Friday, 24 October 2014

A history of Bedlam, the world's most notorious asylum

The Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam as it is more commonly known, is Europe's oldest extant psychiatric hospital and has operated continuously for over 600 years. It was founded in London in 1247 during the reign of Henry III, as the priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlehem. Bethlem was not actually intended as a hospital, much less as a specialist institution for the insane, but rather as a house for the poor and a centre for the collection of alms to support the Crusader Church. However, the crown seized Bethlem in the 1370s and it became an increasingly secular institution staffed by crown appointees. 

The first definitive record of the presence of the insane in Bethlem is from the details of a visitation of the Charity Commissioners in 1403. This recorded that among other patients there were six male inmates who were "mente capti", a Latin term indicating insanity. The visitation also noted the presence of four pairs of manacles, eleven chains, six locks and two pairs of stocks, presumably used to restrain the most violent inmates. In c.1450 the Mayor of London described Bedlam as a "place [where may] be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever, for they be fallen so much out of themselves that it is incurable unto man". Little is known of the treatment of the insane for much of the medieval period, though mechanical restraint, a meagre diet and solitary confinement are likely to have been common practices. The name "Bedlam" developed in the 14th century as a corruption of "Bethlem", or "Bethlehem".

Plan of the medieval Bethlem hospital. ~ From Daniel Hack Tuke,
Chapters in the History of the Insane in the British Isles (1882)

By 1600, Bethlem was co-owned by the crown and the City of London, and run by a board of governors. The change in management doesn't seem to have benefited the hospital's inmates; conditions in 16th- and 17th-century Bedlam were appalling. Bethlem had been built over a sewer which served both the hospital and the surrounding area, and as it regularly blocked, waste of all kinds would seep into the building. The 1598 visitation by the Governors had observed that the hospital was "filthely kept", and a later inspection found inmates actually starving. Under the leadership of the aptly-named Helkiah Crooke, who was dismissed in 1632 on grounds of absenteeism and embezzlement, charitable goods and foodstuffs were stolen by the steward and either personally consumed or sold on to patients. Those without the resources to trade with the steward often went hungry. It was at approximately this time that the word "Bedlam" seems to entered everyday speech to signify a state of madness and chaos.

The admittance of public visitors as a means of raising hospital income may have been allowed since the late 16th century; certainly there are 17th century accounts which describe the "Swarms of People" which descended on Bethlem during public holidays in order to amuse themselves by watching the mad inmates. The number of visitors seeking entertainment rose in the 18th century, becoming one of Bedlam's most notorious characteristics. Visiting was defended by some commentators as a form of moral instruction, as it illustrated the dangers of immorality and vice which could, in popular belief, lead to madness. As one spectator commented, "[there is no] better lesson [to] be taught us in any part of the globe than in this school of misery...From so humbling a sight we may learn to moderate our pride, and to keep those passions within bounds, which if too much indulged, would drive reason from her seat, and level us with the wretches of this unhappy mansion".  


Figures representing Melancholia and Mania, at the entrance to Bedlam

All well and good, but for the vast majority, Bedlam was simply a titillating source of cheap amusement which provided what historian Roy Porter describes as the "frisson of the freak show". An 18th century observer recorded how on one occasion, "a hundred people at least [were] . . . suffered unattended to run rioting up and down the wards, making sport and diversion of the miserable inhabitants, [some of whom were] provoked by the insults of this holiday mob into furies of rage". Unrestricted public access continued until 1770, after which time visitors required a ticket signed by a governor of the hospital. As distasteful as it was to have crowds flocking to make fun of the mentally ill, some historians have speculated that the lack of public oversight after 1770 allowed for more flagrant abuses.

