This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian.

During chillier seasons, one may feel constricted by layers of sweaters, coats, scarves and other accessories designed to keep us warm and comfortable. But imagine how our foremothers felt in their confining corsets, also known as “stays,” of yesteryear.

Although corsets had been in use for centuries, the practice of tight-lacing became widespread during the mid to late nineteenth century. Striving to achieve a fashionable hourglass figure, many women cinched their frames into corsets that provided the illusion of an extremely tiny waist, exaggerated bustline, and fuller hips. The desired circumference was often as small as 17 to 19 inches, and the resulting silhouette was sometimes called a “Wasp Waist.”

The Lungs. These delicate and beautiful organs . . . Broadside, ca. 1830.

Integral to a young woman’s upbringing was the adherence to a strict regimen of proper etiquette. Part of a mother’s responsibility was to enforce the use of a corset from a very young age. By the prepubescent and adolescent years, many young women considered the corset a necessary evil in their daily lives, some even being forced to sleep in these devices. Sadly, this extreme compression and distortion could lead to a wide array of medical problems, especially in a growing girl.

C.C.C. Mother Goose Picture Book (Chicago: Chicago Corset Company, 1884).

As with any movement, there were proponents both for and against these restrictive corsets. Men and women who supported the use of this style of undergarment believed it provided proper support, encouraged lady-like posture, and made the fairer sex appear more attractive, refined, and intelligent. Those who were opposed to such corsets, specifically the tight-lacing thereof, argued that these “stays” were the cause of numerous and serious health problems. Among the many injurious effects of corsets were the following: difficulty breathing, collapsed lungs, bruised or fractured ribs, stunted growth, dizziness and fainting due to reduction in blood flow, distortion of spine, chronic gastrointestinal problems, and damage to or displacement of internal organs.

Emily Thornwell, The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856).

In this excerpt from a turn-of-the-century letter written by popular American singer, Emma Thursby (1845-1931), she describes a medical mishap caused by a too-tight corset:

I ordered the Doctor’s Corset from Modica’s place. Wore it two days and was nearly killed. It upset all my internal arrangements and made me sick at my stomach. Dr. Fisher says I should never wear them, so I have had to order another from somewhere else. Rather dear expensive – 80 francs worth. Mrs. Walden treated me four times & said my liver was cured.

Emma Thursby, letter to “Incher” (?), August 1, 1900, p. 1. Emma Thursby Papers.

Emma Thursby, letter to “Incher” (?), August 1, 1900, p. 2. Emma Thursby Papers.

This trend also coincided with the Industrial Revolution. While mass production provided higher volume and accessibility, it also led to decreasing numbers of hand-sewn corsets tailored to suit a woman’s exact measurements, thereby resigning women of all shapes to squeeze their bodies into standard-sized garments. However, as the nineteenth century progressed, a number of manufacturers began offering “Health Corsets” as an alternative to the unforgiving “stays.” These less restrictive garments were designed with elastic panels, cotton netting and ventilation for more comfort and freedom of movement.

“The Emancipation Waist,” Hygienic Undergarments for Ladies and Children (New York: Alice Fletcher & Co., 1878).

As fashions changed and preferences evolved, tight-lacing lost much of its appeal. But we can see very clearly the influence of contemporary styles, societal norms, and gender expectations on an entire nation’s lifestyle choices, public opinion, and media perception. One small step for women’s undergarments, one giant leap for womankind.