Cupping is an ancient practice which was very popular during the period of “Heroic Medicine” prior to the Civil War. Though cupping was beginning to wane in popularity at the start of the war, it was still practiced.
An ad for a cupping kit. Image from www.medicalantiques.com. Cupping involves heating small cups, usually made of glass, and then placing them on the skin. As the cup cools, a vacuum is created inside and the skin is drawn up inside the cup to form a raised blister. In dry cupping, the cup would be left on the skin for several minutes. This was thought to promote better blood flow to the area where the cups were applied. In wet cupping, small cuts would be made in the skin so that the cups would also draw out blood from the area. Bleeding was thought to reduce the “bad humors” in the body. Here is a glass cup which has a small brass valve on top to help regulate the pressure. Not all cups had these valves. Cups can be made from materials other than glass. This is a metal cup which was part of a Civil War medical kit. An interesting account of cupping can be found in another blog, http://worldturndupsidedown.blogspot.com/2012/06/cupping-bleeding-leeching-and-tooth.html “This painful procedure was performed during the Civil War on Sarah Morgan, a wealthy refugee from Baton Rouge after a wagon accident left her unable to walk. She described the experience in her journal, which has recently been published as “The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman,” as follows: “I was interrupted yesterday morning by Mrs Badger who wished to apply a few dry cups to my back, to which I quietly submitted, and was unable to move afterwards with[out] pain, as a reward for my patience.” When the doctor visited her later, she wrote of the pain she experienced, the large amount of blood lost and the reactions of her sister and friends during another cupping procedure. "two dozen shining, cutting teeth were buried in my flesh....Then came the great cups over the cuts that I thought loosened the roots of my teeth with their tremendous suction power, and which I dare say pulled my hair in at least a foot." By the end of the Civil War, cupping was no longer such an accepted practice in the medical community. However, it was recently brought to my attention that cupping has become somewhat fashionable recently. Celebrities are touting the health benefits of cupping, and are happily displaying the marks left from these treatments. To read more about this, click here. It appears that the celebrities don’t have quite the same experience with cupping as poor Sarah Morgan. However, I strongly suspect that the health “benefits” gained are the same in both cases! Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.