Civil War Women – Part 2

Last week I spent the majority of my post discussing the clothing that women wore during the Civil War era. Obviously there was more to being a woman during the Civil War era than just wearing a lot of heavy, dangerous clothing. If you are a woman, I want you to imagine some of the things that make our lives miserable today and imagine having to deal with them back before electricity and indoor plumbing. Women’s health issues were treated differently, and almost laughably. It’s amazing how far science has come in 150 years. There is also the topic of personal hygiene, bathing, and then general household cleaning. I’ll give you a clue, the Europeans thought that us Americans were insane for wanting to keep things as clean as we did. Can you imagine what it would have been like if American women had been able to use antibacterial cleaning agents in the 1860’s??

You have to feel bad for the women who lived during the middle 1800’s. Everything that we consider to be a normal part of being a female was looked upon as being her source of all different kinds of issues. I will stick mainly to giving birth in this discussion so that I don’t creep the guys out too much. I’m sure that they are slightly curious, but are too embarrassed to ask.

Midwives used to be the ones delivering babies, allowing nature to take its time. Then doctors got involved and felt that to justify their much higher fee they should at least appear like they are doing something helpful. Instead, they ended up spreading more infections and diseases by using forceps and other instruments during the labor process. The fall-back cure was to ‘bleed’ the patient as well. Can you imagine being in the midst of labor pains, prior to pain killing drugs, and the doctor bleeds you enough to essentially cause you to faint and thus quiet you. Nice, eh? The other interesting thing, as you can see from the illustration above, is that the doctors rarely, if ever, actually saw their female patient’s bodies. They would feel around blindly, trying to deliver a  baby, without actually looking at what he was doing. It was due to concerns of modesty. Umm… I think that if you’re in the middle of delivering a baby it’s more important to make sure that everything is going along okay by actually looking instead of worrying about the woman’s modesty. Apparently the big fear was that a male doctor wouldn’t be able to control himself if he saw a female patient’s parts and it would drive him to adultery and possibly even madness. What a far cry from today’s society, eh?

In the morning when I get up for work I take a shower (washing both my hair and my body), I brush my teeth and I brush my hair. This is typically how most Americans start their day today. Back during the War an American woman might have started her day out in a similar fashion. Instead of showering or bathing, though, a pitcher and bowl were often used to take what we would consider to be a sponge bath. Soap wasn’t used for bathing due to the fact that the lye used in most of them was so harsh that it would do more damage to your skin than it was worth. Magazines would urge Americans to clean their teeth, but it wasn’t often followed. Back then Europeans used to cringe at the sight of the poor dental healthy running rampant in the United States. Many women became toothless at an early age and dentists often weren’t helpful if the cure didn’t include pulling a tooth.

Another big task for women was cooking. This is one thing that I wouldn’t have liked if I had lived during this period. I don’t like to cook nowadays with the high-tech stoves and microwaves. Can you imagine having to stoke the fire and make sure that the coals are at just the right temperature every day so that you can make the morning rolls for the family? Not only that, but the cast iron has to be cleaned every night and coated regularly with a black, waxy polish so that they wouldn’t rust. Not only was using the stove a pain, but you would actually have to use it. Let’s say that you wanted to make a cake for a celebration. You don’t have eggbeaters to help put air into the eggs and you don’t have baking powder to help things rise. Instead, your recipe would often instruct you as to how many eggs you would need, add the correct amount of sugar, and then beat these together for as much as three quarters of an hour. If you’ve ever whisked or beaten anything by hand with a fork you will much appreciate the work that went into making a cake back in the 1800’s. My hand is cramping just thinking about it!

As I stated in my previous post you should definitely pick up the book by Gail Collins “America’s Women; 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines.” You will find more interesting facts to read about regarding women from all other eras as well. It really makes you appreciate our technological advances today.



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