He Wrote What? Health and Weight in Civil War Letters

(NOT an authentic Civil War era scale… Illustrative and theme purposes only.)

“You stated that you had been weighed, what is your weight?”[i] asked Private Walter Dunn in a letter to his fiancée. It’s a little shocking to modern readers! There are a few questions that are usually considered taboo to ask a woman: her age and her weight.

However, Walter Dunn is not the only mid-19th Century correspondent to talk or ask about bodily weight, leading to the question: why? Was it just a matter of curiosity? Or was there something more significant behind the questions or journaled entries of weight?

Over the years of reading primary sources, I seen various references to bodily weight and almost always in positive context. Some young women even happily recorded those details in their private diaries. Walter’s straight forward question, though, was the first time I’d noticed such a topic under discussion between an unmarried couple and I decided to pull out other references and see if the context and social view could be clarified.

Emma Randolph – Walter’s girlfriend – answered his question candidly, offering a beginning clue. “You asked my weight. It is 128. The Friday before I was taken sick, Sunday, my weight was one hundred thirty-seven and a quarter pounds. The second time I was up town during my convalescence, I weighed 120. You see I’m gaining what I lost. Father thinks I will not gain my good looks until I let my hair grow out, and do it up in the old fashioned way.”[ii]

Lucy Rebecca Buck (FindAGrave)

Lucy Rebecca Buck recorded details about weight several times in her journal. On December 19, 1862, she revealed that she weighed 111 pounds, but gave no further comment or details. A couple weeks later she was out rambling with a friend: “Nellie had a fancy to be weighed and we threw our shawls about our heads and ran up to Mr. Hope’s mill where she was informed that there was just ninety-nine pounds of humanity comprised by her frame.”[iii] That spring a group of friends “all went to the mill to be weighed. I counted the same as upon a former occasion – 111 lbs. Mr. Hope conducted us through the mill and took a great deal of pains to explain the whole mechanism…”[iv] Her mentions hint that the usual location for this “weighing” was the local grain mill and suggest a measure of fun to see how much one tipped the scale.

Lucy Breckinrigde made similar entries in her diary. In December 1862, she wrote: “After dinner, Cousin Kate, Eliza, Emma, Robbie, and I went to the mill. We examined all the works and had ourselves weighed. We were respectively: 134, 142, 187, 37, 152.”[v] Her entry from March 1864 is more intriguing: “When I came home Aunt Eliza said she wished I would take her to ride, too, so she got up behind, and we rode to the mill and weighed. I weighed 142, but my riding skirt is very heavy. Mr. B. says he wants me to weigh a great deal, so I do not object to it.”[vi] Here is commentary on her own weight and a womanly excuse about the heaviness of the clothing, but unlike a modern view, Lucy seemed to not mind since her love interest at the time – Mr. B – thought she should eat more and gain weight.

Emma, Lucy Rebecca, and Lucy offer hints that weight was not necessarily a secret, and they certainly did not seem to dread the experience of going to the mill and stepping on the scale. Why this attitude? Emma gives a clue in her reply to Walter: her regained weight offered proof that she had regained her health. Considering the era, common folks had limited ways of judging health. If someone felt well and looked well, there was no need to call the doctor. Did the ability to gain, maintain, or carry a little weight indicate good health to 19th Century folks?

LeRoy Gresham

LeRoy W. Gresham, the young teen, suffering from painful tuberculosis which wracked his body and left him mostly immobile, had an interest in his own weight. In May 1864, he recorded: “Rode down town in the buggy at 12 oclock and weighed – 64 lbs., a gain of 1 lb. since November.” He also weighed his pets at several times, seemingly from curiosity and also possibly to check their health.

Other letter or journal writers who suffered from chronic or temporarily illnesses often commented on thinness, paleness, and loss of weight in their reports of appearance and symptoms, building a case that weight was a sign of good health.

This is particularly noticeable in written details about young children. For example, Catherine Pierce wrote regularly to her soldier husband, telling him that their children are “fat and healthy.” Again, to a modern reader that phrasing might sound contradictory since modern medical professionals are often counseling for a healthier diet to maintain lower weight. Yet during the mid-19th Century era, it reported thriving and living well.

