October 31, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

From the Ladies Home Journal, July 1897.  “What Now?”
If the instinct of daughter, sister, wife or mother dies out of a college-bred woman, even in the course of a most brilliant career, the world will forget to love her; it will scorn her, and justly.

October 27, 2012

Teen Life Way Back When: Halloween

Believe it or not, there was a time in America when there was no Halloween.  While the concept of Halloween is largely due to the ancient Celts and has been around for a long, long time, the early colonial Protestants in America were strongly opposed to the tradition.

It wasn't until the second half of the nineteenth century, as this country became flooded with immigrants from Ireland and England, that Halloween as we know it today took root.  It was then that Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money.  Young women of the day thought they could divine the name of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings and mirrors.

By the late 1800's and early twentieth century there was a movement to take anything frightening or grotesque out of Halloween.  Instead, neighborly parties or community get-togethers were encouraged.

Sound familiar? It seems that, although the ghosts and ghouls had reappeared by the 1940's and 1950's, today they are on the wane once again and Halloween is swinging back out of favor.  Will Halloween survive in the twenty-first century?  Only time will tell.

 For additional reading and references:

October 25, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Bloodsuckers (and I don't mean vampires)

I hope you have a strong stomach because today we are starting a series on creepy bloodsucking critters and the role they played in nineteenth century medicine. I saw some pretty disgusting things during my career as a physician, yet even I get a tad squeamish on this topic.

Let's start with leeches.  Leeches have been used for medicinal purposes since the stone age .  They reached their heyday, though, in the nineteenth century when bloodletting was very popular. Back then, it was believed that all diseases were due to an excess of blood. Therefore, to cure the disease, excess blood had to be removed.  Leeches were efficient bloodsuckers, sucking their weight in blood within 15 minutes (about a half teaspoon).   Leeches were raised on commercial farms and it is estimated that 30 million leeches were used in the year 1846 alone.  Not only were they used for bloodletting, but they were touted as a cure-all for all kinds of ailments.

Now here's the interesting part:  leeches are still used in medicine today.  They are used in microsurgery, in wounds to drain congested blood, by plastic surgeons during difficult grafts and reconstructive surgery and for the relief of  arthritis pain.

Still, if my doctor wanted to use leeches on me, I don't think I could do it.  The very idea makes me, well, baaaaarf.

For some stomach turning images, additional reading and references, see:

October 23, 2012

Author's Notes: Big Dreams and High Hopes

In Big Stone Heart, our heroine Carrie Smith, is traveling by train from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Dakota Territory.  She is watching the countryside go by from her seat in the train:

The train picked up speed as it climbed out of the river valley and up onto the plains.  Carrie watched from her window as the buildings of St. Paul and then the huge mansions on the bluffs receded into the distance.  The plain was flat and monotonous with very few trees.  The sky was a dull gray and a few thick wet snowflakes drifted down and splotched on the windows.  Small clapboard farmhouses stood stark against the darkening sky.  Great patches of rich dark earth alternated with patches of unplowed prairie.  Everything looked frozen in place. 

The houses Carrie saw were built by the hard working, resilient pioneers who settled the Great Plains.  Most had big dreams of a prosperous future made possible by rich harvests of grain and corn.  Some made it.  Many did not.  Today, the plains of Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska are dotted with abandoned farmsteads.  Sometimes all that remains is a shelter belt of trees planted to comply with the law and secure the land.  More often, though, old abandoned houses, barns and outbuildings remain.

The picture above shows just such a farmstead.  The land on which it sits is owned by my sister-in-law, Sharon, and my brother, Bob.  The surrounding land is no longer farmed by the family, but rented out to others.  Yet, the old buildings still have stories to tell: the window on the upper left that was Sharon’s bedroom growing up; the old cistern that collected rainwater for the family’s use; the decaying barn with hay fifty years old still in the loft and horse tackle on the wall. 

Like so many others, Sharon’s family moved off the farm to seek greater opportunity in the small towns nearby.  Still, next to this abandoned house is a brand spanking new house built by hand by the Bob and Sharon.  It’s the pioneer spirit reborn:  the lure of the wide open prairie; the need to make a home on the land; the desire to preserve a way of life.


October 22, 2012


Last time we talked about breeching, the rite of passage in which little boys in the nineteenth century changed from wearing dresses or smocks to wearing shorts and long pants. In this photograph, it is difficult to tell if this child is a boy or a girl.  There is lace on a military type jacket and the child has long curled hair.  This is a portrait of the artist Thomas Eakins in 1850. 

Boys wore their hair long and curled just like girls in the Victorian age.  The hair was usually cut short much earlier than breeching occurred, usually around age 2 or 3.  There was no rigid timeframe. The mother made the decision when to make the transition. Sometimes, the mothers kept their son's hair long even after breeching occurred at age seven or so. As the boys grew and matured, hair, for the most part, stayed short.

Pictures of men from this era showed short hair slicked back with oil.  Facial hair might take the form of a mustache, goatee, full beard or any combination of the above.  They may also have been clean shaven.  Long flowing hair was not the norm for men back then, even though romantic heroes from this era are characterized that way today.

