VITALOGY, Lesson the Third: How to Become Fat or Plump, and The Evils of the Waist Belt

This will be our third lesson in 19th-century health management, and we’ll start, as in the previous two, with some information about the source:  Vitalogy, or Encyclopedia of Health and Home was originally published in 1899 (I believe), and my edition is dated 1922.  It was published by the “Vitalogy Association, Chicago, Illinois,” and there are two copyrights:  1904 and 1913.

The authors are Dr. Geo. P. Wood, and Dr. E. H Ruddock, whose photos appear in the banner image.  In their book they instruct the reader on various aspects of turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th century) medical practice, which can be quite surprising from our 21st century perspective.

Here are some excerpts that you might find interesting:

waist belt


This and its kindred waist compressor are the most destructive inventions to human health on the Face of the Globe.  King Alcohol claims his victims by the hundred thousand; but these by the millions.  Abominations:  Dr. Ellis, in his Book on Health, says:  “The majority of our women are partial invalids, and most of our misses are miserably ‘peaked or puny,’ because they or their mothers before them wore those abominations, and that many of them are unfit, and should not be allowed to become, mothers of families.”  He further adds:  “The strong arm of the law should by all means be evoked to stay this deterioration and destruction of the human race.”

The very least compression, almost, on the waist is a great foe to the human system and to health.  The consequence is, no father should ever allow a Waist Belt to enter the portals of his home.

Deaf to Reason:  It is often said that it is useless to protest, preach or proclaim against this evil.  It is true that the ignorant and giddy are deaf to reason or advice, but not always so with the more thoughtful.

Diseases Produced by Tight Clothing

Medical authorities agree on the following as being a list of the principal diseases that are caused by tight dressing:  Apoplexy, headache, consumption, giddiness, jaundice, womb diseases, cancer of the breast, asthma, spitting of blood, palpitation of the heart, water on the chest, cough, abscesses in the lungs, eruptions, diseases of the kidneys, also of the liver in some of its manifold complications, bad digestion and loss of appetite.  And to these consequences should be added that of bearing generally unhealthy and deformed children, a large proportion of which soon find a premature grave, while others swell the list of the inmates of asylums and almshouses, thus carrying into the next generation the ill-starred fruit of a sinful indiscretion.

And in case anybody doesn’t already know…


Activity of mind or body prevents fattening.  Sufficient rest and sleep must be taken.  Persons who desire to become plump and remain so should retire about 9 or 10 p.m. and sleep until 6 or 7 a.m.  A brain-worker needs more sleep than a muscle-worker.  Pleasure or recreation, before going to bed at night, is desirable.  A drink of water should be taken immediately on rising.  It should be fresh water, and not that which has stood in lead pipes or in a pail, nor should it be too cold.  The breakfast should be plain and substantial, the year round, especially in summer.  A course of fresh, ripe fruit should first be eaten, then potatoes, meat or fried mush, or oatmeal porridge, bread and butter.  The drink may be cocoa, or milk and water, sweetened.  If tea or coffee is used, it should be weak and taken with plenty of milk.  A drink of water may be taken an hour or two after a meal; it aids digestion.  If one becomes faint before dinner, a cracker should be taken with a glass of water.  The hearty meal of the day should not come later than five hours after breakfast.  Soup should be taken at this meal; it helps digestion.

There are certain Brahmins or Priests in Asia who are very corpulent.  Their diet consists of vegetables, milk, sugar, sweetmeats and “ghee.”  Dr. Fothergill states that a strict vegetable diet produces fat more certainly than any other means.  Condiments, spices, and stimulants should not be taken unless they are very mild.  Much cold water, at meal-times, should be avoided.  It chills the stomach.  Every meal should be eaten slowly and with pleasant company, and a half hour, at least, of rest taken afterwards if possible.  If a full, hearty meal lies heavily on the stomach, as it often does, with dyspeptics, a drink of hot water, sweetened or salted to the taste, aids much to complete digestion.  About 3 or 4 p.m. a drink of water should be taken.  Supper should be light; bread and butter and tea, with some mild sauce.  Children and old people should retire early.

Another method of becoming plump is a free diet of oysters.  They may be taken in any form, raw or cooked, but they should be eaten without vinegar or pepper.  To sum up, then:  to become plump one must use plenty of water, starchy food, oysters, fats, vegetables, sweets, and take plenty of rest.

Strangely, I cannot find anything in this 971-page volume on ‘diet’ or ‘weight loss.’

I find it interesting that much of the advice for gaining weight in Vitalogy is what we are told for losing weight today…drinking water, eating vegetables, getting sufficient sleep.  And if one is feeling faint before dinner, why not have a little something more substantial than a cracker with a glass of water if one wants to GAIN weight?—although perhaps the rationale was to avoid impairing the appetite before a main meal.  And how does Dr. Fothergill imagine that “a strict vegetable diet produces fat more certainly than any other means”?  Perhaps we’d have to look at how vegetables were prepared and served at meals for the answer to that.  Maybe they used pastries and/or rich sauces…creamed peas and suchlike.  And what made them think that a “free diet of oysters” would promote weight gain?  One raw oyster might contain around 10 calories, and there’s nothing sweet, fatty or starchy about it.  But again, it may have to do with preparation.  (Six Oysters Rockefeller pack a calorie count of 220.)

I think the good doctors were a little ‘over the top’ in their condemnation of the waist belt, but I suppose we have to assume that the purpose of the belt in their day was never to hold clothing in place on the body, but to cinch the waist unnaturally tightly for reasons of fashion.

This photo of Lillie Langtry might explain why there was no need to counsel people on ways of losing weight.  If, as we believe today, one of the main causes of weight gain could be too-generous portion sizes at a meal, the fashion for a constricted waistline in the late 19th century might have been the reason that obesity was not a problem in that era.  A surgeon today might put a ‘gastric band’ around an obese person’s stomach to reduce its size and prevent excessive food intake.  In the late 19th century, it seems that the waist belt or band did the same job…

Lillie Langtry

Be well!



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