The act to protect men from false adornments

One reason I started this ridiculously ambitious project was that I found myself hearing some unbelievable tales about laws wild and wacky, none of which could actually cite the statute in question. An example of such is the following, sometimes entitled ‘The act to protect men from false adornments’:

That all women, of whatever age rank, profession, or degree, whether virgins, maids, or widows, that shall, from and after such act, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of his Majesty’s male subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, &c., shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanors and the marriage, upon upon conviction, shall stand null and void.

You can find a great many volumes citing this ‘act’, courtesy of Google Books, variously dating it to  1670, 1700, 1720 and 1770.

It is, however, a jest. Searching through all the volumes I have turned into plain text, absolutely nothing comes close to these words. Nor is there any trace of it in the tabulation of rejected bills, ‘Failed Legislation‘ (Hambledon Press, 1997).

Searching through the Burney collection of historic newspapers and the British Newspaper Archive turns up a clutch of newspapers printing this squib in August 1785. The original publisher is the Public Advertiser of Tuesday, August 23, 1785 (No. 15989), which uniquely gives a second clause:

And that such an act might be productive to the State, it might be further enacted, “that all men, boys, bachelors, widowers, or others, that shall have been so imposed upon, deceived, and seduced into matrimony, shall, upon the divorce taking place, forfeit unto our Sovereign Lord the King, one half or moiety of any sum or sums of money, lands, tenements, &c. that he or they shall have received as a marriage portion, with his or their said wife or wives; and, if no such portion or dowry as received, then shall they forfeit one hundred pounds of lawful money of Great Britain, as a penalty in recognizance of their extreme weakness, blindness, and imprudence, in being so deceived.

The first part is copied and pasted in quick succession by the Whitehall Evening Post of August 25, 1785 (No. 5973.), the Chelmsford Chronicle of August 26, 1785 (BNA link – behind paywall) and the Hampshire Chronicle of August 29. (BNA link – behind paywall).

Curiously, this item was passed off as fact in an execrable book of 1859, ‘Manners and Customs of the English Nation‘, dating it to 1770. As the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote, in an excoriating review, “We regret to say no authority is given”; it nevertheless found ironic praise for the author’s “air of originality.”

The spoof law is a genre in itself, and certainly this one can be cited as an example of late eighteenth century fears of the feminine. But it is not an example of statutory sexism.

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