1950's Asylum


femme fatale photo in vintage veiled hat in an old asylum
in the basement of an old asylum, now a home for people with developmental disabilities

It's interesting and sad to me that the idea of life in an asylum has become trendy. I wonder when that happened.  If they saw electroshock equipment like I did, befriended the people who were abandoned by their families like I did...really seen it from the inside as the patients did,. I think they would change their minds. People think that the 50's were a perfect time of gingham dresses and happy families and jello salads but take a look at the innocent people with developmental disabilities that society of that time left behind....

vintage seamed stockings and 1940's dress in an old asylum
in the main hall of the old asylum. This floor was once used as patient rooms, now administration offices

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and this is a topic very dear to my heart. When I'm not blogging and being all vintage fabulous, I am a support staff for people with developmental disabilities.

 I drive them home from work and help them prepare meals. I pass their meds, help with chores and we laugh and tease each other. We go out to movies or for ice cream or to the mall. At home, I remind them to do their laundry and chores.  At bed time, I make sure they are comfortable and happy and tell them to have a good day tomorrow.  We have training to properly care for these people, to support them through good days and bad. We respect them and treat them the way that they deserve. But this wasn't always the way.

1950s nurse using electroshock therapy in an asylum
"11/20/1951: Modern methods of electro-convulsive therapy, used to shorten periods of depression, are applied here to patient "Abbe" who has been committed to a mental hospital for emotional stress."

Quite recently, people with developmental disabilities were abandoned in an institution where they were heavily drugged, abused and neglected. Electroshock therapy, ice baths, experimental medicine....those things really did happen.  Before my current place of employment, I worked at a place that prior to 1963 was called an "Asylum for the Epileptic and Feeble Minded"  I touched an old electroshock therapy machine from 50ish years ago stored away in the attic. I went into a tiny room with a hole towards the ceiling to shove food through and sat on the floor. I peeked through a key hole and saw a padded room with a bed with restraints.

 I was friends with a beautiful old woman who was dumped off on the steps because her parents couldn't take care of a deaf child. Another woman told me about how she was so heavily drugged when she arrived there (in the 60's) that she couldn't walk or see clearly. These places included ages from children to the elderly with various mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. Dangerous patients without proper diagnosis and medication were mixed in with people with autism or mental retardation. Doctors of the time didn't understand disabilities so when these people had a behavioral outburst that could have been helped by an understanding, kind person to talk to, they were locked up or tied to their beds and drugged.

Today, that old asylum that I worked at is a home for people with developmental disabilities. The people are well cared for, loved and respected. They have their own bedrooms and belongings and freedoms. Some have families that come visit them and they have opportunities to have jobs, day programs, hobbies and their quality of life is put first. Staff are trained to help them in their times of extra needed behavioral support.

vintage thread spools from the attic of an old asylum
wooden spools from the attic- the ladies used to love to make quilts when they were younger. Although I sew all the time, I keep these spools just as the ladies left them. 

I am thankful to live in today's world where we understand illness and disabilities and that we have laws in place to protect people. Sadly, abuse and neglect still happens but now, people with developmental disabilities have a lot of people working as their advocates to see that they are treated with dignity and respect and that they have rights.

1960s patient at a mental institution
Photograph by Richard Avedon. Mental Institution #21, East Louisiana State Mental Hospital, 1963

I worked at that place as a cook for the day program for a few years before quitting my job to stay home and have a family. Leaving those people that I loved was one of the hardest things I have ever done. They made me laugh and drove me crazy and they taught me these things:

People who use wheelchairs are wonderful dancers
People who cannot speak tell amazing stories
People who cannot hear understand music and voices
People who cannot see have a view of the world that we could never even imagine

All of these people have hearts.

They see what you do. They hear what you say. They feel.
So make them feel wanted, appreciated, valued and loved.

Forever Young by Camil Tulcan
Forever young by Camil Tulcan


  1. Brittany - What a beautiful and heartfelt post. I don't have alot of experience with people with disabilities but do have some experience with mental illness and can't imagine my loved ones being in an institution like those of the past. You might be interested in the Willard Suitcase exhibit if you haven't already seen it:

    1. Thank you! I did see it and it brought me right back to my former place of employment. I wish I still had pictures of the attic, especially, with that typical checkerboard floor and old doors from the early 1900's. It was amazing to see. I wish I could have gotten in those locked up rooms and found some treasures like the willard suitcases. Im sure they were in there somewhere!

  2. Lovely post! Thank you for sharing your and their story. The thoughts are horrifying thinking that these poor people were used for medical tests. Those who care for those are true heroes. My mother work as a caretaker for autistics in her own age and she love her work.

