Marissa and Sarah discuss Georgians’ and Victorians’ love affair with Tuberculosis and the tuberculean aesthetic in fashion and art. In Georgian London, some diseases started to seem fashionable, desirable even. Gambling was popular, elites were using snuff and drinking spirits, powdering their hair, whitening their faces with toxic creams, damaging their bodies with restrictive clothes and hairstyles. Ladies of fashion were perceived to be particularly vulnerable to disease and this made them even more attractive. This is the context where tuberculosis first began shaping beauty standards. The Victorians took this even further. Pre-Raphaelite painters, their models, and the discovery of the tubercle bacillus germ brought new classed and gendered meanings to the tuberculean chic.
A thank-you to Carolyn Day and Amelia Rauser whose work was invaluable in producing this episode.
Other Episodes of Interest:
Tuberculean Chic: How the White Plague Shaped Beauty Standards in the 18th and 19th Centuries
Researched and written by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Sarah: There are two ways of understanding disease, illness, and health in history. One is the actual medical reality of disease, how it affects the body and one’s health. But another way of understanding disease is the way that culture attempts to depict or grapple with the medical reality of the disease, in other words the cultural reflections of the disease. One such example of this is the White Plague, otherwise known as tuberculosis. Today we’re going to be talking about how tuberculosis was understood culturally in the 18th and 19th centuries.
And I’m Marissa
And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Sarah: Tuberculosis is a disease, generally of the lungs but not necessarily limited to the lungs, caused by the mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease is spread through the air as an infected person coughs or speaks. The disease travels on the miniscule droplets of saliva, which are then inhaled by others in the vicinity. It can travel really quickly, but it can also hang around for a long time – people have become infected after 8 hour flights with an infected party. The disease is most commonly associated with a terrible, chronic, and wracking cough, often that causes the infected person to cough up blood. This is caused granulomas – little pockets of the bacillus that live in your lungs – break down, releasing the bacteria and creating bleeding cavities in your lungs. Once it’s in this phase, if it’s left untreated, it will eventually kill you because each of these cavities reduces the amount of healthy lung tissue, making it impossible to breathe. Even if you survive the tuberculosis, you’re left with permanently damaged lungs from scar tissue. It’s incredibly common in literature and film to see someone appear sick and then cough into a handkerchief, then pull it away to reveal blood. This is a shorthand for tuberculosis.
Marissa: Tuberculosis can take two forms: tuberculosis disease, or latent TB. Tuberculosis disease is when you immediately become ill upon becoming infected. However, it’s also possible to become infected, but experience no symptoms for weeks, months, or even years. Instead, the disease can lurk in your body and then you can become sick later on down the line.
Sarah: It also can spread beyond the lungs, or become extra-pulmonary tuberculosis. The disease can cause neck swellings, warp your spine, and infect your genito-urinary tract, where it repeats the process it undertakes in the lungs: creating bleeding cavities and dying tissue. It really is the stuff of horror movies.
Marissa: During the 19th and early 20th century, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States. According to writer Thomas Goetz, “At the Hopital de la Charite in Paris, more than one-third of autopsies performed in the early 1800s found the cause of death to be TB. By the end of the century, in 1890, the registrar general’s returns showed that nearly one half of those who died between 15 and 35 years of age died of consumption. This toll was particularly painful for the nascent life insurance industry. At the British Empire Mutual Life office, a calculation found that tuberculosis was responsible for more than three-quarters of company benefit payments.”
