Sunday, 11 August 2013

Tools of the Historical Trade

Recent blog posts have covered the street names and occupational surnames which may or may not prove of interest to authors of historical stories. It occurred to me how it might prove useful to look at some of the tools and terminology used by those in those occupations. That many were used in agriculture comes as no surprise as the vast majority worked the land.

ARTIFICIAL LEECH – as it suggests this blood-letting tool of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mimicked the natural blood sucker after which it was named. It resembled a bicycle pump with one end where rotating blades with cut into the patient’s flesh and enable the blood to be drawn into the tube.

ASTROLABE – a navigational aid and a remarkably intricate piece of equipment for its day – those from the seventeenth century particularly. Useless during the day, they showed position by lining the instrument up with the stars.

BREAST PLOUGH – an early implement and one with a most misleading name, it is really a broad spade with a broad handle which pressed against the body of the user which cut a narrow swathe across the field, removing the top layer of stubble, weeds, brushwood, etc. This was then burned slowly to produce an ash which was then spread back on the field as a fertiliser. The implement was certainly available by the end of the sixteenth century, and still used in the Cotswolds in the 1930s, although it would seem to be in use much earlier and could well have been seen before the Romans arrived. Note there many different names for this item depending upon location.

BURN-BAITING – the process of using a breast plough and burning that removed.

CHAFF CUTTER – a curved blade was employed to chop the stubble from the crops into smaller pieces. The stalks were enclosed in a rectangular box on legs, both ends of the box were missing so the chaff could be slid along to protrude from chaff box and sliced through. An experienced cutter could make fifteen cuts per minute, less able workers would doubtless have at least scars to show their ineptitude. Chaff was cut into smaller pieces to mix in with the animal feed to ensure nothing went to waste, left whole the creatures could leave this in favour of the tastier morsels. Various models existed from the most basic idea in the sixteenth century to spring-loaded versions by the middle of the nineteenth century.

CROSS STAFF – a navigational aid resembling a television aerial but with cross pieces of differing lengths. Held up to horizon in the direction of the sun or pole star would be a guide to the vessel’s latitude. Looking directly at the sun caused blindness in a number of users.

DENTCHERING – the process of using a breast plough.

EMMET-IRON – another name for a breast plough and common to the south east of England, so-named because it knocked down ant hills and emmet is an early name for the ant (and in current use as a Cornish word for a tourist).

GROZIER – glaziers used lead to hold the smaller panels of glass in a larger pane, the length of lead being trimmed with a grozier.

HUMMELLER – used to remove the beard from the barley after threshing, it resembled a rake but with longer tines and a second piece along the ends to form a grill. Combed through the barley it would remove the unwanted beard.

LATHERKIN – when glaziers used lead to hold together the various glass panes in a larger window, the malleable lead was smoothed out with a latherkin.

LEY – nothing to do with track ways or lines of energies, this ‘ley’ is an alternative northern term for a scythe.

MOUTH GAG – not what it seems, this late nineteenth century implement resembled a large wooden tapering thumb screw which would be placed in the patient’s mouth when they were under to keep the mouth and the airway open.

POSSER – an alternative name for the ‘dolly’ used on wash days. When clothes were washed in a copper boiler the only means of agitating the clothes was with a wooden post with a handle which was twisted by hand to rotate the clothes.

SALVING – salve is a mixture of butter and tar which, when rubbed on to the skin of the sheep in autumn protected them from pests and parasites through the winter when the long fleece provided a welcome home for them. The process ended when the sheep dip proved to be at least as effective at under a quarter of the cost.

SEED FIDDLER – a bag containing the seed to be sowed was suspended by a shoulder strap. A rotating disc allowed the seed to be distributed from beneath the bag and was sent spinning by a bow-like action back and forth by the operator, hence the name ‘fiddler’. Used by the nineteenth century.

SHAUL – a shallow scoop of wood, used for winnowing, While the chaff would be blown away in the breeze the heavier seeds would drop back into the shaul.

SPECULUM – any of various instruments used over many years and used to open any number of body cavities to give a better view. By the look of it they got the idea from the old shoe stretcher, or perhaps the reverse was the case.

TOBACCO SMOKE ENEMA – pretty obvious from the name what it is, but just why mini-bellows blowing smoke up the patient’s backside in the late eighteenth century was thought to help breathing problems is mystifying. Unless everyone in the eighteenth century talked through their ……. no, that can’t possibly have been the case.

TREPANNING – possibly still known as a medical treatment whereby holes are drilled in the skull to cure what were seen as problems caused by demons but were actually insanity, epilepsy, or simply a fractured skull.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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