In the Victorian era, a wide variety of conditions that primarily affected women were referred to as “the vapors.” Women were viewed as fundamentally weak during this period, and they were also believed to be more susceptible to a range of medical complaints. The stereotypical Victorian image of a woman swooning against a couch is a classic depiction of a woman who has been overcome by the vapors. Currently, this is not a recognized medical diagnosis.
The origins of this term lie in Ancient Greece and Rome, where doctors developed the Four Humors theory of medicine, which stated that the body was influenced by the balance of four “humors” seated in various organs of the body. Imbalances could theoretically cause ill health, and by determining the source of the imbalance, healthcare providers could prescribe the appropriate treatment. Medical professionals in the Victorian era believed that melancholy feelings had their roots in the spleen, and that they rose up through the body in the form of vapors that affected the mind.
While this might sound ludicrous today, this was widely accepted, and reinforced by claims that women were more susceptible to these feelings than men due to "irregularities" of their anatomy. The Greeks called it “female hysteria.” The condition added to the mystery of the “female condition,” and in some cases, the diagnosis hampered serious treatment of medical conditions like vaginal fistulas, a common complaint among Victorian mothers.
A wide variety of symptoms were lumped under “the vapors,” including anxiety, depression, bloating, fainting, loss of appetite, tremors, digestive issues, and behavioral problems. In an era where women were expected to adhere to very strict rules of behavior, free-spirited women like suffragettes were often diagnosed with this condition. The treatment most generally prescribed was rest, sometimes with the judicious application of smelling salts to revive swooning women.
At the time, medical professionals claimed that as much as a quarter of the female population was afflicted with the vapors. Given the wide variety of conditions that could be encompassed by this umbrella term, this is perhaps not surprising, especially since women who thought for themselves were often assumed to be suffering from this problem. Some Victorian women undoubtedly did have legitimate medical complaints that were left untreated, such as cancers, depression, underlying infections, and conditions caused by lacing corsets too tightly.
What is a Case of the Vapors?
The ideas and reasoning behind the vapors changed often over the course of history. Before the Victorian era, hysterical fainting spells were usually attributed to demonic possession or witchcraft. Women accused of witchcraft and found guilty by trial were typically hung, as it was classified as a felony in most European countries. Later, it became attributed to bodily functions and humorism, where the body was thought to be divided into black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. In the rare situations that men became overcame with the vapors, it was believed to be due to an imbalance of black bile coming from the spleen.
For women, it was associated exclusively with reproductive organs that distinguished them from men, such as the uterus and vagina. Scientists have thoroughly debunked this theory, and it is likely that women were simply dealing with the stress and anxiety of being solely dependent on a man, whether husband or father, to control every aspect of their lives. Additionally, many women probably used it to their advantage to escape situations they would have rather avoided. As it made them appear meek and feminine, they also could have been strategic about which men they fainted in front of.
Case of the Vapors Etymology
The term "case of the vapors" comes from the idea that vapors were emanating from a woman's womb and causing her to be overcome with dizziness, anxiety, and hysteria. The phrase was popularized during the Victorian Era in the 1800s and fell out of use around the time that psychiatry was popularized and other causes for the symptoms were investigated. People use the term today in a hyperbolic sense, or to associate an element of absurdity with whatever they are discussing. For example, a modern woman may say she has become overcome with the vapors as a way to jest about her assumed frailty as a member of the female sex; however, it is no longer used as a genuine term to describe a medical state.
Other Victorian Diseases
While a case of the vapors was not often serious or prolonged, people during the Victorian era, especially those of lower class, faced disease at almost every turn. The period saw the arrival of cholera, of which nothing was previously known. Spreading by contaminated water, the study of cholera in the 1800s led to the development of waste management and sewer systems as they operate today. Another common illness was smallpox; it ran rampant with a 30% fatality rate, covering those that did survive in disfiguring scars. It was eventually eradicated with the help of vaccines. Typhoid and scarlet fever also took many lives.
Close living quarters for the poor and a lack of proper hygiene led to mass outbreaks of all types of contagious diseases. Germ theory had not yet been developed, so many people did not understand how to prevent sickness from spreading. Contamination in water and food was a frequent vessel for illness, and knowledge of treatment options was experimental at best. The life expectancy for people in the time was around the age of 40, depending on individual factors.
How Were the Vapors Treated?
Treatment options ranged greatly depending on the time. When it was thought to be a case of demonic possession, exorcisms were performed by a priest to evict whatever spirits had taken hold of the body. When hysteria took root, many women were masturbated by doctors, as they believed that an orgasm could heal the womb of its illness.
To revive a woman who had fainted, smelling salts were held up to her nose until she woke up. Smelling salts are made from an ammonia compound that stimulates the nervous system. During the Victorian era, many men would carry around decorative vials of the salts to have on hand in the event that a woman collapsed in front of them. For severe cases that were most likely a display of mental illness, women were committed to asylums by their husbands or family members. Later on, lobotomies gained brief popularity as a way to treat women that were suffering from intense emotions.
Rather than investigate the social and economic climate that contributed to a woman's anxiousness or illness, it was consistent with the time to admit hysterical women to a sanitorium on the basis of delusions or penetrate her brain to stifle overactive emotions. Today, the list of treatments for diseases and disorders that may have fallen under the blanket category of the vapors is less grisly, ranging from antidepressants to iron supplements.