Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pre-Victorians Becoming Posture Perfect

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

C.E. Drummond, Scene at Scotsbridge 1830
Loretta reports:
“A horrible instrument was devised which I had to wear while doing my lessons.  It was a steel rod which ran down my spine and was strapped at my waist and over my shoulders—another strap went around my forehead to the rod. I had to hold my book high when reading, and it was almost impossible to write in so uncomfortable a position. However, I probably owe my straight back to those many hours of discomfort.”—Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, The Glitter and the Gold
C.E. Drummond, watercolour drawing 1828-1830

This sort of thing fit the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, when everything seems to have become so very strict: divisions between classes, excruciatingly complicated etiquette, and fashion.

But I had not thought about posture devices for the earlier period. After all, Susan and I are well aware that acutely straight posture was the order of the day in the 18th and 19th centuries. Women’s shoulder blades were supposed to come as close as possible to meeting in the back, and dress designs reflected this. The corset and especially the busk were all part of maintaining elegant posture.

Then, thanks to Susan's alerting me to an image, I bought and started reading Susan Lasdun’s Making Victorians: The Drummond Children’s World 1827-1832. It has proved enlightening on a number of counts, not least the posture devices used on girls in the pre-Victorian era.

An especially poignant image, a watercolor by Cecile Elizabeth Drummond (at top), brought the point home forcibly—as it evidently did to the errant child. At her feet lies her backboard, which she’s apparently abandoned. And there is Mama, holding a birch rod—a bundle of twigs with which the little girl will be punished for her misbehavior.
C.E. Drummond, watercolour drawing 1828-1830

Lady Lasdun describes the backboard as a “painful” device, yet I’ve seen images of modern children wearing such backboards, in re-enactments (here, here, and here, for example). If it truly were painful, would the re-enactment have been allowed? And would someone be selling them as "only suitable for use by children."?

No doubt the backboard wasn’t comfortable—in the book are several images of children who’ve discarded their backboards and are anticipating a whipping—but it was probably less painful than the whipping, and certainly more comfortable than the iron monstrosity Consuelo Vanderbilt endured. Frankly, I suspect this sort of thing would have benefited my posture enough to compensate for the unpleasantness…though of course I wouldn’t have thought so at the time!

Images: watercolors by Cecil Elizabeth Drummond, 1828-30 (made); Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection; Given by Miss Barbara Drummond, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Joanna Waugh said...

Dr. Alen Whitley wrote an article in 2014 on 18th Century posture corrective devices. Truly torturous. https://dralun.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/sit-up-straight-bad-posture-and-the-neck-swing-in-the-18th-century/

Kathryn (Australia) said...

I have heard about the backboard before and I think I have also seen C.E. Drummond's watercolour. Because of all the different crafts I do, which of course keeps my shoulders forward, I occasionally place a dowel rod behind my back and in front of my elbows, just as the backboards were used, as a way to keep my shoulders back for awhile. It always feels good afterwards.

Sarah said...

far worse than a back board was the sprig of holly pinned to the neck of the later Queen Victoria's gown to force her to keep her head up; impossible when doing needlework!
I think I need to get myself a back board. I might not need the chiropractor as often ....

Lucy said...

I'm still trying to understand the figure standing with a hand on the bellpull. Not only is it hard to tell whether we're looking at a male or a female servant--I'm guessing female--but who is she, and why pull the bell just at that moment?

Loretta Chase said...

Lucy, if you click on the link under the image, it will take you to the V&A site, which offers as much description as is available.

Mintie said...

A very interesting post, thank you, and some very good comments.

May I add a few comments myself......

There were a number of different devices that were called backboards. The
one in the picture is a "long backboard" because of its long handles.

The girl in those lovely white pantalets is holding the board correctly,
that is with the arms up and the hands at shoulder level. Some recent
photographs show the board in the bend of the elbows with the hands down at
waist level ...this is incorrect. It is not comfortable to wear (carry?) a
board in the correct position, try it with a broom handle! I'm not
surprised the child threw it on the floor.

The woman seated at the right of the big picture is in the classic
"ladylike" pose....ramrod straight back not touching the back of the chair.
To keep this posture for several hours probably requires stiff stays, hours
of training on the backboard and the threat of the birch for the slightest
relaxation. Try right clicking the picture to open the whole picture in a
new window to see the details more clearly.

The inclusion of the birch is an indication of good child rearing ...in the
early 19 century, NOT now! Then it was thought that the best way to
motivate children was through pain, fear and humiliation. Certainly "love"
and "fear" were closely associated, as in "spare the rod and spoil the
child". There is no indication that the mother in the picture is a cruel ,
sadistic tyrant.....but she might be labelled that today! Boys would
probably receive the birch on the bare buttocks, girls on the back of the
calves...more ladylike, but still very painful

I've started a blog on interpreting corset images, and I'm putting together
a post on posture and the use of corsets and backboards etc, I'll let you
know when it's ready. Please write a comment or two, I'd love to see your
opinions. It's at


Love ...Mintie

Loretta Chase said...

Mintie, thank you very much! Your blog has tons of interesting material. Please do let me know when you complete the post on backboards. This is a new topic for me, and I'm looking forward to learning more!

Mintie said...


i've just updated my corset blog with a post on posture and deportment.....including some of the rather painful devices of the past....shoulder brace corsets and backboards.

PLease post your comments, both good and bad. Posture was SO important in the past.


Love to you all...Mintie

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Chamed said...

My grandmother was born in the 1889s. In the late 1950s - 1960s she spent a lot of effort to have our mother put my sister in a back brace. As my sister, according to her, was slouching. Fortunately my mother didn't. But she certainly was in panty girdles.

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