Mediomania: Spiritualism, Crisis, and Mediumistic Hysteria of the 19th Century

A depiction of table-turning in Le Magazine L’Illustration, 1853

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

The residents of Hydesville, New York were sure intrigued when rumors erupted of the Fox sisters and their ability to communicate with the dead through taps and rappings in their home. Kate and Margaret Fox invited the public to demonstrations of their abilities, asking the spirits to respond to questions with the correct number of knocks. And from these few taps, a religious movement grew.

But it wasn’t the need or the determination to speak with the dead that drove the development of Spiritualism. The religion came along at the right time when it was needed most by those wishing to enact social change. In the 1850s, Quakers were looking for an escape. Abolitionist Quakers in particular were in a fix. Their religion forbade them from taking a stance on measures such as abolition and women’s rights. But when the Fox sisters started knocking, those looking for an answer saw a way out.

Taking spiritualism by the horns, Quakers began to convert, picking up the torch of spiritualism in the name of women’s leadership, abolition, and a host of other social crusades. Spiritualists traveled the country to speak at assemblies and conventions, some on the subject of spiritualism, but most often at the conventions of social endeavors such as women’s right to vote and abolition. Spiritualism simply served as a means for working toward such change.

With such a surge in social improvement, women were put in a position of opportunity. Suddenly communicating with the dead meant women could assume leadership roles in the community. They became trance speakers, touring the country to speak to large assemblies. Trance mediums wrote books, counseled the distressed, and even ran for president. That would have been Victoria Woodhull in 1872. Women harnessed a power that seemed to favor the female body and used it to propel themselves up in terms of equality with men.

But with such upward movement came backlash, and such backlash took the shape of an accusation of insanity. Dr. R. Frederic Marvin finally gave a name to the disease of which spiritualism was considered to be a result. Mediomania was suddenly a diagnosis spread far and wide, labeling mediums with a type of female insanity. The female reproductive system was to blame, a system so much more “complex” than a man’s and thus in danger of such insanity. While it was not used in place of utromania, the two diseases were often linked. It was determined the angle of the uterus was the cause of the disease. If it were tilted too far forward, women would develop this mediomania and begin to exhibit its horrible symptoms.

Symptoms of this “mediumistic hysteria” often were a woman’s determination to leave traditional roles and her propensity to overuse her mind. Historian Ann Braude argues, “Doctors asserted that, if women used their brains to attempt the mental exertion required for higher education, they would overtax their systems and suffer gynecological disease.” As Marvin asserted, “She becomes possessed with the idea that she has some startling mission in the world.” Such an idea was horrifying by late 19th century standards, and mediums were deemed insane for such behavior.

Treatment was often forced upon the afflicted. I say forced because most often the cure of mediumship was the “Rest Cure.” It entailed the female subjecting to the will of the male doctor. It was believed she must no longer assert her own will in order to be healed. Such a cure inherently suggests a level of force upon the afflicted.

So while women enjoyed a blitz of equality through their abilities as mediums, it quickly came crashing down in the 1870s and into the 1880s as “science” proved these women to be simply insane. Spiritualism lost favor as it failed to organize successfully, and heretics took advantage. Doctors proclaiming the “rest cure” pronounced mediums fit for asylums, and hoax mediums caught in charades gave the movement a bad reputation. More, the movement had already accomplished a major goal in the abolition of slavery, and because of this, lost momentum in their endeavors. The Spiritualism movement would fade away by the 1880s, and with it the persecution of female mediums for their mediomania.

Jessie Clever

Source:

Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Jessie Clever decided to be a writer because the job of Indiana Jones was already filled. Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them. Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset hounds.
Don’t miss To Save a Viscount. Find out more at jessieclever.com.

History Carnival 163: Around the World in Fifteen Blog Posts

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A map of Cherokee country from History Imagined

Good morning, everybody! Today on DSH, we are thrilled to be hosting this month’s History Carnival, a moving showcase of some of the best new history posts from the previous month. We have a lot of great stuff for you from the ancient world to modern Britain, so grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and travel around the world with us in fifteen fascinating history posts.

China

On History in the Margins, Pamela Toler has a timely post about defensive walls in history, in particular, The Great Wall of China. While The Great Wall we know today was mostly constructed by the Ming dynasty in the Middle Ages, the walls’ first defenses were actually erected some fifteen hundred years earlier to keep out “barbarians” from the steppes.

Constantinople

On Military History and Warfare, Alexander Clark has an excellent review of Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East. While there are many history books about the Crusades, Frankopan adds to the discussion by considering the Byzantine perspective through analysis of Anna Komnene’s The Alexiad, a history of Alexios’ reign through the eyes of his daughter. The review is an informative history post in itself, and I will be adding both Frankopan’s book and Military History and Warfare to my reading list.

England

Theresa Phipps has a fantastic post on law as it was applied to violent women in medieval England on The Dangerous Women Project. While it is still surprisingly difficult to find solid resources on the legal status of women in the Middle Ages, Phipps uses primary legal documents and court records to examine specific cases of women misbehaving and explains why women were viewed as particularly dangerous. “Law, Violence, and ‘Dangerous Women.’”

