Picked up on Broadway

It seems appropriate to post my final addiction-themed post of the year on New Year’s Eve. I’m already anticipating the usual New Year’s Day article decrying the scenes in Britain’s towns and cities, amply illustrated with photos of young women in high heels slumped on benches and on the edge of pavements (the Daily Mail seem to do this each year like clockwork).

The trope of the woman collapsed in the street, worse the wear for drink or other substances, isn’t a new one, nor is it confined to Britain. In 1897 a number of American newspapers carried a piece entitled Picked up on Broadway, vividly describing an incident in which a woman was found unconscious in the street and hurried to the nearest hospital. Once there she was discovered ‘to be covered with sores caused by the hypodermic injection of morphine’, which she had begun taking to relieve the pains of a uterine disorder. The piece was accompanied by an illustration of the woman’s collapse: helped up by a male passer-by, her eyes downcast, one arm propping herself up on the pavement, the other held limply in her lap. By her side lie the packages she has dropped in her fall. In the background, another man advances towards the scene to help and a woman raises a hand to her mouth in shocked fascination.

Picked Up on Broadway mod

Picked up on Broadway was not a news item, however, but a cleverly presented advert for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a ‘herbal’ tonic for women (which incidentally contained a rather heady 20.6% alcohol, a not unusual constituent of late 19th-century medicinal ‘tonics’). The text went on to explain that had the lady in the story – once a successful employee of a New York publishers – used Pinkham’s Compound she would now be sitting happily in her office, ‘a well woman’. A similarly-constructed advert of the period, for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, positioned the pellets as alternatives to women’s too-frequent recourse to addictive ‘headache powders’. (An interesting reversal of the trend was an 1890 advert for Duffey’s Pure Malt Whiskey, presented in the form of a conversation with a doctor who advised women to keep up their strength with the whisky between meals – an advert that didn’t escape the attention of temperance activists.)


Headline of an 1895 advert for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets.

The figure of the lady slumped on the pavement in Picked up on Broadway mirrored the ‘unfeminine pose’ often used by Victorian temperance authors. Rachel McErlain in Women and Alcohol: Social Perspectives (2015) contends that images of drunken women being carried from public houses on stretchers, for example,  ‘shock[ed] the viewer … [and] reinforce[d] the message that female intoxication [was] dramatically different from normative feminine bodily practice’. The depiction of the woman collapsed on the pavement could be a powerful shaming practice, drawing attention to the drinking or drug-taking woman as deviant, but also capitalising on the public appetite for sensation. Adverts such as Picked up on Broadway, or those for Dr. Pierce’s Pellets, could serve a double purpose: critiquing the behaviour of the modern woman and at the same time selling a product to the reader. I’d be interested to know how far 19th-century readers of these ads actually considered the problem of drug use or drinking in any depth, or if – like those being pleasingly shocked by images of more modern New Year’s Eve debauchery – it was simply a brief bit of entertainment.

Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century: Seminars in Hilary Term 2016

Our programme for Hilary Term 2016 is now announced with two seminars taking place at St Anne’s College.

 Drinks will be served after each seminar and all are welcome.

Wednesday 3 February 2016 (Week 3)

Dr Sam Alberti, Director of Museums and Archives, Royal College of Surgeons of England 

Sam's image

Casting no doubt: Plaster Heads in Victorian/Edwardian Science and Medicine

Science and medicine rely on extra-textual objects. From within the array of instruments, models, specimens and other material culture this paper will focus on a specific medium (plaster of Paris casts) and a specific anatomy (the human head). Examples from medicine, anthropology and anatomy will illustrate the particularities of the process of casting, the relationships between interior and exterior, between life and death. Museum stores to this day hold thousands of these widely reproduced and circulated casts, their quantity bewildering, their status ambiguous. Unpacking their significance as clinical and scientific records in the decades around 1900 is revealing.

5.30 – 7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Wednesday 17 February 2016 (Week 5)

Graeme Gooday, Professor of History of Science and Technology, University of Leeds

V0008879 Structure of the outer and inner ear. Coloured stipple Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Structure of the outer and inner ear. Coloured stipple after: James. StewartPublished: 1800 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Medical and technological limits: exploiting, evaluating and alleviating adult hearing loss in Britain up to the Great War.

