Inspirational Stories of Love, Faith & Family Set in 19th Century America

Tag: corsets

Swooning, A Victorian Fad?

“Beware of fainting-fits… though at the time they may be refreshing and agreeable, yet believe me: they will, in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your constitution.”

~Jane Austen, Love and Friendship

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As a lover of all things classic and bookish, I find it fascinating that women in 19th century novels were commonly portrayed fainting. They faint when anything scary, shocking or surprising happens. They faint at moments of emotional intensity. They faint whenever they try any hard physical work.

In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers female characters swoon repeatedly. And who can forget Jane Austen’s portrayal of Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (you knew I’d work that one in if I could) keeping to her rooms for fear of fainting under the stress of her daughter’s elopement with the dastardly Mr. Wickham.

Some historians suggest that fashion may have played a part.

child-corsetCorsets were very common among the upper classes. Worn around the torso, corsets were made of a durable tightly woven fabric or leather, fashioned with channels running throughout them in which vertical ribs were inserted, called boning because they were often made with whale bone. The entire device was held together, and tightened, sometimes to extremes, by a system of lacing. Girls were started in corsets at a very young age and, for them and ladies after childbirth, waist training, to shrink the side of the waist, via super tight lacing, was common. Over time, corset-wearers’ bodies changed—their ribs were displaced, their lungs were squashed, some organs were compressed against the spine and others were shoved down into the lower abdomen. In addition to making it hard to breathe, hearts struggled to pump and, stomachs struggled to digest what little food they could get down. As one Victorian lady reported, “I had only eaten two bites of my biscuit there was no room beneath my corset for a third.”

Another fashion-based theory is that a well dressed woman of this era wore an enormous amount of clothing. In addition to her corset, such a lady would undergarments, a bustle pad, a full skirt supported by crinoline petticoats, sometimes lined with steel hoops, and a bonnet. Some may have fainted from overheating, while others may have collapsed under the sheer weight of their garments and their tightly cinched corsets.

Another possible explanation for some of the swooning could have been chronic poisoning. During the 19th century, while people knew that arsenic was poisonous, they didn’t understand that external exposure from its fumes could also be harmful. The toxin was widely used in the manufacture of everything from fabrics to paints to the paper in which food was wrapped; in fact, by the end of the 1800s, 80% of all wallpaper was arsenic-laced. Arsenic poisoning has a variety of symptoms including headaches, cold sweats, and fainting.

In addition, arsenic, along with lead, mercury and other such toxic substances, were commonly found in makeup during the Victorian era. Lead was also a common ingredient in hair dyes and was frequently found in wine, along with arsenic and copper. Together, these toxins contributed to more wealthy Victorians suffering from seizures, and theoretically swooning, when compared with their poorer neighbors who couldn’t afford such luxuries.

Was Swooning a Fad?

Even more curious is that the phenomenon appeared to be more common among middle and upper class women, or so literature would have you believe. Upper-class women, especially young women, were expected to be more delicate, more emotional, and more easily distressed as opposed to women of the working classes. Leaving many social historians to believe that all swooning was nothing more than a put on. Besides potential side effects from tightly laced corsets or the exposure to toxins, fainting became expected and downright ladylike. Women of particularly of high station were expected to act the role of a delicate flower, while men were expected to be hard as nails. Swooning was simply one method for a woman to demonstrate her femininity. Well-to-do women often had something called a “fainting room,” a special location where she could recover a fainting spell in private.

In Bleak House, Dickens’ character, Lady Dedlock, swoons at the first hint her hidden past, a secret affair and child, may be revealed. Dickens also ridicules characters who swoon as part of a social performance. Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit is portrayed as manipulating those around her by “wilting on demand.”

Lady Revivers

Smelling salts, also known as “lady revivers,” were the most common method used for rousing a fainting damsel. However there is no salt in smelling salts at all. The active ingredient is ammonium carbonate, a solid compound that when mixed with water releases an ammonia gas that irritates the lining of the nose and the windpipe, heightening a person’s alertness.

