Not everything that the mantua-makers of Colonial Williamsburg make is fashionable and frothy. While I was visiting last week, Mistress of the Trade Janea Whitacre was working on a special project for the Apothecary Shop, part of their interpretation of a serious challenge confronting the 18th c. medical community. The project: stitching an 18th c. strait-jacket, or strait waistcoat, of heavy cotton twill. The completed waistcoat is here modeled by one of the shop's summer interns, Rosa Leon Lumagbas, looking appropriately unhappy.
In the 1770s, the treatment of the "mad" was still in its earliest stages. Lumped under the general heading of madness could be individuals who suffered from autism, depression, and alcoholism, as well as what we today would call mental illnesses. Georgian physicians were attempting cures, or at the very least searching for what they hoped were humane ways to restrain patients from injuring themselves or caretakers.
No original 18th c. strait waistcoats survive, but there are detailed descriptions. Distinguished Irish physician David MacBride (1726-1778) is better known today for developing a cure for scurvy, but in his landmark medical book of 1772, A Methodical Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Physic (available here on Google Books), he detailed a strait-waistcoat and its use:
No small share of the management of mad people consists in hindering them to hurt themselves, or do mischief to other persons. It has sometimes been usual to chain or to beat them, but this is both cruel and absurd; since the contrivance called the Strait Waistcoat answers every purpose of restraining the patients without hurting them. These waistcoats are made of ticken, or some such strong stuff; are open at the back, and laced on like a pair of stays; the sleeves are made tight, and so long as to cover the ends of the fingers, and are there drawn close with a string, like a purse, by which contrivance the patient has no power of using his fingers; and, when he is laid on his back in bed, and the arms brought across the chest, and fastened in that position, by tying the sleeve-strings fast around the waist, he has no power of his hands. A broad strap of girth-web is then carried across the breast, and fastened to the bedstead, by which means the patient is confined on his back; and if he should be so outrageous as to require further restraint, the legs are secured by ligatures to the foot of the bed.
Soon strait waistcoats became an unmistakable symbol of madness, enough to convince uneasy bystanders of a person's affliction – even if that affliction was merely one of inconvenience. Such was the case with this unfortunate widow cursed with a greedy, nefarious brother, as mentioned in the Oracle and Public Advertiser, London, 25 June, 1798:
Saturday, James Weston was charged at Bow-street, of having with intent to deprive his sister, a Mrs. Powel, of her property, obtained from the Hatton-street Police Office, a pass for her removal to St. Martin's Work-house on pretense of insanity. He accordingly confided her in a straight waistcoat, and took her in that state to the work-house; but it appearing to the keepers that she was not insane, they discharged her. Her property, was, however, in the interim, seized by the prisoner. The charge of felony was not sufficiently established, and after a severe admonition, Weston was discharged.
In other words, she was the one labeled as mad, while he managed to steal her property - and then received only a legal slap on the wrist. Perhaps the strait waistcoat would have better fitted that judge....
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.