In “The Otherness of Now: Contemporary History via Berger & Sontag,” George Campbell Gosling continues the discussion of storytelling and the particular challenges of writing modern and contemporary history started by John Berger and Susan Sontag on Channel 4 in 1983. Where do we as historians start, if we don’t know how the story ends? How do we analyze events that are still taking place? https://gcgosling.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/berger-sontag/

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Mucha, La Dame aux Camelias (1896)

Berlin

Ever wonder where the SS went for their vacations? No, me either. However, the story of the Wannsee villa is not just a bizarre look at a former Nazi holiday resort. The history of the villa is also intertwined with the fortunes of the Nazi party, from failed Putsch, to Final Solution, to Holocaust museum and archive. Sometimes walls can talk… The Wannsee Conference on Art and Architecture, Mainly

Paris & Prague

Brand new art blog Vermillion Goldfish made a splash (sorry) this month with its first post, an in-depth look at In Quest of Beauty, the latest exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s work that explores the theory of beauty that inspired the artist’s iconic portraits that still grace stationary and paper the walls of dorm rooms the world over. So much more than a teaser, this post offers valuable insight into Mucha’s work and explains his personal perception of beauty. We may associate his models with theatrical costumes and gravity-defying hair, but for Mucha, beauty was all about idealized femininity and serenity of expression.

Spain

J.K. Knauss stopped by Unusual Historicals with the story of Maria de Padilla, the mistress of King Pedro of Castile. While Pedro was obliged to marry for political advantage, Maria was the love of his life. Often overlooked by historians due to her (ahem) position as mistress, Maria gave Pedro four children during his two failed marriages and spent her time founding convents and monasteries before she died of plague at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.

Malta

Catherine Kullman looks at the extraordinary notebook of British naval Commander Charles Haultain R.N. on My Scrap Album. Over a twelve year period, Haultain filled the book with newspaper clippings, pop up pictures, poetry, and personal stories of his adventures in the Mediterranean from ages twenty-four to thirty-six, such as the time he thought he found the grave of Hannibal in Malta…

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Psyche at Venus’ feet from “Love is a Monster”

Rome

Zenobia Neil guests on Writing the Past with “Love is a Monster,” a delightful post about love in the ancient world. Love in Rome was anything but romantic, where marriages were made and ended for the sake of political alliance and love was a debilitating madness. She uses the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass to argue that the dual love/fury aspects of Venus were effectively the same thing to a society that did not view love as a benevolent force, but rightly feared its potentially devastating power.

Sardinia…and Cherokee Country

On History Imagined, Caroline Warfield traces the Jacobite succession following Bonnie Prince Charlie to the House of Savoy in Sardinia. On the same blog, Linda Bennett Pennell writes about the daily lives of the Cherokee during the colonization of the United States in “When Being Civilized Was Not Enough.” History Imagined has years’ worth of fascinating social history archives and it’s well worth having a browse.

New York

If you’re out and about in upstate New York, you might consider stopping by Johnson Hall State Historic Site in Johnstown. Chris Clemens has an interesting post on Exploring Upstate about Sir William Johnson’s life from his position as British Superintendent of Indian Affairs and his relations with the Mohawk tribe (he learned their language and married a Mohawk woman) to his being awarded a baronetcy and constructing Johnson Hall. Lots of great photos of a lovingly preserved Colonial mansion.

Chicago

Michelle Cox is writing the history of Chicago, one person at a time. Her latest post, “I Wanted to Be With People,” tells the life story of Erna (Hager) Lindner, an Austrian woman who immigrated to Chicago in 1925 at the age of nineteen. Erna moved to America on her own in pursuit of a boy from her church she had fallen in love with; three months after arriving in Chicago, she found him and married him. Michelle Cox’s blog is packed with compelling stories of the everyday people that make up Chicago’s colorful past and is a goldmine for anyone interested in early twentieth century social history, and may also be useful for those tracing their family history through Chicago. elizabeth_russell

Just for Fun

Anna Castle takes a look at the postures of monarchs throughout history from an ergonomic perspective in “How to Sit on a Throne.” See right, Elizabeth Russell looks a bit too comfortable with that footstool she has found…

Civil War Hospitals Were Enough to Make You Sick

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A nurse and the wounded outside a hospital in Fredericksburg

When people find out that I wrote the non-fiction companion to Mercy Street, the PBS series set in a Union hospital during the American Civil War, they almost always ask me whether the show gets the historical details right. Particularly whether the medicine is accurate. I tell them that the series does a great job with historical accuracy with one exception: the television version of Mansion House Hospital isn’t dirty enough.

Today we think of hospitals as bastions of sanitation. But in the mid-19th century hospitals were dangerous, dirty, smelly places that many people rightly regarded as death traps. Add in the chaos of war and you had breeding grounds for contagious diseases, including smallpox, measles, pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, typhoid and yellow fever.

At the beginning of the war, the Union Army had a few hospitals attached to forts in the west, but none along the eastern seaboard. In order to cope with the crisis of illness and injury that began before the first battle was fought, the Army’s Medical Bureau requisitioned buildings for use as general hospitals throughout Washington DC and surrounding towns, primarily hotels and schools. Many of them were run down and most suffered from inadequate ventilation and poorly designed toilet facilities, which aggravated the problems of disease.

