19th century household hints: from bedbugs to hartshorn

I’m always running into terms which stump me while reading 19th century newspapers and articles.  You can look things up, of course, but what we now understand under ‘hartshorn’ may have changed a lot since the 1880s. 

The best source for information on 19th century terms, especially when it comes to housekeeping and medicine (in my experience) is archive.org, where out of print works are made available to read online. And the technology is very good. You can search for terms inside books, read page by page on line, or download entire volumes. 

These sources are valuable for a wide range of reasons, only one of which is the cost: nothing. This becomes significant when you look at contemporary scholarly studies of the same subject, for example  The Objects and Textures of Everyday Life in Imperial Britain (Amazon link) which looks very interesting, but not so interesting that I’ll pay $150 for 244 pages. This is the problem with scholarly publications. 

Here is a list of books on housekeeping that you can consult online and I have found useful. So for example, when it occurred to me that in the 1880s they may not have used the word ‘armoire’ I started with a general Google search, went on to look at websites that specialize in antiques, and ended up at archive.org to see how ‘armoire’ ‘wardrobe’ and ‘dresser’ were used. I found what I needed. If not I would have gone on to search novels written in the 1880s for these words.

The housewife’s library. George A. Peltz. 1883.

Housekeeping and home-making, with chapters on dress and gossip. Marion Harland. 1883.

click for a larger image

A domestic cyclopædia of practical information. Todd S. Goodholme. 1878.

Miss Leslie’s lady’s house-book; a manual of domestic economy containing approved directions for [everything] (also available at hathitrust, another great place for reference works). Eliza Leslie. 1869.

Another book which would be extremely useful but is not available online (if you find it somewhere in the ether, please let me know) is this gem:

The Art of Housekeeping: a Bridal Garland.  M.E. Haweis. 1889.

I saw Mrs. Hawais’s title  quoted in  Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England, by Judith Flanders (out of print, but readily available for a few dollars, used) on the subject of bedbugs, which were not to be expected in decent bedrooms, according to Mrs. Hawais, but might be imported unwittingly from cab, omnibus or train. 

Keating’s Power

One technique for dealing with bedbugs was to call a carpenter in the spring, who would take all the  beds outside, dismantle them, scrub every piece with calcium hypochlorite and then douse it all with Keating’s powder (a pyrethrum-based insecticide). Sometimes this had to be more than once. 

I realize that my fascination with the details of 19th century life might strike you as somewhat odd, but I yam what I yam. And I write about these things, so there’s an upside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you write fiction

….or want to write fiction, or are interested in the process of writing fiction: 

Insomnia drove me to do some work, but weariness kept me from actually writing. So I spent an hour going through old posts on craft (plot, pov, characterization, etc etc), and I’ve organized them into something I hope is usable.

It’s incomplete, but it’s a start.  

You’ll find the index to these posts under “writing and craft” in the menu just under the top banner. Please let me know if you run into any problems. 

Why Anna and Sophie have chapped hands

In the 19th century the most important advance in medical science was called (at the time) Listerism.  Simply put, Joseph Lister, working with  Louis Pasteur’s advances in microbiology and the discovery that bacteria cause putrefaction and infection, came to a conclusion:  In a medical setting the first line of defense is to keep the patient isolated from all such bacterial agents. There were two ways to achieve this: Antisepsis (using chemicals, usually carbolic) or asepsis (using heat) to sterilize.  In 1881 John Tyndall wrote

Living germs  … are the causes of putrefaction. Lister extended the generalization of Schwann from dead matter to living matter, and by this apparently simple step revolutionized the art of surgery. He changed it, in fact, from an art into a science.

In 1876 Lister came to the U.S. to lecture about his findings.

In 1878 Dr. Lewis Stimson performed the first demonstration of an antiseptic surgery in the United States, using  Lister’s antiseptic technique while amputating a leg.

In 1881 President Garfield died not from the bullet fired by an assassin  but because the physicians treating him rejected Listerism and caused massive, systemic infection by probing his wounds with unsterilized instruments and dirty hands.

