Momentos of the Past – Restoring My Grandmother’s Singer 99k Sewing Machine

This is a little outside the normal realm of what I post on this blog, but I figured it might make interesting reading.

The Backstory

My grandmother was born on the 7th of May, 1914, in Singapore. She was a first-generation Chinese-Singaporean, her parents having migrated to Singapore from southern China. She had a mere five years’-worth of education at an English-language school in what was then Singapore Town, from 1921-1926.

She married my grandfather during the Second World War in 1943.

When the War ended, she occupied herself in looking after her husband’s three children by his first marriage. In 1953, she opened her own dressmaking and tailoring shop, in the Malaysian town of Batu Pahat. She shared the premises with a women’s beauty-salon, and consequently, it was called the ‘Kam Seng Beauty Parlour‘ (Kam Seng is Cantonese. It means ‘Golden Star‘).

When my grandmother opened her shop, she was gifted a beautiful, and brand-new sewing-machine. She used that machine for every single one of the thirty years that she ran her shop, and when my grandfather died in May, 1983, she closed the shop, retired, and immigrated to Australia.

She brought the machine with her, and continued to use it almost every single day, up until about 2003. She repaired clothes for friends, she took in alterations from her church-group, and she repaired the many rips and tears in clothing that will come from it being worn by two lively grandsons…one of them was me.

Gran and her sewing-machine were inseparable. I remember when my father purchased her a modern machine, she barely touched it, and went back to using her Singer. She was always a bit set in her ways, and while she was more receptive to other modern technologies (at the age of 85, she knew how to use Microsoft Word, type, and print on a computer), she was absolutely dead-set that the only machine she would ever use for sewing was her own.

Around 2000-2003 (I forget exactly when), my grandmother had to move into a nursing-home. Her Alzheimer’s Disease had become too much of a liability and a risk to house her safely at home. Alzheimer’s is a horrible, crippling illness. Unless they’ve seen it firsthand and had to deal with it for years on end, don’t believe anyone who tells you that “I understand” when you talk about Alzheimers…because they don’t. Unless they’ve seen it, or studied it, or treated it…they really don’t.

When gran moved to the nursing-home, her sewing-machine was put downstairs in the basement, where it has sat for the past 10 years.

My grandmother died on the 28th of November, 2011, at the impressive age of 97.

With her gone, and my father and I constantly discussing antiques and heirlooms and him telling me all the stuff that his family used to own, but which they don’t anymore, because they were thrown out, but which today would be worth a pretty penny…my mind was drawn towards gran’s sewing-machine.

That machine was her life. She carried it EVERYWHERE with her and it was her baby. She would let nobody else touch it (except me, because I used to set it up for her every morning. The machine weighs 31lb, 4oz…about 15kg…and it wasn’t easy for an seven-year-old boy to haul that thing around!). Now that she was gone, we had nothing left to remind us of gran, except her sewing-machine.

With all of my father’s stories ringing around in my ears, I began to wonder what would happen?

That machine was gran’s mainstay and anchor and rock for 50 years, or over half her life. And it was the one machine that represented her character and told her life-story better than anything else. Tough, simple, elegant, stubborn and impossible to destroy.

Be there as it may, I knew that it wasn’t going to last long rotting downstairs in the basement. So I decided to haul it out of that godforsaken hole in the ground, and restore it to a level where it was once again a functional piece of machinery.

STEP ONE – Cleaning the Machine

Carrying it as carefully as I could, I hauled gran’s Singer…because that’s what it is…out of the basement. It was locked up tightly inside the curved ‘Bentwood’ case, cocooned by wood and shrouded in the dust of a decade. I cleaned off the dust and then set about opening the case.

The cases are held onto the machine-bases by very simple, but surprisingly effective locks. Without a key, these cases are literally impossible to open. I squirted some oil into the lock and while I waited for it to settle, I went off to find the one tool that I would need to open the case.

Not the key, that was long gone.

A 3mm flat-head screwdriver.

If anyone reading this has ever tried to open a Singer bentwood case but doesn’t have the key…pay close attention…

The profile of a 3mm flat-head screwdriver perfectly fits the keyhole of a Singer bentwood case’s lock. A few generous squirts of oil, a few minutes of waiting, then I shoved the screwdriver, horizontally, into the lock. I turned it clockwise 90 degrees, until the lock was in the vertical “Unlocked” position.

Then, I shifted the whole top of the case to the left about a quarter of an inch. This is to disengage the other bolt or latch, which secures the right side of the case to the machine-base (the lock with the key is always on the left), and then lifted it up.

Here’s the bentwood case:

Here’s the keyhole:

That rectangular thing is the keyhole. It’s 1mm high by 3mm wide. You can also see the bolt underneath, that you have to throw over, to unlock the case

And this was the machine as it looked when I broke open the pharaoh’s tomb:

I’m no expert with sewing-machines. I just like old, vintage, antique-y things. And this is the closest thing we have in my family to an heirloom, so I decided almost immediately, to try and get it running again.

In all honesty, this thing probably hasn’t been serviced by your friendly local Singer Man since it left the factory back in 1950. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for, but I started, anyway.

‘Singer Manufacturing Company’ factory; Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland, U.K (Photo ca. 1901).
Gran’s machine was made here

First, I had to clean out all the gunk and fluff and crap that was inside the machine. Over the decades, this machine built up an enormous amount of dust and fluff, lint, loose thread, dead insects, coagulated oil and other…crap!…which rendered it totally unusable. I basically had a really awesome boat-anchor sitting on the living-room floor.

So, off with the face-plate…

The faceplate is that pretty steel plate with all the patterns on it that you see in the photo above. It was held on by one screw, and one nut. Somewhere in there is a bad joke…

Behind the plate is the crankshaft mechanism that powers the needle-bar (along with everything else in the machine apart from the light). It looks like this:

It’s quite simple, really. The crank turns around. It simultaneously lifts the needle-bar and lowers the uptake-lever (that’s the doohickey sticking out on the right with the hole in it), and then does the opposite when it completes one revolution.

As you see it there, the machine was completely immovable. It was covered in gunk and crud that I had to pick out with tweezers and wipe down with tissues to remove. It’s not just taking out the Dyson or the Hoover and sucking all the crap out of the machine…a vacuum-cleaner wouldn’t be able to remove 90% of the gunk inside here, because it’s stuck in really inaccessible places which only tweezers are able to reach, like behind levers, rods, shafts and plates.

Once that was done, I then had to tackle the handwheel assembly, at the other end of the machine. The handwheel is this big shiny wheel:

The handwheel spins around thanks to a belt-drive wrapped around it, which hooks up to the machine-motor at the back. You can see it here:

That black lump at the bottom left is the machine-motor. Above it, you can see the black light-shade. To the left of the lightshade is the drive-belt that runs the machine.