While fashionable Victorian ladies might have a “fainting room” inside in case a sudden fit befell them, if a woman was overcome while out and about the situation might prove more perilous. Police constables of the era were equipped with small vials of smelling salts to assist afflicted women in the streets.

So what do you think? Was the sudden surge in fainting spells among Victorian upper-class women a result of tight corsets and arsenic-laced cosmetics, or was it a social fad, a way to prove your delicate femininity?

 

Life in the Victorian Era, Fact or Fiction?

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Despite the image of lavender sachets, lace doilies, and strict rules of social etiquette, not everything we’ve come to believe about life in the nineteenth century is true. Compare these facts to your assumptions and see  if those clever Victorians have you fooled.

Victorian women married young. False. Although the legal age to marry was lowered from twenty-one to twelve years of age in 1823, most women of the Victorian era married between eighteen and twenty-three. Upper class families actually preferred their daughters not to marry before reaching the age of twenty and it became increasingly popular for wealthy women to wait until their mid-twenties to wed.

Pink was a masculine color in Victorian England. True. The Victorians viewed their children as small adults and often expected adult-like behavior from their little charges. So its no wonder they favored lighter shades of the colors favored by themselves. Red was considered a strong, virile, masculine color and dressing boys in pink was commonplace. Blue was considered dainty and feminine. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 40s that blue became universally associated with boys and pink with girls.

Men wore corsets. True. As early as the seventeenth century, upper class males wore corsets or body belts to give their masculine physique the smooth lines that men’s fashions demanded at the time. Like their feminine counterpart, the body belt laced in the back. However nineteenth century men weren’t burdened by stiff whalebone supports. Instead, their corsets were made of lightweight cotton and often sported side buckles to prevent a pudgy tummy from escaping.

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Victorians married their cousins. True. More than one marriage in ten was between first or second cousins among the Victorian upper class. Most notably, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were first cousins. The arrangement was seen as beneficial to ensure that both power and wealth remained concentrated among the landed gentry especially at a time when the Industrial Revolution rapidly created a new generations of wealthy individuals. Ironically, the evolutionist Charles Darwin, who himself was married to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, was one of the first scientists to raise concern that consanguineous marriages had “injurious results to man”. By the late 19th century, physicians noticed an increased number of birth defects among families where marriage occurred between close relatives. The practice was discouraged and eventually fell out of fashion eventually becoming illegal in the early twentieth century.

Emma Brownlow, “The Foundling Restored to its Mother” (1858)

Emma Brownlow, “The Foundling Restored to its Mother” (1858)

 The notion of the “fallen woman” preoccupied Victorians. True. Victorian art and literature often revolved around the theme of a virtuous woman corrupted by the vices of sexual misconduct or alcohol abuse. The fallen woman was often led to desperate measures to survive such as thievery or prostitution. Others were driven to suicide. Offspring conceived in such immorality were commonly admitted to Foundling Hospitals where the illegitimate children became wards of the state. Mothers’ names were rarely recorded and children were often left with only a ribbon, swaddling blanket, or some other trinket to identify them with the hope of a future reunion.

Victorian women removed ribs to make their waists smaller. False. Although late nineteenth century fashion favored tiny hour glass figures, Victorian women did not have their lower ribs removed to create that highly desired wasp-like physique. Vanity aside, Victorian surgery commonly left more patients dead than alive so it would have been absurd to consider such a risky procedure. However, from a young age females were wrestled into the restrictive garments as they were considered conducive to good posture and believed to keep internal organs in proper alignment.

mort-safeObsessed with Gothic tales of vampires and other monsters, Victorians protected the graves of loved ones with iron cages. False. As the demand for corpses for use in anatomical dissection rose, it became an increasingly lucrative business to steal newly interred bodies for sale to medical schools. But in nineteenth century England and Scotland, it was a commonly held belief that the dead could not be resurrected if their bodies were not fully intact. The mortsafe was invented to protect the newly deceased from grave robbing. They came in many different styles but the one thing they held in common was their weight which prevented the interred body from being snatched.

Which fact about Victorian life surprised you the most?

 

 

 

 

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