vintage woman on fainting couchSouthern Ladies are known for vague conditions and symptoms, like Sinking Spells. We’re not looking for medical terms or specifics. We prefer eccentric descriptive health conditions like:

  • Having a Come Apart, Being in a Fog, In a Rigor
  • Suffering from the Change of Seasons, a Crying Jag or being absolutely Mortified
  • Wasting Away, Catching a Chill or In a State of Abject Horror
  • Being covered with Chigger Bites, Flustrated, or Working ourselves into a State.

We know the value and consequences of various Fits- Hissy Fits, Conniption Fits, Running Fits and if the situation calls for it- we might even Pitch a Fit. There are vague Nervous Conditions too, which are never labelled with Capital Letters. Nervous conditions are described in more colorful terms:

  • A Basket Case
  • Gone Over a Cliff
  • Being High Strung
  • Falling to Pieces (which made Patsy Cline a major Grand Ol’ Opry Star)
  • Breaking to Bits, Melancholia
  • Flighty, Nervous Ninnies, Having Spots before Our Eyes
  • Having Frayed Nerves with Hair Standing on End
  • Keeling Over (often accompanying an actual Sinking Spell)
  • Being Fragile or one of my favorites- Delicate.

Actually, any Southern Lady who suffers from nervous conditions such as Sinking Spells is not considered weak, oh no- it is proof of Ah-ris-ta- cra-tic Blood lines, Good Breeding, think of Melanie Wilkes here.  Southern ladies who chopped wood and kept the farm running during Wartime, become Fragile– so fragile she might break to bits or fall to pieces in Peacetime. . Some Southern Ladies who are High Strung  with an even Higher Temper and seem subject to Tantrams are also prone to being Delicate or having Sinking Spells when deemed necessary, Scarlet.   Really now, what woman, regardless of bloodlines wants to be thought of as a Battle Axe? No, Southern Ladies must be fragile and delicate;  look wan,  pale as a ghost, yellowed with jaundice, so delicate a puff of wind could blow her away, perhaps presenting with Chill Bumps then a Slight Fever.  Give us vague symptoms– certainly not a fever raging so high, her hair catches on fire- that’s tacky.  Having competing Visions of the Heavenlies or the Gates of Hell is scandalous.  It’s not ladylike. Eccentric descriptions of vague conditions- like a head swimming Sinking Spell are just enough to make Brows Furrow in Concern. This is not to imply we don’t have harsher words for more Serious Southern Conditions. We might say:

‘I was in such a state dealing with that Imbecile, I really should have been Medi-cat-ed but Momma warned me about Dope Fiends. I don’t want to end up like that! No sirree bobtail cat!  I just had to straighten up and be Gracious about the whole thing, so, I took a Minute to regain my Composure.’ 

Ladies must be on guard to always be Gracious and Ah-ris-to-cra-tic with our various, sundry and vague health problems! We would never appear in public with trashy conditions like Boils, Blisters, Carbuncles, Ri-sens, Knots or Pock Marks. It is unthinkable to appear Run Down at the Heels or be Prone to Hit the Bottle. Having the Heebie Jeebies or Raisin’ Cain isn’t done in polite company.  Showing Signs of overtly coarse and common conditions would send a Southern Lady Over the Cliff. We have long known that most of our vague symptoms and Sinking Spells can be cured with a Spring Tonic made from Wood Violets, Smelling Salts, the restorative Hadacol or a numbing dose of Paregoric. If a Sinking Spell occurs in the daytime, it is permissible to lay down fully clothed on top of a coverlet, but for heaven’s sake- please don’t disrobe and cover up by actually going to bed in broad daylight! It’s alright to put a cool cloth on your feverish brow in a darkened room, just don’t sit staring out into space with a washrag just on top of your head while out on the front porch! vintage fainting woman

Now I know you’re wondering- what is a Sinking Spell?

  • It is of unknown origin, ‘I told you when you let yourself get so thick, if you keep wearing those tight clothes you’re gonna start seeing spots before your eyes!’ Tight clothes are thought to be one source of Sinking Spells.
  •  Sinking Spells can be brought on by a Shock to the Nervous System. ‘Maddie Lou called and said, ‘It is with a heavy heart, I tell you the thing we greatly feared has come to pass, our skin has become lined and crepe-y. Wrinkled I tell you!’ 
  • A rise in Humidity and a sharp drop in Barometric Pressure can plague us with a Sinking Spell and a Sick Headache. ‘If this Fawg would just lift!’
  • Right before a Sinking Spell, one might be LeThar-gic (we love the word lethargic!) followed by a Queasy Stomach and Weak Knees. ‘Evah’ time I see Merry Beth in a new outfit, it just gets my goat the way she struts around. You can mark it down on the calendar, the next thing you know, my head’s a-swimming- then I’ll have a Sinking Spell.’ This is typical of a Change of Seasons Sinking Spell, a new outfit is the tonic for it and generally dispels the symptoms.

Sinking Spells are a Southern Ladies secret weapon for getting our own way. Remember ladies, this is how you have a sinking spell…  Delicate. Fragile. Vague darlin’, vague… Try having a Sinking Spell if you need a bit of sympathy, feel under the weather, need a lift or a new outfit. Don’t forget to lay in a supply of Pepto-Violet, a Spring Tonic  or a Restorative Bottle of Hadacol. You never know when you might need it. Just know that there are times when you definitely will need to take the cure. Like all good Southern tales, this one is part myth, part outright lies and in this case, mostly true.

Love y’all, Camellia

*Vintage photographs from Bing and Pinterest and are not designated with copyrights. Hadacol (20% grain alcohol) and Pepto-Violet are old remedies. Paregoric is no longer available but it was a numbing medication given freely to teething babies or women experiencing Sinking Spells.

20 thoughts on “Sinking Spells…

  1. A very enjoyable article Brenda. I think over here in Australia we have harder terms for certain conditions. One of my favourites about a person’s questionable mental state is that they have a couple of kangaroos loose in the top paddock – meaning they are not the full quid – meaning they have questionable sanity. I have also personally used and have heard used the kangaroo in the top paddock term when referring to certain politicians when they suggest insane ideas.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Let’s not forget the old standby, useful for almost all occasions: “The vapors.”

    The Scots have an unending stream of colorful phrases:

    Ma heid’s mince, meaning “My head is mixed up.”

    I’m fair puckled!, meaning “I am short of breath.”

    When attempting to use Scottish descriptive words, one must be very careful. Some Scots words should not be used in public, much less in the presence of true genteel ladies.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Reblogged this on Camellia's Cottage and commented:

    It’s been so hot here, the sap rising from the porch floor boards, the paint’s cracked and is threatening to curl up and die. And if there was a chicken trying to cross the hot pavement on the road- I can just about guarantee that she’d be hopscotching or flopping trying to get to the other side…when she’d collapse in a bonafide sinking spell! My grandmother had a barometer on her wall for just such occasions when thunder and lightening threatened to break the heat by throwing a big storm or wind and rain- just to cool things off… she’d always blame such maladies like Sinking Spells on the barometric pressure among other things… I hope you enjoy this piece I wrote a few summers ago about this very subject! Love y’all and stay cool…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Paregoric was my grand mother’s cure for anything. I think she knew that it tasted so bad if we would take it we must be really sick. And it did cure a lot of ails.

    Liked by 1 person

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