The largest of the Washington hospitals was the Union Hotel, where Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse for a little over a month. The hospital opened on May 25, 1861, and was soon infamous for its poor condition and worse smells. A report on its condition, made shortly after the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, stated that

…the building is old, out of repair, and cut up into a number of small rooms, with windows too small and few in number to afford good ventilation. Its halls and passages are narrow, tortuous and abrupt…There are no provisions for bathing, the water-closets and sinks are insufficient and defective and there is no dead-house [a room or structure where dead bodies could be stored before burial or transportation—a grim necessity in a Civil War hospital.] The wards are many of them overcrowded and destitute of arrangements for artificial ventilation. The cellars…are damp and undrained and much of the wood is actively decaying. (1)

Alcott was more blunt. In a letter home, she complained “a more perfect, pestilence-box than this house I never saw,–cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, wash-rooms, and stables.”

Nurses, supported by convalescent soldiers, occasional chambermaids, and an army of laundresses, fought to keep hospitals clean in the face of a seemingly endless stream of mud, blood, and diarrhea—a common element of Civil War military life seldom mentioned in letters and memoirs of the period. (An average of 78 percent of the Union Army suffered from what they called the “Tennessee quick-step” at some point each year.) It was a monumental task, even by standards of cleanliness that required patients’ undergarments to be changed once a week and saw nothing wrong with reusing lightly soiled bandages.

Keeping a supply of clean shirts, clean underwear, clean sheets, and clean bandages required a heroic effort—especially when a given patient might require three clean bandages and a fresh shirt daily, all of which would need to be thrown away because they were so stained with blood and pus. The newly constructed general hospital at Portsmouth Grove, Rhode Island, reported boasted a new-fangled steam washing machine that could wash and mangle four thousand pieces of laundry a day. It was an innovation that hospitals improvised from hotels and schools could only dream of with envy. Most hospitals had to make do with wooden washtubs, soap-sized kettle for heating water, and elbow grease. Washable clothing, bed linens, bandages and rags were washed in hot water using soft soap and a scrub board, boiled to kill lice and insects, rinsed several times in hot water, allowed to cool, and then rinsed again in cool water. Water had to be carried by hand from water sources that varied in degree of inconvenience. Once acquired, water was heated in large kettles on wood- or coal-burning stoves and carried from kitchen to washtub. It was not unusual for a general hospital laundry to process two or three thousand pieces of laundry in one day.

Even the best efforts to keep hospitals clean did not deal with the root causes of contagion. A bacterial theory of disease was some decades in the future. The prevailing medical theory of the period focused on clean air rather than clean water because doctors believed that diseases were spread through the poisoned atmosphere of “miasmas.” Doctors interested in hospital sanitation were concerned with eradicating foul smells. New hospitals were built with an eye toward providing fresh air. Hospital designers would have been well advised to focus on handling human waste instead.

The sanitary arrangements in Civil War hospitals made it easy for diseases linked to contaminated water, like typhoid and dysentery, to spread. Many latrines and indoor water closets had to be flushed by hand, carried by hand from a water source some distance away. As a result, they were not flushed out as frequently as required to keep them sanitary. Worse, in some hospitals, latrines were located too close to the kitchens. Even when there was an adequate distance between the two, flies carried bacteria on their feet as they flew between latrines, kitchens and patients’ dinner trays.

It’s no wonder that disease was responsible for two-thirds of all Civil War deaths.

(1) Quoted in Hannah Ropes. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes, ed. John R. Brumgardt. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980) p. 40.

(2) Quoted in Ropes, p. 40

Further Reading

Humphreys, Margaret. Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2013

Rutkow, Ira. M. Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine. New York: Random House. 2005.

Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill and toler_heroinesofmercystreetLondon: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.

Pamela D. Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is the author of Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and is currently writing a global history of women warriors, with the imaginative working title of Women Warriors. She blogs about history, writing, and writing about history at History in the Margins.

Turn Up the Jazz: Murder and Mayhem in Prohibition New York City

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It was July 1929, and ex-convict Simon Walker walked into a speakeasy. He came with friends William “Red” Cassidy and Peter Cassidy, a couple of guys known as waterfront street fighters, and the bar was the Hotsy-Totsy Club at Broadway and Fifty-fourth Street. The speakeasy was owned by the gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and his partner, Charles Entratta. Alcohol mixed with high tensions resulted in an argument between the Cassidy boys and Legs. Guns were drawn and shooting commenced. The orchestra played on, covering up the sounds of gunfire as Simon Walker was killed.

The murder of Simon Walker in the Hotsy-Totsy Club in 1929 was a common occurrence in the Prohibition days of New York City. Bootlegged liquor, speakeasies, and gangsters ruled the city, and the changing ideas of sexuality, class structure, and views on drinking turned the city upside down.

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Jack “Legs” Diamond

The Volstead Act went into effect January 1920, outlawing alcohol. It was the first time the government had attempted to control a moral principle in the citizens of the nation with the passage of law. Deemed the “noble experiment,” Prohibition sought to improve the lives of the poor by removing the vice of drinking. The noble experiment would be a colossal failure, and in no place would it be more spectacular than New York City.

