Most Americans know Thomas Paine (1737-1809) as one of those famous Founding Fathers, the influential author of Common Sense. Few likely realize that before Paine came to the American colonies and into our history books, he was by trade a staymaker.
Stays (or corsets, such as the ones we've discussed here and here) were almost universally worn by British women and girls of the middle and upper classes in the 18th century. Staymaking was a skilled trade, one practiced almost entirely by men on account of the hand-strength required to stitch through the multiple layers of stiffened cloth and to force the baleen bones through the narrow, stitched channels. Paine's father was also a staymaker, earning about thirty pounds a year in a time when a day laborer made one pound a year and a schoolmaster between ten and twenty.
Young Tom's formal schooling ended at twelve, when his father took him on as an apprentice to learn the family trade. Yet an uncertain economy made for a bad climate for a new tradesman, and Paine's efforts as a staymaker (and in several other subsequent careers) failed. After he sailed for America in 1774, he never practiced the staymaking trade again.
But while modern Americans may not realize the stays in Paine's past, his English contemporaries could gleefully not forget them. In London, Paine's revolutionary writings were dismissed as the work of "Tom the Bodicemaker." Women and stays were already a popular satirical topic (like the popular 1770 print, right, Tight Lacing, or Fashion before Ease), and with that familiar image in mind, it was an easy step to add Thomas Paine to the cartoon, above.
Fashion before Ease; or, A good Constitution sacrificed for a Fantastic Form (1793) shows Britannia steadying herself on an oak tree (another representation of England), while wicked old Tom Paine pulls her laces tight by bracing his foot on her bottom with humiliating familiarity. Not only would Paine still carry his taint as a political trouble-maker from the American Revolution, but here he's shown sporting a Liberty Cap to show his sympathy to the French Revolution as well. A pair of shears are thrust into his pocket, ready for alterations, and his measuring tape is inscribed Rights of Man, another of his famous titles. In case a viewer somehow had forgotten Paine's long-ago trade, the sign on the cottage in the background proclaims: Thomas Pain, Staymaker from Thetford. Paris Modes, by express. (Thetford was his birthplace, and Pain was the original spelling of his name - though it could also imply the suffering he wished to impart on poor Britannia, too.)
Imagine the same sniggering hilarity if a prominent leader in modern politics had once been employed by Victoria's Secret....
Above: Fashion before Ease; or, a Good Constitution sacrificed for a Fantastic Form, by James Gillray, engraving, l793, Library of Congress Below: Tight Lacing, or, Fashion before Ease, by John Collet, engraving, c. 1770, collection of Colonial Williamsburg Thanks to Abby Cox for reminding me of this print!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.