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The Unmentionable History of the West.

The Unmentionable History of the West by Nancy Millar. Red Deer: Red Deer Press, 158 pp., illus., paper, $22.95.

Nancy Millar has found and written about interesting aspects of history--prairie graveyards, Canadian tombstones, outhouses, etc. Now she tackles a new subject, the "unmentionables" of our society from fur trading days to the present. What are "unmentionables"? Well, they are all the things that "good" people never mentioned. These included underclothing, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and a host of others things.

To gather information, the author interviewed scores of people. In their younger days they would never have mentioned the unmentionables, but now they discussed freely what it was like to wear bloomers, to learn about sex on their marriage night, or to hang their undies in pillow cases on the clothesline so that nobody would see them.

The book leads off with corsets. They were "something that cut off breathing, made childbirth dangerous and rendered physical activity impossible." (p.32) Why did women wear them? Simply because that is what Victorian women did. Eventually, steel replaced whalebone and later, corselets were invented. These were worn over the bloomers and had garters to hold up the stockings. None of these things was very comfortable.

Then came the girdle. The author says that today, more men than women wear girdles. Go figure. Women become emancipated and men become strait-jacketed. She tells us that brassieres weren't invented until 1913 and became popularly accepted during the flapper craze. But really, it took World War Two to break away from the unmentioned unmentionables and later for people like Gloria Steinem to completely destroy them.

Besides clothing, a woman's life was filled with other unmentionables. Most girls learned little about sex from their mothers. "My mother didn't know anything about the facts of life when she got married," a woman told the author, "and she didn't tell me anything either." (p.70) Gradually, however, the women did learn, often the hard way, but their secrets remained within them, not to be shared with friends or children.

Finally, did you know that Calgary once had a Home for Fallen Women? This was as recently as the 1930s.

This book is well written, funny in places, sad in others, and a few times even indignant. But the facts are solid and the unmentionables are unmentioned no longer.
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Alberta History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:389
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