Retro Nursing

IMG_1120The first nursing caps in the U.S. were industrial-sized coffee filters like these shown on the cover of the Spring 2012 edition of Bellevue Literary Review. The photo is dated circa 1890 and shows two student nurses in the surgical operating theater of Bellevue Hospital in NYC. The caps (nicknamed the Bellevue Fluff) were modeled after Florence Nightingale‘s caps for nurses, which in turn were modeled after French Catholic nun‘s habits.

Fashion mavens report that caps of this type were common in Victorian England (Nightingale’s time) for married women, female domestic servants, and thanks to Florence, nurses. Feminists, take note of a rather common theme there. In photos, drawings, and paintings of Nightingale, she is most often depicted wearing a white lace mob cap, or while in the ‘act of nursing’ wearing a large white kerchief tied over her hair and secured by a knot under her chin. I find it interesting upon re-reading Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing that she does not mention head coverings at all. In terms of nurse’s attire, she does devote a long section to a rant against the wearing of stiffly starched crinolines (petticoats), mainly citing their noise: “A nurse who rustles is the horror of a patient.” She also footnotes the fire danger inherent in starched petticoats, as well as the inadvertent exposure of a nurse’s backside when bending over, adding, “But no one will ever tell her this unpleasant truth.”

Nursing caps are mostly a thing of the past, at least in U.S. hospitals. They were (thankfully) on their way out in the early 1980’s when I went to nursing school. By then it was known that nursing caps were germ-infested and were a hindrance to the wrestling of tubes and machines that come with hospital nursing. Men were beginning to go to nursing school in somewhat larger numbers, and male nurses look quite silly in nursing caps. But as part of our nursing school graduation we still had the obligatory nurse capping ceremony (a hideous starched white cap placed on our heads), pinning (given nursing school lapel pins), and ‘passing of the lamp’ (holding lit candles and hoping we didn’t catch our starched white caps on fire). We also had to recite the (very very retro) Nightingale Pledge: I mumbled the oath “to pass my life in purity,’ ‘abstain from whatever is deleterious or mischievous,’ and to be ‘a missioner of health.’ (The Nightingale Pledge was written in 1893 by a nursing school committee led by a congenitally unhappy looking spinster nursing instructor in Detroit, Michigan.)

I no longer have my nursing cap (my son’s Winnie-the-Pooh wore it for some years after I graduated). I no longer can find my nursing pin. I am trying really hard not to uphold the Nightingale Pledge and to avoid becoming an unhappy nursing instructor. But in the Biblical tradition of ‘what has been will be again.’ we now have nursing students asking for the return of nursing caps, for resumption of the capping and pinning and Nightingale Pledge from hell ceremony. Seriously. Perhaps we can also bring back the flaming crinolines.

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