Sep 292014

I am intrigued by the inventor Thomas Saint, the man who first patented a design for a sewing machine, in 1790. For a start, apart from the fact that he was a cabinet maker, little is known about him. In articles on the web I come across a number of portraits allegedly of him, but clearly Victorian and almost certainly of Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857) a later (French) inventor. Then there is the fact that there is no evidence that he ever made a sewing machine (as opposed to designing it). It wasn’t helped by the fact that when he patented his machine he called it “An Entire New Method of Making and Completing Shoes, Boots, Splatterdashes, Clogs, and Other Articles, by Means of Tools and Machines also Invented by Me for that Purpose, and of Certain Compositions of the Nature of Japan or Varnish, which will be very advantageous in many useful Appliances.”

The patent contains descriptions of three separate machines; the second of these was for “stitching, quilting, or sewing.”

The Patent Office promptly catalogued it under ‘wearing apparel’ and there it languished for some 83 years. So nobody knew what the man had invented, and no-one tried making it work. The first working model was made nearly a century after the patent was taken out and needed a few amendments to the patented design before it could be made to operate. At its heart the machine incorporated many of the characteristics of a modern machine: it had a horizontal cloth plate or table, an overhanging arm carrying a straight needle, and a continuous supply of thread from a spool. A rotating hand crank on a shaft activated cams that produced all the machine’s actions.

Saint had designed it for punching and sewing small pieces of leather and for this the feed was sufficient. It produced a chain stitch whereas later inventions produced a lock stitch ie so that the stitch was locked in place by a second thread, thereby stopping it unravelling if for any reason the stitch broke.

A working replica of the  machine was made many years later – Wikipedia sates that the replica is in London’s Science Museum but I can only find reference to the Elias Howe machine made in 1846. I have however come across pictures of the Saint replica at theLFANT garment website:

The first functional sewing machine was invented by Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. His machine used only one thread and a hooked needle (like a crochet needle. By the 1840s he had a factory containing 80 such machines, churning out uniforms for the French army. But his success was also his downfall – revolting tailors, fearful for their livelihoods, stormed the factory and set fire to it. Thimonnier fled to England and died penniless a few years later.

It was left to the Americans to press ahead with a commercially successful machine – not, ironically, that Isaac Singer can claim much credit. In the second half of the 19th Century he was locked in a bitter patent infringement case with Elias Howe who had patented a lock stitch machine in 1846. Elias Howe’s machine had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating the lock-stitch. This design element was repeated by Singer, who lost his patent case and had to pay Howe hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties.

Howe was a tad lucky though – his machine drew heavily on the ideas of Walter Hunt who had come up with his version of the invention in the 1830’s. Hunt was however appalled at the idea of creating widespread unemployment in the US garment industry and abandoned the machine, forfeiting any patent rights. Had he persevered Mr Singer would have had to pay him rather a lot of money, and Elias Howe would have got nothing. Ah, the vagaries of life!

I would prefer to remember Thomas Saint, because with his efforts we can safely claim the sewing machine as a Georgian (British), rather than a Victorian, (American) invention! Mind you, it was left to the Americans to make a commercial success of it – something so often the case…

Sep 222014

The great thing about 18th century caricatures is that they give a snap-shot of what people were thinking at that time – without any knowledge as to how maters would turn out. This print, which appears on the Library of Congress site here, is a case in point. It came out in 1783 – war with France and in the American colonies was drawing to a close, and shows Lord Shelbourne, left, offering a chamber pot to his French counterpart with the words “Monsieur, be so obliging as to make piss with us.”

Ld Shelbourne

The enraged Frenchie, kicking away the proffered pot, exclaims “By the House of Bourbon, with the War we’ll go on.”

I like the doggerel verse underneath. Speaking of “L..d Shel…..” it reads:

“He’s no heart of oak, But he’s fit for a joke That will ask of a Frenchman a peace. And such is our fate That we have of late Been degraded by puppies and geese. To Briton’s success Against the Congress, on the Seas and all over the plain; May they boldly advance, make a mockery of France, and Asses of Holland and Spain.”

Good patriotic nonsense, with a feeble pun on ‘piss’ and ‘peace’ thrown in for good measure. What more can you ask for!?

