7 ‘Curious Particulars’: Useful knowledge in the 18th Century.

The eighteenth century brought with it a new interest in science and, perhaps more importantly, brought science into the public domain for perhaps the first time. Whereas scientific experiments had once been the domain of dilettante gentlemen, locked away in august institutions such as the Royal Society, more people were becoming aware of just how interesting – and indeed fun –science could be. Public demonstrations were one means through which people could learn about the latest ideas and inventions.

Image fromhttp://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump
Image fromhttp://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump

Visitors to the Isaac Newton’s Head public house in London in 1748, for example, could marvel at Francis Watkins’ ‘lately finished and most complete Electrical Machine’. For sixpence they could purchase their own account of all the electrical experiments lately carried out in the Royal Society. In Hart Street, Covent Garden in 1784, amazed onlookers could view marvellous and curious inventions such as the ‘mechanical bird’ of which ‘nothing similar was ever presented in the world’. Mr Cox’s London Museum offered visitors such pleasures as the mechanical machine that played God Save the King.

Alongside this, however, were books of useful knowledge which began to include directions for people to conduct their own experiments. Books of this sort had been around for a long time, often aimed at women and including lots of medical information, along with domestic knowledge, from cleaning pots and pans to directions to make washballs. But the emphasis upon science, and also upon systems of classification, brought diverse types of recipes together, covering everything from medicine and domestic life to experiments designed for no other reason than to entertain onlookers!

One such volume was The British Legacy: or fountain of knowledge, printed in 1754, and which contained ‘upwards of two hundred other curious particulars of the utmost service’ to the ‘Gentleman, the Scholar, the Mechanick and, in a word, every member of society so deeply interested in the Improvement of Arts and Sciences’.

Title Page of the 'British Legacy'
Title Page of the ‘British Legacy’

“Besides upward of two hundred Miscellaneous articles of great, nay inestimable value” the reader was promised “the most useful treatise on Farriery ever published”, and well as a ‘certain cure for the Glanders’. What, then, was amongst this panoply of knowledge? Here’s ten items to give a flavour of what the informed Georgian might find useful.

A certain Cure for the most severe flux:
Take a quantity of water cresses and boil them in clear water for fifteen minutes, strain them off, and drink about half a pint of the decoction every now and then, about milk warm.

The flux referred to severe diarrhoea, which was still a common and dangerous problem during this period. Medical remedies for the flux abounded in the early modern period, and belonged to a long tradition of recipe sharing. In fact water cresses can be found in recipe collections for diarrhoea well over a century before this date. Including medical recipes fitted well with the concept of medicine as useful knowledge of the sort it would be useful to keep handy.

To keep arms or any other polish’d metals from Rust:
One ounce of Camphire, two pounds of hog’s lard: dissolve them together and take off the scum; mix as much black lead as will bring them to an Iron colour; rub your Arms &C over with this and let it lie on 24 hours: them clean them with a linen cloth, and they will keep clean many months.

This one might appear strange but, in fact, rusting metal was a constant problem. Before the invention of stainless steel in the later nineteenth century, iron and steel was extremely prone to rusting. Imagine the scene; you’re awoken in the night by housebreakers. You fumble around for your pistol, which has been hanging around for years in a damp room, only to find the mechanism rusted and seized. Keeping metal goods of all sorts polished and rust free was important, and lots of commercial preparations were available to keep iron and steel from rusting.

To destroy and prevent Buggs, and other vermin, by Mr Selberg, Member of the Academy of Sweden:
Mix with the solution of Vitriol, the Pulp of Colquinta, and apply the mixture to all the crevices which serve as a Nursery to vermin; the Solution alone has prov’d effectual; but if apply’d to stone or brick walls, it may be mix’d with lime, which will give it a lively yellow, and insure its success.

Image fromhttp://publicdomainreview.org/2014/05/14/in-the-image-of-god-john-comenius-and-the-first-childrens-picture-book/
Image fromhttp://publicdomainreview.org/2014/05/14/in-the-image-of-god-john-comenius-and-the-first-childrens-picture-book/

Here again, in houses often infected with cockroaches, bedbugs and lice, anything to mitigate the problem was welcomed. The attribution to the eminent Mr Selberg was a common device, often used in medical recipes, to give weight to the provenance and efficacy of the recipe.

