Toilet soap, cleanliness, and imperialism

Soap, in some form or other, has been used by humans for millennia, with the oldest surviving products dating back to the ancient Babylonian period. Come the Industrial Revolution and the growth of mass consumption, distinct brands were formulated and aggressively marketed. Yet how could an advertisement for something as everyday as soap possibly be exciting, or indeed distinctive?

 

Prominent manufacturers such as Pears’ Soap (still in existence today) tried every advertising angle when promoting their products. Pears’ depicted the most famous actress of the day holding a bar of their soap; they paid a leading pre-Raphaelite artist for the right to use his material in an advertisement; and they tapped into dominant narratives of racist imperialism in order to sell as much soap as possible. Their most famous advertising image is probably Millais’ whimsical painting, Bubbles, and their most infamous is the 1884 advertisement showing a white child scrubbing away the ‘blackness’ from another child, which appears jolly delighted with the result.

Bubbles: Millais' painting used to advertise Pears' Soap
Bubbles: Millais’ painting used to advertise Pears’ Soap
A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White
A Pears’ Soap advertisement based on the fable ‘Washing the Blackamoor White’
More overtly political messages could also be found in Pears’ Soap advertisements. The concept of the White Man’s Burden – the duty of the superior white race to civilise the black savages – is illustrated in an advertisement from the 1890s in which spreading cleanliness is used as a justification for imperialism. The text reads: “The first step towards lightening the White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pears’ Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilisation advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.”
 Pears' Soap advert

 

A contemporary advertisement for an American brand, Ivory Soap, follows along in much the same vein, caricaturing Native Americans and featuring a cheery poem:

 

Said Uncle Sam: “I will be wise,
And thus the Indian civilize:
Instead of guns, that kill a mile,
Tobacco, lead, and liquor vile,
Instead of serving out a meal,
Or sending Agents out to steal,
I’ll give, domestic arts to teach,
A cake of IVORY SOAP to each.

 

“Before it flies the guilty stain,
The grease and dirt no more remain;
‘Twill change their nature day by day,
And wash their darkest blots away.
They’ll turn their bows to fishing-rods,
And bury hatchets under sods [earth],
In wisdom and in worth increase,
And ever smoke the pipe of peace;
For ignorance can never cope
With such a foe as IVORY SOAP.”

A Pears' Soap advertisement based on the fable Washing the Blackamoor White

 

An even more preposterous Ivory Soap advertisement from 1888 reads as follows:

 

“We once were factious, fierce, and wild.
To peaceful arts unreconciled;
Our blankets smeared with grease and stains
From buffalo-meat and settlers’ veins.
Through summer’s dust and heat content,
From moon to moon unwashed we went;
But IVORY SOAP came like a ray
Of light across our darkened way.

 

“And now we’re civil, kind, and good,
And keep the laws as people should.
We wear our linen, lawn, and lace
As well as folks with paler face.
And now I take, where’er we go,
This cake of IVORY SOAP to show
What civilized my squaw and me,
And made us clean and fair to see”.
The great irony is, of course, that the Native Americans are depicted as anything but ‘fair to see’; they are grotesque, bestial parodies.

 

Infertility in Samuel Pepy’s England

I recently came across a striking passage in Samuel Pepy’s diary in which he receives advice on how to get his wife Elizabeth pregnant. At the time of writing, July 1664, he and Elizabeth had been married for eight years, but they remained childless. While attending a dinner on 26th July, Samuel asked the women present if they could give him any advice on how to overcome his and his wife’s apparent infertility. The women “freely and merrily” gave the following precautions as a certain means of conceiving:

1. Do not hug my wife too hard nor too much. 2. Eat no late suppers. 3. Drink juice of sage. 4. Tent and toast. 5. Wear cool Holland-drawers. 6. Keep stomach warm and back cool. 7. Upon my query whether it was best to do it at night or morn, they answered me neither one nor another, but when we have most mind to it. 8. Wife not to go too straight-laced [with her corset]. 9. Myself to drink Mum [a kind of beer] and sugar. 10. Mrs Ward did give me to change my plate. The 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 10th they all did seriously declare and lay much stress upon them, as rules fit to be observed indeed, and especially the last: to lie with our head where our heels do, or at least to make the bed high at feet and low at head.

Sadly for the Pepys, Elizabeth never did get pregnant. One diary entry from September 1664 reveals that when Samuel returned home after dinner with a friend, “I find my wife not well – and she tells me she thinks she is with child; but I neither believe nor desire it”. Whether this shows genuine resignation or a display of bravado, we will probably never know.

Elizabeth Pepys
Elizabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys in 1666
Samuel Pepys in 1666

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But how typical were the remedies suggested to Pepys in the wider context of 17th century England? The womens’ recommendation that the couple should have sex whenever they both feel like it is unsurprising, as contemporary opinion held that it was necessary for both partners to enjoy sex in order to conceive. Supposed aphrodisiacs were therefore touted as helpful in overcoming infertility. Not only did aphrodisiacs stir up lust; they were also thought to have physical effects on the body which made both men and women more fertile. Many more foods were considered aphrodisiacs than today. Aristotle’s master-piece (1684) listed:

…among such things as are inducing and stirring up thereto, are…Hen-eggs, Pheasants, Woodcocks, Gnatsappers, Thrushes, Black Birds, young Pigeons, Sparrows, Partridge, Capons, Almonds, Pine-Nuts, Raysons, Currants, all strong Wines moderately taken; especially those made of the Grapes of Italy; but Erection is chiefly caused and provoked by Satyrium Eringoes, Cresses, Erysimum, Parsnips, Artichoaks, Turnips, Rapes, Asparagus, Candid Geinger, Gallinga, Acorns buried to Powder, and drank in Muscadel, Scallions, Sea Shell-Fish, &c.

Still life with oysters ~ Osias Beert (1610). Oysters and olives were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs in 17th century England
Still life with oysters ~ Osias Beert (1610). Oysters and olives were commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs in 17th century England

Aphrodisiacs aside, infertility treatment was strongly influenced by the reigning humoural theory. It was commonly held that all disorders proceeded from an imbalance of the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Consequently, much advice was focused on balancing the humours in the womb, by avoiding excessive cold, moisture, dryness or warmth.

Of course, medical practitioners of dubious quality peddled secret elixirs and the like, which were supposed to provide sure-fire remedies for infertility. These were frequently advertised on handbills (advertisements of one or two sides). Remedies were, however, not left to the quacks alone. Women shared knowledge amongst themselves; many recipes for concoctions to cure infertility can be found in accounts and recipe books of the period.

These remedies may seem laughable now, but apparent infertility was extremely distressing for women in 17th century England. Pepys’ experience would seem to bely the common view that infertility was always believed to be a woman’s problem; in the diary, he recognises that the problem could be his as well. Yet women often bore the brunt of the blame. If a woman failed to have children, she had failed her primary purpose in life. Seemingly infertile women risked being mocked and even shunned by their contemporaries, and some women must have at times empathised with Rebecca when she cried to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1).


Further Reading

Anonymous, Aristotle’s Masterpiece (1684)
Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys

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
Plan of the medieval Bethlem hospital

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
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, 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
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”.

368px-James_Norris,_Bethlem_Patient,_1815.jpg. norris was American marine imprisoned in Bedlam since 1800
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.