Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"When I Was Alone and Had Time to Reflect..." (or a First Person Immersion Event- Afterthoughts and Intimate Confessions...)

This post has been long in the making.  Mostly because it was end of semester earlier this month, but also because I have something pretty personal that I'll be sharing with you all.  It's personal and maybe a little bit uncomfortable, and it's taken me a bit to feel brave enough to post it.

So to ease into the topic, first, I'd like to reflect on some other things from my weekend and then I'll get to the really personal bits (with an option for you all to skip it if you wish- because I care about you and your level of comfort reading my posts.)

General Thoughts and Reflections on the Immersion Experience

For the sake of not repeating a lot of the same reflections, check out Catherine's reflection post. She basically said everything I would have on the accounts of women and the domestic sphere.

One thing I would like to see in the future is maybe a longer event. That would be something, now wouldn't it? A week long immersion event. And yet, I don't know if I would be able to stay immersed for that long and not be completely exhausted.

Because I was completely exhausted when I got home. Partly, I think this was due to the fact that I was interpreting a young woman rather different from myself and this was more challenging. I had to think differently, act differently, and be natural doing it. I didn't want to end up a caricature. While I am generally a well read and outspoken woman, I was carefully trying not to let my 21st century education get in the way of her 18th century mind. I think some of this mental fatigue would be eased by becoming more comfortable with the persona, but I think there will always be some amount present in these situations.

I was pretty happy with myself in terms of maintaining immersion through the weekend- both in the sense of my persona and the items I used. I think this made the experience fairly rich and rewarding for me and it is certainly one I would like to repeat.

However, I have a small confession to make of a rather indelicate and intimate nature. I'm giving you fair warning that you may want to just skip ahead if you are not prepared to enter into a not very much talked about territory. Skip this next bit if you are at all squeamish about woman bits.  

The Personal Woman Stuff

If you are reading at this point I'm going to assume you are either a) grossly intrigued by what my confession is going to be and in it for all of the gory details  b) thinking how bad can it be, right? or c) reading it for science! I want to be very clear that I am posting the following not out of any sense of vulgarity but because it really was an exceptional experience for me and introduced me to a whole new area of concern and research.

My confession: I cheated at immersion. I'm not proud of it, but truthfully-I wasn't prepared for what happened. Brace yourselves for the ultra intimate details of my womanly body and why it made me break immersion against my will:

I wanted to look my best for Saturday evening's social call, so I chose my nearly finished Italian Gown (I have a bit of the hem left and forgot to insert the boning in the back- but so close to done!)
I stole this pic from Catherine's blog. Here I am in all of my
white, spotted and flower'd glory. And yes my neck handkerchief
is a bit open on my bosom. I was trying to bag a husband, okay?

Underneath, I had a grey wool under petticoat, two white Marseilles cloth petticoats, a bum, and a white cotton/linen petticoat under my gown. With white stockings, a white neck handkerchief, and a white cap. That was it. No modern underwear for me. That's obviously not where I cheated. (The no underwear thing may seem weird and uncomfortable to some, but in truth, it's much more comfortable overall.)

My hair was dressed, I had my London red ribbon in my cap. I felt lovely.

We were busy chatting away when suddenly I noticed some mild discomfort in my abdomen. Maybe I had eaten too much? I ignored it and continued to chatter and sing and be merry.

Then it got a little worse. Then I felt it.

My courses. My monthly. My Gift of Nature. Whatever you want to call it. My period. Unexpected. Super early.

I had waxed linen for my crocks, prepared a linen rag for my chamber pot, and practiced peeing in the shower with my bourdaloue, but I had not prepared for this. As 18th c. physician Malcolm Flemyng says of some women with no symptoms, I scarce had "warning enough to provide for decency."

I was obviously worried. What if people could tell? What if it went through my five layers of shift/petticoats to my gown? Why on Earth did I choose tonight to wear practically all white?! Oh yeah, because this wasn't supposed to be happening this weekend. Being a woman of practicality, I quickly moved past the "what if?" to the "what now?" segment of the evening.

1-I needed assess the damage. How do I manage to get up and look at the back of my gown without seeming suspicious? Uncle for the assist! His almost obnoxiously obvious discussion of what a great idea it could be for Mr. Martin and I to get hitched gave me the perfect embarrassing opportunity to ask Mr. Martin if he should like to take some air. Mission- Stand Up is a go.

2- After stealthily using the dark and selective lantern light to my advantage (all while making small talk with Mr. Martin) I was able to to determine that nothing had gotten so far as to damage my gown, at least not yet. In all reality- thinking about it later- nothing probably would have gotten so far as to damage my gown. Aside from my shift, remember I had a wool flannel cote, the two Marseilles quilted ones beneath, and a wool stuffed bum. I would have had to be bleeding to death to go through that many layers, right? But I wasn't thinking rationally at the time. I was thinking "OMG I'm in practically all white!" 

