Stays and other Secrets of perfect Posture

People in eighteenth-century portraits hold their bodies as if they were dancers.  Even a squirmy toddler tenuously balanced on his mother’s knee has beautiful posture. Were those gracefully lifted torsos just an improvement of the painter, trying to please clients? Or should the subjects’ stays, the quilted corsets stiffened with whalebone that laced tight up the back, take some of the credit?

Stays weren’t just for for grown women.  Babies were put in unconstructed ones made of coarse fabric very young.  Providing support for their weak little spines may have been less important than accustoming them to wearing a garment that would become increasingly confining as they grew.  Little girls soon graduated to smaller versions of the form-molding garments and  were expected to wear them practically all the time because being laced up was supposed to convey a sense of modesty.  At least that was the advice of male authors of well-known guides to female behavior.  Because the stays held up the rib cage, the wearer’s ability to change the position of the torso was quite difficult.  In this illustration of a girl reading, she is so engrossed in a book that she forgets to maintain a good seated posture.  But she isn’t slumping.  Her torso is tilted over her lap and her shoulders are rounded, but her back looks straight, because the abdominal muscles cannot sag or collapse.  Wearing stays was only one aspect of a demanding “curriculum”  to manage the body.  This aspect of eighteenth-century education, which combined best medical practice, contemporary notions of beauty, and social aspiration to participate in fashionable society, finds expression in a book famous in the history of medicine, Nicolas Andry de Bois-Regard’s Orthopedia or the Art of Correcting and Preventing Deformities in Children  (1741).  d’Andry, who was the dean of the faculty of medicine in Paris, argued that a normal healthy body can develops deformities when its natural symmetry is compromised by civilized life.  (The previous illustration and all that follow are from Cotsen’s copy of the first edition of the English translation of 1744).

He pointed out things that sparked the process of bodily deterioration in infancy.   An ignorant nurse might lift a toddler up by the leading strings attached to the shoulders of its bodice, which allowed its heavy head to sag, strain the neck, and pull the shoulders out of alignment.  Children’s bodies could incur permanent damage when carelessly handled by adults playing infant amusements with them.  One of the most dangerous was one  called “going to visit grandfather”  in which the adult would  lift the child by its neck and swung it around, putting the spine at risk of dislocation.Furniture could be responsible for deforming children’s bodies.  The school boy below is writing on a surface that is too low, so he hunches over his work.  The other boy to his right is eating at a table that is too high, so he scrunches up his shoulders.When d’Andry talks about deformations of girls’ bodies, it is more difficult to determine i the relative importance of legitimate medical concerns, contemporary standards of beauty, and fashion, which strives to display the female body’s perfections.  The chest is the most beautiful part of the body, according to d’Andry, so he placed considerable emphasis on the proper training  of the thorax, or middle back, the arms, and clavicles.  One reason for this was to keep the chest open and promote healthy lung breathing.  He recommends various manipulations and exercises, including walking with a little box balanced on the top of the head.When the desired results could not be obtained through exercise, d’Andry did not hesitate to recommend that parents require their daughters to wear the contraption below in addition to stays.Was d’Andry aware that his program of physical discipline dovetailed with the dictates of fashion, where the bodice was the focal point of a dress because of the way it set off a girl’s head, shoulders and breast?  Possibly not, because the idea of posture in the Western world has never made clear and distinct demarcations between health and beauty with respect to the body.

Were There Picky Child Eaters Before 1850?

According to Jennifer Traig, author of Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, there is very little evidence in the historical record for “concerns over children refusing what they were given” to eat much before the 1880s.  That makes Betty MacDonald a seeress when she invented “The Picky-Eater Cure” in Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1957). This cautionary tale zeroed in the sin of Will Pemberton,which was eating nothing but boiled noodles.  His distraught parents consulted Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and came home with magic crystals, which when sprinkled on Will’s dinner, turned everything on the plate into his favorite (only) food.  In time Will grew tired of nothing but boiled noodles and was forced to dig into other dishes. Before Will, there was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Suppenkaspar, who would not eat his good soup and wasted away for lack of nourishment.  The marker on his grave was a  tureen, naturally.Picky eateritis is surely a disease of affluence, but the condition’s psychological aspects must be of equal importance.   Casual observation suggests that the child who turns down what’s on the plate is a child who knows full well that there are plenty of options in the refrigerator that are more to his liking.  So begins a battle of wills between child and parent, the child reasonably confident that his mother-combatant will throw down her lance rather than let her baby go hungry.