Dr Dover’s Excellent Cure for the Itch:
Sweet sublimate one drachm; cream of Tartar one ounce, Let these infuse two or three days in a pint of Spring Water; then bathe the parts broke out therewith, Morning and Evening, for four or five days, and the Cure will be completed.

Another medical remedy here but this time one for the itch – or venereal disease. Whilst promiscuity was certainly frowned upon, there was an acknowledgement that these things happened. It was far less embarrassing to treat yourself from a book than to dangle your putrefying privy parts in front of a physician

Other items appear slightly more perplexing:

To Make Artificial Thunder and Lightning:
Mix a quantity of the spirit of Nitre and Oil of Cloves, the least drop of the former is sufficient; as to Quantity in the latter you need not regard; for, when mixed, a sudden Ferment, with a fine flame, will arise; and sometimes if the Ingredients be very pure and strong, there will be a sudden explosion like the report of a Great Gun.

Lightning

As an afterthought, the author included the following public health warning!

“It is a little dangerous to the person who undertakes the experiment, for when the effluvia of acid and alkaline bodies meet each other in the air, the fermentation causes such a rarefaction as makes it difficult to breathe for all those who are near it”.

The very next recipe was one ‘To make an artificial earthquake”, which involved 20 ounces of sulphur which, it was promised, after eight or ten hours buried in the ground would ‘Vomit flame and cause the earth to tremble all around the place to a considerable distance”. Don’t try this at home kids!

And one last one that might appeal to anyone who had one of those kids’ science/ chemistry kits that let you grow your own crystals. Ladies and gentleman, straight from the pages of history, I give you…

The Philosophical Tree
Fine silver one ounce; Aqua Fortis and Mercury, each four ounces; in this, dissolve your silver in a vial, put therein a Pint of Water, close your Vial, and you’ll have a curious Tree spring forth in branches which grows daily.

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10 Seventeenth-century remedies you’d probably want to avoid!

Whilst I strongly advocate not poking fun at the medical beliefs and practices of our ancestors, now and again it does no harm to remind ourselves of just how…unusual they could sometimes appear. And so I give you my top ten early modern recipes!

10) An excellent good medisian for an Eye that is bruised or blood shott by any crust
Take ass soon as the eye is hurt; take a house pidgin & cut ye vain that is under the winge & let it bleed into a sauser: and while it is hot wett some cloth and presently lay it to ye eye: and the next day dress it in like manner and with out doubt it will help you”

9) For the bloody flux (ie. Dystentry or severe diarrhoea)
Take A handkerchief dipped in the blood of a hare harte newly killed, dry this handkerchief in ye sun & after straine your beer being at least three weeks ould always through it and drink of it every morning and evening a pint’

Image from http://www.doctorwellgood.com/clinic-a-z/diarrhoea.html
Image from http://www.doctorwellgood.com/clinic-a-z/diarrhoea.html

8) Aproved thing for the Collick
Distill hens codds (testicles!) and and when they are pretty tender do then with a soft fier: not burn it: and when the collick troubles you take two spoonfuls of this — with a little sugar to make it pleasant to your taste.

7) How to make a water to kill the worems in hollow teeth;
buy three pence of Mercury and grinde it smale on a stone, then put it in a glass bottle or other glass: and stir it well then let the pacient get a quill of a goose and drop some of it therin and put it in to the holow tooth :3: times and use it two or :3: dayes and it will kill the worem and the tooth actch and never troble you ageine but in any wise let the pacient take heed (not) to swalowe any of it downe, but spitte it out

(so, just to be clear, dropping mercury straight into your teeth. Although there are mercury fillings today, probably not a good plan!)

6) Excelent for a consumption, Dropsey, Scurvey or Most Sickness whatever
Take cow dung fresh in May, dry it in ye oven to a fine powder, Give as much as will lye upon a sixpence in a draught of warme stronge beer 3 times a day, or you may distill cow dung in an ordinary still & take half a gill of ye water at a time, more or less three times a day

Image fromhttp://www.bioenergyconsult.com/anaerobic-digestion-of-cow-manure/
Image fromhttp://www.bioenergyconsult.com/anaerobic-digestion-of-cow-manure/

5) To make oyle of swallowes
Take as many swallowes as you can gette as 20 or 25, and put unto them lavender cotton, spiked, knotgrasse ribworte Balme valerian, rosemarie topps, strings of vines, cothan, plantain, walnut leaves sayd of virtue, mallows, alecroft etc etc

4) To Cuer the dead Palsey
Take a Fox, cleanse him, mince the flesh very smalle then dress a goose, pull out the Gutts; putt all the flesh of the fox into the goose and sowe her upp close; then roste them whilest any moisture will dropp out. Take the dripping and putt into it Rosemary; Lavender; Sage; Bettiny; The Weight of Ffower pints of each of them powdered, Anniseede; Ffennellseede, nutmeg, mace, Cloves, Pepper, ginger, Ffrankencence, the weight of sixpence of a peece of each of them Powdered, Boyle all twoe or three wallmes on a softe fire, put itt being strayned and Cooled into a pott. Annoynt the partye on the place grieved therewth and Rubb it in well before the fire.

