Friday, September 9, 2011

Busting Myths Series: "Circular No. 8" by Dorthea Dix


We’re contemplating a beloved myth today and trying to get to the bottom of why this myth went the direction it did.
Many female re-enactors/living historians of mid-19th century American history have considered portraying one of the many women who answered the call for female nurses/matrons in military hospitals during the (American) Civil War. The Dear Newbie is quickly informed by a Mentor that Dorthea Dix issued very strict guidelines on the physical and fashionable attributes of a female nurse… and one either goes with the dictates or fights valiantly against them. Some of the dictates are based in fact and have been taken a bit out of context.  Age restriction is an example. Some of the dictates are practical suggestions that have been written down as dictates in later memoirs. “No hoops” is one such example.  Some of the dictates are so much bunk, such as “must be ugly.”
In the following posting I will take Miss Dix’s “Circular No. 8” and address how the phrasing was interpreted and extrapolated…  giving birth to the myth of the attire and physical attributes of female nurses/matrons of the Civil War era.

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Circular No. 8., by Dorothea Dix
Washington, D. C., July 14, 1862,
No candidate for service in the Women's Department for nursing in the Military Hospitals of the United States, will be received below the age of thirty-five years, nor above fifty.

This is frequently interpreted to mean that the efforts of young women aren’t worthy. In truth, she needed women who were  mature enough to handle the tasks they would be set with delicacy, tact, practicality, and sheer cussedness when needed, yet young and spry enough to handle hard, physical work in often primitive conditions. Miss Dix mentored a number of women who were younger than the requirement and saw to the placement of others. Several of our most beloved nurses/matrons were above the age requirement… but these spry elder women gave their all to serve. There are records of women who were denied admittance to the Women’s Dept. who went on to serve as nurses/matrons in different ways. We must remember that Miss Dix’s appointees account for only 6% of the females who served as nurses/matrons.

Only women of strong health, not subjects of chronic disease, nor liable to sudden illnesses, need apply. The duties of the station make large and continued demands on strength.

This passage is frequently forgotten when Miss Dix is quoted. Health is a very important prerequisite for ensuring the health of others. With frequent epidemics of childhood diseases and filth diseases running through hospitals and camps, finding candidates who are least susceptible to illnesses is critical for keeping the hospitals running efficiently and care coming consistently.

Matronly persons of experience, good conduct, or superior education and serious disposition, will always have preference; habits of neatness, order, sobriety, and industry, are prerequisites.

 With this phrase comes the reference to “matronly persons”… which has come to mean “old & ugly” or in other ways “not attractive.” One can see from the phrasing that it is not meant so here. “Matronly” simply meant “motherly” and in a culture that gave the highest forms of respect to a Mother, being considered “motherly” was the highest praise one could bestow. 

The likely reasoning the rest of the requirements were listed could have to do with the types of female persons employed in hospitals prior to this war.  Such women were given domestic and scutt work… such as cleaning up, removing refuse, and watching over patients for very long, boring periods of time. Women who had been convicted of crimes or forced to charity work-houses were seen as appropriate candidates for such positions. Many such women had a reputation for slovenly dress, apathy towards tasks, disruptive and belligerent behavior and a tendency toward alcoholism. With the creation of the Women’s Dept. being a sort of “grand experiment,” those in charge wanted to disassociate themselves from such reputations. 

All applicants must present certificates of qualification and good character from at least two persons of trust, testifying to morality, integrity, seriousness, and capacity for care of the sick.
Obedience to rules of the service, and conformity to special regulations, will be required and enforced.
Compensation, as regulated by act of Congress, forty cents a day and subsistence. Transportation furnished to and from the place of service.

This Circular is essentially an employment advertisement and much of this phrasing is simply that… detailing the job expectations. This is also often forgotten in quoting Miss Dix’s Circular.

Amount of luggage limited within small compass.
Dress plain, (colors brown, grey, or black,) and while connected with the service without ornaments of any sort.

This is the phrase that made the biggest impression to potential nurses/matrons… because almost all who set their experiences down on paper spent a bit of ink detailing what they took with them and what they thought practical to wear. From a practical standpoint, the hospitals to which the women would be assigned were primitive, with space at a premium and devoted mostly  to the patients… reminding potential nurses/matrons that it was prudent to pack light, small, and practical was simply good sense. Likewise was it good sense to remind the women that clothing needed to be sturdy and able to see hard use. 

In 1895, one former nurse detailed her interpretation of “Circular No. 8” in her memoirs and she has been much quoted since. Mary A. Gardener Holland writes in her book Our Army Nurses, Later, I procured one of Miss Dix's circulars, and read it again and again. It appeared to me a queer demand. It read like this : " No woman under thirty years need apply to serve in government hospitals.  All nurses are required to be very plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, or jewelry, and no hoop-skirts." It was fashionable at that time to wear immense hoops. I had worn one for some time, and really felt it a sacrifice to leave it off. Other requirements were agreeable, but I felt I could not walk without a hoop. I said, " Well, if I can't walk without it, I will crawl ; for I must go, and I will do the best I can."

While many women serving as nurses/matrons may quickly have found the practicality of wearing layers of petticoats instead of a cage crinoline… Miss Dix’s “Circular No. 8” clearly leaves the decision to each individual applicant. Fellow researchers surmise that Mrs. Gardener Holland’s listing of ornaments that weren’t permitted may have been an author clarifying for contemporaries (the book was published 30 years after the events described) what would have constituted “ornaments” at the time the events were taking place. 

No applicants accepted for less than three months service; those for longer periods always have preference.
Approved, William A. Hammond, Surgeon General."

This passage is more “employment advertisement-speak” that is not often quoted. The preference for longer than three month availability probably comes from wanting a sufficient employment period from an employee to off-set the amount of training they needed. Many former nurses/matrons remember the first month as a type of “on the job training.”

With the approval of the military medical department, the Women’s Department for nursing paved the way for women to serve in military hospitals. Miss Dix’ s “Circular No. 8” provided the guidelines and helpful suggestions these women needed to evaluate if the service was an appropriate way for them to serve, prepare themselves to transition to this new lifestyle, and better understand what was to be expected of them.

Each former nurse/matron remembered her own interpretation of “Circular No. 8” and the impact it had on her employment. From looking at only a memoir or two, and those written many years after the issuance, modern re-enactors/living historians are only getting an interpretation of a document... and can easily perpetuate a myth if the actual document is not examined.



Read further memoirs by former nurses/matrons:



Read further on Female Nurses/Matrons of the American Civil War Army:


1 comment:

  1. I need a "love" button. Thank you for posting this!

    ReplyDelete