Let’s suppose that abundance of choice is at the heart of picky eateritis.  Then there ought to be evidence in the literature of parenting before 1880s that elite parents were tussling with children at mealtimes.  I didn’t find a Will or Kaspar in my quick and unscientific survey of late eighteenth-century sources, partly because the experts were concerned chiefly with the diet of infants and toddlers.  Among the problems that did preoccupy them were the prevention of letting children consume too much sugar or drinking wine and spirits.

There being no fast foot industry to point the finger at, the blame for getting children off on the wrong foot fell squarely on the shoulders of adults. In 16th edition of Domestic Medicine (1798), Dr. William Buchan thought the practice of sweetening babies’ food with sugar encouraged them to overeat: “Their excesses are entirely owing to nurses.  If the child be gorged with food at all hours, and enticed to take it, by making it sweet and agreeable to the patate, is in any wonder that such a child should in time be induced to crave more food than it ought to have?”   Some parents, he observed disapprovingly, “teach their children to guzzle ale, and other fermented liquors, at every meal.”  Buchan’s advice was considered sufficiently authoritative to have been regularly repeated or plagiarized.

The good news was that sensible mealtime management was possible to establish and maintain, even before children could comprehend why restraining their appetites for certain things was good for their health.  Richard Edgeworth and his co-author/daughter Maria discussed this topic in Practical Education (1798-9), an late eighteenth-century forerunner to Dr. Spock, based on their experience raising a brood of twenty-two: “if they [children] partake of the usual family meals, and if there are no whimsical distinctions between wholesome and unwholesome dishes, or epicurean distinctions between rarities and plain food, the imagination and pride of children will not be roused about eating.  Their pride is piqued if they perceive, that they are prohibited from touching what grown up people are privileged to eat….  In families where a regularly good table is kept, children accustomed to the sight and taste of all kinds of food, are seldom delicate, capricious, or disposed to exceed.”  The thrust of the passage is that children observe the food preferences of adults and are likely to imitate them.  Picky children pick it up from picky adults.

A mother of twelve, Mrs. Trimmer weighed in how to get children to eat in An Essay on Christian Education, which was published in installments in her children’s book review journal, The Guardian of Education (1802-1806).   She made a couple of observations which sound as if they were based on long experience with little people: “Children are generally averse to food which they have never tasted; and, in this case, the difficulty is to get them to taste everything.”   Another interesting remark she made was that “it is next to an impossibility, except in a very secluded situation, to keep a child in ignorance of the taste of rich cakes, &c. &c. and when these are placed before him in profusion, and set out too in the most inviting manner, they are real temptations.”   True words, indeed,

Did children’s book authors portray children who were bad eaters as negative examples?  Yes, indeed.  Here is the opening of “The Boy with the Sweet Tooth” from Profitable Amusement for Children (1802):   “Luke Lickerish was so very fond of sweet things, that, whenver his father or mother gave him a few pence, he immediately ran to the grocer’s or confectioner’s, and bought barley-sugar, licorice, sugar-candy, or something else of the sweet kind.  Besides, at breakfast and tea-time he always watched the sugar-basin; and, whenever he was his mother’s back turned, he slily filched three or four lumps of sugar, thrust them into his pocket, and afterwards ate them in private.  By continuing every day to eat such quantities of sweets, he injured hi health very much and spoiled his appetite, so that he seldom relished his meals, ate very little of wholesome food, and was growing very thin, weak and puny.”

Luke sounds a lot like children today who crave heavily sweetened cereal, marshmallows, and Swedish fish.  Perhaps children haven’t changed as much in certain respects as popular historians suppose…