Guest Post: Ashley Mathisen on the Curious History of the Spinal Machine

Ashley Mathisen recently graduated from Oxford University with a DPhil in History, and is currently working on course development in the History Department at Guelph University, while pursuing a Bachelor of Education at York University. Her doctoral dissertation examined the role of the London Foundling Hospital as a center for research on childhood illness in the eighteenth century. Her current research focuses on the experience of childhood disability in eighteenth-century Britain, the emergence of disability technology in the popular press, and the links between early pediatrics and orthopedics.

Disability Devices for Children: The Curious History of the Spinal Machine

diagram of spine machine from 1783
Timothy Sheldrake, An essay on the various causes and effects of the distorted spine. . . (London: DillyLondon, 1783). Wellcome Library.

Eighteenth-century medical practitioners were in a particularly interesting position when it came to children’s medicine. Child patients were, of course, treated by medical practitioners before the rise of paediatric medicine as a formal speciality, but many medical men had limited knowledge of children’s health, and many were reticent to involve themselves with a patient population so prone to disease and death. Children’s medicine was also associated with mothers, nurses, and midwives, and was considered beneath the dignity of many medical men, some of whom also felt that a man could not possibly understand a child’s body in quite the same way as a woman could. Many were also put off by the prospect of treating patients unable to vocalize their symptoms. Finally, it is entirely possible that some medical men were, quite simply, uninterested in children. Fortunately, as the eighteenth century progressed, some of these obstacles were discarded and the subject of child health began to occupy a more prominent place in medical discussions and in medical education.

Along with this increased interest in the bodies and health of children came a diverse set of “solutions” for correcting childhood disability or for integrating the disabled child into society. One of the more curious solutions was the “spinal machine”. In his Zoonomia, Erasmus Darwin referred to a machine:

capable of improvement by joints in the bar at the back of it, to permit the body to bend forwards with-out diminishing the extension of the spine. The objections of this machine of M. Vacher, which is made by Mr. Jones, are first, that it is worn in the day-time, and has a very unsightly appearance. Mr. Jones has endeavoured to remedy this, by taking away the curved bar over the head, and substituting in its place a forked bar, rising up behind each ear, with webs fastened to it, which pass under the chin and occiput. But this is not an improvement, but a deterioration of M. Vacher’s machine, as it prevents the head from turning with facility to either side.[1]

The spinal machine Darwin ascribed to Vacher was comprised of a whalebone corset, to which was attached a metal staff used to support the head and lengthen or straighten the spine. Darwin himself went on to devise two spinal machines: one for sitting (an armchair grasping the head and supporting the neck), and the other a sloping bed which supported the neck while extending the spine. Vacher’s machine was widely considered to be an improvement on other spinal devices, like the neck swing, since Vacher’s apparatus “does not prevent children from dancing, drawing, or writing”.[2]

By 1777, Philip Jones, “Spinal Stay and Machine-maker”, was “offering his Spinal Machine to the public in general” and was “so happy to find, that by experience, it has proved an effectual remedy for curing distortions of the spine in children”.[3] In the same year, Jones was hired by the London Foundling Hospital to examine several girls suffering from distortions of the spine. For three guineas a piece, Jones tailored a machine for two of the Foundling children, though he refused to charge the Hospital for his time.[4] Two and a half months later, he returned and demonstrated the use of the machines for the general committee of the Hospital, recording that Blanch Rivers was three feet, nine inches without the machine, and three feet, nine inches and five eighths with the machine on. Bridget Smith was not measured at this time, since it was felt that her distortion was far less severe. The two girls, Blanch Rivers and Bridget Smith, were thirteen and eight years of age, respectively, when Jones was brought to the Hospital to tailor their spinal machines. Rivers had been returned to the Hospital by her apprentice master in 1775 as a result of her disability, which accounts for the Hospital’s eagerness to consult with Jones about remedying her distortion.[5] Rivers was not subsequently apprenticed, but was instead released from the Hospital’s care at age 24, suggesting that her disability persisted and continued to pose a difficulty in securing an apprenticeship on her behalf. Bridget Smith was apprenticed successfully in 1781, suggesting that her distortion had become less problematic, or that it posed no challenge as far as her apprentice master was concerned.

