Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Illusive history of the Merkin

My dearest Reader,
I apologize ahead of time, but will confess that this post will most likely not go beyond a few measly paragraphs. It has nothing to do with my being lazy, but the topic itself. The ever illusive history of the merkin. What, pray tell, is a merkin? Well, it's a wig. A *pubic* wig. And they've been around for a VERY long time. The merkin itself was believed to have made its appearance about 1450, according to the Oxford Companion to the Body. I have no doubt whatsoever that it was around much longer than that obviously if there is no documented proof of it, then one cannot readily say it. While The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language claims that the word "merkin" is a corruption of the word "malkin" (which in c.1400 meant 'mop' as well as 'lower class woman'), I am going to be a total snot and disagree based off of my own piecing together of bits of history pertaining to the merkin. Now before you snicker and wonder why the hell I would even spend any time researching a pubic wig, I assure you, I wasn't in the least bit interested in researching it. Seriously!!! It sort of...well...fell into my lap. Ehm. Bad pun, I know. But here's what I found on my own, as very little is known about the detailed history of the merkin.
The idea behind the merkin itself seems to have originated from prostitutes. And not for the kinky reasons you think. Merkins were mini wigs pieced together with goat hair, horse hair or human hair. Should I mention that most human hair for wigs of those times were taken from corpses? Nice thought. Unlike real pubic hair, the merkin could be removed, boiled or placed in an oven to kill lice and anything else living in it. Prostitutes who were forced to shave off their pubic hair due to pubic lice had to quickly cover that area up and I'm guessing that the Renaissance period, in particular, had something to do with it. People in that era found pubic baldness extremely funny, and well, a prostitute couldn't readily be seen as a dunce if she's to make money. Merkins also hid something even more sinister. Venereal disease. A good merkin would cover sores from syphilis and gonorrhea. Women who were being treated with mercury usually also suffered from pubic balding.
How were they attached? Now this, I don't know. I've tried digging that up but was unable to find any sources that would give me documented proof of how it was physically attached. I'm guessing it was tied into place and in turn made it look festive and decorative. Maybe ribbons (if the prostitute could afford them, that is).
So...getting back to me being a snot. I disagree with The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language based of the following: It's all about connecting dots and realizing that slang changes and the use of a word can arise from a different origin than expected. According to Groses's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1795) the merkin was defined as "counterfeit hair for the monosyllable." (Monosyllable was Grose's reference to the woman's crotch, lol). Now right after his brief little definition of the merkin is an interesting addition that states, "See Bailey's Dictionary". So what did I do? I went over and looked into Bailey's Dictionary (the one published in 1675 which wasn't cleaned up in later additions) and found his definition of the Merkin. And guess what? It wasn't a pubic wig at all, but this: "A dangerous port in Cornwall called such from the many storms arising there." When I read that, I immediately thought, "Wait. What real connection does the merkin have to 'malkin' other than 'mop' and 'lower class woman?' How did they make this connection? They had no texts or documentation they used to make that connection and they even stated that as such. It's an assumption that merkin is a corruption of malkin. But here's the thing. It was noted in many texts back in the day that men who recognized a woman as wearing a merkin was dealing with a dangerous situation...meaning she was disease ridden and covering it up. And so this dangerous "port" where "storms arise" known as "Merkin" seems like a much bigger connection to the actual origin of the word merkin than "malkin." WOW. It's very possible I have stumbled upon something that has baffled scholars for decades...heh...that is if merkins were a subject of interest to great historical scholars...
Until next time,
Cheers and much love,
Delilah Marvelle

Friday, October 1, 2010


My dearest Reader,
I thought it time I cover the subject of courtesans. There is a lot of misconception as to how a courtesan went about her business and how society reacted to her. So I shall try my darnest to ensure we dispel with those dang misconceptions.

Though these women may have started on the streets, they were different from others not just in beauty but also in wit and the ability to entertain any man with the flick of a wrist while making it all look very respectable. She was a woman who dared break the rules with men and women alike. It is the high etiquette of whoring and the art of eroticizing not only her behavior in the bedchamber but her whole way of life. All of her lends to the idea of pleasing men whilst pleasing herself.

