Victorian medicine

I’ve been looking at some of the old picture files that got rescued from my old computer.  It seems I can be a bit of a hoarder with those so it is time to clean things up.

I have several photographs, taken YEARS  AGO, with an old camera, that I intended to use here. I would post some horrific medical practice from my Victorian medical book and use one of these photographs to add some visual interest.  I still think it is a good idea but I just don’t have the time to read the book and the pictures are not improving with age.  By the time I get to this project (horrible medical practices) I will be retired and will have a camera 8 times better than the one I have now and 10 times better than the one that took these.

So I will just use them and send them on their way to the oblivion of deletion.


This is a medical kit carried by a healer.


The kit is on display at the Museum of Man and Nature, Winnipeg


This is the information about Cuthbert Grant, the owner of the kit.

The museum has a “pharmacy” display, and I took these random photos there.  Note the box for veterinary use and also make the assumption that at least half of these medicines contain some sort of narcotic or toxic ingredient and that people could by this stuff without  a prescription.  Say what you want about “Big Pharma”, things are better now!


Dealing with Small Pox

Before you panic, I don’t have Small Pox.  I have picked up my 1866 household medical guide and done a little light reading before bed.  Gunn’s New Family Physician or Home Book of Health says that many ladies in the country could deal with Small  Pox as well as or better than a physician.  This is surprising considering the disease killed and blinded thousands!   So how did the book suggest these ladies deal with this?  It starts out like a flu with a fever so you bathe the feet in lye water.  Lye water is a corrosive poison 

Lye water is in fact a poison, under the
Controlled Substances Act, 1984. As
such, it requires specific packaging
and labelling.

Nice start.  Spearmint or Peppermint tea if the patient feel nauseous.  I can live with that.  I prefer not to have chemical burns on my feet but a nice tea would be soothing.  But, if you can relieve the patient of the upset tummy, you must then give them a good dose of purgative (ie laxative).  They were obsessed with bowels!  Once the bowels are empty and if they feel nauseated or are throwing up, you give them something to make them throw up .  I’m not following the logic!

Once the rash to the skin shows up, the patient should be drinking teas made from saffron and catnip.  I wonder how that would taste?  Then one gets more lye water baths on the feet on the body to open the pores!

For headaches, you bathe the head in vinegar and water.  I think people still do that.  Then you add a mustard plaster to the bottom of the feet.  Those mustard plasters had the potential to cause burns if they weren’t done right.  Between the lye water and the mustard plasters, it is a miracle if they ever walk again!

For phlegm, the patient should gargle in a decoction  of sage, honey and borax.  Borax.  Isn’t that laundry soap?

To prevent scaring on the face, silk should be soaked in olive oil and applied to the face and the patient kept in a completely dark room.

The crowning glory to this list of instructions was the warning that some folks can end up with a diarrhea that leads to gangrene and mortification.  Does that mean what I think it means?!  That can’t be pleasant at all!

Thank the good Lord, that small pox is eradicated now!

Well, on that pleasant note, I will head to bed and have nightmares about the business end of my butt rotting off!

Girl’s Own Annual

You know you have an addiction (in my case Victorian fashions) when your boss knows all about it.  You can’t keep it hidden any more.  My boss showed Shirley and I a book that she had called Girl’s Own Annual.  It was a compilation of a years worth of weekly journals, intended for young girls, starting October 5, 1901.  In exchange for borrowing it, I have lent her my 1860s medical book (she being a nurse would surely appreciate it!)

Queen Victoria died January 22, 1901.  These journals were published just weeks after her death.  That makes this an Edwardian book but I still like it.  Here are some highlights.  The cover.  I think the woman is Princess Mary.  See here and here.SAM_1067

Note to the giftee from the gifter.


I think it says Ethel 1902. With Uncle’s love….signiture.  There was this lovely picture.


The caption reads…


Nice photos.


This one is pretty cool.  I didn’t read the article but I think it is a reference to King Edwards coronation.


The corset debate.

