We know from letters, diaries and novels that Victorian bachelors expended much thought and worry on the issue of marriage. When confronted with a potential match, they had to weigh up both the financial and personal aspects of the married state.
Financially, Victorian marriage was an expensive business. Among the very poor, perhaps, neither party expected to get much material benefit out of the union. For the lower middle classes and up, however, it was considered essential that a man was able to offer his wife-to-be an adequate establishment – whether that meant a townhouse in Grosvenor Square with ten servants, a carriage and an account with a Paris dressmaker, or a poky semi-detached on the Holloway Road with one frazzled maid-of-all-work. Men of a certain class were expected to move out of their cheap bachelor lodgings, rent (or more rarely, purchase) a family home, spend money doing it up in a suitable style, and ideally earn enough to make their wives ladies of leisure. Given these expectations, marriage presented a significant drain on male finances and may even have put some men off the idea, at least until they were better situated in life.
Along with the financial considerations came the personal, many of which would resonate today. Questions asked by men in the nineteenth century included: Do I love this woman? Will she make me happy? Can I make her happy? Can I bear to spend every Christmas until death do us part with my parents-in-law? Will I still be able to spend time at my gentleman’s club/favourite tavern, or will I be trapped at home, sucked into domestic drudgery?
Such concerns about money, love and more are reflected in a note which Charles Darwin penned when he was considering marriage. Like the thoroughly logical chap he was, Darwin drew up a list of pros and cons on the subject, which touchingly reflects the concerns of many of his fellow bachelors:
Children – (if it Please God) – Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved and played with. better than a dog anyhow. – Home, & someone to take care of house – Charms of music & female chit-chat. – These things good for one’s health. – but terrible loss of time. – My God, it is intolerable to Think of spending ones whole life [sic], like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. – No, no, won’t do. – Imagine living all one’s day solitary in smoky dirty London house. – Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with a good fire, & books and music perhaps – Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.
NOT MARRY [cons]
Freedom to go where one liked – choice of Society & little of it. Conversation of clever men at clubs – Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. – to have the expense & anxiety of children – perhaps quarreling – Loss of time. – cannot read in the Evenings – fatness & idleness – Anxiety & responsibility – less money for books &c – if many children forced to gain one’s bread. – (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much). Perhaps my wife wont like London [sic]; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.
The vicissitudes of pre-modern life invariably took their toll on the health and appearance of 18th-century Europeans; their faces were often riddled with smallpox scars, their teeth decaying, their gums caved in from lost teeth, their gait uneven from childhood rickets. One way both men and women could hide these defects was to wear a thick face of makeup. A very specific beauty ideal was common to European countries at the time, which often involved using highly toxic cosmetics. Recounting a visit to the theatre in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described what would remain the fashion for the rest of the century: ‘all the ladies have…snowy foreheads and bosoms, jet eye-brows and scarlet lips’. The only thing she missed out was brilliantly red cheeks. So, how did men and women achieve this desirable look?
A white complexion
For centuries, the fashionable skin colour in Europe was palest white as it suggested wealth and idleness, rather than having to labour in the fields and get sunburnt. This pale look became even more pronounced in the 17th and 18th centuries as fashionable men and women increasingly resorted to artifice to make their complexion yet whiter.
A pasty face could be achieved by using one of the many face creams and washes which promised to whiten and bleach the skin. One advertisement for a ‘Chemical Wash’ promised to get rid of ‘all deformities…[such] as Ringworms, Morphew, Sunburn, Scurf, Pimples, Pits or Redness of the Smallpox, keeping [the skin] of lasting and extreme Whiteness’.
Rather more dangerously, people used heavy white foundations to achieve the desirable pale complexion. These were slathered over the face and bosom, and in order to heighten the effect, some ladies painted blue veins on their bosoms. The more harmless ingredients in white makeup preparations included rice powder, vinegar, hartshorn, gum arabic, and bismuth subnitrate (the latter still being used in modern paints). However, many of the most popular facial cosmetics included lead, as it had desirable opaque qualities. One toxic recipe for white face paint went as follows:
Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of [horse] manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can be pounded into a flaky white powder [chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white], grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.
