Itching and scratching: 18th Century Flea Traps

A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret (c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A Girl in a Kitchen (La chercheuse de puce) by Nicolas Lancret
(c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Women Bathing by Nicolas Lancret (c) The Wallace Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So, you are a grandly dressed Georgian lady, with a fully powdered head of hair, fashionably coiffed but with a few little inhabitants. Scratch, scratch! How would you rid yourself of fleas?

Back in the eighteenth-century fleas were a common problem for all classes and would happily live in beds, inside wigs and on pets, and everyone was prey to them. Bathing of course helped, and there was the tried and tested method of painstakingly searching for and picking off the little critters. The Parisian artist Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), in a couple of his genre paintings, depicted some ladies searching themselves for fleas (and offering the viewer a titillating glimpse of flesh while doing so).

One other way, popular for a short period in the eighteenth-century, was to use a flea-trap which became something of a popular fashion accessory. It consisted of a hollow perforated cylindrical tube, sometimes ornately carved and made of silver or ivory, inside which would be a small rod, tuft of fur or a piece of cloth. This would be smeared with a few drops of blood, to attract the fleas, and also fat, honey resin, designed to make the fleas stick fast to it as they crawled inside, and which was removed as necessary to get rid of them. The flea trap was worn on a ribbon as a necklace, hanging down inside a dress – it could also be placed in a bed to attempt to rid that of fleas. A German doctor named Franz Ernst Brückmann (1697-1753) designed the first flea trap in the early 1700s.


Flea - trap Louth museum
Flea trap held at Louth Museum


Louth museum in Lincolnshire holds one, although they are unsure of the date of their flea trap. It is made of ivory, with a carved pattern, and measures 7cm in length and 1½cm in width.



The French name for the flea was ‘la puce’, which is supposedly how we have the name for the colour today – it is taken from the colour of a squashed flea or one full of blood, or from the bloodstains left behind by a flea on the bedsheets.

La Puce. Seated young woman, unveiling her breasts whilst trying to catch a flea. © The Trustees of the British Museum
La Puce. Seated young woman, unveiling her breasts whilst trying to catch a flea. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Reputedly, this brownish purple was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours, and it was Louis XVI who jokingly compared it to the colour of a flea and so named it. From Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, written in 1800 by Isaac D’Israeli (author and father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli):

In the summer of 1775, the queen being dressed, in a brown lutestring, the king good humouredly observed, it was “couleur de puce”, the colour of fleas; and instantly every lady would be drest in a lutestring of a flea colour. The mania was caught by the men; and the dyers in vain exhausted themselves to supply the hourly demand. They distinguished between, an old and a young flea, and they subdivided even the shades of the body of this insect; the belly, the back, the thigh, and the head, were all marked by varying shades of this colour. This prevailing tint promised to be the fashion of the winter. The venders of silk, found that it would he pernicious to their trade; they therefore presented new sattins to her majesty, who having chosen one of a grey ash-colour, Monsieur, exclaimed that it was the colour of her majesty’s hair! Immediately the fleas ceased to be favourites, and all were eager to be drest in the colour of her majesty’s hair. Servants were sent off at the moment from Fontainebleau to Paris, to purchase velvets, rateens and cloths of this colour. The current price in the morning had been forty livres per ell, and it rose towards the evening to the price of eighty to ninety livres.

Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 1778 via the British Library
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 1778 via the British Library

We’ll end with a couple of satirical prints. We think the people in these could do with a flea trap!

© Lewis Walpole Library
© Lewis Walpole Library
An old maid in search of a flea, 1794. © The Trustees of the British Museum


Irritating Intimates: The Archaeoentomology of Lice, Fleas, and Bedbugs by Allison Bain

Louth museum and blog

Domestic anecdotes of the French nation, during the last thirty years, indicative of the French revolution, by Isaac D’Israeli


18th Century corns – ouch!

