Thursday 4 August 2022

Johnson on the Duvet

 I've bought, for a tiny sum, another tiny volume from the Carr's Pocket Books series, published by the Quince Tree Press from J.L. Carr's home in Kettering. This one, titled The Sayings of Chairman Johnson, is a well chosen little anthology of quotations from Samuel Johnson's writings and utterances (including the whole of his famous letter to his dilatory patron, Lord Chesterfield, and some lines from 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'). The collection, 'arranged by Edmund Kirby', is prefaced by a quotation from (Professor) Sir Walter Raleigh: 'The memory of other authors is kept alive by their works. But the memory of Johnson keeps many of his works alive. The old philosopher is still among us in his brown coat with the metal buttons and the shirt which ought to be at wash, blinking, puffing, rolling his head, drumming his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger, and swallowing his tea in oceans. No human being who has been seventy years in the grave is so well known to us.' True enough, thanks to Boswell's extraordinary feat of sympathetic, indeed loving (and therefore unblinking) biography. 
  One entry in The Sayings of Chairman Johnson brought me up short. A quotation from The Idler, it reads: 'Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement ... and there are now to be sold for ready money only, some Duvets for bed-coverings, of down, beyond comparison superior to what is called Otter Down: warmer than four or five blankets and lighter than one.' 
  Duvets? In the mid-eighteenth century? Even two centuries later, duvets were regarded with suspicion as something only foreigners would use; we English were quite content to sleep under woollen blankets. It was Terence Conran who finally popularised the use of duvets in this country, and it was not until the 1970s that they began to become a standard form of bedding.
  'Duvet' is of course a French word, meaning down, and Johnson seems to have been the first English writer to use it. There had been at least one attempt to introduce the duvet to England in the seventeenth century, when the diplomat and historian of the Ottoman Empire Sir Paul Rycaut sent his friends a quantity of eider down, with instructions on how to turn it into a warm bed covering. He had come across the duvet in Hamburg and felt sure it would be a boon in the English winter. However, the blanket-loving English wanted none of it. By the sound of Johnson's remarks on advertising, it would seem another campaign to introduce the duvet was under way half a century after Rycaut's efforts. If so, it was again doomed to failure. Only Terence Conran, it seems, could make this foreign innovation palatable to the English. 

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