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A list of rules for nurses…from 1887

Image: George Marks | Retrofile RF | Getty Images

Whether you’re a new nurse or a seasoned nurse, it’s always intriguing to take a look back at the history of the nursing profession.

This list illuminates the day-to-day tasks and regulations pertaining to the life of a nurse in 1887—before routine charting was even invented.



1887 Nursing Job Description

In addition to caring for your 50 patients, each bedside nurse will follow these regulations:

1. Daily sweep and mop the floors of your ward, dust the patient’s furniture and window sills.

2. Maintain an even temperature in your ward by bringing in a scuttle of coal for the day’s business.

3. Light is important to observe the patient’s condition. Therefore, each day fill kerosene lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks.

4. The nurse’s notes are important in aiding your physician’s work. Make your pens carefully; you may whittle nibs to your individual taste.

5. Each nurse on day duty will report every day at 7 a.m. and leave at 8 p.m., except on the Sabbath, on which day she will be off from 12 noon to 2 p.m.

6. Graduate nurses in good standing with the director of nurses will be given an evening off each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if you go regularly to church.

7. Each nurse should lay aside from each payday a goodly sum of her earnings for her benefits during her declining years, so that she will not become a burden. For example, if you earn $30 a month, you should set aside $15.

8. Any nurse who smokes, uses liquor in any form, gets her hair done at a beauty shop or frequents dance halls will give the director of nurses good reason to suspect her worth, intentions and integrity.

9. The nurse who performs her labors [and] serves her patients and doctors faithfully and without fault for a period of five years will be given an increase by the hospital administration of five cents per day.

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62 Responses to A list of rules for nurses…from 1887

  1. Mr.Itsajokechillout, RN

    95% of my class would not be nurses if #8 were applied today. Most of them do ALL of those things. Not judging, just sayin’…. oh, and since this list uses the female 3rd person, I am sure relieved since these things apparently don’t apply to us guys. LOL Good to have the girls on staff to keep all the cleanin’ and chores up to snuff.

  2. Tina Wisneski

    I’m seriously surprised that “courting” was permitted back then. I took care of a geriatric patient in a long term care facility that would’ve turned 100 years old this year. She always told stories on how nurses were forced to quit once they married, for it was then their duties to be good wives/mothers. She stated that she secretly worked for almost three years after marriage as a nurse, until the hospital discovered her secret due to her tax forms, before being forced to quit. These stories were confirmed to be true, so it really surprises me that courting was even permitted back in 1887. Just a random comment. :-)

  3. Amy Magyar

    That list is amusing, and shocking all in one. I would definately say our job is harder ‘now a days’. I also have to admit that I would be one of those “shady” nurses according to #8. Oh the shame….

  4. I was surprised at #8. When in nursing school a long time ago, our head of nursing told us that nurses got paid in beer. And with not being allowed to go to the beauty parlor or have nails done, I realize why they wore caps. They just stuffed their hair until a cap because they didn’t have time to fix it. ALSO, who watched the patients from 12-2 on Sunday?

    • calkra

      I was wondering the same thing! Did they sedate them during that time? LOL!

  5. ginny

    oh the memories—my mother and aunts and grandma told me all these rules. grandma was actually a grey lady before a nurse. And yes, my mom quit being a nurse when she became a wife/mother. They would be shocked if they knew how nursing actually was today. Who watched the patients on Sunday were the student nurses, also the ones who ran the floor after 8pm when the nurses went home.

  6. DJ

    I laughed as I was ready those rules for nurses back in 1887. But don’t you think some of them still apply to us. We may not fill the coal heaters or kerosene lamps but we still do more than is in our job description. When I was in nursing school, we had to wear our hair off our shoulders if it was long. We could only wear pink or clear nail polish and our nails could only be 1/4 inch long. We had to wear stud earrings, no hoops or any thing dangling from our ears, also only one ring or set of rings, ie: wedding rings. No bracelets, a watch with a second hand. We had to wear white hose if we wore dresses, One of my friends went to a Catholic Hospital based nursing school and she couldn’t be married while in school.

  7. Tiffany

    shovel coal? whittle pen? uh uh…thats worse than drinking!!!!