Beautiful, neat, clean, fashionable, cunning at the card table and games, proficient in arithmetic, language, be able to recite poetry, play at least two musical instruments and be a proficient singer. A true courtesan lives respectably in the sense that she would never be seen in a brothel or bartering herself on the streets like a common whore. Any and all terms and conditions were made into legal documents, drawn up and witnessed by lawyers. She had the business acumen of a merchant capitalist. She survived on her woman’s wit in a man’s world. They take control of their own lives knowing it comes at a high cost. The most successful courtesans were those that were able to distinguish themselves from every other pretty face.

Courtesans were admired, emulated, courted and even wed within the realm of London society since the 1700’s and yet readers and writers alike have a modern way of thinking that is warped. While other parts of the world had laws and regulations that kept courtesans in their place, no such limitations existed in London. Even in 1879 when French courtesan and actress Sarah Bernhardt came into London and attended the theatre, she was publicly hailed by all. Some even physically knelt before her, including several men of the aristocracy. She was invited to dinners and rides in Rotten Row alongside nobility by top London society. Not to say that people weren’t outraged by this, but to say that these women were outright shunned is a bloody lie. A courtesan was only really considered dangerous to society because she leveled out the playing field between all classes, not just financially but morally. What if respectable women wanted to be independent too? Then what?

These women sought more than money, they sought independence and power in a man’s world and knew how to bring men to their knees not just physically but emotionally while making them pay for it. Many rose from the beds of their protectors into the ranks of aristocracy, though many also snubbed marriage to such men for they knew the moment they submitted to matrimony, they revert to a sense of powerlessness. To rise in the ranks of society as a courtesan, she had to frequent places of society, as well as best display all of their assets, while demonstrating refinement. Having her own theatre or opera box was key. It was an investment similar to taking out a billboard. She also attended pleasure gardens, halls, masquerades, rode her horse, mingling publicly with people well below herself. People not only tolerated it, there were crowds of men and women of all classes and quality who gathered to witness her public displays. She was a celebrity in her own right usually made a celebrity by an aristocrat who had ‘discovered’ her.

She attended dance halls to upkeep business or start it. The most luxurious and fashionable of dance halls during the Victorian era was the Portland Rooms, known as Mott’s, where the most expensive courtesans sought customers between midnight and four or five in the morning. A dress code was enforced: gentlemen not wearing dress coats and white waistcoats were refused admission. Skittles was known to frequent Mott’s, even though she was one of the highest paid courtesans of her time. It was all about building her brand. Men who wanted to engage her, usually sent other men to her door asking if she was interested. Think of grade school all over again...

A well to do courtesan had to do more than look good, she had to live the lifestyle she was selling herself to. She could have up to as many as thirty servants and some were known to boast not one, not two, but THREE chefs, not including the kitchen staff. All servants were attired in elaborate, expensive liveries. Her home was decorated with fresh flowers at all times, all the rooms were scented with patchouli and vetiver. Every room held the most expensive and latest in furnishings. Her china alone would put the Queen’s set to shame. She kept a carriage and four AND several other vehicles that would best display her as she rides. She was never vulgar in appearance and she looked like a woman of the first rank. She enhanced her beauty with rouge, milk of roses, strawberry water and even used the ridiculously expensive pearl powder available for a guinea an ounce to enhance complexions. If she had freckles, she covered them like any other respectable lady.

Just her upkeep each year from milliner to hats, shows, stays, perfume, jewelry, and hosiery alone could be worth 8,000 pounds. Which is nearly half a million dollars a year, not including housekeeping, servant’s wages, furniture, travelling, horses, theatres, opera and any form of entertainment. She had to have skills of laying out a dinner party to match those of erotic technique. The way she sat and spoke and arranged the folds of her gown exceeded that of nobility.

Cora Pearl is quoted as saying, “My independence is my real fortune.” In 1864, the craze in Paris was for women to have bright red hair, which they obtained by applying a mixture of ammonia and powdered brick dust. Cora Pearl whose hair was dark, was the first to unfurl the fashion in London. She even dyed her dog blue to match one of her outfits (unfortunately, the dog died shortly afterward....) There's much more to cover on this subject, but we can't have your eyes rolling to the back of your head. I promise to touch on courtesans more throughout the coming months.
Until next time...
Cheers and much love,
Delilah Marvelle