Improvements in medical science focused on the prevention and correction of disfigurements. Progress in infant health and nutrition helped prevent many conditions and assistive technologies such as wooden legs and rupture trusses improved the productivity and general quality of life for many of those injured.
Assistive technologies quickly crossed the line from improving function to merely improving aesthetics. Though some argued whether it was acceptable to attempt to improve upon God’s creation by artificial means, even the Puritans came to accept man-made means to improve upon nature’s imperfections.
By the eighteenth century, with the developing culture of politeness, the ‘deformed’ or ‘defective’ body presented a quandary for polite society. While some emphasized the moral virtue that developed as a result of bearing with bodily disfigurement, others registered concern for the lack of social ease evident when those bearing obvious ‘defects’ were present. Etiquette required that polite individuals avoided anything which would draw attention to another’s ‘weakness’. However, it was also recognized that a crooked body prevented one’s acceptance in polite society, being more prison than palace for the individual. The imperfect body was often referred to as dismal and miserable and jarring the sensibilities and discomposing the cheerfulness of mind, stealing pleasure from an otherwise pleasant experience.
|Straightening a child's posture|
Causes and prevention of deformity
Experts concluded that preventing deformity was preferable (and easier) than curing it. Many suggested ignorant management in childhood was at the heart of many disfigurements and as such, more ‘scientific’ management might be applied to remedy them.
Towards the end of the Georgian era, malformations were classified by their causes including:
Those produced before birth
The result of tight lacing of long corsets, thought to impede the mother’s digestion, breathing, circulation and to even displace the womb itself. This practice was thought to impede the proper growth of a child resulting in dwarfism or other deformities of shape. Teaching mothers not to wear tight garments during pregnancy offered a simple remedy to this malady.
Those produced by ignorant nursing
Those produced by clothing in infancy
The practice of tight swaddling was still practiced in the Georgian era. However, toward the end of the period, the practice fell out of favor. The tight constriction of the infant was thought not only to be painful, but to restrict blood flow and to impede normal growth, forcing limbs and spine into unnatural shapes. Nurses were advised to adopt a looser mode of dress, but not so loose as to fail to support ‘feeble’ infant muscles, and to avoid dressing an infant too warmly and causing sweats in the night.
Those produced by dress in youth
Putting pressure on muscles was thought to weaken them. So the use of corsets, tight sleeves or garters was advised against; they might result in twisting the body out of natural position. Children’s clothing should be comfortable and allow the blood to flow freely and the body to move easily.
Those produced by position
Sleeping on the same side of the bed every night, sitting on the same side of the window or fire every night or in any way that twists the body was to be scrupulously avoided. While reading, writing, sewing or practicing music, young ladies must maintain perfectly erect posture to avoid permanent deformation of the spine.
Once deformity occurred, Sheldrake argued that the amelioration of such irregularities was imperative as "not only their appearance is disagreeable, but by impeding the function of viscera, they will in time destroy that balance of the constitution which is so necessary to health and longevity.”
Stay makers and truss makers of the mid to late eighteenth century flooded the market with a cornucopia of devices to train young people’s bodies—particularly those of young women—as one trained young plants to grow strong and straight, often using braces and other contraptions made of newly available cast steel.
Braces and other devices
Devices to improve posture and keep and individual ‘straight’ were as varied as the manufacturers who made them. Large pieces of metal called backirons were hidden at the back of clothing and prevented slouching. Steel collars forced wearers to obey mothers’ and governesses’ injunctions to keep heads up, sometimes assisted by shoulder braces which pulled shoulders back. Neck swings stretched the spine by suspending the ‘patient’ in a block and tackle type device so that only their toes touched the ground.
As the century drew to a close and the nineteenth century dawned, a shift of perspective occurred leaning toward a more natural beauty, unencumbered by the rigorous management and training of the previous generations. The second part of this article will examine these changing conceptions of beauty and how to achieve it in the Regency era.
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