Revisited Myth # 47: The fainting couch was invented during Victorian times for tightly corseted women to use whenever they felt faint.

19th-century tight lacing

19th-century tight lacing

Thanks to Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information at the Geneva Historical Society Geneva, NY, who sent this myth.

A recent study using reenactors showed that wearing corsets laced 3” tighter than natural reduced lung capacity by 2% to 29%. Some wearers felt short of breath but were easily relieved with rest. The conclusion: “Reports of corseted women fainting are likely to have been accurate,” especially during physical activity such as dancing. (See the excellent book, The Corset: A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele, 2003, for more info.)

So now we know that tightly corseted ladies were not faking the fainting spells, at least not all the time. But does it follow that fainting couches were invented and strewn about Victorian houses in case of sudden need?

In a word, no. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of the word daybed is 1594, but the actual object dates much earlier. Paging through the Dictionary of English Furniture turned up many, many examples of antique couches and daybeds—most upholstered or caned—from the 1600s forward, proving that this item of furniture was not a Victorian invention. While the term “fainting couch” seems to date from the Victorian era (sadly, there is no listing of it in the OED), the style existed in ancient Roman, Egyptian, and Greek times. (below top Greek, middle Roman, bottom Egyptian) According to historians at the Smithsonian, reclining furniture like these examples originated in the 7th century BC with the Greeks and spread to the Romans. (see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/ask-smithsonian/ask-smithsonian-why-did-ancient-greeks-and/)

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Actual Roman daybed found in the ruins of Herculaneum near Pompeii

Actual Roman daybed found in the ruins of Herculaneum near Pompeii

Since the Victorians were fond of reviving historical styles—think Greek Revival, Egyptian Revival, etc.—the adaptation of those early pieces to current use was a fashion statement as much as a useful piece of furniture. As such, they probably would have been found in the most fashionable rooms of the house, like the parlor. 

6 Responses to Revisited Myth # 47: The fainting couch was invented during Victorian times for tightly corseted women to use whenever they felt faint.

  1. Seems to me the key here is “invented.” The Victorians may not have invented the couch, but perhaps they invented the term.

  2. mjtierney1 says:

    The guy we bought our Victorian house from tried to convince us that the bathroom on the second floor had been converted from the “fainting room” needed to let the Victorian ladies rest after the arduous trip up the stairs. There was so much wrong with this that we didn’t attempt to correct him.

  3. We have a mid-18th century “caned couch” at Bacon’s Castle. It is not original to the house, but one was listed a 1755 probate inventory, so it was purchased along with other pieces like those that had been listed in the inventory.

    FWIW I get short of breath in early 19th c stays!

  4. The problem with the 3″-tighter study is that it doesn’t address how Victorian women were wearing their corsets. *Were* women often lacing shut corsets that fit with the intended 2-3″ gap in the back? And a lot depends on how the corsets are made and how well they fit in the first place, which the dissertation never really goes into. (Not to mention that a percentage change in waist measurement is more relevant than just how many inches of reduction.)

    Sorry, I just have a Thing about this.

  5. leezechka says:

    Reducing lung capacity does not mean instant fainting. You are talking about women who wore corsets every single day. The corsets had varying degrees of reduction based on what they were wearing and doing that day.

    Assuming that women were fainting all the time means you are assuming the women were too stupid to know their own limits, as if they were trying to run marathons in them or something. Women knew how to sit, move and how much they could or could not exert themselves in the clothes they were wearing. Tighter corsets would be reserved for evening events and dinners, not athletics. They would not have been running, cooking, cleaning or doing any real exertion in their formal clothing.

    Women were, however, smart enough to occasionally give a good faint for effect, for attention or possibly have legitimate fainting from illness.

    I have worn corsets and known many people who wear them regularly, never seen anyone faint.

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