Before Prohibition, saloons were the heartbeat of neighborhoods. Saloon owners were the first to raise money for patrons when an emergency happened or give loans until a patron could get back on his feet. Saloons were meeting places for unions and neighborhood groups. During the day when men were at work, mothers and their children would come to the saloons or children alone would be sent to pick up growlers for dinner, as the beer was safer than water to drink. The saloon was the first place an immigrant would learn how to manage the new world from those who had come before. Prohibition would end the idea of the saloon as a cultural center when drinking alcohol earned the glitter of being outlawed.

With the loosening of ideals around sexuality and drinking, speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs flourished in a city that might not have even known of the Volstead Act if one just looked at the actions of its citizens. So enamored were the citizens of New York with this new, loose lifestyle, drinking became a sort of sport. While before Prohibition, it would damage one’s reputation to be arrested, being arrested for the violation of the Volstead Act became the cat’s pajamas. Members of high society would flaunt the fact that they had gone to jail for consuming alcohol, so neat was it to be caught drinking.

The nightclub evolved from the saloon as a way for establishments to slip under the radar of Prohibition agents. Such establishments would promote dancing as its main entertainment and not alcohol, just like cabarets. Using walnut or mahogany screens to shield windows, hidden doors inside other establishments, and even going so far as to move frequently, nightclubs and cabarets could offer the much sought-after alcohol while avoiding the scrutiny of the Prohibition Bureau. Even when speakeasies were padlocked for selling alcohol, the business would keep operating out of a back door, leaving the padlock in place as if the owners were abiding by the law.

Speakeasies became the place to see and be seen. They were often outrageously decorated with rich woods, glittering brass rails, and dazzling lights. The Aquarium even housed a giant fish tank. The Country Club had a mini golf course. The 21 Club became the exclusive haunt of midtown. Drinking was no longer a moral taboo. It was the center of nightlife in New York. People who had never drunk before were suddenly taking up the drink because it was the thing to do.

But this glamorous, carefree life came at a price. As liquor was outlawed, it was illegal to manufacture it, sell it, and consume it. Alcohol used in manufacturing was even poisoned to deter people from consuming it. They did anyway to dire consequences. But the speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs had to find some way of getting alcohol for their patrons. This led to the extraordinary rise in organized crime in the 1920s. Bootleggers constructed elaborate rings to bring liquor into the city. The importers would hide their bootlegging businesses behind legitimate businesses like olive oil importing. The Menorah Wine Company even attempted to import over $100,000 in liquor on forged permits from the Prohibition Bureau under the guise of sacramental wine importation.

This organized crime had a little help from the inside. Prohibition agents were often unqualified for the job. Many were men returning from World War I and in need of a job. They would go into the bureau and start on the take from a gangster, earning more than they could ever dream. In return, the agent would tip off their gangster employer by calling from the bureau office the night of a raid. It got so bad the bureau turned off the phones in the office on raid nights. Agents would confiscate liquor from other bootleggers only to sell it to their gangster employers. A Prohibition agent was a great thing to be in the 1920s if you knew how to play your cards.

But it wasn’t just the gangsters of New York that were cashing in on this illegal trade. Ethnic groups, minorities, and new immigrants also found bootlegging as a way of just paying the bills and staying a breath above the poverty line. They would sell a shot of liquor out of a hip flask on the street, stand as guards in front of speakeasies to warn of raids, and set up shop as a “cordial,” where it was known liquor would be sold. In Harlem where unscrupulous landlords gouged rent prices, tenants staged rent parties near the end of the month, dishing out shots of liquor for high prices. They would collect enough to then pay the rent the next day.

But although the liquor was flowing and the jazz was roaring, the noble experiment caused a higher crime rate than ever before seen in New York City. Reputable businesses like the famed Delmonico’s were forced to close, and honest saloonkeepers forced out of business. It was with a reluctant heart that Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the wet movement in order to secure the democratic nomination in 1932. A dry from the beginning, FDR had no interest in repealing the Volstead Act, but popular consensus was against him. The noble experiment had failed. People were being killed for shots of liquor. Honest bartenders had been forced to carry out their trade in secret. Jobs were scarce, and the Great Depression loomed over it all. So when he took office in 1933, FDR stayed true to party platform and put into motion the steps that would end Prohibition. The roaring ‘20s were no more, and the sound of jazz faded into the night.

Sources:

Lerner, Michael A., Dry Manhattan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Jessie Clever

jessieclever_tobeaspy_800pxIn the second grade, Jessie began a story about a duck and a lost ring. Two harrowing pages of wide ruled notebook paper later, the ring was found. And Jessie has been writing ever since.

Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them.

Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset Hounds.

Don’t miss To Be a Spy: A Spy Series Christmas Short Story. Find out more at jessieclever.com

Child Trafficking in the Nineteenth Century

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Child workers in Newton, NC. Lewis Hine.