I think that one day I might publish a book showing  caricatures featuring chamber pots….

Sep 182014

I came across this lovely Rowlandson print upon the fascinating site of the late Graham Saville It is entitled “A theatrical Candidate” and is thought to date from 1797. It shows the theatre manager Sheridan, seated, being addressed by an actor, who appears to be somewhat down on his uppers and is asking for work.

Under the title are the words:

“A candidate for the stage lately applied to the manager of Drury Lane Theatre for an engagement. After he had exhibited specimens of his various talents, the following dialogue took place between the Manager and him: “Sir you stutter” – “So did Mrs. Inchbald” – “You are lame of leg” – “So was Foote” – “you are knock kneed” – “So is Wroughton” – “you have a d—nd ugly face” – “So had Weston” – “You are very short” – “So was Garrick” – “You squint abominably” – “So does Lewis” – “You are a mere monotonous mannerist” – “So is Kemble” – “You are but a miserable copy of Kemble” – “So is Barrymore” -……..- “But you have all these defects combined” – “So much the more singular.”


I like it as much as anything else for the description by Sheridan of the short-comings of all the leading actors of the Age. And if you are interested in buying 18th Century prints do have a look at the Graham Saville site – there are some lovely items for sale.

Sep 152014
Edouart's self-portrait - in other words he is showing himself in profile, cutting out his profile...

Edouart’s self-portrait – in other words he is showing himself in profile, cutting out his profile…

On Monday 22 September I am giving a talk about 18th Century paper-cutting at the Holburne Museum at Bath. It includes a section about the life and works of a remarkable French profile-cutter who rejoiced in the name of Auguste Armand Constant Fidele Edouart. He had been born in 1789, served under Napoleon, and fled to England as a penniless refugee when the Bourbon monarchy were restored to the French throne.

For a while he tried to eke a living teaching French to the English, and making mourning pictures – usually portraits on ivory, made with hair from the deceased. But one day he was shown a shadow picture (as silhouettes were called) which had been cut by a machine, Never modest about his talents, Edouart announced that he could do better – and promptly did just that! He describes the scene as follows:

“I … took a pair of scissors, I tore the cover of a letter that lay upon the table, and took the old man by the arm and led him to a chair. I placed him in a proper manner so as to see his profile, then in an instant I produced his likeness.

The paper being white I took the black snuffers” [in other words, candle snuffers covered in soot] “and rubbed it on with my fingers.

This likeness and preparation, made so quickly, as if by inspiration, was at once approved of… the ladies changed their teasing and ironical tone to one of praise and begged me to take their mother’s likeness, which I did with the same facility and exactness”

It led to a total change of course for Edouart – he gave up teaching, and hair pictures, and concentrated on what he called “silhouettes” – named after the despised French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette. The term ‘a la silhouette’ was originally intended to be derogatory, because the man was renowned for being a cheapskate. Etienne de Silhouette’s ‘crime’ was trying to balance the books of the French economy by melting down the  gold table settings used by the royal family, and replacing them with silver plate and gilt. For that he got the sack – and a reputation for being miserly. But Edouart was happy to adopt the term, in order to distinguish his profile cuts from the inferior ones made by machine. The point was: if you could afford it, you would have your portrait painted in oils; if not, you could have your profile cut out of paper for just a few pence. It was a substitute – but a very popular and effective one.

Note the small boy on the right trying to distract the boy on the chair, earnestly declaiming poetry, by tickling the back of his neck.

Note the small boy on the right trying to distract the boy on the chair, earnestly declaiming poetry, by tickling the back of his neck.

He spent time in Bath and Cheltenham before moving to Edinburgh, cutting hundreds and hundreds of portraits along the way. And then he decided that he would go to the States, and prepare likenesses of all the great and the good. His years there involved creating some 4,000 portraits, including profiles of four U.S. presidents, five members of the supreme court, six state governors, six college presidents, eighteen mayors, six commodores, thirteen generals, thirty state or federal court judges, fifteen authors, and at least twenty-nine physicians….

The Gibbs brothers playing squash

The Gibbs brothers playing squash



The renowned violinist, Paganini, ferociously fiddling away...

The renowned violinist, Paganini, ferociously fiddling away…









You get the impression that Edouart measured his own importance by the importance of the people whose likenesses he took!