Anyway, I digress. I had to remove the clutch-wheel, also called the stop-motion wheel, which is that silvery wheel in the middle of the handwheel. You might notice that it’s held on by a single, but surprisingly effective screw, which took quite a while to loosen up. Once it was loose and I could unscrew the clutchwheel, I was confronted with this enchanting scene:

This is a part of the machine that NEVER sees the light of day, and yet it’s full of fluff, lint, gunk, dried oil and other crap. This is why complete disassembly of the machine was necessary…it’s this stuff that stops it from running, because it jams up the works. I took off the washer (that’s the doughnut with the three nubs sticking off it), and cleaned it, the crankshaft and the wheel, thoroughly. This is what it looked like when I was done:

This is the other (non-shiny) side of the clutch-wheel, with the washer sitting on top of it:

If you’re reading this as a guide on how to clean and fix your Singer (provided it’s the same model that I have!), you’ll notice that there’s a little nub sticking out of the clutch-wheel, around the 9 o’clock position. That’s the screw that holds the clutch-wheel onto the larger handwheel. It’s sticking out there because it doesn’t (and is not supposed to) be removed entirely from the clutch-wheel. It’ll unscrew a few milimeters and then it will stop. Do NOT force it…you won’t achieve anything at all, and what you want to have achieved (which is removal of the clutch-wheel) should be well within your capabilities by then.

Anyway, next step was to clean the bobbin-mechanism:

The bobbin mechanism is what holds the…bobbin. The bobbin being that shiny steel spool with the three big holes and the one small hole in it. It’s what feeds the thread to the underside of the machine to make the classic lockstitch.

Oh, and a warning note here…

See that nice fluffy red felty cloth on the right?

If you’re fixing, cleaning or repairing a sewing-machine, and you see the felt…


The felt is your friend. It is there for a purpose! So DO NOT touch it! Without the felt, you’d have the oscillating hook (that catches the thread and pulls it under the needle to make the lock part of the lockstitch) scraping against metal inside the machine, and that would wear everything down and eventually just break it.

Fortunately, I”d read this warning on another blog before commencing work on this machine, so no undue damage was done to the intricate inner workings of this Singer by my hands.

Once the topside of the machine was cleaned, polished and defluffed, I had to tackle the underside of the machine. To do that, I unscrewed this nut, and swung back this catch:

That allows me to lift up the whole machine and tilt it back on hinges to access the storage-compartment underneath the machine:

This handy little compartment is where you would store things like thread, spare needles, bobbins, the machine-manual and all that other stuff. But more importantly, it was where I could get my hands on this:

This is the other side of this:

And it had just as much fluff, crap and mostly…loose thread…as the topside did.

Once the entire machine was completely cleaned, inside and out, topside, downside, upside and underside, it was ready to oil it.

STEP TWO – Oiling the Machine

Singers were made to be idiot-proof and user-friendly. To that end, they are incredibly easy to use, and look after. Especially a machine like this. The next step was to oil the machine to unjam all those frozen pistons and rods and cranks. To do that, you need high-grade machine-oil. You can buy this stuff at sewing-shops, decent hardware shops and whatever. Ideally, you want sewing-machine-specific oil. But if you can’t get that, any really thin, runny, high-grade oil (which will work for sewing-machines, and says so on the label), will do.

For this, I used SuperLube machine-oil.

And a LOT of it.

It took about an hour to fully lubricate the machine to the point where it would move as it once did. Oiling it is pretty easy. Just remember to squirt oil where-ever something moves. On a sewing-machine, that’s a surprisingly large number of places!

Fortunately for us, Singer thought about this, and provided us with these:

Those holes (next to the ‘T’ the ‘The‘ and under the ‘i’ in ‘Singer‘) are just two of several oiling-holes. You squirt or drip the oil down those holes to lubricate the machine!

What’s in there?

Why the crankshaft that runs the machine, of course! But before you do that, make sure you stick your needle-nosed tweezers down those holes first. There might be some unexpected surprises in there (like dead insects or dust, lint and fluff), that you don’t want to get all over the insides of your beautiful vintage sewing-machine.

Once the machine was generously oiled, I ran it by hand for several minutes to work the oil into the mechanism. You can do this easily by just turning the big, black and silver handwheel anticlockwise to work the mechanism. It doesn’t damage the machine, so don’t worry about that. Now that the machine was running, it was time for…

STEP THREE – Testing the Machine

This is a Singer 99k knee-lever machine made in Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland, in 1950. It’s called a knee-lever because it uses one of these to get it running:

That’s the knee-lever. And this is the socket that it slots into, on the right of the machine:

So, you plug in the power-cord, you stick in the weird, twisted “?”-shaped crank-thingy and you let ‘er rip!

And boy does it ever.

The machine was running like a jackhammer on steroids. In other words…perfectly!

Then, I had to make sure that, not only the sewing-mechanism was working, but that the bobbin-winding mechanism was working.

The bobbin-winder is this little thingo here:

It’s used to mechanically wind thread back onto the bobbin (that little steel thread-spool from further up in the posting) when the thread runs out. It turns a task that would take several minutes, into an event that’s over in about 30 seconds. You work the bobbin-winder by loosening the clutch-wheel (turning it anticlockwise), slotting a bobbin onto the rod:

Setting the release-lever against the bobbin (to stop it flying off the rod when this thing gets moving!), threading the bobbin, and then pressing the knee-lever to do the rest.

The automatic bobbin-winder will keep spinning, and the bobbin will keep filling, until such time as the thread in the bobbin fills up to such a level that it pushes away the release-lever. This automatically disengages the flywheel, which stops the mechanism dead in its tracks. And you have a full bobbin.

STEP FOUR – Accessorising the Machine

The next step was to accessorise the machine, or to find extra bits and bobs for it. These aren’t essential things, but they’re things that would be nice to have…like…extra needles…extra bobbins…original packaging…oil-cans…all that stuff. When the machine was brand new, it would’ve come with all kinds of nick-nacks and doodads and whizzle-whozzles that would’ve allowed the owner to attain a mastery of the machine good enough to make a suit.

I got lucky at the local flea-market and picked up a whole heap of needles and bobbins (eleven bobbins and two packs of original Singer needles) for a good price. Here they are, along with the one bobbin and the one Singer packet (with the one extra needle) that came along with my machine when I found it in the basement:

In time, I do hope to get other bits and pieces to make the machine more complete.

Along with the needles and bobbins, I got my hands on an original Singer bentwood key, for the case, kindly given to me by a friend…

“SIMANCO” is the “Singer Manufacturing Company”. The number next to it (96507) is the part-number for the key.

It was now that I also started looking at the bentwood case which housed this machine. It had all these weird little things inside it which I had no idea what they were for. That was when I found the bracket to hold the knee-bar:

This bracket is directly under the handle on the top of the case, and in the apex of the arch. You stick one end of the knee-bar into the socket on the left, then slot the rest of it into the slot on the right, and swing the catch (which will then go up and over the bar) to lock into place, to stop it wriggling around and falling off. Also inside the machine is a little black, wire bracket. It would have originally held a dome-shaped Singer oil-can, which would’ve looked like this:

Unfortunately, I don’t have a dome-shaped Singer oil-can (…yet…), but that’s what that bracket is there for, if you’ve ever wondered.

At the time of this posting, I’m still searching for extra bits and bobs and thingummies for the machine. If and when I find them, I’ll probably post about it here on the blog.

STEP FIVE – Replacement Parts

The next step was to find replacement parts…or to be precise, one part.