News organizations and documentary producers have made us all too aware of the horrors of trafficking children. The fate of women and girls of any age coerced and trapped as sex workers horrifies. Boys are not immune. This evil isn’t new, and may in fact be as ancient as the oldest profession. This article will concentrate on the nineteenth century, one in which it has been estimated that over half the prostitutes in Paris were minors, and London brothels notoriously traded in virgin girls.

In our day we generally assume that trafficked women, girls, and, yes, boys have been kidnapped, or are runaways who wandered into the clutches of their keepers unaware. Occasionally, we hear something even worse: the story of parents who’ve sold a child as a sex slave. Child selling was much more common two hundred years ago.

It is helpful to look at laws surrounding custody as a background. In Europe, and in England in particular, children were regarded as the property of their father to do with as he chose. English Common Law regarded wives as having no property rights partially on the theory (with biblical echoes) that a married couple became one person. That person, of course, was the husband. Because they had no property rights, women had no “ownership” of their children. Custom assumed that a man would cherish his wife and children and manage their lives wisely and benignly, but of course that wasn’t always the case.

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A Virgin. Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1892.

The property rights of the father were absolute up to the passage of The Custody of Children Act of 1839, which provided non-adulterous mothers with rights to custody of children under seven and access to older ones. It is considered the first feminist law. Testimony during the debate includes heart-rending examples of fathers using children for financial leverage or to cow their wives into submission in various ways. The case of Caroline Norton, who was brutally beaten throughout her marriage, found innocent of adultery after she left her husband, but denied access to her children (one of which died in the place his father had hidden him), rallied public support. A step forward, yes, but one that largely impacted the upper classes. In the grinding poverty of the industrial revolution era, poor families had no recourse but to view their children as an asset.

The most lurid form of child selling refers to sale to brothel keepers, pimps, and individuals. It has been estimated that in the mid-1800s prices to buy girls ranged from 20 pounds for a working class girl 14-18 to over 400 for an upper class girl under twelve, clearly a rarer commodity. While much less well documented, traffic in boys also went on. Josephine Butler, a Victorian Social reformer addressed parliament and is supposed to have accused the very men she addressed as “being willing to pay twenty-five guineas for the pleasure of raping a twelve year old.”

In the early 1800s press-gangs, state sponsored thugs charged with forcing young men into naval service were active. They weren’t above paying a bribe. They were legally entitled to impress boys as young as 15, it is easy to imagine some bending of that to meet quotas, particularly because ships of that era used very young boys as powder monkeys and servants. The navy encouraged this as a way of training up future seaman. Eleven or twelve were the commonly expected ages for boys to go to sea (Lord Nelson was ten) and boys were supposed to be at least 4’3″ tall. Research indicates many of them were orphans and/or had been in trouble with the law. Some of them undoubtedly went involuntarily and some were younger than expected. It is difficult—but not impossible—to imagine the impressment of a boy as young as seven. Could a father sell his son to a merchant ship? It seems likely if the man was hateful enough and the ship disreputable enough.

While prostitutes and powder monkeys make lurid and dramatic images, by far the most common form of child selling in the nineteenth century was for labor. Desperately poor parents often needed children to work as soon as they could be hired, relying on pitiful wages. They might also sell them as “pauper apprentices” to masters who could work them fourteen hours a day/seven days a week and beat them at will. The phrase “work them to death” is not unrealistic. If a family or orphaned children were placed in a workhouse, the house could and often did force the children to work or could sell them outright as pauper apprentices. The most notorious of these were children trapped as miners and those sold as climbing boys for chimney sweeps. The latter had to be quite young because climbers were forced to climb chimneys as narrow as eighteen inches. Stories of children killed or maimed in the mines, dying of lung disease, or mutilated in factory injuries are legion.

I began with the question, could a father sell his son in 1832. The answer, appallingly, is a resounding yes.

14551082_10154467181880833_776311429_o-2Caroline Warfield has degrees in history and library science. She has been at various times been an army brat, a librarian, a poet, a raiser of children, a nun, a bird watcher, an Internet and Web services manager, a conference speaker, an indexer, a tech writer, a genealogist, and, of course, a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she is now a writer of historical romance, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens, who sits in an office surrounded by windows and lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. You can find her at www.carolinewarfield.com.

A vile abusive father attempts to sell his son in Caroline Warfield’s The Renegade Wife, out now.

Selected resources
Cossins, Anne. Masculinities, Sexualities, and Child Sexual Abuse. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Feb 16, 2000, pp. 6-7. (Accessed via Google Books September 30, 2016)

“Custody of Infants,” Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament, HL Deb 18 July 1839 vol 49 cc485-94. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

“Custody Rights and Domestic Violence,” UK Parliament: Living Heritage. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

Pietsch, Roland. “Ships Boys and Youth Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” The Northern Mariner: Online Edition, Canadian Nautical Research Society. (Accessed October 1, 2016)

Venning, Annabel. “Britain’s Child Slaves,” The Daily Mail, 17 September 2010. (Accessed September 30, 2016)

 

A Party Worth Emigrating For? Gilded Age Excess and The Bradley-Martin Ball

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The Bradley-Martin Ball.