He meticulously kept copies of every single silhouette he ever made – indexed and cross-indexed five times over, with the records kept in numerous leather-bound books. But by 1849 he decided to return to France – and set off aboard the good ship Oneida. The vessel got as far as the Channel Islands where it was wrecked in a bad storm – Edouart escaped with his life, but lost most of his luggage, including many of the volumes of duplicates.

A magic lantern show, the silhouettes positioned against a lithographed background.

A magic lantern show, the silhouettes positioned against a lithographed background.

The poor man was devastated – he had set such store by keeping a complete record of his life’s work, and he suffered something of a nervous breakdown. Certainly he never cut another profile ever again. Mind you, his withdrawal from the world of silhouettes may have had something to do with the fact that Mr Daguerre had brought out his ‘daguerrotype’ in 1839. The same year had seen Fox-Talbot patent his system of recording photographic images on paper, and the new-fangled photography was spelling the death-knell of the silhouette. It was a shame – some of Edouart’s profiles are beautifully done, and his surviving cut-outs are a fascinating record of the movers and shakers of the period between 1825 and 1850, on both sides of the Atlantic.

If anyone is interested, come along to my talk at the Holburne  next week – tickets are a fiver. The talk accompanies an exhibition at the Holburne Museum, showing some of Edouart’s silhouettes cut while he was in Bath – and I will also be bringing along some of my own collection of dozens of cut-outs  from the 18th Century. More information about my collection can be found here.

3                     sword

Sep 132014

Astleys CircusFor some reason when I brought out my book entitled “Astley’s Circus – the story of an English Hussar” – I forgot to include it on Kindle. An odd oversight, because  I seem to be outselling printed volumes two-to-one on Kindle, and I have to accept that if that is what the public wants, that is what the public gets! For my own part, I take a Kindle on holiday, but I so prefer the feel of a ‘proper’ book when I am reading at home!

Anyway, for anyone interested, it is available here and tells the story of a remarkable man, the father of the modern circus. A poorly educated soldier he may have been, but he single-handedly founded a tradition of mass entertainment which remains popular to this day. He may have been  something of a rough diamond, with a rather fawning attitude towards royalty and his social superiors, but he was a typical product of his era – a giant, who made a difference to the world he lived in. It is just coming up to the 200th anniversary of his death in Paris and I am giving talks about his life both in the U.K. and in Spain, where I return in a couple of weeks’ time. Do check it out – the book is also available in printed format (in glorious technicolour) and I have a few copies I can supply in monochrome for anyone who is too miserly to pay for the full colour version!












Sep 112014

For Christmas I bought myself a splendid book, dating back to before I was born (!) called “Sign boards of Old London Shops”, by Sir Ambrose Heal. It gives a delightful picture of the street scenes of the Eighteenth Century, when everyone, but everyone, seemed to have a sign board hanging from the front of their building.

That is readily apparent from one of the illustrations, which shows the wide streets leading to the church of St Mary le Bow in Cheapside. It was printed by Thomas Bowles in 1750.


Look carefully at first floor level and you can see hanging signboards for as far as the eye can see, right down both sides of the street.

I was aware, from  the letters which my ancestor Richard Hall received, that addresses were invariably described by reference to such signs (“at the sign of the Blue Angel” or whatever) and that postal addresses did not become commonplace until the early 1770’s. An order made by the Commissioners of Paving for Westminster  in May 1763 under an Act of Parliament of the previous year had decreed that all overhanging projections should be removed – apparently in response to a succession of complaints about passers-by being struck by signs falling down in high winds. I know the feeling – while I was in Bath  in January a  sudden burst of gale-force wind sent a V-board, advertising a local shop, way into the air, crashing down at my feet. It certainly was an alarming sight – and sound – and would have been even more so if the sign had fallen from rusted iron supports, above head height.

A similar decree applied to the City of London, as well as Westminster, and no doubt it was felt that the increasingly literate population could quite easily identify numbers at doorways and that large advertising boards were not really necessary.  Be that as it may, the traders were not keen to lose their hanging adverts, squeaking away, and no doubt after rainfall, dripping all over pedestrians at street level. They were no doubt in time persuaded by recollections of a bad storm earlier in the century at Bride Lane, when a large sign  was pulled from its lofty anchorage, bringing down the façade of the building at the same time. Four people were killed in the collapse. Eventually the signs came down, and postal addresses came into vogue.

