Saturday, September 26, 2015

Dr. Samuel Johnson and Avoiding the Cheshire Cheese

 On this blog in May 2010, I related the story of how the renown British writer and encyclopedist, Dr. Samuel Johnson, while living a few steps from the famous Cheshire Cheese tavern in London, cannot be identified as ever having stepped foot in the place despite the assertions of the proprietors.  But why?  The answer has remained a riddle but recently I may have found the answer.
Shown here is a soft-covered booklet, known as the “Book of the Cheese,”  that celebrated 270 years of this watering hole.  The cover contains an illustration of a man who is recognizable as the great English encyclopedist and sage of the 18th Century,  Dr. Samuel Johnson.  Inside, the volume proclaims:   “…We have one specimen of the Johnsonian traverse remaining practically the same as it was in the Johnsonian days, we can still depict for ourselves, with but the slightest effort of imagination, what must have been the scene at the Cheshire Cheese in the Doctor’s time.  Johnson is there in his favorite seat, mouthing and talking….”

It was with a great deal of anticipation, therefore, that transiting through London but with some free time there, that a colleague and I ventured to the Cheshire Cheese for lunch in 1990.  The place was redolent with memorabilia of Johnson.   After lunch we literally went around the corner to Johnson’s home in Gough Square, now a museum.  When I told the curator that we had just come from the great man’s favorite tavern, he clearly was annoyed and said:   There is no evidence he ever stepped inside THAT place.”

Upon returning home, I did considerable research on Johnson, who was known to love the tavern atmosphere for good talk and conviviality.   The curator was right, outside of the Cheshire Cheese’s own claims, there is no evidence from Boswell and other biographers that Johnson actually did frequent the pub.   But why?

The answer may lie in some ceramics that recently were unveiled to the public by the British Museum.  Over the years, the Cheshire Cheese has issued dozens of ceramic souvenirs, items ranging from whiskey jugs and beer mugs to tea cups and salt and pepper shakers.  As I write this, I am looking at the original of the small creamer shown here.  In brown stoneware with white embossed decoration it bears the mark of Royal Doulton Pottery.   The recently displayed ceramic items, however  are considerably different.  
These ceramics, in the form of bas relief tiles, were discovered in 1962 after a fire in an upper room of the Cheshire Cheese.   There are eight of them, all erotic, detailing various sexual positions and even a spanking.  Given to the Museum of London, they were sequestered for more than half a century in a basement room.  As a sign of changing attitudes in England for the first time in 2014 they were put on display for the public viewing — but then only for a limited period over Valentines Day and open only to those over 18 years of age.  The London Museum curator, Jackie Keily explained:  “We can’t normally display them because they are so graphic.   It is a fascinating glimpse into the sexual history of London; so few of these artifacts survive.”  The title of the exhibition was “Late London: City of Seduction.”

I have included here some glimpses of the tiles.  Because this is a “family oriented” blog and not a porn site, I have edited them to crop out those elements that are too explicit.  At the same time, the tiles do convey the clothes and furniture of the 18th Century.  Curator Keily indicated that erotic ceramics of this sort were widely available in the 18th Century, if the licentious knew where to go and had the money to buy them.  “From the bath-houses of Roman Londinium and the stews of the medieval Bankside to the Restoration Rakes and Soho’s swinging sixties, this city has long traded in the currency of sex,” she pointed out.
Why were these items found in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese?  Those upstairs rooms may have been used as a brothel or a men’s drinking club where prostitutes were readily welcome.  Experts hypothesize that the tiles would have been kept behind wooden panels and brought out as the occasion demanded, perhaps to stimulate the conversation and perhaps the behavior of the occupants.

Nothing in any of the Cheshire Cheese promotional materials hints at anything like that taking place during the 18th Century.  However, an illustration in the Book of the Cheese suggests a bit of “hanky-panky.”  Entitled “An Incident at the Old Cheshire Cheese,”  and depicts “an interesting episode in the family history of the house.”  It shows two comely young women coming up on  man, apparently named William,  who seems to be forcing his attention on a third woman.  William’s room is said to be “in the distance.”  Why are these women staying at the Cheshire Cheese?  What part do they play in the tavern’s “family history?”

To my thinking, the tiles may hold the answer of why Johnson was not a patron there.  He was notable for his prudish attitudes.   His biographer, Boswell, a libertine, notes the doctor lecturing him with a “prudish face.”   Johnson’s encyclopedia omits most terms for bodily functions.  A story, possibly apocryphal, has him approached by a woman who commended  him for leaving out “all naughty words" in his encyclopedia.  Dr. Johnson is reputed to have replied, “Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers.”

