It’s the first week of November. For many people, this is the beginning of a wonderful harvest and holiday season running all the way into January. For many others, this is the beginning of a hectic two months of busy schedules, lots of demands to shop, work, be seen, and overall, a time of stress. As we head into this busy time, we often think of the pace of modern life as a recent affliction and the pace of past rural life as a quiet, stress-free environment.
We assume that living before the internet, cell phones, and even electricity automatically made life less stressful. When guests come out to the museum for programs, they often tell our historic interpreters, “Oh, life was so much simpler back then.” Well, not exactly. Farming had it’s own special stressors–the weather, the markets, food production for the family, and the health of livestock and crops. Much of this stress was beyond the farmer and his family’s direct control. Emily Hawley Gillespie, an Iowa farm wife, wrote in her diary on August 5, 1882, “we are all tired. I get so nervous when I am warm cooking over the hot stove, it seems just as I burned up twenty years of my life by the heat off the stove, but for all I must try to always be pleasant.”
Even in the 19th century, Iowans had a perception of life moving on too fast. After the Civil War (which in itself caused any number of stresses on both the home front and the battlefront), Iowans felt pressured by the pace of their own “modern” life-styles. Industrialization pushed farmers to buy new machinery, farm more land, and keep up with consumer culture. They were pressured to produce more and sell more and to buy more things. In 1855, a Dutch Farmer in Pella, Iowa wrote to friends in Holland, “Farming here is entirely different than in Holland. Whatever can possibly be done by machine is done by machine. Wheat, oats, hay…(are) all harvested by machines. I have one myself which cost $160…I expect to purchase a threshing machine in the fall, with which we can thresh 360 to 450 bushels a day.”
Horse-drawn mowers and reapers were only the beginning. Farm machines cut down on the number of workers that were needed on a farm. Cities continued to boom with industry and new opportunities. Throughout the country, farm youth were already feeling the call to leave the farm and move to the city to seek jobs and wealth. New-fangled inventions arrived, seemingly every day. Telegraphs, trains, sewing machines, printing machines, gas lights, then telephones, then electricity, and so forth. These new inventions made laborious tasks easier, but were already creating new consumer demands and production expectations—in the workplace and at home. For every new home cleaning product, washing machine wringer, and sewing machine, a new ideal followed of how clean the house should be, how perfect the baby should look, and how much cut glass should appear on the Sunday dinner table.
In the midst of all this stress and expectation, 19th century doctors were facing a new trend. Their patients suffered with cases of mental exhaustion ascribed to the busy lifestyle many faced. Considered very much an American ailment, stressed-out women and overworked businessmen were being diagnosed with “neurasthenia” or “Americanitis”. Iowa’s cities, such as Des Moines, echoed the fast pace in bigger cities.
Even our own wealthy farmer and businessman, Martin Flynn, felt stressed by his lifestyle. He and his wife Ellen made regular trips to the mineral spas in Colfax, Iowa and retreats for rest and relaxation to health spas in Michigan.
Defined by Dr. George Beard in the 1880s, “Americanitis” was considered a result of the pressures of city and modern life, characterized by migraines, depression, and general nervous exhaustion. The cure prescribed at that time was often bed rest and a retreat from work and society. The “cure” had mixed results. Complete bedrest was often more trying to busy minds than the pressures of society. Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a well-known short story about a woman placed on bedrest for her nervous exhaustion in 1892, titled The Yellow Wallpaper. The heroine of the story is locked in her bedroom with no mental stimulation to “rest”. As a result of nothing to do, she suffers from hallucinations—seeing people in the patterns of the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom.
For better or worse, doctors treating patients with “Americanitis” suggested a refocusing on simple pleasures and simpler lives. Perhaps, that simple life we think about for the 19th century was not so simple. Whatever our thoughts on 19th century simple life, the next few months will certainly be a hectic rush for many of us. How do we combat the modern stress?
This past month, Living History Farms embraced an emerging trend in stress management with an adult coloring party event in the Flynn Mansion. We asked guests to come drink tea, listen to relaxing music, and most especially to COLOR! Recently, psychologists have recommended coloring as a way for adults to de-stress and relax. The act of focusing on choosing colors and the repetition of coloring in spaces are thought to help the mind relax and let go of troubling problems. Museum staff made coloring pages from 19th century fashion plates, merchandise catalogs, and architectural drawings for guests to color.
These Adult Coloring Party – “Get Happy” Hour events at the Flynn Mansion are offered periodically and are by advanced reservation only. Keep an eye out on the Living History Farms’ website and Facebook page for upcoming coloring parties as the holiday season progresses! Life may not have been completely simple in the past, nor is it completely simple now, but a few minutes to stop, relax, and refocus can help any generation keep their sanity in busy times.