Halsted, Hampton, and Rubber Gloves

Famous Victorians, Great Inventions, Medicine, Surgery

In 1889, Caroline Hampton was a talented young nurse working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was the chief nurse in the medical team working with William Halsted, one of the founders of the hospital and a well-known surgeon. After a few months of assisting in the operating room, Caroline was on the verge of resigning from her position due to painful eczema and dermatitis she had developed as a result of following Halsted’s strict hygienic procedure that included disinfecting hands and instruments with multiple chemical solutions. The surgeon didn’t want to part with his favorite assistant, so he came up with a brilliant idea:

“In the winter of 1889 and 1890, I cannot recall the month, the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial, these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. (…) After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.” 🧤

The use of rubber gloves saved not only the nurse’s hands, but also patients’ health – the hospital reduced the post-op infection rates from 17% to 2%. A few years after Halsted introduced his invention, the gloves were improved and sterilized by our champion of the germ theory of disease – Joseph Lister. 🔬

The only thing the gloves didn’t save was the nurse’s position at the hospital. Caroline and William fell in love and got married in June of 1890. 👰💕 At that point, she had to resign from her job, as it was seen unfit for a married woman to continue to work. It is said that their marriage was quite successful, and they were seen as a pair of eccentrics, enjoying the company of their pets and unusual hobbies.

Halsted’s unusal life has been described in many books that could interest you, e.g., “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber.

Jack Black

Everyday Life, Famous Victorians, Home

🎶 This is not the greatest rat-catching in the world, no, this is just a tribute! 🐀

During the 19th century, London population almost tripled, making it the largest city in the world. The metropolis also became a true paradise for rats. 🐀 These clever rodents quickly took over not only the complex sewer system, but also the buildings above it. You could find them anywhere, from pipes and basements to attics and anywhere in between. Getting rid of that many rats was not an easy task and people would hire professional rat-catchers to help them solve the problem. ☠️

The most famous rat-catcher of the time was Jack Black, a man who boasted to work for the Queen herself and strolled the London streets in his flamboyant, colorful uniform. Black used a number of methods to catch and dispose of the rats, but he mostly relied on his trained ferrets and black tan terriers. The ferrets would pursue and “flush out” rats from the underground, and the dogs could track ferrets’ by smell and also kill rats on command. Rat-infested households were a bit problematic, as ferrets could get stuck in the nooks and crannies of the buildings. Because of that, Black had to catch the rats by hand or use more traditional rat traps. Being a prolific entrepreneur, he also experimented with training other animals to help him in vermin disposal, such as raccoons, badgers, and even a monkey! 🙊

More about Jack Black’s methods: https://academic.oup.com/jvc/article/19/4/520/4095121

Edgar Allan Poe’s Birthday!

Famous Victorians, Literature

Today marks the 212th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday (January 19, 1809)! 🎉 The beloved American writer is best known for his gothic poems and short stories full of mystery, lost love, and macabre. He is also considered to be the father of detective fiction and contributed to the popularization of science fiction. 🦇

While his convoluted and tragic love life is often discussed, Poe’s early life was plagued by other misfortunes as well. Orphanated by the age of two, he was taken in by John and Frances Allan. Edgar and Allan didn’t see eye to eye and often quarreled, especially over money. Feeling unsupported by the foster father, Edgar turned to gambling to pay for his education at the University of Virginia. This plan however backfired, leaving Poe with serious debts. After begging John for money, clothes, and basic necessities numerous times, he finally had to resign from the university and joined the army under an assumed name. He was only 18 at the time.

Victorian Hair Jewelry

Fashion, mourning

Bored with your old trinkets? Want to surprise your coworkers during the next Zoom meeting? Well, look no further, because Victorians have what you need – hair jewelry! 💇‍♀️And we don’t mean hair accessories, we’re talking about jewelry pieces made of actual human hair. Earrings, rings, necklaces, brooches, you name it – everything can be woven out of hair or at least contain locks of hair.

The practice was prevalent throughout the Victorian era, with higher classes adopting the trend first thanks to goldsmiths and other artisans offering high-quality jewelry that could be personalized by adding a beloved person’s hair and precious materials. Such mementos could not only be a way to keep your family and friends close, but also objects of mourning. The mourning hair jewelry became especially common after the death of Prince Albert, when Queen Victoria decided to wear a locket of Albert’s hair around her neck, thus popularizing this way of showing love for the deceased. Around the same time, hair work became a common pastime for women of lower classes. Ladies would learn how to create these intricate items from each other or could use patterns printed in women’s magazines.

