Category Archives: 19th century

1825: Toughen your nipples with puppies

William Dewees

William Dewees (1768-1841) was an American physician, academic and medical author. Dewees was born to a farming family in Pottsgrove, just south of Philadelphia. Despite a lack of medical training and a rudimentary education, at age 21 Dewees set up shop as the local physician in nearby Abington. He worked to improve his knowledge, however, reading voraciously and studying under the French obstetrician Baudeloegue.

In the 1820s, Dewees authored a series of books on maternal health, midwifery and childcare. His theories were unpopular in Europe, where they were met with scorn and criticism, but Dewees became one of the United States’ most prominent experts on obstetrics. Like others of his era, Dewees was prone to the occasional wacky theory. He was an advocate of maternal impression – the idea that a woman’s fantasies and experiences could shape or deform her unborn child – and he advised expectant mothers to eat less, not more.

Writing in 1825, Dewees also urged pregnant women to avoid sore nipples by toughening them in the last trimester:

“We must rigorously enforce the rules we have laid down for the conduct of the woman immediately after delivery. Besides this, the patient should begin to prepare these parts previously to labour, by the application of a young but sufficiently strong puppy to the breast. This should be immediately after the seventh month of pregnancy. By this plan, the nipples become familiar to the drawing of the breasts. The skin of them becomes hardened and confirmed, the milk is more easily and regularly formed, and a destructive accumulation and inflammation is prevented.”

After childbirth, the puppy should be replaced by the infant (in case it wasn’t obvious). The mother should then wash the nipples daily with warm water and soap. She should also avoid compressing the breasts with clothing, Dewees’ advice being to protect them by creating:

“…an opening in the jacket, corset or stays, so as to leave them at liberty.”

In 1834 Dewees was appointed as professor of obstetrics at University of Pennsylvania. He remained in this post until his death in 1841.

Source: William P. Dewees, A Treatise on the Physical and Medical Treatment of Children, 1825. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1879: Tennessee man invents the ‘parachute hat’

Opponheimer’s invention for head-based base jumping

In 1879, a Tennessee man named Benjamin B. Oppenheimer filed one of the wackiest patent applications in history. Described as an “improvement in fire escapes”, Oppenheimer’s invention aimed to save the lives of people trapped in burning multi-storey buildings.

The diagram here tells most of the story, however for the record Oppenheimer’s patent application described his invention as:

“A headpiece constructed in the nature of a parachute, made of soft or waxed cloth, awning cloth or other suitable fabric. The parachute is about four or five feet in diameter, stiffened by a suitable frame and attached by leather straps or other fastening… Overshoes with elastic bottom-pads of suitable thickness take up the concussion with the ground. [This device allows] a person to safely jump out of the window of a burning building from any height and land, without injury and without the least damage, on the ground”.

Oppenheimer’s ‘parachute hat’ was granted a patent in November 1879 – but as expected, his invention did not take off (or jump off). More than a century later the US Army picked up on Oppenheimer’s shock-absorbing boots, citing his idea in a 1996 patent application for improved footwear for paratroopers.

Source: US Patent Office, US221855/A, November 18th 1879. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1899: Piano playing a “deadly habit” for young girls

In 1899, German physician Dr F. Waetzold published a short essay claiming that playing the piano was contributing to an increase in mental disorders among teenage girls and young women. According to Waetzold, his research had uncovered some alarming links between piano-playing and neurotic disorders. One condition prominent among young pianists was chlorosis or ‘green sickness’, an anaemic fatigue thought by many Victorian physicians to be a product of unfulfilled sexual excitement.

Girls who studied the piano before the age of 12, wrote Waetzold, were six times more likely to contract chlorosis or neuroses than those who did not. His solution was simple:

“It is necessary to abandon the deadly habit of compelling young girls to hammer on the keyboard before they are 15 or 16… Even at this age, the exercise should be permitted only to those who are really talented and possessed of a robust temperament.”