Being such an infamous institution, Bedlam did not lack for attention in the public, literary and artistic spheres. Jonathan Swift memorably quipped, where better to recruit the nation's politicians than Bedlam, since the inmates could not be any more insane than the ones in power! Bedlam provided a wonderfully melodramatic backdrop to literary texts, as in Eliza Haywood's 1725 play The distress'd orphan or, Love in a mad-house. Haywood describes how "the rattling of Chains, the Shrieks of those severely treated by their barbarous Keepers, mingled with Curses, Oaths, and the most blasphemous Imprecations, did from one quarter of the House shock...tormented Ears while from another, Howlings like that of Dogs, Shoutings, Roarings, Prayers, Preaching, Curses, Singing, Crying, promiscuously join'd to make a Chaos of the most horrible Confusion". Perhaps the most famous depiction of Bedlam is the final painting in Hogarth's cycle The Rake's Progress (1723-25). Driven mad by debauchery (probably an effect of syphilis), the cycle's protagonist Tom Rakewell presents a sorry sight, sprawled on the floor of a dank cell in Bedlam. He is surrounded by other lunatics, one of whom thinks he is a king, another a bishop; wealthy visitors laugh at the wretched scene.

Bedlam, as depicted in the final scene in Hogarth's cycle A Rake's Progress (1723-25)

Bedlam's medical regime - such as it was - was at best useless, at worst actively injurious to the mental health of the inmates. Mental illness was completely misunderstood at the time. Epileptics and people with learning difficulties and dementia were classed in the same group as people suffering from paranoia, schizophrenia and depression. Following Greek and Roman philosophy, it was believed that ailments were generally caused by an imbalance of the four humours; too much black bile, for instance, was thought to lead to depression. Consequently, a depletive medical system held sway in Europe until the 19th century. 

The most common treatment in this system was blood-letting, but patients at Bedlam were also subject to forcibly induced vomiting, scarification and purgation. Such was the violence of the standard medical course that patients were regularly discharged or refused admission if they were deemed unfit to survive the physical onslaught. Alexander Cruden, a writer who was briefly incarcerated in Bedlam, said bitterly of the physicians there: "but is there so great Merit and Dexterity in being a mad Doctor? The common Prescriptions of a Bethlemitical Doctor are a Purge and a Vomit, and a Vomit and a Purge over again, and sometimes a Bleeding, which is no great mystery".

Applying leeches, ready for blood-letting (C18). A
common treatment in pre-modern European medicine

The years 1814 and 1815 proved a turning point in Bedlam's history. Edward Wakefield, a Quaker philanthropist and leading advocate of lunacy reform, visited several times during 1814 with the aim of inspecting conditions. Fearing bad publicity, Bedlam personnel tried to keep Wakefield out, but he eventually gained entry in the company of an MP and a governor of the hospital. He found that inmates were not classified in any logical manner, as both highly disturbed and quiescent patients were mixed together indiscriminately. Patients were chained to the wall, sometimes with thick iron rings around their necks; it was said that "chains are universally submitted for the strait-waistcoat". In 1818 a former Bedlam inmate, Urbane Metcalf, described the case of a man named Popplestone, "whose leg rotted off as he was chained up for such a lengthy period that the metal cut into his flesh". There was also the infamous case of the American marine, James Norris, whose intestines burst after being confined in chains for over a decade. 

Wakefield and others revealed how keepers at Bedlam could be brutal and even sadistic towards their mentally ill charges. Wakefield recounted an incident in which "a man arose naked from his bed, and had deliberately and quietly walked a few paces from his cell door along the gallery; he was instantly seized by the keepers. thrown into his bed, and leg-locked, without enquiry or observation". Metcalf reported an alleged case of murder: "Fowler [a patient], was one morning put in the bath by Blackburn [a keeper], who ordered a patient then bathing, to hold him down; he did so, and the consequence was the death of Fowler, and though this was known to the officers it was hushed up". Metcalf also described a how a keeper named Davis, a "cruel, unjust and drunken man...for many years as keeper secretly practised the greatest cruelties to those under his care".