Wellcome Images

We often take our feet for granted until we suddenly find that we have corns, bunions or hard skin and it was no different in Georgian times. Did you know that ‘four fifths of people are afflicted with complaints in the feet’? No, neither did we; so we thought we would take a quick look at 18th century views and treatments for the age old problem of corns, what a delightful topic, hope you’re not eating whilst reading this!

We all know what corns are and how painful they can be and clearly they are an age old problem and those clever Georgians found their own way of treating them.

What causes corns?

Today we believe that they are as a result of wearing shoes that fit poorly or certain designs that place excessive pressure on an area of the foot.

During our research we came across a fascinating little book written by a chiropodist in 1818 who agreed with this theory to a certain extent, but also added that the wearing of high heels and the use of hard leather also contributed to the problem. The writer though says that ‘even when buckles were in fashion, though they certain produced callouses on the upper part of the foot, corns were never seen to arise from their pressure’.

17th 18th Century Recipe for corn removal MS7721155 Welcome Library
17th-18th Century Recipe for corn removal. Courtesy of the Welcome Library.

He was also convinced that corns were mainly due to thin skin and that people who lived in the countryside and walked more, developed harder skin as they exercised more and as such suffered far less from corns than those living in the city, true or false we’d love to know! Maybe this is a good reason to take plenty of exercise.

Apparently he also understood that people could predict the weather by how painful or otherwise their corns were.

How to treat them

Easy, take a penknife or razor and remove them … NO that never was a good idea, even in Georgian times, and the writer of this book strongly advised against such self-treatment of the condition. He also noted the variety of ‘quack treatments’ such as plasters that could be applied either to relieve or remove the corn of which he was sceptical about their effectiveness.

An 18th century London corn- cutter's card... 'Apply to me, your feet I'll mend...' Date: 18th century
An 18th century London corn- cutter’s card… ‘Apply to me, your feet I’ll mend…’ Date: 18th century

He also talked about and advised against was to use ‘infallible cures from grandmama’s recipe book’.  After writing at length about the perils of such treatment the author strongly advises that the only solution is to seek medical help from a qualified professional person.

We did manage to find one of the ‘quack’ adverts he referred to.

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, March 14, 1791

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpoel Library

Under no circumstances would we advocate this method!

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library


The Art of Preserving the Feet

An advertisement for a husband! Lewis Walpole Library

18th Century Hearing Aids

Friends by the ears, 1786. A broker feigning deafness to avoid paying the doctor who cured him. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Friends by the ears, 1786. A broker feigning deafness to avoid paying the doctor who cured him. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Hearing aids have made some quite dramatic progress since the Georgian era . Towards the end of the 18th century the use of an ear trumpet was commonplace, with collapsible ones being made on a one off basis for customers. Well known models of the period included the Townsend Trumpet (made by the John Townshend) and the Reynolds Trumpet (specially made for painter Joshua Reynolds) which funneled sound into the inner ear.

One of the quirkiest objects we have come across to assist with hearing is this image. It is a flower vase receptacle made by F. C Rein about 1810. The object would sit in the middle of a dining  table once filled with flowers. Each of the six openings, or “receptors,” would act as sound collectors.*

This one below, manufactured in ivory was made for and used by Admiral John Borlase Warren (1753-1822).

Phisick – Medical Antiques

Here we have an example of a small hearing aid consisting of a pair of metal ear tubes acquired by the surgeon Luke James (1799 – 1881)

single hearing aid
Courtesy of the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons

In Blackwood’s Edinburgh  Magazine, Volume 14, we across this ‘letter to the editor‘ from a gentleman suffering from hearing difficulties along with a drawing of a device to help improve his hearing.

Mr Editor,

Having taken in your very superior Miscellany, from its earliest day to the present, I know you as the friend of man. Upon this ground, I am confident that you will grant the request I make, of inserting the short notice I now send in your very first Number, that those labouring under deafness may reap, from the improvement which I have made upon the Ear Trumpet, the advantages which I so unexpectedly enjoy.

