I am reading America’s Women: 400 years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins. It is a collection of stories about American women from the Colonial era of New England in the late 1500s through the 1960s.
As I read this book, I realize that as Americans, the majority of our modern day “woes” stem from our technology: it isn’t working, it isn’t working fast enough, we can’t find it. We are hopelessly attached to our iPhones as if by invisible umbilical cords (that if for some reason these devices are momentarily misplaced – even if just for a moment – we feel a palpable anxiety that must be anything BUT healthy). Our problems, so ridiculous to some, are referred to as “first world problems,” which according to Urban Dictionary are defined as, “Problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.”
Life is tough, yes; to some, it is crippling. But life before modern conveniences was physically and emotionally arduous – almost beyond the imagination of our modern minds. For example, because I have a tendency to experience wanderlust myself I used to think that the pioneers on the Oregon Trail, or those who managed those first treks toward the Wild West with their belongings, children, and wagons in tow, seemed like one big adventure.
Those first pioneers were arguably the original American thrill seekers. Their homes on the western prairies were sod houses and dugouts. When it rained, the leaky “roofs” made a mess of the insides, turning the dirt floors to mud. A girl from this time wrote that the family carried the water out “in buckets.” She continued, “Then to keep us nerved up, sometimes the bull snakes would get in the roof and now and then one would lose his hold and fall down on the bed, and then off on the floor.” Snakes were a common topic in the diaries of frontier women; a woman in Texas wrote that she killed 186 snakes in one year (Collins, 2003, p. 225).
There were unique threats for every season. Blizzards in wintertime could strand a family for weeks; bugs tormented them or ate their crops in the warmer months. “Clouds” of grasshoppers would appear and eat everything in sight. According to Collins, “they ate the peaches off the trees and left the pits hanging” (p. 227). Fires were a danger from lightning strikes or from campfire sparks in late summer to autumn.
I will never not be grateful for the simple effectiveness of a window screen again. The summer presented challenges for these people in the form of gnats, flies, and mosquitos. I recently saw a quote on Twitter that said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference…try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” A swarm of them is almost unbearable to think of, particularly since there was little to no relief. To keep the mosquitos away on the plains, the women would burn buffalo chips.
In the Southwest, beds were moved away from the walls of their homes – at least two feet – to minimize the chances of scorpions falling on them at night. Fleas were everywhere, as well. Native Americans’ homes were temporary and could be burned down when fleas became too much of a problem; because the pioneers’ homes were more permanent, burning the place down to solve the infestations was not a viable solution (p.227).
Women’s health was another struggle. Even though we have a limited knowledge of medicine today – we still have not found a way to effectively eliminate cancer humanely, cure auto-immune disorders, or kill viruses – doctors know far more today than they did 100 years ago. As a woman, I am thrilled about this.
Because take obstetrics and gynecology, for example. In the late 1800s, doctors were regularly removing women’s reproductive organs to “cure” everything from anti-social behavior to over eating. By the time 1900 rolled around, an estimated 150,000 unfortunate ladies had undergone an ovariectomy (p. 252).
Even more gruesome was the condition of “vesico-vaginal fistula” in which, during childbirth, the wall between the vagina, bladder, or rectum ripped and left women unable to control the leakage of urine and feces through the vagina.
Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach, a surgeon in the 1800s, described it as “the greatest misfortune that can happen to a woman, and the more so because she is condemned to live with it without the hope [of dying] from it. The skin…becomes inflamed and covered by pustules eruption. An unsupportable itching and burning sensation tortures the patient, so much so that she scratches the skin to bleeding…The comfort of a clean bed, that grave for all sorrows and afflictions, is not their lot, for it will soon be drenched with urine” (p. 118). The description continues, but I will spare you the rest: it is horrifying, almost beyond words. Yet, he manages to find those words and goes to places that I never thought possible.
And if you happened to be one of the unfortunate souls who gave birth in 1840 at Bellevue in New York, you had a fifty percent chance of contracting “childbed,” or “puerperal” fever, an epidemic transmitted by ineffective sanitation – mainly by the doctor not washing his hands. Eighty percent of these women died. Oliver Wendell Holmes campaigned in America for doctors to wash their hands, to which a doctor scoffed, “Doctors are gentlemen…and gentlemen’s hands are clean” (Burch, 2009). In 1833, a woman who, at eight months pregnant, went into convulsions was emptied of “two-fifths of her blood over two days” and “lapsed into a coma” as she began to deliver (Collins, 2003, pp.125,126).
To add to my “thankful” list of modern-day conveniences, I am eternally grateful for elastic-waist pants, lycra, and sensible shoes. Although I am partial to Victorian-era television shows and movies and marvel in the costumes and accessories of those times, I say a little prayer of thanks when I slip on my yoga pants and my front-closure bra.
In the pre-Civil War era, gigantic skirts were all the rage. They were, however, known to catch on fire, get stuck in carriages, and “it was alleged, blew their owners off cliffs” (p. 122). This was only one of the many eras in which “women were at war with their bodies” (p. 123). Girls who were of “courting age” were laced in corsets, in which the mother would tie the strings as tight as possible by “placing her foot on her back” and breaking some of the laces in the process. In 1818, a mother wrote her daughter (of whom it was rumored made her underclothes large enough to slip on and off without lacing) a note that said, “If you love me, alter these corsets before I see you” (p. 123). Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote at that time, “We in America have got so far out of the way of a womanhood that has any vigor of outline or opulence of physical proportion that, when we see a woman made as woman ought to be, she strikes us as a monster” (p. 123).
The long skirts were also susceptible to manure, mud, or expectorant (men were disgusting) that was likely to be on the ground. Livestock roamed around outside. In the late 1700s, the “tower” hairdo was popular with the upper class. The hair – which could reach up to three feet high complements of wire caging – was decorated with feathers, ribbons, jewels, and beads (p. 74). Shoes were made out of wood at this time and had very high heels. Walking on them was not unlike walking on stilts (p. 73).
At the end of the 19th century, America’s “Gilded Age” had one benefit: larger, healthy women were in fashion. According to one Englishman, “young American women appeared to be morbidly frightened of getting thin.” Because photography was now available, women were also becoming very aware of what they looked liked. Photographers were under increasing demands to make their “hair brighter, their cheeks redder, their skin whiter” (p. 239). Also popular during this time were elaborate hats which were “huge affairs” that had organdy, lace, flowers, and feathers attached. In 1900, a Chicago writer wrote he expected to “see life-sized turkeys…on fashionable bonnets before I die” (p. 240).
Yes, I am ever so grateful for my modern conveniences. I am no longer under any illusion that the “good old days” were anything to be pined over. I welcome technology; although, old-fashioned self-preservation skills, minimalism, and making due with what we have would be welcome in an increasingly complex, less resilient, and consumer-focused society. I recommend America’s Women as a record to how far advances have come in many ways – lest we begin to take some of these everyday conveniences for granted.
Burch, D. (2009). When childbirth was natural, and deadly. LiveScience. https://www.livescience.com/3210-childbirth-natural-deadly.html
© 2017 Mary Ann Magnell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED