By Erin Moyer
Imagine you are an adolescent girl in Allentown during the late nineteenth century. In this crisis of hormonal and physical change you start to experience symptoms such as headache, bloating, abdominal pain, backache, sleeplessness, “nervousness” and even “moodiness” (Wood, 1973, 28). What do you think is causing these ailments? Where do you go to find treatment? Whose beliefs or opinions do you trust to cure you?
As a young woman in the late nineteenth century, a time where scientific understandings of disease and illness were just being discovered and accepted, you would have a combination of competing medical views to turn to (Rubenstein, 2012, 203). Whether you visit an allopathic medical doctor, a homeopathic doctor, or a druggist for a patent medicine, your wouldn’t just be given treatment, you would also be confronted with “cultural attitudes” towards your gender role (Wood, 1973, 25; Browner, 2005, 2).
Unlike today, in the late 1800’s, medical doctors did not have a comprehensive understanding of the female reproductive system and there was a widely held medical belief that women were ill simply because they were women (Wood, 1973, 28). Almost any symptom that a woman experienced was labeled as ‘female complaints’ and treated differently than men. Having a uterus was seen as a “perilous possession” because it was seen to physically control women’s bodies and cause them to be weak, fragile, and prone to illness (Wood, 1973, 28-29). While today we know this is not true, these “would-be scientific views reflected and helped shape social definitions of the appropriate bounds of women’s role and identity” (Smith-Rosenberg, 1973, 59).
In late nineteenth century Allentown, conceptions and beliefs surrounding women’s health, illness, and possible treatments can be reconstructed using archival material such as newspaper advertisements and census reports. I read and analyzed a total of forty newspaper advertisements concerning doctors, druggists, and patent medicines for women’s health in two Allentown newspapers, the Allentown Democrat and the Allentown Leader, between the years of 1881 and 1899. In addition to the newspaper records, I also analyzed the 1880 census. In the 1st and 6th wards, there was a total of 8 physicians, 3 druggists and 1 individual who was a druggist and doctor. I brought these two resources together by creating a map (see figure 1). The points indicate where the doctors and druggists from the 1880 census lived and the orange polygons indicate the location of a doctor or druggist which was advertised in the Allentown newspapers. Using both of these resources, you can paint a picture of what it was like to be a woman in Allentown, what type of medical beliefs you were confronted with, and where treatment options were available to you.
Figure 1: Map of Physicians and Druggists in the 1st and 6th Wards in 1880. Using the 1880 census I plotted points to indicate where the physicians and druggists lived. I then plotted the orange polygons to indicate the location of physicians offices and drug stores that were advertised in the Allentown Democrat and Allentown Leader between the years 1881 and 1889. The map was created using Cartodb, a free online service.
Treatments which were available to women during the late nineteenth century differed greatly. In the fledgling field of women’s health and gynecology, you could be subject to painful treatments such as “leeching, injections, cauterization, or rest cure” and be left raw, bleeding, in great pain, and owe upwards of a hundred dollars (Wood, 1973, 31-32; Davis, 1989, 107). ‘Genteel women’ of a higher social class went to physicians, but the social expectation of modesty surrounding their female organs still made this a possibly uncomfortable experience (Davis, 1989, 108). This social anxiety with doctors’ dangerous and painful cures was utilized by patent medicine makers, such as Lydia E. Pinkham, to market their painless compounds towards working-class women (Davis, 1989, 104). Lydia Pinkham, of Lynn Massachusetts, became a nationally recognized face by printing her own visage on her Vegetable Compound (which can be seen in figure 2), advertising in newspapers around the country, and asking women to write to her with their complaints (Davis, 1989, 96).
In the ad such as the one shown below (see figure 3), Lydia Pinkham’s advertisements “provided legitimacy for the nervous complaints of women” and described their symptoms as well as provided insight into the cultural understanding of ‘women’s weaknesses’ (Davis 1989, 104). All ads described women’s weak physical and illness prone ‘female organs,’ and warned of the dangers of ‘hysterics,’ which illustrates some of the national and local cultural understandings of the “derangement of the female system” (Allentown Leader, May 29, 1896). These advertisements paint women as “sensitive, weak, dependent, diseased, fragile” and prone to ‘hysterics,’ such as “destroying furniture, attacking family and strangers alike and even killing their infants” especially during menstruation (Smith-Rosenberg, 1973, 60, 64). Through these advertisements in the Allentown Democrat and Allentown Leader, we can get a better understanding of what it would be like to be a young (possibly working) woman in the 1st or 6th wards of Allentown, and how they understood and approached their own health in this time of great controversy and change.
Both women and men in Allentown during the late 1800’s underwent great economic and social change due to urbanization and industrialization. In this tumultuous time, traditional roles, such as women’s domestic roles, were beginning to be questioned as some women began to enter the workforce and others sought improved education and more control over reproductive health through birth control or abortion (Smith-Rosenberg & Rosenberg, 1973, 333). Women were being pulled in different directions as they were being able to have some freedom with access to education and employment, while also being told they needed to fulfill their domestic duties. Some may argue that male doctors and men in general were fearful of women’s sexuality and power, therefore conceptions and understandings of women’s health were fraught with biases and attempts to assume power over women (Morantz, 1977, 494; Wood, 1973).
By tethering all health problems, including nerves or ‘hysteria,’ to the fact that you have a uterus, male doctors and patent medicine makers beliefs and cures could be analyzed as a way to maintain social power in a time of economic and cultural change and attempt to realign women’s duties with traditional roles such as domestic work. Taking these understandings from a national scale down to a local scale, the rise of the iron industry in Allentown created many changes, such as the need for females to enter the workforce. These economic, cultural, and social changes due to the iron boom in Allentown brought along with it a “changing nature of social relations, questioning of old values and new sets of expectations” (Davis, 1989, 112). By reading and analyzing newspaper materials from Allentown during this time period, you can put yourself in the shoes of these young women who had competing beliefs and treatments to turn to. My final question is: which one of them would you choose?
Browner, Stephanie P. Profound Science and Elegant Literature: Imagining Doctors in Nineteenth-century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Davis DL. 1989. “George Beard and Lydia Pinkham: Gender, Class, and Nerves in Late 19th Century America.” Health Care for Women International 10 (2-3): 93-114.
Morantz, Regina Markell. 1977. “Making Women Modern: Middle Class Women and Health Reform in 19th Century America”. Journal of Social History 10 (4). Oxford University Press: 490–507. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3786765.
Rubenstein, Ellen. 2012. “From Social Hygiene to Consumer Health: Libraries, Health Information, and the American Public from the Late Nineteenth Century to the 1980s.” Library & Information History 28 (3): 202-219.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1973. “Puberty to Menopause: The Cycle of Femininity in Nineteenth-century America”. Feminist Studies 1 (3/4). Feminist Studies, Inc.: 58–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566480.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll, and Charles Rosenberg. 1973. “The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth-century America”. The Journal of American History 60 (2). [Oxford University Press, Organization of American Historians]: 332–56. doi:10.2307/2936779.
Wood, Ann Douglas. 1973. “”the Fashionable Diseases”: Women’s Complaints and Their Treatment in Nineteenth-century America”. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (1). The MIT Press: 25–52. doi:10.2307/202356.