Of course, the major downside of using lead-based makeup was that it proved highly poisonous to the wearer over time. Incredibly, people used it even though the effects of lead poisoning were pretty well known. Several English socialites actually died from lead poisoning this way, such as Maria, Countess of Coventry, who died of blood-poisoning in 1760 at the tender age of 27.
A white complexion was not, however, deemed complete without a very visible application of rouge. This could range from a large swathe of red from the eyes down to the mouth, to neat red circles in the middle of the cheeks. The most harmless rouge concoctions were made of vegetable matter. Rouges made in this way might contain sandalwood, brazilwood, safflowers, red wine, or carmine (derived from the cochineal insect).
Some of the most popular recipes for rouge were, however, like the lead-based white makeup, highly toxic. Many women used a vermilion-based rouge as it gave a particularly brilliant red colour; vermilion is made from the mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulphide! The author of the 1760 work The Art of Beauty warns against using cinnabar as a component of rouge, arguing that ‘it is very dangerous; for by using it frequently they may lose their teeth, acquire a stinking breath, and excite a copious salivation’. The author correctly identifies the effects of mercury poisoning, but goes on to recommend ‘a fine White Paint’ containing the equally poisonous lead!
Aside from the very real dangers posed by cosmetics containing large quantities of lead and mercury, white face paint and vivid rouges were disadvantageous in other ways. For one thing, they were susceptible to run off in stressful conditions, leaving the wearer looking rather ghastly. In Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina, the narrator says of a distressed Frenchwoman who had suffered an accident, that ‘her face was really horrible, for the pomatum and powder from her head, and the dust from the road, were quite pasted on her skin by her tears, which with her rouge made so frightful a mixture, that she looked hardly human’. Indeed, not everyone thought that rouge made a man or woman more attractive. The French critic Charles-Nicolas Cochin, writing in about 1750, opined that:
It is well known that rouge is nothing more than the mark of rank or wealth, because it cannot be supposed that anyone has thought to become more beautiful with this terrible crimson patch. It is surprising that such distinction has been attached to a colour so common and inexpensive that even the lowliest grisettes [working-class women] can make this expenditure as abundantly as a person of the highest birth.
The ideal 18th-century eyebrow was thin, half-moon shaped with tapered ends, and conspicuously dark. Eyebrows could be darkened with lead, kohl, burnt cork, elderberry juice, or the soot from oil lamps. If someone had lost their eyebrows from excessive plucking, they could always stick on a pair of false eyebrows made of mouse-skin. Satirists made much of this particular phenomenon: Jonathan Swift describes a woman’s ‘eyebrows from a mouse’s hide / Stuck on with art on either side’, and the poet Matthew Prior described in 1718 how: ‘HELEN was just dipt into bed / Her eye-brows on the toilet lay / Away the kitten with them fled / As fees belonging to her prey.’
Beauty patches, made of silk velvet, taffeta or satin and attached with glue, were fairly common in the 18th century. They served several purposes. Due to their dark colour, beauty patches heightened the contrast with artificially whitened skin, and were also very useful in covering up particularly noticeable smallpox scars. In fact, beauty patches developed a whole language of their own. At the French court, for instance, a beauty patch at the corner of the eye signified passion; one on the forehead was supposed to look majestic; and a patch on a dimple was considered playful. According to Joseph Addison in an early issue of The Spectator, the position of beauty patches in England could even be a symbol of political allegiance. He described the following scene at the Haymarket Theatre:
I could not but take notice of two parties of very fine women, that had placed themselves in the opposite side boxes, and seemed drawn up in a kind of battle array one against another! After a short survey of them, I found they were patched differently; the faces, on one had, being spotted on the right side of the forehead, and those upon the other on the left…Upon inquiry, I found that the body of Amazons on my right hand were Whigs and those on my left Tories…
The public attitude towards ‘painting’ one’s face was mixed. At the French court, no one would have been caught dead without a thick face of makeup, but England was more conservative, and the English generally thought it inappropriate for younger women to paint their faces. In Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda, we are supposed to feel pity and contempt for the aging socialite Lady Delacour when she tells the young eponymous heroine, ‘but you don’t paint – no matter – you will – you must – every body must, sooner or later’.