In the late 1780’s a German visitor to these shores called J W von Archenholz had written in his book “A picture of England” the following description:

Among the peculiarities of London may be reckoned the pavements and the lamps. About 20 years since the city was the worst paved in Europe, the evil was indeed felt but the inhabitants did not even know how to remedy it. From almost every house an enormous sign was suspended which darkened the streets,often fell down, and sometimes killed the passengers. Two Acts of Parliament appeared almost at the same time and ended these disadvantages, the signs disappeared and the streets of London were covered with pavement unrivalled in its kind, and which cost 400,000 pounds sterling”.

The excellent tome by Sir Ambrose explains that in the reign of Queen Anne the signs were generally made up of a single image, but that composites became popular. He quotes a squib from the British Apollo from 1710 which reads:

“I am amazed at the Signs

As I pass through the Town

To see the odd mixture:

A Magpie and Crown,

The Whale and the Crow,

The Razor and Hen,

The Leg & Seven Stars,

The Axe and the Bottle,

The Tun and the Lute,

The Eagle and child,

The Shovel and Boot”

Nowadays it is hard to remember trades with their own sign – the three gold balls for the pawnbroker is one that comes to mind – but by and large the only businesses which rely on signs nowadays are the pubs. Oddly, they rarely have signs which tell us anything about the business – the odd “Barleycorn” or Maltsters Shovel” but as often as not they are heraldic (the Red Lion) or redolent of times gone by (the Golden Hind) or commemorate royal allegiances ( the King’s Head or the Royal Oak). Newer names are often spurious imitations of old composites (The Slug and Lettuce comes to mind). But what of the ordinary trade signs of the Eighteenth Century, how recognizable would we find them today? Not very!

Here are a few:

Button makers                  Golden Lion

Dyers                                  Rainbow & Dove

Haberdashers                   Three Pigeons

Stationers                         3  Bibles

Wax & Tallow Chandlers   Golden Hive

Pin Makers                       Sun

Slop Sellers                  Jolly sailor

Coffin plate makers       Angel & Crown

Others were of course much more obvious – the Collier and Cart for the Coalman, the Dairy Maid and Churn for the cheese-maker, and the Golden Fan for the Fan Maker. It is interesting how often there were three items in the name, so we had the Three Brushes, the Three Rabbits, Three Keys, Three Tobacco Pipes and so on.  I recognize many of the emblems as being privy marks used on old coinage from the Tudor period (i.e. to show that the silver content had been checked at the previous assay) such as The Woolpack, The Tun, The Rising Sun, The Bell, The Anchor, The Hand etc.  These were all instantly recognizable emblems to the “man in the street”  so there would not be the embarrassment of walking into the sign of the Angel (feather bed man) and asking for Fishing Tackle (the Angel and Trout).   He might however had difficulty with the Dog’s Head in a Pot (ironmonger) or the milliner who traded under the sign of Mary Queen of Scots’ Head…

The one street sign I am not aware of is the splendid one by James Gillray outside a knocking shop – here, an extract from  his caricature called “The Thunderer”. Well, at least you would know what you could expect inside!

lwlpr05044.jpg The Thunderer by Gillray  1782

Painting by William Hogarth from 1754, showing  large overhanging street signs.

Painting by William Hogarth from 1754, showing large overhanging street signs.

When I feel so inclined, maybe I will scan in a few of the fascinating images taken from Sir Ashton’s book – they certainly give an insight into what the shopping streets would have looked like 250 years ago. Meanwhile, here are three – the Swan and Sun promoting the wares of Barnard Townsend on Ludgate Hill, Haberdasher, between 1743 and 1765; the Black Raven belonging to  John Victory in Cheapside in around 1700 (another haberdasher); and the Hand and Lock of Hair announcing the trade of John Harper in Cock Court, St Martin’s le Grand in 1740. He sold hair – I could do with Mr Harper!

Signs 001


Sep 062014

SSS light guinea lwlpr03817Which do you want: the good news or the bad news? The bad news is that there will probably be fewer blog posts from the Georgian Gentleman, at least for the next 12 months or so. Maybe trickling along at a blog-a-week instead of three or four a week, but certainly a reduction while I concentrate on other matters….