“The power of wealth with its refinement and vulgarity was everywhere. It gleamed from countless jewels, and it was proclaimed by the thousands of orchids and roses, whose fragrance that night was like incense burnt on the altar of the Golden Calf.” –Frederick Martin Townsend, Things I Remember (1913)

Bradley and Cornelia Martin, self-styled the “Bradley-Martins,” occupy a special place in the history of Gilded Age New York. Having inherited a massive fortune of about six million dollars (roughly equivalent to $162 million in today’s money), they bought their way into high society. They threw a series of balls and dinners throughout the 1890s, married their daughter to the Earl of Craven, and hosted a ball so lavish their taxes were doubled and they fled the country.

The Bradley-Martin Ball would go down in history as one of the most expensive parties ever recorded. For a party lasting about five hours, the Bradley-Martins spent an incredible $400,000, which would be about $9 million in today’s money, or $11,000 per each of the 800 guests.

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The old Waldorf, 1890s

The ball was held on February 10th, 1897 at the newly completed Waldorf-Astoria on Fifth Avenue (now the site of the Empire State Building). Money being no object, the Bradley-Martins instructed the hotel staff to do whatever they had to do to make the hotel look like Versailles during the reign of Louis XV.

Thousands of flowers were brought in from hot houses as far away as South Carolina and Alabama. Countless roses were thrown against the walls and allowed to rest where they fell to be crushed underfoot. Flowers covered the tables and the walls, and even managed to obscure the orchestra who played Chopin, Mozart, and Hungarian Court music throughout the night.

The party started at 11:00pm and one hundred waiters served dinner at 1:00am. The twenty-eight dishes on offer included such party classics as caviar-stuffed oysters, canvasback duck, turtle, plovers eggs, foie gras, and suckling pig. 4,000 bottles of Moet & Chandon, or five bottles per guest, were consumed in just five hours.

The idea was almost altruistic. The country was two decades deep into a recession that saw much of the country unemployed or underpaid. In hopes of stimulating the local economy, Mrs. Bradley-Martin insisted on using local vendors for everything, so the money wouldn’t just go to “foreigners”. The eight hundred guests were invited on short notice and given a challenge: they must come dressed as famous people from the 16th-18th centuries. There would be no time to get their costumes from Paris, so the wealthiest people in the United States would be forced to get everything in New York.

As much as the Bradley-Martins spent on the ball, their guests doubled it with what they wore. Most chose to dress as royalty, naturally. As The New York Times reported:

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Mrs. F.H. Benedict as “A Louis XV Marquise”

“There is no estimating the value of the rare old jewels to be worn at the Bradley Martin ball. All the jewelers who deal in antiques say they have been cleaned out of all they had on hand, and people still keep calling for old buckles, snuff boxes, lorgnettes, diamond or pearl studded girdles, rings, and, in fact, every conceivable decoration in gems.

“All this, of course, is outside of the costly jewels held as heirlooms by the old families of New York. These have been taken from safety vaults and furbished up for the occasion in such quantities that the spectator will be puzzled to know where they all came from.” (The New York Times, February 9th, 1897)

There was no shortage of jewels among New York City’s elite in 1897. Many of the jewels worn at the ball had previously belonged to French nobility. The 1887 auction of the French crown jewels had been all but cleaned out by America’s elite (click here to see what we’re talking about.), and they were excited to show them off. Tiffany’s verified their quality—there would be no paste present at the Waldorf!

All in all, there were fifty Marie Antoinettes, ten Madame Pompadours, eight Madame Maintenons, and three Catherine the Greats. Mrs. Bradley-Martin came as Mary, Queen of Scots, but actually wore a necklace made from jewels that had once belonged to the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Because that’s not creepy.

Although Mrs. Bradley-Martin’s jewels just for that night were worth an estimated $2.7 million in today’s money, John Jacob Astor’s wife’s jewels were closer to $5 million.

bmb-indian

A guest in elaborate Native American costume. Cultural appropriation: go big or go home.

It wasn’t just the women going all out. Oliver Belmont showed up in a suit of armor so heavy he could barely move (it was the gold inlay that did it), and there were so many ornamental swords present the men were tripping over them in their effort not to wound anyone on the dance floor.

There was unprecedented media coverage leading up to the event. The New York Times published a list of the confirmed guests and the costumes they planned to wear.  While the public was interested and many showed up to watch the guests arrive at the Waldorf, most did not receive the event with the cap-doffing acceptance the Bradley-Martins must have envisioned. The family was creating work! Shouldn’t the poor be grateful?

To put things in perspective, there had been a twenty-year recession in the US starting about 1877, and by 1897, unemployment was high. The average yearly wage for an American worker was about $400, or not quite $8 a week. You could get a steak dinner for 85 cents if you were feeling fancy, but most wouldn’t be able to afford even that. $1.25 a day would feed, clothe, and house a family with five children. As grateful as many of them no doubt were for the work, seeing the city’s elite drop fortunes to outdo each other for a bit of a lark must have felt like a slap to the face. People were literally starving to death in the streets. How could anyone justify spending thousands on tutti-frutti?