The part that goes here:

As you can see, the jerry-rig solution was a piece of balsa-wood held on with tape. Hardly the best substitute for the machine’s slide-plate, which is supposed to cover the bobbin-mechanism. Fortunately, I found a reproduction slide-plate (and yes, there are modern reproduction Singer parts), which I found on eBay (and that’s where you can get them, if you need them. There are also websites out there which sell original spare Singer parts. It’s just a matter of how desperate you are and what you want to pay). It was purchased on my behalf by my cousin, Hansen, who lives in Singapore, and which was hurried off to me with all due speed. It arrived…today, actually…and now the same part of the machine looks like this:

Yes, the slide-plate has a different metal-finish to the needleplate next to it, so they don’t match exactly, but it’s close enough for my purposes. And the important thing is that it fits and it does what it’s supposed to do!…Slide!:

All modern replacement slide-plates for Singer 99’s, 99k’s, 66’s, and 66k’s (and any other Singer models that take the square slide-plate…Singer parts were surprisingly interchangeable!) come in this same matte-finish, and not the shiny mirror-finish of the originals. But we should be thankful that there are reproduction plates at all!

The machine is now essentially complete. And I mean that literally..all the essential parts are present and correct. Needles, bobbins, plates, thread, machine-oil…the machine has been cleaned, oiled, tested, and it’s back to operational condition. I’m still after other Singer bits and pieces (attachments, extra feet, button-holers etc), but as it sits now, this machine will do, without any kind of hindrance, the task for which it was built when it left Scotland 60+ years ago…sew!

This is my grandmother’s Singer 99k knee-lever, as it appears now:

A Note on Construction

During this little adventure of mine, it occurred to me how fantastically-built these old Singers were. Of ALL the components on this machine, a grand-total of…FIVE…are made of something OTHER than cast iron, steel or wood. The plastic (bakelite?) shield on the steel light-shade…the lightbulb itself…the tire on the flywheel for the bobbin-winder, the drive-belt on the handwheel, and the power-cord and plug (also bakelite, I believe).

The Singer 99k was one of the MOST popular Singer machines ever made. They were produced from 1920 until 1962 and they’re incredibly simple, robust and powerful. Their simplicity is obvious. The motor is only there to power the drive-belt, and the light. Literally everything else on the machine is mechanical. And there’s no plastic on there at all. Nothing to crack…melt…warp…twist…shrink…expand…It just WORKS. I can’t think of a damn thing made today which was this solid when it was new, and which would still be that solid 60 years later. The Singer 99k was originally a handcranked model:

When it was released, it was a manual, hand-cranked machine, but an electrically-powered variation, with the knee-lever attachment, or the electric foot-pedal attachment (depending on variant, of course), were also available. These machines are so tough that they just NEVER break down. If you have an electrical one like I do, you might need to get the wiring checked if it’s spotty, but otherwise, they just never stop working.

And a Singer like the 66 or the 99/99k was a big investment. 11 pounds, 3s in 1930s Britain, or about a hundred and twenty dollars in America at the same time. Even in the 20s and 30s, a lot of people (mostly women) still made their own clothes, or clothes for their family, at home. Having a solid and dependable sewing-machine like a Singer was part an essential, and part a luxury, because their quality meant that they were priced pretty high. Even today, a sewing machine like my grandmother’s Singer 99k will easily sew through things like…




Multiple layers of cloth.

Things that would probably kill a modern machine…


Here’s some additional photos of the machine, now that it’s complete:

The machine in its entirety!

The slide-plate doing what it does best – sliding!

The name of the beautiful pattern on the Singer 99k was called the ‘Filigree’

The Singer Manufacturing Company

More filigree!

Filigree + Plates!

Presser-foot, needle and feed-dogs (the little bumpy things)


Australia: From Colonies to Country

Some of you may remember that I wrote this posting for Australia Day, back in January. At the end of it, you may recall that I said I’d write about more Australian history sometime in the future.

Well, the future is now. So let’s get cracking.

Colonial Australia

For all of the 19th century, Australia was an island of colonies. They were given names such as “Van Diemen’s Land”, “Victoria”, “New South Wales”, and “Queensland”. Admittedly, the remaining colonies of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were hardly the most poetic of names to go along with the names of the other colonies, but I digress…

In the second half of the 19th century, Australia had finally broken out of the phase of being “Terra Australis Incognitia“, the great unknown southern land. It was now firmly established that an island south of Asia did exist, and that it was inhabitable, and that it now had a name. “Australia”.

Australia was seen as a great social experiment. Prior to this, no Western civilisation had colonised a landmass further south than this great, empty sandpit in the bottom left of the Pacific Ocean. The British Government was quick to realise that having Australia as a British colony would be very useful. It would be able to secure British dominance in the Southeast Asian region, along with their holdings in Singapore and Hong Kong. This would balance out the colonial scale, since nearby, the French, the Dutch and the Germans also had colonies. Colonies like French Indochina (Vietnam), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the German-held Papua New Guinea.

Colonial Australia was a hard and dangerous place to live. Summers are hot, scorching and dry. Cities were still mostly made up of wooden buildings, two storeys high, and streets were largely unpaved. Also, then, as now, Australia played host to the largest number of dangerous animals in the world – Spiders, sharks, snakes, and the vicious Spotted Quoll:


The Victorian Gold Rush

Life in colonial Australia cheered up in the 1850s, though. Gold had been found sporadically for years, but in 1851, the great Victorian Gold Rush hit Australia. And it was a rush, alright. People from all over the world came to Australia, to go to Victoria, to find gold! The population of Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne, went from 10,000 people in 1840, to 123,000 people by the mid-1850s!

Towns like Bendigo and Ballarat popped up overnight and became booming centers of trade. Just like in almost every other gold-rush in history, in California, or Canada…a significant amount of the money made came, not from mining, but from merchants and shopkeepers who sold equipment to the miners at inflated prices. Shovels, buckets, pans, tents, billys (kettles, that is), bedrolls and countless other things were in high demand, and the scheming and unscrupulous shopkeepers could make a pretty penny or two from “mining the miners” for their hard-saved money.

The Victorian Gold Rush allowed Melbourne to grow at a fantastic rate, and it soon rivaled Sydney, the oldest city in Australia, in population, if not yet in size.

The Rush allowed Melbourne to build magnificent public buildings, like the state library, the town hall, the state parliament building, treasury, and several bridges across the Yarra River in the middle of town.

Australia slowly cast off the criminal element of its past and began to grow. Famous people came to Australia to look around. Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, came for a look in 1868. Two hospitals (one in Sydney, one in Melbourne) were named after him. And it’s probably just as well that there were hospitals around, because the prince was the target of an assassination attempt while he was there! He was shot in the back, but the bullet was recovered and the prince made a full recovery.

Towards a Country

Australia was a ‘country’, but not yet a nation. It had separate colonial militias, but no national army. It had lots of railroads, but it was not possible to travel all around the continent without changing trains at each border, since each colony used a different gauge of rails. As the 19th century drew to a close, Australians wanted more and more to become their own country, their own nation and their own people.

Much like the United States, a hundred and thirty years before.

But unlike the United States, Australians didn’t start stockpiling rifles and muskets.

