April 29, 2013

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Deathly Pale - Arsenic in Cosmetics

Pale skin was the beauty goal of women in the 19th century.  But the quest for pale skin could turn deadly.  In July 1880, the "Indianapolis Sentinel" reported on a woman who gradually lost her sight as a result of taking arsenic for beauty purposes.  Another newspaper report told the story of a girl from St. Louis who took several boxes of wafers (pills) in an attempt to clean up a skin complaint. 

There were many beauty products for the skin available that contained arsenic. In Britain one of the most popular was known as Dr. MacKenzie's Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers.  This product was also marketed under Dr. Simms, Dr. Rose and Dr. Campbell.  In the United States, the main brand was Dr. Campbell's. The above photo shows the compound for sale under the name of Dr. Rose in the Sears and Roebuck catalog of 1901 and 1902.  It remained available in the U.S. until well into the 1920's.  The product produced pale skin by destroying red blood cells. 

But here's the kicker:  The poisonous effects of arsenic have been known for centuries.  Indeed, it was the poison of choice in Medieval and Renaissance times.  Despite the claim that those arsenic wafers were "harmless", surely women in the 19th century knew better.  Apparently not.

April 25, 2013

Author's Notes: The Ghost of Browns Valley

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of ...Samuel Brown 

Samuel Brown?  Yes, he's known as the Paul Revere of Minnesota.  During a book event at the Browns Valley Library I learned all about the ghost of Brown's Valley.  Here is what the librarian, Bernice Piechowski, had to say about Sam:

"On April 19, 1866, Sam Brown, the son of Joseph R. Brown and at that time, the chief Army Scout stationed at Fort Wadsworth, started on horseback to warn the settlers there of what was thought to be an impending Indian attack. He rode the fifty-five miles in five hours only to find the report to be false. He was caught in a blizzard and lost his way, drifting many miles to the south and into the Waubay area. He is called the "Paul Revere of the Frontier" due to his famous ride."

Bernice sent me a section of a book about the ghosts of Minnesota.  Turns out that the seldom-seen ghost only comes out in spring blizzards on the plains. When there is heavy snow, sleet and rain, an exhausted horse is seen stumbling on urged by the tall, gaunt man in the saddle. 

Most of us out here know to stay indoors in such weather.  But if you're ever outside near Browns Valley during a spring blizzard, keep an eye out for Sam and his horse.  And now that I think of it, wouldn't this be a great idea for a book?

April 22, 2013

Life in the Nineteenth Century: True or False? Women Didn't Use Makeup

An 1863 advertisement for Laird's Bloom of Youth Fluid
Pearl for the skin

Did women use makeup in the nineteenth century?  Men didn't think so.  Ah, how naive. Because their women did use makeup but it was makeup designed to look natural as if the face were naked.

The skin was the focus of beauty.  The paler the better, for pale skin denoted that the woman did not have to work outdoors and therefore was of a higher class.  Besides bonnets and parasols to protect the skin from the sun, women used creams and lotions to lighten the skin tone.  Many of these were home concoctions but commercial prepartions were widely available.

There was a difference between skin-improving products and skin-masking products.  The latter were considered skin "paint".  Paints were associated with social climbers and momen who would trick men into marriage.  A woman who painted her skin was engaging in a disreputable effort to use artifice to hide her social status.

 But there was a problem: many of the preparations contained highly toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, zinc oxide, mercury, nitrates of silver and acids.  Some women even ate chalk or drank iodine to achieve the desired effect.

For references or additional reading, see the Extras tab.

April 18, 2013

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: More Old Names for Old Diseases

I was looking through the "Ladies of Plymouth Church Cookbook" from Des Moines, Iowa, 1876, when I encountered some disease names in the medicinal recipes section that I was unfamiliar with. Turns out these are all skin conditions. I decided to learn what they were:

Wen:  an epidermoid cyst (also known as a sebaceous cyst).  Commonly caused by entrapment of the surface epithelium of the skin.  The proferred treatment from 1876 was to wash the lesion in common salt dissolved in water everyday and it will be removede in a short time.  Today we know these lesions will not go away on their own.  Treatment is conservative surgical removal.

A felon:  Closed-space infections of the fingertip pulp most commonly the thumb and index finger.  In 1876 it was recommended that a strong mecurial (containing mercury) ointment be spread on the lesion with a linen cloth as soon as it first appears.  The treatment today is antibiotics and incision and drainage.

Salt-rheum:  various cutaneous eruptions, particularly eczema. Salt-rheum was treated in 1876 by steeping sweet ferns and using it as a drink or by bathing the affected parts.  Today, depending on the specific lesion, selected ointments are prescribed.

For references and additional reading, see the Extras section.

April 13, 2013

Author's Notes: 1883

My new book, The Secret Society of Sugar and Spice, is set in 1883.  What was happening in America that year?

Chester A. Arthur is president having become so after the assassination of Presidient Garfield in 1881.

Jan. 19th: The first electric lighting system using overhead wires built by Thomas Edison begins service in Roselle, New Jersey

Feb. 16th:  The Ladies Home Journal begins publishing

Mar 24th:  The first telephone call occurrs between New York and Chicago

May 24:  The Brooklyn Bridge is opened.  Six days later a rumor that the bridge is about to collapse causes a stampede and kills twelve people

Jul 4:  "Buffalo Bill" Cody puts on his first Wild West Show in North Platte, Nebraska

Nov. 3:  The US Supreme Court decides Native Americans can't be Americans

Nov. 18:  Five standard time zones are established by US and Canadian railroad companies to end confusion over thousands of local time zones

Info from: