In the early 19th century, a visit to a hospital was a horrific experience. The sanitary regime was non-existent and the putrid smells of disease, dirty linens, and unwashed clothes penetrated the hospital building and its walls. While wealthier people were cared for in their own homes, the poor were forced to withstand awful hospital conditions, where the probability of dying was three to five times higher than in a household. (That’s why hospitals used to be called “houses of death”).
No wonder that a hospital environment was a perfect ground for spreading both diseases and … insects. While the former were still believed to caused by miasma, the latter seemed to be easier to deal with. A hospital infested by cockroaches or lice could hire a specialist called a bug-catcher. In fact, a Chief Bug-Catcher would earn more than a surgeon, whose job at this time was still closer to a barber-surgeon than to a fully-respected medical profession.
I found this fantastic description of the bug-catcher profession in Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!
It is said that the air transport of patients began during the siege of Paris in 1870, where wounded soldiers were supposed to be evacuated to safety by hot air balloons. However, some scholars aren’t convinced that that’s what really happened and link this historical rumor to the popularity of Jules Verne’s stories about balloons. Regardless of the truth, by the end of the nineteenth century there were at least a couple of people who proposed air transportation of patients.
One of them was a Dutchman called M. de Mooy, who designed a system in which a stretcher could be suspended from a balloon, which in turn could be gently steered by horses in the right direction. So, was this idea ever really applied outside of experiments? I’d love to see some primary sources on the subject, let me know if you know more about balloon ambulances. 🙂 In the meantime, check out this Sawbones episode on ambulance history.
Also, would you like to be transported this way in case of an emergency?
Everlasting pill, also known as a perpetual pill, was a popular 19th-century medicine which was supposed to bring balance to the body’s humors by inducing purging. ⏳
The pills were made of metallic antimony, a highly poisonous substance that causes health effects similar to arsenic poisoning. 💀 Why was it called an “everlasting” pill? An antimony pill would pass through the gastric system practically intact, so people would retrieve it, clean it, and put away for later use. Antimony was also a valuable metal at the time, so it was quite common to keep it the family and hand it down from generation to generation. 👻
💀 “RESTORATION of LIFE in CASES of SUDDEN DEATH.—For this benevolent purpose, Dr. SIBLY’s RE-ANIMATING SOLAR TINCTURE, supersedes every art and invention. In all circumstances of suicide, or sudden death, whether by blows, fits, falls, suffocation, strangulation, drowning, apoplexy, thunder and lightning, assassination, duelling, &c., immediate recourse should be had to this medicine, which will not fail to restore life, provided the organs and juices are in a fit disposition for it, which they undoubtedly are much oftener than is imagined.” 💀
This is how Dr. Sibly advertised his Solar Tincture ☀️ in the 1790s and early 19th century. A miracle cure that could cheat Death himself! 👻 While buying such a remedy seems ridiculous, many people could have been inclined to do so given the high mortality rate of the times, popular fear of being buried alive, and Sibly’s medical title (even though he had bought his degree). Another cure-all from Dr. Sibly’s shelf was the Lunar Tincture. 🌕 It was supposed to be the answer to all female problems, which according to Dr. Sibly were caused mainly by the lack of sex, too much sex, menstruation, lack of pregnancy, or menopause. You can find the original article on the Lunar Tincture in the Wellcome Collection archive but be prepared for constant eye-rolling. 🙄
The summer of 1858 was exceptionally hot for Londoners – the temperatures averaged 34–36 °C (93–97 °F) in the shade, reaching even 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. This unbearable weather was however overshadowed by something even more unbearable: the Great Stink. 🤢
The source of this unbelievable stink was the Thames, which served as a sewer for all human, factory, and slaughterhouse waste in the area. As the London population doubled in the first half of the 19th century, so did the problems surrounding the river that served as the main source of “fresh” water. Apart from the offensive smells, Thames was also the source of cholera outbreaks and other diseases. The situation was dire and many people, including journalists and scientists, urged the government to take appropriate action even before the events of 1858.
In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was supposed to deal with the problem. A prominent engineer called Joseph Bazalgette created plans for a new sewerage system which was estimated to cost £5.4 million. These plans weren’t accepted by the government, which even suggested that cleaning up the river wasn’t really their problem, even though they had to use scented handkerchiefs, tobacco, and curtains covered with chloride of lime to protect themselves from the putrid smells in the Palace of Westminster. 💩
When the Great Stink of 1858 knocked at the House of Commons’ doors, there was no excuse to postpone dealing with it any longer. As the level of the river dropped because of the heatwave, “a huge pile of human waste was left piled up right next to Parliament.” Benjamin Disraeli described it as a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors” and proposed a bill supporting the modernization of the sewer system based on the Bazalgette’s plans. 🥰
👻👻👻 This comic was made thanks to Mateusz, who won the possibility of becoming the main character in a local charity event. Thanks! 💜
Got the morbs (Soc., 1880) Temporary melancholia. Abstract noun coined from adjective morbid.
This fantastic phrase started a biweekly Patreon-exclusive series illustrating Victorian slang! All entries are taken from The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by J. Redding Ware and I hope you’ll find these as interesting as I do 🥰 Do you have any favorite old-timey sayings?
I’m changing the posting day for my regular Veinity Fair comics to Tuesday and, hopefully, I’ll be able to stick with that 😉👻
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.
Sigmund Freud, best known as the father of psychoanalysis, spent a large portion of his life promoting cocaine as a miracle cure for almost everything. Not only did he prescribe cocaine to his patients, but also used it himself on a regular basis. Some scholars believe this has largely influenced his theories on the human psyche and treatments which are considered pseudoscientific today.
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.
“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 universal cure-alls since the ancient times up to the late nineteenth century. 💀😱