I’ve been reading my medical book from 1866 and I have to wonder if some of our cultured hatred of the concept of the corset does not come from the Victorian era itself.  I’m interested in this topic because-as I have said a few times-I wear a corset daily as it helps my back pain.  I wear it at a comfortable constriction where my breathing and circulation are not noticeably affected.  I believe that there is wearing a corset and then there is tight lacing.  But, if you did not read my old book carefully, you’d come to the conclusion that there was no difference and that it was just plain bad.

In the following photo I was taken by the idea that the corset and tight lacing was soon to be heard of no more.  WRONG! It continued for at least another 50 years.  I also found it humorous that the author felt that girls submitted to this because they wished to hear the marvelous exclamation uttered by some would-be-exquisite or FOOL.  The author also felt that not one in 500 women wore their corset loose enough to avoid  the pit falls of the corset.  Not one in 500!SAM_0296



The funny thing was that after listing it as a horrible thing, the Dr went on to tell his readers how to get the benefits of the corset (the figure enhancement) with out the damage.  But, the implication is that the materials the corset is made of is as important or more important than simply loosening the strings.  SAM_0298



So who had palpitations?

I’ve been skimming through my Victorian medical book (1866).  One of the previous owners made some markings in the book.SAM_0294

He wrote his name (Albert Henry) and also made a note that mustard plasters should be 1 to 3.  I haven’t found out what the 1 to 3 represents.  The 1 is likely the mustard powder but the 3 could be eggs, flour or water or some other ingredient I don’t know about.  This mustard plaster seems like a nasty business that could burn the skin and trigger asthma.

Further along in the book there is a page that the book seems to open up easily to, implying to me, a page that was frequently turned to so that the spine of the book has been “broken in”.  There is also a penciled in x.SAM_0299

It has me wondering if Albert had palpitations or if he was dealing with someone who did.  The treatments mainly seem to deal with sedating or relaxing the person.  Lie down.  Take ether and lavender. A shot of booze. Cayenne has been used for thousands of years for medicine and circulation problems is one of the possible uses.

The recommended use of stramonium (loco weed) and digitalis (the plant we get digoxin from) concerns me.  I sure hope that this stuff was being prescribed by a doctor and whipped up by a pharmacist.  I’d hate to think that some house wife could buy this stuff over the counter or pick it in her garden and whip it up herself!

I often lament some of the loses of the Victorian culture…the fashions, the beauty and grace of the pomp…but I do not lament the loss of their medical procedures.  I get free health care in Canada so I am particularly happy to be living now where the practices are not so barbaric and I don’t have to pay to be treated.  Do you think it is possible that 100 years from now, people will look back  at our current medical practices and feel horrified and wonder how we could have put up with such primitive and cruel practices?

First Aid a la 1866

A few weeks ago, I had to take a first aid course for work.  One of the things we had to learn was how to deal with puncture wounds until a doctor could take over.

I thought it would be fun to read what Gunn’s home medical book had to say.

Punctured Wounds, which are made with a pointed instrument; as a needle, a nail, or a bayonet.  Sometimes a wound is both punctured and incised, as when made with a dirk which both punctures and cuts.

When you consider this was written for people to deal with illness and injuries at home, it is a bit freaky to consider that bayonet injuries would be a concern.  But, this was written just post civil war so may be they were dealing with such things.  I am fairly sure I shan’t have to worry about bayonet wounds in my lifetime…at least I hope not.

Puncture wounds, if very deep, should not be allowed to heal at the surface very speedily, and consequently should not be closed up with Adhesive Plaster.  They are very apt to become inflamed and suppurate (give off pus), and may lead to very serious consequences, if allowed to heal by the first intention (initially) at the surface. 

I think this is fairly common practice today with deep wounds being packed with gauze to encourage the wound to heal first at the deep end and not allowing the skin edge to close over until that healing is complete.

If you have reason to believe that tendons are injured by the wound, treat it as directed under the head of “Lock-jaw.” 

I looked up Lockjaw in the book and this is what it said.

Causes-It is almost invariably caused by wound or injuries of the tendonous portions of the body, though sometimes it will arise from any wound, especially in warm climates, and occasionally from other cause.

