"Kymali" wondered where she had heard about the Victorian therapy used for treating hysteria in women…(Read, "Something For the Coffee Table" for this to make any sense and to have a laugh), and I think I have an idea. It is referenced in some literature of the time but more recently, in the movie "Hysteria," with the really quite gorgeous Hugh Dancy. That was the provocation I needed to write a piece I have been toying with for years. I hope those of you who read it enjoyed it and thanks for your note Kymali.
"I feel I must speak up for the previous owner of my Blood Circulator. I am sure there was relief to be had in owning this device but I am quite certain frustration did not disppear. The context of her life did not allow her a voice in the home (except in domestic matters), in her marriage or in society. She did not have freedom of choice, the vote and was viewed as irrational, weak and unreliable. Multiple paroxysms would not have increased her influence, nor diminished her most meaningful impotence."
© S. Marian, June 5, 2012
An excerpt from, “Something For The Coffee Table,” posted today on “A View From Outside the Box,” url: adialogue
(Engelbert Humperdinck, “Please Release Me.)
"For the next two centuries doctors experimented with all manner of things to ‘shake things loose,’ from vibrating chairs to high powered water douches.’ No matter the device, the goal was the same - to induce ‘hysterical paroxysm.’ This was an improvment for the women, for $2 and some time in the doctor’s office, they experienced temporary relief. The problem was, it was only very temporary and there were a lot of women. Dedicated physicians complained of sore hands despite the enormous financial benefits to providing this treatment. One doctor said it was harder than it looked, likening it to trying to rub your head and pat your stomach simultaneously."
© S. Marian, June 5, 2012
An excerpt from “Something for the Coffee Table,” posted today on “A View From Outside the Box,” url: adialogue
There is an antiques place, a great big barn outside Dundee in the Perthshire village of Abernyte. It’s set in verdant, hilly countryside, one hill rolling into the next like waves - a good analogy for this story. I can and have spent hours there, as it’s full of antique stalls containing the odd, beautiful and ancient of every description. I have a centuries old Chinese mirror from there, polished metal with a water scene in relief on the other side. I like to imagine who might have used it, what their life was like, what their thoughts, dreams and fears were. I will never know but of one purchase, the story has reached out to me from the past.
One day browsing the treasure trove, I wandered into the household and farming ‘shop.’ This isn’t normally of great interest but I was humouring my beloved. In the corner on a table was an intriguing thing, a shiny device I had never seen before. It was approximately one foot long, with a wooden handle and some sort of motor encased within a heavy metal compartment. Protruding from the back was a crank. At the bottom of this device there was a circular Bakelite pad, with a gap and then an outer ring of the same. When you turned the handle the inner disc would move up and down, and depending on how quickly you turned, could go quite fast. It had a hole in the center of the disc where it appeared something else could be fitted. The noise it made was akin to a very loud hand drill or ratchet. On the front of the motor housing, etched into the casing, it said, “Dr. Macaura’s Blood Circulator, Patent number 13932. I was undeterred by my husband’s, “what do you want to buy that for?” I thought it would be a fascinating, mysterious ornament to have sitting on the coffee table, and it was. I never failed to bring out my little machine, adults puzzled over it and children delighted in trying it against their legs, arms, or on the heads of unfortunate sisters.
It would have been beautiful had I remained in ignorance, trotting it out at dinner parties to the wonder and amusement of my guests. A year later, it occurred to me to look up the patent number of my table ornament. I was more than surprised to discover so much information about the Blood Circulator, originally known as the “Pulsacon.” It was invented in the 1880’s and produced until the 1920’s by the British Appliances Manufacturing Company of Leeds, England. Apparently, cranking the handle could produce two thousand vibrations per minute. One example can be found in the London Science Museum with the operational instructions, “It is secured with one hand and the vibrating plate placed over the desired body part. Turning the handle produces a surprisingly intense vibration over the affected area.” In the 58 page booklet that came with it, titled, “Death is Stagnation – Life is Vibration,” Joseph Gerald Macaura claimed that it could cure pain, deafness, anaemia, heart disease, cramp, polio and ‘women’s problems.’
As I said, I like to imagine the people that went before me, what these things have meant to them, the context of their lives. For the woman who possessed this ‘blood circulator’ and I do think it was a woman, she lived in much more constrained times. The assumptions of her time included the belief that women were prone to hysteria, causing untold problems in the home and for Victorian men in particular. A common diagnosis was ‘womb disease,’ the symptoms of which were, headaches, irritability, fear of impending insanity and hysteria.
I can’t help but smile at these well intentioned, naïve Victorians, as naïve say, as someone buying a ‘vibrational device’ as a coffee table ornament. Some other Victorian assumptions were that women did not experience ‘copulatory urges,’ or the physical release that came from these encounters and that real coitus only occurred with penetration to physical release. Climax was seen as a sign of good health but not of fornication. Thus, doctors surmised that womb disease and female hysteria were caused by failure to achieve climax.
