Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A pure hand...

It's peculiar how out-of-context quotations mutate into aphorisms. I just ran into one I remember from way back: "A pure hand needs no glove to cover it". It comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

The next day, however, being the Sabbath, he preached a discourse which was held to be the richest and most powerful, and the most replete with heavenly influences, that had ever proceeded from his lips. Souls, it is said, more souls than one, were brought to the truth by the efficacy of that sermon, and vowed within themselves to cherish a holy gratitude towards Mr. Dimmesdale throughout the long hereafter. But, as he came down the pulpit-steps, the gray-bearded sexton met him, holding up a black glove, which the minister recognized as his own.

"It was found," said the sexton, "this morning, on the scaffold, where evil-doers are set up to public shame. Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence. But, indeed, he was blind and foolish, as he ever and always is. A pure hand needs no glove to cover it!"

"Thank you, my good friend," said the minister gravely, but startled at heart; for, so confused was his remembrance, that he had almost brought himself to look at the events of the past night as visionary. "Yes, it seems to be my glove, indeed!"

But I've never been able to take the line seriously since reading Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor - see Underground London previously - whose descriptions of trades include the pure-finders. These collected "pure" (dog dung, so called for "its cleansing and purifying properties" in the production of leather) for the use of tanneries. It could be lucrative work for the better-connected ones who cut a deal to clean out kennels, but most of the finders just worked the streets. As Mayhew reports:

The pure-finders always carry a handle basket, generally with a cover, to hide the contents, and have their right hand covered with a black leather glove; many of them, however, dispense with the glove, as they say it is much easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use.

"A pure hand needs no glove to cover it", it seems.

- Ray


  1. I really think Mr. Mayhew is having a little fun with you (or you with me). A cave man might use his hand, but ever since the invention of the shovel, we've stopped using our fingers for handling icky stuff.

  2. I don't know; Victorian London was like Dharavi.

  3. I have this picture of one of those Upper East Side ladies walking their poodle with long black gloves. Now I know.