Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Slap Up Tog

A Victorian handbill found in a book by Renée Huggett called Shops published in 1969.

This marvellous Victorian promotional handbill (flyer) from London addresses the discerning working man in need of new clothing. Written in a presumably authentic slang current at the time, it has an immediacy and humour that defies its age, even though much of it is completely mystifying to the modern reader.

Let's have a go:

Mr H nabs the chance of putting his customers awake, that he has just made his escape from India, not forgetting to clap his mawleys upon some of the right sort of stuff, when on his return home he was stunned to find one of the top Manufacturers of Manchester had cut his lucky, and stepped off to the Swan Stream, leaving behind him a valuable stock of Moleskins, Cords, Velveteens, Box Cloths, Plushes, Doe Skins, Pilots &c., and having some ready in his kick--grabbed the chance--stepped home with the swag--and is now safely landed at his crib. He can turn out Toggery, very slap at the following low prices for

Ready Gilt--Tick being No go.

Upper Benjamins, built on a downy plan, a monarch to half-a-finnuff, Fishing or Shooting Togs, cut slap, 1 pound, 1 quarter, and a peg. A Fancy Sleeve Blue Plush or Pilot ditto, made very saucy, a couter. Pair of Kerseymere or Doeskin Kicksies, built very slap with the artful dodge, a canary. Pair of Bath or Worsted Cords, cut to drop down on the trotters, a quid. Pair of out and out Cords, built very serious, 9 bob and a kick. Pair of stout Broad Cords, built in the Melton Mowbray style, half a sov. Pair of Moleskins, built hanky spanky, with a double fakement down the sides and artful buttons at bottom, half a monarch.


A decent allowance made to Seedy Swells, Tea Kettle Purgers, Head Robbers, and Flunkeys out of Collar
Gentlemen finding their own Broady can be accommodated.

(My thanks to flickr contact Bollops for taking the trouble to transcribe this text when I originally posted this picture there).

Many of the terms are obviously types of cloth: moleskin (a heavy, cotton cloth with a short, soft pile on one side), corduroy, velveteen, box cloth (I failed to find a definition of this), plush, doeskin (a fine, soft woollen cloth), pilot (a thick woollen cloth, often dyed blue used for overcoats and sailors' gear), kerseymere (a twilled fine woollen cloth).

Then there's prices: a monarch (a sovereign? That's one pound), half-a-finnuff (? - thanks to alan.98's comment below, I've discovered that a finnuff is Yiddish for a fiver), 1 pound, 1 quarter (a crown or five shillings? One pound was twenty shillings) and a peg (?), a couter (a sovereign, found in an excellent article on costermongers' backslang on the Victorian Web here), a canary (?), 9 bob (9 shillings) and a kick (?)

And of course, there's the garments on offer themselves: many appear to be trousers, such as the kicksies, or the cords "cut to drop down on the trotters (feet?)." Perhaps the "Upper Benjamins" and the "Fancy sleeve Blue Plush or Pilot ditto" are coats or jackets - the mention of a sleeve is a bit of a clue! "Mud pipes" might be some kind of oilskin waders or trousers, but I'm guessing here. "Knee caps" are possibly protective pads worn over the knees for labourers who have to kneel in their work, but again this is pure speculation. "Trotter cases" are likely to be boots if we can assume that trotters are feet.

The final call to "Seedy Swells, Tea Kettle Purgers, Head Robbers, and Flunkeys out of Collar" strongly suggests that Mr Harris is happy to do business with men of dubious reputation, so long as they have the ready cash of course.

This is a piece densely packed with detail and description, and deserves much more research than my desultory efforts.

But as much as its fun to try to translate this text, perhaps the most enjoyable thing about it is the way it reads. I would love to hear Bob Hoskins tackle this in his ripest Cockney growl.

Apparently Mr Harris advertised widely, or he copied a widely used format. More or less the same text, with some minor variations, appears in Mayhew's London Life and the London Poor of the mid 19th century (scroll down to the last quarter of the page or do a search for "slap up" on that page to find the passage), and in the New York Herald in 1888, which suggests that this tailor/outfitter was so familiar with the London criminal underworld that his handbill "appeals to the thieves, burglars and outcasts from society only."

This assertion is unfair I believe. Mr Harris was clearly drawing from the rich source of contemporary slang that would have been readily understood by its intended audience - working class men living in the slums of London. That's not to deny that perhaps Mr Harris was borrowing a bit of underworld cool by using terms that were not entirely respectable or correct, especially in Victorian times, but he was clearly a shrewd businessman who knew how to speak to his market. And he was aware that a more formal approach was a waste of time and expense (handbills cost money to print).

Credits are due. My sincere thanks to flickr friends Bollops and Art Nahpro for doing all the heavy leg-work to unearth most of the links that I have used in this piece.

I've not finished yet! At that time (19th century), trousers would not have had the central vertical fly front we are familiar with today, but a fall front. This is a method of fastening the trousers with a flap that spanned the front waist and was fastened with buttons. Take a look at this pair of trousers which will give you the idea:

These trousers are from a suit made possibly in the early 1930s, according to the museum record, which is in the collection of the Gallery of Costume, Manchester. You can see that there are four buttons near the waistband which open to reveal:

OK, that might not be what you were expecting. This is under that front panel you saw above, and there's the pocket with a flap at the top which was visible in the first picture, and also a hidden diagonal welted pocket below it.

Sorry, this is getting complicated! So if you were getting dressed you would have to fasten two side panels of the trousers with a central button or two, and then fasten up the four buttons that secure the fall front over that.

I'm pretty sure this style was archaic by the time this suit was made, and it doesn't look like a regular "lounge suit" as it is catalogued in the museum. To be fair, I'm sure there was a note in the museum record about it being a gamekeeper's suit, which would make much more sense. This suit is very old-fashioned for the time, assuming that given date is correct, and is sturdy and warm enough for tramping through the Cheshire countryside in the depths of winter with a shotgun over your shoulder and maybe a brace of pheasants hanging off your belt.

Just to complete the picture, here's the jacket of the suit:

Its beautifully curved cutaway hem, high button front fastening and waist seam speak of earlier days. The days of Mr Harris even.

There's been a dearth of film in recent posts, so this is the nearest I can get to Mr Harris's time and place - a wonderful film from 1903 of Petticoat Lane, London, from the BFI's Youtube channel. Don't you wish it had a soundtrack?:


Anonymous said...

This is great, isn't it? It's strange how togs are now only plural, and slap-up only applies to meals. A finnuf is a fiver (Yiddish, fünf).

Sarah said...

I could have rambled on for a lot longer - there's plenty to chew over!

Yes, some of the terms have changed in useage slightly, but at least are still known. I can't remember the last time I heard someone refer to 'togs' though.

Thanks for the definition of finnuf too, which I will add to the post with credit.