October 19, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Zits

Zits, pimples, blemishes, acne, whatever you want to call it, can be devastating both emotionally and physically, sometimes causing disfigurement and emotional scars that can last for a lifetime. Zits are as old as history itself.  The ancient Egyptians and Greeks described acne. Cures were sought throughout history. 

By the nineteenth century, it was recognized that zits were a disease of the sebaceous glands.  But what caused the disease was the subject of wide speculation.  Theories ranged from constitutional factors, mode of life, use of cosmetics, affections of the alimentary tract and, supposedly, abnormal sexual behavior. Sulfur containing concoctions were the standard treatment back then.  Sulfur has a drying and exfoliative effect on the skin.

Throughout the years, as we gained more and more knowledge about the disease, treatments were developed in response to the latest scientific discoveries.  According to News-Medical.net, here is a timeline of zit therapy:

1920's:  benzoyl peroxide
1930's:  radiation and laxatives
1950's:  antibiotics
1970's:  Retin A (tretinoin)
1980's:  Accutane (found to cause birth defects in pregnant women)
1990's:  laser therapy
2000's:  blue/red light therapy


October 17, 2012

School Visit at Big Stone School

Had a blast yesterday talking to the students at the Big Stone School in Big Stone City, South Dakota.  The sixth through eighth graders had a host of insightful comments on writing, art and medicine, even teaching me a thing or too!  Everyone was so warm and welcoming.  Thank you Big Stone School.

Carol's Quaint Quotes

From The Ladie's Home Journal, July 1897. “What Now?”

An intellectual ambition draws many a girl away from her true place in life, and makes her a cold, unloved, and unhelpful woman, instead of a joyous, affectionate and unselfish blessing to home and friends…..

October 14, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: How Did Pant Legs Send a Message?

Look carefully at this picture. What is difference between the little boy at the top and his father and brother?  Give up?  The two older males are in long trousers; the little boy is in shorts.  Why?

Prior to about 1900, a rite of passage for boys was called “breeching”. As babies, both boys and girls wore dresses or smocks primarily for practical reasons such as toilet training.  The point at which a boy began to wear pants or breeches was an important milestone in his life.  It signaled that babyhood was over.  By the mid-nineteenth century, dresses gave way to shorts first, then to full length trousers. Indeed, in England and some other countries, many school uniforms mandated shorts for boys until ages 9 or 10.
At what age did breeching occur?  This was somewhat arbitrary, varied by era and was mostly determined by the mother.  Usually breeching occurred by age seven. It was often marked by an elaborate ceremony with gifts of money for the newly breeched boy who looked forward to it with excitement.  It also marked the point at which fathers became more involved in the raising of their sons.  In working class families, it marked the beginning of working life.
Today, when a boy puts on a pair of shorts he is sending a different message: it’s hot outside!

For references or additional reading, click the Extras tab.


October 12, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Frostbite


Ice Mask, C.T. Madigan, Australasian Expedition 1911-1914 Photo by Frank Hurley
Every winter here in the Midwest, some unfortunate person is trapped in their car during a blizzard, leaves the car and tries to walk to safety.  When I was in medical school, I saw just such a patient who sustained severe frostbite on his hands and feet.  Not a pretty sight.

In the nineteenth century, frostbite treatment consisted of rubbing the affected area with snow. This is largely the result of Baron Larrey, surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon’s army during the invasion of Russia in the winter of 1812-1813.  He advocated friction massage with ice or snow and the avoidance of heat in thawing.  This was the treatment of frostbite until well into the 1950’s.
Turns out the Baron got it all wrong.  In 1956, Merryman, a public service medical officer in Alaska disproved this treatment. Today we know that the treatment of frostbite starts with gradually thawing frostbitten extremities in warm water and other areas in a warm blanket.  Rubbing snow or anything else on the affected area only causes further damage.

Today, there is still the entrenched belief that if you think you have frostbite, rub it with snow.  Don’t do it.  And, if you are trapped in your car during a blizzard, stay put.  Not only will you be better protected from the cold, but you will be easier to find once help arrives.

References and further reading:

·         http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/frostbite/DS01164

October 10, 2012

Carol's Quaint Quotes

From The Ladies Home Journal, January,1897:
I cannot recommend any bleach for the hair.  Artificial coloring of the hair is not only an extremely vulgar habit, but which is also of importance, an obsolete one.

October 8, 2012


This lovely Victorian lady from around 1860 probably got many compliments on her hair. But did you know that elaborate hair styles like this were created with hair pieces? 

Today, hair extensions are all the rage.  Back in the nineteenth century they were called switches and were sold by the length. In the Montogomery Ward Catalogue from 1895, hair switches were sold in lengths from 20-26 inches and ranged in price from 0.65 cents to $3.25.  Doesn't sound like much does it?  If you compare the price with today's dollar, though, a $3.25 switch would cost about $90.90! A 24 inch woman's wig sold for $18.00, that's $504.00 in today's dollars.  That doesn't sound too bad either, you might say.  Consider this:  the average income in 1895 was about $438 a year - yes, a year. So you can see, the lady had to quite wealthy to afford a hairstyle enhanced with multiple hair pieces.