Image from Wikipedia - creative commons
Image from Wikipedia – creative commons

3) For the falling sicknesse (epilepsy)
Take a live mole and cut the throat of it into a glass of white wine
And presently give it to the party to drink at the new and full of the moon
(viz) the day before the new, the day of the new, and the day after, and soe at the full. This will cure absolutely, if the party be not above forty yeares of age.

2) For the Frenzie or inflammation of the cauls of the brain,
Cause the juice of beets (beetroot juice) to be with a syringe squirted up into the patient’s nostrils, which will purge and cleanse his head exceedingly, and then give him posset ale to drinke in which violet leaf and lettice has been boiled and this will suddainly bring him to a verie temperate mildness’

And this week’s number 1…

1) For the bloody flux,
take a stag’s pizzle dried and grate it and give it in any drink, either in beer, ale or wine and it is most sovereign for any flux whatsoever.

Image fromhttp://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/whats-new/2011/02
Image fromhttp://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/whats-new/2011/02

Narrowly missing out were directions for constipation, which involved the aggrieved person squatting over a bucket of boiling milk ‘for as long as the party can bear it’…

And the cure for hydrocele (grossly swollen testicles) which involved injecting port wine into the affected parts!

500 Years of the Model Man!

Much in the news of late has been the rising rate of suicide amongst men. Perhaps most surprising of all has been the dramatic rise in suicide amongst middle aged men, aged between 45-64 and has been noted in the USA as well as northern Europe. A recent UK government report lists suicide as the leading cause of death amongst British men aged between 20 and 49. In 2012 a cross government outcome strategy, assisted by major charities, was launched to address concerns about male suicide which are, as a recent article in the Guardian suggested, more than three times higher than for women.

Image fromhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/sussex/7326151.stm
Image fromhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/sussex/7326151.stm

According to the Samaritans one of the primary causes of suicide is the mid-life crisis. Many men are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with reaching 40 not having achieved the financial or family security that they expected, or with goals or dreams unfulfilled. But Clare Wyllie, Samaritans head of policy and research, also highlights a central problem for men, and one that has been a constant issue through time.

“Society has this masculine ideal that people are expecting to live up to. Lots of that has to do with being a breadwinner. When men don’t live up to that it can be quite devastating for them”. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/18/male-suicides-three-times-women-samaritans-bristol

Ideals of masculinity – in a sense the ideal or model man – have changed dramatically across time. As men have adapted to changing conditions, fashions, cultural changes and shifting views about sexuality the boundaries of manhood have also changed. Accompanying this, however, has been a literature telling men how to behave. It might be argued that men, and perhaps especially young men, have long been in competition with themselves, encouraged to measure their behaviour against that of a perfect model of masculinity.

This was certainly the case in the early modern period. Of course I’m generalising here, and there were wide variations. But Tudor and Stuart men had to negotiate a minefield of expectations about their behaviour, appearance and, frankly, sexual prowess. In were manly sports such as wrestling and fencing. Young men were encouraged to sow their wild oats to some degree. In the 1590s Cambridge students indulged in all sorts of high jinks from drinking and carousing to tousing young women and, frankly, indulging in mild forms of violence. (See Alexandra Shepherd’s excellent Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England) for more on this). While boisterous behaviour in young men was seen as natural, the more mature (and better off) might cultivate interest in fitting gentlemanly pursuits such as self-improvement and education.

http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2012/04/20/swords-as-symbols-of-status/
http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2012/04/20/swords-as-symbols-of-status/

But men had family duties to attend to. As heads of family and household they were required to govern and rule. The household was viewed as a microcosm of society, with the man required to guide his wife, children and servants as a kind but strict patriarch. In sexual terms men were expected to perform their duty in creating more Christians; one of the few reasons for which a divorce might be granted was if a man did not do his duty in the marital bed.

