Espionage in the 18th Century

Socializing was the best time to spy

Lately, I have been working on a set of novels that involve espionage.  In my first novel, My Lover is a Spy, it’s pretty obvious where the espionage comes into play.  Our hero, is an American colonist who is spying for Great Britain (this is 30 years before the American Revolution).  In my second novel, (not sure of the name at the moment) Ice Moon, my hero is the leader of the spy ring in Britain and works closely with Pelham.  I did a bit of research for espionage during that time and thought I would share it with you.

Here are some tidbits about espionage during the 18th century:

Americans usually remember Benedict Arnold and Nathan Hale, two spies during the Revolutionary War.  Benedict Arnold turned against the patriots and spied for the British. Nathan Hale was captured by the British and hung because he was spying for the patriots.  His famous words were “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”.
Nathan Hale

Benedict Arnold

Not many people knew that George Washington was a “spymaster”.  During the war, a group called the Culper Ring was secretly sending messages to Washington about movements of the British in New York.  The leader of this group, also known as the Setauket Spies were run by Benjamin Tallmadge whose code name was Samuel Culper.
George Washington

Benjamin Franklin was surrounded by spies while he lived in England.  He lived at Franklin House in London from 1757 to 1775 while he was ambassador and the British were always hoping to find out information about the colonies while visiting him.
Benjamin Franklin

John Honeyman is a controversial spy during the Revolutionary War. Some believe the stories about him are just fabrications and yet his legend continues.  The stories state he was a double agent. He brought Washington information about the movements of the Hessians during the winter of 76-77, and he supplied the Hessians with false information about Washington’s troops.  Some believe Honeyman’s tales cannot be true since they find no record of him in Washington’s correspondence.  Just the same, his tales are interesting.

Major John Andre is usually mentioned when talking about Benedict Arnold. He was captured by the patriots while spying for the British.  The British wanted him back but he was hanged.
Margaret Kemble Gage

General Thomas Gage

A surprising spy was Margaret Kemble Gage, the wife of General Thomas Gage.  He was British and she was a colonist. During the early stages of the war, it was said she sent word of her husband’s strategies with Lexington and Concord.  Her husband sent her to live in England for the remainder of the war once he learned of her actions.
the salons of Versailles were filled with spies

The American Revolution was not the only time when spies were being used during the 18th century.  During this time, many advances were being made.  Inventions were being made at such a rapid rate that countries were sending men to spy on other  countries and steal their ideas.  France sent many spies to steal ideas from the British during this time.
King Louis needed to know about the British

Marie Antoinette had her own spies

Daniel Lescallier was a French spy who gathered information on the British Navy and brought the industrial information back to France.  He lived from 1743 to 1822.
Halls of Versailles

William Wickham was a British spy during the French Revolution.  He was a spymaster who worked against the revolutionaries in France, hoping to bring the monarchy back into power.

The Chevalier d’Eon was a French spy who spent the first 49 years of his life as a man and the last 33 years as a woman.  In 1756 he was a member of Le Secret du Roi, an espionage ring that spied for Louis XV.  He was so good at his job that when he died, everyone thought he was a woman until the doctor examined his body and discovered his secret.

A few tricks of the trade: 
Invisible ink was used to send secret messages.  Sometimes it would be written on a blank piece of paper, but usually the hidden words would be written between the lines of a normal letter.  The words would only appear through a chemical reaction or by using heat to bring the words out.
quills were used to hide messages

Special codes were designed which included letters, numbers, specific word counts, or symbols.  The codes would be written in regular letters and sent to a person who had a code book who could decipher the letter.  Benedict Arnold was a spy who would use a cipher to deliver his messages.

A blind drop was when a letter would be sent to one location and picked up by another person and delivered to a different person.  Sometimes these letters would be sent odd ways.  For instance, the letter might be in long thin strips inside a quill.  They might be rolled up into a metal bullet.  Sometimes they would be swallowed so no one would find the evidence of the letters.

Spies could be men or women. They could be best friends, husbands, wives, or even the person living next door.  The best spies were the ones no one knew about.  For instance, the Culper Ring was not discovered until this century when someone found a trunk in an attic filled with special codes and materials used for send on the messages.  For nearly one hundred and fifty years no one even knew of their existence.  Now that’s a good spy ring.

I read about a novelist during the 18th century whose novels included stories of a young lady who would become invisible when she secured a belt around her waist.  She could then spy in social and political circles since no one could see her.  Quite a clever spy and trick for the 18th century.

Men's Clothing 1700s

If you are like me, you look at the clothes worn by people hundreds of years ago and long to call pants ‘pants” and shirts ‘shirts’, but you would be wrong.  If you are a historical writer, you must be sure to use the proper terminology.  Most importantly, you must know what each piece is called during the time period you are writing.  I have written posts about what people are wearing, but I have not really gone into detail about what the pieces are called.  I have shown you dozens of pictures of people wearing the appropriate clothing but have not labeled them.  The time has come to begin that process.

Let’s look at the man’s clothing first, shall we? Since I am currently writing Georgians, the clothing we shall be looking at are from the Georgian time period OR in our great country – the Colonial Time period. Since one picture is good, but two is better, I have included even more so you can get a variety of views.

Let us start from the bottom and work our way up, shall we?

The shoes were often buckled and made of leather.  Did you know that they did not make right and left shoes like we have today?  They would rotate the shoes from one foot to the other to balance out the wear.  Right and left were not really made until the mid 1800s and many Civil War soldiers still wore boots that were neither right nor left.  The buckles on colonial and Georgian period shoes were often made of silver, brass, or even gold if it was a gentleman.

