What really went on behind closed doors at a Victorian-era asylum

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In many Victorian-era asylums, work was considered a valuable part of therapy. It gave patients a purpose and helped keep them out of trouble. When it came time to assign jobs, it was done on the basis of gender.

Women were tasked with sewing, cooking, and cleaning. When John Connolly wrote a manual on asylum reform, he wrote that women should be kept busy with chores that appealed to their domesticity and femininity, saying (via The University of Bristol) they would thrive if they were allowed to stay “busy and cheerful in a scrupulously clean kitchen.” Laundry was considered particularly good therapy, because of the sheer physical exertion required.

Men, on the other hand, were generally sent to work on the grounds, toil on the farms, and taught things like tailoring and upholstery. According to Historic England, most British asylums also had breweries, gasworks, bookbinders, and craft workshops that were overseen by local tradesmen and often employed patients.

While some jobs might have given patients a sense of normalcy and purpose, others definitely didn’t. Some asylums were clearly exploiting cheap labor and selling goods to make a profit, and other patients were treated even worse. Some were given completely pointless tasks, employed in activities like sorting a pile of beans by color. The beans would be dumped back together at the end of the day, and the mindless, pointless sorting would begin all over again.

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