James Norris, the American marine whose intestines
burst as a result of over 10 years of being chained up

Notwithstanding the prevailing idea that women were weak and fragile vessels who needed tender protection, female patients at Bedlam were not treated particularly gently. Wakefield describes his visit to the womens' section as follows: "each [inmate was] chained by one arm or leg to the wall...The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only... One female thus chained, was an object remarkably striking; she mentioned her maiden and married names, and stated that she had been a teacher of languages...The Committee can hardly imagine a human being in a more degraded and brutalizing situation than that in which I found this female, who held a coherent conversation with us, and was of course fully sensible of the mental and bodily condition of those wretched beings [also incarcerated there]". Sexual assault by male keepers was a problem faced by many women at Bedlam. John Haslam, author of the 1815 Report from the Committee on Madhouses, alleged that "some years ago, a female patient had been impregnated twice, during the time she was in the Hospital; at one time she miscarried; and the person who was proved to have had connexion with her, being a keeper, was accordingly discharged".

Following Wakefield's revelations, Thomas Monro, Bedlam's principal physician, resigned after being accused of "wanting in humanity" towards his patients. Wakefield's testimony, combined with reports about patient maltreatment at other asylums helped prompt a campaign for national lunacy reform, resulting in the establishment of a House of Commons Select Committee on Madhouses in 1815. This examined the conditions under which the insane were confined in county asylums, private madhouses, charitable asylums and in the lunatic wards of Poor Law workhouses. 

Gradually, attitudes to madness changed across the medical profession and more widely in society. The emphasis increasingly shifted from the external control of the insane through physical restraint and coercion, to their moral management whereby a system of punishment and reward would encourage self-discipline. Bedlam itself became a more humane place under the influence of William Hood, who became chief medical superintendent in 1853. A further House of Commons Select Committee on the Operations of the Lunacy Laws, which met in 1877, heard the testimony of Sir James Coxe, who echoed society's changing attitudes towards madhouses: "I think it is a very hard case for a man to be locked up in an asylum and kept there; you may call it anything you like, but it is a prison." It was, however, not until 1890 that the status of lunatics was changed, by parliamentary legislation, from prisoners to patients. 

~ Caecilia Dance

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Coffee-houses of London

Stretching from the West End to the City, the coffee-houses of 17th and 18th century London formed the capital's intellectual and social heartbeat. Coffee, a relatively new and exotic import, was only half the attraction: coffee-houses were forums for intellectual discussion, havens for dirty business deals and places where lords and sharpers won and lost enormous fortunes.

When coffee-houses first appeared in London in the mid-17th century they were largely indistinguishable from one another. However, as they faced ever-stiffer competition over time, each coffee-house developed its own character, playing host to diverse clienteles and catering to different needs. Some coffee-houses became so closely identified with specific groups or interests that Tatler, an early newspaper-journal, decided to group its stories under the names of coffee-houses. The first issue, in 1709, proclaimed that "all accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White's Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James' Coffee-house".

Literature
There were many coffee-houses frequented by literary men, the first famous one being Will's Coffee House in Covent Garden. John Dryden and his literary circle, known as the 'Wits', gathered there to discuss and review the latest plays and poems, and to read out their own work. As well as serious literary criticism, much amusement was to be had over the latest scurrilous pamphlets. Samuel Pepys records having heard a "very witty and pleasant discourse" at Will's, though whether this was about weighty matters of allegory and hexameters, or gossip about Charles II's latest mistress, he doesn't say.  After Dryden's death, Will's began to decline: in April 1709, Steele lamented in Tatler that "this place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have only now a Pack of Cards, and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game".

With Will's now falling out of fashion, the literary focus of London shifted to Button's Coffee House, just up the street. This was frequented by the next generation of writers and satirists: Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift among others. Pope's satirical poem "The Rape of the Lock" was based on coffee-house gossip he heard at Button's. Addison was particularly influential in raising Button's status as a literary meeting-place. He advertised it heavily in his newspaper The Guardian; ultimately, it earned its fame from the quirky letterbox which Addison had built next to the front door. It was in the shape of a lion's head, inspired by those Addison had seen in Venice. The idea was that writers could deposit their writings in the lion's mouth, and these would then get discussed in the coffee-house by leading literary men.