Many moralists condemned the practice of painting altogether. Society was more willing to forgive the foibles of the young, but was particularly vicious towards older ladies who resorted to paint and other beauty aids to hide their aging complexions. Lady Archer in particular came under much critical scrutiny for her continued application of heavy makeup as she grew older:
HER Ladyship’s figure has been for many years common to this metropolis, but the natural complexion of her face, is no more remembered, it having been so long disguised by cosmetic art, that flesh and blood seem not to form the least part of its composition. The art of painting, however, of brushing up an old decayed picture, is not the only art in which she excels…
Never…did any person labour more indefatigably to fill up the wrinkled deformities of nature, with the impotent remedies of art; but all is labour in vain, the remedy worse than the disease, it chiefly consisting of mercurial and a variety of pernicious ingredients, often inflicting palsies and other most fatal maladies: nor…does it ever answer the purpose intended, exciting disgust, instead of stimulating desire: a revolting melancholy instance of which, we have now before us—a PAINTED SEPULCHRE…
If it be men whom [women] aspire to please, if it be for them that they daub and varnish their complexions, I have collected the opinions of mankind, and I promise on the part of the great majority…that the use of paint renders women hideous and disgusting, that it withers and disguises them, that men hate as much to behold the female countenance thus plaistered, as to see false teeth in the mouth, or balls of wax in the jaw; that they decidedly protest against every artifice employed to disfigure the sex.
One consequence of the expansion of European colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries was that many Europeans came into closer contact with African peoples as the slave trade boomed alongside the plantations of the West Indies and the American colonies. With European planters and their slaves living in close proximity, it was inevitable that mixed-race unions should occur, the children of which were known as ‘mulattos’. For many anxious observers, this development called into question the racial and moral purity of West Indian planters. White Creoles (this being the term used to differentiate West Indians of European descent from white people living in Europe) became a much-maligned group in literature and the popular imagination, particularly in Britain.
The everyday experience of white Creoles in the West Indies was certainly very different from that of white people living in Britain, but differences in personal character were much exaggerated by British commentators. Notably, the diaries, histories and travelogues written by British people in the West Indies tended to reserve special criticism for white Creole women. A web of mainly negative assumptions and stereotypes grew up around Creole women, which deeply influenced their reception in Britain, whether in person or in literature (see for instance the treatment of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre).
“The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos”
One longstanding stereotype about white Creole women was that they were cruel and autocratic. Edward Long, author of History of Jamaica (1774), believed that Creole women developed a temper which would frighten away even the most obliging of spouses ‘whose misfortune it may be to be linked in the nuptial bonds’. Maria Nugent, wife of the governor of Jamaica from 1801-1806, said that
‘The ladies, they appear to me perfect viragos; they never speak but in the most imperious manner to their servants, and are constantly finding fault. By nature they are arrogant people…and quick to anger. They give orders with great authority so that their underlings tremble and shake every time they are called and asked to do something. They are ill-tempered, harsh, sour-looking and quite severe towards anyone subordinate to then. They are nasty and lazy, which is why they call anyone a slave whom they observe being industrious’.
British observers thought that this behaviour stemmed from the way Creole girls were raised in the West Indies. Nugent explained it by the fact that Creole children were usually raised not by their mothers, but by a bevy of slaves who were ordered to obey the child’s every whim. The result, as Maria contended, was that children were:
‘…allowed to eat every thing improper, to the injury of their health, and are made truly unamiable, by being most absurdly indulged. Since the native Whites, or Creoles, have been accustomed from childhood onward to be served by slaves, as well as to give those same slaves orders, they, therefore, become aware quite early of their external superiority over those poor creatures. From there, the transition to pride and a domineering character is quick and easy. Neither does the example which they witness on all sides in the treatment of slaves by others lead to the development of humanitarian sentiments’.