  3. Thank goodness for changes in society and in these care facilities. Beautiful and important post.

  4. This is one of the most heart wrenching, yet beautiful posts I've read in a while. I admire you hugely for the role you play in supporting people with these needs and for the fact that you make such a difference to their quality of life.

  5. It is easy to romanticize the fantasy of yesterday, but the reality of it is not always so pretty. It is good to have a reminder now and then how far this country has come in its treatment of humanity and to know that we still have a long way to go in that same department. I think when we look back we tend to remember the good, but hopefully we internalize the bad as well so that we don't make the same mistakes. Thank you for your insightful and thought provoking post.

  6. Excellent post. So many people were committed for things that...nowadays are reacted to differently such as depression, post partum depression, and anger.

  7. We don't have institutions anymore in Australia because they had a pretty terrible history here as well, but I think there needs to be a middle ground like the good places you've worked at. Unfortunately with no options for long term inpatient care many unwell people end up on the streets. Studying psychology I am very conscious of where my profession came from and the roads we still have to make to better help people. We are working very hard to shed the "one flew over the cuckoo's nest" image - That said, I'd like to point out that electroshock therapy is still used on patients with severe depression and is often very helpful. For patients with intractable, treatment resistant depression it can be very useful and lifechanging. Of course in the past it was used quite indiscriminantly and on people who would not benefit from it, but it is important to me that we don't scare people away from a good treatment option because of its horrible past.

    There is a show on AMC called "American Horror Story: Asylum" and it puports to carry the view of these being terrible places, but I think it strays into cheesy freak show territory. Only a few people are really humanized and they're all the ones who were incorrectly incarcerated. There isn't any redemption for the background disabled characters.

  8. What a beautiful post Brittany! I am so happy that people are treated so much better these days but sadly I feel bad stuff continues, we had a horrible case here in the UK of abuse in such a home, only a couple of years ago :o(

    You are so right in that there is stuff below the surface of all people with apparent difficulties. My OH had a serious brain injury which he has thankfully recovered to a good degree to have a fairly functional life, others I encountered were not going to recover, but they were there, they perhaps couldn't laugh physically, but their eyes laugh. We should always look below the surface.

  9. You touched my heart. You're a lovely person to do this kind of job.

  10. Such a wonderful post, so touching to know others really care too. I work in a hospital and I am a champion for dementia. Older confused patients with delirium and dementia, I am thankful we are starting to understand more I wish it was wider spread though.

  11. Such an interesting post. Changing attitudes towards mental health over the years has fascinated (and horrified) me. Especially Victorian times. It's so strange to think of how far we've come even in 20 years.

  12. wow brittany, I knew you were a good person already, but this really confirms how caring and thoughtful you are. The historic images are quite disturbing to me.

  13. This was such a beautiful and enlightening post, Brittany. Back before psychology and psychiatry was a well-researched science, people with disabilities were seen as "less than" a real person, and were subjected to horrible and inhumane treatment. I love the eras of the 30's through the 50's, but when it comes to patient care and prejudice, they were certainly subpar. I applaud you for doing the work you do, my dear!


    Veronica Vintage

  14. Good points Brittany :).

    Cna I ask - where did you get your seamed stockings? As a bigger gal, I would love to get some flesh toned with flesh seams! :)

    1. Thanks! These stockings are originals I found in a local antique mall but I have ordered some from and I love them more than the authentic stockings. They have more stretch, are more comfortable, come in modern sizes and if I get a run, it won't break my heart! :P I ordered these- nude with nude seam but they have all kinds and are all very affordable! I'm pretty tall (5 ft 7) and have a hard time finding stockings long enough for me so these fit the bill beautifully :)

  15. What a beautiful post. Most people don't think of the ugly part of past times. It was a very real issue. Working with children with learning disabilities and physical disabilities is my passion. As much as I love the glamour and simplicity of the past, issues like this make me heartbroken. It makes me wish I could leap time and scream "Nooooooo".
    Thank you for setting aside a post for this. You're a beautiful person.

  16. Very nice blog entry, Brit.

  17. This is a very important issue and you wrote this post so well. My only comment is that I don't think there are enough good places for people with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses either. While we certainly don't want to go back to the way people were mistreated in the past, so many institutions have closed that now there are many people out on the streets living as homeless because they can't take care of themselves due to mental disabilities of some kind (and those that don't have those issues often have addictions that are untreated). So I just wish there were more places that would truly help people and people who cared like you did when you worked there before you started your family.


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