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The mop trundler. Chambars after Penny. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection

Photo by J. D. Kay, 2013

I love this image, and the original on which it is based. I love it so much that we’ve recreated it (in a later time period) whilst fooling about during a photoshoot.

But what does it really show? The image in the print depicts a passage in Jonathan Swift’s poem, A Description of a City Shower,

Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean:
You fly, invoke the gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her mop.

Straightforward, right?

Well, not so fast. Thanks to the wonders of ILL, I’ve been reading The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century England, by Cindy McCreery, and looking at prints anew. Her chapters on prostitutes and old maids are particularly interesting, and confirm some of what I had been thinking about when we use prints as documentation.

Here, in the Macaroni Provider, we have what is “Probably a portrait of some (alleged) notorious procurer; perhaps Thomas Bradshaw whose portrait he somewhat resembles.” We have a pimp, folks.

The Macaroni Provider / Macaronies, Characters, Caricatures & designed by the greatest personages, artists &c graved & published by MDarly, 39 Strand. 1772 (Vol.3). British Museum

So, with this information in hand, let’s look again at The City Shower. We have a maid– one of the few classes of women found in city streets unaccompanied, and a class of women often associated with prostitution (along with street vendors and market sellers). The fashionably dressed man recoils from the spray from her mop– is he rejected the literal filth, or the implied filth of a “maid of all work,” who may have a venereal disease? Is it reasonable to wonder if Swift is using double entendres in the lines Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean, 
so that the mop is the woman’s pubic hair, and not so clean suggests she is diseased?

I don’t know, and absent intensive research or a time machine, I may never know. But once again I wonder how we use and understand these images, and think that they pose more questions than answers. McCreery’s book (based on her dissertation) helps get at some of these issues, and is well worth a read. (I found the Amazon review hilarious, myself, once I had the book in hand. No, it’s not a compendium of prints; it’s an analysis.)