An illustration of the lion's head letterbox at Button's Coffee House, into
which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed

Trio of notables at Button's Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730

Science
Other coffee-houses branched out from literature into learned fields such as arts and sciences. Quite a few scientific institutions which are still around today had their beginnings in coffee houses. The Grecian, for instance, was particularly associated with science as it was the preferred meeting place of the Royal Society, Britain's pioneering scientific institution. You would go to the Grecian to hear lectures and witness novel experiments; on one memorable occasion, several scientists, including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, dissected a dolphin on the premises. The walls of Don Saltero's Coffeehouse in Chelsea, a favourite haunt of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, were covered with stuffed animals which included rattlesnakes, turtles and crocodiles.

Trade and finance
The 18th century saw a great rise in trade and commerce in Britain, with the development of a consumer society and the expansion of global exchange networks. London's coffee-houses were central to how business was done, as they were frequent meeting places for merchants and traders. The very first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan's Coffee House, hard by the Royal Exchange. Some businesses even started operating out of coffee-houses. The most famous example is Lloyd's Coffee House, which became the place to go for naval officers and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd's continued as the focal point for all matters maritime for the best part of a century, and in 1771 a group of 79 underwriters (men who insured ships) formed the Society of Lloyd's, now known as the famous insurance market, Lloyd's of London.

Politics 
The streets around Westminster were also full of coffee-houses, frequented by politicians and observers interested in current affairs. Westminster coffee-houses, which were often divided up on party lines, functioned as political rumour-mills, making and breaking reputations. Richard Steele collected a lot of the political news for Tatler at these coffee-houses: "I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James' Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Roome, as one who comes there to hear and improve".

Sociability
Other coffee-houses had purely social functions, such as White's Chocolate House. White's was founded in 1693 by an Italian, Francis White. It was increasingly known as a haven for gentlemen gamblers of the highest rank and fashion. Jonathan Swift called White's the "bane of half the English nobility", referring to how aristocrats could gamble away their patrimony in a matter of minutes. It managed to outlive most of its coffee-house rivals by turning into a private member's club, thus enabling it to keep the air of exclusivity which still remains today.

Eccentricity
Some coffee-houses were altogether more quirky. At Moll King's Coffee House in Covent Garden (an area notorious for brothels) you could flick through a directory of local prostitutes which listed their age, appearance, personality and area of expertise. At Lunt's Coffee House in Clerkenwell Green the proprietor would cut your hair while you enjoyed your coffee. Hoxton Square Coffee House was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where suspected lunatics were tied up and wheeled into the room, awaiting the judgement of the patrons as to whether they should be locked up in an asylum. In an example of how not to be successful, William Hogarth's father set up the Latin Coffee House in which the patrons were only allowed to speak Latin; perhaps this reminded people too much of dreary school-days spent declining Latin adjectives, as it was a miserable failure.

White's Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune
in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, 1735


Moll King's Coffee House, Covent Garden.
~ From William Hogarth's The Four Times of Day: Morning (1735)

I have superimposed some of the most famous London coffee-houses, along with brief descriptions, onto a modern map of London. They only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of coffee-houses which London boasted in its 17th and 18th century heyday, but the map also includes coffee-houses I have not mentioned.



~ By Caecilia Dance

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Victorian watercress girl

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London's working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations describing their lives from the people themselves. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London's forgotten underclass. One of the most famous and heart-wrenching profiles is of an eight-year-old watercress seller from the East End. She is unkempt and emaciated when Mayhew interviews her, and wears nothing more than a thin dress, a ragged shawl and carpet slippers even in the severest weather.

Idealised depiction of a young watercress seller
~ Frederick Ifold, 1867

Here is what the ' watercress girl' had to say about her life:

"I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, 'Four bunches a penny, water-creases'. I am just eight years old - that's all, and I've a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I've been very near a twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. No, it wasn't heavy - it was only two months old; but I minded it for ever such a time - till it could walk. It was a very nice little baby, not a very pretty one; but, if I touched it under the chin, it would laugh.