But there were also ambiguities. The same society that was paranoid about the heinous sins of sodomy and buggery also thought nothing of two men sharing a bed together or, in displays of courtly or fraternal friendship, kissing each other. Samuel Pepys makes several mentions of his ‘bedfellows’ . Snuggling up next to a friend was after all a useful way of keeping warm when travelling and staying in a cold room.

In some matters too, Tudor and Stuart men were on their own. Whilst advice literature provided them with a range of useful information, seldom did it give them much advice for such basic things as looking after the sick or basic domestic tasks, things that were traditionally the domain of women. What were they to do if their wife fell sick?

During the eighteenth century ideals of manhood were to change from a rugged masculinity and more towards an elegant and refined model. Georgian man was neat in his appearance, clean-shaven and elegantly, if not extravagantly dressed. Out went rough manners and brusque language and in came self-control, mastery and discipline – especially when addressing the ladies. In the company of delicate feminine creatures, men were extolled to moderate their language, be calm and civil and, overall, do nothing to offend the sensibilities of young women, to whom a poorly chosen word could raise a blush!

Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son were subtitled ‘On the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman’, extolled the virtues of etiquette, clean living and sound morality. Even future US president George Washington had plenty to say about the ideal man. His list of ‘Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour’ included everything from keeping a pleasant countenance to not laughing too much in public, not eating in the streets and not revelling in the misfortunes of others. Above all, he cautioned ‘let your recreations be manful, not sinful. (see the full list here: http://www.ballindalloch-press.com/society/civility.html)

Image from Wikipedia - creative commons
Image from Wikipedia – creative commons

Nonetheless the often portrayed poster-boy of Georgian manhood, the fop or dandy, was definitely not the masculine ideal. Effeminacy (in the sense of appearing or acting like a woman) was severely frowned upon. Much ink and paper was expended by authors who complained about the immorality of modern dress, appearance and manners. Some feared that new fashions were rendering men too weak to be of any use in the country’s defence. How, they argued, could Britain defend itself against the gathering French hordes if its men paraded themselves around in wigs, breeches and face powder?

Image Wikipedia - creative commons
Image Wikipedia – creative commons

By the 1850s, the pressures and challenges of industrialisation brought yet more changes. Victorian man was stern, patriarchal and stoic. New masculine heroes, including explorers and hunters, as well as the new heroes of the technological world exemplified his spirit of adventure and sense of superiority over the female sex. In an age where women were increasing beginning to find a voice and press for new rights and powers, men needed to reassert their authority, and did so by invoking everything from religion to science to bolster their claims to superiority. Like Mr Murdstone in Dickens’ David Copperfield women and children were to be dominated and controlled. Weakness was derided. Anything smacking of sexual and emotional deviance was (if you follow Foucault’s line) to be punished.

Image from WWW.VictorianWeb.org
Image from WWW.VictorianWeb.org

What, then, is today’s model man? In many ways things are more complicated. A veritable barrage of heroes and anti-heroes assails men from every direction. Magazines such as GQ and Men’s Health tell men how to dress, how to look, what to eat and drink and where to see and be seen. The media daily creates and destroys new male models and icons. In sexual and emotional terms men are perhaps freer than they have ever been to express their identity, although many prejudices and limitations remain. The result of all this is a rather amorphous and indistinct model of the ideal man. Men are confused by what they should be. Indeed, the waters are further muddied by the wealth of advice literature, which tells men to plough their own furrow and forget trying to live up to unachievably high standards. There’s no easy answer to any of this, but the ever shifting ideals of masculinity through history remind us that nothing, ultimately, stays the same for long.

Overcrowded and Underfunded: 18th-Century Hospitals and the NHS Crisis

The problem of overcrowded hospitals in Britain is now an annually recurring one. Every year, especially in winter, operations are cancelled, treatments postponed and patients sent home because there simply isn’t bed space for them. A combination of increased admissions of the elderly in the winter months, seasonal outbreaks such as flu and norovirus, and the impact of weather-related accidents all serve to pile on the pressure to an already-embattled healthcare system.

Embattled Doctor!