As the anti-slavery movement gained steam in Britain, the stereotype of the cruel Creole woman was exploited in abolitionist propaganda. Children’s stories such as The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale for Young People (1818) played on popular Creole stereotypes in order to evoke sympathy for mistreated slaves. In this particular morality tale, a young Creole girl named Matilda is sent to England following her father’s death. She is portrayed as a spoilt child who treats her female slave companion in a cruel and derogatory manner. Gradually, however, Matilda is transformed by the English characters into a humble and compassionate child who understands that slavery is an evil in the sight of God and man. At the end of the novel, Matilda exclaims that ‘European children know everything, but I am little better than a negro; I find what your mamma said was very true – I know nothing at all’.
“Mrs. C. is a perfect Creole, says little, and drawls of that little”
In The Barbadoes Girl, Matilda is sent to England for her education. Many planter families did send their daughters to expensive British boarding schools, primarily in order to acquire social polish and suitable husbands. Although the education offered to girls in most British schools was narrow by today’s standards, contemporary British observers felt that their system was superior to the West Indies. Educational opportunities for girls in the West Indies were in fact very limited. Every now and again, perhaps, a school would be established by a British schoolteacher who had moved to the West Indies in search of adventure, freedom or financial security. J.B. Moreton, author of the 1793 work West India Customs and Manners, thought that such schools, with ‘proper English masters and mistresses’, were desperately needed, as British visitors argued that the lack of education made Creole women vacuous, ignorant and idle. Edward Long was particularly concerned that by failing to develop their ‘excellent talents’, Creole women would not attract husbands due to their ‘gross ignorance’.
The developmental influence of black slaves on white Creole girls was thought to be particularly iniquitous. Moreton deplored the behaviour of ‘those who receive their education amongst negro women, and imbibe great part of their dialect, principles, manners and customs’; ‘cultural deterioration’ was experienced as a result of ‘constant intercourse’ with black slaves. Maria Nugent thought that white Creole women were ‘ninnies’, and claimed that she was incapable of enjoying intellectual conversation with them. She criticised their lack of education and described a certain Mrs. C. as ‘a perfect Creole, [she] says little, and drawls of that little, and has not an idea beyond her own [plantation]’.
Nugent found the different speech pattern of Creole women especially grating, complaining that those who had not been educated in England ‘speak a sort of broken English, with an indolent drawling out of their words, that is very tiresome if not disgusting’. She gave as example a Mrs. S. who would regularly say “dis, dat, and toder” (this, that and the other), and a lady who, in response to Nugent’s observation that the air was much cooler than usual, answered “yes ma’am, him rail-ly too fra-ish‘. Moreton also mocks the Creole speech pattern; he recounts dining out on one occasion, where upon asking one girl if she would like some turkey, she replied ‘tank you sir, with all my hawt’.
“Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men”
British observers commonly described Creole women as immoral, possessing pronounced lascivious tendencies. Moreton maintained that women who lived in Jamaica from their infancy amounted to little more than ‘ambitious, flirting play-things’. He was shocked at their behaviour at home and found that ‘if you surprise them [during the day]…you will find [them]…on a clumsy, greasy sofa, in a dirty confused hall…with a parcel of black wenches…singing obscene and filthy songs, and dancing to the tunes’. A common saying had it that ‘Creole miss when scarcely ten: Flash their eyes and long for men [sic]’. Worst of all, Creole women were thought to completely neglect religion; Moreton said that instead of going to church, they sat at home learning ‘jilting, intrigues, and scenes of obscenity’.
White Creole women were, moreover, believed to be indolent and incapable of amusing themselves in any rational manner. Bryan Edwards, author of an 1807 history of the West Indies, remarked that ‘except in the exercise of dancing, in which they [Creole women] delight and excel, they have no amusements or an avocation to impel them to much exertion of either body or mind’. Their idle disposition was thought to result from their dependence on slaves to perform even the most menial tasks. One British cartoon portrays a Creole woman sitting at an upstairs window calling to her slave, demanding that the slave come up to her room and take her head in from the window. As a result of such slothfulness, the very voices of Creole women would become ‘soft and spiritless’, with their every movement betraying ‘langour and lassitude’. Writers conjured up domestic scenes of indolence and impropriety: ‘we may see in some of these places, a very fine young woman awkwardly dangling her arms, with the air of a negro servant lolling almost the whole day upon beds or settees…her dress loose, and without stays [without corsets – this being a signal of loose virtue]’.