Sarah: The reason behind all these deaths in the 19th and early 20th century was not entirely clear. In fact, it wasn’t even called tuberculosis, but as you can hear in that quote from Thomas Goetz, it was called “consumption,” indicating the way that the disease seemed to “consume” the human body; or phthisis. It was so pervasive, and so slow moving, that it wasn’t actually believed to be an infection at all, but something that stemmed either from within, or without. Specifically, it either stemmed from the person’s innate nature – some people were of a consumptive character, naturally weak, quiet, sickly. There was also a theory that consumption was caused by your climate or lifestyle – consumptives tende to be white-collar workers in New England, according to the wisdom of the day. cold, wet climates were the very worst for consumptives, while dry, warm areas were the very best. This created an association that the Northeast was not good for your health, while the West was inherently healthful – cities like Los Angeles and Denver actively marketed themselves as particularly beneficial to one’s health, and created sort of a cottage industry of housing and attempting to ‘cure’ consumptives. A friend of the podcast, Jacki Antonovich, her dissertation is about female physicians in Denver, and most of them were working on consumptives. If you couldn’t make it that far – and many could not – there were sanitoriums all over, particularly in forested areas of high altitude. And example of this is the tiny little town that I lived in called Orwell NY, it’s so tiny it’s more like a hamlet than a town. It had on the outskirts of town, carved into this forested area, this big, white sanitorium, it was beautiful, it was called Unity Acres. I could never figure out what it was doing in this tiny place, and it turns out it was a tuberculosis sanitorium for many years in the early 20th century. And now of course it is not a tuberculosis sanitorium, in fact now it is a home for homeless men.
Marissa: LIke officially?
Sarah: Yes! I don’t know if it was called Unity Acres back then, but that’s what it’s called now.
Marissa: Because of its association with white collar workers, it was associated with the highly educated, the middle to upper class, and white people; because of this, plus the fact that it was not considered communicable but inherent, it was not a disease that was stigmatized. In fact, it was just the opposite – as we’ll discuss soon, it was deeply romanticized. In the 19th c., there existed a romantic, sentimental culture surrounding death called “The Good Death.” This idea or belief taught that there was an ideal way to die: quietly, calmly, clean and painless (or at the very least bearing your pain stoically) surrounded by your family and friends, and accepting of your fate. You’ve had enough time, ideally, to make your peace with those around you, and, importantly, to impart some final wisdom – the dying were thought to have a liminal status between heaven and earth, the mortal and the spiritual, and thus were able to impart greater truths. This was incredibly important for those who survived, and if a dying person died a death where those things weren’t possible, it could be deeply traumatizing. This is why the Civil War was very distressing, people were just dying in less than ideal circumstances.
Sarah: Right, without people there to hear their final words, and things like that.
Marissa: Tuberculosis was the ideal disease for this: you died very, very slowly, the disease forced you to slow down, rest. It was thought that, according to our professor Erik Seeman, that tuberculosis “winnowed you down to your core,” the very essence of your character. It was almost an ideal way of living: it could produce people who were contemplative, focused on the spiritual and intellectual, who died beautiful deaths.
Sarah: I think it should come as no surprise that this changed when German physician Robert Koch, in 1882, announced that he had discovered the cause of tuberculosis: it was not inborn, but rather a “bacilli,” which he called the “tubercule bacillus.” The disease, he argued, was spread through the sputum, and in an age before germ theory was widely understood by the general public, people believed it was akin to a parasite which was spread through the saliva. Which is really not all that far off case. Obviously bacteria is not exactly a parasite, but there are some parallels, so it makes sense. I should also say that it doesn’t spread from direct contact, from instead from, aero… isn’t it called aerosolate?
Marissa: I thought that sputum included boogers?
Sarah: Right, and that’s not how it spread. It lives in your voice box, and as it grows it attaches to the water droplets of your breath. So if you spit in the street, it’s not going with the saliva; or if you’re making out with someone. It only spreads through the cough. Does that make sense?