"Before I had the baby, I used to help mother, who was in the fur trade; and, if there was any slits in the fur, I'd sew them up. My mother learned me to needle-work and to knit when I was about five. I used to go to school, too; but I wasn't there long. I've forgot all about it now, it's such a time ago; and mother took me away because the master whacked me, though the missus use'n't to never touch me. I didn't like him at all. What do you think? he hit me three times, ever so hard, across the face with his cane, and made me go dancing down stairs; and when mother saw the marks on my cheek, she went to blow him up, but she couldn't see him - he was afraid. That's why I left school.

"The creases [watercress] is so bad now, that I haven't been out with 'em for three days. They're so cold, people won't buy 'em; for when I goes up to them, they say, 'They'll freeze our bellies.' Besides, in the market, they won't sell a ha'penny handful now - they're ris to a penny and tuppence. In summer there's lots, and 'most as cheap as dirt; but I have to be down at Farringdon market between four and five, or else I can't get any creases, because everyone almost - especially the Irish - is selling them, and they're picked up so quick. Some of the saleswomen - we never calls 'em ladies - is very kind to us children, and some of them altogether spiteful. The good one will give you a bunch for nothing, when they're cheap; but the others, cruel ones, if you try to bate them a farden less than they ask you, will say, 'Go along with you, you're no good.'

Fleet Market, the predecessor to Farringdon Market where
Mayhew's watercress girl plied her trade

"I used to go down to market along with another girl, as must be about fourteen, 'cos she does her back hair up. When we've bought a lot, we sits down on a door-step, and ties up the bunches. We never goes home to breakfast till we've sold out; but, if it's very late, then I buys a penn'orth of pudden, which is very nice with gravy. I don't know hardly one of the people, as goes to Farringdon, to talk to; they never speaks to me, so I don't speak to them. We children never play down there, 'cos we're thinking of our living. No; people never pities me in the street - excepting one gentleman, and he says, says he, 'What do you do out so soon in the morning?' but he gave me nothink - he only walked away.

"It's very cold before winter comes on reg'lar - specially getting up of a morning. I gets up in the dark by the light of the lamp in the court. When the snow is on the ground, there's no creases. I bears the cold - you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts 'em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes 'em to the pump to wash 'em. No; I never see any children crying - it's no use.

A typical London slum with its crowded courts

"Sometimes I make a great deal of money. One day I took 1s. 6d., and the creases cost 6d.; but it isn't often I get such luck as that. I oftener makes 3d. or 4d. than 1s.; and then I'm at work, crying, 'Creases, four bunches a penny, creases!' from six in the morning to about ten. What do you mean by mechanics? - I don't know what they are. The shops buys most of me. Some of 'em says, 'Oh! I ain't a-goin' to give a penny for these;' and they want 'em at the same price as I buys 'em at.

"I always give mother my money, she's so very good to me. She don't often beat me; but, when she do, she don't play with me. She's very poor, and goes out cleaning rooms sometimes, now she don't work at the fur. I ain't got no father, he's a father-in-law. No; mother ain't married again - he's a father-in-law. He grinds scissors, and he's very good to me. No; I dont mean by that that he says kind things to me, for he never hardly speaks. When I gets home, after selling creases, I stops at home. I puts the room to rights: mother don't make me do it, I does it myself. I cleans the chairs, though there's only two to clean. I takes a tub and scrubbing-brush and flannel, and scrubs the floor - that's what I do three or four times a week.

"I don't have no dinner. Mother gives me two slices of bread-and-butter and a cup of tea for breakfast, and then I go till tea, and has the same. We has meat of a Sunday, and, of course, I should like to have it every day. Mother has just the same to eat as we has, but she takes more tea - three cups, sometimes. No; I never has no sweet-stuff; I never buy none - I don't like it. Sometimes we has a game of 'honeypots' with the girls in the court, but not often. Me and Carry H. carries the little 'uns. We plays, too, at 'kiss-in-the-ring.' I knows a good many games, but I don't play at 'em, 'cos going out with creases tires me.

