Paine's policy of preaching, pants and politics

His words helped influence revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic and was even quoted in Barack Obama's presidential inauguration speech last week.

His words helped influence revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic and was even quoted in Barack Obama's presidential inauguration speech last week.

But it was the handiwork of one of Norfolk's most famous sons that was celebrated at the weekend as an 18th century underwear day was staged in his honour.

Dozens of people gathered in Diss to commemorate the staymaking career of the young Thomas Paine, who spent a year of his life making corsets in the town before going on to make a big difference in the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

For the freethinking author, who shaped the democracies of the modern world and campaigned for the rights of man, also spent countless hours helping the ladies of the Georgian era keep a straight back and good posture.


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Townsfolk and visitors were given a glimpse into the patience and skills required to cut, stitch and make whalebone enforced undergarments on Saturday as part of a series of events to mark the bicentenary of the death of Thomas Paine.

The 18th century figure, who was born in Thetford in 1737, followed in his father's footsteps to become an apprentice staymaker when he left the local grammar school.

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Upon qualifying, Paine ran his own short-lived corset-making shop in Sandwich, Kent, in 1759. He worked as an excise officer in Grantham before taking up employment with Gudgeon the Staymaker, in Denmark Street, Diss, between 1765 and 1766.

Upon leaving the town, the writer turned his hand to teaching, preaching, and was also a tobacconist. But it was his arrival in America in 1774 that he gave a voice to the ordinary man through his bestselling pamphlets Common Sense (1776), Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1793).

Basil Abbott, manager of Diss Museum and organiser of the town's Thomas Paine Festival, said it was ironic that the corsets become associated with the aristocracy, whom Paine detested. He added that there had been an 'extremely good' response to the 18th century underwear exhibition at the Diss United Reformed Church.

'He [Paine] was a very intelligent man and to do the laborious work of a staymaker and the long tedious process must have been incredibility boring for him. He went on to write the three bestselling works of the 18th century and to be quoted by US president Obama last week shows how amazingly relevant he is,' said Mr Abbott.

Ian Chipperfield, a modern day corset maker and 18th century underwear expert, said there were no known Thomas Paine-made corsets in existence today, but the fact that Paine qualified and also trained as a master staymaker showed that he must have been competent at the craft. He added that staymaking was seen as a male only profession during Paine's lifetime.

'Staymaking is very labour intensive and physically hard work. The job also gives you a lot of time to think. He also became a bridge designer in later life, which uses similar principles to shaping a woman's body with a stay,' he said.

The next Thomas Paine bicentenary event is scheduled to take place at the Friends Meeting House, Diss, on Saturday with an 18th century evening .

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