Keeping up appearances: Self-care in the Symons collection

During my placement at the RCP Museum this summer, I have been helping to audit and conduct a condition survey of the Symons collection. The collection, gifted by Cecil and Jean Symons, contains both objects used by physicians to treat patients, but also by individuals for self-care at home.  Alongside the medical instruments and gadgets, dotted throughout the case are portable, handy objects used for personal hygiene and to keep up appearances.

Three views of a metal box with a perforated lid and an inner compartment.
S297. A 19th century vinaigrette. You can see the small perforations in the lid, and the original sponge inside.  Cocks and Bettridge, Birmingham, 1816.


Throughout history, bad smell has been associated with bad health and poor cleanliness. The Romans and Greeks believed bad air, or miasma, lead to the spread of disease, and this idea continued through to the early Victorian era. This was primarily due to the rapid urbanisation of English cities and the poor air quality which came as a result.

 A common way for higher class individuals to combat this was to carry perfume or smelling salts to protect them from falling ill, especially when they were out and about on their travels. These scents were often carried in objects called vinaigrettes, named after the vinegar used in the aromatic preparation carried inside them. Inside the delicate silver box, which would be worn on a chain around the neck, there would be a sponge soaked in the perfume, which would be smelt through the small holes in the box. Vinaigrettes came into fashion in the 18th century and were used by the upper classes. However, by the 19th century, they were being produced in larger quantities and were more readily available.

Vinaigrettes served a dual purpose, both as a way to carry and apply perfume without needing to carry a whole bottle, and to easily bring to the nose when travelling through a particularly smelly part of town. They also clearly indicated the social status of the individual wearing it, as they could afford to smell nice; although in reality, hygiene standards were nearly as low within the upper classes as those lower in social rank. The vinaigrette in the Symons collection, pictured above, dates to 1816 and was made in Birmingham, and still has the original sponge inside.

S566. Steel toilet set, Germany, c.1680.

A number of steel instruments hanging from a central ring.
S566. Steel toilet set, Germany, c.1680.


A silver tongue scraper in the form of a bent strip of metal.


A tongue scraper in the form of a small metal rake.
Examples of other tongue scrapers in the Symons collection. S570. Made in India, 1988. S502. Made by Joseph Wilmore, Birmingham, 1815-1825.


Another handy object from the Symons collection is a German ‘toilet set’, dated to 1680. Many metal implements came from Germany in this period due to the high quality of their metal work. This set comprises a tongue scraper, an ear spoon, a pair of tweezers and a toothpick, attached together on a chain which would be hung from the belt. It was clearly designed as a handy grooming kit to have within reach when needed.

The Symons Collection contains one of the largest collections of tongue scrapers in England. Tongue scraping became popular in England in the 18th century as part of a good oral hygiene routine as a way to remove residue and freshen the mouth after eating. The tongue scraper in this set (far-left) is unusual in its spade-like shape, especially compared to the others in the collection (see images and the catalogue).

The set also contains an ear spoon, also known as an ear picker or scoop. According to London surgeon John Woodall, ‘eare-pickers’ were an essential part of a surgeon’s ‘bundle of small instruments usually brought from Germanie.’ Physicians advised patients to clear their ears regularly so as to avoid deafness.

An engraved cartoon of an 18th century man having teeth pulled.
2008.1/09. Print of teeth- pulling, titled ‘Teeth drawn with a touch’. Wilson, 1773.


A number of silver dental instruments.
S342. Dental set, made by William Purrier, London, 1796.


Another set in the collection is an 18th century oral hygiene trio of a toothbrush, tongue scraper, and box for tooth powder, the precursor to paste. Self-care became popular during the Georgian era, and so followed the development of devices to keep the mouth and teeth clean. Both toothbrushes and tooth powder came about during the late 17th to early 18th century. Previously, methods of maintaining oral hygiene included chewing an aromatic twig, wiping your teeth with a cloth, or just using your finger. However, the Georgians had some understanding that a more thorough method was needed. The first English dental book is thought to have been written by Thomas Berdmore, dentist to King George III in 1768. In it, he proclaims that ‘Sugar is bad for you!’ and ‘I am inclined to think that smoking is hurtful to the teeth’.  Berdmore’s ideas were advanced for his time and not widely heeded, as despite his warnings, sales of sugar in England increased by fourfold from 1700 to 1800. This development of better dental care came at just the right time.

These objects, plus the other self-care tools in the Symons collections, serve to show us that people in the past did seek to look after themselves, or at least appear to be healthy.  Whilst we now have a completely different understanding of how diseases spread,  and tongue scraping is no longer the favourite way to freshen your breath, we still want to smell nice, try to avoid a trip to the dentist, and keep up our appearances. We often turn up our noses at the people of the past, and a lot of the time for good reason, but perhaps, in some ways, we’re not so different.

Lydia Shirfield, collections intern

To find out more, you can explore the Symons collection, as well as the rest of the RCP collections, via the online catalogue.

If you fancy a closer look at this collection, as well as our other exhibitions, come and visit the Royal College of Physicians Museum.The Symons Collection is on display in our Treasures Room.

For more information about the history of the Symons collection, Jean Symons has written a paper ‘The Symons collection: its origins and contents’, which is available to download from this page.

Katie Birkwood ,
Rare books and special collections librarian

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