Period Movies and Textiles

Like any fiber devotee, I like to search for interesting knitted, crocheted or woven pieces in period films. Thor and I just saw Hysteria at a local art theater. Directed by Tanya Wexler, it is the story of the invention of the electro-mechanical vibrator by Dr. Mortimer Granville in London in the late 1880s. I hoped to see some pieces of lace or knit garments but, disappointingly, didn’t see many.

In one scene Hugh Dancy (who portrays Dr. Granville) wears a brilliant red cabled scarf. This – what seemed to be a dearth of shawls and scarves – might be because the bulk of the medical patients in the film were ladies of the upper class strata of London in the end of the 19th century. The movie viewer sees mostly society women at parties or in doctors’ waiting rooms. These women would not have been wearing knit or crocheted shawls outside their homes, though one of the ladies wore what was called a “paisley” shawl.

While I saw scant interesting knitting, lace or crocheting, the movie does provide lots of other historical tidbits around Dr. Granville’s invention. According to Wikipedia and briefly touched on in the film, the vibrator’s original purpose was to bring relief to strained muscles. However, it was quickly adopted and promoted by medical doctors whose practice it had been was to elicit “paroxysmal convulsions” also called “hysterical paroxysm” (use your imagination – you’ll figure out what that means!) via “pelvic massage” (ditto) from their wealthy female clientele diagnosed with “hysteria.” (No, I kid you not.)

So why were these women diagnosed as hysterical, and what exactly did that mean? The definition of hysteria is a condition of extreme excitement characterized by emotional disturbance, sensory and motor derangement and sometimes the simulation of organic disorders. In the 19th century, the definition was broader, including women diagnosed with faintness, sexual desire, insomnia, loss of appetite for food or sex and – my two personal favorites – trouble-making tendencies and irritability. 🙂

Apparently the manual method employed by the doctors to relieve women of their “hysteria” had its drawbacks: doctor fatigue, wrist pain, and session length. In 1902, Hamilton Beach patented its design for home use and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. After that they were advertised openly in an array, of journals including “ladies’ journals” such as Needlecraft and the Sears Roebuck catalog (thanks to Wikipedia for Sears advertisement picture).

With regard to historical accuracy, the movie minimizes Dr. Granville’s original intent for his machine, but it colorfully and vividly portrays the medical diagnosis and treatment received by upper-class women who were discontent with their lot in life and, as such, were diagnosed as “hysterical.” It lightly touches on the roll and purpose of settlement houses and gives a brief nod to British women’s suffrage movement. (For more about settlement houses, see Jane Addams and her establishment of Hull House in Chicago, Illinois.)

Where does the word come from? From the belief that hysteria (in women) originated in disorders in the womb. Etymology: from Latin hystericus which translates to of the womb; from Greek husterikos from hustera which translates to the womb.

Other remedies for women’s hysteria? Well, there was the hysterectomy, which in the late 19th century was said to remove the source of the hysteria. Then there was the rest cure (popularized by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell) where women were forced to their beds and denied anything that might “stimulate” them (e.g., books, visitors, music, artwork, fiber crafts, family members, visitors [except a nurse who fed/bathed/massaged the woman]). (As you can imagine, there was definite class bias in both diagnosing women as hysterical and the recommended treatment.) Not only was the rest cure ineffective but, as described in Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s The Yellow Wallpaper, the “cure” had a deleterious effect on a woman’s sanity. Then there was the water cure, also useless.

Now does this all make you wonder what the medical profession advocated for male patients who exhibited extreme excitement and emotional disturbance?!

I may have to see the movie again and pay more attention to clothing. 🙂


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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20 Responses to Period Movies and Textiles

  1. Thank you — I am flattered and pleased you read my blog!


  2. I have seen Quantum Leap – but only 2 or 3 times – but I don’t remember the episode you mention. But, like you, I sometimes ignore the dialogue b/c I’m intently checking out the fiber crafts! 🙂


  3. I will now definitely see Red Riding Hood – but only tosee the crocheted shawl! I’ll check out the Jane Austen Book Club too!


  4. ddlollybabe says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I have nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award.
    If you’d like to accept this award then please take it to your blog and pass it on – if this is not your cup of tea then please accept this as a compliment on your blog.


  5. Vix says:

    The things men come up with… Obviously just another example of men trying to belittle women so they don’t realise their worth!
    As for movies, one of my favourites for costumes is Red Riding Hood with Amanda Seyfried. One of the girls wears a lovely crochet shawl in my favourite shade of yellow! I’ve just checked and Hysteria doesn’t come out over here until September but it’s definitely on my must-see list!
    I’d love to see more with people actually crafting in them. Another of my favourites (The Jane Austen Book Club) has one of the characters knitting almost constantly and later teaching one of the other characters, it always makes me smile


  6. grimdreamer says:

    I’ve never watched movies for knitted/crocheted wear but it’s something I might well take up! Have you ever seen Quantum Leap? There’s an episode where one of the female characters has a well-made cardigan with cabling on it. I was more impressed with her cardigan than her attempts to make the main character have babies with her. And the “hysteria” stuff… I count my blessings 😉


  7. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. (Today we saw Bernie which we quite enjoyed as well. It wasn’t at all like Hysteria. 🙂 )


  8. lostdododesigns says:

    Thanks for the interesting post! Hysteria is playing soon at our downtown theater and your post has made really excited to see it.


  9. Curls & Q says:

    In fact, two of the main characters are sisters who own a dressmaking business. 😎


  10. artyelf says:

    🙂 🙂 🙂 ← Me laughing!!


  11. I have no doubt my Thor would describe me as only calm, relaxed and unirritable. 🙂 And yes, I have no doubt women could come up with a CURE for men who bother us. 🙂


  12. Frightening, isn’t it?! And the “hysterical” diagnosis remained in place until 1952!!!!!


  13. I have a hunch a lot of us would have been considered irritable women and, thus, hysterical! But I would simply remind my husband that I was in charge of the kitchen and thus food preparation.


  14. I will take a peek … thank’s for the referral!


  15. I am sure you will enjoy it!


  16. Curls & Q says:

    We just finished the last episode of Larkrise to Candleford. Fabulous examples of fiber arts; from crocheted and knitted shawls to bobbin lace. One episode focused on Queenie, a character, making her bobbin lace. A must see.


  17. gossycrafts says:

    I’ve been wanting to see this movie! Thanks for reminding me it’s in theaters now, I’ll definitely have to track it down.


  18. Ethel says:

    Makes me grateful once again that I live in a more ‘enlightened’ era! But I can see why wealthy women went for the ‘cure’.


  19. artyelf says:

    Oh Dear Me!
    ‘Trouble-making tendencies and irritability’ – I fear I may be hysterical!
    Love your informed writing, and your obvious adoration for all things textile.
    And I’m sure, between us, we could devise something to cure those extremely excited and disturbed male patients!! ❀


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