- “The Incident of the Feeding Cup”: Care Dynamics and the Victorian Sickroom Scene
Sugar nips, snail forks, and marrow scoops—anyone who has ever stumbled on Victorian-era tableware in an antique store or browsed a copy of an etiquette guide such as the 1879 Manners and Tone of Good Society is bound to be amused and befuddled by the period’s proliferation of food-service implements. It is no surprise to find among this dizzying catalogue of [End Page 181] objects devices specially designed to facilitate feeding a sick person, among them special feeding straws and spoons, tumblers, and feeding cups or “pap boats” (intended to serve a diluted milk-and-flour mixture to infants as well as the infirm). The gruel that Oliver Twist so famously asks for would have been served up in a lowly and unremarkable basin, but at least some of the more fortunate sick and suffering had their beef tea, gruel, or toast and water served to them in or with a special feeding device (fig. 1).
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These devices are powerful tokens of ministration, making visible the actual provision of care that happened within the sickroom. They are tangible reminders of just how much medical care happened within the home in the nineteenth century, and they signal the dynamics of that care, including the fact that someone other than the sick person was responsible for special food preparation, service, and, in many cases, direct help with feeding. In advising her readers to attend to the way food is presented to the sick person, Florence Nightingale, in Notes on Nursing (1859), identified some of the issues at play in food service to the sick. “Keep your patient’s cup dry underneath,” she emphasized, explaining:
One very minute caution,—take care not to spill into your patient’s saucer, in other words, take care that the outside bottom rim of his cup shall be quite dry and clear; if every time he lifts his cup to his lips, he has to carry the saucer with it, or else to drop the liquid upon and soil his sheet, or his bed-gown, or pillow, or if he is sitting up, his dress, you have no idea what a difference this minute want of care on your part [End Page 182] makes to his comfort and even to his willingness for food.(52; emphasis Nightingale’s)
The thinking behind the design of “invalid feeders” comes into view via Nightingale’s instructions—that is, their built-in “shield” covering half of the vessel’s opening would minimize the chances of spillage and hence the soiling of bed linens. Yet Nightingale’s remarks also betray a power dynamic at play in the demands made of the caretaker, who is assessed by the success of her food service. Isabella Beeton tellingly uses the passage from Nightingale’s work in her Book of Household Management to anchor her chapter on “Invalid Cookery.” The chapter, “A Few Rules to Be Observed in Cooking for Invalids,” like Nightingale’s work, evidences the range of ways that caretakers were admonished to be solicitous in the extreme when caring for the sick. “Never serve beef tea or broth with the smallest particle of fat or grease on the surface,” Beeton cautions at one point (357). “In boiling eggs for invalids, let the white be just set; if boiled hard, they will be likely to disagree with the patient,” she writes at another (357). Whatever the medicinal value of such instructions, it is clear not only that the sick person is imagined as overly sensitive and temperamental (part of the patient’s “sick role”) but that the caretaker, too, has a script, one fraught with expectations for highly attentive service and expert management of a volatile situation. The dynamic informs nearly every cookbook devoted to the care of the sick in the period, as in The Invalid’s Tea Tray, which refers to the “capricious appetite of the invalid” and...