Many years ago, in’consequence of a cough of most uncommon severity, an injury was done to some part of the internal structure of my left ear,which completely robbed me of hearing through that organ. Immediately after this accident, I was seized with a tinnitus aurium, which held out the dismal prospect of entire deafness. For this malady, I had recourse to snuff, and its effects upon the tinnitus were soon perceptible. Still, however, the hearing upon the right ear remained obtuse, and extremely contracted my social enjoyments. I applied in every quarter, including his Majesty’s Aurist, for the most improved ear trumpet. From none of these instruments was the most trivial benefit derived.

My thoughts being much employed upon the subject, it occurred to me that every ear-trumpet which had been sent to me conveyed the collected sound through a very small tube, the orifice of which was inserted in the ear ; and now a prospect opened which afforded hope. I immediately ordered an instrument to be constructed, of the fittest block-tin, one end of which included the whole external ear, and the other, (circular also) of larger diameter, collected the sound, which was conveyed by a straight tube, of some capacity, into the ear.

The result was most gratifying, indeed, beyond my most sanguine expectation, enabling me to carry on a conversation with a friend, with the utmost ease to myself, and without exertion to the person addressing me.

It is the establishment of the principle of this improvement upon the  Ear-Trumpet to which I am solicitous to give publicity, leaving to younger men to make experiments upon the length and diameter of the tube, and of other parts of the instrument.

The only attempt towards improvement which 1 made, was the making a transverse section of the smaller circle, so as to approach nearly to the shape of the ear; and, by a little management, it answers my expectation.

With this I transmit a sketch of the instrument I use.

I remain, Mr Editor, with much esteem, your very obedient servant,

Thos. Morison, M.D. Disblair Cottage, Aberdeen, 16th July, 1823.


ear trumpet





A View in the Fens; John Leslie Thomson; Perth & Kinross Council

Opium Eating: The Lincolnshire Fens in the early nineteenth-century

Today’s blog is going to be a sad little tale of a family destroyed by opium in late Georgian England. It perhaps struck us so much because the family lived not in an inner city slum but instead in the flat and open agricultural landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens, a marshland close to the Wash, an estuary on the eastern coastline of England.

We’ll turn first to a newspaper report on the inquest of a child belonging to this family, poor little Rebecca Eason who was actually younger than mentioned; she had not yet reached her fifth birthday.

An inquest was held at Whaplode on the 21st inst., by Samuel Edwards, Gent. coroner, on view of the body of Rebecca Eason, a child aged 5 years, who had been diseased from its birth and was unable to walk or to articulate, and from its size did not appear to be more than a few weeks old:- The mother had been for many years in the habit of taking opium in very large quantities, (nearly a quarter of an ounce in the day), and it is supposed from that circumstance had entailed a disease on her child which caused its death:- it was reduced to a mere skeleton, and had been in that emaciated state nearly from its birth. – Verdict, “Died by the visitation of God, but that from the great quantity of opium taken by the mother during her pregnancy of the said child and of her suckling it, she had greatly injured its health.” – It appeared in evidence that the mother of the deceased had had five children – that she began to take opium after the birth and weaning of her first child, which was and is remarkably healthy – and that her four younger children have all lingered and died in the same emaciated state as the child which was the subject of this investigation. – The mother is under 30 years of age: she was severely censured by the coroner for indulging in so pernicious a practice.

Stamford Mercury, 30th September 1825

For reasons that will perhaps become clear, we’re not going to judge poor addicted Mary Eason. She was quite clearly continuing to take opium despite knowing the effect it was having on her children but we cannot, at this remove, know what induced her first to use the drug, and once addicted very little help would be available to her.

