J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Evidence for Paine as a Staymaker

As I discussed yesterday, a claim appeared on Wikipedia last month that Thomas Paine started out making stays for sailing ships, not stays for women to wear, and that Paine’s political enemies misrepresented him as a maker of underwear.

This fraud apparently fooled every historian and biographer who has written about Paine. At least, the citations that Wikipedia editor “Jkfkauia” inserted after that statement did not actually name any scholar who had seen through the ruse. In fact, those citations offer no outside support for the new statement.

Normally I’d point out that “Jkfkauia” has the responsibility to provide evidence for a claim, especially if he or she is going to dress it up with footnotes. Skeptics don’t have the burden of proving a historical statement is untenable. But I can’t resist poking some holes in the theory.

First, it wasn’t just Paine’s enemies who wrote that he had trained as a staymaker. Paine’s friends did, too. The jokes about Paine making stays for women appeared during and shortly after his lifetime when he or his friends could have refuted them. After all, Paine didn’t build a career as a political writer on two continents by staying quiet about his opponents’ errors.

Second, I have yet to find any eighteenth-century use of the word “staymaker” to mean someone who made stays for ships. Those were a type of rope, and the common term for someone who made ropes was “ropemaker.” If “staymaker” was also used for someone who spun stays for ships, there would surely be period sources remarking on its double meaning.

Instead, sources like this guide to professions from 1747, defined “The Stay-Maker” as “employed in making Stays, Jumps, and Bodice for Ladies.” (That book went on to nasty remarks about women before getting to the working conditions and wages young staymakers might expect.) And here’s a court case from 1771 when “James Paterson, staymaker,” sued to be paid for “furnishings to Taylor’s wife and daughter.”

Furthermore, Paine’s early biographers identified particular staymakers he worked for: his father in Thetford, a “Mr. Morris” on Hanover Street in London, and a “Mr. Grace” in Dover. Records from the late 1700s have helped recent biographers identify the latter two as John Morris and Benjamin Grace. Morris was in fashionable Covent Garden, not a shipbuilding center.

Thetford is an inland town in the east of England. According to “Jkfkauia,” Thomas’s father John Pain was supplying a port downriver with ropes, but it wouldn’t have made economic sense for a ropemaker serving ships to be so far away from the sea. On the other hand, half the people in Thetford needed stays. Making them was a steady, skilled profession.

In fact, Thomas Paine wasn’t the only British political writer of the period who had been trained to make stays. Hugh Kelly, who wrote propaganda for Lord North and plays and poems for himself, was also apprenticed to a staymaker as a teenager. And, like Paine, people who disliked Kelly didn’t let him forget that he’d trained to sew women’s underwear. Because he had.


Mike Barbieri said...

The making of stays for a sailing vessel is not a simple thing to do. It is a very complicated process involving the fitting of each stay to its particular position on the ship and there are several stays for each mast. The work would also likely include splicing other ropes, blocks, etc., into the length of the stay. Sure, Paine and his father might have been given very specific instructions for making ship's stays but it is extremely doubtful. Why would a ship owner pay someone inland to make and then transport a stay when riggers and most experienced sailors could do the necessary work at the docks or on shipboard?

I really appreciate the amount of effort you put into your blog. I read it every day.

J. L. Bell said...

Another good point! Thanks for contributing.

I see nothing wrong with theorizing that Thomas Paine's early work might have been misrepresented by his political enemies and then testing that idea against the evidence. But this Wikipedia user appears to have used the site and its scholarly apparatus to make the idea look as if it has more support than it actually does, which is zero.

Unknown said...

Thomas Paine was educated at The Grammar School, Thetford which was not, as some American might be given to believe, a basic first school for infants but one which provided education to the level of university entrance. As such it would have provided candidates for the professions (Legal, Medical etc.) in 18th Century England. However, while Paine espoused his father's non-conformist beliefs regarding religion, he would have been barred from the professions which were open only to those swearing an oath of adherence to the articles of faith of the Church of England.

J. L. Bell said...

This comment about Paine’s schooling has little to nothing to do with the posting above, so I’m not sure why it appeared here.

Paine wrote a couple of asides about going to school in Thetford, naming one of his teachers (who was an usher, or assistant master, during Paine’s youth). Evidently he doesn't appear on any surviving records from the Thetford Grammar School itself.

I’ve studied the Boston Latin or grammar schools in depth, and one striking aspect of them in this period is that 2/3 of the boys who entered left before graduating. Some may have washed out, not able to keep up. But others appear to have left voluntarily. If a boy was not going to go on to Harvard College, which was expensive, then there was very little value in continuing with that curriculum. Boys who wanted to go into business needed other skills, which in Boston they learned at the three Writing Schools and as apprentices.

I suspect that the Paine family was in a similar situation. Higher education was available to young men who didn't belong to the Church of England as long as they were Protestants, but it wasn't available for free.

Unknown said...

Apologies. I posted that on the wrong site. I have encountered this nonsense about Paine's father making ropes but if one knows the geography of his birth country (Norfolk) such an assertion is totally counter-intuitive. Thetford is about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in the county and, even though there was trade along the small river (The Little Ouse) corsetage was much more in demand than rigging in that particular location. I know the area well as I was brought up there and went to the very school where Paine was educated, the original 17th Century buildings being part of the larger school. I am not sure how closely the Grammar Schools in Boston resemble those in England at the same time.Apologies for any confusion.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for clearing up that mystery!

The Thetford Grammar School could have operated differently from Boston's, but if Paine dropped out to enter a trade for economic reasons after learning the basics, he would have followed the same path as Benjamin Franklin decades earlier. Both men managed to transcend the bounds of the trade they learned as teenagers.