Free from Poison!

Fleas were a major plague on nineteenth-century dog owners. In novels dogs were generally described as being bathed in carbolic soap once a week to keep the fleas at bay. In novels written from the dog’s point of view, the dog would often complain that the soap smells funny or bad. Further below, the advert addresses sportsmen and huntsmen directly, suggesting that they in particular could use the soap to “cleanse the kennels and flesh-houses, &c.” Flesh-houses seemed to refer to what we’d call a meat or butcher’s shop, and is a term that was in use since the sixteenth century. This ad is from the nineteenth century. By the twentieth, I’m pretty sure the term, despite its 300+-year history, fell out of fashion. Eating “flesh” is so… so… clear.   
It’s nice when they assure you that the product is “free from poison.” 

Fleas were a major plague on nineteenth-century dog owners. In novels dogs were generally described as being bathed in carbolic soap once a week to keep the fleas at bay. In novels written from the dog’s point of view, the dog would often complain that the soap smells funny or bad. 

Further below, the advert addresses sportsmen and huntsmen directly, suggesting that they in particular could use the soap to “cleanse the kennels and flesh-houses, &c.” Flesh-houses seemed to refer to what we’d call a meat or butcher’s shop, and is a term that was in use since the sixteenth century. This ad is from the nineteenth century. By the twentieth, I’m pretty sure the term, despite its 300+-year history, fell out of fashion. Eating “flesh” is so… so… clear.   

It’s nice when they assure you that the product is “free from poison.” 

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Food or Rest

Looking for a visual representation of my feelings of exhaustion, I Googled images of “food or rest.” My first page of results included both images of cows and pigs (being transported to slaughter for 52 hours “without food or rest”) and of a female android named Aiko. “She doesn’t need holidays, food or rest and she will work almost 24-hours a day. She is the perfect woman,” said her creator, Le Trung.

My search results brought me this telling illustration of why my next book project juxtaposes animals and automatons to explore what we learn about inequity and rank injustice. Which bodies are marked as requiring neither food or rest—two basic elements without which one cannot survive? And how are these determinations dependent on gender and class? 

“I clean morning, noon, and night! I’m so happy!”

Of course, I don’t meant to suggest that Aiko’s troubles, whatsoever they may be, can compare to the plight of the millions of animals inhumanely transported and slaughtered for humanity’s endless needs. Whatever happened to the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, our country’s first federal regulation explicitly protecting animals from cruel treatment? I’m not sure how the 52 hours cited above were calculated, but there are extensions—either “accidental or unavoidable causes” or quite simply because the owner requested an extension in writing.  

Three Ways to Wear Leopard Print

1. Facing left

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 2. Facing right

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3. On a tree

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If you are not a leopard, however, you are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to this latest fashion craze.

I used to loathe all animal prints of this kind (zebra, giraffe, tiger, and snake are also typically mimicked). I would cringe and turn away. I knew they weren’t “real” hide—at least in the case of the zebra, giraffe, and tiger. I just found them incredibly ugly.

But after a few months of seeing leopard print everywhere, I changed. My aesthetic was changed, and I no longer cringed. I actually found myself browsing leopard print shoes last week.

Which brings me to this: I found that most leopard print shoes are made of pony hair or calf hair. We are dyeing one animal’s skin to mimic another (more valuable) species’ hide. (Because we cannot obtain the leopard skin. Because we would feel poorly about destroying the life of such a rare and beautiful animal as the leopard. Because cows look so happy about serving us their milk and their hides.)

I believe that when we look at a leopard print, we generally envision powerful adult creatures such as the ones pictured above–so we are dyeing one baby’s skin to mimic an adult one as well. Or, odder still, we might be pretending to dye one baby’s skin to mimic an adult one. (Apparently, we use cows and calves, but not ponies. It is completely acceptable to call a cow a pony in the fashion world.) 

I would have thought that most of us would be discomfited by knowing that we are wearing a baby’s skin. There are just so many viral Internet images of baby animals being, well, adorably baby. (Buzzfeed, I’m talking to you.) . 

We’ve long thought that human babies are essentially like the “lower” animals: it was at the heart of G. Stanley Hall’s recapitulation theory. We seem to find it easier to collapse distinctions between a human baby and a non-human animal baby. But when each of these babies grows up to an adult, we start recognizing and placing value on all their differences in order to justify the way we treat animals. Age—babyhood, to be specific—seems to transcend species bias. 

So why does the fashion industry find that consumers would rather buy “pony” and “calf” hair than boring old “cow” hair? Does the taboo on baby-killing actually raise the value of these incorrectly-labeled products?

To the extent that “luxury” means “extravagance,” yes. It is “extravagant” to kill several baby animals when it would be so much more “efficient” to kill one adult to make shoes, so it is somehow a luxury to be as shamelessly cruel as possible. 

 

Images from Cuvier, The Animal Kingdom Arranged in Conformity With its Organization, vol. 2 (London: Geo. B. Whittaker, 1827). Thanks, Googlebooks.

Chameleon Trickster

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Chameleons would be cool creatures even if they didn’t have the ability to mimic the color of their environment. Have you ever felt one walking on you? Little scaly feet, moving extremely sloo-o-o-owly as it finds its next foothold across your shoulders—up your head if need be.  

But, really, it’s their magical morphing that we’re fascinated by. In a culture that hinges on the visual, we would obviously be mesmerized by something that can change its appearance so dramatically. It brings to mind racial passing. There’s a sense of not just deception, but really good deception—so good, it’s frightening. Our admiration is intertwined with distrust.    

I would like to read Peter Sahlins’ work on chameleons in 19c France, but it’s not available on the usual databases. He does have an article on Louis IV’s royal menageries as a manifestation of the move to a sovereignty based on discipline (being civilized and restrained, requiring self-policing) rather than terror.  (I look forward to reading it.)

Here’s a nice 19c photograph from the Library of Nineteenth-Century Photographs.