Neurasthenia and other stuff that I find interesting.

18 09 2012

My book is out! [Not this one, this one.] It’s called Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life: A Brief Introduction and it comes out of my experience teaching the second half of the US History Survey. In fact, it’s designed specifically for the second half of the US Survey because it’s short (128 pages), clear and hopefully interesting.

To show you what I mean, here’s the beginning of the Introduction (sans footnotes):

In 1869, two psychologists working independently coined the term “neurasthenia,” a new ailment that they attributed to the fast pace of modern life. In 1881, one of those psychologists, George Beard, wrote a book called American Nervousness. Beard’s work, a mostly scientific treatise, actually popularized the condition. Beard suggested that Americans were more likely to get “certain physical forms of hysteria,” including “hay fever, sick headache[s]…and some forms of insanity” because of this ailment. In Beard’s estimation, “No age, no country, and no form of civilization, not Greece, nor Rome, nor Spain, nor the Netherlands, in the days of their glory, possessed such maladies.” Modern industry played a particularly important role in causing neurasthenia, Beard explained. “Manufacturers, under the impulses of steam power and invention,” he wrote, “have multiplied the burdens of mankind; and railways, telegraphs, canals, steamships, and the utilization of steam power in agriculture, and in handling and preparing materials for transportation, have made it possible to transact a hundred-fold more business in a limited time than even in the eighteenth century.” To many this was progress, but Beard described the costs that this kind of progress inflicted on many Americans.

While Beard was not the only late-nineteenth century observer to lament the substantial changes that permeated daily life in this era, what separated his conception of American nervousness from other critiques was his emphasis on the physical manifestations of modernization. So much was changing so fast in the United States that other critics simply did not know where to start when trying to understand the toll that economic progress inflicted upon people. Beard and other psychologists, on the other hand, did not try to define the exact nature of these changes on the wider world. They looked only at how these changes affected individuals rather than society as a whole. To these scientists and many others, the human body itself was a machine, and their job was to fix it. They thought that machine ran on “nervous energy.” Neurasthenia was a sign that that energy had been entirely expended while trying to cope with the other machines that came to define the age.

Like Beard, a few historians have tried to examine the effects of industrialization during the nineteenth century. Yet despite its extraordinary impact, industrialization remains a very abstract concept to most scholars because it is harder to imagine that process than to describe its many effects. This might explain why industrialization does not get much space in many American history textbooks. Since the late nineteenth century was not rife with strong political or military leaders, fewer traditional subjects from this time period exist for historians to write about. The sharp increase in immigration, the growth of large cities and an acceleration of the movement to the American West – trends like these are harder to explain than laws or wars. Industrialization underlay all the general developments of this era, yet it is harder to appreciate precisely how that process affected these developments because the impacts of industrialization were so broad. With hindsight, we can examine one trend at a time. By doing this, connections between the better-examined aspects of this era and the phenomenon of industrialization become clear.

The goal of what follows is to show how industrialization was at the center of the major historical developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book describes precisely how industrialization occurred on the shop floor of American workplaces and the many impacts that it had at those workplaces and in the society at large. This is not a book about why industrialization occurred, which is an interesting question well worth answering, but that would require a closer examination of an earlier period, before the impact of industrialization became completely clear. Answering that question would also require an international perspective, while this book concentrates upon the impact of this phenomenon on just American history. While such restrictions might seem unduly limiting for the study of such a monumental global phenomenon, these conditions are crucial in order to examine such a complex process. Too much context, and there will be no space for detail in what follows. Too much detail, and there will be no space for context.

If you want to read more, you should deal with the nice folks at M.E. Sharpe. Here’s the book’s page on their web site (from which they’ll send out to all countries). Here’s their page for exam copies. You can also try a well-known Internet book dealer whose e-reading machines have been the subject of many posts on this blog by visiting here (although as I write this they seem to have only one copy on hand). Yes, an e-book is coming too. I, however, will be assigning the paper copies.

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7 responses

18 09 2012

Neurasthenia!!! I wrote my very favorite paper in my history MA program on neurasthenia and the construction of the “good” patient. Good times.

18 09 2012

Congratulations on the book, and I’m especially interested in your take on neurasthenia and Beard.

19 09 2012
Jonathan Rees

Undine, everyone,

If you like this stuff, you need to get David Schuster’s _Neurasthenic Nation_ (Rutgers Univ. Press 2011). I won’t say I got everything in here on neurasthenia from him as I’ve been interested in it since I first read _Wisconsin Death Trip_ (a book I’m sad I never worked into this one), but I did learn a ton.

19 09 2012

congratulations on your book! Can I ask the date of the ad for the magnetic cap? In my own research using newspapers and magazines (mainly British, mainly Edwardian) I keep finding ads for magnetic and electric appliances (belts, corsets etc) which promise to ‘restore vigour’. Although it’s not what I’m supposed to be working on, I’m starting to collect such gems for future consideratin in some form!

19 09 2012
Jonathan Rees


The ad is from the Library of Congress’ American Memory collection, and alas if you visit its page on their site ( you’ll see that the date is 1880-1910.

20 09 2012

thank you – I’m used to this vagueness in the dating of ads, so this doesn’t come as a great surprise. Congrats again on the book!

19 09 2012

References to neurasthenia always remind me of Virginia Woolf. Recently, I’ve been reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman, another noted neurasthenic. So I set off for more about it,

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