The historian Jon Sensbach, while eschewing the moral judgments of earlier writers, does write of the planters’ daily schedule that it:
‘…could not be said to be taxing. They slept late each morning, rose for a bit of light work – women sewed, men tended to business – then, exhausted after the midday meal, they napped for an hour in their hammocks, fanned to sleep by a slave waving a palm branch. Afternoon tea was followed by card games lasting long into the night, the men often repairing as well to a tavern for extended bouts of billiards. Observing this routine, some European writers concluded that planters, particularly Creoles, were a feeble lot, enervated by climate and luxury, torpid of spirit and physical energy except in sexual excess, indolent and cruel.’
As Sensbach remarks, many Britons attributed the supposed indolence and lewdness of Creole women to the climate in which they grew up. The idea was that while British women were as cool and moderate as the British climate, Creole women were influenced by the tropical humidity and lush abundance of the West Indies. Edward Long thought that in the West Indies, ‘women attain earlier to maturity and sooner decline, than in the Northern climates’. Moreton wrote that ‘Creole ladies, who have been properly educated and polished in England from their infancy in polite schools…[are] no doubt, as prudent, chaste and fine women as any in the world, save only what difference of climate produces’. Thus – unfortunately for Creole women – even with the best education, their propensity for improper conduct still remained, due to the exotic West Indian climate.
The use of airborne leaflet propaganda during times of conflict was first seen in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, when the defenders of Paris dropped leaflets over the besieging German troops from a hot air balloon, proclaiming their defiance. However, hot air balloons and the like were slow and unwieldy, and it wasn’t until the First World War that the potential of airborne leaflet propaganda could be properly realised, by dropping leaflets from aeroplanes. Methods of distribution became more sophisticated in the Second World War, with new types of bomb invented specifically to drop thousands of leaflets over enemy territory.
Leaflet propaganda was chiefly designed to break enemy morale, and was used against both civilians and soldiers, though the latter remained the chief target. Writers of propaganda hoped to appeal to the most basic human instincts: fear, self-preservation, love of family, and romantic/sexual jealousy. Both the Germans and the Japanese designed leaflets to appeal to the romantic nostalgia and sexual jealousy of Allied troops far from home, who were missing their sweethearts and quite possibly worried about what they might be getting up to in their absence.
The most basic of these leaflets were designed along the lines of two lovers in a passionate kiss. In the image, typically, the soldier passionately kisses his sweetheart before heading off for Europe or the Pacific. The accompanying text aims to induce nostalgia for peacetime, thus awakening (or encouraging) a desire to have the war end and get back home.
A number of German-produced leaflets resorted to even more desperate tactics to make Allied soldiers wish that the war was at an end so they could go home. They played on the jealous fears of the average British and American soldier that ‘their’ woman might be unfaithful back home while they were out fighting. Obviously the women in these sorts of pictures were especially glamorous, merely serving as a ‘type’ onto which British and American soldiers could project their own wives and girlfriends.
The text accompanying the above image (one of a series of three) reads:
“When pretty Joan Hopkins was still standing behind the ribbon counter of a 5 & 10 cts. store on 3rd Avenue in New York City, she never dreamed of ever seeing the interior of a duplex Park Avenue apartment. Neither did young Bob Harrison, the man she loves. Bob was drafted and sent to the battlefields in Europe thousands of miles away from her. Through Lazare’s Employment Agency, Joan got a job as private secretary with wily Sam Levy. Sam is piling up big money on war contracts. Should the slaughter end very soon, he would suffer an apoplectic stroke.
Now Joan knows what Bob and his pals are fighting for.