By the 1880s, there was increasing nationalism in Australia. A higher and higher percentage of people who lived in Australia were actually born there, instead of coming to Australia from overseas. Fewer people saw themselves as being “British” but as being “Australian”. Improved communications in the 1800s, such as finally, a nationwide telegraphic network in 1872, allowed them to communicate with each other faster and easier. This brought people closer together, and strengthened the ideas that Australia should become a nation.

To that end, in the 1880s, the Federal Council was formed, a body of men whose job it was to make Australia a nation. The Federal Council was the closest thing to a national government that existed before Federation itself.

Colonies were not all in favor of federation, however. They worried that having a big national government would mean that colonies with larger populations would bully those with smaller populations. They feared that individual colonial laws, taxes and tariffs would be stamped out by a more powerful national government. They were also scared that giving power over the country to one body, instead of splitting it up amongst lots of small ones, would cause problems, since any decision made by the national government would affect everyone. In the 1870s and 80s, the American Civil War was still very fresh, and Australians didn’t want to have their own civil war!

As the years ticked by, however, federation started looking more and more interesting, and in referendums held in each state, a higher and higher percentage of people were voting for the creation of the Australian nation.

1901 – Australian Federation

On the 1st of January, 1901, the 20th Century began. And so did Australia. It was now its own nation. Its colonies were now states, and it had its own national government. It was now the Commonwealth of Australia.

It still is.

Australia was the new kid on the block in the world stage. And it wanted to do things differently. Much differently. Australia was seen as the great big new social experiment that the world would gather around to watch. Things would be done differently here and the global community sat back to watch the results of this new experiment, this new country, this new nation called Australia. Laws were enacted in Australia which were never seen in England, or indeed, in any other country on earth at the time. Some laws were popular. Some were not. Some were incredibly controversial, even for the time! Australia in the 21st Century might pride itself on multiculturalism, but it wasn’t always like that…

Immigration Restriction Act (1901)

A similar law existed in America. It was called the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. But Australia was the first country to implement a law such as this.

What was it?

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was an act that regulated who could come into Australia. They didn’t want any undesirable people in this great social experiment that Australia was! They wanted Australia to be pure, clean, innocent and…


Incredibly white.

More bleach was air-dropped into Australia before 1965 than any other country on earth.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was designed to keep out undesirable people from the Australian nation. Asians. Jews. Africans. Americans. Anyone seen as undesirable. How did they do this?

Simple. They asked them if they could speak English!

There wasn’t going to be any other language in this new country other than English, so if you wanted to live here, you had to speak English. If you couldn’t, you couldn’t come in. Simple!

This was primarily designed to keep out Asians. I’m here, so it obviously didn’t work.

The problem was that a surprisingly large number of foreigners spoke English.

So much for that idea. To try and add a few more tripwires in this new immigration law, the government started changing the conditions of entry. How did they do this?

When you arrived in Australia, you had to take an English test to evaluate your language-skills. When it was found out that this wasn’t effective in keeping out the global rabble, the law was…altered.

Instead of giving a test in English, a test could now be given in ANY European language. And I do mean ANY language. German. French. Italian. Polish. Russian. Latish. Czech. Spanish!

…it still didn’t work. But it’s what they tried.

Pacific Island Labourers Act (1901)

Along with the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, there was also the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901. This was designed to kick out of Australia any persons living there who came from islands near to Australia. Again, this backfired. While several thousand Pacific-Islanders were indeed shipped out of Australia, a significant portion of them were able to apply to stay in Australia.


Simple. Because they weren’t from the Pacific Islands. Their parents, or grandparents were. But they were born in Australia! It wasn’t legal to send them back to some place which they weren’t from in the first place, so the government had to let them stay put.

And there were a lot of them in Australia. They’d been brought over starting in the 1860s to work in Queensland, on the sugar-plantations. They were dark-skinned people, after all, and they were surely much better at working in the harsh, humid, hot and sunny Queensland climate than white folks. But then it was decided that they just had to leave.

The “White Australia Policy”

All these acts and laws and regulations were designed to create something unique in the history of the world. A completely white country. It wasn’t like America where blacks and whites were simply segregated…no. In Australia, they wanted to make sure that the whole country was white from the very start!…The Aborigines didn’t count, though…

There was a lot of support for a White Australia, but just was just as much dissent. And a significant amount of dissent came from Britain.


Australia was part of the British Empire. And the British expected Australia to trade with other countries within the Empire. Countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and India. The White Australia Policy irritated the British and they weren’t happy with the fact that it existed, because it meant that non-white subjects from British colonies couldn’t live and work in Australia, an act that was sometimes necessary for purposes of trade and business. This was why the British objected to the White Australia Policy. But then, Australia was by now its own country and nation…it could do what it liked without having to listen to England.

The White Australia Policy survived for decades, strengthening and weakening and gaining and losing support through the years. During the 1930s, fears of the Japanese and a second coming of the “Yellow Peril” increased support for a White Australia. However, after the Second World War, the need to repopulate Australia caused the Policy to be significantly relaxed, when the government realised that it could not afford to be picky about who it allowed into the country if they expected Australia to survive. It was during the postwar years that the White Australia Policy began to crumble in earnest.

The fact was that the policy had never really been any good. Non-whites had been trickling into Australia for years, and the policy never completely kept unwanted foreigners off of Australian soil. On top of that, Australia needed a larger population in the postwar era to fill up the gaps left by all the dead soldiers from the War. It was unreasonable and impossible to ask all red-blooded Australian males to do their patriotic duty and shag like rabbits on Viagra, and copulate for the good of the nation, so the Australian Government had to look…overseas! (horror of horrors!)…for more people!

The popular slogan became: “Populate, or Perish!”

This meant that Australia had to increase its population if it expected to survive in the dangerous and uncertain postwar world. Massive tourism and immigration campaigns started, encouraging people from everywhere (so long as it was white) to come to Australia!

A large percentage of the new arrivals in Australia were refugees from the Second World War. European Jews, British war-brides, displaced persons with nowhere else to go. But in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, more and more Asians started flooding into Australia. Trouble in Asia was encouraging people to leave and move south. The Chinese Civil War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were driving people out of Asia towards Australia.

The White Australia Policy finally collapsed when international events made it impossible to implement – the numbers of Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese refugees pouring into Australia made the Policy a joke, and it was officially ended in 1966.

Universal Female Suffrage

Australia, the great social experiment, while it may not have been as forward thinking in issues of race and culture, was certainly more open to other ideas…such as the shocking notion of allowing women to…vote!

In 1902, Australian women were allowed to vote alongside men.

…Yeah. So what’s the big deal?

The deal is that Australia was the first country in the Western world to do this!

Britain? Nope. 1918.

America? Try again. 1920.

Germany? 1918.

France? Good luck. Not until 1944.

China? Surely, communists with all their equality and whatnot? Nope. 1947.

Canada? 1917.

Australia was the first! (Okay, second. New Zealand – 1893…damn Kiwis…).

Australia’s Place in the World

In 1901, Australia officially became a nation. It could go to war, it could run its own affairs, create its own laws, set its own taxes and was no-longer tied to Britain!…Except that it still (and still does) have the Queen as its head of state, and the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative in the Land Down Under.

