This section is from the "The Young Mother. Management of Children in Regard to Health" book, by William A. Alcott. Also available from Amazon: The Young Mother
Now is it probable—nay, is it possible—that the lungs, especially those of young persons, can expand and come to their full and natural size under pressure, even though the pressure should be slight? Must they not be weakened? And if the pressure be strong, as it sometimes is, must they not dwindle away?
We know, too, from the nature and structure of the lungs themselves, that tight lacing must injure them. Many mothers have very imperfect notions of what physicians mean, when they say that corsets impede the circulation, by preventing the full and undisturbed action of the lungs. They get no higher ideas of the motion of the chest, than what is connected with bending the body forward and backward, from right to left, &c. They know that, if dressed too tightly, this motion is not so free as it otherwise would be; but if they are not so closely laced as to prevent that free bending of the body of which I have been speaking, they think there can be no danger; or at least, none of consequence.
Now it happens that this sort of motion is not that to which physicians refer, when they complain of corsets. Strictly speaking, this bending of the whole body is performed by the muscles of the back, and not those of the chest. The latter have very little to do with it. It is true, that even this motion ought not to be hindered; but if it is, the evil is one of little comparative magnitude.
Every time we breathe naturally, all the ribs, together with the breast bone, have motion. The ribs rise, and spread a little outward, especially towards the fore part. The breast bone not only rises, but swings forward a little, like a pendulum. But the moment the chest is swathed or bandaged, this motion must be hindered; and the more, in proportion to the tightness.
On this point, those persons make a sad mistake, who say that "a busk not too wide nor too rigid seems to correspond to the supporting spine, and to assist, rather than impede the efforts of nature, to keep the body erect."
Can we seriously compare the offices of the spine with those of the ribs, and suppose that because the former is fixed like a post, at the back part of the lungs, therefore an artificial post in front would be useful? Why, we might just as well argue in favor of hanging weights to a door, or a clog to a pendulum, in order to make it swing backwards and forwards more easily. We might almost as well say that the elbow ought to be made firm, to correspond with the shoulders, and thus become advocates for letting the stays or bandages enclose the arm above the elbow, and fasten it firmly to the side. Indeed, the consequences in the latter case, aside from a little inconvenience, would not be half so destructive to health as in the former. The ribs, where they join to the back bone, form hinges; and hinges are made for motion. But if you fasten them to a post in front, of what value are the hinges?
If mothers ask, of what use this motion of the lungs is, it is only necessary to refer them to the chapter on Ventilation, in which I trust the subject is made intelligible, and a satisfactory answer afforded.
But I might appeal to facts. Let us look at females around us generally. Do their countenances indicate that they enjoy as good health as they did when dress was worn more loosely? Have they not oftener a leaden hue, as if the blood in them was darker? Are they not oftener short-breathed than formerly? As they advance in life, have they not more chronic diseases? Are not their chests smaller and weaker? And as the doctrine that if one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it, is not less true in physiology than in morals, do we not find other organs besides the lungs weakened? Surgeons and physicians, who, like faithful sentinels, have watched at their post half a century, tell us, moreover, that if these foolish and injurious practices to which I refer are tolerated two centuries longer, every female will be deformed, and the whole race greatly degenerated, physically and morally.
Those with whom no arguments will avail, are recommended to read the following remarks from the first volume of the Library of Health, p. 119:
"It is related, on the authority of Macgill, that in Tunis, after a girl is engaged, or betrothed, she is then fattened. For this purpose, she is cooped up in a small room, and shackles of gold and silver are placed upon her ancles and wrists, as a piece of dress. If she is to be married to a man who has discharged, despatched, or lost a former wife, the shackles which the former wife wore are put on the new bride's limbs, and she is fed till they are filled up to a proper thickness. The food used for this custom worthy of the barbarians is called drough, which is of an extraordinary fattening quality, and also famous for rendering the milk of the nurse rich and abundant. With this and their national dish, cuscasoo, the bride is literally crammed, and many actually die under the spoon."
We laugh at all this, and well we may; but there are customs not very far from home, no less ridiculous.
"There is a country four or five thousand miles westward of Tunis, where the females, to a very great extent, are emaciated for marriage, instead being fattened. This process is begun, in part, by shackles—not of gold and silver, perhaps, but of wood—but instead of being put on loosely, and causing the body or limbs to fill them, they are made to compress the body in the outset; and as the size of the latter diminishes, the shackles are contracted or tightened. As with the eastern, so with the western females, many of them die under the process; though a far greater number die at a remote period, as the consequence of it."