sock of the week no. 6: clocks and socks

No, we have not entered the world of Dr Seuss, but that of eighteenth-century graphic satire. . . .and what can be going on here?

An Enquiry concerning the clock tax. July 1797. British Museum.

A man, who declares himself to be a delegate from “the worthy and respectable society of hosiers” presents himself to William Pitt, who is seated at a table, fresh “tax pen” in hand, drawing up a list of new government taxes on small consumables from a pot of “permanent ink”. Both men are wearing blue stockings beneath their breeches and the hosier’s pair are decorated with a panel of embroidery, which tapers from his ankle to the full point of his calf. The concerned hosier demands to know “whether your Honor means to extend the Tax to the Clocks upon Stockings.” In 1797, this would not not have been an unreasonable question to ask of the then prime minister . . . .

frame-knit silk stockings, with inserted and embroidered clocks. Post 1750. V&A museum.

Clocks – in the sock-related context that’s referenced by this print – were the decorative panels that featured on eighteenth-century stockings, usually of the silk, frame-knitted variety. As we can see from this pair, dating from the second half of the eighteenth century, clocks were a simple way of adding in some shaping to ease the fabric of the sock around the tricky angle of sole, heel and ankle. Here, the dark green panel is stitched in separately (frame-knit stockings were formed of carefully seamed pieces, rather than being worked up in the round). The panel effectively extends the length of the foot, and helps to accommodate the ankle around the turn of the heel.

But this panel is clearly as decorative, as it is functional: lines of finely-worked embroidery travel from the ankle to the calf, and are finished off with a floral and crown motif at the point where the muscles of the lower leg begin to swell. Decorative clocks like these drew the eye toward the calves, accentuating and highlighting the muscular lines of the legs of men, and providing a decorative flourish to the eighteenth-century masculine sillhouette (which was all about the leg).

frame-knit silk stockings. Early eighteenth century. V&A museum.

Clocks were so-called because the two spokes of the triangle of shaping which extended from calf to ankle visually resembled a pair of clock hands. But the decorative panels could also be shaped like lozenges or cones, and be defined by large areas of embroidery

elaborately embroidered eighteenth-century Spanish stockings. V&A museum.

As these examples show, the embroidery of stocking clocks could be very beautiful and extremely elaborate.

eighteenth-century silk stockings with embroidered clocks. Note the visible seaming of the frame-knit pieces that formed the stocking here. V&A museum.

Worked in costly threads by the creative hands of skilled embroiders, stocking clocks added value to what was already an expensive, exclusive item, worn largely by the rich. Might luxury consumables, such as silk stockings, feasibly be taxed?

A wizened, worried and insomniac John Bull, sits before the fire in his nightcap, “troubled with the blue devils” of Pitt’s taxes on salt, wine, hair powder, and income .

In the late 1790s, in order to fund the ongoing war with France (and attempt to reduce the huge burden of the national debt), William Pitt not only introduced income tax (for the first time), but a wide range of taxes on assorted consumer goods. Individually taxed items ranged from ribbons to hair powder, so it was not beyond the realms of imagination that silk stockings might well be subject to taxation.

Pitt kneels before an ass overburdened with bundles of one pound notes representing taxes on a range of consumables such as perfumery, leather, tallow candles, hair powder, wine, wills, gloves, silver plate, tobacco, cocoa, muslins and soap. May, 1797. British Museum

But the tax that is being referred to in the image of the disgruntled hosier with which we began was one placed not on socks, but on clocks – actual clocks – not those of the embroidered stocking variety.

Pitt picks the pocket of John Bull to check the taxable status of his pocket watch. July 1797. British Museum.

The clock tax of 1797 was one of the most unpopular, short lived, and least effective of Pitt’s many consumer taxes. Gold watches were taxed at 10 shillings, clocks at 5 shillings, and other watches at 2 shillings and sixpence. Severe penalties were introduced for those who did not provide exhaustive details of each timepiece in their possession, the main effect of which was large numbers of household clocks being hidden from the authorities, the exchanging of gold watches for those of less costly metals, and a crisis among clock and watchmakers as consumers simply stopped purchasing what these skilled craftspeople produced. The government initially regarded the tax as progressive, describing clocks and watches as “luxury items” owned by the rich, but the fact was that, in a rapidly modernising and industrialising world – the world of the factory and the office – accurate timekeeping was the opposite of a luxury. Clocks and watches were rapidly becoming necessary to middling and poorer households.

So while our blue-stockinged hosier need not in fact have worried about the taxable status of the clocks on his socks, the image points to the perception, then increasingly widespread, that the government was beginning to scrutinise previously unbreachable areas of private life and the body, through taxing things like intimate apparel and hairdressing. Pitt’s clock tax, meanwhile, was abandoned as unworkable less than a year after it was introduced, having raised less than 10 per cent of the sum it had been projected to bring in for the treasury.

An “act of parliament” or “tavern” clock – a type of clock named after Pitt’s clock tax – designed to be hung on the walls of public places – made by clockmaker John Dwerrihouse c.1814. British Museum.

But one consequence of the clock tax of 1797 (and its attendant effect of the hiding of personal timepieces) was the sudden appearance of clocks in public places other than church steeples: in town and city squares, upon the exterior walls of municipal buildings, and the interiors of coffee shops and taverns. Quite unintentionally, then, Pitt’s clock tax led to the increasing democratisation and social visibility of the act of telling the time.