It's not only clothing that goes out of style. Illnesses can fade from fashion, too, as medical science progresses and old terms become obsolete. The vapours is one of these. A familiar ailment to 18th & 19th c. physicians, the vapours seems to us now to be something of a catch-all term with numerous symptoms - depression, nervousness, hysteria, lethargy, and indigestion, among them – depending on which medical book of the past is consulted.
But wherever there were symptoms, there was sure to be cures, of varying efficacy and foolishness. Gender politics often complicated these remedies, for the sufferers were nearly always female, while those prescribing were largely male. Certainly the (male) author of the following piece is laying down the law to his (female) patients - especially in regard to those infamous "Pretty Fellows."
"There's no Disease puzzled Physicians more than the Vapours, and Hysterick Fits. These complaints are produced by so many Causes, and appear in so many various Shares, that 'tis no easy Matter to describe them. However, some of the Symptoms are, a Thumping at the Heart, a Croaking of the Guts, and a Fulness of the Stomach...[The sufferer] has moreover, a great Heaviness, and Dejection of Spirit, and a Cloud seems to hang upon al her Senses. In one Word, she has no Relish for any thing, but is continually out of Humour, she knows not why, and out of Order, she know not where.... "Because the Stomach is suspected to be much in Fault, I would have That cleans'd in the first Place, with a Vomit of Indian Physick; the next Day, purify the Bowels, but a Purge of the same; which must be repeated 2 Days after. The rest of the Cure must be perform'd by the exact Observation of the following Rules. Endeavour to preserve a cheerful Spirit, putting the best Construction upon every Body's Words and Behaviour: Plunge, 3 Mornings every Week, into cold Water, over Head and Ears; which will brace the Nerves, and rouze the sluggish Spirits surprisingly. Observed a strict Regularity and Temperance in your Diet; and ride every fair Day, small Journeys on Horseback. Stir nimbly about your Affairs, quick Motion being as necessary for Health of Body, as for Dispatch of Business....nor do I allow her one Pinch of Snuff, nor one Drop of Bohea-Tea, which makes People very lumpish and miserable. "To escape this Disorder, she must suffer none of the idle Disturbances, or Disappointments of an empty World, to prey upon her Mind, or ruffle her sweet Temper. Let her use just Exercise enough to give a gentle Spring to her Spirits, without wasting them; and let her be always cheerful, in Spite of a churlish Husband, or cloudy Weather.... "To prevent this Complaint, young Women must shake off Sloth, and make Use of their Legs, as well as their Hands. They should be cautious of taking Opiates too often, or Jesuits-Bark, except in cases of great Necessity; nor must they long for Pretty Fellows, or any other Trash, whatsoever."
– from Every Man his own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician, by Anonymous [John Tennet], printed in Williamsburg, VA, 1736. Above: Young Girl Writing a Love Letter, by Pietro Antonio Rotari, c. 1755. Norton Simon Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.