Sarah: And of course people did not know that, they thought it was the saliva. So what resulted was a drastic when the news that Koch discovered that this was caused by bacterium, there was a change in the way tuberculosis was culturally understood: it stops being the romantic disease of upper class consumptives, and starts being the disease of the rabble, the immigrants and minorities who lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions in the cities. This is when tuberculosis becomes part of the screenings at Ellis Island, as physicians listened to the lungs of incoming immigrants; when early social workers flocked into the inner cities to teach poor people – who were assumed to be filthy and unhygenic – how to keep clean homes and take on healthy habits; and when Progressive-era reforms were undertaken to clean up city streets. A fun fact about other cultural changes that the discovery of the bacillus lead to include women’s fashion. Women had worn very long skirts for decades, and suddenly ankle-length dresses came into fashion because women were afraid of dragging their skirts through the spittle in teh streets. Men wore beards less often, because they were believed to trap spittle and spread, or catch, disease. It also leads to changes in decor: fear that germs could be lurking in fussy Victorian curtains, overstuffed chairs, carpets – leads the way to more hard surfaces like wood; Dr. Seeman also made the point that bathrooms became more “sterile,” using easy to clean surfaces like porcelain and tile. Which I think is really fascinating. We tend to think of disease as constant, as a fact. It’s just, illness is illness. But it reaches out and has all these implications on the larger culture. One last note here, too: in the South, tuberculosis was a black disease, and one that was especially considered a disease of freedom: white Southerners argued that enslaved people had not suffered from tuberculosis because they had been so well cared for; now that they were impoverished, they were getting sick, proving they couldn’t care for themselves, they were not ‘fit’ for freedom. Of course, it was more a factor of where and how they were living because of the overpowering racism in the south that put them into positions where they were more likely to contract TB, thus creating a vicious cycle of victim blaming.
Marissa: Literary scholars, philosophers, and art historians love to study tuberculosis because of its strong presence in literature (which Sarah alluded to) but also because of the development of a tuberculean aesthetic. 18th and 19th century Artists, clothing designers and cosmetic peddlers developed a “look” that inspired a new standard of beauty. This look, what some scholars call “consumptive chic,” replicated the symptoms of TB and became a fashion goal for many Victorian women.
Sarah: In 18th century London, some diseases started to seem fashionable, desirable even. J.M. Adair wrote in his Treatise on Fashionable Diseases–is that really what it’s called?!
Sarah: “People of no rank and slender means presume to intrude on the province of their superiors by fashionably ruining themselves, their families and connections.” In Marissa’s research she has found evidence that elites were considered to be so genteel, so refined, that their lives collapsed into debauchery. This is a time when gambling was super popular, elites were using snuff and drinking spirits, powdering their hair, whitening their faces with toxic creams, damaging their bodies with restrictive clothes and hairstyles. A whole host of nervous disorders entered the medical realm and the most fashionable women were also the most sensitive, nervous women. And by nervous I mean they were perceived to be mentally, emotionally and physically so delicate that it was pathologized. These fashionable ladies were perceived to be particularly vulnerable to diseases like childbed fever or TB.
Marissa: This is the world where tuberculosis first became attractive and fascinating to people. The 18th century was a time when the novel enjoyed new popularity. These new romantic, sentimental stories about people’s lives had many characters who tragically died from TB. It became so common that Clark Lawlor, a literary scholar, calls TB the “literary disease.” Historian Carolyn Day and art historian Amelia Rauser argue that artists were already beginning to pick up on the attractiveness of the tuberculean body in the 1790s. They write about Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Lady Manners. She appears hunched, feverish, frail and pale.
Sarah: I just want to add that this ideal, this romantic sort of sickly ideal of consumptive characters continues into the 19th century. There are innumerable characters, even if they don’t specifically tell you that they are consumptive, have that kind of character. They’re very weak, they’re very pale, they cough all the time. One of the examples that I can think of right off the top of my head is Beth in Little Women. It’s never mentioned that she has TB or is consumptive, but she is this sickly character through the whole thing. And as I’ve mentioned before, it’s understood that Beth is “better” than them. She’s more moral, she’s more connected to the spiritual, and it’s because she is sickly. And she does die at the end. Another example is Mimi from La Boheme, the opera by Puccini, she’s one of the most famous tuberculosis deaths in theater and literature. And that’s not written until the end of the 19th century.
