Why Women Fainted So Much in the 19th Century

Olivia B. asks: Why do women always seem to be fainting in classic books?

fainting-womanDropping like flies (or at least as far as many stories indicate), it seems as if well-bred ladies in the 1800s struggled to maintain consciousness when faced with even the slightest emotional or physical shock. Over the years there have been several theories as to why this seemed to happen, from the women’s garb to simply conforming to societal expectations.

To begin with, throughout the 19th century (among other times), ladies often wore corsets. 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 (although ivory and wood were also used).

While the purpose of the corset changed over time- sometimes meant to give a flat look, sometimes meant to give extra curves via tightening, it’s the latter fad, particularly in the Victorian era, that many propose was the cause of at least some fainting spells.

In this case, the entire device was held together, and tightened (sometimes to extremes) by a system of lacing. The archetypical corset had its laces at the back, and for the most fashionable ladies, these had to be tightened by another. 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.

child-corsetAs a result of this particular version of corset fashion, 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, guts struggled to digest what little food they could get down. As one Victorian lady is reported, “I had only eaten two bites of my biscuit there was no room beneath my corset for a third.”

Said the West Coast Times in August of 1884,

The evil consequences of tight lacing are universally admitted. Ladies, however, generally refuse to acknowledge that tight lacing is at all common. Each possessor of a small waist claims that it is a gift of Nature, not a work of art, and wears a corset, not for the purpose of compressing her shape into a narrow circumference, but merely as a comfortable, if not necessary support.

This lead to the “great corset controversy” of the 19th century.  Said one woman in a letter to the Boston Globe in January of 1893,

I myself have never felt any ill effects from nearly 30 years of the most severe tight lacing, nor have I yet found any authentic case of real harm being done by stays, even when laced to the utmost degree of tightness, both day and night.

People who write against the practice of tight lacing are either those who have never been laced and have never take the trouble to inquire into the pros and cons of the subject, or those who have, perhaps been once lace up very tightly in badly made, ill-fitting stays with the settled determination of finding them most awful instruments of torture.

Those who have been systematically laced up in proper stays from their childhood are the only ones who are capable of forming a right judgment on this subject and I hope you will allow tight lacers the opportunity of defending themselves against the enemies of trim little waist.

On the other side of the argument, in an article titled “The Slaves of Fashion,” published in the Chicago Tribune in September of 1891, it was noted,

It is difficult to imagine a slavery more senseless, cruel or far-reaching in its injurious consequences than that imposed by fashion on civilized womanhood during the last generation. … the tight lacing required by the wasp waist has produced generations of invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish for many decades. … And in order to look stylish, thousands of women wear dress waist so tight that no free movement of the upper body is possible; indeed in numbers of instances, ladies are compelled to put their bonnets on before attempting the painful ordeal of getting into glove-fitting dress waists.

Whatever side of the tight laced argument a particular woman was on, whether by their suboptimal blood pressure, inability to breathe properly, or low blood sugar, it’s thought this may have been one potential cause for Victorian ladies reportedly retreating to their fainting rooms and swooning onto their fainting couches.

Another fashion-based theory is that a well dressed woman of this era wore an enormous amount of clothing, and even in the summer, such a lady had, in addition to the corset, underwear, a bustle pad, a full skirt supported by crinoline (read: horsehair) 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 which would have been more difficult to handle combined with the other aforementioned cinching aspects. (This could also be dangerous for other reasons.  For instance, the wife of famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tragically died when she accidentally dropped a burning match onto her hoop skirt. Her clothing burst into flames. Even after the fire was smothered, it was not an easy task to remove the cindered clothing.)

Another potential contributor sometimes pointed to in trying to explain some of the swooning could have been chronic poisoning. During the 19th century, while people knew that arsenic was poisonous, they didn’t seem to know (or care) that environmental exposure from its fumes could also have a deleterious effect. As such, and given its utility in certain applications, it 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. There was an 1880 report of a woman who had “fainting fits almost daily,” until she was moved to another room in her home that wasn’t furnished with arsenic-tainted wallpaper – where she recovered a few weeks later.

In addition, arsenic, along with lead, mercury and other such toxic substances, were commonly found in makeup during the Victorian era. (see: Why Lead is Bad for Humans)  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.