While early 19th century otologists claimed they could ‘cure’ most categories of deafness, by the early twentieth century such boasts were more characteristic of opportunist mail order advertisers. Victorian middle class people who experienced significant auditory loss in adulthood could thus not expect much assistance from physicians in attempting to sustain life among the hearing. Some followed Harriet Martineau’s example and declared their ‘deafness’ publicly by sporting a hearing trumpet to aid conversation. The more self-conscious opted for hearing assistance discreetly disguised in, for example, a ladies’ bonnet or a gentleman’s top hat. Those untroubled by myopia could instead learn lip-reading, or occasionally hand signing. These purported ‘solutions’ to hearing loss were much debated alongside many other aspects of deafness in the Deaf Chronicle founded in 1889, and in its successor periodicals.

5.30 – 7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

‘Solitary midnight inebriates’: Alcohol and the professional man

V0019482 A man lies dead or unconscious in his chair, his last glass Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A man lies dead or unconscious in his chair, his last glass of drink fallen from his hand. Lithograph by Lamy, c. 1860, after Villain. 1860 By: Francois Le Villainafter: Pierre Auguste LamyPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

A man lies dead or unconscious in his chair, his last glass of drink fallen from his hand. Lithograph by Lamy, c. 1860, after Villain. Wellcome Library, London.

I’ve been doing a lot of work on lady secret drinkers recently (such as the eau de cologne tipplers I devoted a previous post to), but a question from the audience at a talk I gave a few weeks ago reminded me that, somewhere in my office, was a file of other 19th-century problem drinkers – namely, male professionals.

Digging around in a filing cabinet, I found the surreptitious tipplers I was looking for. These were ‘respectable’ problem drinkers who occupied responsible positions – men who incorporated alcohol into their lives without their habit being obvious to the casual observer. Lawyers and their clerks were common points of concern. In 1871, the Saturday Review railed against what it termed ‘counting-house alcoholism’, declaring that ‘men who shr[a]nk from going to one of the public bars ha[d] no scruple about fitting up a neat mahogany cellar in their own office’ and all too often resorted to the ‘forenoon specific’ of a biscuit and a glass of sherry.

‘Soakers in the City’, as The Lancet called them, were said to be all too common, but there were also worries about those professional men whose habits were less easily detectable. Literary men, doctors, and the clergy were particularly at risk, as their intellectual labours overtaxed their brains, ruined their appetites, and disturbed their sleep, leading to the use of stimulants:

‘The clergyman, the Christian worker, or the physician, after an exhausting day spent, O, how wearily! in listening to long dreary accounts of interminable wrongs and ailments … is so prostrate that he cannot even look at the food which his badly used stomach so sorely needs… An intoxicating stimulant in a few seconds dissipates every sense of fatigue, seems to infuse new vigour into his veins, new life into his fainting spirit, so that he can sit down comfortably [and] heartily enjoy a good dinner.’

The above quote from an 1884 speech by Norman Kerr, President of the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety, highlights how alcohol was often used to revive a flagging body and tired mind. It was the frequent use of alcohol in this way, though, that led the scholar or doctor to become reliant upon his favourite tipple. Within discussions of the ‘solitary midnight inebriate’, clergymen were prominent figures, and their drinking habits special sources of shame considering their calling:

‘I can scarcely conceive of a state more miserable [wrote the doctor]. Secret intoxication lasting only for a night, to be followed in the morning by the semblance of normal life … Carrying with him the image of the scene he cannot forget, and yet wishing the hours to hasten on, that he may cast aside the mask, and, behind the locked door, the bottle, the drink, and the narcotism, may rest him again for another day.’

Drink had enveloped the clergyman in this case in a ‘moral mirage’, as the doctor put it. As people entrusted with the innermost secrets of their parishioners, the possibility that a member of the clergy might have a secret drinking habit was deeply concerning. One doctor related that he had treated several clergymen for alcoholism and that 90% of them had been led into the habit due to working too hard. Overwork was thought to affect many men involved in ‘brain work’ in the 19th century, and is a theme that frequently recurs throughout the Diseases of Modern Life project. In self-medicating with alcohol to meet the pressures of modern life, even the most well-intentioned individual could find themselves caught in a vicious cycle – much better, advised doctors, to reach for a handful of raisins or a glass of water than the brandy bottle when fatigue set in, as unenticing as those replacements may have been…

A patient dismayed at his doctor's advice not to drink any alcohol. Wood engraving by G. Du Maurier, 1875. Wellcome Library, London.

