Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Cure for the Vapours, 1736

Sunday, June 16, 2013
Isabella reporting,

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.


Hels said...

Thanks for that reference. One can get carried away with the sexist nonsense used to describe both the disease and the treatment suffered by women.

Once people started going to spa towns for their health cures, doctors found that even women with the vapours improved out of sight - fresh air, healthy food, little booze, no tight corsets and lots of exercise.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Some of this advice is perfectly sound, and quite modern: get more exercise, lay off the caffeine, tobacco, and drugs, watch what you eat. The purges seem extreme - until you think of the trendy Hollywood folk who do much the same thing in the guise of a "cleanse." Then there are the cold-water plunges --!

Kathy said...

In a world where food poisoning was probably very common, purgers may well have been a good idea. Those people must have been extremely tough.

Kathy said...

... I recall camping way out in the Back-O-Beyond, no hot water for bathing. I finally broke down and took a bath and washed my hair in a mountain pool. Once warmed up I felt GREAT! And my oh my, was my hair ever soft and silky.

What perplexes me about old time cures was the practice of bleeding people. I know the theory (balancing "humors" and whatnot), but it really has to have been obvious that bleeding was detrimental....I wonder how many people died from blood loss in those days?

Anonymous said...

You know... I'm not convinced depression was treated any more sympathetically as late as the 1950s. And I'm not so sure the cause wasn't similar: social isolation and monotonous responsibilities. What I wonder is how often "the vapors" were fatal. Not that the woman did anything overtly to injure herself, but drank herself (quietly and politely) into an early grave. Or neglected her diet long enough to fade away from something else.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like plain old PMS to me!

Karen Anne said...

There is some good advice in there.

I have always wondered about bleeding. Obviously bad when there is already a loss of blood, but I wonder if it acted as a sedative. When I used to donate blood, I was really weak for about 24 hours.

carolyntbj said...

RE Bleeding:

A friend of mine reenacts an 18c physician and has put quite a bit of thought and research into it. His theory is that is that the practice lasted as long as it did cause people FELT better afterwards. Doctors back then might not have all the knowledge that we do but they observed.
Like Karen said there is a difference in how you feel giving blood. If a large portion of your food preservation is salt and alcohol what's that do to your blood pressure? So when you artificially and temporarily lower the blood pressure by bleeding there was a felt positive result.
Anyway ,that's his theory. And it makes sense to me.

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