As we already know, Victorians loved adding alcohol to their meds, even the ones advertised for kids. As it turns out, various spirits could also be added to a baby’s bath.
In Henry Allbutt’s “Every Mother’s Handbook” (1897), the author stands against this practice: “Again, some nurses add brandy or other spirits to the water in which a baby is first washed. Or if they don’t do this, they wash the baby’s head with the brandy, for the purpose they say, of strengthening it. Now, this is decidedly improper and must never be done, because the spirit evaporates very rapidly, and quickly produces a sensation of cold, which is both unpleasant and injurious to a newly-born child, by depriving it of some of its natural heat.”
As we already know, the Victorians were obsessed with ghastly pale complexion which was supposed to give them a more aristocratic look. This also included stigmatization of freckles as they were associated with the working class and outdoor labor in general. In part, freckles were also seen as a health problem resulting from the overproduction of yellow bile by the liver. One of the ways to treat this ‘problem’ was to bring balance to the four humors, either by purging or bloodletting.
Those unwilling to lose their blood over freckles could purchase products which were supposed to “gently” get rid of freckles. However, even pharmacists at the time spoke against these products, as they often contained highly invasive and poisonous ingredients like arsenic or lead. And while the first results could have been promising (rashing and peeling skin would reveal some lighter skin beneath), long-term effect included permanent skin damage and heavy metal poisoning.
You may ask, “if they reeeally wanted to hide freckles, wouldn’t it be easier and safer to just put on some makeup?” Unfortunately color cosmetics fell out of favor at the time, when Queen Victoria deemed it vulgar and unfit for respectable ladies.
How’s your hysteria today? I have good news for you, it turns out all you need to do is relax. Drink a lot of milk, stay in your room, don’t do anything, just rest. Throw out that painting brush, don’t listen to any music, don’t have any conversations with anyone, you need to RELAX. What are you doing with that book? Put it down, no intellectual activities for you, just RELAX. For how long? Half a year should do the trick. The rest cure, proposed by Silas Weir Mitchell around the 1850s, was a popular treatment for hysteria and other mental disorders diagnosed in the Victorian era. The “treatment” revolved around avoiding any physical and intellectual activity to extreme levels, where even having a normal conversation or reading a book was seen as too strenuous for “hysterical” women.
Among Mitchell’s patients, were several famous women, like Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The latter, who suffered what we would call today postpartum depression, was prescribed to “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” Gilman famously used her awful treatment experience as an inspiration for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
As you can imagine, the bed rest cure not only didn’t help, but even contributed to the worsening of female patients’ condition. Many women ended up being forcefully administered into asylums afterwards. At the same time, Mitchell advised his male patients lots of outdoor exercise.
Is there any image more Victorian than a lady collapsing on a fainting couch after learning troubling news? 💁♀️ The expectation that women would swoon whenever their emotions were heightened was so common that a bottle of reviving smelling salts could be found not only in a lady’s purse, but also a British constable’s pocket. 👃 More affluent women carried smelling salts in the form of soaked sponges closed in decorative, often silver containers called vinaigrettes. At the time smelling salts had already been known for centuries, but the knowledge of how they restored consciousness was not as widespread. While Victorian doctors and scientists knew about the effect ammonia gas had on the respiratory system, many people still believed the strong odor of salts helped by encouraging the wandering womb to come back to its place, echoing Hippocrates’ theories on female hysteria. 🤯
This comic was inspired by Lucyna who won the possibility to become one of the characters in a local charity event! 💜 If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on Veinity Fair Patreon.
Do you suffer from headaches, sadness, low energy, high energy, hearing loss, anxiety, pain, hallucinations, or any other problem AND you have a uterus? This can only lead to one diagnosis: hysteria! Hysteria (from the Greek hystera = uterus) began as the idea of the uterus moving around the body, causing all sorts of physical and mental troubles on the way. The first mentions of the wandering womb date back to 1900 BC. Throughout the ages, hysteria remained an umbrella diagnosis for a variety of issues women faced, from more ‘reasonable’ ones (different ailments) to everything seen as ‘unwomanly’ behaviors, like being short-tempered, not wanting to marry, or not being interested in having children.
As the history of hysteria spans thousands of years, the exact nature of the illness varies depending on the time period we’re looking into. Apart from the wandering womb, other reasons for hysteria included the imbalance of humors in the uterus, too much sex, not enough sex, childlessness, and even … demonic possession. Many beliefs, folk medicine, and superstitions surrounding these ideas survived in the minds of common folk for centuries, even when more scientific methods were taking hold.
The shift from the physical to more psychological background of hysteria in the 18th and 19th century was a small step forward, however, as it was still a catch-all diagnosis for diseases that should have been studied separately and, unfortunately, often a tool for controlling women who did not want to conform to the societal expectations. In extreme cases, ‘hysterical’ women were forced to spend the rest of their lives in asylums or undergo completely unnecessary surgical hysterectomies. The unwillingness of physicians to study female medical problems and sexuality combined with the blind belief in the well-established practices of the past led to the creation of dozens of bizarre therapies and cures, which we’ll be exploring in the following weeks.