Marissa: Probably as a result of consuming literary portrayals of tuberculosis, people began to think that women with TB had contracted the disease because they were so beautiful, pure, and sensitive. Most people believed that outward appearance belied internal character. The reality that they usually died young made them even more desirable to observers. It’s that whole “Only the Good die young” thing… they hold a spot in public memory as tender, beautiful souls struck down in the prime of life. They were “too good to live”— too perfectly sensitive and too tragically delicate for this world.
Sarah: Exactly, and if I can just pause you for a second, that’s exactly how Beth is portrayed in Little Women. She’s too good to live, she’s so much better than the rest of the sisters, in a moral sense.
Marissa: This is basically fetishizing dying young, and I think we still do this today.
Marissa: There’s the 27 club. It now has a ton of people, but the main ones are Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and I guess Amy Winehouse.
Sarah: Not to go off on a 27 club tangent, but do you notice anything about them?
Marissa: Um… drugs? [laughs]
Sarah: Yeah! We think of it as they were so artistic, so tapped into something, that their physical selves couldn’t handle it. But they were all drug addicts. And maybe those things go together… an artistic personality is more prone to depression which is more prone to self-medicating, but there’s a fetishizing of that, when actually they all sort of killed themselves.
Marissa: Some people think Courtney killed Kurt!
Sarah: …. Yeah.
Sarah: So Thomas Lawrence, a painter Marissa has mentioned before, in some ways was ahead of his time. He seemed in tune with this new burgeoning trend. Day and Rauser argue that he painted Lady Manners with the “consumptive chic” in mind. He was flattering her by portraying her as delicate, sensitive, and just the kind of fashionable lady that would be prone to TB. Many people were appalled by just how sickly she looked in the portrait. It was not terribly popular but a few people were excited by the image. People didn’t quite “get it” just yet. It was perhaps a little too avant-garde for most people to understand, but Georgian society was still kind of flirting with this idea of tuburculean chic.
Marissa: In the later part of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century, there was a pre-occupation with the social sciences. People were intent on solving social ills, such as poverty and illness. It’s no accident that Marxism, public sanitation, homeopathy, psychology, etc. developed at this time. As part of this, Physicians became fixated on tuberculosis and wrote extensive treatises on how to avoid, diagnose and treat it. Physicians published somewhat sexualized descriptions of female TB patients. This is not uncommon for medical treatises, but to non-medical historians it might seem strange. Like, what’s sexual about this?
Sarah: Right, it’s really common in medical history to see these kinds of descriptions that you’re going to tell us about. Even in the artistic anatomy manuals, they feature these really beautiful, tragic, always very young women, who died in the prime of life, and there’s always something trangressive about opening and entering the bodies of these women as physicians.
Marissa: The first quote I have is from Richard Brooks, written in 1765: “the slender Make of the whole Body, a long Neck, a flat and narrow Thorax, depressed Scapulae, the Blood of a bright red, thin, sharp, and hot, the Skin transparent, very white and fair, with a blooming red in the Cheeks.”
Sarah: Another example comes from Thomas Hayes in 1785. He wrote: “Persons, who are most subject to become consumptive, are of a delicate make, fair complexion and florid countenance, soft skin, long necks, narrow chests, prominent shoulders and hips sticking out like wings. . . . Many of the above description have constitutionally weak lungs . . . but these do not always produce mischief, till colds or some other cause, sets them in a flame which ends in suppuration, hectic fever, ulcers, and consumption.”
Marissa: And then, there’s one last one, it’s a shorter one, written by William May in 1792, “the cheeks being as red as crimson, whilst the rest of the skin is pale and bloodless.” Now these may not seem overtly sexual to us right now but these descriptions were provocative, lurid, borderline pornographic to people at the time. The medical exploitation of the tuberculean woman’s body made a clear connection between TB and sexual attractiveness and even promiscuity.