Choosing another instrument was not necessarily an option, according to Waetzold, because “studying the violin appears to produce even more disastrous results”. It seems that Dr Waetzold was not a music fan – or perhaps he lived within earshot of some decidedly untalented young musicians.

Source: Dr F. Waetzold, “Le piano et névroses” in Journal d’Hygiene, January 5th 1899. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1839: Masturbation forces Mr Kinney into teaching

Published in the 1830s, the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity was a vehicle for the ideas of New England dietary reformer and social puritan Sylvester Graham (1794-1851). Funded by Graham and his supporters, the journal’s articles emphasised healthy living, vegetarianism and the dangers of sexual excess and self-pleasure.

Evidence of the latter can be found in an ‘obituary’ for A. F. Kinney, a 35-year-old man who died near Boston the previous month. According to the report Mr Kinney had “enjoyed vigorous health” in his youth, reaching “the full size of manhood” by his 14th birthday. Then he discovered masturbation:

“In consequence of his rapid growth, excessive labour, errors in diet and that practice which is secretly sapping the constitutions of thousands of our youth… his robust frame shrunk under the action of disease. His spine and the bones of the chest became greatly distorted; his body was much deformed and his manly stature considerably diminished.”

Kinney’s onanistic hobby rendered him physically incapable of labouring on the family farm. As a consequence, he was forced to “turn his attention to study” and become a teacher of mathematics.

Kinney persevered with teaching for 15 years, despite ongoing poor health, until “he was attacked last August with his old complaint [masturbation], attended with more than the usual symptoms of constitutional derangement”. His health continued to deteriorate and he was forced to abandon teaching.

Kinney died in October 1839 at the Massachusetts home of Dr Alcott, an associate of Sylvester Graham. Genealogical records confirm Kinney’s existence and death, though the real medical reasons for his demise are unknown. As for Graham, he continued his campaign against unhealthy sexual urges, championing clean living, bland diets and the cracker that bears his name.

Source: “Obituary notice of A. F. Kinney, A. M.” in Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, vol. 3 no. 24, November 23rd 1839. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1870: Nights-in will “redevelop shrivelled breasts”

Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) was an American physician, phrenologist and writer. The son of a New York farmer and preacher, Fowler studied at Amherst College, graduating in 1834 alongside Henry Ward Beecher. While at Amherst, Fowler became interested in phrenology, the pseudo-science of ascertaining character and personality by studying the dimensions of the skull. Few academics took this seriously but Fowler nevertheless made money by giving ‘skull readings’ to his fellow students. After graduating, he opened a phrenological practice in New York City which later became quite profitable.

A prolific writer and lecturer, Fowler was also known for his quirky theories and social reforms. In the 1850s he pioneered the construction of octagon-shaped houses, claiming they were easier to build, more spacious and symmetrical and conducive to “a harmonious environment”.

Fowler was also something of a progressive, arguing against slavery, child labour and corporal punishment. A supporter of the ‘votes for women’ lobby, his views on women were also relatively enlightened. Nevertheless, Fowler was still prone to Victorian naivete about women. Writing in 1870 he told his male readers that slackness in their wives’ breasts could be corrected with a little quality time together:

“Have your wife’s breasts declined since you courted and married her? It is because her womb has declined… and nursing up her love will rebuild both her womb and breasts… Court her up again, as you used to do before marriage. Besides reddening up her now pale cheeks, lightening up her now lagging motion and animating her flagging spirits, you will redevelop her shrivelled breasts! Stay home at nights from your clubrooms, billiard saloons and lodges to read or talk to her… you’ll get well ‘paid’ every time you see her bust. And your infants will be better fed.”

Conversely, Fowler warned that continuing to ignore your wife and neglect her emotional needs will produce “two opposite results”. In other words, the more you go out, the saggier they will become. In addition, Fowler was also a vocal critic of women who read novels.

Source: Orson S. Fowler, Creative and Sexual Science, or Manhood, Womanhood and their Mutual Interrelations, Cincinatti, 1870. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.