Fenland Scene by J. Lamnier (c) Rossendale Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Fenland Scene by J. Lamnier
(c) Rossendale Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We were surprised to find that the consumption of opium in the Fenland was extremely high in comparison to other areas. Even now large areas of the Fenland appear quite isolated and in the early nineteenth-century there was limited medical assistance for the inhabitants who suffered badly from the ague (malarial fever, often leading to rheumatism), brought on by living in a marshy and largely unhealthy district. In 1867 Dr Hawkins of King’s Lynn informed the readers of the British Medical Journal that Lincolnshire and Norfolk consumed more than half of the opium which was imported into the country.[i]

The fact that these conditions had led to a noticeably high consumption of opium was commented on at the time. `There was not a labourer’s house… without its penny stick or pill of opium, and not a child that did not have it in some form.’ According to an analysis made in 1862, more opium was sold in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Manchester than in other parts of the country.’ As elsewhere, poppy-head tea had been used as a remedy long before other narcotics were commercially available. Charles Lucas, a Fenland physician, recalled the widespread use of the remedy. `A patch of white poppies was usually found in most of the Fen gardens. Poppy-head tea was in frequent use, and was taken as a remedy for ague… To the children during the teething period the poppy-head tea was often given. Poppies had been grown in the area for the London drug market, where they were used to produce syrup of white poppies; and there had even been attempts made in Norfolk to produce opium on a commercial scale.[ii]

Mary married young, very young given that she was stated (erroneously) to be under the age of thirty years in the September of 1825. Mary was, in fact, probably just on the other side of thirty as she married on the 9th September 1810 at the church of St Mary’s in Whaplode. Her maiden name was Egan and her husband, a labourer (given the location he’d be an agricultural labour), was named Thomas Eason. Mary made her mark on the register of her marriage and the two men who witnessed the ceremony were possibly two of the Church Wardens as they witnessed many marriages in the parish. Their names were Robert Collins and Robert Cook Collins.

So Mary was likely to have been little more than sixteen years of age and the marriage was a hasty one, possibly conducted with encouragement from the parish officials for Mary was heavily pregnant at the time of her wedding. Her child, a daughter named Ann, was born less than two months after she had walked up the aisle and was baptised in the same church on the 4th November 1810.

On the face of it, purely from the records available, things do not look too bad for the couple despite the unpromising start. They lived on Cobgate in Whaplode and, from the account given at the inquest, little Ann was a healthy baby and Mary initially a good mother. But the records belie the true facts. It was after Ann had been weaned that Mary Eason began to take opium.

We can’t know if her hastily made marriage was a happy one (for as the old saying goes, marry in haste and repent at leisure) nor if she was suffering from what would now be diagnosed as postnatal depression after the birth of her child. But begin to take opium she did which was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in the area in which she lived and where the drug was widely available. It was not unknown for working class women to dose their infant with poppy-head tea to keep them quiet or to soothe them. Sometimes their own addiction began because they ‘tasted’ the opiates which they gave to their children. Perhaps this is how Mary’s sad story of addiction began? However it came about, now the tragic procession of the baptisms and burials of her children begins to stalk the pages of the parish register.

"Poor child's nurse", child with opium, Punch, 1849 Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
“Poor child’s nurse”, child with opium, Punch, 1849
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

First was William, baptized on the 15th April 1813 and buried just a few months later on the 30th September. He was followed by another girl, Susanna, baptized on the 2nd January 1815 and who lived to see only her first birthday. She was buried on the 13th May 1816. Then comes Sarah, baptized on the 1st November 1816 and possibly, contrary to the inquest, a further child who did survive Mary’s addiction for we have as yet found no corresponding burial for her.

Sarah’s birth was followed by another sister, Elisabeth who was baptized on the 6th December 1818 and buried just over a month later on the 10th January 1819. Then a son named Thomas, baptized on the 4th December 1819 and buried five days later. And next came poor Rebecca, baptized on the 29th December 1820, who somehow miraculously clung to life but failed to grow or develop. Finally the last child we have managed to trace, another son named John who was baptized on the 6th July 1823 and buried on Christmas Eve later that same year.

We’ll be honest here, when we first went hunting through the records for Mary Eason and her children we half expected to see a trail of illegitimate children. But no, Thomas Eason is named on all the baptisms and burials as the father, the address is always Cobgate and his profession does not change. For anyone reading through the Whaplode registers the household looks to be a completely stable one, albeit tinged with tragedy. As we have not judged Mary, neither will we judge Thomas Eason. Again, we have no way of knowing whether he was a kind or a cruel husband or even if he was an opium eater himself, but the mere fact that he had stuck by Mary and that their eldest child was reported, in 1825, to still be healthy, points to him trying his best to hold his troubled home together. Possibly he just got by and did what he could, not knowing what else to do or where to turn to for help?