There was no mention of the germs that we now know cause tetanus but there was some understanding that infection was bad.  It seems to me the cause, for mid-Victorian era folks, was the severity of the wound and not on the germs that may have been introduced to the system.

Back to the puncture wound and its treatment.

If the wound is of a serious nature and there is threatened inflammation, active Hydragogue Purgatives (a laxative that works by drawing water from the system-Victorians and their bowel obsessions!) will be necessary, as the Anti-bilious Physic and Cream of Tartar, and the patient may also take a dose of Laudanum or Opium occasionally.

I get how a bit of pain-killer might be helpful (so long as the patient didn’t end up an addict) but I’m at a loss to know how a good bowel movement would be of use.

The Falling Sickness

I have been reading a novel that is set in the early 1800s and one comment caught my eye.  One character was saying that it was obvious another character was defective. The character’s  brother had the falling sickness and that was proof that the family had defective brains.  I knew the reference was to epilepsy and I started to wonder what my Victorian Medical book had to say on this matter.  It begins with a dramatic but fairly accurate description of what an epileptic episode might look like but didn’t mention how a person might lose control of their bladder or bowels.  It is not that Victorians had an aversion to discussing such functions (as you shall see in some of the remedies).

They list the causes and include hereditary (hence my book’s character taking one brother’s affliction as proof of the other brother’s faulty facilities.)  The medical book mentions malformations of the skull and brain as a cause.  That makes sense to me.

There was a list of conditions that could cause epilepsy.  One was intestinal worms.  I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THAT!  Apparently, these beasts can invade the brain and do so, in developing countries!  Who knew!  Teething was also listed.  But, from the quick google search I did, it may have more to do with a baby getting an unusually high fever while teething that causes seizures.  I had to google the next cause because I had no idea what it was “the suppression or retention of catamenia”.  Basically, not having a period.  A google search says the menstrual cycle can affect epileptics and that makes sense to me too.  Poisons can cause seizures as can injury to the head and brain.  Well, of course they can.  So I learned something and I was thinking “they were bang on the mark with this one.”  Then I read that “masturbation, is also a fruitful cause of the disease.”  If I’m not mistaken, Victorians thought that it would cause all kinds of crazy things.  So they slipped off the mark I thought they were on.  If anything, I’ll concede that I can imagine that this particular activity may trigger an episode for someone WITH epilepsy but, it can’t CAUSE it!

The treatment for the falling sickness was to prevent the person from hurting themselves during an episode.  That is the procedure today.  There was no mention of the old wives tale of putting something in the mouth to protect the tongue.  I wonder when that idea came to be.  (FYI-don’t put anything into a seizing person’s mouth.  They can’t swallow their tongue but they can choke on or break their teeth on what ever is shoved in their mouth.)

Of course, a remedy depended on the cause.  If you were diddling with yourself-stop it!  If there is a fever, reduce the fever.  If you were born with it there wasn’t too much you could do.

The first recommended treatment is a good cleaning out of the bowels occasionally.  This came with a list of different substances and their amounts to achieve this goal.  I’m eye rolling here, but I’m not a doctor.  Perhaps being backed up doesn’t help a person with epilepsy.

The second thing the book recommends is the person be given an emetic at least once a week.  Basically, a herb that will make them throw up once a week.  Seems counter productive to me.

Third on the list is antispasmodic.  Makes sense.  Perhaps the list of possible herbs are the very thing being used now.  I don’t know.  Tonics are next.   That makes sense as well-keep the body strong.  Our modern version of tonics are vitamines and caffeine drinks.

The next remedy is Nitrate of Silver.  The book says that if taken for some time the skin with turn blue-black.  Well, that can’t be good!  And from what I can find on the internet, continuous doses in higher amounts is toxic!

Well if turning blue was not enough, the book recommends covering the face of a person having a seizure with a black silk handkerchief, tying it about the head and neck. (Can you imagine how you would feel waking up from a seizure with black fabric tied around your head and neck!) Gunn says this treatment is from France and is highly spoken of in some parts of that country.  “The patient, it is said, will recover from the attack almost immediately, or it will render it much lighter; and by continuing to do this for a while the disease may be entirely broken.”  It is exactly that kind of horrific practice I was hoping to find when I bought this book.  If I were an epileptic, I think I would prefer living now!