  8. Monica

    wonder y hair done is prohibited?

    • Good_Ole_Flo

      They were considered “Loose women”or “Painter Ladies” in those days it just wasn’t done…only a “certain kind” of women frequented dance halls and painted themselves.

  9. StudentRN

    I am happy about how far we’ve come as nurses, but when I see pictures of nurses from the past it kinda makes me wish there were still some of those rules in place when it comes to dress code and such. I think the “traditional” nurse look is much more respectable than how some of the nurses go into work these days. As DJ said, I think if your hair is long you should have it up and out of your face, as well as keeping your nails short and manicured and wear minimal jewelry.

    • AmberRN

      Wow. Critical much? Nurses dress like we do today for practicality. We don’t go to work with the intention of making a career coded fashion statement. We wear what we do because by the end of the day it’s going to covered in god knows what- and starched white tight dresses and patent leather heels isn’t conducive to that. When you get that “student” off of your name maybe you’ll re examine some things.

      • sammy098

        Now who’s being critical? ;-)
        I agree to a point. Yes the ‘scrubs’ are practical and easy to wear and yes the old starched uniforms were hard to wear.i feel there could be a middle ground. I quite liked the tunic and trouser style- smart yet functional :-)

  10. Leeann

    So can someone do an updated list of these, and say which ones apply today and what new crazy ones there are?

  11. concerned friend

    my friend’s husband thought marrying a nurse answers his financial problems but he did not think that it’s critical to work as a nurse because nurses encounter risks in their day to day work. My friend wished she was not married so she could still have number 6!

  12. Stacie Stopen

    I have to laugh because we still to this: we clean off the bedside tables, we empty garbage, we empty the linen bags (because housekeeping can’t do it…the bags are too heavy)

    • mljones

      Most ES departments have begged nurses to stop over-filling linen bags, to no avail. If you have to lift it yourself, you will be more careful about stuffing it. Your housekeeper would be lifting 26 heavy linen bags per shift.

  13. mike

    Sorry, but that list is totally bogus. It’s also been published, almost word for word, as rules for teachers in the 19th century, and (with changes) as rules for clerks.

  14. Lisa

    I don’t believe it either. Wasn’t this before nursing was a “respected” job? I thought at that time in history, nurses were the drunks, degenerates of the family. It was considered a lowly profession. Who would want to take care of the sick? At least that’s what I remember from nursing school. I find it interesting to listen to the nurses I work with who have been nursing 30-40 years. Give up your seat when a doctor entered, sharpen needles, scrub metal bed pans.

    • princessyarnsalot

      I’ve been Nursing for over 30 years,,,never sharpened a needle, nor scrubbed a bedpan. Never given my seat to a Dr. unless I felt like doing so. (usually because I was leaving the nurses station, and they had some charting to do). There were many rules in school, the usual, hair off the collar, short nails etc, and some still today, but much more relaxed today. Here in Canada, there is much more freedom to be a professional Nurse as opposed to a minion of old….no drug testing unless found to have an “issue”, Independence is encouraged, and opinions (at least where I work) valued by Physicians. Critical thinking is valued and encouraged, and diversity among the staff is cherished. Not sure about the Nurses of old being drunks or degenerates…..once “Nurses training” became formal, the rules became as they were described above. Ms. Nightingale, would be proud, I think, of how Nursing has evolved. Many more obstacles for sure, but none the less, for a female dominated profession, huge strides in a relatively short time.

    • Mary C. Moran

      Mike is exactly correct and the photo is of an image of the late nineteen thirties forties and even in the fifties. Nursing became respectable with the Nightingale reforms of the late 1840s. the job description is amusing, but not accurate.

    • Good_Ole_Flo

      You are not correct…The Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing, New York City, founded in 1873, was the first school of nursing in the United States to be founded on the principles of nursing established by Florence Nightingale. The School operated at Bellevue Hospital until its closure in 1969. The Johns Hopkins School of Nursing founded in 1889 in consultation with Florence Nightingale was one of the earliest nursing schools established in the United States.

