Object of the month: Brass Corset

There are a number of objects behind the glass cases of An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition that look hostile to the human form: a pair of nail-studded fakir’s sandals; tiny slippers for bound feet; unfriendly-seeming sex toys. The metal corset, however, draws more comments than almost anything: “What a hideous thing!”; “Did someone really wear that?”. Sarah Bentley tells us a bit more about it as our Object of the Month.

The tight-laced corset is most commonly seen as a symbol of oppression, whereby women subjected their bodies to discomfort or deformity in order to maintain an implausible shape. There is, however, an opposing opinion that suggests we’ve inherited the view of 19th century, mostly male, campaigners against the corset.

The brass corset currently on display at Wellcome Collection.

The brass corset currently on display at Wellcome Collection.

One such campaigner was the anatomist William Henry Flower, whose household happily continued to wear their corsets despite him. This view also holds that, in reality, few women practised extreme tight-lacing: fashion historian, Doris Langley Moore, when measuring the waistbands of her extensive collection of 19th century dresses, found that “the smallest waist…is not less than twenty-one. And these are far below the average, which for young women’s clothing was twenty-four.” (The Woman in Fashion, 1949).

What is remarkable about the corset controversy is that the oft one-sided criticism of corsets became a debate with women making their voices heard, both for and against stays, in journals and the press of the time.

Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset.

Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset.

We don’t have much information about our corset. It has been dated to 1800-1880, is brass and probably English. We can’t be sure whether it was worn as a fashion item or to correct a bad back. We can’t even be sure if it was worn by a woman.

In the 18th and 19th centuries men regularly wore corsets. It is clear that many enjoyed the experience too: “the sensation of being tightly laced in an elegant, well made, tightly-fitting pair of corsets is superb” (letter from “Walter’ to The Englishwoman’s Magazine,  Nov 1867).

In the cartoon below by George Cruikshank, Monstrosities of 1818, the men in the picture are wearing hourglass corsets; the shape so associated with the distortion of the female form. But this tight-waisted shape for women was on its way, with new technology enabling tight-lacing across the classes – not just for those with servants.

Monstrosities of 1818.

Monstrosities of 1818.

Restricting the torso serves different purposes at different times. The painting of Elizabeth I shows the bodice as a tight inverted cone emphasising the Queen’s luxurious skirt: a statement of wealth and status.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I.

It is really only at the end of the 18th century, around the time of the French Revolution, that we see a big change in women’s shape (below) with a short-lived emphasis on ‘natural’ form. The corset no longer needs to restrict the waistline which has relocated to – unnaturally! – immediately below the breasts.

A woman in evening dress standing in front of a mirror.

A woman in evening dress standing in front of a mirror.

Helen Gilbert Ecob, a prominent member of the late 19th century dress reform movement, underlines the absurdity of certain arguments in support of the corset: “Those who uphold the corset argue its morality because ‘the only period in which its general use appears to have been discontinued are the few years which immediately followed the French Revolution, when the general licentiousness of manners and morals was accompanied by a corresponding indecency in dress.”

Today we tend to see the tight-laced shape as ‘knowing’, erotic; poised between restraint and abandonment. We may even see those who wore it as rebels but in the 18th and 19th centuries, the wearing of corsets was mostly seen as an upright, disciplined, respectable habit. The heroine of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, finding herself in a brothel, is particularly shocked to discover that the prostitutes are not wearing stays.

Our corset is a clunky bit of technology in more ways than one, however. Outwardly, it forms a carapace of the ideal form of the day, without the capacity to mould the body to it: an unlikely fashion item. However, there is a history of metal corsetry in orthopaedics.

Orthopaedic corset.

Orthopaedic corset.

Ambroise Paré, the 16th century surgeon and innovator, describes metal corsets, depicted in engravings of the time as criss-crossing bands covering the torso, as being used to correct “crookednesse of the Bodie’. Could our corset be a later version?

The Victorian age is one where back problems became something of an epidemic, engendered by repetitive industrial tasks. At the start of the century, back problems were still being attributed to a build up of cold, damp ‘phlegm’ in the body; heat treatments such as ‘blistering’ might be applied as an attempt to treat this cold/damp humour with its ‘opposite’. Later in the century, the internal causes of back problems began to be investigated, albeit sometimes reaching strange conclusions: the diagnosis of ‘Railway Spine’, for example, was not the result of labouring on the emerging rail network but was thought to be the result of travelling at excessive speeds by train!

Corset advert from 1886.

