July 30, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Stink, Stank, Stunk

Ever been in an elevator or a bus with a person who had really terrible body odor (BO)?  Whew, does that ever stink! Remember the Seinfeld episode where a car was so saturated with BO that Jerry  couldn't get rid of it?  Yup, that's about how bad it gets.  We all started using deodorants at puberty when the sweat glands really got going. If you didn't, peer pressure soon forced you into grabbing that can or stick and slathering it on.  Well, in Victorian times, everybody stank.  There were no deodorants or antiperspirants.

BO is caused by bacteria in the armpits breaking down the sweat.  This produces the smell and the stains.  In the nineteenth century, only the rich had the money to buy perfumes to mask the smell and to have multiple changes of clothes.  The average person possessed only a few changes of clothes that were'nt washed very often, if at all.  It wasn't uncommon to wear the same clothes every day with only one change of clothes for church on Sunday.  Laundering clothes could be quite difficult if water wasn't readily available and even if it was, it was a major production to wash, rinse and dry clothes.

The first commercially available deodorant was invented in 1888 under the trade name of Mum.  In 1952, using the new ball-point pen technology, the roll-on deodorant was invented - Ban Roll-On.  It wasn't until 1965 that the first aerosol anti-perspirant was available.  Before anti-perspirants, women used to wear underarm pads or liners so their dresses didn't become stained from the sweat!

I wonder - if everybody stank, did anyone notice the stink?

July 20, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Old Names for Old Diseases

Last week we talked about patent medicines that were sold in the late nineteenth century.  The names of the diseases the medicines were meant to cure may seem unfamiliar to our modern ears - but they were really just old names for old diseases.  Here are some of the common disease names in use in the nineteenth century:

Consumption:  Refers primarily to tuberculosis (TB)and generically to any wasting away of the body.  There was no true cure for tuberculosis in the nineteenth centruy.  Patients were often commited to sanatoriums where fresh air and healthy food were felt to be beneficial. Late in the century, artificial or surgical collapse of a lung provided some releif. 

We now know that TB is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis.  Treatment consists of 6 to 9 months, sometimes longer, of a regimen of one or several antibiotics in combination.  Resistent strains have developed which are difficult to treat and a real cause for concern.

La Grippe: Influenza.  The horrific influenza epidemics of the past are well documented.  Hundreds of thousands of people died of the disease.  Indeed, the outbreak of influenza is still feared today.  In the nineteenth century, the treatment for influenza was little more than a huge dose of hope. 
Today we know influenza is caused by viruses which change constantly, hence the yearly flu vaccine. Once the flu develops, supportive measures are effective.  Anti-viral medications are also available to use in select cases.

Next time:  Catarrah, Ague, Blood Poisoning and "The Pox"

July 18, 2012

Author's Notes: Caution - hot!

In one of the first scenes in Big Stone Heart, our heroine, Carrie Smith, is making potato soup .  We smell the pungent odor of bacon and and onions sizzling away on the iron cookstove, hear the plunk of potatoes as they are thrown in the water to boil and the soft simmer of the finished soup. A simple dish, you might think. True - in terms of a few basic ingredients - but making a meal in 1886 was anything but simple.

Take the iron cookstove, the heart of any kitchen.  In 1886, when gas stoves were still rare, the cookstove was heated by wood, coal or kerosene. What this meant was that the wood had to be readily available and nearby, cut into the correct length for the stove, lighted, stoked and kept going long enough to finish the meal.  There were no true thermostats so getting to and maintaining the correct temperature was a highly refined skill.

In urban areas, coal and kerosene could be had fairly easily.  In rural areas, far from the nearest town, getting coal or kerosene could be a challenge.  My husband tells the story of his great grandparents and others in rural South Dakota who would wait by the tracks for the steam trains to pass by.  Lumps of coal would fall from the train while they were being shoveled into the great engine by the fireman.  The people waited until the train passed, then scrambled to collect the coal to take home for the hungry maw of the cookstove.

July 16, 2012


Photo courtesy of Graphics
Were you ever in a museum marveling at a pair of ladie's Victorian shoes?  By marveling I mean: how ever did they wear such shoes without being in excruciating pain?