Girl in a slum room, from George Robert Sims' How the Poor Live (1883)

"On a Friday night, too, I goes to a Jew's house till eleven o'clock on Saturday night. All I has to do is to snuff the candles and poke the fire. You see they keep their Sabbath then, and they won't touch anything; so they gives me my wittals and 1½d., and I does it for 'em. I have a reg'lar good lot to eat. Supper of Friday night, and tea after that, and fried fish of a Saturday morning, and meat for dinner, and tea, and supper, and I like it very well.

"Oh, yes; I've got some toys at home. I've a fire-place, and a box of toys, and a knife and fork, and two little chairs. The Jews gave 'em to me where I go to on a Friday, and that's why I said they was very kind to me. I never had no doll; but I misses little sister - she's only two years old. We don't sleep in the same room; for father and mother sleeps with little sister in the one pair, and me and brother and other sister sleeps in the top room. I always goes to bed at seven, 'cos I has to be up so early.

"I can't read or write, but I knows how many pennies goes to a shilling, why, twelve, of course, but I don't know how many ha'pence there is, though there's two to a penny. When I've bought 3d. of creases, I ties 'em up into as many little bundles as I can. They must look biggish, or the people won't buy them, some puffs them out as much as they'll go. All my money I earns I puts in a club and draws it out to buy clothes with. It's better than spending it in sweet-stuff, for them as has a living to earn. Besides it's like a child to care for sugar-sticks, and not like one who's got a living and vittals to earn. I ain't a child, and I shan't be a woman till I'm twenty, but I'm past eight, I am. I don't know nothing about what I earns during the year, I only know how many pennies goes to a shilling, and two ha'pence goes to a penny, and four fardens goes to a penny. I knows, too, how many fardens goes to tuppence - eight. That's as much as I wants to know for the markets."

----------------------
See more from Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor:
- Volume I
- Volume II
- Volume III

~ By Caecilia Dance

Monday, 25 August 2014

Foot binding in Imperial China

There are many legends about the possible origin of foot binding. One story relates that during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-c.1046 BC), the concubine Daji, who was said to have clubfoot, asked the Emperor to make foot binding mandatory for all girls so that her own feet would be the standard of beauty and elegance. Another story tells of a favourite courtesan of Emperor Xiao Baojuan (483-501), Pan Yu'er, who had delicate feet, dancing over a platform inlaid with gold and pearls and decorated with a lotus flower design. The emperor expressed admiration and exclaimed, "lotus springs from her every step!", a possible reference to the Buddhist goddess Padmavati who is often portrayed sitting on a pink lotus. This may have given rise to the terms "golden lotus" or "lotus feet" used to describe bound feet, though there is no evidence that Pan Yu'er ever bound her feet. A more generally accepted explanation is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang Dynasty, 937-976). The story goes that Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon and perform a ballet-like dance on the points of her feet. Yao Niang was described as so graceful that she "skimmed on top of golden lotus". This was then emulated by other upper-class women who wished to follow court fashions, and the practice spread throughout China.

Woman with bound feet in Tsingtao
Woman with bound feet, 1900





















Whatever the truth of its origins, by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), foot binding was common practice among all but the lowest classes. Bound feet had become a mark of beauty and status and were a prerequisite for finding a good husband. Women, their families and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the "Golden Lotus", being about 3 inches long. Bound feet were a sign of high status because they indicated that the woman did not need to engage in manual labour - this would have been near impossible with very tightly bound feet. Moreover, bound feet limited a woman's mobility to such an extent that she was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without the help of watchful servants.  She was rendered almost totally dependent on her menfolk, which appealed to male fantasies of ownership. A woman with bound feet was also seen as a desirable wife because she was assumed to be obedient and uncomplaining.

In Chinese culture, bound feet were considered highly erotic. When walking, women with bound feet were forced to bend their knees and balance on their heels; the resultant unsteady, swaying movement was attractive to many men. It was also believed that the gait of a woman with bound feet would strengthen her vaginal muscles. Although Qing Dynasty sex manuals list 48 different ways of playing with womens' bound feet, many men preferred not to see uncovered feet, so they were concealed within tiny, elaborately embroidered "lotus shoes" and wrappings. Feng Xun is supposed to have said that "if you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever". This concealment from the man's eye was considered sexually appealing in itself, though it had the practical grounding that an uncovered foot would give off a foul odour due to chronic fungus infections and potential gangrene.

