What a Shame

To have to sew your own punishment! Although I suppose to some people sewing is punishment.

Above is my attempt at making a 19th century punishment badge. These were meant to be worn around the head of a schoolchild who was guilty of the named crime, probably made by another pupil. I copied the lettering exactly and have to confess I was torn between the pathos and humor. Inattention?

Mea culpa. Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

Public humiliation as a form of discipline is as old as history, but it takes on a particular poignancy when you think of little children wearing a label proclaiming their crime, for all their small world to see.

Remember Jane Eyre?

On reaching the bedroom, we heard the voice of Miss Scatcherd: she was examining drawers; she had just pulled out Helen Burns’s, and when we entered Helen was greeted with a sharp reprimand, and told that to-morrow she should have half-a-dozen of untidily folded articles pinned to her shoulder.

“My things were indeed in shameful disorder,” murmured Helen to me, in a low voice: “I intended to have arranged them, but I forgot.”

Next morning, Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word “Slattern,” and bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment. The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.

Helen wore a paper sign, but it seems some children were made to spell out the crimes by stitching their own badges. The next excerpt is from The Sunday School Teacher’s Magazine and Journal of Education, 1855. The author recalled attending a free school as a small girl. It was taught by Miss Middleton, a lady of independent means who had devoted her life, rather ineffectually it seems, to good works.

Our governess considered it needful to govern by at least a mixture of severity with kindness. Her modes of punishment were various. A rather formidable one was binding a label with a specific crime marked upon it around the forehead, and placing the culprit on a form as an object for the deliberate gaze of the whole school. Most likely these expressive tokens of guilt were originally manufactured by the children’s own hands, and remind one of a murderer erecting his own gibbet.

Once a long row of delinquents was ranged on a form, who had committed some kind of treason during our mistress’s absence; and absent she frequently was from her post. We had then a scholar who was notorious for her unconquerable love of fun… She being amongst the mounted ones, contrived to overbalance the form, and bring all to the ground, producing a scene which very naturally excited the mirth of all who beheld it, and turned our punishment into a frolic.

That must have been a sight! I wonder if they were all wearing their labels when they tumbled to the floor? The author goes on to describe what happened when she was falsely accused of tearing a pinafore and made to “wear her crime.”

Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

But the question with my governess was, ” Who rent [tore] the pinafore?” Somebody must have; though having been perpetrated in the dark, it was probably rather difficult to determine the author. Now I was one of the least, and therefore as likely to be guilty as any one. I suppose by this reasoning Ann brought her mind to the conviction that I was the guilty party, and she unhesitatingly accused me of the crime. I very naturally denied the charge. But I was compelled to wear the most detestable of all the bandages, and mount the form with the word LIAR branded on my brow. Can I ever forget that moment? No! the scar of that wound will not be effaced by time, however long a space be allotted me; and though I have long ceased to bear malice, the memory of this painful circumstance will be for ever connected with the name of Ann W. Surely nothing chafes the soul of a child so much as an unjust accusation, and unmerited punishment. – Maidstone. Christiana Elizabeth.

If you’ve read the Plain Needlework page on this blog, you know about Joseph Lancaster’s contribution to needlework education. However, some of his early comments on class discipline are rather hard to take – at least for modern sensibilities, even when allowing for the times in which he wrote. He also used labels to shame children who offended. From his 1807 manual,

When a boy is disobedient to his parents, profane in his language, or has committed any offence against morality, or is remarkable for slovenliness, it is usual for him to be dressed up with labels, describing his offence, and a tin or paper Crown on his head. In that manner he walks round the school, two boys preceding him, and proclaiming his fault; varying the proclamation according to the different offences.

And another reference,

Labels of Disgrace. When boys are in habits of talking, or being idle in school time, it is common in the free schools under my direction, as variety in punishment, to make an offender stand up and suck his fingers, with the label ‘Idle’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘suck-finger baby.”

Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

These methods were mild compared to others he recommended. Although to be fair, I can’t imagine the task of managing – much less teaching – a single class of over a hundred unruly street children.

What sort of offenses warranted this fate? Thanks to generous help from Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, we can see some of the unacceptable behaviors marked on bands from their museum collection.

“Punishments for moral offences, which consist in branding the offender as a thief, a liar, or some other odious appellation, by making him wear a label with any such inscription round his neck, should be indignantly repudiated by the teacher,” -1872 Handbook on the Teaching and Management of Elementary Schools. Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

1866 Report, “There are, it seems, teachers in Boston who do not make much use of the rod, but resort to other modes of punishment which are quite as objectionable, such as shutting up children in closets — though absolutely forbidden, plastering up their mouths — unusual if not cruel, decorating their heads with the dunce’s cap, or placing upon them some badge of disgrace.” Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

Note how the ties are attached differently in this one. Perhaps it was meant to be worn around the neck. A Sunday School Guide from 1806 states, “The standing on a stool, or form, in a corner, for a certain time, and in some cases with a label hung round their neck, specifying why they stand there… may be tried before the extremity of expulsion be used.” Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

From The Christian Observer, 1805: “If the child asks pardon and behaves properly, she is soon restored to her place; if not, she passes to the form entitled Disobedience; and for immoral offences they are sent to the form of Disgrace, with a label, declaring the offence, fastened to them.” Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

This one is hemmed rather than backed, and has what is likely the class or form marked on the side. Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

I’m probably guilty of all, but the one that caught my attention was INATTENTIOn. That had my name written all over it (ha) so that’s the one I wanted to make. Although from respect – and exhaustion – I left out ‘DURING PRAYERS.’

The bands reminded me of the tiny sewing samples made for needlework lessons, illustrating plain sewing techniques.

Tiny marking sampler from teaching manual, 1833.

The first one needed was marking. Cross-stitch is the basic marking stitch, but these are marked with “oylet” or “eye-let-hole” stitch, which is

quite a fancy stitch, and rarely employed. The oylet holes are formed by working in small stitches round each square, about four stitches in the four corners, and four intermediate stitches between, are necessary to form each oylet hole. -Workwoman’s Guide, 1838

or as directed here, in 1853:

Eye-let-hole Marking is done by making a stitch across two threads from the centre as a fixed point, above, below, on each side, and at each of the four angles.

Well OK, no problem, I could do that. Or so I thought until I tried it on a scrap of old linen. Enter 5 diopter magnification with 60 little LEDs, and voila! Of course my eyes were crossed and my head tilted sideways for a week.

I hadn’t even done the first letter before I realized that the stitches that resembled little stars on the original looked like lumpy knots on mine. Even worse at reading distance than in the close-up photo. Hint: use the right thread. Finer silk worked much better. I also learned that it takes twice as long to unpick an “oy-let” as it does to stitch it!

Finishing the badge was a little easier. I folded the linen back onto itself, and then “seamed” the other three sides. Seaming (also called sewing, oversewing, overhanding in the 19th century) is my favorite stitch to do, and you can see a beautiful example of it around the edges of this tiny specimen from 1820.

The label needed ties, too. I’m amazed that nineteenth century classes even included a “proper” way to do something as simple as sewing on ties or tapes. In the illustration below, the tape has the raw end tucked under and three sides are hemmed to the fabric. Then the tape is folded back against the fabric and the fourth edge is seamed to the fabric. Neat, sturdy, and strong as super glue. Well, theirs were anyway.

I don’t have a purpose for the band I made; I’m not even sure why I felt compelled to make one. Perhaps it was just a way to almost touch the past. It would be a shame to lose its lessons.

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