Sarah: So as we said earlier, TB became fashionable because it was associated with purity,, respectability, and sensitivity. But as is often the case, women couldn’t win one way or the other in this situation. As the 1800s progressed and the working-classes contracted the illness in large numbers, women with tuberculosis were thought to be consumed with desire, in other words, over-sexed. So still tragic figures but in a naughty kind of way… once again like many people in the 27 club.
Marissa: Like you said, you almost think of the 27 club as glamorous, they were just tragic souls, even though they had so much going for them. Enter the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an artistic community formed in 1848 London by artists William Holman Hunt & John Everett Millais, poet-artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Rossetti’s poet siblings William Michael Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. They held monthly meetings to share their artistic and literary creations. They shared an interest in the historical period before Raphael, before the Renaissance (hence “pre-Raphaelite”).
Sarah: That’s really weird, that they would be like, “yeah we’re really interested in this period just before Raphael….” Honestly, were there people like, yes, that period, I know what you mean, and I see what’s appealing about that. For me, I’m like… who cares? What is that, the 1400s?
Marissa: Right, [laughs], well they felt like Raphael’s work was a watershed. It was the beginning.
Sarah: Were they sort of like early hipsters?
Marissa: Yes! Did you read my copy?!
Sarah: [laughs] So they liked Raphael because he wasn’t cool.
MArissa: No, they liked what came before him (because he was cool).
MArissa: Because that wasn’t cool.
Sarah: Ok. Continue.
Marissa: Ok, [laughs]. They felt like Raphael’s work was a watershed, the beginning of the modern artistic world. But they were interested in what came before this world which they were familiar with because they lived in it. They wanted to understand the medieval and ancient world, its aesthetic, its old languages, they were fascinated by the foreign-ness of it.
Sarah: So tell me when Raphael was painting.
Marissa: 15th century.
Sarah: So early 1400s?
Marissa: Basically middle ages. Anything before Raphael.
Sarah: So everything dated before Raphael.
Marissa: Yes. They’re showing that Raphael was the important moment of change, giving him a special place in history. They’re interested in everything that came before Raphael — all the stuff people don’t care about because it comes before the Renaissance.
Sarah: It was him that caused the modern…
Marissa: Raphael might have been in the 27 club. I’ll have to check that. He died really young of venereal disease. So he’s like one of those…
Sarah: Interesting. Ohhhh. So he might be an appealing character for artistic types. I get it. Sort of.
Marissa: So I’ll read these numbers, and then you can start after that. There are four things that characterize pre-Raphaelite art, these come from art historians. And I am going to geek out because I was an Art History minor, so I love this stuff. But there are these four things that will help you identify if something is Pre-Raphaelite.
They crosses media: their ideas crossed poetry, song and painting. They would have this kind of idea or theme or subject, and they would depict it in all different ways, different medias.
Borrowed from many other languages and literary forms, Greek, Icelandic, and Italian poetry, Middle-English and Anglo-Saxon verse. They took these old languages, and they would translate from them, or they would use old words or verses in their work.
Pre-occupied with the material forms of literary and representative work: so books or pages as art themselves. So rather than what’s in the books, it’s the book that’s the art.
Sought to shake up conventional art with aesthetics that they perceived to be from a long-forgotten past.
Even though they saw themselves as reviving an old aesthetic, old languages, and old forms of literature, their paintings were regarded as jarring, bizarre and avant-garde to other Victorians. Some critics call their genre medievally-inspired modernism. There was nothing traditional or old-fashioned about it. If you think about it, it makes sense– it had been 400 years since the life of Raphael. Raphael was famous for his classical style and coincidentally, the printing press was invented during his lifetime. So “modern” vernaculars were developed around this time as well. In many ways, it was the dawn of the modern world (Raphael’s lifetime, I mean). So medieval and ancient artistic forms would have seemed very foreign to a society which had been observing classical art and reading modern vernacular languages for hundreds of years.
