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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Thursday, 31 May 2012

To get your morphew dealt with, go to the Gentlewoman at the Red Balcony

I’ve often puzzled over the female fashions of high society around the year 1700. This was the time when women wore enormous extensions on their heads, with ships, landscapes and other fancies, surely at the cost of some pain. Their faces were often whitened with lead, and this too evidently caused problems, as people set out specifically to treat these. I’ve used the word ‘people’ rather than ‘quacks’ since, while no doubt there were unscrupulous individuals who lived off gullibility – and no doubt there are proportionately as many now – I suspect that many practitioners saw themselves as healers with as good a success-rate as the official physicians who tried to exclude them from medical practice.

While looking at medical flyers from around 1700 I noticed a number of similarities between then and now; for example, at the base of a text – NO CURE   NO MONEY. Now the formula is more commonly used by ‘No win, no fee’ lawyers. A more cynical turn is shown by the distributors of a consignment of Peruvian bark (chinchona) – 'The Poor may have Advice (that is, Nothing) for Nothing'.

Doctor James Tilborgh is shown fashionably dressed, and holding a forceps at least a foot long with a startlingly large stone in its grips. Spare a thought for the patient from whom it was removed. Primarily he advertises his services for curing the French Pox, but he clearly promoted some therapeutic treatments, helping ‘them that have lost their Manly Nature, and Cherishes up the sadned spirits of a maryed Man and Woman, by what occasion soever they have lost it; and does quicken it again, as a Rose that hath received the Summers dew.’

Not all of the practitioners were that easy to find. Given that street numbers were not in use at this time, addresses are usually supposed to have been ‘at the sign of the Blue Boar’, for example; but there might be up to fifty people living at the sign of the Blue Boar, in perhaps thirty separate dwellings. More detail would be necessary, but it might be difficult to locate this particular practitioner: ‘In great Suffolk Street, near the Hay Market, at a Jeweler’s House, with a Red Balcony, lives a Gentlewoman who by much Travelling and Many years Study, Practice and Experience has attained the most rare Secrets in the World for Beautifying the Face.’ Evidently she felt she was worth the search.

She was clearly a shrewd operator, who had spotted a niche and knew her patients' problems: they had ‘had their Teeth and Faces utterly ruined by Poisonous Washes, so that the Skin had been reduced into a perfect Wanscot Colour, and full of Wrinkles’. But after purchasing her ‘cordialls’ her happy clients sported ‘Teeth which were black and rotten, ... now become white and sound, their lost Hair restor’d, and the most old and Wrinkled Face made appear young and beautiful.’

All this is fairly creditable, but she also claims to be able to provide a cure which deals with ‘all sorts of Red faces, kills the black & white worms, … takes away Morphew, Freckles, or any Accident relating to the Face.’ More plausibly 'she has also all sorts of delicate Pomatums, white-pots not to be compared with, Fore-head pieces exactly prepared’. These last seem to be a kind of preparation to resolve skin problems caused by disease rather than over-enthusiastic cosmetic applications; another ‘Gentlewoman’ offers ‘most curious Masks and Fore-head Cloths which take out all Spots, Pits or Scars caused by the Small-pox and also all Wrinkles in the Fore-head’. Perhaps viewing from the present we may feel more likely to dismiss panaceas that can deal with black & white worms, while we have been bludgeoned into accepting the worth of anti-wrinkle cream.

The preparations of our lady on the red balcony did not come cheap, but at least you knew that there was some honesty in the pricing: ‘the Waters for the face, you may have from Half a Crown to Five pounds the Bottle, according to the goodness and quantity, or as the Face shall require’. In other words, you got what you paid for.

A morphew, by the way, is, or was, a localised or generalised discoloration of the skin caused by disease.

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