As generous as they had hoped to be by stimulating local business, one can’t help but wonder if the money would have been better spent elsewhere. The estimated $400,000 spent on a five-hour party for people who had no trouble paying for their own caviar-stuffed oysters and Moet (only half a dozen present were not millionaires) could have paid the average wages for 249,600 people for a day, or supported 40 average families for fifteen years. It could have bought half a ton of coal each for 280,000 families.

But, you know. Foie gras is valid, too.

Miraculously, there were no riots. Two hundred policemen surrounded the building to protect the guests and the jewels they wore. The richest of the rich survived to party another day, but New York was not happy. They had been given a little work, but those employed in various positions to support the party (decorating, serving, etc) would have made perhaps a dollar a day at most.

Although most contemporary sources claim the vast majority of people were indifferent to the wasteful opulence of the ball, the criticism in the papers following the event was more than just a cry for publicity. The expense of the ball drew condemnation of ministers and the attention of the New York City tax authority, who doubled the taxes for the Bradley-Martins and increased them for many of their guests. The family effectively dodged this by selling their house and moving to England to live full-time. Bradley’s brother insists they would have done it anyway following the birth of their grandson:

“After the ball the authorities promptly raised my brother’s taxes quite out of proportion to those paid by any one else, and the matter was only settled after a very acrimonious dispute. Bradley and his wife resented intensely the annoyance to which they had been subjected, and they decided to sell their house in New York and buy a residence in London.

“Four years previously their only daughter, Cornelia, had married Lord Craven, and my brother felt that the family affections were now implanted in the Old World. His grandson, who was born in the year of the famous ball, was such a source of pride to us all that I believe the advent of the boy finally decided the Bradley Martins about leaving New York.”

Regardless, Mrs. Bradley-Martin got her wish. She did top the Vanderbilts by hosting the grandest ball the city had ever seen, and today the Bradley-Martin Ball is remembered as the last great ball of the Gilded Age.

Jessica Cale

Sources 

Frederick Martin Townsend, Things I Remember. London: E. Nash, 1913, pp. 238-243.
The New York Times: Echoes of the Big Ball (Feburary 11, 1897)
The New York Times: The Bradley Martin Fete (February 10, 1897)
Holland, Evangeline. The Bradley-Martin Ball (Edwardian Promenade).
Sidney, Deana. The Bradley Martin-Ball, Bling and Beef Jardiniere with Bearnaise Sauce (Lost Past Remembered).
Meet Myth America, Party Like It’s 1897.
Famous Diamonds, The French Crown Jewels: The Beginning to the End 

Nineteenth Century Skin Care: Ten Tips from The Ugly Girl Papers

bloom of youth

“Entirely harmless.”

I recently came across a nineteenth century guide to beauty called The Ugly Girl Papers. A collection of articles written by S.D. Powers for Harper’s Bazar in the 1870s, it contains everything from dieting advice (don’t eat) to cures for toothaches (opium and alcohol). There are so many different topics covered in the book’s three hundred pages that we could easily devote dozens of posts to it. This week, we’ll start with skincare.

I’m on vacation this week, so naturally, I want to look my best. I was somewhat dismayed—but unsurprised—the learn that at thirty, I am officially past it.

“The latest authorities in social science assert that woman’s prime of youth is twenty-six, moving the barriers a good ten years ahead from the old standard of the novelist, whose heroines are always in the dew of sixteen. In the very first place, one may boldly say that beauty, or rather fascination, is not a matter of youth, and no woman ought to sigh over her years till she feels the frost creeping into her heart … a high-bred beauty of thirty, if well preserved, may dispute the palm. Women who look their thirties in the face should not lay down the scepter of life, or fancy that its delights for them are over. They are young while they seem young.”

Well, crap. So how do I go about preserving what looks I have left before the frost creeps into my heart? Good skin is crucial: “Nothing is so attractive, so suggestive of purity of mind and excellence of body, as a clear, fine-grained skin. Strong color is not desirable.”

That makes sense. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all blessed with perfect skin. Three generations of women have sworn by Ivory soap and Vaseline for a good complexion, and I use the same brand of face powder my great-grandmother did in the 1930s (Coty). This should be easy, right?

harmless as dew

“Harmless as dew”

Ten Nineteenth Century Tips for a Perfect Complexion

Contract tuberculosis. Wait, what? The author does not recommend doing this, but does admit that people in the early stages of consumption or scrofula have the best skin. “Consumption leaves the skin clear and brilliant, because the morbid matters which usually pass off through the skin are eating away the life in ulcers beneath.”

We may be assured that a similar effect can be achieved by “purifying the blood.” How do we achieve this?

Eat less: Diet and exercise are crucial to maintaining a clear complexion. Okay, I can see that. She tells a story of how she learned to live on very little in the name of achieving good skin:

“When recovering from severe nervous prostration, years ago, the writer found her appetite gone. The least morsel satisfied hunger, and more produced a repugnance she never tried to overcome. She resumed study six hours a day and walked two miles every day from the suburbs to the center of the city, and back again. Breakfast usually was a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak or soup, and took it.”

I take my health seriously, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to live on nothing more than a handful of fruit and a single graham cracker every day. In case it wasn’t clear the author has a pretty severe eating disorder, she also suggests the next tip…

Purge with Charcoal: One fool-proof way to purify the blood is to use charcoal as a purgative. Not only can you clean your face with it, but your guts as well!