Joan always used to look up to Bob as the guiding star of her life, and she was still a good girl when she started working for Sam Levy. But she often got the blues thinking of Bob, whom she hadn’t seen for over two years. Her boss had an understanding heart and was always very kind to her, so kind indeed, that he often invited her up to his place. He had always wanted to show her his “etchings”. Besides, Sam wasn’t stingy and each time Joan came to see him, he gave her the nicest presents. Now, all women like beautiful and expensive things. But Sam wasn’t the man you could play for a sucker. He wanted something, wanted it very definitely…
Poor little Joan! She is still thinking of Bob, yet she is almost hoping that he’ll never return.
Notwithstanding its lack of subtlety, the leaflet above actually has several interesting features. Firstly, we can see Nazi anti-Semitism creeping in in the form of the corrupt and obviously Jewish ‘Sam Levy’ character. Disturbingly interwoven with the basic appeal to sexual jealousy is a narrative of a Jewish capitalist conspiracy to keep the war going because of profitable arms contracts, regardless of how many young and wholesome ‘Bob Harrison’ types die on the battlefield.
Secondly, the leaflet is surprisingly well-written and well-researched. The author went to the trouble of researching topics like ‘5 & 10 cents stores’, where the most desirable property in New York was to be had, and so on. As far as I can tell, the writer has captured the colloquial American English of the time rather well. The colloquial language on the leaflets aimed at British troops is also pretty good – only the odd whiff of German sentence structure gives away that fact that it was probably written by a German.
The British were also subject to this sort of propaganda, aimed at arousing romantic and sexual jealousy, and thus a desire for the war to end. The leaflets play on a familiar complaint among British troops: that American soldiers with lots of disposable income were coming over to Britain and seducing British women with their money and easygoing charm. Unlike the ridiculous anti-Semitic caricature of the Wall Street Jew seducing his secretary, the leaflets aimed at making British soldiers jealous of their American comrades actually contained an element of truth.
GIs flooded into Britain in their thousands in the latter part of the war, and many British women (both single and married) responded positively to their advances, whether out of affection, loneliness, or the desire for a few cigarettes and a pair of real silk stockings. However, these leaflets alone were hardly enough to make the British army rise up in a rage against their American allies. We can never say just how effective leaflet propaganda was, but it does seem likely that it would have played at least some part in dampening enemy morale, especially if it was already low.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1943, Walt Disney produced a 10-minute animation purporting to document the process by which German children were turned into “perfect little Nazis”. The aim was to demonstrate to the American populace how the Nazis were indoctrinating their sons with the aim of creating an army totally loyal to Hitler. The resulting soldiers are good for nothing but “marching and heiling”, according to the narrator. Anti-Catholicism, book burnings and goose-stepping are all featured. There is even a purported Nazi cartoon; a very strange version of Sleeping Beauty featuring Hitler as the prince and ‘Germany’, dressed up as a Valkyrie with a beer tankard, as the princess. The finished product is a surreal, amusing yet disturbing combination of fact and fiction.
Pissabed; mare’s fart; dead man’s fingers. These are just three of the hundreds of traditional English plant names which, once ubiquitous but now little-known, have been replaced by the much more prosaic taraxacum, jacobaea vulgaris and xylaria polymorpha. A victory for scientific categorisation, perhaps, but arguably a sad loss of colourful English folklore. Before the professional standardisation of botanical terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries, England was full of such plant names, boasting a huge regional diversity. Some, such as Old Man’s Beard, are still in widespread use, but many are not, and it is the Latin terms which are largely used in scientific circles. Yet these names are colourful and humorous and curious, and deserve to be remembered.
Medieval and early modern plant names had strong visual, emotional and human connotations, fitting well into popular cosmology and reflecting the dominant anthropocentric worldview. Many were influenced by religion. Christ’s tears, Star of Bethlehem, Jew’s ear, Solomon’s seal, Jacob’s ladder and St John’s Wort are just a few examples. The centrality of Marian devotions to popular medieval Catholicism meant that plenty of plants were named after the Virgin Mary. Conversely, there were over fifty supposedly ugly or unpleasant plants whose names began with ‘Devil-‘. Religious plant names, particularly those alluding to saints or the Virgin, were particularly distasteful to Puritans, so they tended to be discouraged from the 16th century onwards.