Corset advert from 1886.

It is possible our corset was used both to support a back problem and to maintain the fashionable shape of the day. We don’t know for sure.

If the corset wasn’t, except in extreme cases, quite as damaging as was thought at the time, there are plenty of fashion and beauty practices that are dangerous. The corset controversies are interesting in that they show the impact culture and society have on our habits, the way risky practices are perpetuated and how easily opinion is polarised.

Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Individuality

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Alli Burness takes a look at our collective reflection as she explores the (in)famous selfie, illustrated by your photos.

Selfies receive a lot of bad press. For some, they’re the manifestation of a self-obsessed, narcissistic society. We’re impelled to step back from significant or sombre moments in our lives to share selfies online. These images taken in front of the Mona Lisa, at funerals or even at Auschwitz visualise uncaring, thoughtless moments. But I think there is more to selfies than meets the eye.

Today, the sharing of lived experience is part of our daily lives and, within that process, we have the ability to present ourselves and see our bodies as never before. Selfies are a contemporary tool for managing our sense of self, a highly personal process which requires viewers to remain aware of context and directorial control as important to their meaning.

There are generally two schools of thought about the nature of human identity and you can recognise one or the other as being at the root of many statements about the selfie (try to identify them in the video at the end of this post).

One school of thought holds to the concept of an authentic, essential sense of self that sits within us, like a traditional notion of a soul. This frequently manifests in a fraught relationship with social media. The presentation of self in the online world is posited as a negative influence in our lives, as artificial posturing with vain tendencies, empty and without substance. Taking selfies, in this light, disrupts ‘real’ moments in our lives by encouraging us to capture and share ourselves self-consciously to online audiences.

The second understands identity as something we construct and constantly recreate in an ongoing process throughout our lives, a fluid performance from one moment to the next. In this way, the online self is a continuation of behaviours we already conduct in meat-space, from presenting ourselves on a resume, to choosing the clothes we wear and the mannerisms used in face-to-face interactions. The online space amplifies the self-conscious nature of these day-to-day methods of navigating our world. The ‘performance of self in everyday life’ (a 1959 theory authored by Erving Goffman) is now explicit and communally acknowledged with the use of tools such as selfies.

So what is a selfie? Is it an expression of our authentic inner self or a tool we use in an ongoing, evolving performance of ourselves? What is the effect of social media as a lens through which our selfies are refracted to the world?

Our body is our blind spot and yet it is critical to our sense of identity. Or, as Nick Crossley puts it, “the ‘I’ does not see itself any more than the eye sees itself and we are therefore reliant upon others to reflect back information about ourselves.”1 Photography allows us to see ourselves by standing outside of and objectifying our bodies. It has profoundly shaped not only the human sense of self but our awareness of how others perceive us, thereby impacting how we behave. Amplifying the reflective role of photography, selfies inserted into social networks are tools which allow us to direct how images of our bodies are presented to others while also highlighting the information reflected back in the form of likes or comments.

“Photography has been the most widespread means of visual communication of the past century and a half, and has done more than any other medium to shape our notions of the body in modern times.”

John Pultz2

When we take a selfie, we often play to the moment. We act “a little bit larger than life, to spotlight the meanings that are hard to see in the flow of routine life. They feature the same kind of intensification that museums convey upon objects.”3 Within the spotlight of the selfie, the roles of photographer, subject and viewer are conflated. The photographer-subject enacts directorial control over not only the photo-taking process but also how the selfie is inserted into social media spaces. This act implicitly grants permission for us to look at their selfie. These images shared in online spaces create a consensual awareness of us all communally looking at each other, causing the ‘self’ in selfie to become a collective ‘we.’4

Whether we like them or not, the selfie has changed the way we do identity work and created a new way to look at ourselves and others. They are now an everyday tool of self-expression, no matter if we see that as expressing an essential inner character or as an ever-changing, on-going performance of identity. Which do you see them as?

Alli Burness is a museum writer working on digital engagement at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. She is the author of the museum blog Museum in a Bottle.

See all the #HumanReflection photographs submitted by the public.

Further Reading

1 Nick Crossley, ‘The Networked Body and the Question of Reflexivity’, in Waskul, Dennis and Phillip Vannini (ed.s), Body/embodiment: symbolic interaction and the sociology of the body, England: Ashgate, 2006, 27.

2 John Pultz, The Body and the Lens: Photography 1839 to the Present, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995, 7.

