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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; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Quarantine and Contagion

Browsing through the  31 January, 1825 edition of John Bull, as you do (as we say), I came across this book advertisement. It reaffirms my conviction that doubt is more useful than conviction (but of course I can be persuaded otherwise).


Quarantine and Contagion
Just published in octavo, price 15s. the second edition
Evils of quarantine laws; and non-existence of Pestilential Contagion; deduced from the phenomena of the Plague of the Levant, the Yellow Fever of Spain, and the Cholera Morbus of Asia. By Charles Maclean MD
London: Printed for Baldwin, Cradock and Joy

Hats off to Dr Maclean for getting into two editions.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Register-Office for Beauty, 1800


I came across this in The Lady’s Monthly Museum, 1 April 1800. I present it copied verbatim:

Proposals for opening
A Register-Office for Beauty:
Or, Repository for Female Charms

Mr Editor,

Through the medium of your excellent and widely-circulated Museum, I beg leave to state, that I have procured, with infinite labour and expense, the choicest collection of all the several articles required for mending, patching, restoring, improving, and supplying every female perfection. I have also engaged the most ingenious artists in the different branches of this useful profession, and mean shortly to open an office at the Court end of the town.

I have provided all the different assortment of lilies and roses, to suit every complexion. I have laid in a considerable stock of unguents, cosmetics, and beautifying pastes. I have the finest tinctures to colour the hair, the brightest red salve for foul lips, and the sweetest perfumes for stinking breaths. I shall sell Mr. ---’s fine compound (at a guinea an ounce), to take off all superfluous hair, without the least prejudice to the tenderest complexion; as likewise the grand anti-maculating tincture, to remove pimples, sun-burns, or freckles.

I have various shapes ready fitted up, of all sizes; with all sorts of cushions, plumpers, and bolsters, to hide any defects. I have a curiously-contrived engine for pulling out wry necks, for strengthening bandy legs, and for stretching or cramping them, with the feet, arms, hands, etc, if too short, or too long. I also have a machine for reducing crooked backs, or flattening round shoulders.

I have artificial brilliants of all waters, whether for the bright eye, the dead eye, the piercing eye, the sleepy eye, the bold eye, the swimming eye, etc. I have hired a French oculist to put them into any ladies’ sockets, from whence he will take out, with very little pain, the squinny eye, the wall eye, the goggle eye, and all others. Hairs are plucked out of the forehead by pincers, and the smoothest mouse eye-brows, of all colours, put on by him in their room, with the nicest exactness.

Mr ----, the dentist, has engaged to draw teeth at my office, and to put in a new set of the best polished ivory. A noted chin-turner will attend every day, to shave, plane, and mount chins, to any cock desired; he will also neatly piece, join, and glue on artificial ones, if wanted.

I have imported a great-grand-daughter of professor Taliacotius, who pares, scrapes, grinds, and new-models overgrown noses; cuts off crooked or flat ones to the stumps, and engrafts new ones on the roots of them.

I apply a particular sticking-plaster to the face, which takes off the whole skin; I then rub it over with a beautfying liquor, which adds a new gloss to it; and afterwards I paint it, as natural as the life, to any pattern of complexion. I peel off the finger-nails, and flay the entire hand in the same manner, which, in a month’s time, makes them as white as hanging them in a sling, or the wearing of dog’s skin gloves can render them in a twelvemonth. As for those who are hindered from dancing, by corns of any sort, or toe-nails grown into the flesh, a most famous corn-doctor has promised to cure them; as (according to his advertisement) several of the Royal Family, and a great many persons of the highest distinction, have experienced.

I cut dimples into the grain, which never wear out. I slit the lips open on each side if too narrow, and sew them up when they are too wide, with such niceness, that the seams are imperceptible. I no less dexterously fine-draw, or darn, wrinkles of any standing; and fill up all dents, chaps, or holes made by the small-pox, with a new-invented powder. I have a thin diet-drink to bring down the over-plump to a proper gentility of slimness, and a nourishing kind of jelly for the improvement of the scraggy. In short, I am possessed of many other equally valuable secrets, on which I shall enlarge more particularly hereafter, in my printed bills, to be dispersed over the three kingdoms.

Ladies are waited upon at their own houses, by their very humble servant,
Elizabeth Mendall.



There are a number of things in this text worthy of comment, but what I find most difficult is to trace the exact line separating the possibly accurate from the satirical. It’s not easy: women did sleep in dogskin gloves which sealed their hands in a paste to whiten them; hairs were plucked off foreheads, and plumpers filled out the spaces in the mouth where lost teeth would otherwise cause sunken cheeks. So, in my quest for evidence of mouse-skin false eye-brows, should I treat this as a viable documentary text, or a satire? It is a very late mention for this particular cosmetic fashion – references to mouse-skin eye-brows tend to be mid-eighteenth century. My gut feeling is that I should treat it as satire, one more for a growing collection of satirical references to this phenomenon, for which I have as yet to find one non-satirical reference.

A further thought though: where does the expression ‘mousy hair’ really come from?