Sarah: Pre-Raphaelites brought artistic and literary forms that seemed super outdated and used them to represent parts of modern life. The effect was so bizarre and unfashionable that it was fashionable again. This reminds me of hipsters crocheting and cross-stitching and curling their mustaches with wax. Another thing it reminds me of, I went to an event at the Science Museum in Buffalo, and there was this exhibition of taxidermists, and there was all these traditional taxidermists, and they were male, and they were like, here is a deer-head, here is a … very traditional taxidermy. And then there was this one young woman who has a shop in Allentown (chic neighborhood in Buffalo) and there were all these tiny plaques with like, a baby’s squirrel’s head wearing a jaunty haunt and like, holding flowers. There were these really bizarre connections between very old, traditional aesthetics, and updated in this very cheeky way.
Marissa: Right, and one of my favorite podcasts, My Favorite Murder, has a huge fan base. These people cross-stitch murder quotes from the show and one person even knitted an Ed Gein nipple-belt for them. Think of the juxtaposition between the old-lady aesthetic of knitting with a dark, modern obsession with serial murder and violence. It’s so weird that it’s almost cool!
Sarah: So what does this have to do with tuberculosis? Well, the pre-Raphaelites were known for using working-class models that they found on the streets. They tended to choose women who were NOT conventionally beautiful. But they did have a particular aesthetic in mind and it was based on their desire to shake things up: to inject the dowdy and outmoded with the modern for some shock value. In doing so, they redefined what “beautiful” actually meant for Victorian women. A Part of this new beauty standard was the tuberculean-chic.
Marissa: This all started with Elizabeth Siddal. Lizzie Siddal worked in a millinery shop when an artist named Walter Deverell discovered her and asked her to sit for one of his paintings. This was the beginning of her modeling career. She appears in many pre-Raphaelite paintings, most famously as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s super famous painting. Now you have to stop and go google it. It’s like this woman, in this pond, her red hair is floating, and she’s laying in this pool. She had an on-again, off-again relationship and eventual marriage with one of the founding artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was his muse, lover and obsession for nearly a decade. She herself sketched, wrote poetry and painted also during this time. And we have a lot of her artwork still.
Sarah: She contracted tuberculosis as a young teen, before her modeling career. But her health declined dramatically after she modeled for Ophelia in 1852. Some have argued this was because Millais had her float in a bathtub filled with tepid water for hours on end. Sounds like a real nice guy. But it was probably just a matter of time before her tuberculosis became worse. She also suffered from an addiction to laudanum, which is a hardcore opiate. So that probably didn’t help. I should pause here, I didn’t mention this at the beginning. Tuberculosis is one of these diseases where if you’re healthy and you get it, you’re going to have a bad time, you’re going to be very ill, but it will take a very different course if you’re someone who is already in weakened health. If you are impoverished and don’t have access to good nutrition, or if you are addicted to drugs. It’s going to be much worse. So it was probably that, and not the bathtub.
Marissa: In 1860, she married Rossetti though their relationship was still rocky. He often had affairs with other women and they argued constantly. Lizzie manipulated him often, using her ill health to guilt him into doing whatever she wanted. They had a very passionate but very co-dependent relationship, dancing on the line of abuse. In 1861 she became pregnant and gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She, unsurprisingly fell into a deep depression. She and Rossetti were both devastated. She purportedly became pregnant again immediately after but her depression and laudanum addiction were worse than ever. She died of a laudanum overdose in early 1862 at the age of (get this… 27…)
Sarah: OH MY GOD.
Marissa: No just kidding she was 33. But that would be cool.