3 Jay Rounds, ‘Doing Identity Work in Museums’, Curator, Volume 49, Issue 2, April 2006, 133 – 150.

4 Sarah Hromack, ‘The Museum Selfie’, Whitney Museum: Shared Spaces Symposium, online video, viewed May 2014.

A to Z of the Human Condition: U is for Urban Living

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Andrew Matheson looks at how more and more people live in an urban environment, illustrated by your photos.

For the first time in human history more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. Between 2000 and 2050 developing countries could add 3.2 billion new urban residents: larger than the global population in 1950 (Thinking Spatially, RTPI 2014). Yet planning as a recognised profession– the attempt to manage this rapid and accelerating urbanisation – has just celebrated its centenary. The story of the last century can be seen through a kaleidoscope of efforts to manage a massive move to urban living against a background of powerful social, economic and environmental factors.

For many, New York City is the epitome of urban living. Its seemingly perpetual reach-for-the-skies is based upon order brought about by one of the most regular street-pattern grids of any big city. But whilst New York appears to crave density, this comes at a heavy price: it is not placed in the top 20 cities of the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s (EIU) “Liveability Ranking”.

Yet there seems no single blueprint for loveable, liveable places. Cities that consistently rank highly on liveability rankings – such as Copenhagen, Melbourne and Vienna – are very different. Copenhagen has virtually all residents living within 350 metres of public transport and it also has ambitions to have 50% of commuting residents use a bicycle by 2015. In contrast, Melbourne sprawls but it makes the most of its ability to intersperse high and low densities. Vienna it seems has managed successfully to meld old & new. Each city has challenged the potential for dislocation from growth and change in its own way.

Jane Jacobs in her hugely influential book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ (1961) criticised the notion that you can bring control and order to cities; she noted the contrast with what they are in reality, complex organic systems. It is that complexity that is both the benefit and challenge of living in cities. Opportunities abound but every dislocation has a myriad of consequences, many difficult to foresee with any clarity, and so we build knowledge from past experience.

Perhaps urban living is an attractive proposition precisely because of the range of experiences they can encompass.  Ebenezer Howard who published ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ in 1896 knew this and his vision was of places free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both town (such as opportunity, amusement and high wages) and country (such as beauty, fresh air and low rents). Howard’s vision still inspires today with The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014 building on this legacy by seeking viable ideas for 21st Century Garden Cities; proposals here have suggested up to 40 new ‘cities’ with populations ranging from 25,000 to 400,000 ‘city’ populations.

On the world scale we clearly have very modest ambitions. The new Prime Minister of India has said his country will create 100 new cities, “equipped with world class amenities”. This commitment is said to have taken a lead from China where a whole array of planned eco-cities are being created (Guardian 14.04.14). Like Howard’s theory, the Chinese have the goal of building exemplar cities from the ground up rather than letting them develop organically. But as the commentator notes: “You can want to design your urban landscape, but in reality, on a fundamental level, that’s impossible. We have to acknowledge that it’s extremely hard to build a regular city from scratch.”

Some will see planners as the dead hand of bureaucracy stifling ambition and ordering the energetic chaos that brings excitement to cities. Others will see planners as the ushers of unwanted and dislocating change that has too little respect for tradition. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. After the next 100years we will certainly know better!

Andrew Matheson is a Chartered Town Planner for the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), as a Policy & Networks Manager.

See all the #HumanSardines photographs submitted by the public.

A to Z of the Human Condition: N is for Natural Curiosity

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. First up, Mark Rapoza contemplates our unending curiosity with nature, illustrated by your photos.

Stepping out of an Islington flat late one summer night during my first visit to London, I could have focused on any number of things. The hum of a train approaching nearby Kings Cross, the texture of the uneven pavement beneath my shoes, or the flash of headlights from a cab as it rounded the corner. There were innumerable contenders that night vying for my senses, but one of them stood a head above the rest; ironically it was the quietist and most reserved.

Standing there under a lonely lamp in the middle of Bingfield Park, about 10 or 15 meters in front of me, was a single red fox. It wasn’t moving, wasn’t making a sound, yet it instantly captured my attention. I was absolutely transfixed and even after the fox lost interest and gracefully dissolved back into the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Inquiring about the fox with friends and neighbours the following morning revealed that I wasn’t alone in my interest. Whether they considered them a blessing or a scourge, it seemed like everyone had something to say about London’s urban foxes and our conversations inevitably led to discussions of other natural curiosities.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Nature has a way of consistently captivating us: of grasping some intangible part of our person and filling us with wonder. As a species, we humans all seem to experience some intrinsic need to connect with and explore nature. We spend countless hours in zoos, aquaria and natural history museums. We are consistently distracted at work by wildlife photos trickling through our social media feeds. We collectively love spending some time outdoors; even the most industrialised urbanites among us still appreciate at least some vestige of nature through houseplants, pets or rooftop gardens.