A great variety of hair goods were available: bangs, poofs, pompadours, knots,waves and showy coiffures.  They could be ordered from catalogs by sending in a swatch of hair or custom made. We can only wonder how well some of these hair pieces actually matched the color of the lady's hair, especially those that were ordered through the mail.  Wouldn't you just love to see a color photograph from back then?

October 5, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Did You Wash Your Hands After Going to the...Autopsy?


Picture this:  it’s the first day of pathology residency and I, newly minted medical doctor, am about to do my first autopsy. Cloaked head to toe in scrubs, surgical mask, gown, shoe covers, waterproof (or should I say blood proof) sleeve covers and a cap to cover my hair, I hovered queasily over the deceased.  About to pull on thick gloves, I was stopped by the teaching pathologist at the highly prestigious medical institution (which shall remain unnamed) and informed: “We don’t wear gloves. It’s not macho.”

A tense pause, cringe, gasp. He had to be kidding.  Muck around in a dead body without gloves, barehanded, unprotected?  Well, being a true blue double X chromosome female (we jokingly pronounced it like “tamale”), I didn’t care if I was considered macho or not.  I pulled on the gloves.  True story, I swear.

Perhaps the teaching pathologist at the prestigious medical institution never got the memo that dead bodies have germs and germs cause disease. Ignaz Semmelweis proved conclusively in 1847 that unwashed hands spread germs.  At an obstetrical clinic in Vienna, Semmelweis noted that women who gave birth attended by medical students were dying of childbed fever (puerperal fever in medical speak) much more often than those whose deliveries were attended by midwives.  Why?  He investigated and found that the medical students came straight from performing autopsies on patients who had died of sepsis (bacterial infection) and attended the births without washing their hands. When he instituted a strict policy of hand washing with a chlorinated antiseptic solution, the death rate from childbed fever dropped 10-20 fold in three months. The use of gloves didn’t come along until much later, but hand washing was a major medical breakthrough in preventing the spread of disease.




October 3, 2012

Author's Notes: Snow - Already?

     We just heard that North Dakota is under a winter storm watch this evening (Oct. 3). Already?  I just put away my summer things!  Still, even though this is a little early even by midwest standards, it's time to start thinking about hot chocolate, warm sweaters and a crackling blaze in the fireplace.

      In Big Stone Heart, our heroine, Carrie Smith, encounters a typical midwestern blizzard: huge snowdrifts, blowing snow and subzero temperatures - a lethal combination.  Carrie survives in the book, but every winter here in the midwest, others do not. With every storm comes news of frostbite, exposure and even death.

One of the most tragic blizzards in our part of the world occurred in 1888, the so-called "Children's Blizzard" or the "Schoolhouse Blizzard".  There were 235 deaths, many of them children.  The day started warm and balmy.  Children went to school or took advantage of the fine weather to be out-of-doors.  Without warning, for there was no radio or television, a storm hit fast and furious. Some children were sent home from school, a tragic mistake, for they were trapped in the storm without shelter or winter clothing.  Others stayed in the schoolhouse with their teacher and survived. Even today, it's a heartbreaking story.

October 1, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Wash That Stink Right Out of Your Hair

Source:  Flickr Commons
            On the subject of how stinky the world was back in the nineteenth century, let’s talk a little bit about hair. If you’ve ever gone for weeks without shampooing, especially if you have long hair, you know that unwashed hair smells. Modern shampoo wasn’t invented until the 1920’s.  So what did a girl do to keep her hair fresh looking and sweet smelling?

First of all, they didn’t wash their hair all that often.  One etiquette book recommended every 2-3 weeks, another source said seasonal, still another said every couple of months.  You get the idea – it certainly wasn’t every day in the shower like we do today.  Back then, washing hair was a big production.  Everybody wore their hair long; there was no running water, hot or cold and no hair dryers.  

What did they use to wash their hair?  There were commercially available shampoos.  A check of the Montgomery Ward Catalogue from 1895 shows two products:  Graham’s Shampoo Paste at 18 cents a box and Shampoo Powder or “Seafoam” selling for 25 cents a box. However, most of the time, homemade concoctions were the shampoos of choice.  A recipe from 1893 noted by Baroness Staffe in “The Ladies Dressing Room” shows the following mixture:  quart of hot or cold water, 1 oz. carbonate of soda, ½ oz. Pear’s soap cut into small pieces, a few drops of perfume essence and 1 oz. spirit of wine.  Other mixtures included bicarbonate of soda or salted rainwater.  Lemon juice, herbal mixtures and even beer were used as rinses.

The Victorian ladies had other maneuvers between washings.  Daily brushing, the proverbial 100 strokes, with a clean brush removed oils and dirt.  Brushing a powder like soda through the hair had a similar effect.  Still, you have to wonder how effective these were.  And if it really mattered.  After all, no respectable unmarried young woman would let a man get close enough to get a whiff of her hair, would she?
For additional reading and references:  See Extras