Disclaimer…I’m fascinated by the social aspects of clothing. We have to admit that 18 and 19 century deportment devices probably caused pain and discomfort. I’m totally against this sort of thing, but it happened and we should try to understand the reasons.
This post was getting a bit long, so I have split it into two. Here’s part 1, the other part will arrive soon.
For centuries corsets have been considered essential for good posture and deportment. Yes, a corset, depending on the type may straighten your spine and pull your shoulders back. Some of you may remember that the girdles of the 1960s could change posture too! To have really good posture, as dictated by the standards of the 18 and 19 centuries, required something more…..posture training, and usually only for girls.
Here’s sneak preview of some of the devices
So why was posture so important? A search through Google books shows the following
- Good posture showed class distinction…. the poorer working classes could not afford the time or money for posture training, and physical work was considered detrimental for posture.
- Good posture was good for health….a straight back, shoulders well back and the head held high and back. It was thought that “poking the head” forward would limit air to the windpipe. Also this upright posture makes your breast larger and higher..just what a lady needs!
- Difficult to attain. Just look at the posture training devices below…..parents and governesses might well force these on young girls…..but it took time and effort (and pain?) to change the natural body pose into the ladylike ideal.
- …and most important, a good posture would show a good level of social class…so important for the marriage market, which is why these devices were primarily aimed at girl. There was no place in social life for unmarried women past the age of 25 years.
And why, you ask is deportment for girls and not boys? All the pictures that I’ve seen of posture devices show girls and not boys. My opinion is that boys had more freedom to run and play games, so they had better muscle development. And of course, girls were weaker than boys, so they needed help that boys did not.
Let’s look at some of the posture devices inflicted on girls in the past. Except where I’ve made it clear these are domestic devices, and not prescribed by a doctor. They are in the following categories.
- Posture corsets
…..and in part 2
- Shoulder Braces
- Furniture – particularly chairs
- Devices for the feet or legs
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
All corsets that I’ve come across will change your posture, and for the better. Even the 1960 girdles that I wore when young had an effect on the way you hold yourself. In the 18 and 19 centuries the posture norm was for a straight back and shoulders well back. However, some people had even more effective corsets to improve their posture. The first is from Leicester (UK) museum, a posture corset for a teenage girl.
The museum text cites ” Adolescent girl’s corset bodice of c.1895-1900 in beige/grey sateen lined with white twill. This bodice was specifically designed to ensure the wearer maintained a straight posture.” See it at Leicester Museum
This is a no-nonsense posture corset designed to do its job without considering the comfort of the wearer – typically Victorian. Note the crossed shoulder straps – they will not slip down the arms, the shoulders will be pulled right back by the buckled straps. Also you can see the rigid steels that go up the back to flatten the shoulder blades. Perhaps a concession to youth, it is not was waisted. However, this corset must have been very uncomfortable to wear. I’ve heard an account that it was only worn in the mornings, and removed for lunch, during which she had to hold herself properly, or it was put back on in the afternoon.
French mail order catalogs continued the theme for young teenage girl posture corsets.
From the style of corset these are from around 1900 – 1905. French mothers clearly had no qualms about using these corsets on their daughters aged 8 – 10 years old. For those who don’t know coutil is a very strong an inelastic material often used for corsets. Find the original here Aubonmarché.
I’ve interviewed a lady who wore a corset with broad shoulder straps like the ones above in 1910 when she was 11 – she was born in 1899. It was not comfortable as was forced on her as teaching and preventative device rather than curative. She said that when she was 14 times were changing to more comfortable corsets.
Backboards and Collars
If you thought these corsets pictured above were uncomfortable wait till I show you backboards and collars. The theory is that you place a wooden board on the back of the girl needing deportment lessons. Either she learns to hold herself “correctly” or there is a bit of musculoskeletal change.
The two principle types of backboard were (not now, thank goodness)
The Long Backboard and the Short backboard.
The Long Backboard
Was a board across the back, held in place by the arms like this.
The arms are held high and the shoulders are really pulled back. Try it at home with a broom handle! If it hurts after 10 minutes please remember that 18 and 19 century girls had this for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.