      Florence Nightingale’s greatest achievement was to raise nursing to the level of a respectable profession for women. In 1860, with the public subscriptions of the Nightingale Fund, she established the Nightingale Training School for nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital. Mrs Sarah Wardroper, Matron at St Thomas’, became the head of the new school. The probationer nurses received a year’s training which included some lectures but was mainly practical ward work under the supervision of the ward sister. “Miss Nightingale”, as she was always called by the nurses, scrutinised the probationers’ ward diaries and reports.

      From 1872 Florence Nightingale devoted closer attention to the organisation of the School and almost annually for the next thirty years she wrote an open letter to the nurses and probationers giving advice and encouragement. On completion of training Florence Nightingale gave the nurses books and invited them to tea. Once trained the nurses were sent to staff hospitals in Britain and abroad and to established nursing training schools on the Nightingale model. In 1860 her best known work, Notes on Nursing, was published. It laid down the principles of nursing: careful observation and sensitivity to the patient’s needs. Notes on Nursing has been translated into eleven foreign languages and is still in print today.

  15. angela

    Some of the wording on this list seems a bit phony, or embellished (just a tad), to get an extra laugh, or to up the shock factor.

  16. Patty

    I love these. I collect old nursing, medical, and old home remedies books. They make me laugh, and I have learned alot from them.
    Two things that I have read that wasn’t mentioned,” the young woman that had worked on a farm was perferred because she was use to hard work and going without extras”, and “plain, clean, and simple woman are more desired in a hospital setting as not to distract physicians”
    LOL
    I learned smoke, drink and swear (when needed) as a nurse. That was in the 70″s. Nurses use to follow Dr’s down the hall with the pts charts and an ashtray to keep their ashes from the cigars off the floor. YES we have come a long way!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. Carol

    Yep it was reasonably tough then but we still wipe down bedside tables, empty dustbins, even mop the floor sometimes! Here with the change of these rules!

    2010 Nursing Job Description

    In addition to caring for your patients, each bedside nurse will follow these regulations:
    1. Daily sweep and mop the floors of your ward, dust the patient’s furniture and window sills.
    2. Maintain an even temperature in your ward by ensuring the wall thermometer reads between 21 – 22 degrees
    3. Light is important to observe the patient’s condition. Therefore, each day ensure that you check all the lights and report any that are flickering or not working.
    4. The nurse’s notes are important in aiding your physician’s work. Use only black ink when writing in the notes making sure you record everything just in case someone wants to sue you.
    5. Each nurse on day duty will report for her shift on time. Please call in sick at least 12 hours before your shift.
    6. Graduate nurses in good standing with the nurses will be left alone by them and not bullied at all. They should not expect to have leave or Christmas off the in the first five years of working!
    7. Each nurse should lay aside from each payday a goodly sum of her earnings for her benefits during her declining years, so that she will not become a burden. For example, if you earn $30 a month, you should set aside $15. This would be in the form of a pension of some kind.
    8. Any nurse who smokes must do it off the premises of the hospital as most hospitals are ‘smoke free’
    9. The nurse who performs her labors [and] serves her patients and doctors faithfully and without fault for a period of five years will be given nothing.

  18. Mandi Malley

    I graduated in 09 and my nsg instructors were very strict about…
    Long hair must be off the neck
    No jewelry except earring studs or small hoops, and no rings except wedding rings/preferably bands.
    Very modest makeup
    No hair color that may stand out
    Shoes worn in the facility stay at the facility.
    What you do outside of school, DOES represent the school and your possible future career.

  19. Bonita Garcia

    I remember some of these. Yes we have come far and its hard to keep up sometimes. I do miss mopping floors, gave me time to pull things together at the end of 8 hour shifts. Miss that, too.

  20. I went to nursing school in 1978-1979 and we were trained to stand up when doctors entered the nursing station so he couds take what ever chair he wanted and it was a sign of respect! !!

    • Iisha Rosario

      Let me get this straight, you stood up so the Doctor to sit as a sign of respect. You don’t think you deserve respect as well. I have been a nurse for 20yrs and i too remember Doctors expecting this and other Nurses who did stand. I will depending on the situation. If the MD needs to chart or dictate and i don’t need the seat at the time, i will gladly allow him/her to sit. If i’m charting, then they need to get their own seat or go somewhere else. Most MD at my place of work, usually will say, it’s ok you sit, as a sign of RESPECT!