Australia was a big exporter…and importer. It sent out shiploads of gold, iron, wool, wheat and leather, and in came things such as consumer-goods from England and America.

Australia was miles from England…it took two months to get there by ocean-liner…but a lot of Australians saw themselves still as being British. They supported Britain in wartime and peacetime. When Britain went to war with the Dutch South-Africans (the Boers) in 1899, Australia sent troops off to fight. When Britain went to war with Germany in 1914, Australia sent troops off to fight. When Britain went to war with Germany (again!) in 1939, Australia sent troops off to fight.


Australia is on the other side of the world, for God’s sake! Why on earth would it get involved in British wars?

Popular opinion in Australia listed reasons such as…

– Similar cultures.
– Helping “Mother England”.
– Failure to hep England in her time of need would result in England being too weak to help Australia in hers.

In the Edwardian-era, imperial pride and ties to “Mother England” still ran strong through the fabric of Australian culture and society. When soldiers fought and died in the First World War, they died in service of “The Empire”, not Australia. Indeed, such was Australia’s closeness to Britain that when the First World War came around in 1914, over sixty thousand Australians signed up to go to war.

The interesting bit?

Not a single one of them was a career-soldier.

Australia was the only country to participate in the First World War, which had a completely volunteer army. Shopkeepers, schoolteachers, engine-drivers, cable-car gripmen, farmers, shearers, bank-tellers and waiters rushed to sign up for the army. The most experience that Australia really had of fighting in big wars was in the Boer War of 1899 (during which, Australian soldier Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant was tried…and executed…for trumped-up charges of ‘Treason’, disobeying orders, and killing innocent noncombatant Boers).

After the Second World War, Australia stopped looking to Britain for aid, and turned increasingly towards the United States. Colonialism died a slow death as the European powers grudgingly (in the case of France, incredibly so!) gave up their colonial posessions. Australia joined the British Commonwealth, the collection of countries which shared historic, colonial ties with Britain.


A Stitch in Time – A History of the Sewing Machine

Open your closet.

Take out any article of clothing.

A shirt. A coat. A pair of trousers. A pair of boxer-shorts, a blouse, a waistcoat, a T-shirt, a singlet, a glove…anything!

Now take out a magnifying glass and count every single stitch on the garment you’ve selected.

Imagine for a minute that you had to remake this garment. By hand. And that every single one of those dozens…hundreds…thousands of stitches…all had to be done, painstakingly, by you. One at a time.

Even working as fast as you could, as neatly as you could, it would be an exhausting, eye-bending, finger-numbing process to even make a simple shirt, taking countless hours and days and weeks.

But imagine that there was a machine that could do this for you. Something that could make dozens of stitches, hundreds of stitches every minute. Every single one the same, every single one identical, every single one just as strong and as permanent and as unmovable as the one that preceded it.

Now wouldn’t that be nice?

This is the story of the remarkable machine that singlehandedly changed the clothing industry forever. It is called the sewing-machine.

Who Invented the First Machine?

The sewing-machine was first conceived in 1790. It was the brainchild of English cabinetmaker, Thomas Saint. It was a heavy-duty thing used to sew together leather and canvas, but it was a sewing-machine. No actual Saint-style sewing-machines survive (if indeed one ever made it off the drawing-board). It wasn’t until nearly 100 years later, in 1874, that another sewing-machine manufacturer (a man named William Newton Wilson), discovered Saint’s original schematic drawings, hidden away somewhere in the London Patent Office. Out of curiosity, Wilson copied Saint’s diagrams and built a working replica of Saint’s 1790 machine.

It’s still around today. You can see it at the London Science Museum. Here’s a photo of a copy of that reproduction, in a museum in Japan:

The world’s first sewing machine! This model of a Saint sewing machine sits in the Sewing Machine Museum, in Nagoya, Japan.

Developing the Machine

Over the next few decades, the sewing machine was altered, improved and updated by a successive number of inventors and mechanics. Much like with the weaving machines of the 1700s, the sewing machines of the 1800s were met with considerable…


See, because sewing took SUCH a long time, if you did it by hand, tailors could make a lot of money, since not everybody could do the precise, time-consuming, eye-straining work that they did every single day.

But if you had a machine that could do this, suddenly, their edge was gone!

Terrified that they’d be out of business, French tailors went on a riot! A French tailor named Thimonnier patented a new kind of sewing-machine in the early 1830s. Was it a success?


His brethren were so enraged that he’d developed a machine to take over their prized and highly specialised craft that they went on the rampage! Thimonnier’s machine-factory was ransacked! The machines were smashed to pieces and the entire factory was destroyed! By the early 1840s, it was all over.

So much for the French attempts at a sewing machine.

The next player in this game was an American. Walter Hunt.

Hunt was an inventor. And a big one. Here’s a list…

– Sewing-machine
– Safety-pin
– Repeating rifle
– Knife-sharpener
– Streetcar bells
– Coal-fired stoves
– Street-sweepers
– Ice-and-snow ploughs
– The velocipede

For those people scratching their heads right about now, the velocipede was an early type of bicycle.

Hunt’s machine was interesting, but hardly practical. Due to a design-fault, the machine was more of a hindrance than a help. The feed-dogs didn’t work very well, and this held the machine up.

The feed-dogs are little teethed pieces of metal underneath the needle-plate. The needle-plate is the plate of steel directly underneath the needle. As the machine runs, the feed-dogs rub back and forth and their ribbed surfaces push the fabric along, tugging it between the needle-plate, and the foot-plate (the metal clamp that snaps down on top to hold the fabric in place to stop it sliding around). Ideally, the dogs would move back and forth ‘feeding’ fresh fabric under the needle (and between the needle-plate and foot-plate), while also passing the finished fabric out the other side of the machine.


But Hunt’s machine didn’t have dogs that worked properly. Instead of the machine pushing the fabric through at a regular pace, the sewer had to do it instead. And this was slow, tricky, imprecise and very frustrating. For all of Hunt’s inventions, his sewing-machine was a failure.

The next man to come along was Elias Howe.

Howe’s entry into the sewing-machine was pretty interesting. Like everyone else, he was trying to figure out how to make a better, smoother machine with stronger, more permanent stitches that didn’t come apart so easily.

To achieve this, Elias Howe invented something that every single machine has today.

A needle with its eye (hole) near the tip of the needle, instead of near the head (which is where the eye usually is, for hand-sewing needles).

Legend has it that Howe came to this realization after a nightmare. During the 1840s, while he was turning his sewing-machine idea over in his head, he had a horrifying dream. He’d been kidnapped by savage natives who were planning to kill him. They’d harpoon him to death with their spears!

Spears with…holes in the spearheads…

When Howe woke up, he suddenly realised that a needle with a hole in its tip would feed the thread headfirst into the fabric, instead of having the thread trail into the fabric after the needle. This would make the whole process faster and neater. And it allowed him to create the lockstitch sewing machine.

The lockstitch is the basic sewing-machine stitch. It happens when the thread fed down from the needle intertwines (locks) with the thread fed to the fabric from the bobbin, underneath the machine. The result is a tight, unbreakable stitch formed from two lengths of thread…something that would have been impossible without Howe’s eye-point needle.