All that said, it is highly likely that some (or even the majority) of this swooning was put on. You see, besides potential side effects from the fad of extreme tight lacing of corsets or other such things, for a time, swooning at the least hint of a shock also became expected and downright ladylike. (This also made it a great literary device in stories.) Women, particularly of high station, were expected to act the role of a delicate flower, while men were expected to be hard as nails. (see: In Which Teddy Roosevelt Makes Men Everywhere Feel a Little Less Manly)

Swooning was simply one method of a woman showing her delicate nature in the form of an extreme emotional reaction to a particular event. Today, simply gasping might be the best social-cue equivalent. Similarly, people rarely laugh when by themselves, even when finding something incredibly humorous.  In fact, contrary to popular belief, most laughter is not associated with humor, but rather stems from non-humor related social interactions.  This was noted in a study covering over 2,000 cases of naturally occurring laughter, almost none of which stemmed from jokes or other such humor devices.  Most cases were simple, short “ha ha’s” during otherwise normal conversations.  These short laughs almost never interrupted speech, but rather occurred during breaks, providing social cues to those around.  So in the 19th century, swooning was just another form of accepted social cue for ladies to have in their toolbox, whether they literally were fainting or just, more likely in most cases, making a show of it.

Beyond this, the ladies also had another potential incentive for swooning.  You see, at the time, well-to-do women often had something called a “fainting room”.  This was a room for the woman to recover from a fainting spell and other forms of so-called hysteria.  Besides just getting to relax in piece on a comfortable fainting chair, there was another benefit. A doctor or midwife could be called to attend to a woman who was suffering from some form of hysteria, which included symptoms of swooning, among other things.

And by “attend to”, we mean give vigorous pelvic massage, whether manually with their hands or using a water massager, if attending to the woman in their offices or other location that had one. This went on until the lady in question was relieved, curing her of her hysteria. This was also a boon to doctors at the time who otherwise tended to be avoided by the general public unless absolutely necessary. Treating female hysteria, though, was something women who had the money often needed done regularly and were more than happy to pay.

However, this was very time consuming and could require some amount of physical exertion for the midwife or doctor in question, particularly if they had to attend to multiple ladies in the same day in this way, with “doctors lamented that treating hysterics taxed their physical endurance.” In this case, the husband could potentially also be called in to help. Later, this practice, and the cramped hands of physicians throughout Europe and North America, led to the invention of the vibrator for quickly relieving such “hysteria,” saving the physicians significant time and effort.  In the early 20th century as houses wired up with electricity became more and more common, the vibrator for this use became something of a common household item for those who could afford one. With it, you didn’t even need to necessarily call the doctor to relieve hysteria.

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  • I question how common the practice of doctors treating “hysteria” this way really was. There is a general belief today that Victorian society was extremely repressed – for example the Psychology Today article you link too states that men of the time did not believe women experienced sexual pleasure. Yet, if you read the erotic literature of the time, you will find that a great deal of men were quite enthusiastic about giving women pleasure. In fact, when I have read books of Victorian erotica in the past, I was taken aback by how much the focus of the stories (from the male point of view) were focused on the delight of pleasing women, usually orally.

    Therefore, I refuse to believe that all Victorian men were dunces in bed and that all Victorian women were so horribly frustrated that they had to turn to doctors for help. I think perhaps this was something which occurred sometimes among the upper classes, but was probably not as widespread as this (and the other) article indicates.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Carolina: Totally agree on your first point. I think perhaps it was one of those cases where what people did in the bedroom and what was commonly written about were two very different things.

      On the hysteria thing, it’s hard to know how truly widespread it was, but we do have enough very well documented physician accounts to know that it was something at least some ladies got treatment for very regularly and it was for a time considered a very real medical malady, which did indeed spur the invention of the vibrator.

  • wow! great writing. so much knowledge wrapped in so little words. a fully comprehensive account and a complete 360 degree view. truly speaking, today realised the actual meaning of corset, till now only had a vague idea. pls put a similar article on the latest fad of bone breaking to increse height, sith pssbly some graphic photos. tnx Mellissa.

  • In the middle paragraph, the one about wearing too much clothing, I think you might mean “cinching” instead of “synching.”

  • I had to empty a family house in France some years ago, and among all the hilarious stuff we found there was a little bottle of ” salts ” as the ladies would call it . It was meant to wake up the ladies when they fainted, just by sniffing it . We have of course kept it.

  • Yes,’ I believe it was both socially acceptable and not unusual for women to faint in the 19 century.

    All sorts of reasons, here are few

    …we are much better at knowlege of our bodies and health care. Women carried on with their lives despite having serious health issues. When you are in hot room, tightlaced etc these things catcb up with yo

    ……menstrual problems were often “women only” ….many doctors refused to treat menstrual issues as……wait for it “women are born to suffer”. Some women suffered from continual bleeding….so they fainted easily.

    ……and yes, I’ve worn a tight (prob too tight!) and have felt faint when tired in a hot room.


  • Sam Rinne Hooker

    I like the bit about “relieving hysteria” via pelvic massage.

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