At the time the Bourns built Filoli, upper-class ladies fainted so often that a piece of furniture had been invented specifically for them to land on: the fainting couch!
If you are feeling ready to collapse dramatically yourself, we invite you to visit Filoli’s upcoming exhibition, which celebrates the stories of our communities as told through the performing arts — including an exploration of the use of fainting couches in the early 20th century. Rooms in the House will be staged in different decades of the Bourn and Roth eras, coming alive with music, sounds, and stories as experienced by the families and their staff. Read a classic novel in the Library, watch a ‘60s television show in the Study with Bill Roth while he mixes a cocktail, listen to opera in the Ballroom, and then recline theatrically on a fainting couch as the Bourns’ guests might have during a party.
No one knows for sure why Victorian-era women fainted so frequently, but historians theorize that dizzy spells may have been caused by tight corsets. Heavy skirts, arsenic-laced makeup, and a societal perception of white women as “delicate flowers” also likely contributed to the phenomenon.
Designed to provide a soft landing, fainting couches are similar to a chaise lounge but are distinguished by a curved wooden frame and a single high backrest on one short end. They became a fashionable furniture piece for high-society families and were often placed in a specific Fainting Room where ladies could recover from a dizzy spell or other forms of so-called “female hysteria.”
There is no Fainting Room at Filoli, but early blueprints show that the small room next to the Ballroom was originally noted as the Ladies’ Retreat. It was an auxiliary space to the Ballroom, where visitors could wait for the restroom and take a break from parties. Even though the 1936 inventory of Filoli reveals no fainting couches among the furnishings, we can imagine ladies, overheated by the crush of people dancing, stealing away there for a rest.
Though Agnes Bourn certainly wore corsets, we don’t know if she ever indulged in a fainting couch. The Bourns’ house in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, however, featured this long wood-framed sofa with a velvet upholstered tufted seat.
Performer Anna Held — known for her song “I Just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave” and for being one of the first women to ride a bike — was also famous for her hourglass figure, a fashionable look for women during the 19th century. Corsets made from heavy-duty fabric and metal or bone inserts could constrict women’s waists down to a tiny 17 inches. Such tight lacing sometimes led to breathlessness and even deformation of the rib cage.
After the end of World War I, corsets began to fall out of style as the Roaring Twenties ushered in flapper fashion. The trope of the fainting lady, however, was still played for laughs in early silent films.
Constance Talmadge (pictured), a star of the silent film screen along with her sisters Norma and Natalie, excelled at poking fun at this kind of expected female behavior. In 1920, she explained to a reporter that, in choosing new projects, she looked for “comedies that are funny because they delight one’s sense of what is ridiculously human….”
Fainting couches may puzzle our modern sensibilities, but the dramatic instinct is enduring. We invite you to explore our summer exhibition, collapse with style on our fainting couch, and enjoy being “ridiculously human” across the decades!