Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's! Hearts and Hysteria

Valentine's Day dates from the Roman Empire, marking the martyrdom of Saint Valentinus, executed for performing Christian wedding ceremonies for Roman soldiers. It became a date for lovers in the 13th Century, when the tradition of courtly love flourished, and gifts were traditionally flowers and confectionery accompanied by a handmade card.

However, it wasn't until the Victorian period - and the development of the printing press - that mass-produced cards became norm and spread the holiday across the country. Lovers took an example from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who openly displayed affection.

Cards routinely featured hearts, often elaborately embossed and decorated - cut-outs to emulate lace were popular - as well as roses and plump cherubim. Themes were incredibly pure, despite the fact a Valentine's card professed affection and love. Maintaining discretion and propriety was very important.

At the same time, women were often accused of having "vapours" or "hysterics". I would imagine most readers have heard of smelling salts, used to rouse ladies whose corsets had overcome them, but there were other... methods of treating hysteria that aren't as widely known.

Women considered to be suffering from hysteria exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, and "a tendency to cause trouble". The standard treatment, believe it or not, was "pelvic massage" by a doctor until the patient experienced "hysterical paroxysm". Or, to put it bluntly, manual stimulation of the genitals until orgasm.

No, really. Hydrotherapy devices, which squirted water onto the woman's lower body, were available at Bath. In 1870, the first clockwork-driven vibrator was available for physicians, with a general market version following closely. The official standpoint was the equipment was purely medical, "healing" women of nervous tension and relieving hysteria. Unofficially... well.

Still from British comedy Hysteria, a fictionalised version of the
events that resulted in the invention of the vibrator

1 comment:

  1. Oh. My God. Clockwork-driven vibrators. *dies* That's amazing. God bless the Brits...

    Fabulous post, Misa! Love the history (hystory?) lesson ;)