Children’s books can contain surprising survivals and one of the strangest I’ve seen recently is the woman’s mouth closed with a padlock, a symbol of female self-control that is at least as old as the Middle Ages. Rather than succumb to the temptation of idle talk, the wise wife takes the precaution of locking her lips and entrusting the key to her husband.
It turns up in an innocent looking illustrated pamphlet published in 1770 by Francis Newbery, the nephew of John. The story is not what we would consider a proper fairy tale, being short of marvels, but the narrator Jacky Goodchild visits Fairy Land and is taught the secrets of their power as a token of the king and queen’s esteem. Robin Goodfellow transports him to Francis Newbery’s bookshop, so Jacky can observe how useful fairies can be to humans.
Miss Betsy Pert and her maid call at the shop, where she talks so much that she does not hear any of Mr. Alphabet’s improving conversation. Robin Goodfellow takes matters into his own hands and if you look carefully at the illustration on the right, you will see a padlock fastened to her mouth.
The anecdote is over, but not the curious history of the circulation of the alarming and cruel image of the girl who cannot keep quiet. Such locks were real and could be purchased from vendors who specialized in the construction of devices in wood and metal. .
The earliest example of such lock I traced back to this 1703 work, which included the section Wit’s Activity Display’d, which consisted of instructions for performing all kinds of magic tricks. You’ll notice that the lock on Miss Pert is a simple padlock, where this one is much more elaborate and formidable looking.Ornatissimus Joculator appeared twenty years before Henry Dean’s Whole Art of Legerdemain, or Hocus Pocus (1722), where he inserted an advertisement that any of the devices illustrated in the text could be commissioned from his shop on Little Tower Hill near Postern Row. Dean’s handbook went through many editions, some authorized, others not, usually under variant titles. Here is an unauthorized one from the 1740s with a particularly good title page.
I shudder to think of parents purchasing these instruments of torture to teach their daughters a lesson. I’d prefer to believe that they destined for the theater or the stage itinerant. Surely eighteenth-century drama, comic operas, and pantomimes had more characters than Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute who were punished for having their loose lips securely closed… A salutary reminder that servants, as well as wives, were supposed to keep their masters’ secrets…