Stormy weather and human barometers

In 1873, a speaker at the Royal Dublin Society declared that ‘many persons are inclined to deny altogether the existence of a weather-science; the triteness of the subject, viewed as a break-ice topic of every-day conversation, having … tended to conceal from them the scientific aspect of the study of weather and climate’. Here, the speaker alluded to the weather as an ever-present but under-investigated topic. Interest in the weather had a long history – the keeping of weather journals was a popular pursuit in the eighteenth century, and from 1751 the Gentleman’s Magazine published a monthly weather report within its pages. The nineteenth century, though, saw more concerted efforts to chart the weather. As travel increased, the impact of the weather on both leisure and trade became an important factor, and monitoring conditions across the globe became easier with technologies such as telegraphy. Observatories collecting meteorological data including rainfall, wind direction, and temperature were set up at Greenwich and Kew in the 1840s, and the precursor of the Met Office established in the 1850s. Alongside these government-level endeavours was an army of amateur observers, organised and advised by the Meteorological Society.

Alongside intricate measurements using a variety of instruments, there was also some appeal to ‘natural’ weather indicators, particularly in almanacs and gardener’s diaries. An unusual suggestion for a ‘natural barometer’ was offered in 1897’s The History of the Weather, which claimed that blackcurrant lozenges imbibed moisture and could ‘predict’ rain. There were also said to be ‘human barometers’. Oft recounted was the case of Captain Catlin, who was apparently able to foretell rain by the pain experienced at the site of his leg amputation. The effect of weather on the body had long been recognised. The impulse to quantification exhibited by nineteenth-century observers, though, opened up the possibility of charting such effects more carefully. From 1838, the General Register Office collected weather information alongside mortality statistics, and renewed impetus was given to such studies following mid-century cholera epidemics. Some doctors began to argue for the necessity of a national network of medical observers of the weather. In this way, harmful atmospheric influences might be recognised and eradicated, or artificial environments constructed for ailing patients.

L0039176 Temperature & mortality of London, 1840-50

Temperature and mortality of London, 1840-50, from William Farr, Report on the mortality of cholera in England, 1848-49 (1852). Wellcome Library, London.

Several doctors saw the value in such an enterprise, and some were already volunteering observations to the Meteorological Society, particularly if they had a large site available to set up meteorological equipment. Hospitals or asylums often possessed open grounds where phenomena such as wind speed could be measured. A Meteorological Society inspector, checking the station set up on the Superintendent’s lawn at Caterham Asylum, was not impressed with what he saw in the 1870s, though: ‘I inspected Dr Adam’s instruments … [and] they were almost all bad’. Dr Adam was given a ticking off and a set of new, Society-approved, instruments for his observations.

In 1867, the management of Sussex Asylum decided that meteorological observations should be a regular exercise. The task fell to asylum chaplain Thomas Crallan, whose yearly meteorological reports were included in the asylum’s annual reports. Admissions and deaths were charted alongside fits and episodes of mania or melancholia. Crallan found high rates of admission in winter and summer that he attributed to the difficult circumstances that a cold winter caused for poor families, and increased sun exposure amongst farm labourers respectively. Though fits peaked in the winter and summer, Crallan noted that they occurred throughout the year. Therefore, he reasoned that the atmospheric force affecting them must be a less perceptible one than simple temperature. He turned to the lunar cycle. John Haslam had tried to chart the effect of lunar cycles on the excitement of Bethlem patients, but dismissed the idea as mere folklore. Crallan persevered in his study, however. He discovered that of 212 fits, all but five were ‘preceded or accompanied by considerable alteration in atmospheric pressure or solar radiation, or both’. Thus, he said, it was not the change of moon that was responsible for the fits, but a change in other weather conditions. It was the frequent coincidence of a changed moon and weather conditions, he said, that had led to the popular linkage of the moon and madness. He concluded: ‘so far as my own observations go, any marked change of atmospheric pressure, solar radiation, or both … is almost certain to be followed by [an] increased number of fits among the epileptics, or by a development of mania or melancholia.’

V0025061 Meteorology: various effects of the weather, from summer cal

Summer calm and winter storms. Lithograph after A.M. Perrot. Wellcome Library, London.

Crallan’s concern for determining a ‘cycle’ of mental distress fitted – as Niall McCrae observes in The Moon and Madness – with the late nineteenth-century reconfiguration of mania and melancholia as one cyclical illness, rather than two separate ones. Though he was undertaking his investigations in a self-consciously ‘scientific’ way, Crallan also appeared to be imagining the asylum patient as a kind of ‘natural barometer’. In the eighteenth century, an awareness of approaching weather tended to be seen as a marker of sensibility, with one’s affinity with the environment a sign of sensitivity. During the nineteenth century, a good deal of attention was paid to the ‘natural barometers’ of the animal kingdom, which tended to be the lower animals – frogs and insects. This is rather wonderfully illustrated by the ‘Tempest Prognosticator’ of George Merryweather, which predicted storms based on the movement of leeches. In imagining the asylum patient as a kind of human barometer, keen to atmospheric changes, doctors were (consciously or unconsciously) aligning them with the animals of weather folklore – a link that fitted into wider discourses about insanity, degeneration and ‘de-evolution’.


Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator. When agitated, the leeches attempted to climb out of the jars and triggered a bell.

What became of medical meteorology, then? The attempts of bodies such as the Association Medical Journal to institute a nationwide network of medical observers proved difficult, as doctors disagreed over the specifics of how to record illness in tabular form. Nevertheless, attempts to correlate weather and mental distress continue to appear sporadically – several researchers have linked suicide and the advent of spring, for example, while moon lore continues to circulate amongst hospital emergency departments, with trepidation before a full moon and an anticipated influx of patients. Our Royal Dublin Society speaker would no doubt be pleased by this continued research into the weather’s effects, even if it does also remain the stereotypical ‘break-ice topic of every-day conversation’.

Read more

Katharine Anderson, Predicting the Weather:Victorians and the Science of Meteorology (2005).

James Rodger Fleming, Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (1999).

Niall McCrae, The Moon and Madness (2011).

J.W. Moore, Royal Dublin Society. Afternoon Scientific Lectures on Public Health, 1873. Lecture III. Meteorology in its bearing on health and disease (1873).

R.E. Scoresby-Jackson, On the Influence of Weather upon Disease and Mortality (1863).

‘British moths’, ‘Old wedding cake’. An unusual museum taxonomy.

In the nineteenth century, natural history was an increasingly popular pursuit. As our sister project Constructing Scientific Communities is exploring, the 1800s saw the growth of several specialist organisations and periodicals devoted to the field. Enthusiasts from various sections of society – both ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ – worked to build up collections of their own, or formed networks with others to share their findings and contribute to classificatory schemes.

One such enthusiast was Mervyn Grove Palmer, a naturalist who spent several years  travelling throughout Central and South America in the early 20th century. Many of the specimens that he collected can still be seen today in Devon’s Ilfracombe Museum. Opened by Palmer in 1932, the Museum housed his growing collection of specimens from afar as well as items donated by local people providing an insight into Devon’s social history. In the main room of the Museum is an unassuming set of dark wood display drawers, adorned with plain typed labels indicating their contents. Many of these drawers contain familiar natural history displays – beetles, moths, and other insects. In one, butterflies are arranged in precise formation, as if flying away from the viewer, their bright yellow and vivid orange wings perfectly preserved.


In another, bird’s eggs are nestled into fluffy clouds of cotton wool – spotted, speckled, pearlescent, sometimes cracked. Their labels are handwritten on delicate ribbons of paper strung between each grouping, adding aesthetic appeal to the display at the same time as they organise it.


There are also less familiar, and unexpected, items in the drawers. Several hold timber samples, again artfully arranged  into patterns: Hungarian ash, almond, pine, elm, American walnut, brown burr oak.


Most striking, though, are the drawers that work to construct rather novel ‘natural histories’ of local life and custom. Beneath drawers containing British moth specimens is a suddenly incongruous label that reads ‘Old wedding cake’.


Opening the drawer, we find a series of squares separated by coloured cord, each containing a small piece of wedding cake donated by a happy couple. Ensconced under glass, an 1887 sample is presented alongside some of its accompanying leaf and berry decorations. Other couples have donated silver leaves, flowers, and yellowed fragments of icing.


The placement of this natural ‘social’ history next to entomological and other specimens is a wonderful surprise to the visitor. It is a neat illustration, I think, of how we might preserve material fragments of social, as well as natural, histories.

Photos: David Kerekes

Guest blog: The Tragedy of Amy Levy

Our latest offering is a guest blog post from Mary Chapman, a KCL graduate who will shortly begin her PhD at Leeds. Her doctoral thesis will focus on the impact of gendered psychological medicine on urban women, 1845-1900, and in this post she gives us a fascinating account of just one of these women: author Amy Levy.

Urbanisation increased dramatically during the mid-to-late 19th century, and modernity became synonymous with the swelling cities. To many, this evoked a growing anxiety; old traditions and morality were being thrown off in favour of new codes, new laws, and new ways of living that destabilized Victorian society. These changes were inextricably linked to urban centres, where sprawling populations and poor conditions highlighted the need for reform and fostered progressive communities. This was especially the case amongst women, many of whom found that, in cities, they could lead lives outside of the domestic sphere. However, these independent, working women posed a threat to established gender roles, and so – it was thought – to their very biology.


Gustave Dore, Over London by Rail (1872)

The topic of modernity and its influence on sanity was the focus of much discussion amongst late-Victorian mind doctors. Eminent physicians such as Henry Maudsley, John Bucknill, and Daniel Tuke believed that the uncertainty and competition intrinsic to metropolitan life increased the likelihood of mental illness. Bucknill and Tuke, in their influential Manual of Psychological Medicine, argued that ‘civilisation, with its attendant knowledge and education, creates social conditions […] which of necessity involve risks (to employ no stronger term) which otherwise would not have existed’. They saw mental disease as the pathological result of the undue application of the brain to tasks outside of its usual capacity.

