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  • Introduction
  • Aaron Wunsch (bio)

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Figure 1.

The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, designed by architect Isaac Holden and built 1835–1841 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Drawn by W. Mason and engraved by W.E. Tucker (Philadelphia: Butler & Long, pr., ca. 1860). (Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons. License:

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Once one gets past the perversity of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” (1844), it is hard not to be impressed by his skills of observation. Ostensibly set in southern France, the story was written in Philadelphia and the method it purports to describe (or rather the one Tarr and Fether claim to have improved upon) bears an uncanny resemblance to the “moral treatment” employed in the city’s famed mental hospitals. Under the so-called “ ‘system of soothing,’ . . . all punishments were avoided . . . confinement was seldom resorted to . . . the patients, while secretly watched, were left much apparent liberty, and . . . most of them were permitted to roam about the house and grounds, in the ordinary apparel of persons of right mind.” By the time our narrator arrives, however, some of “the old usages” have returned. The asylum’s superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, refers obliquely to the “dangers of the soothing system” and adds: “We did everything that rational humanity could suggest. I am sorry that you could not have paid us a visit at an earlier period. . . .”1

Poe’s tale deftly encapsulates key themes in the histories of hospitals, prisons, and allied institutions analyzed by David Rothman, Michel Foucault, and others more than a generation ago.2 The renunciation of brute force in favor of (apparently) gentler means, the recourse to surveillance, and references to competing medico-scientific theories of human betterment all come to the fore. If only scholars were so incisive! Foucault surely cast the longest shadow in the historical literature on therapeutic institutions, but his legacy has been problematic. Reviewing Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison in 1978, Jan Goldstein found the work exciting but maddeningly diffuse and wondered how to reconcile “a history without significant actors, a history filled with disembodied sinister forces” with “the concrete and specific evidence that historians crave.”3 David Rothman, at least, could be pinned down. Writing about post-Revolutionary America, he told a story in which agents had names and historical specificity mattered. He turned our attention not only to key factors such as industrialization and urbanization but also to actual buildings and landscapes. And, in underscoring the broad and quasi-utopian roots of American asylums and penitentiaries, he left room for the more nuanced approach that contributors to this issue of Change Over Time continue to develop.

Surveying the essays presented here, the importance of home as an ideal type is unmistakable. It crops up in most of the essays and constitutes an intellectual thread that connects two centuries of architectural production. Or does it? Designs influenced by this ideal undergo a remarkable transformation. When Rothman discussed the house-like [End Page 111] appearance and patriarchal management structure of early “caretaker institutions,” he envisioned sites like Philadelphia’s Lazaretto. Presented here by David Barnes, this building consists of a central administrative pavilion flanked by ward-like wings; in broad terms, it is the same inflated Georgian house that Dell Upton finds at the Friends Asylum. How different this structure is from Carla Yanni’s “cottages”—the units that defined residential life at women’s colleges and upscale asylums in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whether discouraging “unhealthy” sociability among female students or breaking up the miasmatic atmosphere of single-block hospitals, the “cottage system” bespeaks a more sentimental and cloistered conception of family. And perhaps this should come as no surprise. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, much of the reformist energy behind vast, centrally planned complexes like Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary effectively migrated elsewhere. It shows up again, downsized and feminized, in places like The American Woman’s Home (1869), where authors Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe devote whole chapters to such topics as “Scientific Domestic Ventilation,” “Domestic Exercise,” and “Habits of System and Order...


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