  21. Nan

    I graduated from a 3 year school of nursing in 1973. We were still wearing white dresses (you HAD to wear a slip, white hose, white shoes and your cap. You could only wear a navy blue or black sweater.
    Your hair had to be up, you could only wear a plain wedding band, watch, and stud earrings. Oh, and if a doctor walked into the charting room, all nurses were expected to stand and let the doctor’s have their chairs. That last one was hard for me to break the entire time I worked in hospitals (21 years!). I had fellow nurses physically hold me in a chair when a doctor came to the desk, and we’d all howl with laughter. I remember SICU, and the most invasive line someone had was a cvp manometer!! I remember glass IV bottles, and medications coming from the pharmacy in 30 day bottles, not unit dosing and certainly not a pyxis machine. I’ve been unable to work at the bedside since 1994, and have been disabled since 2007. I truly miss my nursing career, and especially being at the bedside. I’m one of those old nurses who feels that she was born to be a nurse, and my mind didn’t change my entire career.
    I was also blessed to be on the cutting edge of nursing telephone triage back in 1995. It was in it’s infancy then, and a very exciting field.

  22. Vi

    I graduated from Nursing school in 1956. Many of those rules were in effect then. White uniform dresses, stockings,shoes, caps were worn. Sweeping floors, bedpan washing, standing when a Doctor comes to the desk, emptying waste cans were all expected of us. Cleaning up after a Doctor did an I.V. or changed a dressing ( meaning sweeping up what he threw on the floor.) Nurses taking patients to xray on stretchers,(no messengers). Nurses giving out food trays & collecting them, Running down to the lab to bring down vials of specimens going to the pharmacy to pick up new meds for a patient. The nurses had to do it all besides care for patients & do charting. Exhausting work.

  23. Sabrathia Draine

    Thank God for the evolution of nursing!

  24. Melissa

    The Sabbath is on Saturday. Nurses today have their own set of challenges, but I’m glad to be a nurse now rather than back then. And let’s hear it for housekeeping! I prefer not having those duties!

  25. Miry Meds

    Let’s hear it for our Nurse’s Aides and our Housekeepers who have some of these duties now!!!
    And I as an LVN in California empty mu own trash bin on my Medication Cart :)

    • therealcie LPN

      Yes, I love the folks who do the “grunt” work so we can get our charting, med passes and wound care done! Couldn’t do it without ‘em!

  26. Lee ann

    I remember the last time someone stood up when a doctor came into the n. station. One of the older nurses said to him, “there’s a chair out in the hallway, go ahead and bring it in.” We all quit after that. I knew one doctor that actually carried his own charts on rounds. I loved him.
    In 1983, we were expected to give everyone a backrub at bedtime. Nowadays, they’re lucky if they get their meds on time. times have changed, more paperwork all the time.

    One world War I nurse that I knew said that the only medicines they had in the war were paregoric and digitalis.

    whoever made Florence Nightingale in charge of clothing colors was crazy. Taking a bunch of menstruation aged nurses and putting them in white scrubs is ridiculous. Our clothing should be either red or black. LOL

    • therealcie LPN

      I wear anything but white! I’m always getting something on myself, whether it’s dropping food on myself or getting blood on myself. Nothing shows it worse than white. My mother got her license in 1960. I’m sure glad we don’t have to wear the starched dresses and caps like they did then!

  27. Lee ann

    About six months ago, all us nurses were charting on the computer (paperless, yeah). And a doc came into the nurses station, we looked up, he said, “Oh don’t get up for me.” I said, “we won’t.” and he smiled and sheepishly sat down in the corner to chart.