3- Safe in the knowledge that no major damage to my gown had been done, my next course of action was to figure out how to politely excuse myself to go home and take care of matters.  Fortunately, Uncle to the rescue again! Upon returning inside from my pleasant (if somewhat anxious) tête-à-tête with  Mr. Martin, Uncle was pretty well tippled. I informed my aunt of his state and she thought it was a good time for us to take him home...you know...while he could still stand. (On a side note- I have to say that my friend Dave who was playing my Uncle did an awesome job staying immersed. I should also tell him thank you for unknowingly saving my rear not just once, but twice that evening.) Operation- Get Out of Dodge is a success!

4- We made our goodbyes and set out for home. All the while I'm thinking of what I had available with which to actually deal with this? What did women in the period (no pun intended) use to take care of matters? I hadn't researched this, yet. I hadn't even heard of friends researching it and talking about it. How had I come this far in living history and never thought to read up on this basic function of a woman's body? Really, Christina? Amateur. 

We arrived home and I tried to calmly assess the situation as best as I was able. I had two linen rags I had brought for use with my chamber pot. One of them was still unused. It wouldn't be enough to offer future protection but would help me clean up (gross, right?). Here's the thing, though. I didn't bring anything modern with me but the few bags to carry my clothes. I couldn't be tempted if I didn't have it.

However, I did recall (or at least hoped I recalled?) maybe having left a tampon in one of my modern bags from a previous event. I sneaked back to the storage room where I had left my bags, rummaged, and found a lone tampon (can I say that? or should I call it a feminine product? or just "item"? I don't know, this whole post is weird anyway, right?). Well, it would at least get me through to the morning when the event was finished. Then I would need to do some serious research into the matter.

Surprisingly, my shift was the only thing to take any real damage (you know, aside from my pride). But this little incident did set me on a trail of research that so far has not been very fruitful.

Even though we know women throughout history have been dealing with menstruation, very little has been recorded about it. It's kind of not something you talk about. As much as we have playtex commercials today, I still don't think it's something we're all comfortable just tossing out in conversation.

The Museum of Menstruation (yep, that's a real thing) has a pretty large collection of items relating to the history of menstruation, including a nice collection of links to books and scholarly articles on the topic.

From reading over the last few weeks, it seems that there is quite a bit of ambiguity on the topic. Some scholars suggest that while the long held notion that women closeted themselves away for a week or rigged clouts (or pads) to garter belts may be somewhat true in some circumstances, it also seems like it could have been just as common for many women to simply bleed into their clothes (so I at least got it partly right? Sorry- bad joke.)

What is painfully clear is that the topic is largely taboo with a fairly shameful connotation for women of the past. Whether due to the largely misunderstood nature of menstruation, or the biblical notion that menstruating women were unclean, periods in general don't seem to have been historically accepted as just another natural function of a woman's body. Rather they were seen as dirty or vile. Perhaps this is why menstrual blood was attributed with a number of awful properties- ranging from spoiling dough to carrying menstrual poison.

While this little bit of accidental experiential archaeology showed me that bleeding into the clothes could probably work, it has left me curious to find out more about these supposed girdles/belts for pinning clouts. It also makes me very appreciative for the innovations in menstruation management we've had over the last hundred years or so.

As much as I am about accuracy and wished not to break immersion, I must admit I have never been happier to see a rogue tampon in my life.

So- there you have it. My intimate confession shared and more information bared than you may have cared to know. I did warn you. It didn't warn me. But hopefully we all come away from this experience with food for thought. Maybe that wasn't the best choice of words, but you know what I mean. And hopefully my immersion mates forgive me for my break in the spirit of the event. But really, what's a girl to do?

I really hope this wasn't too indelicate of a topic to broach and that my readers understand why I felt it was important to share. I also hope this sparks some beneficial discussions in our community regarding the topic for those who, like me, just hadn't really thought about it before. 


  1. Excellent post!
    As one who has experienced immersion n(and also write about them in my own Passion for the Past blog), I applaud you and your endeavors!!

  2. Thanks for your post! I've thought about this in the past and my guess is that they would have used small bits of linen, or possibly wool as washable tampons. I always bring extra cloth to an event to use as kitchen rags, sew patches on to torn clothing, replace lost garters... I think the rag bag was more important than we give it credit for.

  3. I can't remember where I read it -- it could have been at the Museum of Menstruation site, or in one of Ruth Goodman's books -- but there is more information than we think, about menstruation, in historical periods; we just have to know where to look. Before the 16th century it is really difficult to find information, because there were comparatively few writings being created by or for women, like household manuals and home remedy instruction books. But after that time, little clues can be found. Of course, the rag bag, as Alena mentioned, was probably not just for repairing clothing and providing cleaning cloths for around the house; even though I haven't seen anything explicitly written about this, I'm sure that those rags were used in some way for both cleaning the body after using a chamber pot, and for soaking up menstrual blood. 17th century household and home remedy manuals mention remedies for something called "the flowers", which someone (can't remember who) has identified as a euphemism for menstruation -- possibly because any leaked blood resembles red flowers on the garments -- and I'm currently reading a household manual from 1675 that includes remedies both for "bringing on the flowers" and for "stopping the flowers."


I would sincerely love to hear your thoughts on all this, so please feel welcome to comment here :-)