Victorian View on Menstruation

by Heather Palmer

"The Doctor Warns Against Taking Cold & How to Avoid Debility"


In the introduction to Dr. Chase's Recipes; or Information for Everybody (C.1867), "A.W. Chase, M.D." writes that he "carried on the Drug and Grocery business for a number of years, read Medicine, after being thirty-eight years of age, and graduated as a Physician." The "recipes" are a mixture of folk culture (i.e. on page 130 he suggests boiling toads to make an ointment for rheumatism or sprains) and surprisingly modern drug-based medicine. Although he gave practical advice about the benefits of abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and rich foods, his views on women's health were even further behind than many of the doctors of the time.

About the monthly menstruation is this warning: "Allow me here to give a word of caution about taking cold at this period. It is very dangerous. I knew a young girl, who had not been instructed by her mother upon this subject, to be so afraid of being found with this show upon her apparel which she did not know the meaning of, that she went to a brook and washed herself and clothes -- took cold, and immediately went insane." When writing of the "debility" that he sees in many middle aged married women he makes sensible suggestions (some ahead of his time) including that these women have an iron deficiency from the monthly blood loss. The author also suggests that these women probably eat too much and too richly and prescribes more nutritious foods and some healthy out-doors activities ( i.e.: "to ramble over hill and dale, resting as often and as long as may be necessary, not to tire, but sufficient to create an appetite to aid digestion.")


Chase's prose becomes ungrammatical and vitriolic when suggesting other causes of debility, however. One senses he has a daughter or wife who has upset him by actually having a life of her own. On page 210 Chase states: "In the good old grandmother-days, when girls helped with the work of the household, warm but loose clothing, plain food, good thick soled shoes, and absence of novels, to excite their passions, & c., such a thing as a feeble, debilitated woman or girl was seldom known; but now, sedentary habits, stimulating food, every conceivable unphysiological style of dress, paper- soled shoes, checking perspiration, excitable readings, repeated colds by exposure going to and from parties, thinly clad, standing by the gate talking with supposed friends (real enemies) when they ought to be by the fire or in bed, all tend to general debility; and the real wonder is that there is not more debility than there is."

Many 19th century physicians thought that gynecological ailments could cause or magnify mental illness in women. In 1885 Dr. Stockton, a female physician, reported that "irregularities of menstruation are common among insane women, but I do not believe that in every instance it takes part in causing insanity."


Trade cardHeather Palmer, has served as the Curator of three historic house museums and was also the Historian of Blair House, the President's Guest House. She lectures at colleges and publishes articles in the fields of 18th and 19th century women's lives, clothing and needlework, and in the area of material culture.







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