If Johnson knew what was going on in the upper rooms of the Cheshire Cheese, and one suspects that much of London knew, then he likely would have avoided the premises.  As a result, The Book of Cheese, with its incessant references to Dr. Johnson, might better be called the “Book of Swiss Cheese” because it has so many holes in it.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Kiss of Prohibition: “Lips that Touch Liquor…”


The Demon of Rum is about in the land,
His victims are falling on every hand,
The wise and the simple, the brave and the fair,
No station too high for his vengeance to spare.
O women, the sorrow and pain is with you,
And so be the joy and the victory, too;
With this for your motto, and succor divine,
The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.
 “The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.”  The last line of an anonymous poem from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) became a popular mantra in the efforts by prohibitionists to stop all sales of alcoholic beverages in the United States: It seemingly was a threat by young women to their young men to stay away from the booze or skip the kissing routine.

The origins are said to go back at least to March 1873 and perhaps as early as early as 1869.  The mantra of the “drys” has been cited in newspaper articles, magazines and books;  depicted on placards, signs, and needle point;  and repeated in poems and songs.  “Lips that touch liquor…” has reached iconic stature and as such has attracted more than its share of parodies.  Featured here are a few of its manifestations.

Above is the most attractive of the examples.  It shows a very comely young woman with a “Gibson Girl” hair style, olive skin, and ruby “bee sting” lips.  This lady is eminently kissable.   With this lass the WCTU went straight to the heart of potential swains.  The second manifestation of a abstemious young woman, while still attractive, lacks the impact of the other.  Origin unknown, it appeared on placards and signs of varying sizes and colors.  Was the one left a luggage tag?   A third young woman with the “lips” sign makes no attempt to be seductive.  She seems aggressively angry about the situation.

Songwriters Sam Booth and George T. Evans dedicated a “Temperance” ditty to the “Woman’s Crusade Against Liquor Throughout the World”  and fittingly gave it the “Lips” title.  Among the lyrics were the following:  

Let war be your watchword from shore unto shore,
Rum and his legions shall reign no more,
And write on your bonnets in letters that shine,
The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.

Write on your bonnets?  Booth and Evans must have been taking a snort or two to have thought up that idea.   The prohibitionist sentiments naturally raised the “wet” opposition to parody the idea.  The most enduring images involved very unattractive and sour looking women endorsing the “lips” idea.  One photograph that seems timeless in its appeal has a group of ten chastely dressed matrons beneath the sign.  They clearly are making themselves look as “un-kissable” as possible.  My attention is drawn to the woman in the center with a large hat and what appears to be serape around her shoulders.  Her eyes seem to indicate that her lips might have been on a bottle not long before.
A second riffle on that theme was a postcard with a line drawing of another singularly ugly female flaunting the slogan.  It probably was inevitable that men in the temperance crowd would also become comic relief.  In the 1908 photo postcard shown here a gent with an “anti-saloon” pennant and apparently castigating “lips that touch whiskey,” is standing in front of a liquor store and appears from his crossed eyes to have been doing some imbibing.

The Mississippi Riverboat Owners Assn. obviously thought a “Lips” sign would be found hilarious among their patrons.   Rightly so since it would have been a rare riverboat that did not sell or serve alcohol aboard the craft, along with other pleasures like gambling and prostitution, neither of which the WCTU would have approved.
The “Lips” notion continues to be interpreted and reinterpreted up to the present day.  Note the greeting card that includes the enigmatic message, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch my liquor,” and a puzzling drawing of a woman pouring drops of liquid out of her boot while standing over a supine male figure.  I am still puzzling over this offering from “Someecards.” This outfit carries an entire line of greeting cards featuring drinking.
Just when we thought the world was safe from the prohibitionists, images like the one below appear.  This young woman with a clenched fist and snarlingly face appears to be representing a new generation that harks back to the heyday of the WCTU.  Marching in a parade somewhere, she has adopted their mantra and made it her own.
As a close to this examination of the theme, quoting a second poem seems fitting.  This one came from the pen of versifier George W. Young.  Appropriately, he entitled it “Lips That Touch Liquor.”  This ditty reads as follows:

You are coming to woo me, but not as of yore,
When I hastened to welcome your ring at the door;
For I trusted that he who stood waiting me then,
Was the brightest, the truest, the noblest of men,
Your lips, on my own, when they printed "Farewell,"
Had never been soiled by the "beverage of hell;"
But they come to me now with the bacchanal sign,
And the lips that touch liquor must never touch mine."