A patient dismayed at his doctor’s advice not to drink any alcohol. Wood engraving by G. Du Maurier, 1875. Wellcome Library, London.

Requiem for a Cliché

One of the hallmarks of the sci-fi horror genre is its tendency to generate instant clichés. In the digital age, the lag-time between the initial appearance of an innovative and genuinely frightening cinematic moment and its inevitable end in yawn-inducing familiarity is extraordinarily brief. Of course, this is not surprising. A scare by its very nature needs to be unexpected. Once we are able to see it coming, its potency is lost. But, like all good monsters, it dies at least twice, its double-death inhering in its especial vulnerability to parody. Thus, the truly disturbing creature created for the Alien films by H.R. Giger, a nightmarish meld of the mechanical, the bestial and perverse sexuality, before it descended into the unbelievable crassness of the Alien vs. Predator spinoff franchise twenty-five years and some half dozen films after its debut, had actually already reached its use-by-date as a scare tactic by the time of the first sequel. Within a year of 1986’s Aliens, Mel Brooks had the monster burst from John Hurt’s stomach once again, this time to perform a Looney Tunes-style rendition of “Hello, Ma Baby” complete with a straw boater, in Spaceballs.

Its ignominious future notwithstanding, back in 1979, Giger’s alien design was revolutionary because it departed from the tentacled type that had become the well-worn and utterly expected shape assumed by extra-terrestrial lifeforms in cinema. Giger’s alien found its monstrousness by drawing upon resources from outside the folkloric tradition. In this way, Giger mirrored the earlier radical break that had given rise to the very kind of alien-octopus he sought to distance himself from, the kind of creature epitomised by those that appeared in the later tales of the American author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). As China Miéville notes, “rather than werewolves, vampires, or ghosts, Lovecraft’s monsters are agglomerations of bubbles, barrels, cones, and corpses, patchworked from cephalopods, insects, crustaceans, and other fauna, notable particularly for their absence from the traditional Western monstrous.” Cephalopods were a favourite of Lovecraft’s, with the tentacle becoming his default type of monstrous limb but one which had previously seen proto-iterations in the fantastic horrors of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo (Miéville 512).

20000 Leagues Under SeaEngraving of Captain Nemo viewing a giant squid from  the Nautilus submarine, originally featured in the Hetzel edition (1870) of 20,000 Lieues Sous Les Mers

It is not difficult to point to concerns in contemporary culture that may have given rise to Giger’s seductive biomechanical alien, such as the deepening in the complexity of our understanding of gender and sexuality, and our increased dependence on technology and machinery for our very existence. We may similarly speculate as to why the correlation between the alien and the octopus might have had stronger resonances within the nineteenth-century consciousness. I would posit a connection between the tentacle – this flexible, elongated, and generally highly receptive organ – and the new pervasiveness of the nervous system in nineteenth-century constructions of modern life. This is made quite clear by the frequent conflation of tentacles and nerves in the portrayal in the period of alien and monstrous races.

Like the human-eating ‘Sea Raiders’ of Wells’s 1896 short story,  the bizarre creatures to be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Horror of the Heights’ (1913), and the monstrous squid in Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (1866) and later in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the creatures that inhabit aliens worlds are complex masses of brains, tentacles, coils, and nervous centres, and they evoke the disturbing sense that they conceal an intelligence superior to humanity behind an alien, unknowable form. Explicitly compared to the octopus by an eye witness to their invasion, Wells’s Martians in The War of the Worlds are, like the cephalopod, comprised of highly complex nervous systems arranged around a comparatively large and almost transparent brain. Each Martian is approximately four foot in diameter, the majority of which consists of “the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear and tactile tentacles”. Similarly, the Grand Lunar, the ruler of the Selenites in The First Men on the Moon is simply a “marvellous gigantic ganglion” that relays sensations and neural commands across the vast network of Selenite minds.

dudouyt-martians-war-of-the-worldsM. Dudouyt’s vision of the Martians from the 1917 edition of War of the Worlds

This, then, might be the third death to which the genuine thrill is doomed. Since its efficacy depends upon its ability to tap into anxieties and preoccupations of its specific historical moment, once these conditions that supported it no longer exist, it is left to flounder as ungainly as a squid out of water.

Melissa Dickson