  28. Autumn

    I graduated from nursing school in 2005. I remember reading that list. We have come a long way. Nurses have a lot of responsibilities and accountabilies that can dignify our profession. I can see in my few years of nursing that the good and humble doctors realize the importance of a good nurse and realize that mutual respect is in order. That in fact it is teamwork and a partnership. Yes, we nurses still end up doing some menial tasks but sometimes it is a means to an end and is necessary for a greater cause. And yes, I have seen some doctors help push stretchers and clean up after themselves and be polite to the nurses. People are realizing that nursing is about intelligence, strength, caring, and determination. I am proud of myself and my fellow nurses:)

  29. Your name

    I am about to graduate from nursing school, and this list showed up in one of my textbooks too. I don’t think I could keep that schedule! And when did they have time to find someone to court them when they never saw the light of day?

  30. Suze

    At least we know nurses back then were dedicated to being nurses and care about their patients and actually did stuff than nurses now who sits on their butts and talk and look up cruises and talk about hair and planning parties and let the nurses aide take care of everything who has 15 patients.

    • therealcie LPN

      What the hell facility do you work at? That sounds like a cush job.
      Actually, you sound like you aren’t a nurse. You sound like an outside observer who has no idea what nurses actually do. You may have caught some nurses during a lull.
      Because the job is often so hectic, when there is a chance to sit down and relax for a few minute, the nurse takes that minute. Nurses are human too.

      • ReneeRn

        No, she sounds like a CNA! I use to be one and the unit I worked on was rough on our ancillary staff, I can remember nurses sitting around chatting and playing games on their phones while I ran around the unit. Those nurses then had the nerve to ask me to put a patient on the bed pan “because they were busy playing candy crush”. It taught me a lot about the nurse I NEVER want to be. I appreciate the Cna’s and techs…they put in a lot of hard work.

  31. Elena

    Many young nurses find that list hard to believe, but those are true to the times then. I went to nursing school in 1975 and even though the younger doctors didn’t expect you to give up your seat, the older ones did. We didn’t have aids, so we were expected to do everything from cleaning bed pans, giving night care that included back rubs to giving meds.

  32. I graduated in 1976 . I remember mixing our own piggybacks in glass bottles,(either 50cc or 100cc, D5W or 0.9 NACL), labeling them, and hanging them ON TIME, to my team of 28 pts on a busy med-surg floor in Chicago, as well as all scheduled po and prn pain meds, etc. As well as 6 baths/total pt care per shift. The most people I was ever legally responsible for, was SEVENTY! They were nrg home residents in nebraska, I had two aides was all. I passed all the meds, did all the treatments, all the charting, and I was expected to wake up 8 residents q noc shift and assess their teeth, hair, nails, skin, clothing, etc.(This was in the mid 80s)..for $8.35/ hour.

  33. therealcie LPN

    Gosh, I wish I could put aside $450 a month for retirement. Unfortunately I live pretty well paycheck to paycheck and it seems like the more I dig to get out of debt, the further I dig myself in.

  34. Pingback: 1887 Nurses Rules & Job Duties - Just Us Nurses is a forum created by nurses, for nurses. Discover the benefits of an online nursing community! Tell us about your nursing career or nursing school experiences.

  35. Travelnurse01

    I don’t know any of my co-workers I have ever worked with over the country, that would be a nurse if we had to follow these rules. I feel for my Nursing predecessors.

  36. hironmoysaha Student

    Sir, please send details rules of GNM nursing and also send what purpose “call book” are used .
    one question – a BP machine are missing from duty room sister immediately note down to main order khata and signed onduty M.O but not to used call book. do you think sister done her work write or not .

  37. amazingg50

    This was given to me by a very dear patient. Times have changed.

  38. rhonda pollard

    where can I download this to print

  39. nursey nurse

    Its amazing what nursing has become ….4 year nursing degree,and most of them don’t even know how to get a blood pressure on a manual machine…they can’t leave the nursing desk unless they have their phone ,forever texting and complaining about how busy they are….tattoos.,body piercing horrid hair color uniforms that are too tight and revealing…nursing is totally going down hill…its all paperwork and the patient care seems to be the least important thing to worry about

  40. nursing heretic

    The comments to this make me sad to be a nurse

  41. bickie

    I would like to post. Fun and humour on my Facebook page , thanks

  42. Suziq

    Failed #8 and # 10. Pathetic, you would think that I could save $15 per month!