Sarah: Most of the other pre-Raphaelite models were very similar-looking to Elizabeth Siddal and had a similar past to her→ working-class London women such as Janet Burden, Jane Morris, Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, and Alexa Wilding. They were the daughters of servants, blacksmiths, butchers, day laborers, etc. Some, but not all, of them suffered from the poor health common to the working-class in an industrial city. What did the prototypical pre-Raphaelite model look like? Usually just like Lizzie Siddal: flaming red hair, large pupils, tired, heavy-lidded eyes, pale skin, feverish rosy cheeks and lips, shiny eyes, angular jaw, wide mouth, a tall boyish, wasting frame, a flattened chest, long pale neck, stooped shoulders, a boney back, and long, thin limbs, large boney hands. One scholar describes them well as having “cadaverous bodies and sensual mouths.” This “look” became what one historian of tuberculosis calls “the unhealthy, perverted symbol of Romanticism.”
Marissa: I think Siddal looked a lot like uma Thurman but with dark red hair. She sort of had those wide-apart eyes. But just to give our listeners something to go off before you can go Google it.
Marissa: Unlike Lawrence 50 years earlier, Rossetti and the other pre-Raphaelites were very effective at shaping public perceptions of the ideal woman. This is probably due to the way that TB had been ravaging much larger numbers of people. For centuries the ideal woman had been buxom, with a small, pert mouth, large forehead, oval face, a soft jaw, fair hair, tiny hands and feet– all softness and gentility and fertility, they looked healthy and precious and lovely. The symptoms of TB accentuated some of these attractive features in a way that was not achievable otherwise. So we can see bits of tuberculean fashion in the 18th century, like that Lady Manners painting we were talking about, but the preferred aesthetic was still within the realm of classical beauty. So in the 18th century, people thought that Tuberculosis enhanced what was already considered beautiful at the time.
Sarah: The pre-Raphaelite models turned tuberculean chic on its head, offering a wholly new aesthetic that was tuberculean in an industrial, dark, dramatic and romantic way. This new ideal that was emerging was in direct opposition to what had been considered beautiful in the classical past. So all of these pre-Raphaelite models tended to have those same physical characteristics, though not all of them were particularly sickly. Lizzie Siddal, Janet Burden and Alex Wilding were chronically ill women. Burden lived long but was often ill and Wilding died at the age of 37 from a splenic tumor. Most of the other pre-Raphaelite models were healthy, hearty women but they still had the tuberculean features that Siddal was famous for. She might have had those features because she actually had TB but the rest of the models just so happened to have the large, bony frames and flushed faces that were symptoms of the disease. So even if they didn’t have TB, their faces and bodies promoted the aesthetic.
Marissa: It’s really quite amazing how similar they all look, and some art historians even have a hard time figuring out which model is sitting for which painting. They have small differences in their colors, but they all look really similar.
Sarah: That’s really interesting.
Marissa: The reason we know that this new aesthetic really took off and became an ideal of beauty is this: We saw a flourishing of garment and cosmetic fashions that were aimed at making women LOOK like they had tuberculosis. Dresses began to take on different designs. Instead of upright hourglasses with hoisted breasts and loose arms, the new fashion forced women to hunch over, prevented them from lifting their arms, and made their chests appear more concave and narrow. Women began trying to achieve a bony frame and long limbs, rather than trying to fatten themselves up. Others used cosmetics to portray a feverish complexion, shiny eyes, pallid face and flushed cheeks and lips. As historian Carolyn Day put it at a conference I attended, “beauty was the index to the heart.” She was describing how fashion and cosmetics were used to portray oneself as a certain KIND of person with certain KINDS of personal qualities. Fashion was just as much about character and behavior as it was about appearance.
Sarah: So all this conversation really has been about women trying to portray this tuberculean chic as a way to give a kind of shorthand of what kind of person they were. So they were quiet, contemplative. I just want to end before we end, this is fascinating to me in contrast to what we see in the 19th century US. At this time, before the bacteria was discovered, it was often understood as a male disease. Men and women both got consumption, but it fit in with what was already expected of women. Quiet, spiritual, etc. So women had it, it was normal — that was an extension of their femaleness. It wasn’t pathologized. So what happens when it is a male sufferer is really interesting. THere’s a lot of anxiety about men living on the east coast working in white collar jobs becoming effeminized by the kind of work they are doing. There is a lack of vigor, leading drdgery kind of lives. THis spills out in a number of ways. So men who have tuberculosis, rather than “tuberculean chic,” it was an emergency. Men were encouraged to go West, go into the forests, be one with nature. This is part of the reason the parks were preserverd, to ensure we’d have a place to go when the United States’ “character” was in trouble because they were stuck in the cities. There had to be healthful spaces where men could be men. According to historian Sheila Rothman, a lot of men saw working on naval vessels as quinessentially male, masculine, so a lot went to the sea. Joined the merchant marines, to try to make themselves more male.