But why? After all, we have essentially spent the past 12,000 or so years since the rise of agriculture building civilisations which have progressively sought to distance themselves from nature, with walls, pavements, HVAC, etc. Why should we care about the natural world and why do we all feel that same persistent sense of curiosity when it comes to nature?

Behavioural studies suggest our curiosity with the world around us exists for purposes which ultimately translate into some benefit in terms of evolutionary fitness. While that is almost certainly part of the story, researchers admit that it is not a complete explanation. Many of the same studies indicate that though our interests may initially be motivated by practical concerns, at some point we become beautifully enamoured with things purely for the sake of knowing more about them.

As Ernst Mach once put it:

the first questions are formed upon the intention of the inquirer by practical considerations; the subsequent ones are not. An irresistible attraction draws him to these; a nobler interest which far transcends the mere needs of life.

In that regard, nature provides an ideal catalyst for our sustained exploration. There is far more to be learned about the natural world than can be learned in a lifetime and we are perpetually driven by our need to explain what we find in it.

Nature is also accessible. There are no prerequisites for exploring it and anyone can be a naturalist. Furthermore, nature communicates with us through a language that transcends nationality, creed, education, etc. and our curious fixations with nature are not age dependent either. As children we capture insects in jars and share our discoveries with friends; as we mature, that foundational interest persists. In fact, many of us still find ourselves putting insects in jars well into adulthood, only at that point we call our collections “museums” and generally embark on our explorations more systematically.

All that aside, there is perhaps a deeper, more philosophical element to what draws us to nature: that “subtle magnetism” mentioned by Thoreau in Walden. Perhaps at some primal, unconscious and uncontrollable level, we recognise that we have become separated in many ways from the majestic natural world that ushered us into existence and we long to reconnect. We are perhaps envious to some degree when we see a group of birds at our backyard feeder and wish that we too could fly back into the wild alongside them, free of our self-prescribed civilised obligations.

Thus, I think our curiosity with nature is, in part, a symptom of some evolutionary homesickness. We look at nature and remember, if only for a moment, where we came from and when we stare into the beautiful amber eyes of a fox in a London park, we do so in the knowledge that staring back at us is a part of ourselves.

Mark Rapoza is a naturalist living in California and is the author of the natural history blog, Corner of the Cabinet.

See all the #HumanNature photographs submitted by the public.

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V0016833 A man sitting in a chair reading whilst his leg is in tracti Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A man sitting in a chair reading whilst his leg is in traction and attached to a pulley mechanism. Wood engraving. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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M is for…Monsters?

Uh oh: some monsters seem to have found their way into our latest exhibition. Don’t panic, though. The exhibition in question explores what it means to be human; in this post Muriel Bailly explores what (or who) monsters really are and how different they are from us, if at all.

If you have visited An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition recently, you may have seen the drawing below entitled Three Monsters in the “F is for Fear” section. Maybe, like me, you were a little surprised by this caption? Personally I find these little creatures rather cute. I looked at them carefully and didn’t feel a single shiver. Definitely not monsters to me.

Three monsters, 1668.

Three monsters, 1668.

So why do creatures that were labelled “monsters” in the 17th century, probably feared and hated by many, appear sweet and pleasing to the 21st century viewer? Have monsters changed so much; if so, what do our present day monsters look like?

In any given culture monsters have been synonymous with excess, aberrant behaviour and being different. The theme of monsters and mystical or unnatural beings can be found everywhere from ancient civilisations to contemporary cinema and television.

In Roman and Greek mythology, monsters are both the origin and the limit of the world. The Titans (gigantic, patricidal and fans of anthropophagy) were the children of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) and ruled the world in the Golden Age. They were led by Cronus and were eventually overthrown by a new generation of gods, called the Olympians, led by Zeus. With this new generation came the world as we know it. Thanks to the tricks played on Zeus by the Titan Prometheus, human kind obtained fire and nourishing food, benefitting it greatly. These events, known to us through Hesiod’s Theogony, are echoed in many mythologies from the Far East and Scandinavia.

Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

In Homer’s Odyssey Ulysses encounters numerous monsters on his epic return home. Venturing to remote parts of the world he is confronted by the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Sirens, the whirlpool Charybdis and the six headed monster Scylla, among others. He is only safe when he finally reaches his beloved Ithaca. Centuries later, Pliny the Elder (1 BC-1 AD) in his Naturalis Historia describes Greece as being the centre of the world whilst Egypt is at its periphery. The latter was known as a land where half animal and half human creatures lived. In both Homer’s and Pliny’s work monsters are the physical representation of the limit of civilisation.

Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

 Cultures without monsters?

Pliny’s description of Egypt with its half animal/half human inhabitants could be a reference to its gods. While Greek and Roman gods were anthropomorphic, Egyptian gods were hybrids with both human and animal features, such as Anubis the jackal-headed god of the afterlife. These hybrid gods, who may have been perceived as monstrous or grotesque in the western world, are very common in Eastern mythology. The Hindu god Ganesh is an elephant-headed deity and one of the most worshiped in the Hindu pantheon. Although it might be too much of a shortcut to say that Eastern cultures do not have monsters, it is fair to say that their association between monstrous appearance and monstrous identity is less automatic.

Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

The status of monsters changes radically with the arrival of monotheist religions. The most famous monsters of the Old Testament (common to both Christianity and Judaism) are the Leviathan and Behemoth mentioned by Job 40 and 41. While in polytheist cultures monsters seem to be an aberration of nature, in monotheism monsters are creatures designed by God with a purpose. It was said that at the time of the Apocalypse God will prove his supremacy by killing the monsters in the ultimate victory of good against evil.

Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

 Monsters classified

The first attempt to identify and record all existing monsters happened in the Middle Ages with an anonymous publication from 9-10th centuries, entitled All Sorts of Monsters. The monsters are classified according to their nature: book I is dedicated to anthropomorphic creatures; book II to elephant, lions, whales and other wild, large animals; and finally, book III is entirely dedicated to snakes.

In 1559, in his last and most famous work, Histoires Prodigieuses, Pierre Boaistuau attempted to record all monsters from “freaks of nature” to extraordinary beings from mythology. He sailed to England that winter with a copy of the book, yet to be published. He hoped to offer it to Queen Elizabeth I, newly installed on the throne. Although we do not know how the Queen reacted to this peculiar book, we know that the book stayed in England. A copy is available at Wellcome Library.

Portrait of two monsters. Histoires prodigieuses, 1560.

Portrait of two monsters. Histoires Prodigieuses, 1560.

 Renaissance: monsters with reason

The development of scientific and medical knowledge during the Renaissance shed new light on “monsters”. The work of Ambroise Paré, a French barber surgeon who served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, illustrates this change. Paré makes a distinction between “real monsters” (existing individuals living with a deformity) and monsters from mythology and religion.

Focussing on the former, he looked for a rational and medical reason for their unusual appearance. The findings published in his essay Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573), argue that a child with such an appearance is the result of an accident that happened during pregnancy. Indeed, Paré suggested that a poor diet, emotional shock and domestic violence during pregnancy could all cause a deformity in the baby yet to be born.

Following Paré’s example, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a French naturalist from the 18th century, attempted a scientific classification of monsters in his monumental essay on tetratology (the study of abnormalities and psychological development). Simultaneously, the development of social sciences and psychology helped to demystify “unreal” monsters living in individuals’ subconscious and in cultural tradition.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

 The modern monster

Thanks to the development of medical and social sciences in the 18th century, “monsters” became better understood and, instead of provoking fear or disgust, society started empathising with these people. In literature, one of the most powerful indications of this humanisation of “monsters” is Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831.

As the distinction between “monsters” and the rest of society becomes more blurry from the 19th century onward, there seemed to be a new generation of monsters: one created by humans. This latter generation greatly inspired the arts. Dr Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s novel, through scientific experiments creates a creature so horrible that he cannot name it. A similar fate was encountered by Edward in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Edward Scissorhands.

Edward Scissorhands.

So what of today’s monsters? The physical manifestation of evil in the form of some kind of deformity has taken a back seat. Just as abnormal physical appearances tend to be used to inspire (such as in The Elephant Man or Mask), a polished exterior often hides the demons today.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Many of the classic monsters from the 20th and 21st centuries are savage criminals with complicated psychologies. In the Fritz Lang movie M, the child murderer Hans Beckert claims that he cannot escape himself and seems to be a victim of his own impulses. Hannibal Lecter, despite being a cannibalistic serial killer, is also a refined intellectual with sophisticated taste for the arts. Patrick Bateman is a suave and handsome Harvard educated businessman. Ghostface can be kids from school or members of your family. Dexter Morgan is your next door neighbour.

