Earlier this month, with my senior essay deadline looming, my procrastination attempts reached a heroic new level of heroism. I set out on a mission, running around Orange Street one freezing morning, ringing buzzers and rattling locked doors and peering into darkened rooms. I had to find a uterine truss.
A bizarre and unexpected twist on my senior essay had brought me here. My essay is on farmers’ almanacs, and I’ve spent much of the year studying their prognostications and predictions. While flipping through the 19th-century editions of Beckwith’s Almanac, which was published annually in New Haven, I had stumbled across the most interesting advertisement I’d seen in the entirety of my 22-year, media-soaked existence.
The ad, from the 1849 edition of the almanac, was for Dr. Sprague’s “Elastic Uterine Truss,” also known as the “Pelvic Corset.” According to the ad, “The UTERINE TRUSS is used with the most marked success, in a great variety of cases where the organs of the lower part of the body are debilitated … ” There was also a picture of the contraption, which looked like a frightening cross between a wrestling belt and a harness, only with more potential for puncture wounds. And where could one get such a useful device? Why, at 33 Orange St., of course.
There were other interesting ads — for whips on Church Street, rifles and cheese presses on Chapel, and bounties being paid on Orange Street “for GAME AND POULTRY … for large or small quantities, either dead or alive …” — and as I read over them, I mentally mapped these now-absent stores onto the New Haven I had come to know, a New Haven that was startlingly free of uterine trusses. For my senior essay, I had been interested in almanacs’ ability (or inability) to foretell the future. But the ads revealed almanacs’ surprising ability to “foretell” the past.
And so it happened that instead of spending another morning studying yellowing relics in Beinecke, I set out for 33 Orange St., looking for uterine trusses and keeping my eyes open for game-hunters. Almost immediately, I stumble upon number 55, where 19th-century New Havenites could go for all their ornamental painting needs. Now there’s just a long, darkened staircase leading up to a second-floor space I can’t see into. So here I am, squinting up the stairs and looking for signs of life. No one comes to let me in, so I surrender — it’s not the ornamental painting I’m after anyway.
I continue on, reaching number 45 before the street suddenly ends. I follow the dogleg to pick Orange back up again and start searching for addresses. The first building I get to is Miso, the Japanese restaurant, and it’s number … 15? I stop and look around, confused. I retrace my steps, head back to the previous block, searching for the 30s. The last address is 45. And then the next block picks back up at 15. There’s a parking lot between the two addresses, right next to Miso, but there’s no evidence of Dr. Sprague’s trusses. I had been hoping to discover some ironic link running through 33 Orange St. — perhaps the uterine trusses had been replaced by a YWCA or an adult bookstore. But a parking lot? My romantic visions had vanished along with the address.
I figure maybe the street’s new residents know something, so I stop in at some of the shops, asking the employees what they know about Orange Street’s history. The conversations, remarkably similar, go something like this:
Me: Excuse me, how long has this store been here?
Clerk: Five years.
Me: What was here before you?
Clerk: I don’t know.
Me: What used to be in that vacant lot over there?
Clerk: No idea.
Me: Do you know what a pelvic corset is?
No one does. The unproductive excursion leaves me still searching for answers, so I trek over to the New Haven Colony Historical Society on Whitney Avenue. The society’s impressive building seems utterly mismatched with the number of visitors, which, when I enter, skyrockets to one. I explore the library and the exhibits, finding some maps that reveal the shape of 19th-century New Haven. The map shows the location of New Haven’s coffee house — just one, in America’s pre-Starbucks days — on Church Street, across from the Green. But I discover nothing about uterine trusses.
My last resort is to do some independent research on 19th-century medicine. As it turns out, in the mid-19th century, when Dr. Sprague was marketing his trusses, American medicine was infused with Victorian ideas about gender, treating women as if their bodies were uncontrollable and governed solely by their reproductive organs. Medical treatment for women — whether their chief complaints were reproductive or not — was often narrowly focused on subduing the uterus. In particular, I find out, higher education was viewed as a danger to women’s reproductive health, and women who sought out intellectual pursuits were thought to invite rebellion via their reproductive organs.
Rebellion, huh? Perhaps this is what Dr. Sprague’s truss was designed to suppress. Dr. Sprague might have done quite well for himself if he had stuck around until 1969, when Yale’s first female students enrolled. He might have had a lot more rebellious uteri in need of a good trussing. Or maybe not. When I go by Orange Street one last time to make sure I haven’t missed any important clues, the lot strikes me differently. The cracked asphalt and abutting building of faded red bricks and broken windows look less depressing. It makes me rethink all barren lots I’ve passed during my four years here. Maybe they’re not signs of decay — maybe they’re monuments to progress.