Howe’s luck didn’t last long, though.

The moment this new revelation went public, everyone started copying him! Howe had long and frustrating court-battles to protect his invention, and he did eventually win, forcing his competitors to pay him royalties everytime they built a machine that utilised his new needle. They couldn’t get around it because a machine needed his needle to work properly. So there was at least a certain level of happiness to the end of this story.

One of the men that Howe dragged, kicking and screaming to the courthouse was the son of a German millwright. A man named Isaac…Merritt…Singer.

Singer Sewing Machines

Every industry has one leader or one brand which is instantly identifiable.

Rolex makes watches. Mercedes makes cars. Harley Davidson makes motorcycles. Steinway makes pianos.

Singer makes sewing-machines.

Although, what the connection between sewing and pizza happens to be, I’m not quite sure…

For over 160 years, Singer has been considered the first name in quality sewing-machines. Ask your mother. Grandmother. Aunt. Most likely, they own, or know, or knew, someone who did own, or does own…a Singer. And it’s not a sewing-machine…it’s a Singer. ‘Sewing machine’ is a mean, base word, offensive to the ears. ‘Singer’ is a sign of quality, craftsmanship, durability and style.

So where did it start?

Singer, the name known the world-over for its top-quality sewing-machines, was established in 1851 by Isaac Merritt Singer, the guy who Elias Howe dragged to court for stealing his special needle.

With the aid of New York lawyer Edward Clark (1811-1882), the company was established as I.M. Singer & Co. In 1865, when the American Civil War ended, the company changed to the Singer Manufacturing Company. Most vintage Singers will have “SIMANCO” stamped onto their various components. It stands for the SInger MANufacturing COmpany. Now you know.

Singer machines were stupendously popular. In 1853, the company sold just 810 machines. By 1876, they had sold 262,316! And climbing!

Singer machines were popular because they were stylish, simple, well-built, easy to care for and solid as Gibraltar. Even today, Singer machines that are 60, 70, 90, 100, 120, 140 years old…still work perfectly…for the pure fact that no corners were cut and everything was machined to perfection.

Like a lot of companies, Singer stopped manufacturing its breadwinning products during the Second World War. Instead, they built military hardware. They tried manufacturing automatic pistols (five hundred all told), but the results were hardly spectacular, and five hundred were all that were ever made. Today, those five hundred Singer sidearms are pretty rare…and valuable!

Singers were made all over the world. Not just in America, but also in Russia and the United Kingdom, and exported to every corner of the globe.

Singers were popular because of their wide range, good designs and their easy operation and maintenance. They built everything from huge desktop treadle-powered, belt-driven machines that were as big as desks, and which could sit in a standard parlour or living-room in a middle-class residence, to small, portable, hand-cranked machines, like this one:

Something small like this could be carried onboard a ship and placed on a table. The hand-crank meant that there was no electricity required to run it. Just muscles – handy in parts of the world which didn’t have electrical grids. Hand-cranked Singers were made well into the 1930s, even as electrical models were starting to come out in the ’20s.

Singers were famous for their jet-black bodies with their fancy goldwork and patterns around the wheels, machine-beds, sides and tops, a distinctive style that lasted for over a hundred years.

Designed to be as portable and as self-sufficient as possible, Singers came with all kinds of nifty attachments and features, as did some other machine-makers of the day. Underneath the machine-bed was a storage-compartment. Here you could put extra thread, needles, chalk, spare keys and any other necessities that you needed. The machine-manual, attachments, accessories, repair-tools and equipment were also stored in these little hidden compartments. The famous curved ‘bentwood’ cases that covered the tops of most (but not all) Singers came with brackets and hooks inside them, to safely store things like knee-bars, cans of machine-oil and so-forth, to stop them rattling around and damaging the machine. It was expected that no matter where you were, you could operate, clean and repair your machine, no matter what happened.

The sewing machine has come a long way from the Georgian one-time experiment to the robber of tailor’s livelihoods, to becoming the cornerstone of the clothing industry. This is just a brief look at the history of a truly marvelous machine that made countless lives easier around the world.

Looking for more Information?


This posting is affectionately dedicated to my beloved, late and much-missed grandmother (7th May, 1914 – 28th Nov., 2011). A professional tailor and seamstress of nearly fifty years’ experience, she fixed all my clothes when I was a child. She passed away at the impressive age of 97. It was her machine which was the inspiration for this article.

My grandmother’s sewing-machine, a Singer model 99k, made in 1950, in Kilbowie, Scotland


They’re Coming to Take Me Away! – A Compact History of Mental Illness

Mental illness is a horrifying thing. It has had a long, long, long, troubled past, full of superstition, horror, misunderstanding, experimentation, mistreatment, pain, suffering, abuse and conjecture. It’s the stuff of horror movies like “House on Haunted Hill”. For centuries, the mad and insane have suffered, some in silence…others, not so much.

This is the history of madness. A look at how mental illness has been viewed throughout the centuries, and how people attempted to treat it, control it and cure it.

The Nature of Madness

Mental illness has been around for as long as mankind, and for as long as it has existed, there have been explanations for it, reasons for it, cures and treatments for it, whether they be right, wrong, effective, ineffective or just plain crazy!

How far mental illness can be traced is totally unknown. Only since the dawn of the written word and reliable records can we can even begin to guess at how many centuries mental illnesses have existed for, or how far back certain specific illnesses can be traced.

The Cause of Insanity

People have been trying to figure out what caused mental illnesses for as long as they’ve been around. One of the earliest explanations was that it was related to the movements, phases and positions of the Moon. The Latin word ‘Luna’, or ‘Moon’, has given us the words ‘lunacy’ and ‘lunatic’.

Other common beliefs included posession by devils, demons, evil spirits…or that the person was a witch. In the last case, the most expedient ‘cure’ involved a large stake, lots of wood and a burning torch. To deal with ‘evil spirits’ or ‘demons’, the most common ‘cures’ were either an exorcism, or a terrifying operation called a trephination or a trepanning.

Trepanning was the practice of gaining access to the brain by means of making an incision in the organ’s outer casing.

In other words…drilling a hole in your head.

Trepanning is still practiced today, but its benefits (relieving pressure on a damaged and swelling brain) are much better understood now, than they were back in the Middle Ages, when this treatment was used to ‘cure’ insanity and release a person’s demons from their soul.

Trepanning was carried out using one of a variety of drilling or boring tools…such as this delightful instrument:

Stay very still and don’t sneeze…

The procedure was typically carried out in the following manner:

1. The patient was seated (or laid) on a chair or bed and secured in-place (either with straps or with the aid of surgeon’s assistants).
2. The head (or the necessary portion of it), was shaved smooth.
3. A Y-shaped cut was made into the skin, and the skin then peeled back.
4. A mark was made on the bare skull and the drill placed thereon.
5. Start drilling.

Oh…and if you’re the patient, you get the unique firsthand experience of watching everything that happens. Because there’s no anesthetics.

Trepanning was used to treat more regular health-issues, such as migraines, headaches and so-forth, but it was most famously used for the treatment of mental illness.