First of all, the end of the shoe is all pointy so the toes had to have been all scrunched up together.  Second, they were incredibly narrow.  The pair I recently saw in the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena were only about two inches across.  And to get them on, the poor woman needed a button hook and the flexibility of a gymnast. No big deal if you're sixteen, but what if you're sixty? And lest you think these were just for fashionable adults, the children's shoes weren't much better. Admittedly, the shoes look kind of cool but ouch! ouch! ouch!

July 13, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century - Microbe Killer

One of my favorite books is the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue reprinted from the original by Chelsea House Publishers in 1968.  What a delightful snapshot of life in the late nineteenth century!  In beginning this new series of blogs, I paged through the catalogue until I came to the section on drugs, curious to see what medicines were available by mail order.

Pasteur's germ theory was gaining traction among medical professionals, but the public got most of its information about germs from patent medicine advertising.  In the 1897 catalogue, we find Pasteur's Microbe Killer (pg. 27).  Quoting directly from the catalogue:

 "This is Dr. Pasteur's Microbe Killer, which if taken once or twice a day, will prevent La Grippe, Catarrh, Consumption, Malaria, Blood Poison, Rheumatish and all disorders of the blood.  It acts as an antiseptic, killing the germs which are the cause of these diseases.  This preparation of Dr. Pasteur's will eradicate any form of disease and purify the whole system.  1/2 gallon bottles, each, 97c; per doz $11.50"

An internet search failed to reveal any additional information about this particular product.  However, I did find a similar product called Radam's Microbe Killer touted as based on Pasteur's formulation. The bottle showed a clever cartoon in which a man with a bat threatens an animated skeleton.  A contemporary analysis of the contents of Radam's Microbe Killer suggested it was composed of a gallon of well water, an ounce of red wine, a dram of impure muriatic (hydocloric) acid and four drams of impure oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid).  Yuck!

1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue, Chelsea House Publishers, 1968, pg. 27.

July 11, 2012

Author's Notes - Orphanages

As Big Stone Heart opens we find our heroine, Carrie Smith, in an orphanage.  While the orphanage in the book is fictional - no such orphanage existed in Swede Hollow - orphanages were common all across the country in the nineteenth century.  In our case, this orphanage followed the traditional model of an institution for indigent children: that is, a large building that housed,fed and somewhat educated the children in a regimented atmosphere.

We see Carrie working in the kitchen, the nursery and on the account books of the institution.  Children did most of the work in orphanages and Carrie was no exception. Although the goal was to teach the children useful skills that they could use later in life, most of the work was menial and, as such, did not lead to skilled, high paying jobs.  As we see later in the book, Carrie put the skills she learned in the orphanage to good use: caring for sick children and helping with the account books at the general store.

Orphanages failed miserably at providing the inmates with the love and attention needed to raise an emotionally healthy child.  We see Carrie struggling with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and hopelessness as she tries to make her way in life, a direct result of being institutionalized from birth.  Today, we use foster homes which are believed to be the best method to care for orphaned or abused children. Orphanages have been abandoned.  But, once, orphanages were thought to be the best answer to the problem of indigent children.  We've since learned that they weren't the answer.  Will foster homes go the same way?

July 9, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Hemlines and Hairdos - What was the Message?

Take a look at this photograph from the 1890’s.  What’s different between the mother and her daughters?  We know that in the nineteenth century, children were dressed as miniature adults.  But, when it came to girls, there were some key differences that were designed to send a message.

You will notice that the mother has her hair up and the daughters wear their hair loose and flowing.  Also, the mother’s skirt reaches the floor and the skirts of the daughters are considerably shorter. It was only when a girl was mature enough to marry, around the age of seventeen, that she was allowed to put up her hair and lower her hemline.  This was a signal to everyone that she was now available and ready for marriage.  It was considered an important rite of passage. Not only that, it was improper for a girl of marriageable age to wear her hair down.  This sent another, altogether different message:  it was considered a sign of sensuality and vice.  After a girl put her hair up, loose hair was reserved for her husband and the bedroom.

For references and additional reading:  Go to  Extras