I invited Sasha Callaghan, a fellow disabled activist, trade unionist and also historian, specialising in disabled people’s lives during Victorian times, to contribute to this blog. One of Shoddy’s themes takes us into the past, the industrial revolution and the beginnings of the shoddy industry in the 19th century, to reflect on disabled people’s lives in those times, and perhaps draw parallels with disabled people’s lives now.
Read on for a fascinating perspective on representation of disabled people by the Victorians. And of course the title is interesting, “slip shod” having a very similar meaning to shoddy.
Many thanks, Sasha.
Whoever came up with the maxim ‘shiny thing make it all better’ possibly didn’t have social media in mind but it certainly sums up the experience of being completely distracted by strange and often surreal images that are scattered across the internet.
Every so often, when I ought to be doing something sensible or dull, I’m on Pinterest searching for anything related to 19th century depictions of disability, impairment and difference. The desire of the Victorians for sensationalism, and their dual love affair with the camera and bureaucracy, seldom disappoints.
Whilst the past has an allure of glamour, lent by distance, for me it’s always been slightly unsettling. Even in photographs captured within my lifetime, the commonplace has become uncanny and the further away in time, the more the sense of dislocation increases.
Forget the Victorian vogue for post-mortem photography, which, once you get over the realisation that you are looking at corpses portrayed as living entities, can be surprisingly aesthetic and touching. Instead, the real shock comes with the forensic chronicling of the lives of disabled people as objects of curiosity and surveillance.
Whilst the Victorian ‘cure, control and containment’ response to impairment was hardly exceptional, it was the systematic centralisation of the process which was novel. Many of the records of this procedure still exist, there are tantalising snippets of information about asylum inmates, workhouse admissions, parliamentary hearings. And, of course, there are the photographs. Photography, a new medium, evolved into a means of reinforcing ‘normalcy’, segregation and the Poor Laws.
One of the most recent images I’ve found is of a small boy, bound to a chair and balancing a glass of water on his head. On the floor beside him is a brass hand bell. Given the countless number of photos of ‘defectives’ being tested to determine whether they should be labelled as ‘Idiots’, ‘Imbeciles’ or ‘Morons’, my guess is that this is what is happening here.
Even more intriguing is the caption – the Slipshod Home for Feeble Minded Children. This just seemed such an improbable name, with all its connotations of the slovenly and slapdash, the shoddy and careless, that it couldn’t possibly be true. A quick trawl online led me to the long departed blog of Fritz die Spinne and the ‘mad ramblings of an obsessed old goth’ with a penchant for collecting photographs of outsiders, those people on the margins of history.
The residents at the fictitious Slipshod Home are casualties of the pressure to conform to the norms of mainstream society, even when these rules are intrinsically flawed. Some of the photos are of women, forcibly sterilised in Eugenics programmes, others are of children confined in cages or by medical equipment, the not so subtle message being ‘fit in or else’.
It doesn’t do to project attitudes from 2015 onto the thoughts and actions of a past society but sometimes it’s hard not to draw parallels. The current narrative of redemption only being possible through paid employment is horribly reminiscent of ‘Work Makes You Free’. Now pull those socks up or it’s the Slipshod Home for you.
Disability History Scotland