The name “fainting couch” sounds so dramatic. It brings to mind pictures of Victorian women flinging themselves down on the daybed, hand to the forehead, and babbling anxiously as one or other situation had upset them! Melodramatic, maybe, but not necessarily too far from the truth. What were fainting couches used for?
Nineteenth-century women used fainting couches for resting, napping, and reading during the day. Physicians used the couches during the treatment of commonly diagnosed hysteria in women. There are also theories that ladies needed to rest because their tight corsets made them breathless.
The defining feature of a fainting couch was the raised back on one end. The back could also wrap around the length of the couch. It’s been said that some houses would even have fainting rooms where wealthy families kept the couches.
Table of Contents
- What Were Fainting Couches Used For?
- Fainting Couches In The Victorian Era
- Fainting Couches For Resting In The Daytime
- Fainting Couches And Corsetry
- Fainting Couches In The Days Of Freud
- Hysteria Treatment On Fainting Couches
- Twenty-First Century Fainting Couches
- How To Decorate A Space With A Fainting Couch
- Functional And Stylish Fainting Couches
- Difference Between Fainting Couches And Chaise Lounges
- Fainting Couches In The Arts
What Were Fainting Couches Used For?
Although the fainting couch is associated with the Victorian era, this piece of furniture dates back centuries. If you study ancient Roman and Greek drawings, you will notice that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans probably used reclining furniture similar to the fainting couch as early as the 7th century BC.
These ancient communities did not use couches as places for women to rest or recover from some ailment or condition. Instead, they used these long chairs to entertain, have meals, or as a place to relax.
Unlike the Victorian version, a much more comfortable, upholstered couch, these couches were made of wood and other materials. They would have been piled with blankets, throws, and cushions for comfort.
Fainting Couches In The Victorian Era
Fainting couches were not invented in the Victorian Era. Wealthy people during that time favored historically ornate and antique furniture, so while they did have couches in this style, they didn’t call them fainting couches at the time. So why are they called fainting couches, and why are the Victorians to blame for this term?
During the 19th century, the fainting couch became a popular decorative feature in the homes of wealthy upper-class citizens. It was similar to modern-day couches but had an extended backrest on one end and sometimes an armrest that curved around from the backrest. It was mainly used by women, often in a separate fainting room.
Fainting Couches For Resting In The Daytime
During the 19th century and before, wealthy ladies had maids to make their beds in the mornings. Traditionally, once the lady’s maid had made her bed, it was unacceptable to return to it until the maid had turned the bedding down for her in the evening.
When women wanted to take naps, spend time reading, or rest during the day, they used fainting couches to maintain the social etiquette of that era. And also so they didn’t incur the wrath of their maids. It was essentially a daybed.
Fainting Couches And Corsetry
A second theory regarding the origin of the name “fainting couch” also relates to Victorian women. These ladies often wore far too tight corsets to cinch in their waists and emphasize the busts. Studies showed that corsets that were too tight restricted the lady’s breathing.
A book by Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, reveals that it was almost impossible to eat a decent meal when ladies wore excessively tight corsets. Ladies often became breathless and dizzy between restricted breathing and perpetual hunger, so doctors advised them to lie down and relax to avert these symptoms.
Since the corset was not negotiable and ladies couldn’t retire to their rooms when they felt faint, they rested on the daybeds to recover from their swoons. Large houses often had dedicated fainting rooms to accommodate the fainting couches and their breathless ladies. So while these daybeds were not invented because of tight-fitting corsetry, the two became forever linked.
Fainting Couches In The Days Of Freud
At the turn of the century, a new name in the mental health field emerged: Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Fainting couches became an iconic feature of his therapy sessions.
Freud would ask his patients to lie on the fainting couch to encourage them to relax. He would sit behind the patients taking notes while they described their dreams, poured out their childhood experiences and traumas, and all their innermost thoughts.
As they opened themselves up to Freud, the repressed inner thoughts would be revealed to the conscious self, revealing the psychological “ailment” that Freud could treat. He cured many cases of anxiety, depression, and hysteria with consultations on the fainting couches.
Hysteria Treatment On Fainting Couches
The background for using fainting couches for reclining during “treatment for hysteria” throws the curtains wide open to reveal the depths of the Victorian era’s patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic society. Although this practice may initially cause a few snickers, one soon realizes how wrong it was on so many levels.
For centuries physicians (male, of course) considered hysteria a female-only disease. In 1859 a physician listed some of the possible symptoms of hysteria as insomnia, faintness, nervousness, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, breathlessness, irritability, loss of interest in food and sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble!”
It was diagnosed as hysteria if a woman showed any emotional behavior or did anything that men could not understand or manage. Doctors sometimes even confused epilepsy with hysteria in the Victorian era.
Physicians believed modern life caused women too much stress, making them more vulnerable to nervous conditions and defective reproductive tracts. If the outrageous sentiments behind the diagnosis of hysteria are not bad enough, the treatment of the “disease” makes it so much worse.
