Did 19th century women frequently faint?

I just finished reading Dickens’ Pickwick Papers for the first time. While I found it an enjoyable read, I did notice that it had countless episodes of women fainting. This was a worse case than usual, but in fact most 19th century novels feature female characters who swoon all the time. They faint when anything scary, shocking or surprising happens. They faint at moments of emotional intensity. They faint whenever they try any hard physical work.

What’s up with this? I find it difficult to believe that women in England 150 years ago were constantly collapsing in public. After all, physically and genetically they were no different from modern women who can make it through a typical day without spontaneously losing consciousness.

I believe corsetting had something to do with this.

Of course someone will quickly (before I hit the submit button) add that, unlike today’s women, backthen they wore tight corsets that cut off blood circulation.

True, of course, but also, remember that fainting was an acceptable emotional outlet, and therfore women would have had it as part of their psychological vocabulary. Just like today, many women think nothing of flipping off other drivers: its a non-cognitive response to the situation. In 150 years, it may seem weird to our descendants.

When Frank Sinatra was introduced to FDR in the 1940’s, FDR, in referneces to the Bobby-sockers hysterian, and recalling the customs of his own youth, jokingly thanked Sinatra for bringing back fainting.

I’ve frequently read that tightly-worn corsets–prevalent throughout much of the 198th century–were primarily to blame for the fainting spells, since they restricted breathing and circulation. During heightened emotional arousal, the body needs more oxygen to fuel the “flight or fight” reflex, but an excessively restrictive corset prevented well-oxygenated blood from getting to the brain, resulting in lightheadeness (swooning) and fainting spells.

Yes, corsets make a triumphant return some seventeen thousand years from now. :smack:

There’s a lot of misinformation in that link. Not sure where the author got her facts, if they are facts, or opinions. I can say there are many different styles of corsets and most of them are not uncomfortable, and don’t make anyone gasp for breath, and certainly don’t make anyone faint.

If 19th century women were fainting, my opinion is that it could have been caused by a number of factors: possibly the corset, or possibly because they were trying to portray themselves as “delicate flowers,” or possibly because anyone might faint if wearing 5-6 layers of clothes and then be expected to walk around in the heat, or worse, do hard work dressed that way.

I always thought they fainted because they got the vapors.

It need not have been uncomfortable, nor made one gasp for breath in order to have induced fainting. They were rarely worn so tight as to restrict normal breathing, but if they were tight enough to restrict deep breathing, this could have prevented them from getting enough oxygen during a period of intense emotional distress or arousal.

I could have sworn Cecil did a column on this one, but I can’t find it.

He mentioned them here, maybe that’s it?

The idea that 19th century women frequently fainted when presented with anything exciting, shocking, or grotesque, or with hard work, would come as a surprise to all those 19th century maid servants, pioneer farm women, and midwives. Read the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels from the late 19th century and there are plenty of examples of women who do not faint (and men who do!).

It was probably a combination of attire and fashion, stamina and station, and one’s dramatic inclination. In two hundred years people will be asking, “Did all 20th century women have breast implants?”

Fainting at a dramatic moment probably isn’t much different than the common attitude today among women I know to say, “Yes, I can change a tire, but if a man stops to help, I’ll gladly pretend to be helpless so I don’t have to do it. I don’t want my dress to get dirty!”

Arsenic, taken orally to make them pale & fashionable, might have had something to do with it.

Hmmm…a “Fatal Beauty”, indeed…

More on the cosmetic thing.


I agree with the “delicate flowers” theory as well as the corsets. PBS did a series on 19th Century House, and the wife and eldest daughter had to wear corsets as part of their attempt to live like they were living in the 19th century. Both women developed breathing trouble.

In Gone With the Wind, much is made of Scarlett’s lack of femininity, and it is mentioned that she didn’t faint when she should or carry smelling salts like the other nice ladies did.

I know a woman who takes arsenic orally all the time, and she isn’t prone to fainting spells.

(I forget exactly why, but it’s part of her “Keep young and beautiful” regimen, too. Traditional chinese medicine, so the rationale is probably along the lines of “To expel damp” or somesuch.)


Has anyone told her that it might not be a great idea?

I was watching AFV the other night and one video had an elderly lady faint almost instantly when she walked into a surprise birthday party type of thing. I remember thinking how strange that was that someone would faint so quickly without any other signs of distress like a period of hyperventilating.

No, it works great. You will never grow old as long if you take it.

Oh, believe me, I’ve tried. She’s one of those people who derives improved self-esteem from “knowing better” than western medicine (which is automatically discounted as ignorant,) and places absolute faith in TCM.

Anyway, while I don’t see any benefit in including small amounts of arsenic in my diet, the actual harm is probably nothing compared to what you’d get from a bad diet or smoking/boozing – and she’s got a pretty healthy lifestyle. Not much to be gained from pushing the point, since she’s been doing it for years without showing any signs of arsenical poisoning.


I read somewhere that “the vapors” was the polite euphemism for intestinal gas caused by…tight corsets. Sorry, no cite. Maybe I’ll go looking for the source, though, to see how reliable it might be.