Illness, Vintage-Style

I have, of late, been undertaking some unprofessional nursing: the Caped Gooseberry had his wisdom teeth out this week, and bronchitis the week before. (These things happen. Especially they happen during (PseuDo)NaNoWriMo.)

Lovis Corinth Vater Franz Heinrich Corinth auf dem Krankenlager 1888
Unprofessional nursing… It sounds like the censure of conduct that should have been professional and wasn’t, but in fact a good many people in this world undertake such work in caring for a loved one, either temporarily or long-term.

These days it is termed ‘caregiving’ to make the distinction that nursing is done by nurses, but it used to be considered that nursing the sick was nursing the sick, regardless of the qualifications involved, and many household guides had advice for these only-to-be-expected times in life.

Take, for example, that worthy tome, Whitcombe’s New Everyday Cookery, published in 1966 by Whitcombe and Tombs. (My copy, one of the “35oth Thousand,” has my mother’s maiden name inscribed on the title page.) Chapter XXXVI is entitled ‘Food for the Sick’, and it begins with a section of advice on sickbed room-service. For example:

“3. Serve only small portions daintily, and so encourage a flagging appetite.
4. Vary the method of service by changing the linen and china and by placing a small posy of flowers on the tray. Linen must be well laundered and scrupulously clean, china and silver well cared for.”

Jean-Étienne Liotard - The Chocolate Girl - WGA13062
All very well, although it does suggest rather a lot of dish-washing and laundry will be involved in Keeping Standards Up. While my dearly beloved did get a variety of linen and china in his bed-bound meals, that was more because I hadn’t washed the last lot than from some angelic wish to put a bit of spice in his life. Posies there were none.

Where New Everyday Cookery really excels itself, however, is in the suggested dishes. Most of it is sensible enough: soft, easy to digest foods etc. However… Things I would not like to see on my tray, were I sick, ill or invalided, include a raw egg beaten up with a little sugar, sherry and cold water; gruel; beef tea (which contains about a teaspoon of actual nutrition per half-pint, according to Florence Nightingale); and fricasseed brains or sweetbreads (with white sauce, presumably by way of disguise).

Especially not the fricasseed brains, although I might well make a sudden and miraculous recovery, if the alternative was to be eating brains (fricasseed or otherwise, and with or without white sauce). I feel enough like a zombie when I’m sick, I don’t need to eat brains to enhance the illusion.

Gabriël Metsu - The Sick Girl - WGA15092Needless to say, I did not inflict these horrors on the Caped Gooseberry.

Aunt Daisy’s New Book of Handy Hints is also an invaluable vol.,  and also published by Whitcombe and Tombs, though it doesn’t say when. Prices are given in shillings and pence; and my grandmother’s maiden name is inscribed on the cover. (Answer: 1951, according to Te Ara.)

While Aunt Daisy doesn’t mention the nursing of the sick (apart from recommending a brisk massage of pressure points with neat meths to avoid bedsores), she does include a number of First Aid hints, not all of which would be looked upon with kindness by the medical authorities of today. For example, if someone drinks a corrosive poison, soothe the burnt membranes with something bland, like milk or egg-white – and then “a little brandy for a stimulant.” If there is one thing I would not like poured down my throat after a corrosive poison, it is brandy, little or otherwise. Ouch.

Vallotton Die Kranke 1892
Aunt Daisy also suggests liver tea for anaemia, made by pouring warm water over minced liver, steeping, and then adding marmite, pepper and salt. This can be made palatable, she argues, if you heat all the utensils before you use them. Personally, I have my doubts. For neuritis, she recommends neat lemon juice, first thing in the morning, which would at least take your mind off it!

But it’s Eileen Ascroft, in her book The Magic Key to Charm (first published 1938) who really takes the cake for vintage sickbed advice. While she doesn’t touch on the work of caring for a sick person yourself, she has plenty of advice for women in those difficult times of life when it is harder than usual to show your inner charm.

“Change your nightie every day and keep your curls brushed and combed and tied up with a pretty ribbon to match your nightie,” she advises. “Keep a soft big baby shawl to cuddle into when you are alone and a pretty, fresh dressing jacket for visitors or when the doctor comes.” Like this one, perhaps?

The Ladies' home journal (1948) (14579330107) “Keep the skin of your face nourished with face cream and your nails prettily manicured.
If you can’t do them yourself, nurse will be only too pleased to do them for you.” One can only assume she is not talking about a hospital nurse here; I am sure they have much better things to do with their professional qualifications than give people manicures.

She does, however, suggest that you give up worrying about how people will cope without you and just enjoy the chance to rest and relax. After all, “it gives you time to pause in your life and think where you are going… to take stock of yourself and make plans for the future. So lie peacefully and dream and plan for your career, your home, your husband, your children, your clothes, your hobby, your interests, your games and your future behaviour.”

Once you are convalescing, she recommends improving your mind by reading the newspaper from cover to cover, reading the latest books and catching up with your correspondence. And keep your hands busy: “Embroidery, sewing, knitting, crochet, drawing or painting – there are a dozen exciting things to do.”

Ill woman recovers surrounded by flowersAfter all, if you’re going to be ill, you might as well enjoy yourself.

What are your tips for sickness in style – or unprofessional nursing?

