Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Fatal for the Victorians, There's No place like Home!



Dr Lipscomb is  out to show us what a very dangerous place our  homes were back in Victorian times. Where people were trying to make their homes luxurious and beautiful, often they were putting themselves at risk.

The industrialisation of a lot of production techniques  which had previously  been completed by skilled artisans made many things more affordable and as the price of essentials fell a boom in the middle classes began in the mid 1800s, boosted by the phenomenal success of  Prince Albert's Great Exhibition in 1851 which showcased en masse what modern bulk production could achieve.




This was the first time that the term Standard of living was used to describe the level of a person's social standing or status,not by title, but by what objects they possessed. Social commentators like John Ruskin the art critic and theorist  assigned respect to the style and taste of one's  home and what was contained within it. Gone was the restraint and classicism of the eighteenth century and in came excess and clutter and riotous colour.

However the Victorian Home was also a dangerous and sometimes deadly place , where risks lay innocuously all around you.

The Drawing Room

Wallpaper,was the biggest craze, with household manuals written by icons of taste to  enable middle class homemakers to check the tastefulness of patterns they could choose from. This was all thanks to much improved lighting from gas lights in homes,meaning  bold and colourful designs with deep pigmentation could be utilised to show an opulence unheard of on the whitewashed walls of the year's past. Sales of Mass produced Wallpaper rocketed.From one million pieces in 1834 to thirty two million in 1874. 

Green was considered the colour of taste, as opposed to yellowish Red which was considered impetuous. Shiels a producer of dyes created the colour synonymous with the time. It was used in the dyeing of  Carpets, candles and even blancmange.it was most  used in wallpapers however. This surge in popularity coincided with a number of deaths in Victorian Homes. Deaths and  illnesses  due to the arsenic added to the dyes in high quantities to set the colour.

Arsenic poisoning was often very symptomatic of Cholera, a rampant and deadly water born disease that would have existed in living memory for many Victorians and so the swollen oesophagus,leading to a dry and painful throat followed by agonising pains centring in the abdomen  but affecting the whole digestive tract resulting in violent sickness and diarrhoea  and was often misdiagnosed. 




Gradually public health warning started to appear, the papers began to publicise deaths from arsenic more and more, but the paper did not have to be ingested to prove deadly. The soft flock had a habit of rubbing off leaving dust in the air and a lack of adequate heat an insulation meant dampness would encourage fungi to grow and releasing arsenic into the air in the form of volatile gases.   



Great medical journals like the Lancet started to speak to the issue. The people who felt unwell would go to the coast to take spa and water cures and would get better because Arsenic was not leaching into them through, ingestion or absorption and would get better and so evidence grew supporting the suspicion that Arsenic was gradually killing the populace. The Germans had already made arsenical papers illegal but Britain would not follow suit and some paper manufacturers were so categorical in their denials that they offered to eat paper in proof.


William Morris, champion of handicrafts, enemy of the industrialisation of craftsmanship owned. He also directed the biggest Arsenic producing mine in the world. Morris wrote a letter in reply to complaints of sickness as Witch Fever. It was not until Queen Victoria herself had been inconvenienced by man keeling over during a diplomatic visit, that the tide began to turn against Arsenic containing products.  



In literary circles women were urged to become the Angel of the home, keeping it pure for the menfolk out working to support them so the idea of them keeping both home and self beautiful became vitally important.



The Bedroom


Corsetry was symbolic of a woman's control over self and home. To allow flesh its freedom was to allow disarray and so every woman would wear one. A cotton chemise would be worn against the skin. 1860s and 1870s the extremity of the control of corsets got dangerously extreme.

Liver squashed upwards and against ribs, stomach pushed down into the abdominal cavity and thus crushing other organs. Worst of all were the risks when women continued to wear corsets during and after pregnancy, ultimately risking prolapsed uterus!



Using modern Sports medicine diagnostic apparatus the effect of a corset on Sarah's body is measured and the difference is marked. After only six minutes of exercise, she feels light headed, her respiration is up from fourteen breaths to twenty four even at rest. Resulting in repeated hyperventilation, less oxygenation meaning more risk for pneumonia . Women with chronic vitamin D deficiency would have softer bones meaning more risk of deformity or even rib fractures resulting in punctured lungs.




As an aside my own medical history has resulted in these very same symptoms from a collapsed lung meaning I breathe shallower and have contracted pneumonia and to choose these conditions out of vanity is madness to me!

1881the rational dress Society was formed to enable women to live a more active lifestyle comfortably and without risk to health. This was aided by the Votes for women movement all of  contributed to a more lax (quite literally) attitude to undergarments.





