Are you feeling pretty happy today? How about sad? Do you sometimes get cramps or headaches? Do you sigh from time to time? Are you a woman? If it were 1855 and you said "yes" to any of these questions, chances are you would have been diagnosed with the monstrous ailment known as hysteria.
The condition, as we know now, was a completely made-up medical diagnosis given to women who exhibited certain behaviors—though, to be sure, doctors believed it was legit at the time. While the concept made appearances in Greek and European history dating back to the 4th or 5th centuries BC, it wasn’t until the 1800s when serious strides were made in "hysteria science."
We got our hands on a wonderful book from 1855 titled The Diseases of Woman, Their Causes and Cure Familiarly Explained; with Practical Hints for their Prevention and for the Preservation of Female Health by Frederick Hollick, M.D. The book, meant for home use, is essentially a manual on the female human body and various ailments that affected women at the time, from prolapsed uteri to hernias. But the most fascinating sections? Hysteria and Solitary Vices (the latter of which may be the greatest euphemism for masturbation I have ever heard).
And now let us present the most hysterical bits we learned about hysteria, which the book defines as “essentially a uterine affection." (Yes, that's "affection.") Let’s start with something simple. What are the symptoms of hysteria? Hollick says:
The symptoms of this disease comprise, if we were to enumerate them all, those of nearly every other disease under the sun.
We’re off to a great start! Let’s get more specific, shall we?
The female suffers from headache, cramps, palpitations of the heart, numbness of the limbs, coldness of the hands and feet, rush of blood to the head, and redness of the face, with yawing and restless anxiety. She becomes dejected, melancholy, and will sigh, or burst into tears, and then as suddenly laugh in the most immoderate manner, and without any reason for it.
Now if you’ve seen Michael Fassbender’s painfully stunning jawline in the film A Dangerous Method, about the work of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, you know "hysteria" can have a much more extreme manifestation. Hillock describes other, more severe symptoms, which he likens to epileptic seizures—probably because they were epileptic seizures. He writes that hysteria can be affected by climate (these women just need some fresh air), manners and society, and dress (if that waist is too tight, it could allegedly displace the organs).
But what causes such an ailment?!
The causes of hysteria are as abscure [sic] as the symptoms are diversified. Probably some of the most frequent predisposing causes are weak constitution, scrofula, indolence, a city life, bad physical and moral education, nervous or sanguine temperaments, the over excitement of certain feelings, and religious or other enthusiasm.
And what kind of woman would get (contract?) hysteria?
Women disposed to hysteria are generally capricious in their character, and often whimsical in their conduct. Some are exceedingly excitable and impatient, others obstinate, or frivolous, the slightest thing may make them laugh, or cry, and exhibit traits which ordinarily they are not supposed to possess.
You may be noticing a small and very subtle pattern going on here: Literally everything is defined as hysteria. Now how, Dear Dr. Hollick, might one go about treating hysteria?
Fresh air is indispensable, and it should play upon her as speedily and freely as possible. Strong odors, as ammonia, salts, vinegar, or burnt feathers should also be applied occasionally to the nostrils, and Cologne, or cold water, dashed on the temples, forehead and cheeks. If the mouth can be opened, a teaspoon of cold water should be poured in it, with about three drops of ammonia added, if it can be conveniently obtained.
For those of you who've seen A Dangerous Method and wonder when the vibrator comes into the picture, the steam-powered device was invented in 1869 and allowed doctors to more easily prescribe their hysteria patients the treatment of “hysterical paroxysm,” a.k.a. orgasm. But what could women do for themselves in the meantime? Ride a horse for a couple hours. No, really. Hollick suggests riding a horse to provide some relief (and probably some pleasure). But of course the best way to treat hysteria is to prevent it.
More domestic occupation, and less fanciful idling, would prevent numerous disorders in many young females.
Great. Got it. Fabulous. But what about those women who get a little carried away and want to engage in non-medical masturbation? In a section titled “On Solitary Vices and Other Abuses,” Hollick lays down the law. On moms.
I am convinced that much of the evil we see arising from this cause, in children, would be prevented if Mothers were better informed about it and had their attention properly awakened.
Some persons suppose that solitary abuse is altogether confined to Males; but this is a great mistake. It is doubtless most frequent with them, and in general affects them most injuriously; but it is useless to deny that it is extremely prevalent even with the other sex, and likewise leads in them to the most serious of consequences.
At this point, we should probably be happy that women are getting the recognition they have worked so hard for.
I know that many of the most pure-minded and virtuous young females have been thus led astray, and when made aware, either by proper instruction or by dear-bought experience, that they have been doing wrong, they often experience the most poignant remorse.
Well, what harm could a little bit of hand-ky panky possibly do? It’s not like it’s the end of the world, right?
I do not hesitate to say that a very large portion of the human race are guilty of this excess, probably the great majority, and that a great portion of the evils and suffering which afflict society are produced by it. Indeed, I believe that licentiousness, in one form or other, is the cause of nearly all the disease, both of body and mind, which exists.
Nope, it definitely is the end of the world. Not only can one actually go blind, Hollick explains, the act can even drive someone to commit suicide or straight up wither away and die.
So what have we learned from this gem of a book? Just don’t be a woman, and definitely do not keep your hands to yourself. Thanks 1855, you’re a peach.
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