21st century monsters are often elegant, charming and seemingly “normal”. They walk among us; they are (part of) us.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: Cowrie Snuff Box

This month’s object can be seen in our latest exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, until 12 October. Found under X is for X-rated, this cowrie shell snuff box features an erotic scene. Even cowrie shells themselves used be known as “Venus shells” because of their resemblance to female genitalia. Taryn Cain tells us about the rise and fall of snuff and how its popularity resulted in the variety of the boxes used to hold it.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

We all know members of the 20% of the population who still light up a cigarette, despite the many warnings. Since smoking is considered a serious health risk today, it’s hard to imagine that only 300 years ago tobacco was seen as a health product with cigarettes only becoming a social norm around 1880.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

1714 was a year of change: it was the year of Queen Anne’s death, and saw the war of the Spanish Succession coming to an end. England was already familiar with tobacco, though its use was restricted to small pockets of the population.  Charles II was quite fond of snuff, a ground and perfumed tobacco, introducing it to his court in 1660. In 1665 the College of Physicians declared the smoking of tobacco a cure for the plague; a risky tonic to take considering matches were not to be invented for another 160 years.

Despite its regal and apparent medicinal properties, tobacco needed another three decades to finally gain in popularity. In 1702 the Allied Naval forces delivered to England at least 50,000 pounds of snuff taken from the Spanish treasure fleet, which soon elevated its use to a social necessity. From then on no gentleman would be seen in public without his snuff and many ladies were keen to indulge too.

A gentleman visitor offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

A gentleman offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

This avid use of snuff predictably birthed a new fashion accessory: the snuff box. Originally a small, hinged box to protect the quality of the snuff, it quickly became a fashion statement. In 1781 it was written that a well-dressed man should have a different snuff box for every day of the year, advice some genteel men took literally to heart. Popular dandy, Lord Petersham, would only use each snuff box once in 12 months, while George IV owned 700: one for every day and evening. Visit Wellcome Images to see a selection of historic snuff boxes.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, snuff boxes became more personal. Erotic images began to appear on the insides of the boxes, either openly or hidden in secret cavities. Most showed a couple engaged in sexual activity, but nudes were also popular; generally a mistress or sometimes a wife. Occasionally the images were even accompanied by music.

Though the keeping of erotica was a private matter, Henry Wellcome managed to acquire one of these lewd items to add to his collection, allowing us to have it on display in the museum today. Snuff boxes were generally made of fine materials, such as porcelain and tortoiseshell; ours is no exception, being a cowrie shell and silver creation. The image inside is of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt. For a long time chastity belts were believed to have originated in the Middle Ages as a means for men to control their wife’s sexuality. We now know they were an 18th century invention which, if used at all, were more likely to prevent sexual assault than protect a lady’s fidelity.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman's chastity belt.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt.

Cowrie shells come from cowries, a diverse species of nocturnal marine snails living in tropical environments, feasting on algae, corals and sponges. The shell in our collection came from a humpback cowrie, which can be found in shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific. Both the inside and the outside of cowrie shells have a beautifully polished appearance due to a layer of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by the mantle; it was this porcelain-like exterior which ensured the cowries would never have a peaceful life. Like tobacco, cowries have had a long history with humans, being used variously for medicine, divination, fertility and, primarily, as money.

As currency, cowrie shells are one of the oldest in the world, at times being more valuable than gold. They were first used in China during the 2nd century and were still being used in Africa during the 19th century. They were an ideal choice for money, being consistent in shape, difficult to obtain in inland areas, easily transportable and, crucially, difficult to forge. While mostly used as currency in Africa and Asia, Europe began trading cowrie shells in the 15th century to obtain slaves for the slave trade. The use of shells was eventually overtaken by metal currency.

By the 19th century snuff began to fall out of favour as interest in cigars grew. After the death of George IV in 1830 the demand for imported cigars had grown massively, while matches and hand rolled cigarettes were increasingly available. As the Victorian era began, snuff boxes bore the brunt of the changing market. Many of them became obsolete short of becoming a collector’s item. Erotic snuff boxes suffered most of all due to strict Victorian morals, with few avoiding destruction by embarrassed families. It was said that George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, melted down most of his enormous collection in order to make more socially acceptable jewellery for herself.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.