Tragedy Encapsulated: Ephemera

Ephemera is generally understood as bits of paper  originally meant to be transitory, but that have nevertheless become collectible.  Collage artists are fond of ephemera. So are historical novelists. Give me a stack of bills, ticket stubs, used envelopes, menus, newspaper advertisements, postcards, labels, instruction pamphlets and birthday cards from the 1880s and I’m busy for days. To get a sense of the kind of material out there, have a look at the eBay category Ephemera 1800-1899.  

Most ephemera is unimportant in the greater scheme of things, but every once in awhile you run across something breathtaking.  I was looking at 19th century prescriptions and pharmacy labels when I found  this handwritten cablegram dated 1873 in the Library of Congress American Memory collection.

It reads:

The Western Union Telegraph Company.
To [Horatio Gates] Spafford
159 LaSalle St.  Chicago [law office of H. G. Spafford].
Received at Chicago, Ill., Dec. 2d, 5:40 AM, 1873.  

“Saved alone what shall I do.  Mrs Goodwin  Children  Willie Culver  lost go with Lorriaux  until answer reply . . . Paris. Spafford.”- 

The Library of Congress provided more detail of the tragedy:

Anna Spafford, 1873

Mrs. Anna Spafford was writing to her husband, a lawyer in Chicago, to notify him that the Ville du Havre had sunk, and she alone of their party had survived.  Lost were her friend Mrs. Daniel Goodwin, the Spafford daughters Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta, and a neighbor boy called Willie Culver. Mrs. Spafford had gone with Reverend Lorriaux (a French minister and a fellow survivor of shipwreck) to  Paris, where she waited for instructions on what to do.  

Wikipedia provides more information about the shipwreck and the Spafford family, which I excerpt and summarize:

On 15 November 1873, the Ville du Havre sailed from New York with 313 passengers and crew on board. A week into the voyage to France she collided with the iron clipper Loch Earn at about 2 am on Saturday, 22 November. At the time of the collision, Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots.

The passengers were roused from sleep by the collision. Most went on deck to learn that the ship was sinking rapidly, broken almost in half.  Then, in the panic and chaos, the passengers found that the lifeboats had recently been painted and they were now stuck fast to the deck. Finally a few of them were yanked loose, and passengers fought desperately to be one of the few travelers to board those rescue boats. The main and mizzen masts collapsed, smashing two of the life boats and killing several people. It took 12 minutes for the ship to sink.

61 passengers and 26 of the crew were saved and taken on board the Loch Earn, while 226 passengers and crew perished. The Loch Earn, herself in danger of sinking, was subsequently rescued by the American cargo ship, Tremountain and all Ville du Havre passengers and crew were transferred to that ship. The Loch Earn, with its bow smashed in, commenced to sink as the bulkheads gave way, so she was abandoned at sea by her crew and sank shortly afterwards. 

Although Horatio Spafford was not a passenger on board the Ville du Havre, his wife (Anna) and four daughters were.  At the last moment Horatio was detained by real estate business, so Anna and the girls went on ahead for Paris. Anna was picked up unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, by the crew of the Loch Earn.

Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Wales and cabled Horatio, Saved alone. What shall I do? Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had died. He wrote to Rachel, his wife’s half-sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs”. Horatio later wrote the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” commemorating his daughters.

So that short, terse cablegram provides a door to a much larger, heartbreaking story.  It just so happens that there is a shipwreck in the beginning of Where the Light Enters (do not panic, nobody you know was on the ship that sunk). The temptation, when I come across something like this telegram, is to revisit the whole section of the novel to see if I can make it any more factually accurate. What does it means that the Ville du Havre was proceeding under both steam and sail at about 12 knots? 

But I will not pursue it. That’s my firm intention: to leave the matter of ships that sailed under sail and steam at the same time in the bin of unanswered questions. Because it’s not important. Nope. Makes no difference to me or my story.  

On the other hand, I will tuck this all away for consideration at a later date.

Edited to add this Youtube Video of the hymn written by Horatio Spafford. I am not at all religious, but this piece of music is very moving, given the history.

card games, then and now

II have done some research on nineteenth century children’s games before, but this time I was looking for card games in particular when I came across a mention of Happy Families, which is played something like Authors.  From Board Game Geek:

This game was designed in England and was originally published for the Great Exhibition by John Jaques & Sons. The outside of the box described the name as Happy Families while the inside of the box describes the name as Merry Families. Each quartet consists of four family members — a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. The fathers are Mr. Daub the Painter, Mr. Dough the Baker, Mr. Pill the Doctor, Mr. Sand the Grocer, Mr. Saw the Carpenter, Mr. Snip the Barber, Mr. Stain the Dyer, Mr. Smut the Sweep, Mr. Thread the Tailor, and Mr. Tub the Brewer.

What I like about this is the art work:

Compare this game to more current editions of Old Maid:

So maybe I’m being overly picky here, but why are the modern illustrations for children’s card games garish and shoddily done? There are so many wonderful illustrators out there, is it just a matter of the manufacturer going with the cheapest options?

Irritating.

I went to look up Authors just to see if that game has had better treatment, and the answer is, as far as I can tell, no. There are multiple editions of the card game Authors. When I was a kid the deck was all dead white men, but there are now games called American Authors, Women Authors, Children’s Authors. Unfortunately it seems none of them are especially carefully or artistically done, as you can see by this example.

But there are great illustrators who do author portraits. Ryan Sheffield sells his work on Etsy, including his version of Emily Dickinson,  below.

Somebody like Ryan Sheffield should put together a modern version of Authors using original artwork. It would be a good idea to have some info about the author along with the titles of their work, of course.  

Would you be interested in a game of Authors like this?  I’m really curious.

Note: I don’t know Mr. Sheffield and he doesn’t know me. I just found his work on Etsy and my imagination took off.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.