By the first century AD, massage of the pudenda had become standard treatment for this common but chronic complaint. For the next two centuries doctors experimented with all manner of things to ‘shake things loose,’ from vibrating chairs to high powered water douches.’ No matter the device, the goal was the same – to induce ‘hysterical paroxysm.’ This was an improvement for the women, for $2 and some time in the doctor’s office, they experienced temporary relief. The problem was, it was only very temporary and there were a lot of women. Dedicated physicians complained of sore hands despite the enormous financial benefits to providing this treatment. One doctor said it was harder than it looked, likening it to trying to rub your head and pat your stomach simultaneously.
People like “Dr.” Macaura saw a niche in the market and capitalised. By now some practitioners were feeling a little defensive trying to convey the seriousness of their work. To meet this demand, vibratory entrepreneurs produced new machines, professional looking and substantial. One was called the Chattanooga, which was mounted (by the doctor) like a Tommy gun on wheels, to be rolled alongside the patient. Another popular model was the Carpenter, which hung from the ceiling and looked like a mechanics impactor, or air gun as it’s sometimes called. Needless to say, a myriad of devices were made, all advertised in a manner to camouflage their intent. Then, sometime in the 1920’s they seem to have disappeared. One theory is that the devices began to show up in less salubrious films and their camouflage was gone.
I feel I must speak up for the previous owner of my Blood Circulator. I am sure there was relief to be had in owning this device but I am quite certain frustration did not disappear. The context of her life did not allow her a voice in the home (except in domestic matters), in her marriage or in society. She did not have freedom of choice, the vote and was viewed as irrational, weak and unreliable. Multiple paroxysms would not have increased her influence, nor diminished her most meaningful impotence.
What of our good doctor though? He was passionate on the subject of women’s health and surely for that he is to be admired. At one trade fair in Leeds, he concluded his talk on vibrational therapy with this, “It is the duty of those who took the Hippocratic oath to be fired by imagination and inquisitiveness, to…arrest decay and to amplify life. Who could find objection to such noble sentiments? The French apparently. On May 14, 1914, Gerald Macaura, an American of Irish descent, was arrested and ordered to pay a fine of $600 and sentenced to three years imprisonment. He was charged with fraud and crimes of ‘vibratory massage.’
The famous Pulsacon / Blood Circulator does not sit on my coffee table anymore; instead it now resides in a cabinet of antiquities in my bedroom. No longer a sitting room ornament but an interesting device with a colourful history and the object of one of my favourite stories.
(Additional information from “Worth Point,” the “Independent,” and Leicestershire County Council)
© S. Marian, June 5, 2012
"Isabella Mary Beeton, tireless advocate of the importance of a woman’s role in the home, editor, publisher, mother, wife and example to millions of women - you are to be admired. You were both a woman of your time and also before your time. You highlighted the importance of animal welfare, the use of local and seasonal produce and offered vegetarian choices long before others had even dreamt of these issues. You asked no one to do anything you were not prepared and able to do yourself and your work ethic was a shining example. I can’t help but wonder what you would have accomplished today."
An excerpt from “Women Have Their Reward,” a piece looking at one Victorian woman and how she changed the lives of many, then and today (except most unfortunately, mine.) You can find the article on “A View From Outside The Box,” url: adialogue
(Music, “Sisters are Doing it For Themselves,” Annie Lennox - Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin)
"In every-day affairs it is so easy to let things drift. So tiresome sometimes to leave an interesting book or study to find out what is going wrong in kitchen or household…yet it must be done." (From ‘Mrs. Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book.")
I really love this quote because I know that if ‘something is going wrong in kitchen or household’ I am directly connected to it, the wrong has me at the other end of it. In Mrs. Beeton’s world, it is implied that much of the work is in overseing and instructing, perhaps settling an example. I also feel like she’s speaking to me directly, it is certainly tiresome to leave an interesting book.
Read “Good Women Have Their Reward,” and find out just how different attitudes once were, in some cases nothing has changed. You will find it on “A View From Outside the Box,” url: adialogue.
An ad to be found in Mrs. Beeton’s book, “Mrs. Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book.”
"The tired man of business returning home after a harassing day, maybe one in which he has had no time to snatch a meal, sorely needs a pleasant well cooked, comfortable one to await him." (from the same book)
"Mrs. Beeton would be horrified to know that in my home we share the task of meals, albeit I tend to do it more often than the others as I’m better at it. Most shocking are my occasional "fend for yourself" nights, where we all make something for ourselves to eat when we are hungry."
An excerpt from “Good Women Have Their Reward,” a piece about one Victorian woman and how she influenced the thinking of millions of women then, and perhaps even now (except this one it seems). Go to “A View From Outside the Box,” to read more, url:adialogue.
Today I return to a familiar topic, that of my waywardness as a keeper of the home. I picked up a book recently I had not looked at for a while, Mrs. Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book.” The book was published in 1861 and my copy, which cost £42, is inscribed as follows: “Mrs. D. Wilson from her Mother on her 24th birthday Oct 8th 1905.” Mrs. D Wilson, just what would you make of my time – do good women still have their reward?
