Sometimes "reading" an 18th c print is easy, and the humor is obvious. There's not much subtlety to a cartoon of women tripping so their skirts fly up, or twittering dandies, either. But others, like the print left, require a passing knowledge of classical mythology as well as Georgian slang.
At first glace, The Bum-Bailiff outwitted, or the convenience of Fashion, looks like one more caricature of fashionable excess. But it's more complicated than that. According to Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811), a bum bailiff is "a sheriff's officer, who arrests debtors; so called perhaps from following his prey, and being at their bums, or, as the vulgar phrase is, hard at their a-ses."
Then as now, most people took the side of the pretty young lady, not the bill-collector – even if that pretty young lady has likely run up the 18th c equivalent of her MasterCard buying all that stylish finery. But here the frizzed wig, over-sized hat, false rump, and extravagant kerchief that have meant her financial ruin are also providing her escape. As the bailiff seizes her, waving his warrant, she slips free in her shift, and leaves him holding the empty finery instead of the woman. The bailiff's determined posture as he holds onto the false rump - raised up like a mare's tail - is unmistakably sexual, too, a guaranteed laugh for the artist.
The caption describes the lady's escape with classical references: Suky like Syrinx changes shape, Her vain pursuer to escape: Ye Snapps, of Pan's hard fate beware, Who thought his arms embraced the fair But found an empty Bum-case there.
In ancient mythology, Syrinx was a chaste nymph and follower of the goddess Artemis. Pursued by the overly-ardent (weren't they all?) god Pan, Syrinx begged the river nymphs for help. They obliged by transforming her into the hollow reeds beside the river, frustrating Pan. Eighteenth-century readers knew their mythology. They would have understood the allusion to shape-shifting as a means of escaping a relentless pursuer, just as they would have applauded Suky's resourcefulness.
Above: The Bum-Bailiff outwitted, or, the convenience of Fashion, published May 6, 1786 by S.W.Fores, at the Caracature Warehouse Piccadilly. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
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.