Some images on the internet are plain wrong, it was not used like this.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!
A picture stolen from the two nerdy girls site 2 nerdy girls. In this 1828 painting we see a naughty girl who has thrown her (beneficial, health, “you will thank me when you are older”) backboard on the floor. Note that her caring and loving mother is threatening to use the birch ready for action in her hand. Pain and fear were acceptable (even necessary, many thought) in child rearing up to about 1920. Right click on the picture to see a larger view. Not only were these backboards painful, but they rendered the poor girl helpless, she could not use her hands. This was a another way of instilling humility in girls…an essential quality for the marriage market.
Look also the posture of the seated lady in the green dress on the right. She shows a “correct” and ladylike posture, probably only achievable with stiff stays, a backboard and a little motivation – the cane or the birch on some tender part of the body. The long backboard was used in England less and less during the 19 century and probably did not make it past the early years of the 20 century.
The Short Backboard.
This was really a fiendish device, and contemporary comments tell us that it was both painful and effective. Here’s a typical example, although it does come from a fetish style book of the 1860s.
It’s very simple really, a flat board with three straps. One goes round the waist, the other two over the shoulders. The fortunate wearer is held rigid with the shoulders pulled well back (the correct position according to adverts of the time!). The board flattens the shoulder blades, it may look nice, but it seriously limits arm movements – but genteel ladies don’t want to wave their arms about do they?
Citations on the use of the backboard.
Conseulo Vanderbilt was born in 1877, so the following quote from her autobiography relates to around 1891
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.
You can find the book here here
Interesting to note that she comments on the discomfort and the value gained.
Fanny Kemble was born in 1809., so she’s talking about her early teenage years in around 1820. In her autobiography she says..
In order that I might “bear my body more seemly,” various were the methods resorted to; among others, a hideous engine of torture of the backboard species, made
of steel covered with red morocco, which consisted of a flat piece
placed on my back, and strapped down to my waist with a belt and secured
at the top by two epaulets strapped over my shoulders. From the middle
of this there rose a steel rod or spine, with a steel collar which
encircled my throat and fastened behind. This, it was hoped, would
eventually put my shoulders down and my head up, and in the meantime I
had the appearance of a young woman walking about in a portable pillory.
You can read the text here
In 1975 I interviewed an old London man born 1895. He told me that when he was 7 or so his elder sisters had to learn poetry from books placed high on music stands while holding the long backboard. As they had their arms extended they could not use their hands to wipe their noses, so it was his job to be a good little brother and wipe runny noses. It is interesting to note that he remembered the backboard as only used on girls, never a suggestion that it was for him too.
Dance manuals Library of Congress .
Sketches relative to the history and theory, but more especially to the practice of dancing Intended as hints to the young teachers of the art of dancing. Francis Peacock
Sketches Relative to the history and theory…..of dancing. Francis Peacock 1805.
Find it here
Backboards, as they are now constructed, are certainly of great use to children in general, as they not only draw the shoulders back, but they force in the scapula, or shoulder blades, and, in time, may lengthen the clavicles, or collar bones. These all tend greatly to raise and give a fullness to the chest;
Henry Bigg – British orthopaedic surgeon, wrote in 1862, see here.
Greatly as this form of appliance been ridiculed by modern Orthopaedists, there cannot be the least doubt that ladies of the last generation ower their superiority of form to this simple mechanical arrangement.
…and his drawing of it.
This a “short backboard” with a collar to train the lucky girl not to “poke the head”, that is to say keep the head proudly erect as good breeding demanded. We’ll discuss collars in the next post. I’ll just say that this device could be rendered more painful (more effective) by adding sharp pins to the pad under the chin. Some thought it more humane to replace the pins with a pad with blackboard chalk on it. Any young lady with chalk under the chin had a swipe with the cane.
Well, that’s enough for this post. Please tell me what you think of these posture devices, how would you feel if you had to use one? Is this all part of “il faut souffrir pour être belle”…you have to suffer to be beautiful?
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Love to you all….Mintie