When a wealthy lady showed signs of hysteria, her attending physician would make a house call. He would ask her to recline on the fainting couch to administer the treatment of a pelvic massage. The “logic” was that any of the lady’s ailments were caused by her female organs. The physician massaged the lady until she reached “hysterical paroxysm.”
The physicians found this “treatment” tedious as it could take a long time and often asked the midwives to administer it. This took business away from the physicians, which didn’t make them happy. When inventors developed massage and hydrotherapy devices, the time the doctors had to give the treatment went from hours to minutes. Their business was booming again.
Many wealthy families housed their fainting couches in fainting rooms, providing the hysterical lady with some comfort and privacy while receiving her treatment. When you learn about the jaw-dropping function of the fainting couch in this “treatment” for a “disease,” it can leave you speechless.
Freud argued that hysteria (still a female-only ailment) was a mental disorder rather than a physical disorder and used psychoanalysis to treat it. But it was listed in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980 when it was finally removed.
Twenty-First Century Fainting Couches
Thankfully, angry ladies’ maids, overly tight corsets, and outrageous treatments for hysteria are no longer relevant to the fainting couch’s purpose in today’s world. You may still find them in therapists’ consulting rooms nowadays, but these are completely innocent pieces of furniture.
Purely For Décor Purposes
The fainting couch can easily be the brightest star in the sky of an understated room. On the other hand, it can also shine in rich and elegant surroundings because it is so versatile. Antique lovers appreciate the old-world elegance of the style of this couch the most, as its design points back to the beautiful furniture of centuries gone by.
Interior designers use this charming daybed in different settings in the home, but bedrooms and living rooms are the most popular spaces for them. They fit in well near a window or at the foot of the bed.
How To Decorate A Space With A Fainting Couch
Decorating the entire room with period pieces is unnecessary unless you’re aiming for a completely vintage theme. If you are using an antique fainting couch or a reproduction thereof, you can combine the theme by using a few other pieces from the same era, such as a table and a standing mirror. Soft cushions to make it look inviting will complete the picture.
You can accentuate the features of the fainting couch by matching its texture, wood, or color to other pieces of furniture in the room. You can integrate the fainting couch with the rest of the room by using a table of the same wood or chairs with matching cushions.
Elegant lighting can also accentuate the beauty of a fainting couch. Chandeliers with dimmer switches, standing lamps with glamorous fringes, or chrome table lamps can all add glamor to the room.
Functional And Stylish Fainting Couches
Contemporary fainting couches are less ornate and usually have one backrest and one or two rolled arms. Sometimes they don’t have arms at all. Occasionally you can use them to accentuate an empty corner. Place them close to a bookshelf filled with classics, and the bookworms will stay there for days.
A fainting couch can be the beautiful focal point of a room and a functional piece simultaneously. You can use it in a large bedroom as seating so you don’t always have to sit on the bed when reading or watching TV. The fainting couch is also a lovely spot for children and pets to sit in your room.
If you have the space for a fainting couch, it provides a comfortable place to sit while doing work or putting on those heels and finishing your makeup routine. Set against a window overlooking a beautiful garden, it can be a great place to be quiet and mindful. Due to its shape and lack of definitive sides can fit in several spaces where traditional couches may not.
Although furniture manufacturers don’t make many traditionally ornate fainting couches, modern-day varieties even provide storage space under the seat. You can use this space to store pillows and extra blankets if you keep the couch in the bedroom.
Difference Between Fainting Couches And Chaise Lounges
Over the centuries, the chaise lounge has been a favorite piece of furniture. The term “chaise” is the French word for a chair. It was designed as an alternative to a sofa, and these days the term “chaise lounge” is used interchangeably with “fainting couch.” But they are not the same thing.
The biggest difference between the two pieces of furniture is that a chaise lounge does not recline and has no armrests, whereas a fainting couch has at least one armrest and is usually very ornate.
Related Article: Chaise Lounges and Fainting Couches Compared
Fainting Couches In The Arts
Aside from the ancient drawings by the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans mentioned above, the oldest recorded instances depicting Victorian-type fainting couches are paintings by 18th-century artists like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Anne-Louise Girodet.
Fun Facts About Fainting Couches
Here are some interesting anecdotes about fainting couches:
- By the end of the 19th century, many household and makeup products were unknowingly laced with poisons, probably adding to the Victorian lady’s need to faint.
- Wallpaper manufacturers used arsenic for good adhesion; makeup contained mercury and hair dyes made from lead-based products. Upholstery on the fainting couches was also dyed with similar toxic ingredients. It’s no wonder the women were always swooning!
- Fainting couches were usually placed near windows, where the lady of the house could look out over the garden and recover from the exhausting work of entertaining visitors all day. Men of that considered the purposes of women to be wives, mothers, and hostesses to their visitors and looked upon them as inferior beings. I’d say they were entitled to their rest.
What started as an ornate piece of furniture developed into a tool for very questionable and unethical treatments of a “female-only disease” diagnosed by physicians of a chauvinistic society. Thankfully, today the fainting couch has nothing to do with fainting and everything to do with functioning as a beautiful antique piece that accentuates Victorian décor.