Oh my, I’m feeling rather faint. These or similar words were uttered with much greater frequency back in the late 19th century than they are in modern times. Back then women, particularly those of the genteel upper class, were swooning with monotonous regularity. What are the factors that contributed to all this prodigious passing out that seem to have disappeared with the passage of time?
Fainting is among the more common symptoms of conversion reaction, a psychiatric condition characterized by the presence of bodily symptoms having no discernible physical cause, but for which there is some evidence of psychological trauma. Other symptoms of conversion reaction include paralysis, blindness, loss of voice or numbness in the limbs. It currently comprises less than 2% of all psychiatric diagnosis and afflicts women five times as often as men.
Although the onset of this diagnosis is associated most frequently with Sigmund Freud, it was the early Greeks who first identified the malady. Referred to as female hysteria, the afflicted subject demonstrated a wide range of symptoms that were thought to be caused by abnormal motion of the uterus.
In 1859, one study reported that at least a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria, which is reasonable considering it cataloged seveny-five pages of possible symptoms and the list was characterized as incomplete. Indeed, a diagnosis such as hysteria was quite profitable for physicians, as there was no risk of the patient’s death combined with the need for constant treatment.
It is important to keep in mind that in those days thinking of women as being the “weaker” sex carried significant meaning. In the 1830’s, for example, the corset was considered a medical necessity. It was thought that a woman was very fragile and required assistance in the form of a stay to hold her up. Girls as young as three or four were laced up into bodices, and as these garments were lengthened and tightened, by the time they were teenagers the girls were hardly able to stand or sit for any length of time without the aid of a heavy canvas corset, reinforced by whalebone or steel. The corset so deformed their internal organs that it was difficult for them to draw a deep breath in the corset or out of it.
As not only women’s bodies, but their minds were considered weak, the corset was considered not only a medical but a moral necessity. Tight lacing was considered virtuous; a loose corset was probably a sign of a loose woman. To maintain her innocence and virtue, a gentlewoman had to be chaperoned everywhere. In some cases, women were not allowed to read or see plays, lest it inflame their imagination. A woman needed to protect herself from lustful men (and her own morality) by wearing heavy layers of reinforced clothing and tight corsets that made getting undressed a long and difficult process.
That women of quality were considered such delicate beings brings us back to the popularity of the diagnosis of conversion reaction. Specifically, when a woman of the higher social classes encountered something offensive to her elevated moral sensitivities, she responded with a simple faint. The thought was that the stimulus, being too great for her delicate constitution to bear, simply acted to shut down her sensory systems, much in the same way a circuit breaker does with a too powerful electrical current: she’d swoon. It was such a commonplace occurrence that many drawing rooms of the time were furnished with fainting couches, a kind of chaise lounge that prevented the afflicted damsel from toppling to the floor and assisted in lending a demure touch to her revival.
In fact, many women carried upon their person a small vial of ammonia carbonate (smelling salts) to assist in their revival. These vials, highly decorative little pieces of jewelry fashioned from gold or silver, were worn as pins, necklaces or suspended on delicate chains from the waist. They served not only a decorative purpose, but acted as an ever present reminder of a sense of feminine delicacy that verged on incapacity.
As Victorian fashions, thoughts and attitudes changed in the early years of the 20th century, so did the incidence of both conversion reaction and fainting. The advent of WWI ushered in many changes, and ushered some out as well. Although the diagnosis was always under a hint of suspicion, since, by definition, no physical evidence of causality was ever necessary, incidences of such diagnoses plummeted precipitously. Even though the unprecedented horrors of the WWI battlefield produced numerous cases among the male population, many of these cases were often dismissed as being little more than malingering.
As women came to be seen and understood as being much less delicate, feeble and incapable as was previously the case, they were free to stand unsupported, as it were, and begin their long road toward equality with their male counterparts. Obviously, people still do faint upon occasion, but it is always almost attributable to some specific verifiable physical cause. Still, an onset of the vapors did allow for a gentleman to attend to the prostrate form of a lady in distress, perhaps allowing them the best opportunity for close physical contact in an intimate moment that, given the mores of the time, they could ever have otherwise reasonably hoped for.