The spinal machine represents a fascinating chapter in disability history and in the history of paediatric medicine. The efforts of Vacher, Darwin, Jones, and others reveal a great deal about medical attitudes to childhood disability, and the impetus to “cure”, rather than simply care, for the disabled child. Frustratingly, we know very little about how Blanch Rivers, Bridget Smith, and other similar children experienced their disabilities, or even if they considered them as such. While the story of the spinal machine in the eighteenth century can only ever be partially complete, it is a narrative worth exploring, since it tells us so much about social and medical attitudes to the bodies, and minds of children who lay outside the accepted norm.


[1] Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, The laws of organic life. In three parts, vol. ii (London, 1796), 89.
[2] Timothy Sheldrake, An essay on the various causes and effects of the distorted spine (London, 1783), 23.
[3] “Classified ads”, Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London, England), Thursday, January 9, 1777; Issue 14 938.
[4] London Foundling Hospital Sub-Committee Minutes, 23 August 1777, London Metropolitan Archives.
[5] London Foundling Hospital General Committee Minutes, 22 Nov 1775, London Metropolitan Archives.

Guest Post: Jennine Hurl-Eamon on the Army’s Continuing Appeal to Marginalized Youth

Jennine Hurl-Eamon is an Associate Professor of History at Trent University in Canada. She is the author of articles in scholarly periodicals such as Journal of British Studies, Labour History, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Journal of Social History, and Journal of Family History, as well as chapters in edited collections. She has also written three books: Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680-1720 (2005); Women’s Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2010); and Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth Century: The Girl I Left Behind Me (2014).

From the “Spirit-Stirring Drum” to Camouflage: The Army’s Continuing Appeal to Marginalized Youth

Although the British army of today might look considerably different than the redcoats of the eighteenth century, there are some striking similarities.

In my article “Youth in the Devil’s Service, Manhood in the King’s: Reaching Adulthood in the Eighteenth-Century British Army,” I argue that enlistment actually served as an appealing option to some eighteenth-century youth. The article focuses on the ways in which the army was able to galvanize certain wayward youth into models of adult masculinity. Where in the article I stressed youth’s desire to enter the army, here I want to explore things from the other direction: the army’s ongoing efforts to attract youth.

Then and now, the army presents a target audience of young people with three enticing prospects: a sense of belonging to those who feel isolated; the prospect of social mobility to those who currently feel destined to eternal poverty; and the promise of adventure and higher purpose in lives that seem otherwise doomed to banality. This appeal is not accidental and is the result of concerted effort on the part of the military to pursue marginalized youth.

In my article, I tell the stories of eighteenth-century orphaned boys for whom the army represented a surrogate family, but the army’s attempts to lure orphaned boys into its ranks are even more visible in the Royal Military Asylum scheme. In a speech to parliament in 1800, the Secretary at War proposed that a building be erected at Chelsea to house soldiers’ orphans. The boys among these orphans could then enter military training at the age of twelve and formally enlist by fourteen. Though he stressed that they would have the freedom to choose another trade, it is clear that the Secretary expected these orphans to become soldiers.[1]

Lonely and isolated children remain the key recipients of recruiters’ attention today. According to a recruiting sergeant in 2007, “there’s a lot of kids come in because their home life is a mess. . . .They want the army to give them a bit of discipline and a bit of support because their home life doesn’t offer that.”[2] The government recently launched the “Ethos” programme, which sends instructors—“over 70%” of whom “have an ex-Forces background”—into primary schools to help instill service-inspired values into their students. A 2013 promotional brochure stated the Department of Education’s belief “that pupils in the most challenging of circumstances could benefit the most from this.”

The distinctive pageantry of military life has also long been vital in enticing youth into its ranks. One young man wrote of “the roll of the spirit-stirring drum, [and] the glittering file of bayonets” in enticing him to join the 43rd Light Infantry Regiment in 1804.[3] The army knew this and geared its efforts accordingly, ensuring that recruiting parties came through town with rousing martial music. While these efforts are unlikely to have been aimed solely at youth, they clearly made a strong impression on children. The fact that fifers and drummers were children only added to the appeal of martial pageantry for its youngest audience.