Have you ever wondered where does the phrase “blowing smoke up your ass” come from? Unlike other sayings, this one is quite… literal. We have to go back a little bit further in time than usual, though.
In the eighteen century, it was quite common to attempt resuscitation of the “apparently drowned” by blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum, which was supposed to warm up the unlucky victim and stimulate their body. At the birth of the method, the smoke had to be blown through a tube by mouth, but, thankfully, later special bellows were introduced to help out with the task.
The Royal Humane Society of London (previously called The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning) provided tobacco smoke rescue kits which were distributed along the river Thames. At this point you may ask yourselves “Why didn’t they think about performing mouth-to-mouth”? As it turns out, the mouth-to-mouth method was known by many people, especially midwives, but was considered “vulgar” at the time.
Quackery is one of the books in which you can find this and many other morbid curiosities 🙂
In 1889, Caroline Hampton was a talented young nurse working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was the chief nurse in the medical team working with William Halsted, one of the founders of the hospital and a well-known surgeon. After a few months of assisting in the operating room, Caroline was on the verge of resigning from her position due to painful eczema and dermatitis she had developed as a result of following Halsted’s strict hygienic procedure that included disinfecting hands and instruments with multiple chemical solutions. The surgeon didn’t want to part with his favorite assistant, so he came up with a brilliant idea:
“In the winter of 1889 and 1890, I cannot recall the month, the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial, these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. (…) After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.”
The use of rubber gloves saved not only the nurse’s hands, but also patients’ health – the hospital reduced the post-op infection rates from 17% to 2%. A few years after Halsted introduced his invention, the gloves were improved and sterilized by our champion of the germ theory of disease – Joseph Lister.
The only thing the gloves didn’t save was the nurse’s position at the hospital. Caroline and William fell in love and got married in June of 1890. At that point, she had to resign from her job, as it was seen unfit for a married woman to continue to work. It is said that their marriage was quite successful, and they were seen as a pair of eccentrics, enjoying the company of their pets and unusual hobbies.
The San Francisco Call, December 27, I898 “A Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls”
The Vision That Appeared to a Demonstrator of Anatomy at Midnight.
It was 12 o’clock last Saturday night when Dr. W. O. Wllcox climbed the stairs of 21 Powell street to go to his room. It was just the time when graveyards yawn and give forth their dead; but the doctor had no reason to suppose the spirits of the air would haunt him in the privacy of his own chamber, so he opened the door without hesitation and stepped inside.
There was no need of striking alight. The room was illuminated by a score of prim and ghastly lamps, that clung to the green bangles of a Christmas tree standing upon a table. They were skulls, and the eyeless sockets flashed fire from within as they nodded their grisly heads to the swaying of the branches.
On the table under the bone-fruited tree were some of the doctor’s dissecting knives, gleaming balefully in the eye light from the skulls. There were crossed shinbones lying on the black tablecloth, white as the symbol of death on a pirate’s ensign, and more skulls— evidently windfalls from the boughs above. Between the jaws of one of these was a half-smoked cigarette, which the grinning head seemed to be thoroughly enjoying.
There were skeletons of hands, feet and other parts of the human bony building, mingled with the steel implements of surgical craft, and to many of these objects of cub-medico humor were attached cards bearing inscriptions as appropriate as witty.
By means of one of these inscriptions one skull complained bitterly of the unusually long time between drinks. Another, whose way in this world had probably strayed from the straight and narrow path, demanded ice and steam beer, while the head of a child declared it had been the victim of a mother’s neglect.
Dr. Wilcox is a demonstrator of anatomy in one of the colleges, and although the students of his class declare they never would do such a thing as desecrate a Christmas tree with the products of the grave, still the doctor is looking among them for the one who planned his pleasant Christmas surprise.
Last time we explored early 19th-century hospitals as the perfect breeding ground for insects and diseases. In the pre-germ-theory world, dirty clothes, unwashed linens, festering wounds, and limited access to clean water were pretty standard for a hospital experience, followed by outbursts of such diseases like rubella or cholera. Unfortunately, many surgeons contributed to this situation by not washing their hands, not disinfecting surgical instruments, and … glorifying their blood-soaked frock coats and surgical aprons.
You see, it was believed that the dirtier the surgical attire, the more busy and successful its owner was. Some surgeons even wore clothes that had previously belonged to retired staff members as a sign of respect and keeping traditions alive. Those who wore “butcher’s aprons” mostly did so to protect their private, nice clothing and didn’t wash them anyway. As you can imagine, these pus- and blood-soaked, never-washed items were basically rotting and gave out a putrid smell which was lovingly referred to as “the good old hospital stink.”
The situation slowly began to change in the mid-19th century, when several doctors (e.g. Joseph Lister, Ignaz Semmelweis, Thomas Dent Mütter) tried to popularize washing the surgical attire and promoted the idea of cleanliness in general, for which they were often ridiculed.
To learn more about 19th century hospitals, check out Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!