The Pipe-Chomping, Chalk-Licking Trash Eater (Snippets 7)

The Spectator is the longest running magazine publication in English, first published in 1828.  However, it borrowed it’s title from an earlier, short-lived publication of the same name, which was founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, and ran between 1711 and 1712, with a six-month revival in 1714.  The magazines were subsequently collected in volume form.

Today’s ‘snippet’ is from the sixth volume, published in 1753 by J. and R. Tonson and S. Draper, London.  Much of the content of The Spectator was a simple matter of printing letters sent to the editor.  A remarkable letter was published on 15th July 1712, in issue 431.

Mr. Spec,

I grew tall and wild at my mother’s, who is a gay widow, and did not care for shewing me, till about two years and a half ago; at which time my guardian uncle sent me to a boarding-school, with orders to contradict me in nothing, for I had been misused enough already.

(‘shewing’ is an archaic spelling of ‘showing’.)

I had not been there above a month, when being in the kitchen, I saw some oatmeal on the dresser; I put two or three corns in my mouth, liked it, and for two months after never failed taking toll of every penyworth of oatmeal that came into the house; but one day playing with a tobacco pipe between my teeth, it happened to break in my mouth, and the spitting out the pieces left such a delicious roughness on my tongue, that I could not be satisfied ’till I had champed up the remaining part of the pipe.  I forsook the oatmeal, and stuck to the pipes three months, in which time I had dispensed with thirty seven foul pipes, all to the boles; they belonged to an old gentleman, father to my governess – he locked up the clean ones.  I left off eating of pipes, and fell to licking of chalk.  I was soon tired of this; I then nibbled all the red wax of our last ball-tickets, and three weeks after, the black wax from the burying-tickets of the old gentleman.

(‘tickets’ are invitations, sealed with wax.)

Two months after this I lived upon thunder bolts, a certain long round bluish stone, which I found among the gravel in our garden.  I was wonderfully delighted with this; but thunder-bolts growing scarce, I fasten’d tooth and nail upon our garden-wall, which I stuck to almost a twelvemonth, and had in that time peeled and devoured half a foot towards our neighbour’s yard.  I now thought myself the happiest creature in the world, and I believe in my conscience, I had eaten quite through, had I had it in my chamber; but now I became lazy and unwilling to stir, and was obliged to seek food nearer home.  I then took a strange hankering to coals; I fell to scranching ’em, and had already consumed, I am certain, as much as would have dressed my wedding-dinner, when my uncle came for me home.

(‘scranching’ means grinding with the teeth.)

He was in the parlour with my governess when I was called down.  I went in, fell on my knees, for he made me call him father; and when I expected the blessing I asked, the good gentleman, in a surprise, turns himself to my governess, and asks, whether this (pointing to me) was his daughter?  This (added he) is the very picture of death.  My child was a plump-fac’d, hale, fresh-colour’d girl; but this looks as if she was half-starved, a mere skeleton.  My governess, who is really a good woman, assured my father I had wanted for nothing; and withal told him I was continually eating some trash or other, and that I was almost eaten up with the green sickness, her orders being never to cross me.  But this magnified but little with my father, who presently in a kind of pet, paying for my board, took me home with him.

(‘in a kind of pet’ means in a bad mood)

I had not been long at home, but one Sunday at church (I shall never forget it) I saw a young neighbouring gentleman that pleased me hugely; I liked him of all men I ever saw in my life, and began to wish I could be as pleasing to him.  The very next day he came, with his father, a visiting to our house: we were left alone together, with directions on both sides to be in love with one another, and in three weeks time we were married.  I regained my former health and complexion, and am now as happy as the day is long.  Now, Mr. Spec, I desire you would find out some name for these craving damsels, whether dignified or distinguished under some or all of the following denominations, to wit, trash-eaters, oatmeal-chewers, pipe-chompers, chalk-lickers, wax-nibblers, coal-scranchers, wall-peelers, or gravel-diggers: and, good Sir, do your utmost endeavour to prevent (by exposing) this unaccountable folly, so prevailing among the young ones of our sex, who may not meet with such sudden good luck as,
Your constant reader,
and very humble servant,
Sabina Green
Now Sabina Rentfree

The medical term for eating inedible objects is pica disorder, derived for the Latin word for ‘magpie’.  The letter writer was clearly very lucky that her uncle arrived just in the nick of time!


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3 Responses to The Pipe-Chomping, Chalk-Licking Trash Eater (Snippets 7)

  1. What an extraordinarily bizarre letter!
    The part I find most fascinating is that she comments pica was extremely commonplace among young women. It is generally thought to derive from malnutrition, which makes me wonder if women were deprived of various important components of a healthy diet, like women of today who in some regions of the world are hardly allowed to eat meat at all.


    • Roger Pocock says:

      Thank you for your comment! That is an interesting idea, and I would think quite a likely possibility. The difficulty is that attempting to research into those kinds of areas tends to lead to dead ends, as the necessary statistics just don’t exist, so it is really a case of forming theories from social history such as this letter.


  2. Pingback: Blog News | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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