The holiday season is upon us, which also means some delightful colorful cards in many households. The tradition of sending holiday cards was also alive and well in the 19th century and the Victorians are well-known for their outlandish Christmas cards usually featuring a variety of critters from moths through frogs to … dead birds.
The lifeless bodies of little wrens or robins were a popular design choice, although it might be difficult to imagine today how they were supposed to boost the festive spirit. Apparently, this quirky tradition might have its roots in a more morbid one, in which killing a wren or a robin was deemed a good-luck charm for the new year.
Luckily, the Victorians decided to treat this one more symbolically, and following their footsteps I’m giving you my watercolor interpretation of the theme along with my best wishes for the holidays and 2021. Do you have any favorite vintage card designs?
The San Francisco Call, December 27, I898 “A Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls”
The Vision That Appeared to a Demonstrator of Anatomy at Midnight.
It was 12 o’clock last Saturday night when Dr. W. O. Wllcox climbed the stairs of 21 Powell street to go to his room. It was just the time when graveyards yawn and give forth their dead; but the doctor had no reason to suppose the spirits of the air would haunt him in the privacy of his own chamber, so he opened the door without hesitation and stepped inside.
There was no need of striking alight. The room was illuminated by a score of prim and ghastly lamps, that clung to the green bangles of a Christmas tree standing upon a table. They were skulls, and the eyeless sockets flashed fire from within as they nodded their grisly heads to the swaying of the branches.
On the table under the bone-fruited tree were some of the doctor’s dissecting knives, gleaming balefully in the eye light from the skulls. There were crossed shinbones lying on the black tablecloth, white as the symbol of death on a pirate’s ensign, and more skulls— evidently windfalls from the boughs above. Between the jaws of one of these was a half-smoked cigarette, which the grinning head seemed to be thoroughly enjoying.
There were skeletons of hands, feet and other parts of the human bony building, mingled with the steel implements of surgical craft, and to many of these objects of cub-medico humor were attached cards bearing inscriptions as appropriate as witty.
By means of one of these inscriptions one skull complained bitterly of the unusually long time between drinks. Another, whose way in this world had probably strayed from the straight and narrow path, demanded ice and steam beer, while the head of a child declared it had been the victim of a mother’s neglect.
Dr. Wilcox is a demonstrator of anatomy in one of the colleges, and although the students of his class declare they never would do such a thing as desecrate a Christmas tree with the products of the grave, still the doctor is looking among them for the one who planned his pleasant Christmas surprise.
Last time we explored early 19th-century hospitals as the perfect breeding ground for insects and diseases. In the pre-germ-theory world, dirty clothes, unwashed linens, festering wounds, and limited access to clean water were pretty standard for a hospital experience, followed by outbursts of such diseases like rubella or cholera. Unfortunately, many surgeons contributed to this situation by not washing their hands, not disinfecting surgical instruments, and … glorifying their blood-soaked frock coats and surgical aprons.
You see, it was believed that the dirtier the surgical attire, the more busy and successful its owner was. Some surgeons even wore clothes that had previously belonged to retired staff members as a sign of respect and keeping traditions alive. Those who wore “butcher’s aprons” mostly did so to protect their private, nice clothing and didn’t wash them anyway. As you can imagine, these pus- and blood-soaked, never-washed items were basically rotting and gave out a putrid smell which was lovingly referred to as “the good old hospital stink.”
The situation slowly began to change in the mid-19th century, when several doctors (e.g. Joseph Lister, Ignaz Semmelweis, Thomas Dent Mütter) tried to popularize washing the surgical attire and promoted the idea of cleanliness in general, for which they were often ridiculed.
To learn more about 19th century hospitals, check out Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!
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!
On August 8, 1894, John and William Kellog were busy preparing granola for the patients of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where the older brother (John) was the superintendent. No sooner had they cooked a batch of wheat than they were called to attend some other pressing matters. After some time they discovered that the wheat had gone stale, but they decided to process it further anyway. The wheat broke into flakes, which was quite surprising, but the brothers didn’t want to waste any food so they roasted the pieces and served them to the sanitarium patients. The new flaked cereal quickly became a success, so much so that the patients would even buy it from the sanitarium to bring back home!
This marvelous turn of events encouraged the brothers to start mass production of the cereal. To increase the popularity of the product even further, William proposed adding sugar for taste. And that’s when the infamous family feud began. You see, the Battle Creek Sanitarium was owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church of which doctor John Kellogg was a devout follower. He was especially focused on the church’s views on diet and health, which included promoting sexual abstinence. But what does it have to do with cereal? Well, John’s aim was to serve food that was as bland as possible so that it could serve as an anaphrodisiac and discourage any sexual activity, in particular masturbation which he saw as a deadly habit. He once even said that “neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism.” Now imagine how John could have responded to his brother’s idea of adding sweet sweet sugar to corn flakes! This event started a legal battle that ended in Will starting his own company which we know today as Kellogg’s.
I hope you’ll think of this tale of two brothers next time you enjoy your sweetened, mundane bowl of cereal.
If you want to learn more about the views and practices of John Kellogg, check out this Sawbones episode. Fair warning though, John was a eugenicist with very disturbing ideas for “treating” some of his patients.
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?
It’s believed that making jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland and the tradition was brought to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. That’s when jack-o’-lanterns started to be associated with pumpkins rather than the traditionally used potatoes, turnips, and beets.
Photo manipulation is as old as photographs themselves!
The Victorians came up with several clever tricks to make photographs more entertaining, e.g., they used photomontage and combination printing to produce headless portraits, inspired by popular stage magicians. Double exposure was also used to add objects not present in the original exposure, such as ghostly figures or floating items. Unfortunately, some people used these techniques in a more questionable way.
A few photographers started working as mediums and marketed their spirit photographs as evidence of the afterlife. The spiritualist movement quickly adopted the use of spirit photography and published numerous books on the subject.