The Great Book Scare

Epidemiology, Everyday Life, Medicine

The Great Book Scare was a period between 1880 and 1920 when the general public was obsessed with the idea that library books were a major source of epidemics. 📚😱

Even though the evidence for this was small, especially compared to other potential disease sources, many in the U.S and the U.K. believed that library books could spread everything from tuberculosis to smallpox. 🦠🦠 The authorities and doctors alike started to come up with ideas on how to limit the risk such as treating books with vapors from heated carbolic acid crystals, using formaldehyde, and … just completely destructing books if they had come into contact with a sick person. 😷

Finally, the fear has died out after it turned out that library workers and patrons weren’t really getting sick more often than others. You can read more about these regulations in this article.

Flying Wombs

Everyday Life

The advent of the steam-powered locomotive 🚂 allowed people to travel farther and faster than ever before, and quickly became popular with the public. However, the freedom which came with this form of transport was also seen as a moral and physical threat, especially to women. 😲

Some believed that “vulnerable” women’s bodies wouldn’t handle the high-speed (80 km/h or 50 mph) travels, resulting in faintings, madness, or … uteruses falling out. ☠️ Therefore women were sometimes discouraged from traveling.

This myth, like many other myths at the time, reflected the fear of women becoming more independent, mobile, and not as fragile as the Victorian society wanted them to be. 🦸‍♀️

Find out more about this strange belief in this Mental Floss article.

Arsenic Routine

Cosmetics, Everyday Life, Medicine

Many Victorians wanted to have a very pale complexion which was supposed to give them a more aristocratic look. 👻 Because of that, companies started to add arsenic to various cosmetics, including soaps 🧼, lotions, 🧴 and powders . Arsenic was also advised, either in the form of wafers 🍬( e.g. Dr Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers) or fluids 🥛 (e.g. Fowler’s Solution, also used as medicine).

There were known cases of death caused by such treatments, but it didn’t discourage many of the customers. ☠️

Interestingly, prolonged use of arsenic actually darkens the skin, which suggests that the producers might have skimped on the arsenic quantity in their products, thus making them a little bit less deadly.

You can find more crazy treatments from the past in a fascinating book: Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything.

Scheele’s Green

Everyday Life, Fashion, Home

“Clyster, bleed, purge, repeat” could be a motto for many doctors throughout the ages who believed that bad blood, humor imbalance, or miasma were causing all illnesses known to humanity. Such treatments were used as

Scheele’s Green, also known as copper arsenite, was the name of a green coloring that was used in everything from wallpaper 👩‍🎨 through dresses 👗to toys and candies. 🍭

Thanks to the unique, vibrant look it quickly became a very fashionable color. As you can imagine, the arsenic-loaded dye was very dangerous to people’s health, especially if digested or breathed in. ☠️☠️ The latter could occur as a result of, e.g., molding wallpaper which would release arsine gas.

The toxic nature of Scheele’s Green (and its chemical cousin Paris Green) was unknown to the general public until a series of mysterious deaths and illnesses caught the attention of a few chemists and doctors who then called for boycotting green products. Despite the growing awareness, arsenic-based dyes were in use until the end of the nineteenth century. 😱

See what other dangers waited for the Victorians in their own homes in the “Hidden Killers” documentary series.

Dr. Fahrney’s Teething Syrup

Everyday Life, Medicine

Dr. Fahrney’s Teething Syrup was one of the “miraculous” Victorian products that promised to cure everything from teething pain through the common cold to cholera and dysentery.

Advertised as medicine for babies, 👶 this concoction included alcohol, 🍸 morphine, 💉and chloroform😴.

 I came across this gem on this episode of Sawbones: Opium.

Unwrapping Party

Colonialism, Entertainment, Funerals, Medicine

The Egyptomania that took over Europe in the 19th century caused a few disturbing trends in society. One of them were so-called unwrapping parties, during which people would observe or even take part in unwrapping ancient mummies, stealing the valuables they could find, or even dissect what was left of the body for “souvenirs” or magic-like medicine. Such parties were supposedly happening in London.

While some scholars today question whether such parties really happened, we can be quite sure that at least one person – surgeon Thomas Pettigrew – was fond of such gatherings, turning them into bizarre shows.

Remember to check out Caitlin Doughty’s video on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVDo2tsJeXA

Crape Veils

Everyday Life, Fashion, Funerals

Victorian mourning veils were popular accessories worn by grieving women. ⚰️ The veils could be as long as six feet and were traditionally made out of black crape, a scratchy fabric believed to be the most appropriate for mourning. 🖤

Unfortunately, some of the black dyes (like logwood dye) used in the production were quite poisonous, 🐍 causing a variety of ailments from light rashes to serious respiratory problems. Widows were especially affected by these dangers as the Victorian society expected them to wear crape veils for at least a year and a day during the so-called deep mourning stage.

You can check out an interesting article about Victorian mourning stages and mourning fashion here: https://www.racked.com/…/171…/19th-century-mourning-veil

Trains

Entertainment, Everyday Life

At the turn of the twentieth century, a new form of dangerous and very costly entertainment appeared… staged train crashes 🚂🚂 Thousands of Americans would appear at these events, watching the crashes and collecting “souvenirs” from the wrecks. ⚙️
This craze lasted for almost 40 years!

Check out this story about the most dangerous of these crashes: Atlas Obscura  😎

Crinoline

Everyday Life, Fashion

Crinolines 💃 were hugely popular in the second half of the 19th century, since their fairly light construction allowed women to play with fashion and big dress shapes without the need to carry the weight of several petticoats (as it was done earlier). This vast popularity of crinolines among women of all classes led to coining the word ‘crinolinemania’ and numerous caricatures in the media.

And while there were some hazards 😱 connected with wearing crinolines, especially in factories or near an open fire 🔥, they were definitely great at providing some personal space 😎

Mad as a Hatter

Everyday Life, Medicine

Erethism, more commonly known as mad hatter disease, 🎩 is caused by mercury poisoning and can cause a variety of symptoms including tremors, timidness, anxiety, and even hallucinations. 🧚‍♀️It was quite common among hat-makers as they were exposed to mercury used in the manufacturing of felt hats.

Even though the Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 🐛doesn’t display all of these symptoms, his creation might have been inspired by erethism. We know that Lewis Carroll’s uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, was a Lunacy Commissioner supervising Pauper Lunatic Asylums. To keep patients busy, these asylums often organized group activities such as … tea parties. 🧐☕️

On a related note, check out this video about the “mad as a hatter” expression 🙂