Chinese girls from Amoy, all with tiny bound feet

How did foot binding work? The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 4 and 7. First, the toes were curled under the foot, then pressed with great force downwards until they broke. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot whilst the foot was drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken (one aim of the process was to make the foot look more like a vertical extension of the leg than an appendage which propped up the body). Following this, cotton bindings would be tightly wrapped around the foot, ensuring that the heel and the ball of the foot were drawn together. A girl's broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound they were washed and soaked in a concoction that caused any dead flesh to fall off, and the bindings were pulled tighter each time they were reapplied. This ritual was performed as often as possible, daily or at least several times a week.

The most common problem arising from bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes for this reason the girl's toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that circulation to the feet was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were likely to worsen, leading to infection and rotting flesh. If the infection entered the bones it could cause them to soften, resulting in toes dropping off. This was actually often seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were too fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to their feet and between their toes to cause injury and deliberately introduce infection. Disease inevitably followed infection, making life-threatening septic shock a real possibility.

19th century slippers for bound feet, 4½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

In her semi-autobiographical work Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang describes her grandmother's experience of having her feet bound at the turn of the 20th century:
"When my grandmother was growing up the prevailing attitude in a small town was that bound feet were essential for a good marriage. [My grandmother's] greatest assets were her bound feet, called in Chinese 'three-inch-golden-lilies'. This meant she walked 'like a tender willow shoot in a spring breeze'. My grandmother's feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inwards and under the sole. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony. The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life. And that she was doing it for her own future happiness. In those days, when a woman was married, the first thing the bridegroom's family did was to examine her feet. Large feet, meaning normal feet, were considered to bring shame on the husband's household". (pp.23-25)
In practice, foot binding was carried out in various forms. Some non-Han ethnic groups practiced loose binding, which did not break the bones of the arch and toes but simply narrowed the foot; the Hakka people did not engage in foot binding at all. When the Manchu Qing Dynasty came to power in 1644, the emperor ordered that Manchu women were not to bind their feet. Those who dared not oppose the ban developed other ways to emulate the unsteady gait that bound feet necessitated, inventing their own type of shoe that caused them to walk in a swaying manner. These "flower bowel" shoes sat on a high platform generally made of wood, or they had a small central pedestal. Bound feet therefore became an important differentiating  marker between Manchu and Han women..

Manchu shoes from the 19th century, 9½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

Serious opposition to foot binding started gaining momentum in the late 19th century. One force working against the practice was religion. In southern China, in Guangzhou, the Scottish sinologist James Legge encountered a mosque which had a placard denouncing foot binding, saying Islam did not allow it since it violated God's creation. Many Christians also opposed foot binding. In 1874, sixty Christian women in Xiamen spoke out and called for an end to foot binding. Their cause was championed by the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement in 1883, and advocated by missionaries including the Welshman Timothy Richard, who hoped that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes. Educated Chinese began to realise that this aspect of their culture did not reflect well upon the progress of the modern rising world, and social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons. Some families who opposed the practice made contractual agreements with each other, promising an infant son in marriage to an infant daughter who did not have bound feet. This was supposed to ensure that the girl would get a husband even without bound feet.

The government eventually followed suit and passed various laws which attempted to ban foot binding. The Empress Dowager Cixi issued such an edict following the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to appease foreigners, but it was rescinded a short time later. In 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Nationalist government of the Republic of China banned foot binding, but they could not hope to enforce the ban in the most isolated rural areas. In Taiwan, foot binding was forbidden by the Japanese administration in 1915. It was not until 1949, however, when the Communists came to power, that a strict prohibition on foot binding could be properly enforced even in the most far-flung areas. The ban remains in effect today.

Unbound and bound feet in 1902, 10 years before the ban
Woman with uncovered bound feet, 1911








~ By Caecilia Dance