath great Claro's arm did bend,
But now is wielded by his greater friend.

And so on.

What I found it most interesting is the information about the ball-maker, Bobson. The balls are:

The work of Bobson; who with matchless art
Shapes the firm hide, connecting evr'y part,
Then in a socket sets the well-stitch'd void,
And thro' the eylet drives the downy hide;
Crowds urging Crowds the forceful brogue impels,
The feathers harden and the Leather swells;
He crams and sweats, yet crams and urges more,
Till scarce the turgid globe contains its store:
The dreaded falcon's pride here blended lies
With pigeons glossy down of various dyes;
The lark's small pinions join the common stock,
And yellow glory of the martial cock.

Soon as Hyperion gilds old Andrea's spires,
From bed the artist to his cell retires;
With bended back, there plies his steely awls,
And shapes, and stuffs, and finishes the balls.
But when the glorious God of day has driv'n
His flaming chariot down the steep of heav'n,
He ends his labour, and with rural strains
Enchants the lovely maids and weary swains:
As thro' the streets the blythsome piper plays,
In antick dance they answer to his lays;
At ev'ry pause the ravish'd crowd acclaim,
And rend the skies with tuneful Bobson's name.
Not more rewarded was old Amphion's song;
That rear'd a town, and this one drags along.
Such is fam'd Bobson, who in Andrea thrives,
And such the balls each vig'rous hero drives.

A celebrity among sports equipment makers, the Nike and Adidas of his day, Bobson lived and worked in St Andrews (Andrea). The poem was written by Thomas Matheson, a lawyer and eventually a minister of the Church of Scotland; the levity of the poem may not have sat well with the required gravitas of a minister of the Kirk, but it was written in 1743, five years before he took the cloth.

Incidentally the heroes of the poem were Duncan Forbes of Culloden (NB this was three years before the demise of the Jacobite uprising), Dalrymple, Rattray, Crosse, Lesley, Alston and Biggar. Hawkeyes will note the echoes of the Aeneid in the first few lines. The match seems to have taken place at Leith. If my reading is correct it seems that Bobson finished his working day with a stroll round the streets with his bagpipes. I love the idea of the lovely maids and weary swains dancing through the town occasionally taking a pause to shout the name of a golf-ball maker.

Wish I'd had this for Team Talk .

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Forgetting to Breathe


In one of my workshops at the British Library I begin by asking students how many stars they would give the English language. Uusally it averages out at four; by the end of the workshop I have worried and perplexed them into lowering their assessment to two or three. Yet we know the language is capable of incidentally producing phrases and sentences of staggering beauty. ‘Elbow’ is reckoned by many to be the most beautiful word in the language, yet it refers to a part of the body which seldom makes viewers swoon; why ‘elbow’ rather than ‘eyebrow’, which for centuries was so important a feature of the face that its placing drove women to shave theirs off and replace them with false ones?

One of my favourite sentences in the language comes near the end of Heming and Condell’s preface to the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623). After the wonderful bombast with which they castigate previous publications of the plays – ‘stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters’ – they include in their text surely one of the most successful pieces of advice ever: Read him therefore, and again, and again. This begins with a  combination of sounds in the first three words demanding a steady pace, followed by the forced break of the comma, and then another strongly rhythmic and again slow phrase, the divided repetition of the nasal sound of ‘again’ sounding like a bell inside the head. It sets the reader up for the wonderfully embracing sentiments of the end of the preface, which honour Heming and Condell’s fellow writers introducing Shakespeare, the playwright himself, his readers, and readers they might introduce to his work. But ‘read him therefore, and again, and again’ stays in the mind, like the memory of something we know to be right.

Yesterday I came across something very sad but very beautifully written, the narrative of the death of a young woman from a drug overdose in 1787. Dr Priest  is writing to his colleague Dr Hamilton from Ipswich; he begins by stating that he was sent for to oversee the case of a young woman. ‘Her name, as I am told, was Lydia Spratt’. I have always felt that the genius of the iambic rhythm is that it observes and reflects the rhythm of much spoken English; this sentence, ‘her name …’, is a great example of this. It could be early seventeenth-century dramatic verse.

Lydia Spratt was ‘the servant girl of a farmer’. Dr Priest states ‘the only information which I received, was, that they could not wake her’, and it soon transpires that she has taken an overdose of laudanum, which she was accustomed to take for a stomach complaint. He gives her ipecacuanha ‘without the least effect’, and manages to get her to swallow fluids without any apparent muscular motion. He bleeds her, but the blood flows slowly, and is ‘very black’. He gets some vinegar and brandy into her, and has her body rubbed with this, but to no avail. In desparation she is taken outside and laid on a cask, which is rolled about, and then sat in a chair. But she does not regain consciousness, and dies an hour later. ‘Her breathing became more and more laborious; at the end of every expiration, there seemed to be total inactivity of the lungs for some moments, and the succeeding inspiration was long. I should call her death, a forgetting to breathe’.

This last sentence, though it does not have that iambic rhythm, has an expressive pace. Though it is possible to pronounce the first clause swiftly, the second clause demands to be spoken slowly, and seems to expire at the end of the sentence –  the word ‘breathe’ is almost onomatopoeic. And the break in the middle reflects the ‘total inactivity’, the forgetting.

I had remembered this sentence as ‘Her death was, she forgot to breathe’, but the actuality is so much less glib, and so much better. We imagine the doctor sitting thinking about the case of poor Lydia Spratt, wondering how to assess this death, in which his observation meets his medical knowledge of what he knows to be a reflex action, and how these meet the potential of the language to express the problem. The sentence is about how we try to reconcile what we know with what we see, and how we fail.