Accidents with Domestic Gas were common. With competition so fierce for your custom , the Gas companies were sending out a lot of misinformation including, the idea that a naked candle flame was safe in a room of escaped gas! To cut costs they were even reducing the pressure  at night to sabotage rivals meaning that the gas would fall away, the flame would flicker out overnight and the open valve would allow gas to seep into homes, silently killing the inhabitants.





Central heating of damp homes also came into play now. Water was heated in a sealed unit and the hot water would be pumped around the house. The pressure inside the drums was immense. Explosions were common. Similarly the cooking Ranges were explosive devices waiting to happen. With the open systems in Ranges, air could circulate, pulling the smoke up the flue and out the chimneys, but once the sealed units came in there was nowhere for smoke to go resulting in suffocation or again explosions from trapped steam pressure. Whilst Cast Iron was innovative and multi functional, it was also prone to flaws in the casting resulting  in weaknesses in the joint which any kind of pressure might blow out.

Gas lighting began to be replaced by electric but sparks from lights still ignited gas leaks from the ranges.

The Nursery

154,000 infants died annually in the period between 1880 and 1890, so surviving children were precious and also were cynically targeted as a consumer group.


Christmas became the consumer driven festival we now recognise, but the copious toys brought with them their own hazards. Most notably poisonous metals in the colourful paints used to make toys appealing. Lead was a major source of poisoning in youngsters with their propensity to put things in their mouths. No amount of lead is safe for ingestion, it is so toxic which might  accounts for why pencil "leads" are now manufactured out of graphite as licking them was common practice to da Ken the text when writing.



White Gloss paints were all filled with white lead, and whilst several European countries banned white lead in indoor paint products in 1924,  we in the UK did not ban it until the 1970s meaning innumerable people had been put at risk in the intervening hundred years. 

Lead poisoning could result in the kind of behavioural problems that might today be attributed to ADHD and back then would have been called temper tantrums. There was also a physical symptom that very  easily identified when Lead poisoning was present, a line on the tongue and gum line was a telltale sign of poisoning but seeing it in a patient usually meant the lead had been in the system too long and you were likely to die anyway.


The very worst risk in the house came from a lack of understanding of the microscopic germs and bacteria more often than not found in the glass bottles mothers were encouraged to use to feed their babies.  The upper classes had been feeding their children via wet nurses for centuries and as the middle class burgeoned this ideal spread down and so women were almost encouraged to feed their child using the new formulae developed at the time with the use of glass bottles tipped in a rubber or animal skin teat. 

The leading Domestic goddess of the time Mrs Beaton touched on child rearing twice in her wildly popular book on housekeeping. She suggested copious amounts of beer to the lactating mother, but to stop drinking gin for the duration of the time you were feeding baby.this is not as outlandish as it seems as my Grandmother was given stout in the maternity ward when my own dear mum was born sixty **cough cough **years ago!

Mrs Beaton devoted far more time to the new tangled formula route and whilst this was probably as she determined most folk were relatively familiar with breast feeding as a concept and that the new innovations needed more explanation but to the casual reader it seemed Mrs B was actually attaching more importance to bottle feeding and coupled with the excellent marketing of brands like "Empire" bottles it seemed to point to bottle feeding as the preferred method for women in support of Queen and Empire.

Modern minds see immediately that this must have been a breeding ground for bacteria and an experiment backs up the theory that porous materials like rubber and awkward shaping of the bottled themselves left residues that would to all intents and purposes become Petrie dishes and children with little to no natural immunity were the most susceptible group in society to disease. 

The act of sucking would draw bacteria into the upper respiratory tract and then it would get into the gut and lungs causing all manner of issues including Pneumonia which was the highest killer of infants under age one at the time. Things were further complicated by the continued presence of dysentery, Typhoid and cholera bacteria in drinking water well into this period.   With most formula being a derivative of wheat flour mixed with water and perhaps some expressed breast milk, it's very make up meant children were malnourished and ill -equipped to cope with the bugs being introduced into the body from the water being used to mix the milk formula.

A slightly different bottle shape did improve the situation when the double ended bottle was introduced as it was easier to clean and the valve at the other end ensured a constant flow of the milk, but old style bottles still persisted into the twentieth century.



The Victorians, incredible innovators and prolific  killers, what an interesting bunch they really were!

1 comment:

  1. Wow!!! I learned so much by reading this! Some of it I knew, but had forgotten, some info was brand new to me! Fascinating!!

    ReplyDelete