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.
In the summer of 1858, Victoria and Albert took a leisurely cruise down the Thames, unprepared for the severity of the Great Stink. It is said that they lasted on board only a few minutes, despite bringing scented handkerchieves with them. 🙊🙊
The summer of 1858 was exceptionally hot for Londoners – the temperatures averaged 34–36 °C (93–97 °F) in the shade, reaching even 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. This unbearable weather was however overshadowed by something even more unbearable: the Great Stink. 🤢
The source of this unbelievable stink was the Thames, which served as a sewer for all human, factory, and slaughterhouse waste in the area. As the London population doubled in the first half of the 19th century, so did the problems surrounding the river that served as the main source of “fresh” water. Apart from the offensive smells, Thames was also the source of cholera outbreaks and other diseases. The situation was dire and many people, including journalists and scientists, urged the government to take appropriate action even before the events of 1858.
In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was supposed to deal with the problem. A prominent engineer called Joseph Bazalgette created plans for a new sewerage system which was estimated to cost £5.4 million. These plans weren’t accepted by the government, which even suggested that cleaning up the river wasn’t really their problem, even though they had to use scented handkerchiefs, tobacco, and curtains covered with chloride of lime to protect themselves from the putrid smells in the Palace of Westminster. 💩
When the Great Stink of 1858 knocked at the House of Commons’ doors, there was no excuse to postpone dealing with it any longer. As the level of the river dropped because of the heatwave, “a huge pile of human waste was left piled up right next to Parliament.” Benjamin Disraeli described it as a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors” and proposed a bill supporting the modernization of the sewer system based on the Bazalgette’s plans. 🥰
👻👻👻 This comic was made thanks to Mateusz, who won the possibility of becoming the main character in a local charity event. Thanks! 💜
While it might seem morbid today, children playing funeral were not a rare sight in the Victorian era. ⚰️⚰️ It was a reflection of the times – high mortality rate meant that children often witnessed death in their families, not only of grandparents and parents but also siblings.
Special doll sets containing small coffins and mourning fabrics were sometimes given to girls, who would then practice dressing the doll, laying it in the coffin, and performing other tasks connected with a funeral, like attending the mourners. 🧸 ⚰️🧸 ⚰️
Check out this fragment of an “Ask a Mortician” episode for more info (some dolls in the video are a bit disturbing, feel warned).
The Great Book Scare was a period between 1880 and 1920 when the general public was obsessed with the idea that library books were a major source of epidemics. 📚😱
Even though the evidence for this was small, especially compared to other potential disease sources, many in the U.S and the U.K. believed that library books could spread everything from tuberculosis to smallpox. 🦠🦠 The authorities and doctors alike started to come up with ideas on how to limit the risk such as treating books with vapors from heated carbolic acid crystals, using formaldehyde, and … just completely destructing books if they had come into contact with a sick person. 😷
Finally, the fear has died out after it turned out that library workers and patrons weren’t really getting sick more often than others. You can read more about these regulations in this article.
Sigmund Freud, best known as the father of psychoanalysis, spent a large portion of his life promoting cocaine as a miracle cure for almost everything. Not only did he prescribe cocaine to his patients, but also used it himself on a regular basis. Some scholars believe this has largely influenced his theories on the human psyche and treatments which are considered pseudoscientific today.
The advent of the steam-powered locomotive 🚂 allowed people to travel farther and faster than ever before, and quickly became popular with the public. However, the freedom which came with this form of transport was also seen as a moral and physical threat, especially to women. 😲
Some believed that “vulnerable” women’s bodies wouldn’t handle the high-speed (80 km/h or 50 mph) travels, resulting in faintings, madness, or … uteruses falling out. ☠️ Therefore women were sometimes discouraged from traveling.
This myth, like many other myths at the time, reflected the fear of women becoming more independent, mobile, and not as fragile as the Victorian society wanted them to be. 🦸♀️
Many Victorians wanted to have a very pale complexion which was supposed to give them a more aristocratic look. 👻 Because of that, companies started to add arsenic to various cosmetics, including soaps 🧼, lotions, 🧴 and powders . Arsenic was also advised, either in the form of wafers 🍬( e.g. Dr Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers) or fluids 🥛 (e.g. Fowler’s Solution, also used as medicine).
There were known cases of death caused by such treatments, but it didn’t discourage many of the customers. ☠️
Interestingly, prolonged use of arsenic actually darkens the skin, which suggests that the producers might have skimped on the arsenic quantity in their products, thus making them a little bit less deadly.
Scheele’s Green, also known as copper arsenite, was the name of a green coloring that was used in everything from wallpaper 👩🎨 through dresses 👗to toys and candies. 🍭
Thanks to the unique, vibrant look it quickly became a very fashionable color. As you can imagine, the arsenic-loaded dye was very dangerous to people’s health, especially if digested or breathed in. ☠️☠️ The latter could occur as a result of, e.g., molding wallpaper which would release arsine gas.
The toxic nature of Scheele’s Green (and its chemical cousin Paris Green) was unknown to the general public until a series of mysterious deaths and illnesses caught the attention of a few chemists and doctors who then called for boycotting green products. Despite the growing awareness, arsenic-based dyes were in use until the end of the nineteenth century. 😱
See what other dangers waited for the Victorians in their own homes in the “Hidden Killers” documentary series.