19th century, Alcoholism, Appreciation, Cooking, Fashion, gardening, Healing, Herbs, History, Holistic Health

19th Century Reality

“O my people, listen to my teaching. Open your ears to what I am saying. For I will show you lessons from our history, stories handed down to us from former generations.” (Psalms 78:1-4)

I tend to over-romanticize earlier times in history. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for a quiet, peaceful walk where no motorcars pollute the air, assault our ears with their constant rumble, and the threat of being struck down by one is non-existent. There’s something to be said for growing your own food, knowing where it came from, knowing what’s in it, and knowing how to preserve it for the winter months when nothing grows. There’s an art to cooking. Sadly, many in our society no longer take the time to learn that art. They’re too busy to slow cook anything; nuke for 3 minutes instead…and watch most, if not all, of the nutrition evaporate. And, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, the craftsmanship that went into everything! Today’s styles, whether we’re talking clothing, or furnishings, or even architecture, are–in my not-so-humble opinion–bland. There’s no attempt at individuality. Everything is churned out in a factory so that every house, every sofa, every pair of jeans is often identical to the next. The only difference may be that this house is blue and its neighbor is yellow. So, I lament the loss of such craftsmanship.

However, yesterday afternoon, I spent some time reading some of the literature in the herb garden “office”. “Office” because it’s really the basement to another exhibit, but it has been converted into a part-garden shed, part-gardening library and, yes, part-office. Some of what I read, I already knew but it was kind of sobering all the same:

Every family could expect to lose at least one child in infancy…mostly due to bacterial infections and viruses, of which infants have not developed immunity against and, of course, there’s no real hospital with today’s pre- and post-natal care.

Every family could also expect to lose at least one child before the age of 21 because one out of every five children never got the chance to grow up due to childhood diseases. I often criticize certain vaccinations–usually the flu vaccine and, in this case, I will continue to do so–but, while some of the vaccinations we received as children may cause some unpleasant conditions and/or side effects, they also save lives. I, for one, would not want to contract tuberculosis–what was called “consumption” in the 1800’s. Consumption was one of the biggest killers in the 19th century.

Diseases like malaria and cholera took the lives of hundreds of people each summer. When was the last time we heard of anyone contracting cholera? There’s something to be said for public sanitation, too.

Women between 20 and 45, their childbearing years, were always at risk of losing their lives in the birthing process.

Menstrual pain, PMS and menopause were treated with patent medicines. These were primarily alcohol-based “remedies” prescribed by doctors to suppress certain symptoms. And, as anyone knows who has had alcoholism in their family, sometimes the effect is not calming but the basis for more irrational behavior.

One could practice medicine without a license, without even a formal education. The herbalist in me says this one isn’t so bad. No, I don’t want a surgeon cutting me open without ever having received formal training to do so but I don’t mind being able to tincture a few herbs together and being allowed to call it “medicine” instead of “remedy” or “supplement”. However, doctors of the 19th century were of two extremes. Some were merely learned herbalists who, rather than just the more benign plants like chamomile, mint and fennel that nearly everyone knew and trusted, employed harsher herbs. One such fellow, Samuel Thomson, believed the body must first be purged of all ill humors and then heated up because he believed that cold was the enemy. So he prescribed, almost exclusively, first, Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) to induce violent and copious vomiting and diarrhea (Lobelia inflata has since been proven to be quite toxic) and then followed it up with a heavy dose of Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum annuum). He was incarcerated for murder when one of his patients died but then acquitted when nobody on the jury panel could readily identify Indian tobacco. The other side of medicine in the 1800’s used mineral-based remedies like calomel (Mercurous chloride), which had pretty much the same effect on the patient as Lobelia inflata. Bloodletting, purging and blistering were other orthodox methods of “healing”, methods that often sped a patient on their way by further weakening the victim. Lastly, though surgeons were often quite skillful, even in the 1800’s, the risk of infection was great and I, for one, would not like to endure such surgeries without the use of anesthetics.

Lastly, as a woman, the 1830’s hold less appeal, not enough to taint my joy in learning the skills and donning the beautiful outfits of the time, but because I’m simply far too independent to leave myself at the mercy–or lack thereof–of my closest male relative for my care. There were strict boundaries between women’s work and men’s. There was little to no industry for women at all (though the rapidly-growing textile industry was changing this). A widow living alone, even if she could figure out how to manage a plow on her own, hired out for the job instead; that just wasn’t woman’s work and one might appear “unseemly”. I face some of this same discrimination today as there are certain “stations” within the museum that women are strictly prohibited from learning: tin smithing, pottery, coopering and blacksmithing are a few of them. These were men’s tasks and so, in an effort to stay true to the time period, modern women are pretty much denied these skills. (Funny how we bend that period correctness when women are needed to “clerk” at the store and for a Christmas program during a time period when Christmas would not have been commonly celebrated in New England…but that’s another post for another day…) What’s that old expression? “We’ve come a long way, baby!”

May God bless you & keep you!

2 thoughts on “19th Century Reality”

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