As folklore, superstition and religion slowly gave way to reason, logic, science and medicine towards the 1700s, a greater understanding was sought of the lunatic. What caused someone to go mad, what they should do with him, how he should be treated and what might happen to him. In Georgian England, the answer lay in one word.


Or, as it is properly called, the Bethlehem Royal Hospital.

The Bethlehem Royal Hospital, or as it was more commonly called,Bedlam, was…and is (it’s still around today!)…the most famous mental hospital in the world. It’s also one of the oldest. Its existence goes all the way back to the early 14th century, when it was established in 1330.

Like Bedlam

The Royal Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam, was, is, and remains, the world’s most famous mental hospital. Even today, a phrase survives. A place that is rowdy, noisy, out of control and crowded with people is described to be “like Bedlam”. As indeed, the hospital was, during its most famous and notorious period, in the 1700s.

Previous to this time, the inhabitants of Bedlam were referred to as ‘inmates’, as if it was a prison for the mentally ill. In 1700, the inhabitants (also nicknamed ‘Bedlamites’) were called ‘patients’ for the first time. Between 1725-1734, ‘Curable’ and ‘Incurable’ wards were opened, where patients were supposedly housed accordingly. But despite the apparent show of progress, Bedlam was a hellhole.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the hospital was filthy and patient-care was almost nonexistent. Barely anything changed by the Georgian era. Patients were often chained to walls, locked in filthy cells or subjected to brutal ‘treatments’, such as ‘The Chair’.

It didn’t DO anything. You were strapped in an armchair. Tied down. Secured. Then the chair was hoisted up into the air and spun around…and around…and around…and around…and around…It was supposed to punish you for being ‘mad’, hoping that you would repent of your wicked and sinful ways and be an upstanding citizen once more.

Unsurprisingly…it didn’t work. Unless the purpose of the treatment was to make you expel your lunch, that is.

For almost the entirety of the 1700s, Bedlam was a popular tourist-attraction in London. It was common for the wealthy, upwardly mobile classes of British society to take in the sights…and one of them was a trip to the Bedlam Hospital, where, for a small fee, you could be granted admission to the wards. Here, you could view the lunatics and bedlamites and if you wished, you could poke them through the bars of their cells with your walking-stick to watch their reactions. It’s fun, trust me. Bring the kiddies…It should always be a family outing, a trip to a lunatic asylum.

One of the most famous depictions of the Bedlam Hospital is the final painting in a series by Georgian artist, William Hogarth, titled ‘A Rake’s Progress’. Painted in the early 1730s, this is what the notorious lunatic asylum looked like in the 18th century

By the turn of the century and the coming of the Victorian era, views on mental health were (gradually) changing and conditions at Bedlam did eventually improve. Government inquiries, reports and investigations brought to light the shocking conditions inside Bedlam and by the dawn of the 19th century, the regular tours had died away after surviving as a London fixture for nearly a century. The patients were given proper care and attention and the buildings improved.

The Maddest of them All

The most famous mad Georgian of them all was one of the kings who gave his name to the era. King George III. Up to 1788, he was a sharp, intelligent, learned man. He enjoyed science, technology, mechanics, farming and nature. He had a lovely and loving wife and a HUGE family (fifteen children in total!). But from then on, attacks of mental illness eventually robbed him of his senses. He died, blind, deaf and insane, locked in a tower in 1820. When his beloved wife, Queen Charlotte, died in 1818…nobody even bothered to tell him.

Mad Words

The Georgian era gave us a number of our most commonly-used words when describing mental illness – “Crazy”, and “Insane”, from Middle English meaning ‘cracked‘, and from the Latin word ‘Insanus‘ (‘Unhealthy’). ‘Psychiatry as a discipline, was first practiced in 1808, when the word was coined by a German physician, Dr. Johann Christian Reil, from the Greek words meaning “Medical Treatment of the Mind”.

A Victorian View of Madness

Mental illness was not widely understood in Victorian times, but things were gradually improving. The Industrial Revolution made life faster. For the first time, things could truly be mass-produced.

And lunatic asylums were no exception. As a partial list, we have:

The Hanwell County Asylum (built 1830).

The Surrey County Asylum (built 1838).

The Royal Bethlehem Hospital (extended, 1837).

The City of London Lunatic Asylum (opened 1866).

Guy’s Hospital (Lunatic Ward, opened 1844).

The list goes on. And this is just in England.

Thanks largely to reforms at the turn of the century, the Victorian-era lunatic was handled with much greater care, but probably with just as much misunderstanding. Causes, and treatments for, mental illnesses…and indeed, the distinctions between one illness and another…were still very much muddled up. But progress was…slowly…being made.

The increase in number, and size, of asylums and hospitals around the world, as well as the number of patients, caused problems. Although chaining patients up was no longer an acceptable method of restraint, something was needed to stop patients from hurting themselves. If they couldn’t be drugged up with heroin, opium, laudanum and morphine (common Victorian drugs for calming someone down!), then they had to be rendered a negligible force in some other manner.

Its existence predates the Victorian era, but the straightjacket was the most common method.

Invented in 1790 in France, it was first used at the Bicetre Hospital in the southern suburbs of Paris. Bicetre was not a place where you wanted lunatics to run wild. It wasn’t just a hospital. It was a lunatic asylum, a prison and an orphanage as well!

The straightjacket was used regularly on mentally ill patients, even before the Victorian era. It was the only way that badly understaffed mental asylums could control all their patients at once. But a straightjacket isn’t supposed to be worn for a long period of time (restricting the limbs like that causes blood-clots and other nasty things…perhaps why Houdini wanted to break out of them so often). Bicetre Hospital was one of the first mental asylums, along with Bedlam, to introduce humane treatment methods for the mentally ill during the sweeping social and moral reforms that spread around Europe and the United Kingdom in the 1790s.

Research and theorising into the causes and possible treatments of mental illness started in earnest in the 1800s. Pioneers such as the famous Dr. Sigmund Freud, helped to guide the way. Freud, a Jewish German, fled Nazism in the 1930s and settled in England. He was on the hit-list of people to kill when the Germans invaded Britain. Fortunately for Freud, the Germans never invaded. And even if they had, it wouldn’t have done them any good. He died less than a month after the war started.


Perhaps you might have seen one of these?

These days, people buy them as paperweights, bookends, curiosities, dust-collectors, souveniers, decorations and hat-holders. But back in the Victorian era, these things were used to understand the brain.

Or something like that.

Shakespeare once wisely said that there was “no art to finding the mind’s construction in the face” (taken from ‘Macbeth‘, that was, in case you’re wondering). What the Bard meant was that it’s impossible to just look at someone, study their face, and then automatically know what’s going on inside their head.

Apparently, Victorian psychiatrists, doctors and psychologists…disagreed with the great playwright, because for most of the 19th century, phrenology held sway as the latest way to read and understand the workings of the human brain. And they were onto something!

…or not.

Phrenology has absolutely NO medical or scientific fact to back it up at all. It was dismissed as quackery by the end of the Victorian era and was declared to be of no practical benefit at all to the fields of medicine or science.

But what was phrenology?

The ‘Science’…so-called…of Phrenology, supposed that a person’s personality and traits, his mannerisms and so-forth, could be determined, or even predicted, by studying the shape of his head. If you’ve ever heard of ‘death-masks’ (masks or busts made of prisoner’s heads after their executions), they were made to try and study the heads (and minds) of the “criminal class”, as it was called in Victorian times. It was hoped that by studying the heads of criminals, their shapes, their foreheads, positions of ears and so-forth, a general list of  ‘characteristics’ could be compiled, showing the public the typical face (and traits) of someone who is (or would become) a criminal.

Phrenology advocated the belief that the brain is divided into segments or “organs”. Each organ controlled an emotion, or trait, such as lust, hope, curiosity, aggressiveness, gentility, connivance and so-forth. It was believed that by examining the head of a person, you could map or determine his personality traits.


Using a pair of phrenology calipers. They look like this:

You can stop sucking in your belly. They’re not for measuring body-fat.

The calipers were used to measure the head. By examining the size of the cranium (that’s fancy medical talk for your skull) the phrenologist could pick up on any abnormalities. He was looking for bumps or strange inconsistencies on your head. The positions of these bumps on your head were transferred to a chart (or to a phrenology head) where a number would be printed. The number corresponded with a trait, printed on an accompanying list. The bumps indicated the areas of the brain which were, supposedly, the most developed, and by extension, the personality traits that were most developed within your brain. This could determine your mood, temperment, likelihood for criminal behaviour, propensity towards violence, drunkenness, abusiveness, gaiety…all kinds of things! Fascinating!

Did it work?


But it sure makes for interesting blog-material.

Phrenologists, as they were called, believed that each section of the brain controlled or housed a particular trait or emotion. You can see that here in this chart from 1895:

As you can see, phrenology didn’t last very long. This page is taken from a medical dictionary from 1895. Note the opening passage, that phrenology was the “…science of the special functions of the several parts of the brain, or of the supposed connection between the faculties of the mind and the organs of the brain…”.

Phrenology continued to linger long after it was dismissed as quackery by the respected medical community. It’s mentioned in “Dracula”, by Bram Stoker, and in numerous Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Most notably, in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, where Dr. James Mortimer confesses to an interest in phrenology…specifically, in a close examination of Holmes’s head! (“A cast of your skull, sir, until the original becomes available!”).

Want to know more about phrenology? Here’s an interesting and rather funny lecture given by Prof. John Strachan of Northumbria University in England. Enjoy!…Oh, this is just Part 1. If you want the rest, click on the video and it’ll take you to YouTube, where you can see the rest of it.

A New Century

The Great War of 1914 brought a new horror to the world of mental illness. It was given the title ‘Shell shock’, and was believed to be caused by the deterioration of the mental state, caused by the constant bombardment of artillery shells. The unrelenting stress thus created, it was believed, caused the affected person’s brain to just snap and blow a fuse.

It was in the first half of the 1900s that mental illnesses started getting names. Names like…

Catatonia (1874).

Schizophrenia (1908), from the Greek words that described a ‘split mind’.

Melancholia (An older term. ‘Depression’ today).

Bipolar Disorder (1957). Previously called ‘Manic Depression’ (1952) and ‘Circular Insanity’ (1854).

The 20th century also brought forth a new and terrifying treatment. One which had no sure and certain outcome and which could, if performed poorly (or performed at all!), leave the patient as a comatose vegetable. It was called the lobotomy.

Tinkering with what does the thinking, has been a fascination for centuries…just look at medieval trepanning. The lobotomy had its roots in late-Victorian scientific and medical experimentation. Great strides were being made in medicine during the turn of the 20th century. New drugs, new ways of doing things, new understanding, new technologies, were making the treatment of patients faster, safer, cleaner and more effective. Why not might the same be done for the human brain?

Mostly because the results were almost always a failure.

The Lobotomy

Ah, the lobotomy. Famous in horror films for turning monsters into angels, angels into monsters, and right-thinking people into perfect vegetables. But what is it?

The lobotomy as is most commonly thought of, was developed in the mid-1930s by Antonio Egas Moniz. In 1935 and 1936, Moniz ‘perfected’ one of the most controversial medical treatments in the history of medical treatments…and that’s saying a lot.

A lobotomy involves making two incisions (holes) in the front of the head and inserting a pair of blades into the brain, whereafter two cuts or slices are made into the frontal lobes (quarters) of the brain. This was supposed to alter the workings of the brain, calm the patient down and affect a remarkable change in personality.

…or not.

Some lobotomies were pulled off with relative success. Others became tragic failures. Because the lobotomy required small, precise slices or cuts into the brain, a small, precise instrument was used. Originally, that instrument was one of these:

The scientific term is an ‘orbitoclast’, but its similarity to the axes and picks used by mountain-climbers…

…caused people to call operations carried out with these instruments, ‘ice-pick lobotomies’.

Unsurprisingly, lobotomies were incredibly risky. Patients risked everything from death, paralysis, becoming a vegetable, losing their faculties, their ability to speak, see, function properly in society…It makes you wonder why such a treatment was ever devised in the first place! One of the most famous people to receive a lobotomy was a 12-year-old boy named Howard Dully. He’s still alive today. He was born in 1948. The lobotomy was performed on him with the permission of his parents. The damage was so severe that it took him his whole life for his brain to recover and for him to be able to function properly in society again. The lobotomy is such a mythical procedure in medicine today that he wrote a book about what it was like to have one, and the effects that it had on his life. His memoir is titled “My Lobotomy”.

The effects (and benefits, if any) of lobotomies were disputed almost immediately. Even by the 1940s, people were questioning whether or not this ‘procedure’ did anything useful at all. The Soviet Union made the performing of lobotomies illegal as early as 1950. By the 1970s, most other countries had followed suit. During the heyday of the lobotomy (the 1940s and 50s), up to 18,000 people were lobotomised in the United States alone.

Electroshock Treatment

Electroshock treatment or therapy dates back to 1938. It was devised by Italian psychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini. Cerletti first experimented on animals, as all good scientists did back in those days, before moving onto human patients.

Why on earth would zapping someone with electricity be considered a good thing?

Cerletti believed so because he noted a remarkable change in his aggressive, mentally ill patients. Once zapped, aggressive patients tended to be calmer and more manageable. This was seen as a good thing (who wouldn’t agree?) and electroshock therapy was slowly introduced around the world, to treat those who had mental illnesses that caused them to be a danger to those around them, such as the “criminally insane”.

Electroshock therapy is obviously dangerous. Improper use of the therapy can lead to brain-damage, most notably, temporary or permanent memory-loss. It was often prescribed for violent criminals to calm them down, or for mentally ill patients who posed a physical danger to those around them. It’s still used today, to treat extreme depression, although in the 21st century, it’s much safer. It can still result in varying levels of memory-loss however…so if your doctor decides to prescribe you this treatment…think twice before saying ‘Yes’.

Looking for more Information?

Index of British Lunatic Asylums

The History of Phrenology

Documentary Film:Bedlam: The History of Bethlehem Hospital“.

History of the Bethlehem Royal Hospital

“What is a Lobotomy?”

“What is a Lobotomy?” (