In the Victorian era, a wide variety of conditions that primarily affected women were referred to as “the vapors.” Women were viewed as fundamentally weak during this period, and they were also believed to be more susceptible to a range of medical complaints. The stereotypical Victorian image of a woman swooning against a couch is a classic depiction of a woman who has been overcome by the vapors. Currently, this is not a recognized medical diagnosis.
The origins of this term lie in Ancient Greece and Rome, where doctors developed the Four Humors theory of medicine, which stated that the body was influenced by the balance of four “humors” seated in various organs of the body. Imbalances could theoretically cause ill health, and by determining the source of the imbalance, healthcare providers could prescribe the appropriate treatment. Medical professionals in the Victorian era believed that melancholy feelings had their roots in the spleen, and that they rose up through the body in the form of vapors that affected the mind.
While this might sound ludicrous today, this was widely accepted, and reinforced by claims that women were more susceptible to these feelings than men due to "irregularities" of their anatomy. The Greeks called it “female hysteria.” The condition added to the mystery of the “female condition,” and in some cases, the diagnosis hampered serious treatment of medical conditions like vaginal fistulas, a common complaint among Victorian mothers.
A wide variety of symptoms were lumped under “the vapors,” including anxiety, depression, bloating, fainting, loss of appetite, tremors, digestive issues, and behavioral problems. In an era where women were expected to adhere to very strict rules of behavior, free-spirited women like suffragettes were often diagnosed with this condition. The treatment most generally prescribed was rest, sometimes with the judicious application of smelling salts to revive swooning women.
At the time, medical professionals claimed that as much as a quarter of the female population was afflicted with the vapors. Given the wide variety of conditions that could be encompassed by this umbrella term, this is perhaps not surprising, especially since women who thought for themselves were often assumed to be suffering from this problem. Some Victorian women undoubtedly did have legitimate medical complaints that were left untreated, such as cancers, depression, underlying infections, and conditions caused by lacing corsets too tightly.