Civil War soldiers did not usually have the opportunity or inclination to go to the mill to be weighed, but they routinely included hints about their appearance and weight in reference to good or poor health. “I am fat as a hog,” or similar phrasing is seen in their letters. They also wrote about skeletal-thin men released from prisoner of war camps or tightening their own belts when rations were scarce.

One particular letter excerpt by Alexander S. Pendleton, a Confederate officer, offers this personal description:  “But as I am a man – twenty two years old, weight about 13 stones [182 lbs], height six feet, good looks moderate, brains more plentiful than riches – I will tend to do as well as I can, trust Providence, fight through the war & get married when it is all over…”[vii] There’s a lot to analyze in that letter since he’s writing and talking himself out of feeling sorry about a bad breakup; basically, he’s proclaiming that he is healthy and it’s “her loss, I’m over her, and ready to try this courting experience again.”

A closer look at primary sources reminds us that phrasing or subject matter that might seem jarring or taboo to the modern reader was not necessarily interpreted that way a century and a half ago. When Walter asked Emma what she weighed, he was not asking a socially inappropriate question. Instead, it was a way that he inquired about her health. In an era without blood tests, medical body scans, and modern medical examinations, a person’s appearance and weight offered a relatively easy indication if all was physically well.

There are some problems with this scene, historically and in the context of body image ideals.

Thanks to a certain Civil War movie from the 1930’s, the idea that women of 1860’s were pencil thin with eighteen inch waists has entered popular view. Taking a closer look at photographs of average women from the Civil War period reveals the inaccuracy of that idea. Understanding the construction and purpose of their clothing n the 1860’s (not to be confused with later decades) also forces a re-evaluation of corseting as a support garment, not an extreme waist reducer.

Aside from examination of primary sources in their original social context and a note about the appearance and fashion of 1860’s women, can we learn anything else from this discussion? I argue yes.

Somewhere in the last 155 years, society and fashion designers started telling us – particularly women – that we were supposed to look a certain way. A visual ideal that is not always physically practical or healthy. Looking back at how Civil War writers discussed and addressed health and weight, I’m reminded that good health is a blessing and a goal, but there is no shame if that is not the “pencil thin” image that some society influencers still advocate.

I’d rather not be asked what I weigh…and I’m not going to write those facts on my social media or in my diary. But I now I better understand that when Walter wrote that phrase to Emma he was asking if she was healthy. Taking the time to ask a friend about their health or their fitness goals (if that’s something they would appreciate) can be a positive thing. Even if we phrase it differently in the 21st Century!

Sources:

[i] Dunn, Walter and Emma Randolph. After Chancellorsville: Letters from the Heart: The Civil War Letters of Private Walter G. Dunn and Emma Randolph. Edited by Judith A. Bailey and Robert I. Cottom. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1998. Page 71.

[ii] Ibid., page 75.

[iii] Buck, Lucy Rebecca. Sad Earth, Sweet Heaven: The Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck During The War Between The States. Edited by Dr. William P. Buck. Front Royal: Buck Publishing Company, 1992. Page 162, January 1, 1863.

[iv] Ibid., page 174, February 25, 1863.

[v] Breckinridge, Lucy. Lucy Breckinridge of Grove Hill: The Journal of a Virginia Girl, 1862-1864. Edited by Mary D. Robertson. Kent, Kent State University Press, 1979. Page 79, December 3, 1862.

[vi] Ibid., page 173, March 23, 1864.

[vii] Sandie Pendleton, Letter December 31, 1862. (Quoted in Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton by W.G. Bean.)

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to He Wrote What? Health and Weight in Civil War Letters

  1. Pingback: Week In Review: August 19-25, 2019 | Emerging Civil War

  2. Jan Croon says:

    In May 1864, LeRoy Wiley Gresham was 16-1/2 years old, which does tell a lot about the precarious state of his health. He notes the weights of others in his life as well.

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