Quote from Gunn’s Medical Book

I am a mad hatter indeed.  I intend to read this book from 1866-all 1183 pages.  I was never interested in reading a text-book that large when I was in school!  It is a bit mad to try to read it in the common room at work during my break….so many conversations going on around me and directed at me.  Sigh.

I’m on page 40 of this book…yeah, I know, I’m not making great progress.  What I expected was to be horrified at the barbaric practices or to laugh at the primitive theories.  Perhaps I will when I get to the parts about treatments for illnesses but so far, in these introductory pages, I’m finding beliefs that we still hold to be true.  And I find myself nodding my head and thinking “I needed to be reminded of that”.  At my current point in the book, Gunn is saying that our head and actions can get us into trouble physically.  Wanting something, even happiness, is not bad as long as we don’t let that desire get out of control.

The difference between one man and another is, that one governs his passions and another is governed by them.  a man who permits his passions to govern him, can never be happy; he will be discontented, irritable, and quarrelsome, and throw a tempestuous atmosphere around him, which makes him move in the regions of storms-he employs sure means to shorten and embitter life, whatever may be his external circumstances.  He becomes the architect of his temper, and misery must be the result of his labor.

Yeah, I’ve met people like that.  I was just thinking about someone like that today.  She had a driving desire to be seen as a wonderful person.  Not a bad desire but she wanted it so bad that she was unable to take in constructive comments from people who knew the subject matter better and she attempted to build herself up by destroying the reputation of others.  She created “storms” all around herself.

So on that happy note I bid you a good day and I wish for you to keep those self-created storms at bay!  And run from those storm makers you may have in your life!



A little humor to brighten your day

Today’s post is several hours later than usual but it is because I had a stressful, busy day on Friday.  I had to attempt something daring/dangerous/serious for the first time in my life and I was scared to death!  I wont get into the details (I can’t) but suffice to say the results ended up well in the end and I did better than I thought I might in that situation.  I’m aware it could have gone very bad, despite my best efforts, and I am relieved it did not.   So how about a little morbid humor from my 1870s medical book to reflect my mood.

A poor man who had been doing some paving for the doctor, after frequent and tedious calling, at last met him (the doctor) getting out of his carriage near his own door…and dunned him for his bill.  “Why, you rascal,” said the doctor,”do you intend to be paid for such a piece of work as this?  Why, you have spoiled my pavement and then covered it with earth to hide the poor work.”  “Doctor,” said the poor man, “mine is not the only piece of bad work that the earth hides.”  “Well,” said the doctor, “there is much truth in what you have said,” and at once paid the bill.

I got a bonus prize

When I bought my 1870s home medical book I got the bonus book mark which I showed you earlier on.  I got a second bonus hidden in the pages of the book.  A postcard-like thing.Written on the front is “Trust in the Lord and Do Good.  H.T. Crossley, John E Hunter”.   On the  back in teeny tiny handwriting was “April 18th 1906”. When I googled those names I got this site. The condensed version of this site is these two men were holding revival meetings in Manitoba Canada in July of 1906.  This card has a date 2 1/2 months prior to this time.  They were Methodist pastors who worked together for many years and helped build churches.

So the mystery that will never be answered is:  Did one of the previous owners of my medical book also attend one of the revival meetings held by these two and then put the card in the book?  Or (more likely option) did the card and the book get lumped together with all the other old crap in a box while in transport to the flea market.  And did the card accidentally get put/jammed into the book?   If I could have a super power, I’d like one where I could touch objects and learn their past.  Who held them.  Where did they belong in a house.  What went on around them.  How did they end up jammed in an old book.  If they could talk, what would they tell me.

What ever the cause, I found myself coming home with an old book I really wanted at a price I was OK with and finding two other “freebies” included.  Tickle my cheap skate heart!