If Strait Jackets Could Speak – A Discussion About the Asylums Most Asked About Object

The strait jacket. It is a psychiatric collection piece that draws strongly on peoples imaginations and interests. It is an object that is vilified and sometimes misunderstood. It is an object that evokes strong emotions and, for some, memories.
And, from my experiences, it is also the object visitors ask about the most.

From a medical perspective, it was considered one of the most important pieces of apparatus for its day.  On one hand, it stopped patients from self-harming and harming others, like dangerous and delusional George Leondieu. On the other, it assisted in keeping patients from tearing at their clothes and in post-op recovery. One has to remember that these were more frequently used in the period prior to sedative medications for those trapped within their minds. From a dark perspective, they were instruments of power, restraint, neglect, abuse, isolation, and discomfort. However, they also offer small glimpses of empathy in the way in which institutions treated the mentally ill. In light of this, I’d like to share my experiences with the piece through three different museums, these being Friends of J Ward, Museums Victoria, and Langi Morgala Museum.

Friends of J Ward
The strait jackets at J Ward Museum Complex are presented to visitors in a number of ways. Firstly, a stained, roughly hand-sewn and well worn camisole (as referred to in J Ward and Aradale asylum) hangs unceremoniously in a ‘curiosity cabinet’. The garment, tied at the back in three places, is surrounded by an array of other medical objects related to time and space. The restraint camisole – a version of the strait jacket – reflects a more humane approach to patient care as the arms were restricted downwards into sewn-in pockets as opposed to those positioned hand to shoulder – a practice which caused ulcers and gangrene. Secondly, a jacket in another cabinet looks also like a camisole however if one peeks around the back, leather straps and buckles reveal this is a variation of two designs. And lastly, visitors on tours are encouraged to wear replica jackets to give people a sense of its restrictive nature however in recent times there have been questions raised about the appropriateness of this.

A small window into the Official Visitors Books from 1930 – 1932 (Public Records Office – Victoria) reveals a myriad of reasons for the camisoles use. While it was sometimes used to control very troublesome, combative, violent and dangerously unruly patients; on other occasions was used to help a patient recover from a broken neck and for another to stop them tearing at their apparel. The strait jackets at J Ward show clear examples of the garments multiple purposes.


Melbourne Museum – The Mind Gallery

My strait jacket experience has also been expanded thorough working at Museums Victoria. Within the Mind Gallery at Melbourne Museum
there is a stained and dirty jacket (circa 1900) which was worn specifically by female patients from Mayday Hills Hospital, Beechworth (Female Ward 2 – the refractory ward). The garment has been mended at least three different times in three different types of material – blue-striped canvas and red-striped canvas. The deep pockets have been replaced and it is fastened by six metal buckles on leather straps. At the shoulders, the jacket has sustained intense pulling pressure and has been patched, darned and re-darned in multiple places. A makeshift roll of stockinette has been sewn around the collar to prevent the rough canvas chafing the neck.

In exploring how mental health treatments are represented differently, Willis & Twigg (1994) focuses on this strait jacket reminding us that there is a, ‘… strong tendency for exaggeration of the repressive aspects of institutional life, reinforcing the power relationship implicit in the experience of mental illness’ (p.21). Willis & Twigg further claim that, ‘exhibits should not be displayed … as a “chamber of horrors”, patients suffered terribly, and the hospitals were dreaded and awful establishments, however a well-balanced, and socially historical perspective should be sought’ (p. 22). This balance can be seen in that this ‘… female patient’s canvas straitjacket that has been mended several times, with someone adding a soft fabric to the collar to prevent neck chafing, evoke emotional responses … somebody cared enough about her to make it a little more comfortable’ (p. 22). Within this one jacket we can see humanity within the mental health system both at its worst and its best.

Langi Morgala Museum
Sometimes you find the most amazing discoveries within the walls of rural historical museums. Such is the case with the sleeveless jacket at Langi Morgala Museum. I have been working on an Aradale asylum project with the volunteers there when they uncovered this unusual piece. The label claimed it was a police jacket and in all honesty I believed it to be the same; however, my intuition kept nagging me that this may not necessarily be the case.

It wasn’t long before I found another jacket that confirmed this piece could possibly belong to Aradale asylum – not the police station or gaol. The jacket which lead to this connection belongs to Sunbury asylum and is currently housed in the George Evans Collection at Hume Council.  While there are some variations, both are made with two jackets – a heavy canvas outer-garment with six eyelets and a smaller lighter version underneath – both are designed to be extremely restrictive in restraining the patients arms close to the body. Although my research into this jacket is ongoing, I believe these jackets are the earliest versions in Victoria due to the way they are sewn and have no metal fittings. Also, with the heavier nature of the canvas, it is surmised these were also used on patients who were stronger and violent and needed more restraint than a calico jacket could provide. But this jacket, like the others, may be hiding other stories yet to be told ……

VictorianCollections-medium

So, if strait jackets could speak
… what a myriad of stories they could tell. On one hand, they were were used to restrain and restrict those who, through mental illness, were unable to restraint and restrict their behaviours themselves. While on the other, they tell stories of empathetic staff who tried to make the uncomfortable bearable for the patients whilst signs of constant darning and repairs reflect bravery and endurance within parsimony and neglect. Additionally, the jackets reveal a progression of design and construction – from hand-sewn and double stitching, heavy twine, through to leather straps and metal buckles . While the strait jacket persists in being the mental institutions most asked about object, it will always play a role in highlighting to visitors the humanity, both at its worst and its best, within institutional life.

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Photographs are mostly my own. Please request permission before re-publishing.

Willis, E & Twigg, K 1994, Behind closed doors : a catalogue of artefacts from Victorian psychiatric institutions held at the Museum of Victoria, The Museum, Melbourne https://nla.gov.au/anbd.bib-an10799545

Item SH 923186 Strait Jacket – Mayday Hills Hospital, Cream Canvas, circa 1900
Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/269863

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