Here’s some “grrreat” morning reading material to go with your next breakfast of corn flakes. John Harvey Kellogg, the physician who invented corn flakes in the late nineteenth century with his industrialist brother Will (yes, those Kelloggs), wrote an eye-popping book in 1882 called the Ladies Guide in Health and Disease. The book, an oddly well-intentioned medical treatise on the physiology and psychology of girls and women, includes chapters on health, diet, exercise, grooming and hygiene at various stages of a woman’s life – with sections on “the immoral dance”, “tea and temper”, “how to develop the chest”, “the slavery of fashion”, “corset-stiffened chests”, “danger of marrying a man who has been ‘just a little fast’”, “may he be a cousin?” – and so, so much more.
There is quite a large selection of wondrous medical and moral advice to choose from, but the one special chapter I have excerpted below is on “novel-reading”.
The reading of works of fiction is one of the most pernicious habits to which a young lady can become devoted. When the habit is once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium. The novel-devotee is as much a slave as the opium-eater or the inebriate. The reading of fictitious literature destroys the taste for sober, wholesome reading and imparts an unhealthy stimulus to the mind the effect of which is in the highest degree damaging.
When we add to this the fact that a large share of the popular novels of the day contain more or less matter of a directly depraving character, presented in such gilded form and specious guise that the work of contamination may be completed before suspicion is aroused, it should become apparent to every careful mother that her daughters should be vigilantly guarded against this dangerous source of injury and possible ruin. We have dilated quite fully upon this subject in a preceding section and will not enlarge upon it here. We wish, however, to put ourself upon record as believing firmly that the practice of novel reading is one of the greatest causes of uterine disease in young women. There is no doubt that the influence of the mind upon the sexual organs and functions is such that disease may be produced in this way. As remarked in the consideration of the physiology of the reproductive organs, it is a common observation that the menstrual function may be suspended suddenly as the result of grief or some other strong emotion experienced by the individual. Hemorrhage or profuse menstruation may result from a similar cause. These facts demonstrate beyond the possibility of question that the circulation in the uterus and its appendages is greatly subject to changes through the influence of the mind. Reading of a character to stimulate the emotions and rouse the passions may produce or increase a tendency to uterine congestion, which may in turn give rise to a great variety of maladies, including all the different forms of displacement, the presence of which is indicated by weak backs, painful menstruation, leucorrhoea, etc.
We do not insist that nothing should ever be read but history, biography, or perfectly authentic accounts of experiences in real life. There are undoubtedly novels, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one or two others which we might mention, which have been active agents in the accomplishment of great and good results. Such novels are not likely to do anybody any harm ; but the number of harmless works of fiction is very limited indeed. Many works which are considered among the standards of literature are wholly unfit for. the perusal of young ladies who wish to retain their simplicity of mind and purity of thought. We have felt our cheeks burn more than once when we have seen young school-girls intently poring over the vulgar poems of Chaucer or the amorous ditties of Burns or Byron. Still worse than any of these are the low witticisms of Rabelais and Boccaccio ; and yet we have not infrequently seen these volumes in the book-cases of family libraries readily accessible to the young daughters or growing sons of the family. The growing influence of this kind of literature is far more extensive than can be readily demonstrated. Thousands of women whose natural love for purity leads them to shun and abhor everything of an immoral tendency, yet find themselves obliged to wage a painful warfare for years to banish from their minds the impure imagery generated by the perusal of books of this character. We have met cases of disease in which painful maladies could be traced directly to this source.
You can read the rest of the book here. You know you want to. And it’s not like it’s a novel or anything so your uterus will be fine.
Fatima Shakeel is a regular contributor to DWL and her work has also been featured in Papercuts. You can read more of her writing on her blog.