The Church of St Mary, Whaplode. The east end of the church. © Copyright Dave Hitchborne (Geograph) and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
The Church of St Mary, Whaplode.
The east end of the church.
© Copyright Dave Hitchborne (Geograph) and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

At least five infant children belonging to Thomas and Mary Eason now lay in the churchyard at St Mary’s and it seems that they had passed as mere statistics of high infant mortality without the cause of death raising any suspicions, or at least no suspicions which reached the authorities. In the Fenland the rates of infant mortality were even higher than elsewhere, with the use of opium being one of the main causes. But Rebecca’s death in 1825 was different, because of her deformities, leading to the inquest.

After Rebecca’s burial on the 22nd September 1825 when she joined her five siblings in the churchyard Thomas and Mary Eason vanish from the pages of the parish register. We’ve looked for them in later records, hoping to put a happy ending to their lives, but we can find no trace of them or their daughter Ann (and Sarah if she did live). A sad ending for a sad tale of a Fenland family in the early nineteenth-century.


[i] Beccles and Bungay Weekly News, 1st October 1867

[ii] Opium in the Fens

Header image: A View in the Fens; John Leslie Thomson; Perth & Kinross Council

Sir Peter Lalonette and His Fumigation Machine

We would like welcome our latest guest writer  the lovely Geri Walton author of the blog 18th and 19th Centuries  who has very kindly written a fascinating article for us about an eighteenth century cure for venereal disease.


Ancient people believed in the idea that cures could be achieved by providing nourishment through the skin and often used perfume in the form of vapors, known as fumigation. When the bubonic plague ravished Europe, fumigation seemed to be effective in curing it. The idea of fumigation interested Georgian physicians who believed fumigation could be an effective medicinal remedy.

Among those who believed fumigation was a viable medicinal cure was Sir Peter Lalonette (sometimes referred to as Lalouette). Lalonette was, by the late 1700’s, a distinguished doctor and regent of the faculty of Physics at the University of Paris. He also believed the best way to cure venereal disease was by using mercury vapors along with fumigation.

To prove his theories and accomplish his cures, he created a fumigation machine, as shown above. He described the machine as “an oblong square box, in which the patient is shut up.” The patient also sat on a seat that could be raised or lowered to accommodate his or her height. At the bottom of the box a square hole admitted the furnace and a sliding door allowed the mercury powder to be thrown onto the fire to create the vapors. At the top of the box another sliding door accommodated the patient’s head and neck, and, to ensure the vapors were retained in the box, the sliding door was closed around the patient’s neck and a piece of fabric tucked securely around any open spots.

The mercury vapors used were created from one of three unique powders that Lalonette prepared using the purest quality mercury. Lalonette also used a variety of techniques and certain corrosive sublimates to create three powders he called a simple mercurial powder, a martial mercurial powder, and an argillaceous mercurial powder. These three powders supposedly offered different degrees of activity when used in his fumigation machine.


The amount of mercury powder used was proportional “to the violence of the systems, the strength and temperament of the patient, &c.” As a general rule, somewhere between four and six ounces of mercury were considered adequate. Depending on the results, it sometimes required as many as thirty or forty treatments, and treatments needed to be continued until all the disease symptoms disappeared. However, Lalonette also said it was prudent to continue treatments for a short time afterwards “for the sake of greater security.”

Geri blog

Fumigation was normally applied every other day, although it could also be applied up to four days in a row. Fumigation with mercury vapors were given in twelve to fifteen minute doses to nude patients who had fasted. The object of the fumigation was to have the mercury vapors surround the whole body. In addition, patients were also to adhere to a simple regimen that consisted of “mild food, little wine, [and] no spirituous liquors,” along with exercise.