More names which came to be disapproved of were the coarse ones referring to sexual and other bodily functions. 17th century England was a forthright place, so it’s perhaps no surprise that in the countryside you could find shitabed, naked ladies, black maidenhair, Stinking Willy (named for its foul smell) and even priest’s ballocks [sic]. A herb garden commonly included horse pistle and prick madam, while in the orchard, the open-arse (or common medlar) was a popular fruit. ‘Open arse’ of course left itself vulnerable to all sorts of puns and jokes which Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists didn’t fail to take advantage of. In Act II Scene I of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio uses the image to tease Romeo about his unrequited love for Rosaline:
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!
I doubt that a gently-bred aristocratic lady would have asked for an ‘open-arse’ at table, but such a term would have been widespread among less exalted folk, both men and women. However, altered sensibilities in the 18th and 19th centuries were disgusted by these coarse names, so they were abandoned or changed, at least among the educated classes. For instance, ‘lords and ladies’ is no ancient name, but a fanciful Victorian invention. Seeing the plant (below left), it’s not very hard to imagine what sort of name it was given before its bowdlerisation.
Other plant names were based on supposed similarities to parts of animals: cat’s tail, goat’s beard, hound’s tongue, cranesbill, coltsfoot, bearfoot, bird’s eyes. Some referred to the smell: hound’s piss, stinking arrach; and some plants were named for their edibility: poor man’s pepper, sauce alone, hedge mustard, fat hen. Plants which supposedly looked like parts of the human body included miller’s thumb, old man’s beard, maidenhair and dead man’s fingers, and items of clothing were also represented in bachelor’s buttons, shepherd’s purse, fool’s cap and ladies’ slippers. In the medieval and early modern periods, much popular medicine relied on herbal lore, so some plant names alluded to their supposed medicinal properties: navelwort, lungwort and feverfew, for example.
Much terminology was simply poetic or humorous without any obvious practical meaning. For instance: thrift, goodnight at noon, patience, son-before-the-father (because the blossom came before the leaves), love-in-idleness, honesty, courtship and matrimony (alluding to the deterioration in the scent after the flower was picked), and the wonderfully named welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk. One contemporary accused women of making up these silly terms, saying that “our London gentlewomen have named [swallow wort] Silken Cisley…our women have named [oxlips] jack-an-apes-on-horseback”.
To complicate matters still further, there was rarely one vernacular name for a plant. There could be so many regional variations that the frustration of professional botanists perhaps becomes more understandable. Herbals (popular books containing drawings and descriptions of plants) tell us that ladies’ bedstraw (galium verum) was also known as cheese rennet, gallion, pettimugget, maid’s hair and wild rosemary. Ground ivy was variously referred to as tun hoof, haymaids, catsfoot, alehood, Gill go by the ground and Gill creep by the ground. Mulleyn (candelaria) was called Jupiter’s staff, woollens, hare’s beard, high-taper, hagtaper or bullock’s lungwort depending upon where you were. The Tudor surgeon and botanist John Gerard wrote of treacle mustard (erysimum cheiranthoides), “we call this herb in English penny flower or money flower, silver plate, pricksongwort; in Norfolk [it is called] sattin and white sattin and among our women it is called honesty”. It really was a minefield for anyone seeking to bring some order to plant terminology.
There’s an interesting point to be made beyond the quaintness of these old names. The change to Latin terminology was a sign of the onward march of science, and it signalled the end of the anthropocentric worldview which was previously dominant in Europe. Latin names turned plants into neutral objects more fit for study, whereas the old vernacular terms tied the natural world closely to humans; plants were given personal names, were named after human characteristics and referred to by their usefulness in medicine or other tasks. By the 18th century it was no longer acceptable for professional naturalists to use the old vernacular terms. “Those who wish to remain ignorant of the Latin language”, said John Berkenhout in 1789, “have no business with the study of botany”. Vulgar names were an obstacle to science. In the nineteenth century there was a brief, sentimental attempt by John Ruskin and others to revive or invent English plant names, but by that time the learned world had permanently discarded the language of ordinary discourse.
——————- Further Reading
Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (1991)