HSM’15: Behold the Balaclava

There’s a saying floating round the internet: on a scale of one to ‘invade Russia in the winter’, how bad is your idea? Declaring war on Russia in autumn is definitely up the top end of the scale, which made it a fitting beginning for the Crimean War, a campaign so disastrous that a century and a half later it is still a byword for really poor decision-making. (Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die…)

Museo Torre di San Martino della Battaglia - affresco 04

The Crimean War began when the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia in October 1853 – the Ottoman Empire was weakening, and Russia thought this was an excellent opportunity to expand its borders, beginning by invading Ukraine. (Who says history never repeats?)

Other nations then joined in because – well, lots of reasons, mostly to do with not wanting Russia to get more powerful, or not wanting to lose face. (Oh, the countless deaths in wars fought because of What People Might Think.) Naturally, these were not the reasons given at the time. They seldom are, mostly because if you tell your troops they’re dying for the good of your reputation, they’re unlikely to join in with any enthusiasm.

Florence Nightingale. Coloured wood engraving, 1855. Wellcome V0004316

It was the Crimean War which gave us the Charge of the Light Brigade (which was, remarkably, successful – or would have been if their backups the Heavy Brigade hadn’t realised they were galloping into a deathtrap and retreated) as well as Florence Nightingale (before whose arrival troops were ten times more likely to die of disease than wounds) and the balaclava (named after the Battle of Balaclava, where the aforementioned Charge took place).

Following the Crimean War, the balaclava became a standard part of military headgear, particularly for use in cold climates. During the World Wars, demand exploded, and women were encouraged to knit for the troops. “Knit for Victory”, the World War I campaign exhorted, and by the Second World War, knitting was recognized as an important contribution to the Home Front.

Leisure and Entertainment during the Second World War D173

Women knitted at home, during breaks at work, in groups, or even in air-raid shelters, while waiting for the All Clear. The Anglican Church is said to have issued a ruling allowing women to knit during church services (something I still do, as I find keeping my hands busy helps me concentrate).

Socks were particularly in demand – they wore out quickly and needed to be changed more often than most knitted items – but scarves, gloves and balaclavas were also required. Naturally, the only colours allowed were khaki ‘drab’, or two kinds of blue (Navy & Air Force) – which soon lost their appeal for the knitters.

Newtown Women's Institute knitting comforts for the troops (4346388180)

Patterns were issued, including this one – for original visuals, click here and scroll along. (Thanks to the V&A Museum for making these available.)

This was the pattern I used – adapted to a more classic balaclava style by eliminating the front and back flaps which tucked into the uniform, as well as the ear-flaps.

I didn’t take any pictures of the construction, but if you want to visualize it, think of it as an upside-down sock: a section of rib to grip the neck (leg), a section of garter-stitch, then turn the parietal (heel). Except of course no-one needs a toe in their face, so the head-sock finishes with another section of rib around the face (mid-foot).

balaclava side view

So this is my latest entry for the Historical Sew Monthly: the Blue Balaclava.

The Challenge(s): Blue and War & Peace

Fabric: dark blue merino 4-ply (Ashford MacKenzie, if you want the details)

Pattern: The Balaclava Helmet from Essentials for the Forces: Jaeger Hand-Knit Series no. 44, courtesy of the V&A.

Year: first half of the 1940s

Notions: none. knitted on circular needles in widths of 3.25mm & 2.75mm, because that’s what I had

How historically accurate is it?: well, I fiddled the pattern, but I’m pretty confident balaclavas in this style (minus ear-flaps and tuck-ins) would have been around at the time – this one, for example.

blue balaclava

Hours to complete: I never know. Maybe ten, at a wild guess? When I knit I’m either relaxing, or doing it as a background to something else (reading, DVD, sermon…) so I never watch the clock.

First worn: in March, a day or two after it was finished. It was rather warm on the day itself – definitely too warm for balaclavas. But autumn is now here, and it’s getting a bit more wear.

Total cost: from stash, so officially none. It was part of a ball I’d used for a couple of other small projects. A whole ball (100g) is currently NZD16 – a bit over USD12. Alas, wool is no longer ninepence an ounce as specified in the pattern!

Part of what the Historical Sew Monthly is about is gaining a better understanding of the lives of those who lived before, and in this I cannot help but feel that I have failed. Unlike most if not all of the WWII knitters, I was knitting in peace and comfort, without being plagued by fear for a loved one’s safety, or grief for a loved one lost. Nor was I being bombed.

Air Raid Precautions at Kingston House, Knightsbridge, London, England, C 1940 D57

That’s the sort of thing you really can’t understand unless you experience it, and thank God, I haven’t. I knit my balaclava for a husband who is safely at home, and the cold it will protect him from is the nippy wind of a Wellington winter, not the bone-chilling frozenness of a battlefield (although to be fair, if we’d lived seventy years ago I’m pretty sure he would have been a much-maligned ‘conchie’ – a conscientious objector).

But if reading about the Crimean War and the women left behind in the World Wars has taught me anything, it’s to value peace. Because peace is a lot like breathing freely: you take it for granted – until you get a head-cold. And then you can’t think about anything else, and you’ll do anything that looks like it might help, and you swear you’ll never forget how glorious a thing it is, this breathing freely, this freedom, this peace.
But you do. You forget. We forget. And we mustn’t.

Ve Day Celebrations in London, 8 May 1945 HU41808