Dildo-Throwing and Other 17th-Century Pranks

It’s sometime in the second half of the 1600s. You’re in London, you have some spare time, and you don’t much like your new neighbor. What do you do?

First, you call your posse (or knitting circle, or whatever) and fashion a bunch of dildoes and merkins—that’s right, wigs for the nether-bits—out of cloth. Next, you take your sizable collection of pube-perrukes and cotton penises and plant them in earthen pots. Lastly, you hurl said pots over the offending neighbor’s wall.

Congratulations! You’ve humiliated your neighbor!

If the finer points of the plan elude you, a smidge of history might help. Broadsides, like the one pictured, were sort of a combo blog-tabloid-song-poem. Imagine if your tabloid news was delivered to you in illustrated verse with the helpful instructions: “Sing to the tune of ‘Bad Romance.’” That’s what plenty of black-letter broadsides were—news announcements translated into illustrated ditties and cautionary tales you could hang on your wall. (Or in the privy, where you could read and perhaps recycle it.) This particular ballad should be sung to that old standard, “Hey Boys Up Go We,” so hie thee to Pandora to brush up on the hard parts.

Our story begins with a much-admired lady—rich, virtuous, generous to the poor—whose neighbors (known variously as “Sluts,” “Sots,” and people “void of grace and shame”) decide to humiliate her out of jealousy. They set to it. Besides proliferating cloth merkins and the even unlikelier cloth dildoes (if anyone has any McCalls or Butterick patterns for this sort of thing, please share; I’ve scoured the Internet to no avail), they made other objects of which it’s such a “shame to Speak” that they remain nameless.

Now, the author notes that “civil people would be moved to hear such Baubles named.” In other words, decent people who aren’t shameless wanton dildo-planting pot-throwing hussies would be shocked—shocked!—were they to so much as hear the words “Dildo” and “Merkin” said out loud. (One can only imagine their emotion if, on popping out for a dutiful morning of prayer and hard work, they found their property bestrewn with muslin phalluses and smashed earthen pots.) Unluckily for them, the retiring violet who wrote the ballad manages, despite his scruples, to squeeze in two “Merkins” and three “Dildoes” before the poem’s end.

So, what are these incredibly shameful objects our balladeer is too embarrassed to name?

Time to turn to the experts. Veronica Christina Pohlig, in her dissertation here, says our balladeer might be a tiny bit prone to exaggeration, especially when he says, re: this Etsy-ish craft project, that “the like was never known.” The like most certainly was known. In fact, a careless observer might be led to believe that 17th-century Londoners found the making and distribution of cloth genitals positively routine. However, those genitals were usually feminine! Pohlig links our ballad to a 1621 case in which:

a wife from Glastonbury told her friend the story of how, in jealous revenge on a woman with whom her husband had been intimate, she made a model of female genitalia of cloth and presented it to her rival in broad daylight in the market place as a token from her husband, advising her to use it if she had the need to—i.e. if her husband should again attempt to fondle her. The woman took her ‘gift’ home and showed it to her female friends. (115)

Laura Gowing, in this book, describes a ballad wherein a newlywed husband has trouble finding his wife’s “marigold.” Frustrated, he hires a tailor to make her a proper one (yes, he’s commissioning a vulva, or at the very least a clitoris) and gives him money for the fabric and silks.* You can predict how this ends: he sends his wife to be “measured.” She is, ahem, fitted. In Gowing’s words, “the tailor’s marigold is such success that the wife comes back two weeks later for a refit” (Gowing, 26).

It would seem, then, that the unnameable objects our ballad author refuses to name are “marigolds” (which are ever so much dirtier and more shameful than either dildoes or merkins) and that the reason “Merkins and Dildoes Made of Clouts” are new to him could be that up until that point the main subject for obscene fabric-art had been the vulva.

So, here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  • If you suspect your husband is cheating on you, present his lover with a cloth vulva at the market, pretending it’s from your husband. (Vogue is covering this in their next issue.)
  • Good neighborhood is “a dainty thing” that chiefly involves not pelting your fellow residents with potted sex toys.
  • Corollary: should you decide to forgo good neighborhood, realize that egging is for amateurs.
  • If you’re upset about anything, making genitals out of cloth will probably help.

Now, you might’ve noticed one stumbling block to this whole shaming-by-fabric strategy; namely, that the recipients just can’t seem to keep their pornographic emblems to themselves. If the point of giving your husband’s mistress a vulva in broad daylight is to mortify her with the publicity, it’s sort of a letdown when she takes your “gift” home and shows it to her friends. In our ballad, the Merkins and Dildoes made of clouts somehow end up “plaistered round about,” and “to several they were shown.” By whom were they shown? the reader wonders. The slutty neighbors, or the virtuous lady? If the latter, wouldn’t that kind of unspoil the spoils of victory?

I have no answers. All I can say is, if someone presented you with a calico merkin or a matching set, could you keep from showing it off?

*As per this ballad, the going rate for tailor-made ladyparts was £3

(Broadside facsimile with modernized text courtesy of the English Broadside Ballad Archive).

Previously: Restore Your Virginity the 17th-Century Way

Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. She writes about 17th-century ideas of reading and digestion, cognitive science, Chile, and femscularity. She blogs for Ms. Magazine and as Millicent over at www.millicentandcarlafran.wordpress.com.

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