“To clear the complexion, take a teaspoon of charcoal well mixed in water or honey for three nights, then use a simple purgative to remove it from the system. It acts like calomel, with no bad effects, purifying the blood more effectively than anything else. But some simple aperient must not be omitted, or the charcoal will remain in the system, a mass of festering poison, with all the impurities it absorbs.”

That’s right, you should purge with charcoal for three nights in order for this to be effective. If a “mass of festering poison” in your stomach doesn’t sound great, she does point out that it’s better than calomel, or mercury chloride, which was commonly used in medicine and face cream. You can read more about calomel here.

Alternatively, you can…

Use Opium as a Skin Tonic

“The opium found in the stalks of flowering lettuce refines the skin singularly, and may be used clear, instead of the soap which sells so high. Rub the milky juice collected from broken stems of coarse garden lettuce over the face at night, and wash with a solution of ammonia in the morning.”

Yes, you read that right. The opium found in lettuce. What the what? It turns out that she’s not completely off her rocker. The “milky juice” in lettuce stalks is a fluid called Lactacarium, otherwise known as “lettuce opium.” It is a mild sedative and can produce feelings of euphoria. It can also be reduced to a thick substance that can be smoked like opium. It was a drug in the United States in the nineteenth century and seen as a weaker alternative to the real thing.

Learn something new every day.

absolutely harmless

“Absolutely harmless”

Wrap Your Face in Dandelion Leaves…for Six Weeks

“A small dose of taraxacum (dandelion) every other night will assist in refining the skin. But it will be at least six weeks’ work to effect the desired change; and it will be a zealous girl who submits to the discomfort of the mask for that length of time. The result pays. The compress acts like a mild but imperceptible blister, and leaves a new skin, soft as an infant’s.”

So before there was microdermabrasion, you could wrap your face in stinging dandelion leaves for six weeks to raise a giant blister over your face that could be peeled off and voila.

Beat the Heat with Cream of Tartar and Saltpeter

“In the summer the system should be kept cool by bathing at night and morning, and by tart drinks containing cream of tartar. Small quantities of nitre, prescribed by the physician, may be taken by very sanguine persons who suffer with heat.”

Nitre (potassium nitrate), also known as saltpeter, is an ingredient in gun powder.

I’m not sure I should be drinking it.

Avoid Cold

“Be careful, of all things, to avoid a chill. This deadens the skin, paints blue circles round the eyes, and leaves the hands an uncertain color.”

Goodness, I wouldn’t want my hands to be an uncertain color underneath my gloves. My God, what would people think?

Take Arsenic Pills

“Bohemian countesses over thirty may go to arsenic springs, as they were wont to do, for the benefit of their complexions; but the home bath-room is more efficacious than even the minute doses of quicksilver with which the ladies of George the First’s court used to poison themselves—a primitive way of getting at the virtues of the blue-pill.”

Those primitive fools! Fortunately for those who did not have access to arsenic springs, arsenic supplements were available and widely prescribed for weight loss and clear skin. They were absolutely poison, and while they were causing extreme harm to the body, they would also cause the complexion to become pale, transparent, and slightly blue – the next best thing to dying of tuberculosis.

Use Tar as a Face Mask

“Even hunters bear witness to its excellence in leaving the skin fair and innocent. Thus runs the formula, simple enough, in all conscience, yet how few will have the boldness to try it: Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s.”

I’m not sure which hunters were using this tar face mask, but the idea of all the men in my family sleeping with tar on their faces is hilarious. It does sound a bit like something that happens to you before you’re covered in feathers. Aaaaaaand now I’m thinking about Poe’s Hopfrog.

Hopefully no one will set fire to you while you have this crap on your face.

Have a Daughter? Guarantee her Future Beauty With Malnutrition!

“Some mothers are so anxious to secure this grace for their daughters that they are kept on the strictest diet from childhood. The most dazzling Parian could not be more beautiful that the cheek of a child I once saw who was kept on oat-meal porridge for this effect. At a boarding-school, I remember, a fashionable mother gave strict injunctions that her daughter should touch nothing but brown bread and syrup. This was hard fare; but the carmine lips and magnolia brow of the young lady were the envy of her schoolmates, who, however, were not courageous enough to attempt such a regime for themselves.”

As nice as it would be to have “carmine lips and a magnolia brow,” eating nothing but bread and syrup is a terrible idea, and even worse if you’re inflicting this diet on a child. In the nineteenth century you might be able to get away with it as a wealthy eccentric, but these days, Child Services would and should be called.

Wow! I hope you have learned as much as I have today. While some of the things suggested in the book have merit and are still used in some capacity in cosmetics today (sulphur and carbolic acid, for example), I have never been so grateful for my soap.

Jessica Cale

Source

Powers, S.D. The Ugly-Girl Papers; or, Hints for the Toilet. Reprinted from “Harper’s Bazar.” New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square. https://archive.org/stream/uglygirlpapersor00powerich#page/v/mode/1up

What is the craziest beauty treatment you’ve heard of? Do you know of any that actually work? Leave your thoughts in the comments to keep the conversation going!