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.

Freud and Cocaine

Famous Victorians, Medicine

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.

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.

Shopping for Arsenic

Everyday Life, Medicine

There were no regulations on buying and selling arsenic until 1851, and even then it could be relatively easy purchased by anyone who didn’t cause any suspicion. 

You can read more on arsenic and other poisons in The Secret Poisoner: The Victorian Age of Poisoning.