The modern British army has Camouflage, a “youth information scheme” initiated in 2000 and designed to encourage kids from age 13 and up to see the fun of life in the military. Camouflage members can watch endless videos of uniformed personnel in action, have exclusive access to military computer games on the website, and are encouraged to develop a relationship with their local recruiting officer, who sends them Christmas cards.[4] “Join us and you’ll discover a group of people who take care of each other, on duty and off,” the army recruitment site proudly proclaims, promising that “you don’t just get brilliant training and support, you get somewhere to call home.”

Poorer teens are also enticed by the possibility of a decent wage and the chance to build a better future. The same was true of the eighteenth century. The army could present itself as a welcome contrast to the unwaged apprenticeships available to most boys at the time. A popular play satirized recruiters’ promises that good soldiers would eventually rise to “have ten shillings a day and two servants.”[5]In a 2012 article, Labour politicians argued that giving poorer youth “opportunities to learn from the ethos of the Forces could help tackle disadvantage and promote social mobility.”[6] A teen brought to the Fulwood Barracks with her school in 2007 reportedly said “They told us about the pay, and it’s way better than all my cousins are getting.”[7]

The army promises glory as well as gold. When the Duke of York reviewed the 56th regiment in 1796, he and his officers expressed their hopes that the men “would shortly add fresh laurels to those already gained” by the regiment. A man who had enlisted at age fifteen recalled how “elated with joy” these words made him. “Every heart…beat high to be led on to share in those glorious achievements,” he remembered. [8] Readers of the “Badge of Honour” article on the Camouflage site today are treated to an image of the Queen’s Royal Lancers’ cap badge, which reads “For Glory,” and told that soldiers’ regiment “makes them feel they’re a member of something special and gives them a sense of belonging.” Clicking on the prominent icon of the Union Jack with the words “Army: Be the Best” takes the viewer instantly to a site which introduces the Army as “Securing Britain in an uncertain world.”

The similarities in army youth recruitment strategies are especially noteworthy in light of the apparent differences in state policies toward children since the Napoleonic era. The intervening centuries have seen the advent of the Welfare State, and dramatic rises in the accessibility of education and child-protection legislation. The fact that the British army remains prominent in schemes to deal with poor, lonely, at-risk youth in the twenty-first century raises important questions about how much child welfare policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have really changed the experiences and opportunities of marginalized youth.


[1] The Parliamentary register; or, history of the proceedings and debates of the House of Commons, vol. 12 (1800) 247-8.
[2] Quoted in Stephen Armstrong, “Britain’s child army,” New Statesman, 5 February 2007.
[3] Anon., Memoirs of A Sergeant Late in the Forty-Third Light Infantry Regiment… (London, John Mason, 1835; reprinted Cambridge: K. Trotman, 1998), 13.
[4] Armstrong, “Britain’s child army.”
[5] George Farquhar, The Recruiting Officer. A comedy… (London: Printed for Bernard Lintott [etc.], 1706), Act IV, Scene ii.
[6] Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy, “Why the military must invade our schools: We should enhance the Armed Forces’ involvement in education,” The Telegraph 9 July 2012, my emphasis.
[7] Quoted in Armstrong, “Britain’s child army.”
[8] William Surtees, Twenty-Five Years in the Rifle Brigade (London: T. Cadell, 1833), 5.

Call for co-editor for multi-volume primary source reader on 18th century British and American families

We are looking for a third co-editor to help gather, transcribe, and analyze primary sources about family life in 18th century Britain and America. We have a substantial outline for the series and are in advanced negotiations with the publisher. Since we are both junior faculty, we would prefer a more senior scholar, preferably one with a background in 18th century American families.

For more information please contact Amy Harris.

Amy Harris
BYU History Department
2130 JFSB
Provo, Utah 84602
(801) 422-6408