Lalonette’s patients ranged in age from 19 to 42, and suffered a wide variety of venereal disease symptoms. Common symptoms included such things as urethral discharges, buboes (swollen, inflamed lymph nodes), blotchy skin, pustules, or chancres (cankerous sores or ulcerations). Sometimes sufferers experienced violent aches and pains in the stomach, such as twenty-five year old Luke B., who also experienced nausea and violent vomiting. In fact, Luke B. had so many problems, Lalonette refused to allow him to continue with his fumigation cure.


Some of Lalonette’s other cases were more successful. Louis D. age 23 years, began fumigation on September 4, 1772, having been ill five months. He showed a bubo in the groin area, but was cured by October 21, 1772. A second Louis, Louis B., age twenty-one, suffered from gonorrhea for nine months before he began having a discharge. He then developed blotches on different parts of his body and began Lalonette’s treatments in August 11, 1772. While Louis B was undergoing treatment, a third Louis, Louis M., began treatment in October of the same year. He had suffered for five months with “phymosis, and indurations within the prepuce.” His groin was also swollen and he had an infinite number of blotches on his face and body. In December of 1772, however, Lalonette pronounced both Louis B. and Louis M. cured.

Two other cases also involved gonorrhea. The first case involved a forty-year-old man named Joseph. Four years earlier Joseph had suffered from gonorrhea but thought himself cured. Then he began experiencing pain in his leg, limbs, and finally swelling in his ear and gums. When Lalonette saw him he showed signs of “chancres and a bubo.” After about three months of treatment, Lalonette pronounced him cured. John G, age 26, admitted in August 11, 1772, had two obvious “buboes,” which degenerated into ulcers. He also had a discharge from his urethra and pain in his limbs that increased during the night and prevented him from sleeping. However, by October 21, 1772, he also cured due to fumigation.


There was, however, one case that Lalonette cautiously reported on involving a twenty-year-old man. His name was Peter D. He had developed gonorrhea two years earlier and not only suffered a urethral discharge but also various “chancres” that appeared all over his body, along with severe pain in his limbs, and “nocturnal pains of the head.” His disposition was noted by Lalonette to be somewhat relieved, but he also added “there are some doubts of his being perfectly cured.”

For the most part, however, Lalonette claimed that after applying his fumigation technique some 400 times, he had achieve miraculous results and wrote a book detailing his successes. It was titled, A New Method of Curing the Venereal Disease by Fumigation. In it he claimed, “I have as yet seen no disagreeable accident from this mode of treatment, and I have constantly observed, that so far from being rendered weaker by it they [the sufferers]…apparently gathered strength during the use of the remedy, and the symptoms have insensibly diminished, till at length they have entirely disappeared.



Clarke, Sir Arthur, An Essay on Warm, Cold, and Vapour Bathing, 1820, on Google Books

Lalouette, Sir Peter, A New Method of Curing the Venereal Disease by Fumigation, 1777, on Internet Archive

The Monthly Review; Or, Literary Journal, Vol. LVIII, 1778, on Google Books

18th Century Dentistry

tooth extractor
Pietro Longhi (1702–1785), Il cavadenti (The Tooth Extractor)

Whilst brushing my teeth the other day I found myself wondering what dental care would have been like in the 18th century, so with that in mind I thought it might form an interesting blog.  It’s quite surprising how far we have actually progressed and in other ways how little we have learnt.

Sugar is bad for you!’ A fact that did not escape the attention of one Thomas Berdmore, dentist to King George III, who was regarded as the leading dentist in England and as early as 1768, in what appears to have been the first English dental textbook ‘A treatise on the disorders and deformities of the teeth and gums: explaining the most rational methods of treating their diseases: illustrated with cases and experiments’, he had proclaimed the use of sugar as being bad for teeth!   He was also ahead of his time with his observation: ‘I am inclined to think that smoking is hurtful to the teeth.

L0021862 'Les epoux assortis', after L.L. Boilly, 1825
False teeth, False eye and False hair

Thomas died 7th November 1785, aged a mere 45 years, in Nottingham and in his will he instructed that his epitaph show his fortune had been acquired “by tooth drawing“, but the family had found that too indelicate so here is the substitute at St Mary’s church, Nottingham.