I’m not so sure we do. I have spent since 7:30 this morning chasing my tail and wishing I had an old fashioned wife. I don’t believe women can have it all and the state of my kitchen, the mountain of laundry that needs done and the list of chores I haven’t accomplished only grows while I write. I am pleased to have written the chapter I completed on my book and to have started this piece but it comes at a cost, and yet…
Isabelle Beeton was born in 1836 and by 1856 she married Samuel Beeton, a publisher of books and magazines. As well as running a large home to her high standards, she wrote articles in various publications. Eventually she compiled current best practice on matters to do with household management and published, “The Book of Household Management Comprising Information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maids, Lady’s –Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse-Maid, Monthly-Wet and Sick Nurses, etc, etc – also Sanitary, Medical & Legal Memoranda: With a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort, edited by Mrs. Isabelle Beeton.” Not only did she find time to write that title of a celebration of the verbose, she put together the 1,112 pages containing 900 recipes, gave birth to four children, the first who died of croup at three months of age and the second who died of scarlet fever before he was two years old. She had numerous miscarriages and stillbirths and what amazes me is her stoicism and positive enterprise. The day after her fourth child was born she contracted puerperal fever and died a week later at the age of 28.
Despite the emphasis of her ‘feminist’ credentials in the movie, “The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton” (|BBC, 2006), Isabella Beeton was no feminist. She contended that, “A good woman should be a good housekeeper, for the latter must possess one of the greatest of all virtues, namely, unselfishness. An utter abnegation of self is almost a necessity with the mistress of a household, for with her rests the question of the health and comfort, if not the happiness, of all its members.” Abnegation of self – do we even know the meaning of those words anymore?
Before you get your defensive knickers in a twist, let me cast one stone only, thrown directly at myself. In terms of house cleaning and management, of consistency I am an abject failure. It’s not that I am incapable of the work, or that any part of it is beyond my capabilities, simply that I am not motivated to keep up the day to day of it. There is always something else that seems more diverting or important for me: “In every-day affairs it is so easy to let things drift. So tiresome sometimes to leave an interesting book or study to find out what is going wrong in kitchen or household…yet it must be done.” I have tried, particularly when I was younger, to fit into a more Beeton like mold. I did sustain it with considerable effort but it made me miserable. Now, my efforts are sporadic and often, last minute. I tend to clean up when people come and I am unrepentant and at peace. When a friend came for a visit last week, I opened the door and commented, “thank God you’ve come, I really needed to tidy up!”
It would be very easy to dismiss Mrs. Beeton, to counter that the people who she was primarily writing her book for were replete with domestic assistance. This is true but let’s not discount her wisdom just yet. She addresses the consequences of inattention and poor management with this: “The tired man of business returning home after a harassing day, maybe one in which he has had no time to snatch a meal, sorely needs a pleasant, well cooked, comfortable one to await him. If this be delayed, if hungry, and as a consequence (unless he be superior to masculine failings) cross, small wonder is it if he makes those around him suffer for the fault of the one whose duty it should have been to have provided for his needs.” I agree cautiously, it is reasonable for the one who is at home to prepare some sustenance. I do not think that sex dictates the ability to provide this though, and it should have become less applicable when women joined the workforce. Wouldn’t we all appreciate that? Mrs. Beeton would be horrified to know that in my home we share the task of meals, albeit I tend to do it more often than the others as I’m better at it. Most shocking are my occasional “fend for yourself” nights, where we all make something for ourselves to eat when we are hungry.
Mrs. Beeton goes on to warn that the “hardworking man thus tired goes from his home to his club, or, in a lower social scale, to a public-house, there to get what he should have had in comfort at home…but oh, housewives, beware of it. Its approaches are so insidious that it forms a dangerous foe…” Isabella Beeton devoted her whole short life to this credo. How much good it did her is a point to be debated; it has been speculated that she contracted syphilis from her husband and that this was also passed on to her children. She died young, even for her time and the astonishingly successful book, grossing nearly £2 million in the seven years after it’s release; she was not to benefit from.
Isabella Mary Beeton, tireless advocate of the importance of a woman’s role in the home, editor, publisher, mother, wife and example to millions of women – you are to be admired. You were both a woman of your time and also before your time. You highlighted the importance of animal welfare, the use of local and seasonal produce and offered vegetarian meal options long before others had even dreamt of these issues. You asked no one to do anything you were not prepared and able to do yourself and your work ethic was a shining example. I can’t help but wonder what you would have accomplished today.
I will leave you with this: “There is an innate love for housekeeping in most girls, and it might so easily be cultivated.” So good people, cultivate what you wish to grow and in that, you will have your reward.
(Material from “Mrs. Beeton’s Every Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book.” Additional material from Wikipedia.)
© S. Marian, May 29, 2012