According to the BBC, NHS and social care services are ‘at breaking point’, with an open letter warning the government that ‘things cannot go on like this’.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29501588. The story is now a perennial one. Every year (and in fact every couple of months) a mix of underfunding, overcrowding and staff stress puts the NHS in the headlines. Winter almost always exacerbates the problem. A year ago the outgoing NHS Chief Executive David Nicholson warned that the “toxic overcrowding” of accident and emergency departments in Britain not only impacted upon service levels but could have far more serious effects including higher levels of patient mortality and unsustainable levels of staff stress. The president of the ‘College of Emergency Medicine’ went even further, stating that the whole system was sailing dangerous close to complete failure. With the Daily Telegraph claiming that many patients were afraid to ask for help from staff pushed almost to their limits, the United Kingdom is perhaps still in the midst of what it last year called, “David Cameron’s care crisis”.

Ann-NHS-demonstrator-dres-007 Image from http://www.TheGuardian.com

It is indeed easy to think of this situation as a uniquely modern one, linked to the seemingly continual squeeze on budgets. Surely this wouldn’t have happened in the past, where well-run hospitals staffed by starchy matrons ran their (spotlessly clean) wards with military precision? In fact, if we peer back through time to hospitals even before the NHS, the situation can look remarkably familiar.

In 1772 Dr John Sharp, a philanthropist and trustee of the charity established by the late Lord Crewe, established a charitable infirmary in the impressive medieval castle at Bamburgh on the north east coast of England. Sharp’s brother William was a celebrated surgeon at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London and so the infirmary was able to benefit from the advice of a top medical man. As such it was equipped with the latest medical technologies, from mechanically operated hot and cold seawater baths to electrical machines and even an infirmary carriage to take invalid patients down to the beach for a restorative dip. In terms of many other institutions this was state of the art.

Dr Sharp

Many hospitals of the time relied on subscriptions – donations by wealthy benefactors – for their building and running. For patients to be admitted required a letter of recommendation from a subscriber. It was therefore very difficult just to turn up and ask for treatment. Bamburgh was different. Funded completely by the charity it had an open surgery – effectively an accident and emergency centre – on weekends, which meant that anyone, but especially the poor, could attend and be seen with relative ease. A quick note from a local clergyman confirming their status as a poor ‘object’ was sufficient. Unsurprisingly, though, this very accessibility meant that it was extremely popular.

In the first year of the charity, the numbers of patients through its doors was a modest 206. In 1775 this had more than doubled, and in 1781 it treated 1106. By the end of that decade, the infirmary was regularly treating more than 1500 patients every year, and was expending more than £250 every year on treatments and drugs. As well as outpatients, the infirmary contained around 20 beds. To give some perspective, these numbers were at times comparable with some of the ‘flagship’ hospitals in major Georgian towns such as Bath and Birmingham.

Bamburgh Castle

A staff consisting of a surgeon, two assistants and several ancillary staff, alone catered for the influx of patients. On any given attendance day between 60 and 100 patients could attend, and this put immense strain on both facilities and staff. In 1784 a freezing winter and ‘melancholy weather’ caused many poor people to perish, and admissions to rise dramatically. Outbreaks of infection also increased the pressure. The ‘malignant smallpox’ in neighbouring parishes was a constant threat to families, while the winter of 1782 also brought an outbreak of influenza at the neighbouring military barracks at Belford. This elicited a plea for infected soldiers to be treated at Bamburgh – a request declined by Dr Sharp for fear of infecting the rest of his patients.

The resident surgeon, Dr Cockayne, keenly felt these increasing pressures. Writing to Dr Sharp in the 1780s he noted both the continual increase in duties and the ‘vast number of patients admitted’ all of which added to his great worry and trouble. In the politest possible terms he asked for a rise in his wages, a request that led to him moving from ad hoc payments to a permanent wage.

The overcrowding at Bamburgh certainly chimes with the problems faced by the NHS on a daily basis. In simple terms there are simply too few staff to look after too many patients. The demands of an ever-changing medical environment increase the workload for staff, and these lead to further questions about pay and conditions. But it is interesting to consider that while Bamburgh infirmary faced the same socio-medical conditions as do hospitals today the question of funding was markedly different. Bamburgh was a well-funded institution. It had abundant money to spend on facilities and equipment and did so. And yet, the pressures of increasing numbers, and the unpredictability of admissions, still threatened to overwhelm it. Does this suggest that at least some problems are not simply reducible to finance?

Many suggestions have been put forward, from streamlining the allocation of beds to increasing the range of conditions treatable by pharmacists and GPs and even treating some conditions in the patient’s own homes. Whatever the answer it is clear that hospital overcrowding is not a new problem. Medical professionals in the past were all too familiar with the challenge of meeting increasing and uneven demand with limited resources.