Today we take sugar very much for granted, but we are now very much aware of its harmful effects on the body, less was known of its effects back then and so as it’s usage in the diet increased and with it the risk of tooth decay. Sugar was however, an expensive commodity, there was of course far more chance of decay if you weren’t working class as sugar was mainly an indulgence of the middle/upper classes. The quantity of sugar consumed in Britain increased fourfold[1] from 1700 to 1800, little wonder people needed dentists!

london dentist
A dentist wearing a bag wig stands before an elderly woman in a chair as he works on her teeth. Behind him a younger woman looks on with concern and a young black serving boy grins at the viewer. Image courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

With today’s technology teeth can be repaired or removed even dentures are not essential with implants now being available to replace those dreaded dentures, all procedures being carried out hygienically and with the aid of anesthetic – ‘you won’t feel a thing’.

French dentist showing a specimen of his artifical teeth and false palates
Image courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Go back in time to the 1700s and the main solution for a painful tooth was extraction … minus the anaesthetic … ouch!  Having your teeth removed really would have been painful as this somewhat earlier painting entitled The Tooth Extractor by Theodor Rombouts demonstrates.


If you were wealthy you could opt for the eighteenth-century equivalent of today’s implants and use a ‘donor’ tooth to replace your removed one in which case the choice was a ‘live’ or a ‘dead’ tooth.  The old tooth was removed and the ‘donor’ tooth substituted.  Hmm, now the question you would have to ask yourself was ‘do I really want someone else’s tooth in my mouth?’ Let’s be honest you really don’t know what medical conditions that person could have had, so you really could end up getting far more than you had bargained for!  But, if that didn’t put you off then you could have your ‘new’ tooth inserted into the empty socket and held in place by silver wire and be returned to your usual glamorous looks quite quickly. Advertisements were placed in newspapers for donors with money being good money being paid for your teeth, so if you were short of money it was always an option!

If that option wasn’t up your street or you couldn’t afford it, then the only solutions were to endure the pain, pull the tooth out yourself or have it removed by a dentist/barber.  The favoured method of extraction was to use a ‘key’, we’ll save you the excruciating description of how this worked, but, if it failed to work properly the tooth would break and have to be removed piece by piece. Very much as today dentist had a vast array of implements from pliers to cleaning aids.

Image courtesy of Phisick
Pelican for tooth pulling
Dental  Pelican for tooth pulling. Courtesy of the Science Museum.

If on the other hand your teeth were in good condition you might simply wish to maintain them, again the dentist could help with this. They could provide ‘mouth water’ which ‘cured all manner of toothache and pain in the gums proceeding from rotten, hollow or stumps of teeth or scurvy and likewise take away all ill smells of the breath . Price 2d and 6d a bottle; according to the Evening Post, 30th November 1710.

toothbrush - science museum 1790
1790 toothbrush courtesy of Science Museum

Following on from Thomas Berdmore we had  Jacob Hemet (baptized 26th January 1729 at St Paul’s, Covent Garden) was also responsible for the teeth of Queen Charlotte, the Prince of Wales and Princess Amelia having been appointed to this post in  1766. As well as being a dentist Hemet was also a salesman and patented his dentifrices and travelled around Europe and America to sell his products – quite the entrepreneur.

His uncle, Peter Hemet junior, had also been a dentist with royal connections; he was dentist to the Prince of Wales and to King George II,  until his death in 1754, so very much a case of keeping it in the family. See our blog about Mrs Lessingham to learn more about the Hemet family.

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Pharmaceutical port belonging to Peter Hemet. Courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum.

Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer, January 10, 1769

Jacob Hemet, dentist to Her Majesty and Princess Amelia begs leave to recommend to the public his newly discovered Essence of Pearl and Pearl Dentifrice which he has found to be greatly superior, not only in elegance, but also in efficacy to anything hither to made use of for the complaints of teeth and gums; particularly they will preserve the teeth in a perfect sound state even in old age. They render them white and beautiful without in the least impairing. Fasten such as are loose; keep such as are decayed from becoming worse; perfectly cure the scurvy in the gums and make them grow firm and close to the teeth; they will likewise render the breath delicately sweet and remedy almost all those disorders that are the consequence of scorbutic gums.

We could not ignore children’s teeth and the London Evening Post of October 28th 1760 carried an advertisement for an ‘anodyne necklace’ it was a remedy to ‘let out children’s teeth without pain’ i.e. a teething necklace. The reality being that it was a necklace containing henbane roots.

We will leave you with one final snippet of information about dentistry courtesy of Pierre Fauchard, who was was regarded as the ‘father of dentistry’ – did you know that Fauchard recommended that human urine be used at the first sign of tooth decay … did it work … we have absolutely no idea, nor to we intend to put it to the test!

Of course as always a blog would not be complete with our usual Lewis Walpole caricatures, so we’ll finish with one. Wonder how many readers will, having read this go and brush their teeth! The tooth ache or Torment and torture


[1] Ponting, Clive (2000). World History: A New Perspective. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-7011-6834-X


The Sense of Hearing, Philippe Mercier.

What a Spectacle! (Part 2)

Following our previous post  What a Spectacle! which looked at the development of spectacles during the Georgian Era, we had a question/observation from a reader regarding portraits of women wearing spectacles – or rather the lack of them.  With that in mind, we have tried, almost in vain to put together a short post to show just women wearing spectacles. To be honest it has proved to be something of a challenge and of course, we thrive on challenges!

There are only a few possible explanations for the lack of images, the first being that of vanity; you wanted to look at your best when having your portrait painted and ‘masking’ the eyes with spectacles or even showing publicly that your eyesight wasn’t quite what it should have been may have been one.  The second explanation is probably that young to middle-aged women simply preferred to use an eyeglass of some sort if they felt their eyesight was lacking or finally that quite simply eye tests as we understand them today simply did not exist in the same way so people didn’t realize how good or bad their eyesight was. Around the 1800s the use of any type of spectacles was a sign of old age and infirmity, so it seems that vanity would most likely have prevented many women from admitting to this!

For ‘ladies of fashion’ the lorgnette was immensely popular.  The picture below shows one invented by George Adams Jr. (1750 – 1795) in the form of a penknife and intended to be carried loose in the pocket. Lorgnettes were developed towards the end of the 1700’s and often took the form of a pair of eyeglasses on a long handle.

Courtesy of the Museum of Vision

If you preferred something slightly more discrete and more akin to a piece of jewellery then the other option was quizzling glasses which became popular from the early 1800’s.


Moving on to the portraits that we have found and to be honest they seem to confirm our suggestions and only feature the more mature woman.

Our first offering is an oil painting entitled ‘The Sense of Hearing, The Sense of Sound’ by the French artist Philippe Mercier.

The Sense of Hearing, Philippe Mercier.
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The next is a self-portrait by the Polish artist  Anna Dorothea Therbusch,  painted circa 1777 when she was around 65 years of age.

Anna Dorothea Therbusch, self portrait c.1777.

Our third offering is Ferdinande Henriette, Countess of Stolberg-Gedern, in her later life.

Friederike Charlotte, Countess of Stolberg-Gedern

The next, a caricature entitled ‘ The Mutual Embrace’ courtesy of the British Museum.

The Mutual Embrace

Lastly, there is ‘High Life Below Stairs’ by John Collet, London, England, 1763.

High Life Below Stairs by John Collet, 1763

Unfortunately, despite our best attempts we failed to find any paintings of young women wearing spectacles, so as many of you know our blog posts couldn’t possibly be complete without any caricatures so we offer this one from the Lewis Walpole Library entitled  ‘Heyday! Is this my daughter Anne!‘, yet again depicting an elderly woman accompanied by her daughter who is sporting one of our favourite enormous hairstyles.Heyday Is this my daughter Anne