What was Joseph Addison's "Party Patches" essay about in The Spectator, No. 81?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Joseph Addison's essay on "Party Patches," published in The Specator, No. 81, on June 2, 1711, just a few months after he started the magazine in March, 1711, is his attempt to poke fun at a political phenomenon among women that he feels is foolish and a gentle reminder to women of their "proper" role in eighteenth-century British society.  The motto for this essay is from Statius' Thebaid, which Addison translates as 

She swells with angry pride,/And calls forth all her spots on every side.

referring to the sight of women at the opera who where wearing patches on their faces according to which political party--Whigs or Tories--they supported.  

Fashionable women during at least the first half of the 18thC. in England wore small black dots on their faces, usually one or two, placed according to the wearer's taste as a fashion statement.  These "patches" were meant to resemble natural, but very small, blemishes (facial moles).  While at the opera, Addison notices that the women attending were divided into three groups: one group tended to have patches on the right side of the forehead; one group had patches on the left side; and a group of women in the middle wore patches "indifferently," that is, with no detectable pattern:

Upon inquiry I found, that the body of Amazons on my right hand were Whigs; and those on the left were Tories; and those who had placed themselves in the middle boxes were a neutral party, whose faces had not yet declared themselves.

In the 18thC., the Whig party can be said to be the modern equivalent of liberals, and the Tory party generally espoused conservative principles in government and religion.  These women, then, are arranging themselves according to their political views, and these views are made clear by where their facial patches are placed.

Given the purpose of the essays in The Spectator, which, among other things, is to record the behavior of fashionable society, Addison feels obligated to tell his readers about this bizarre behavior:

This account of party patches will . . . appear improbable to those who live at a distance from the fashionable world; but it is a distinction of a very singular nature, and what perhaps may never meet with a parallel. . . . 

Addison, even though he recognizes how strange his subject is, as Mr. Spectator, he is obligated to describe this strange scene to his readers precisely because it is so unusual.

The purpose of The Spectator essays, however, is not only to entertain but also to instruct its readers in appropriate behavior.  Addison therefore concludes this essay with a lengthy comment about women's proper role in 18thC. British society:

. . . they should distinguish themselves as tender mothers and faithful wives, rather than as furious partisans.  Female virtues are of a domestic turn.  The family is the proper province for private women to shine in.

Addison points out that, if women want to make a public statement, it would be more appropriate for them to criticize England's enemies, not England's political parties.  Addison's comments, though, reflect the view of a typical 18thC. man: a woman's proper role is not political but domestic, and most men of his time believe that a woman who steps outside her natural position in society--that is, as a wife, a mother, a helper to her husband--is somehow disordered and unnatural.

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