Which brings me to the good news – I have signed a contract with Pen & Sword Books to write a new book, on a topic close to my heart – those scandalous Georgians. It will be entitled “In bed with the Georgians – Sex, Scandal and Satire” and will deal the whole panoply of human foibles. It will feature, amongst other delights, royal shenanigans, crim.con. cases, tarts with hearts, courtesans and strumpets, bagnios and jelly houses, seraglios and nunneries, cundums and the clap. It will look at Harris’s list and the whole range of “sex for sale”. I will be researching posture molls, bawds and “threepenny stand-ups” and I will be looking at the way Society raised the courtesans of the day to celebrity status. They were the fashion icons, the role models, the WAGS of their day – and for many it was a short life but a very merry one.

SSS Catching an elephant lwlpr11603‘Catching an Elephant’ from the Lewis Walpole site (as is the image at the head of this piece).

The book will also look at the way sexual misconduct was represented in Grub Street and in newspapers, and also feature lots of highly improper satirical prints lampooning the great and the good. Let’s face it, I’ve always loved Gillray and Rowlandson, and will relish the opportunity of giving an airing to some of their more indecent prints. It will of course all be done in the best possible taste!

The publishers, lovely people, have given me until 2016 to come up with the completed manuscript. I have already selected many of the seventy-odd images which I intend to use – most of them in full colour but with a handful (mostly newspaper cuttings) in black and white. Many of the illustrations will come from the Lewis Walpole Library site, topped up with ones from the Metropolitan Museum in New York , the Library of Congress, and the Paul Mellon Center for British Art at Yale University. Obviously I will use some from the British Museum site, but at their rates it will have to be kept to a minimum! For those of you who don’t know, the American Museums seem to be rather better-endowed than their British counterparts and often will not seek to make a charge for supplying high-definition copies. Long may they prosper!

So, I will aim to release snippets from time to time as blog material, while continuing to do separate blogs when the fancy takes me. 2016 seems a long way off, but it will pass quickly, especially as I have accepted a lecture tour on one of the cruise ships this coming Spring. I also have my next tome “An Illustrated Introduction  to the Georgians” due out in two months time, so there is a lot of proof-reading and index compilation to do! Meanwhile I am reading loads of 18th Century newspapers such as The Rambler, the Town & Country, the Morning Herald, the Gentleman’s Magazine and so on, as well scouring websites for references to Georgian scandals.

I am well aware of the fact that there is nothing new under the sun, but I hope that the end result will be highly readable. It will not be aimed at academics, but will, I hope, capture some of the smut and innuendo which characterized prints and newspapers of the period. I just hope the publishers know what they are letting themselves in for! Here is one they haven’t yet been asked to approve….

SSS Thomas Rowlandson cunnyseurs                 Cunnyseurs, by Thomas Rowlandson

Sep 032014

I came across this delightful image on the British Museum site here. It was published by Thomas Rowlandson in 1795 and is entitled St James’s and St Giles’s.

B Mus st giles st james

It shows the two ends  of the spectrum of Georgian floozying – the upper class courtesans at the top, and the “threepenny stand-ups” available in the rougher areas such as St Giles’s. The St James’s courtesans are fashionably dressed, enjoying each other’s company over a bowl of punch. I like the way that the girl holding the punchbowl has her face almost totally obscured by her wig to the extent that only her ear-rings and chin are visible. Her partner, the little vixen, is lecherously eyeing up the viewer, wine glass in hand.

Contrast this with the somewhat sturdily built molls in the lower picture; one, hands in pockets, the other with her arm around her friend, the other arm with her wrist turned in at the hips. Oh well, you pays your money and you takes your choice!

Definitely one for me to consider for the book I am currently writing – on sexual shenanigans in the Eighteenth Century – details to follow shortly!


P.S. one more caricature in a similar vein – also by Rowlandson and this time belonging to the Royal Collection Trust. I love the idea that the higher class whores occupied the ground floor in ‘Union Street’ while their  poorer, less elegant, cousins were hanging out of the windows in the rooms upstairs. Nice one Mr Rowlandson!

Upstairs downstairs 001