Uniform Excellence: A History of Nursing Uniforms
For many people the image of a nurse still conjures up a vision of competency, caring, and compassion attired in white from the top of a starched cap to the tip of a pair of sensible shoes, rather than the more practical scrubs you see before you today. But even that uniform of 1950s and 60s is a relatively new innovation. Long before there were uniforms, there were nurses.
Nursing has been called the oldest of the arts and the youngest of the professions - caring for the sick, the injured, and the vulnerable is as old as humanity. In ancient times religious beliefs and superstitions governed healthcare and medicine, until Hippocrates taught that disease was not the work of spirits or demons, but the result of the breaking of natural laws. According to Hippocrates, the art of the physician was to work with nature to bring about a cure.
While the physician plied his craft in pursuit of a cure, the CARE of those patients generally fell to the women of the community, the wives, daughters, aunts, and sisters of the household. It was not until the dawn of Christianity in the Roman Empire that caring for the ill and distressed became an organized activity. Religious orders whose main duties were tending to the poor and sick were primarily women who had experienced a religious calling, although special military orders of male nurses were founded during the Crusades to care for those wounded in the Holy Wars. These nurses were knights of noble families who were distinguished by their emblem, the Maltese Cross. This emblem would become part of the insignia of many future groups who were devoted to health care
Medicine progressed significantly during the Renaissance and Reformation, spurred on by scientific discoveries in anatomy and physiology. However, the loss of power by the Catholic Church led to a shortage of nursing sisters to care for those in need. In wealthy families this was of little concern as the women of the household, assisted by their maid servants, continued to care for family members who were sick or incapacitated. This was especially true in the new settlements of the Americas, where Catholic nursing orders had not yet been established. At the time of the Revolutionary War, nursing was done by the true “camp followers”, the wives and mothers of the soldiers. They kept the sick and injured clean, fed, and comfortable.
Civilians without family resources who were unfortunate enough to require care in the large public hospitals that were not staffed by religious orders were subject to care by nurses who were little more than menial servants with no social standing, organization, or specialized learning. This era is considered to be nursing’s darkest era.
Luckily, in the 19th century, Protestant nursing orders caused a regeneration of nursing as a special calling, particularly in Germany. This movement required women to train in hospital care, visiting nursing, patient education,...