The stockings or socks could be made of linen or wool for the ordinary person.  If you were a person of means, you might wear stockings made from silk or cotton.  In many instances the stockings only went to just above the breeches and were attached with either garters or rolled beneath the breeches.  Whereas women could not show their ankles or legs for fear of being thought of as “fast” women, a man’s shapely legs were something to show off.

Leggings – When I think of leggings the first thing that comes to mind are the leggings women used to wear in the 1980s when they exercised.  In the 1700s, leggings were used to cover a man’s stockings as he’s working or out hunting (as in fox hunting, etc).  They were used as protection from dirt and mud and could be removed upon arrival at their residence or a friend’s residence and the man would still look spiffy.

Trousers (how are they different from breeches?)  Trousers were long and fell to the ankles.  Not all men wore trousers.  If you look at the portraits of our Founding Fathers, you don’t see them wearing trousers at all.  On the contrary, all pictures show them wearing breeches.  So, who wore trousers?  Tradesmen, sailors, and other manual workers wore trousers because they were more durable. Think about it – if you worked in the fields or in a shop, wearing breeches or stockings wouldn’t be prudent.

Breeches – These were the type of pants a man wore that came to the knee.  They gathered at the knee to secure the stockings or socks a gentleman would wear.  As I stated above, a tradesman wouldn’t likely wear breeches, but some wore them if they were of a serviceable material.  Depending on the event, breeches could be satin and come in a variety of colors.  If a gentleman were going about his daily duties, the colors could be black, brown, or another more appropriate color.  They gathered at the knee with tabs that could be tightened to secure the hose or stockings in place.  If you’ve heard of a dandy (as in Yankee Doodle Dandy), this man might wear satin breeches in vibrant colors.

Shirt – here the word is the same as the one we use today.  The man’s shirt was made of linen.  Of course depending on your station in life, the linen could be fine or rough. Not much different from today, if you think about it.  The more money you have, the more expensive the material of your clothing. You feel it’s your right to purchase the more expensive shirts – it shows your station in life. Those who want to elevate their station will purchase shirts they can barely afford in order to fit into that society better.  The same was true during this time period – a man could save his money to purchase more expensive clothing to fit into a higher level of society. Not only did the material improve but men of a higher station would also have ruffles or more expensive buttons on their shirts.  The more elaborate, the more expensive.  If a man worked in a shop, he wore covers, like leggings, over his arms and cuffs so his shirt would not be soiled while working.

Waistcoat – We would call the waistcoat a vest today.  The waistcoat could be made of a variety of materials.  For a worker, it might be made of leather.  For a middling man or shopkeeper it would be made of silk, wool, linen, or even cotton.  A gentleman never went out without his waistcoat.  I would compare this to a businessman today who wears a three piece suit.  The suit would be incomplete without the vest.  The gentleman would be undressed without his waistcoat.  Often the color would be complimentary to the breeches and coat.

Cravat, stocks, or neck handkerchief – these all refer to a piece of clothing that is similar.  These articles are much like the ties men wear today.  They are tied about the neck and tucked into the waistcoat.  Think of this as the finishing touch to a man’s attire.  Depending on the material and how it’s tied is a true sign of a man’s station in life. The fancy silks and linens tied in frivolous bows are signs of a gentleman from the upper class.  The middling or worker class male will have more common fabrics and a more simple knot tied about the neck.

Coat – The coat serves several purposes. Not only does it protect a man from the elements but it is the sign of his station. Embellishments on the coat could be gold buttons or brocade.  The cut of the coat was another sign of status.  A member of the upper class would have a coat fitted to the shoulders and tapered at the waist but falling in folds to the mid-thighs. A looser fit was necessary for middling or shopkeepers so they could perform their duties.  No self-respecting man went out without his coat.

Cloak or Great Coat – These outer coverings would be worn as the weather worsened.  The great coat was more fitted and had sleeves, a high collar, and deep pockets.  The cloak was not worn as often by men because of its loose fit, but it was less expensive to make so less expensive to purchase.  Once the great coat appeared, many men turned in their cloaks for the more dashing great coat. Usually made of a heavy wool, it could be embellished with gold filigree and buttons to show the man’s station.  Today, men were long trenchcoats.

The hunting shirt was worn over the shirt and maybe the waistcoat.

Wigs – not all men wore wigs.  A wig was a sign of a man’s station. A wig would be made out of human hair and might have curls on the bottom.  Wig curlers would be used in the evenings to keep the wigs in shape. The wigs were a carry-over from the British court – where men in Parliament wore their wigs.  Soon men in every station could afford some type of wig.  Of course the young with their fabulous head of hair might not cover it up all.  A men aged, they wore the wigs to cover up their baldness. Sounds like the early form of a toupee doesn’t it?

Hat – finally, to top off a man’s appearance, a hat was worn.  During the Georgian time, the popular hat of the day was the tricorn because it had three corners.  The hat folded up to keep water off the face.  At first, the hat had only two folds, but it soon progressed into three.  Many were adorned with a cockade – which was a symbol of a man’s rank if he were in the military. The cockade could be simple or fancy with feathers and metal buttons.  The more gold, silver, or brass on a man’s clothing, the higher his station in society.

I hope you enjoyed this walk through a man’s clothing during the 1700s.

Some resources I used to compile this have been from years of writing historical novels.  Once source is The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America by Dale Taylor.  I have been using this book for fifteen years now and it is still a wonderful resource on the time period.  Another, more recent source is the Colonial Williamsburg site –