Up close and personal.
There is much about history that slips by the general mainstream understanding or is not mentioned at all. I’ve often wondered why. In this post I’d like to talk about the things you might wonder about too.
This image shows you a set of 18th century stays. Some of you who may belong to groups of re-enactors of the 18th century period will be familiar with them. They have a precise purpose and that is to pull the shoulders back and lift the bosom, along with which they stiffen the torso in direct contrast to the graceful sway of skirts. These are not quite so much of a squeeze as the later Victorian style corset. Stays can be worn under a bodice or can be worn directly over a shift or blouse.
Lacings were simple threaded at the front or at the back. A woman without her corset and in only her shift was considered naked.
Underwear: or to those of us this side of the pond, knickers.
They were not worn in the first half of the 18th century and rarely worn in the latter. They had been invented as long knee length drawers. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I wore them, but right through into the 18th century most women considered them very unhealthy, they were breeding grounds for thrush or the itch as it was known. Yuck!
The closest garment to your skin would be your shift a t shaped garment with a loose tie at the neckline. Clean linen each day was a something everyone aspired to but didn’t always get.
What held you clothes together.
Garments were fitted in place and stayed there through the use of laces, pins and buttons. No zips. The pin industry thrived in the 18th century. Laces could be simple or decorative but either way they were time consuming to use and often women needed help to dress in the elaborate gowns of the day.
Petticoats: oh gosh how I love petticoats, crisp ones that go shush as I walk… Sorry too much enthusiasm there. Petticoats did the job of drawers for such a long time, all women wore them and in several layers.
When it was hot you wore less and when it was warm more. Never, unless in extremis, did you wear no petticoat outside your home, some things just weren’t done.
Very large by our standards, they hung from your waist under the top layer of you skirts, you could wear several at once and they were useful for carrying things you might need.They were often decorated with embroidery.
I know; you just didn’t like to ask. This fact of life has been left out of so many history books I could run a market stall with them as prizes. People just don’t like to say.
So how did women cope, those who marched as camp followers after their men into battle, those who stayed with their men on 18th century warships, those who crossed from east to west in America? This is a deeply interesting part of history to me.
What did they do? They didn’t collapse or go into hiding once a month, so I believe there must have been something.
Yes, we’ve all heard about the use of rags. These were used like sanitary towels held in place with waist straps and padded with anything absorbent that the women could find. They didn’t do a brilliant job and women were forced to move carefully when wearing them. But how many women could do that?
The other option so often given is gravity. I won’t dwell or comment on that suggestion.
One other alternative I have read of has mentioned sheep’s tails as absorbent and useful. There is also a suggestion that early forms of tampons were used by workers in the sex industry, but I’ve found no evidence of them in use with the rest of the female population.
One little gem for you: when a woman was asked to ‘name the day’, as in the day for her wedding, or as in Pride and Prejudice when Lydia is asked to name the date for the Netherfield ball, the request was made so she might pick a date when she knew she wouldn’t be indisposed by menstruation and unable to dance.
It would seem to me the curse as it was called remained the curse for many years.
Yes, I know you’ve read some stuff about it but didn’t like to ask for any more.
I am convinced from study that the one and only thing that has freed women to make choices and gain the independences they have, is contraception.
Until the 20th century women remained at risk of pregnancy to a higher or lesser degree every time they had sex. Should they indulge in sexual activity and then become pregnant when unmarried, the fault was universally regarded as theirs.
Yes, shotgun weddings happened but how miserable would the couple be after?
Morality and the physical dangers of pregnancy weighed heavy on women.
Throughout the 16th 17th and 18th centuries men could procure sheaths made of a variety of materials. These were never meant to prevent pregnancy. The use of a sheath was purely to protect its user from the danger of venereal disease or ‘the pox’ as it was known. Sadly, the sheaths didn’t always work and not only did the gentleman in question become infected with the pox but so did his unfortunate wife when he returned home from a bout with another lady. The only alternative to a sheath was the withdrawal method.
This left women always at the risk of pregnancy and the dangers of childbirth. Considering as many as one in five births lead to the death of the mother this risk was not a light one. I’ll be posting more on childbirth later in the blog.
Today is a giveaway day so do leave me a comment and you have a chance to win a copy of my story Timeless.