As the summer waned, Garfield was suffering from a scorching fever, relentless chills, and increasing confusion. The doctors tortured the president with more digital probing and many surgical attempts to widen the three-inch deep wound into a 20-inch-long incision, beginning at his ribs and extending to his groin. It soon became a super-infected, pus-ridden, gash of human flesh.

This assault and its aftercare probably led to an overwhelming infection known as sepsis, from the Greek verb, “to rot.” It is a total body inflammatory response to an overwhelming infection that almost always ends badly — the organs of the body simply quit working. The doctors’ dirty hands and fingers are often blamed as the vehicle that imported the infection into the body. But given that Garfield was a surgical and gunshot-wound patient in the germ-ridden, dirty Gilded Age, a period when many doctors still laughed at germ theory, there might have been many other sources of infection as well (Markel).

At least some people were paying attention, because in 1883 Dr. Stimson was asked to operate on former President Grant’s leg.

This photo was taken in the surgical amphitheater  at Bellevue in the early 1880s.  By modern standards it’s shocking (note especially the bloody floor), but it should have also been shocking to physicians in 1880.  I’m sure medical historians have written about the factors that led American physicians to reject the findings of Pasteur and Lister, but my guess is that it was simple hubris.

Because there were physicians and surgeons who accepted scientific findings and practiced antisepsis and asepsis, I felt justified in having Anna and Sophie act like sensible human beings and wash their hands. And instruments. And everything else. In carbolic.


Cheyne, W. W.  Antiseptic surgery: its principles, practice, history and results, London 1882.

Kessin, Richard H.  and Kenneth A. Forde. “How Antiseptic Surgery Arrived in America.” P&S 2007.  link.

Markel, Howard. The dirty, painful death of President James A. Garfield. PBS,  September 16, 2016. link 

Pennington, T. H. “Listerism, its Decline and its Persistence: The introduction of aseptic surgical techniques in three British teaching hospitals, 1890–99.” Medical history 39.01 (1995): 35-60.

Tyndall, J. Essays on the floating-matter of the  air. London, 1881.

 

Keel boats & Jemima

I had a letter from Janet with a couple questions about the Wilderness novels:

I have really enjoyed all your books, However, there are a few points here and there that have puzzled me. First, in Endless Forest, I don\’t understand why Callie and Ethan think Jemima could possibly have a legal claim on the orchard. Didn’t she steal the deed and sell it off to that preacher? Callie bought it back and presumably has the documents to prove it, so she didn\’t inherit it from Nicholas. I would think that would put and end to all claims from Jemima. Any inheritance claims by her son would be on the money Jemima realized from the sale (presumably spent).

One more thing– in Queen of Swords, how could Nathaniel and Bears possibly get to New Orleans by river in only two months It would take them at least two weeks to get to Pittsburgh and about 12 weeks to get down the Ohio (contemporary accounts give that as the time by steamboat, much less keelboat). Add another few weeks to get down the Mississippi and that puts the journey at a minimum of four months.

It’s always interesting to get questions like this because my first reaction is to panic, and then, almost always, I figure it out and can stop panicking. 

First, regarding Jemima. She did indeed sell the orchard to the preacher. Then his nephew tried to assault Lily, and to keep the kid out of jail, he sold it back for a pittance. The town made a collection to make sure Callie would get it back.  

Maybe Jemima wouldn’t have succeeding in taking the orchard away from her daughter, but she could have made life miserable while she tried, and dragged it out as long as possible.  

Drawing by John Russell

The more interesting question is the travel time from Paradise to New Orleans. Generally how I research things like this is to consult travel diaries of the period as well as timetables — sometimes they are still available — from commercial transport companies.  I vaguely remember looking through material on traveling south on the Mississippi, but the details are hazy.  I’ll have to dig back through my notes to figure it out again.  I do remember some interesting trivia: a keelboat that traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans was usually broken up for firewood, because there was no good way to get it back where it came from.

Here’s one short article on transport before steam.

Here’s a really interesting article about the Army’s reconstruction of Lewis and Clark’s travel by keelboat by John Russell

So again, I’m happy to answer questions. Sometime I’ll have to go through and tag the posts with questions that people ask about most. Ethan and Callie’s relationship is one of them. And then there was the unforgettable letter from Miss Middleton.

Of course, sometimes I do get things wrong. I’m only human.