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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: A Glover's Paring Knife

Object 98 - Read about the glove making process that Shakespeare's father, John, would have undertaken

Elizabeth Sharrett

This post is by Dr Elizabeth Sharrett who was awarded her PhD recently at the Shakespeare Institute.

Does he not wear a great round beard like a glover’s paring-knife?

— The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 1 scene 4
A picture of a glover's paring knife, which was used to strip skin. It shows a rectangular piece of wood large enough to fit your hand around it. There is a groove at each end so it can secure a thin circle of sharp metal.
A glover's paring knife on loan from Worcester Museum

Two years ago, we read in Stephanie Appleton’s fascinating blog that William’s father, John, was a glover. Though he worked with many types of animal hides, those that yielded the most profitable and fashionable gloves were made from white skins such as deer and kid (baby goat). These pairs conveyed the wealth and status of the owner, and many were embellished, like those discussed in Steph’s blog, which feature silver bullion braid applied to the cuffs and pink silk lining inside. As impressive as they looked, however, the course by which these fine items came to be made was a little less pleasant, and today’s object, a glover’s paring knife, was a crucial tool used in the initial phase of their creation.

The process started with the purchase of the skins, which John as a glover may have bought from a local butcher or a farmer. The skins were probably then transported into a yard behind the house in Henley Street through the passageway between the hall and the workshop. It is not certain if the current layout of the house reflects the form and use of the property in John’s time, but the passageway incidentally is wide enough for a small cart and a pony. Here, John probably had a tannery. Tanneries had to be on the outskirts of town as the main ingredient used in the process is urine. With four glovers in total on Henley Street I’m sure the stench emanating from that area of town was very strong. Early maps show the street just at the edge of Stratford, backing up to the Guild Pits, or muckhills, which bordered the fields.

But before the tanning took place, the skins - still bloody and messy from slaughter - were stretched onto a frame where workers used the paring knife to scrape away the fat, hair, and blood. The knife pictured above dates from the 19th century and is on loan from the Worcester City Museums and Art Gallery. It is a handheld device and used by gripping the wooden piece that stretches across the round metal ring. Though the edges of the ring are now blunt from years of use and subsequent storage, the knife, as employed in its day, would have been sharpened to effectively strip the skin in preparation for the tanning.

Of all references to gloves in Shakespeare’s works it is only The Merry Wives of Windsor that alludes to the actual process of glove making. Other mentions are mostly concerned with the products themselves or with the wealthy characters that may have owned the more expensive pairs. Biron, for instance, swears “By this white glove” (5.2.411) in Love’s Labours Lost, and both Mopsa and Autolycus, though characters from lower social orders, make reference to perfumed gloves in The Winter’s Tale in Act 4, scene 4. Henry V and King Lear each refer to wearing gloves under caps, ready in the event that they must be thrown down as gauges in a duel.
It is interesting that Shakespeare links the paring knife in his play to the specific trade of his father’s, as glovers were not the only leather workers to use this tool. Indeed it was common for all who prepared skins, such as shoemakers and cobblers, to employ paring knives. Perhaps the playwright’s description betrays his personal association with the tool, which may have conjured memories of his father’s shop back home in Stratford.