The topic of this week’s comic was suggested by IG @sewing_ducky, who also became one of the characters! If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on VeinityFair Patreon or try your luck in the next giveaways

Madame X

art, Famous Victorians, Fashion

“Madame X” was an infamous portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, painted by John Singer Sargent. In the painting, Virginie, a Parisian socialite known for her beauty, is wearing a sleek black dress. She has perfectly styled hair, and the paleness of her skin beautifully contrasts with the dark background. It seemed that the piece would become a great success for both the artist and the model.

And yet, the portrait was met with a very controversial reception at the 1884 Paris Salon. The viewers commented on the revealing dress cut, the shoulder strap inappropriately falling down on the shoulder, the weird position of the model, and her morbid paleness. How could it be? After all, it was still the society that applauded the sickly look caused by romanticized tuberculosis. What is more, the dress design wasn’t more revealing than other popular evening gowns at the time. It seems that a large part of the scandal was … gossip.

The 1884 Salon was a particularly mundane exhibition with almost no notable paintings. Moreover, visitors had to go through many rooms to see “Madame X”, which could have altered their moods. Besides, the majority of the patrons belonged to the bourgeoisie and could have been more critical of the aristocratic Madame Gautreau flaunting her jeweled straps and high fashion. It was also enough for a few respected people to openly describe the piece of art as ‘immoral’ to create an atmosphere in which anyone who disagrees could be seen as ‘immoral’ as well. The newspapers quickly jumped on the bandwagon, criticizing the painting, Madame Gautreau, and Sargent. They even printed caricatures! As you can imagine, at that point, new Salon visitors were already expecting to see something scandalous, even before seeing the painting themselves!

The scandal was so blown up out of proportion that Virginie’s mother threatened Sargent with a duel, and Sargent himself moved to Britain (after repainting the unfortunate strap, as can be seen in the portrait today.). After the initial backlash, the lives of Gautreau and Sargent went back to normal. The first remained a fashionable Paris figure, and the latter became a highly sought-after artist.  

Check out this video by Karolina Żebrowska to find out more on the history of Madame X!

First Foot!

Holidays

We made it! 2020 is officially over, and I hope you spent the last hours of that year in a joyful atmosphere. 🎉🎉 But have you paid attention to who crossed your threshold first this year? Your whole 2021 may depend on it! According to an old Scottish tradition, called ‘First Foot’, the first person who enters your household after midnight fortells the fortune for the new year. The best candidates are dark-haired men bearing small gifts, as they are a sign of prosperity and good luck. Fair-haired men are not as good apparently, and seen as a bad omen. 😱

While the tradition can still be observed today, it was especially popular in the Victorian era, as the Queen was in love with everything Scottish and popularized Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) traditions among her subjects. During the time, the midnight guests were expected to bring such symbolic gifts as whiskey, coal, shortbread, spices, and black bun. 🥃🍪

Ambulance Balloons (?)

Great Inventions, Medicine

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?  

Irish Jack-o’lanterns

Everyday Life

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.

Check out this traditional turnip:

Spirit Photography

mourning, Spiritualism

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.

Check out some quirky headless photos here.

Mortsafe

Funerals

If you’ve ever visited an old Scottish kirkyard, you might have stumbled upon an iron or stone contraption protecting a grave. They are called mortsafes and many people think they were used by their superstitious ancestors to keep the dead inside their coffins. 🧛‍♂️🧟‍♀️ While it is true some Victorians believed in vampires and other supernatural beings, the truth behind the mortsafes is even more interesting than the myth. These heavy objects were placed on the grave or encapsulated a coffin (in a form of a cage) to protect the dead from resurrectionists, in other words body snatchers, who would dig up fresh bodies and sell them to surgeons. ⚰️

The most famous resurrectionists of the time were Burke and Hare who supplied a surgeon named Robert Knox in the early 19th century. These grave robbers (and later murderers) conducted their activities in Edinburgh, the leading center of anatomical study at the time, which is probably the reason why most of the surviving mortsafes can be found in Scotland. The iron cages and other contraptions were expensive, so it was popular to “rent” a mortsafe and reuse it for a different grave in several months, once a body was decomposed and therefore useless for anatomists. The popularity of mortsafes started to diminish after the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. 💀