Now that season 2 of the PBS drama Mercy Street has wrapped up, I’m going to comment on an incident that has been bugging me for several weeks. In this season, young Alice Green turns into a “She Rebel” by spying for the Confederates. In one scene, she fends off a Union soldier who wants to inspect her handbag by saying she is carrying supplies for her “monthlies” and doesn’t want to be embarrassed by having a man see them.
After this episode aired, my friend Lara Friedenfelds wrote a great piece on menstruation in the Victorian era for the National Museum of Civil War medicine blog. She observes that most women carried on with their lives during their periods rather than swooning on chaise lounges. So, it’s not hard to imagine that Alice was in fact menstruating while she was galloping around the countryside for the Rebs.
What I have trouble believing is that Alice would discuss her period in front of men (including her own father). Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has shown that during the nineteenth century, doctors complained about mothers did not prepare their daughters for menstruation. In other words, young girls couldn’t talk with their mothers about this delicate topic, much less their fathers, and certainly not men outside their families.
Otherwise, this season’s treatment of medical history has once again been top notch. Can’t wait for season 3.
[added later — my friend Penny Richards observes below that this was the era before sanitary napkins and tampons. So, Miss Alice would be using a piece of cloth, which her slave would be in charge of carrying and laundering for her].