Straitjackets: The History of an Archaic Restraint Device

Straitjackets: The History of an Archaic Restraint Device

A straitjacket from St. Anna's Hospital, Sweden
Image Credit: Sörmlands museum, Malin, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Made of thick material, bound by laces and extending overlong arms around the back, the straitjacket is emblematic of a period of care for people with mental health conditions which often boiled down to harsh confinement and social alienation.

Straitjackets were invented during the Georgian period to physically restrain those housed within asylums deemed a violent threat to themselves and others. They fell out of use with the development of psychiatry and an increased emphasis on care and treatment for those with mental health conditions, though not before King George III was confined in one. The devices have since been widely discredited as dangerous and inhumane.

Why was the straitjacket invented?

The straitjacket was invented in the 18th century. Typically made with excessively long arms that could be tied behind the back as well as additional ties, it was used to subdue and physically restrain the patients of ‘insane asylums’, as nascent psychiatric hospitals were once known.

A man and a woman in a ‘strait-waistcoat’

Image Credit: Henri Dagonet, Licence Ouverte, via Wikimedia Commons

The invention of the straitjacket followed the expansion of the role and size of these asylums in the 17th and 18th centuries. The London-based Priory of Saint Mary of Bethlehem, more notoriously known as ‘Bedlam’, housed six men at the beginning of the 15th century. By 1676, it had expanded to house over 100 people. The number of public charitably funded asylums increased throughout the 18th century in Britain and its colonies, while private asylums entered the proliferating ‘trade in lunacy’.

Though asylums existed in the medieval era, specialist care remained limited until the 18th century. Treatment often concentrated on preventing patients from causing physical harm to themselves and others through restraint, rather than rehabilitation. As it allowed some freedom of movement, the straitjacket was then regarded as a more humane alternative to ropes or chains.

Why are straitjackets called that?

Straitjackets were first introduced to the English language as ‘strait waistcoats’, an early reference to which exists in a novel by English writer Samuel Richardson in 1753. Though ‘strait jacket’ was common by the early 19th century, Charles Dickens was still making use of the former phrase in The Pickwick Papers, where it appears as a verb.

The ‘strait’ in the jacket, meanwhile, derives from an archaic use of the word to describe something as tightly drawn or fitting, as in ‘strait-laced’. Think also of the marine landforms, the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Gibraltar – narrow channels between land which are navigable by ships. ‘Strait jacket’ suggests the cramped fit of the garment, rather than alluding to straight posture or the appearance of the jacket’s arms when they aren’t tied up.

Why did they stop using straitjackets?

Dramatic changes in the care provided to people with mental health conditions resulted in the declining use of the straitjacket. In the late 18th century, mental illness was more readily perceived as curable through compassionate treatment. King George III’s publicly celebrated recovery from a bout of mental illness in 1789 helped shift perceptions and made his doctor, Francis Willis, a celebrity.

While the physicians of George III at times advocated brutal treatments including the use of the straitjacket and gag, professionals in his service also employed methods of calming which resembled proto-behavioural therapy. This included engaging in conversation and practical activities. Similar successful treatments, which minimised the use of restraints, were pioneered around this time by Philippe Pinel in France and William Tuke in Northern England.

Are straitjackets still used?

Straitjackets can also be deadly, which is why their use in controlling people suffering from mental health conditions has long been discredited as inhumane and dangerous. For example, in 1829, a patient at Lincoln Asylum had been left unsupervised overnight after being strapped to his bed in a straitjacket. The discovery of his death from strangulation the next morning led Lincoln authorities to abolish straitjackets.

Blue straitjacket, between 1950 to 1955

Image Credit: Museum Rotterdam, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The misuse of straitjackets in improperly staffed institutions and their use as a means of punishment has also caused significant controversy. With the advent of anti-psychotic drugs such as Chlorpromazine in the 20th century and as perceptions of mental health shifted, the use of straitjackets was widely discontinued.

Yet they were still being used in psychiatric institutions until the late 20th century. In Britain, the use of mechanical restraints was rejected by the medical establishment in the latter part of the 20th century.

Kyle Hoekstra