Marissa: Right, because tuberculean chic made you the ideal woman, and for a man to have TB, that made him feminine.
Sarah: And so this is really fascinating to me. This isn’t something I write about in my own work, but I love to read and teach about it, is the panic over the nervous diseases of the 19th century, like neuresthenia. And as I went over the reading for this episode, all of the ‘cures’ for tuberculosis in men were the same as the treatments for neuresthenia. Get outside, be hypermasculine, live what Teddy Roosevelt called the “strenous life.” Hike mountains, wrestle bears, go to war. It seems like we have cycles of this in the US. We have these panics of masculinity, and then FOOTBALL, ARMY, etc. But in this case, it’s tied not just to a paranoia, but to an actual illness.
MArissa: And it might be worth asking why the sypmtoms of this communicable disease are the same as the symptoms of being an “ideal woman.”
Sarah: Yes, there’s something disturbing that the ideal woman is sick and dying.
Marissa: Right, and the ideal man is strapping and walking around in parks and had a hairy chest and ate beef.
Sarah: [laughs] No, you’re absolutely correct. And what’s worse, women slowly kill themselves to try and achieve that aesthetic, through the clothing they wear, the corsets that squeeze the air out of you, the makeups and creams leeched into the skin that poison you. In order to achieve that look, which looked as though you were sick, you were maiing yourself sick.
MArissa: I think it’s no coincidence that the tuberculean chic look (for women) is happening at the same time as the masculinity crisis. I think that’s my point, that when men are feeling the least secure about their manliness, then it’s important to be as weak and sad and quiet as possible.
Sarah: Because a weak and quiet woman is easy to control. She acquiesces to male power.
Marissa: But they don’t think of it that way. They just think hey, that skinny coughing woman is hot. It’s so internalized that they don’t realize it.
Sarah: Right, and it all goes hand-in-hand with industrialization and ubranization and concerns about race suicide… it’s all happening in the stew of the 19th century. It’s definitely better than the 18th century which is stupid and dumb [laughs].
Marissa: In terms of art, I have to agree. It’s so interesting to connect the 19th century aesthetic with what’s going on, the culture and stuff, the 19th century is so deep. [laughs]
Sarah: Thanks for listening! Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest! Leave us a rating and review where ever you get your podcasts. Bye!
Show Notes & Further Reading
Brandt, Chris. “Tuberculosis And Its Impact On Medicine, Research, And Fashion Trends.” University Herald.
Byrne, Katherine. Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Day, Carolyn A., and Amelia Rauser. 2016. “Thomas Lawrence’s Consumptive Chic: Reinterpreting Lady Manners’s Hectic Flush in 1794”. Eighteenth-Century Studies. 49, no. 4: 455-474.
Denoyelles, Adrienne. “Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free: Tuberculosis in Progressive Era New York City.” Nursing Clio.
Dubos, René J., Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz, and Jean Dubos. The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Goetz, Thomas. “When TB Was a Death Sentence: An Excerpt From ‘The Remedy,’” The Daily Beast.
Helsinger, Elizabeth. “Pre-Raphaelitism.” The Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature. Felluga, Dino Franco, Pamela K. Gilbert and Linda K. Hughes (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2015. Blackwell Reference Online. 07 April 2017.
Mullin, Emily. “How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion.” Smithsonian Magazine.
Rothman, Sheila M. Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.