The Fainting Couch Revisited


“There was a time when fainting was considered a virtue of the well-brought up young lady”

As crazy as it sounds, there was a time when fainting was considered a virtue of the well-brought up young lady, herself a victim of circumstance from having been poured into, then tightly cinched between thoroughly uncomfortable trusses and lace ties of a form-fitting corset.

The corset represented a fundamental shift in the concept of tailoring: clothes, shaped to the body since the Middle Ages and Renaissance; the body, now brought to heel and conform to the fashionable shape of clothing worn. Exactly when the Rubenesque ideal for women fell out of favor, replaced by the hourglass obsession for Victorian corsetry, is open for discussion. There is only one 16th century reference to a small waist being desirable. And, truth be told, the real purpose of early corsets was to fashion a flat-torso, not a tiny waist; the introduction of the bustle, best left for another topic at another time.

However, any history of the ‘fainting couch’ must first touch upon the indentured contract women of a certain generation had with the self-preservation of their own chastity. Since no young woman could likely get out of her corset alone (even with a lady’s maid it took time).

Too bad for women of stature, the corset also came with its own set of damaging physical attributes; not the least, permanent indentations in the skin along with bruising, an artificial curvature and overall weakening of the spine, restricted blood flow to the outer extremities and the head, and, of course, the need – now and then – to swoon, either on cue, or for legitimate reasons (the heat, the gin, the opium, the sheer weight of their undergarments etc. et al). Since the very idea of discovering a woman face-planted in the solarium, feet and crinolines pointed to the sky, was practically as hateful as the thought of noticing her locked in the arms of a stage door Lothario not her husband, furniture manufacturers of the day invented a rather ingenious – and less offending contraption, to promote graceful dizzy spells and the occasional full-on black out.

With its removable side panels, capable of being lowered or raised, and its semi-chaise design, the fainting couch became a fashionable accoutrement in more affluent front parlors belonging to fashionable high society; also, inside the better whorehouses along San Francisco’s Barbary Coast where they were custom-made and oversized to accommodate extracurricular activities not entirely recommended or endorsed by their manufacturers.

Lest we insult vintage furniture artisans; there is a distinction to be made between the fainting couch and the as popularized chaise lounge; the shape and placement of the back of a fainting couch running alongside the longer edge of the couch (as it would with any couch) whereas the back of the chaise lounge favors the shorter end (as it would any chair).

A fainting couch, while convenient for those about to plummet to the earth, was nevertheless a carefully devised ‘enabler’ encouraging the enslavement rather than women’s liberation. Even so, while the corset eventually fell completely out of favor (replaced by the more ‘user friendly’ girdle and permutations of it ever since), the fainting couch has ironically never entirely fallen out of favor. Psychiatrists in the 1940s found it a useful appendage for their clientele.

But today, the fainting couch endures quite comfortably as a quaint relic from a bygone era; sneakily updated to suggest something else. More than likely, those in possession of one of its more modern derivatives have absolutely no idea of the purpose for which it was originally designed, chiefly because some of its features, apart from being streamlined to favor modern design aesthetics, have also been lost along the way.

Most contemporary ‘fainting couches’ do not contain removable or adjustable side panels. No one actually faints on a fainting couch anymore.  It’s just a handsome piece of furniture, not quite a sofa, and decidedly not a chaise. So, a ‘fainting couch’ becomes a conversation piece; ‘interesting’ or ‘oddly satisfying’ purely as a ‘look’.

And, regrettably, that ‘look’ is neither improved upon nor enriched through the gauzy reflections into these flawed portholes from the past; from amiable maiden to well-heeled dowager, weighted down in her horsehair petticoats and steel hoops; cut down in her prime of discussion and gossip on the latest bonnet or beau on a ripe summer’s afternoon; rushed indoors to be fanned and fussed over by a barrage of attendants blotting at her accrued beads of sweat with a non-absorbent lace hanky. Charming – not!

Neither is the prospect of swooners stricken with chronic arsenic-poisoning. As even crazier than it sounds, environmental concerns were either casually overlooked or not even considered; exposure to arsenic fumes widely used in the manufacture of virtually everything from fabrics, paints and paper used to wrap food, resulted in an outbreak of arsenic poisoning cases.

Just one factoid to consider: by the end of the 1800s, almost all wallpaper was, in fact, heavily laced with arsenic. Good adhesion. Bad idea. So a drooping violet, sporting fashionable face paint made of mercury, and, hair dyes derived from a lead-based compound, wearing fabrics dyed and manufactured in arsenic, likely did her face-planting into the side cushion of a fainting couch whose material had also undergone a similar dye-transfer process. Rushing to her aid, a well-intended suitor might wish to restore his future bride by offering her a sip of wine…tainted with copper. Brilliant!

Is it any wonder the more wealthier Victorians suffered from seizures (theoretically, swooning)? And yet, swooning on the whole likely had little to do with such poisoning than with the art of a good swoon, frankly considered the mark of a true aristocrat and accomplished lady. The high-stationed lass, groomed in the art of swooning, and of sufficient age to make others care when she did, made for the stuff of great literature. And, lest we forget, she gave men another reason to believe themselves superior to the fairer flower of their complimentary sex.

The other potential incentive for the swooner was ‘the fainting room’; a place of distinction, complete with fainting couches, a doctor and/or midwife skilled to handle feminine hysteria and quell unwanted rumors regarding the reason for ‘the spell’.  In the end, the fainting couch served its purpose. Today, it continues to find favor in living rooms around the world; doubtlessly doubling for a chaise, or simply installed to add a touch of glamor in lieu of a good sofa, sectional or love seat.  Shall we weep into our pillows, cast a faint head upwards to the sky or simply have a seat? Smelling salts optional.

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