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July 19, 2020

Cabinet Card of a Provocative Woman on a Fainting Couch in Chicago, Illinois

This cabinet card features a young smiling woman lying on a fainting couch. The image is quite risque for its time. The style and folds of the woman’s dress, her exposed feet, her smile and her body language all contribute to the provocativeness of this image.


Fainting couches were popular in the 19th century and used predominately by woman. They are couches with a back that is traditionally raised at one end. There are two major theories as to why these type of couches became popular.

One theory for the predominance of fainting couches is that women were actually fainting because their corsets were laced too tightly, thus restricting blood flow. However, pictures from the 1860s show women horseback riding, playing tennis, and engaging in other vigorous activities in corsets without hindrance. A tightly laced corset restricts airflow to the lungs and, as a result, if the wearer exerted themselves to the point of needing large quantities of oxygen and was unable to fully inflate the lungs, this could lead to fainting. Hyperventilation for any reason could also potentially result in brief loss of consciousness.

Another theory for the predominance of fainting couches is home treatment of female hysteria through manual pelvic massage by home visiting doctors and midwives. As a “disease” that needed constant, recurring (usually weekly) in-home treatment with a procedure that through manual massage could sometimes take hours, creating specialized furniture for maximum comfort during the extended procedure seems likely, as does the later creation of fainting rooms for privacy during the intimate massage procedure.

According to The Cabinet Card Gallery, the photographer of this cabinet card was J. B. Wilson of Chicago, Illinois. The subject of this photograph may have been an actress.

(via The Cabinet Card Gallery)

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