• Ashley Webb

Nurses, 1890s


Tuesday of last week (May 12) was Florence Nightingale's birthday, the woman responsible for transforming nursing practices into what we know nursing as today. Florence Nightingale's birthday also ended Nurses Week here in the US. Thanking doctors, nurses, care givers, and first responders is so important not just now, but after this global pandemic is over. It's a job I know I would never be able to do, and I have so much respect for those who care for others. I have the same respect for those who put their lives on the line in military service - both domestic and abroad.


In honor of Nurse week (a little late) and Memorial Day (for all the military and military nurses out there, too), May's photograph is of two nurses, around 1890.



The photograph itself is mounted to a textured and colored cabinet card (it's hard to see the pebbly texture between borders), which dates to between 1890 - 1896. The photographer's studio was based in Taunton, Massachusetts, but unfortunately, the signature or photographer's mark don't give any additional hints as to a more accurate date.


Albert Longley Ward (1846-1919) captured this portrait, active in Taunton from 1889 until his death in 1919. Prior to his business in Taunton, he worked as a photographer in Fall River, Massachusetts. I'm not sure if Ward was successful or a prolific photographer while he was in Taunton (most likely he was, or why else would he stay). There aren't too many examples with his business information, and none with the specific, and almost simplistic, signature like along the bottom of this card. When in Taunton, his studio moved from one end of Main street to the other early on, which makes me thinking this is from his earlier period. Here are some other Ward photography examples.



When I did some initial research on this cabinet card several years ago, I found little to nothing, and was convinced it had something to do with nursing and the Spanish American War, based off their uniforms alone. Oh, how my research methods and abilities have changed! Not to mention how much has become available digitally over the past several years.


One thing's for certain, this card is post 1889, but pre-1894. Sleeve and shoulder shifts, even on nursing uniforms, ballooned outward to epic proportions. To see more about 1890s sleeves, check here. From the 1880s up until World War I, nursing uniforms changed relatively little. Originally taken from habits in convents, the nursing uniforms were generally seen as an expression of feminine virtue - hence the long aprons, high-necked collars, and long sleeves. Additionally, Florence Nightingale though the high necks and tight cuffed sleeves would protect the nurse from "miasmic emanations," or the 19th century equivalent of infectious disease. World War I not only changed the uniform's appearance, but made them more practical and efficient - shortening skirts and aprons, making it easier for nurses to hustle and bustle from one wounded soldier to the next.


Up until that point though, uniforms consisted of a blue and white striped bodice and skirt, a floor length white apron or pinafore, and a cap. The cap itself is extremely important, as it identified to other nursing staff and doctors of where the nurse completed their training. Each school had their own cap, and many became more than a sign of the nurse's station and authority in a hospital. Some caps became so iconic that they became synonymous with prestige, much like graduating from an Ivy League school. The practice and use of caps continued up until the 1970s and 80s, when scrubs became more practical. No matter where the nurse worked, they wore the cap they received when they graduated.


I'm pretty positive that these two girls just received their caps, and this is in fact a graduation photograph. In 1890, there was only one hospital in Taunton with a training school for nurses - Morton Hospital. The hospital itself was incorporated in 1888 and opened in 1889. In its original incorporation, it included a training school for nurses, probably copying the model from Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital Training School for Nurses (MGH), which opened in 1873. Taunton State Hospital, which acted as a mentally ill asylum and hospital, opened its own training school in 1894.



Because Morton Hospital is still active today and ran a nurses training school until 1937 (with a resurgence after World War II), it was difficult to find anything on the school itself. The historical society in Taunton, of course, is currently closed, but they charge constituents for research, and currently don't have an online catalog of their collection, making that route not feasible. I did find, however, on Taunton Public Library's Facebook page the following two pictures regarding Morton Hospital graduates. Neither had any sort of documentation or leads as to where they might have come from for further information. Nor could I find any documentation on graduates in its earliest years of operation. A record submitted to the Commissioner of Education in 1896 stated that the two year course required 156 hours of instruction per year. Six students had graduated from the program, with another 19 completing instruction. First graduation year of the school would most likely have been 1890 or 1891, which would fall in line with the sleeves of the women's uniforms.


Who knows, I could be completely off again, but I feel like this is the right bread crumb trail. As more collections become digitized, something later might surface. Until then, if you have any additional information on Morton Hospital's training program or its nursing history at its inception, I'd be glad to know of it!


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