In neglecting their ‘natural’ role as wives and mothers, women were forcing their bodies and minds to work towards entirely unsuitable goals. Doctors feared that this would lead to exhaustion, disease, or worse: madness. The physical changes inherent in female biology were thought to cause mental imbalance if not properly managed; any energy expended in pursuits other than the domestic could result in tragedy. Modern life, by its very nature, presented many dangers to female psychology.

The suicide of Amy Levy in September 1889, at age 27, appeared to be just such a case. Levy, a young woman writer very much a part of the London literati community, suffered from depressive episodes throughout much of her adult life. When in the capital she resided at the family home in Endsleigh Gardens, and socialised with a mixed set of social reformers, artists, and writers. Educated to university level, Jewish, and single (her sexual preference was for women, but she struggled to form lasting attachments), Levy identified as a woman on the fringes of conventional society. Living on the margins of many communities, she must have felt at a loss to know how to belong.


Amy Levy

Indeed, much of her poetry is filled with longing, and a sense of being bereft from life itself. Her last collection of poems, entitled A London Plane Tree and Other Verse, connects this feeling with city life. Levy takes great delight in people-watching; in Ballade of an Omnibus she describes the pleasure of ‘the scene whereof I cannot tire […] the city pageant, early and late.’ Yet she is unable to feel a part of the crowd, suffering private, internal anguish: ‘I would give anything to stay/the little wheel that turns in my brain.’ (A March Day in London) London nurtures her anxiety, until she cannot tell whether it is herself or the city that is out of sorts- ‘what is it ails the place?’ (London in July)

Levy’s writings, along with her heart-wrenching letters to friends like New Woman Clementina Black, suggest that she was suffering from some form of depression. In a note written in the year of her death, she cries ‘O Clemmy, Clemmy, is everybody’s life like this? I ought to have made something out of mine, but it’s too late […] [I am] dragging round all day, crying half the night.’ Levy appears to have felt a strong relationship between her unhappiness and her life in London, writing despairingly to Black, ‘I wish I were never coming back [to London] but I am in for another 60 years.’ She was at her most cheerful when travelling on the Continent with friends, and although she returned to a loving family and busy social network in the capital, the strain of modern life – with its demands on her writing, and the tax on her energy levels by the rota of parties and calls – was exhausting. Above all, London brought into sharp relief her sense of disconnection from other people.

However, Levy’s depression was categorised in a very different way by her contemporaries. Gossip about her suicide, as Judith Wilson notes, was ‘constructed in the terms of the time’. Her death caused a minor sensation amongst the intellectual set in London, and many notices ran in the papers speculating about the circumstances. Her peers blamed her lifestyle and heritage, or situated her within a romantic, literary tradition of over-sensitive, nervous youth. Most of all, she was seen as a beautiful, lonely – and therefore vulnerable and tragic – woman. As Bucknill and Tuke had warned, Levy had, it seemed to some commentators, run a risk that in the end proved too great. She had fallen a ‘victim [to] the pressures of emancipation’.

-Mary Chapman

The Menace of the Barber Shop

In 1904 The Lancet considered the many risks to health posed by modern life. The collecting together of more and more people in the bustling spaces of the city was, they wrote, a perfect means of disseminating infection. ‘Everything used in common must teem with bacteria, from the cab or the omnibus to the telephone’; bus conductors held coins between their teeth before pressing them into the hands of passengers; and supposedly healthy convalescent homes crowded sickly patients together like hothouse flowers.

V0019668 A barber shaving a man; another man sits in the background a

Wellcome Library, London.

Even the most innocuous of places could pose grave health risks, and The Lancet was particularly concerned with one: the barber shop. This was an establishment that catered to a large number of people in quick succession, all of them in direct bodily contact with the barber and his tools. Medical concern about barber shops was evident both in Europe and America. A doctor speaking to the American Public Health Association in 1897 recalled that he had recently seen a man in his surgery whose face was ‘covered with eruptions’. After finishing his day’s work, the doctor went to the barber’s and, as he waited his turn, saw that the man in the chair was his earlier patient. Leaving with some haste, he ‘resolved that his face should never again be shaved by a barber’.

We might assume that the central concern when discussing the barber’s role in the transmission of infection was the razor. Accidental nicks and cuts were an ideal way of transmitting potentially serious infection from one person to another, especially if equipment was not sterilized after each customer. Certainly, barbers were – from the end of the nineteenth century – more aware of such dangers. The Progressive Barber (1909) – a guide produced by the Wisconsin State Barbers’ Board – forcefully underlined the seriousness of taking good care with razors, asking readers how they would feel if they were responsible for the transmission of syphilis.


V0019622 A head of a barber made up of the tools of his trade. Engrav

A head of a barber made up of the tools of his trade. Wellcome Library, London.

More often, though, concern centred on the less evocative implements of the barber’s trade: sponges, powder puffs, towels, combs, and brushes. These were thought to aid the spread of various skin diseases, from ‘barber’s itch’ (ringworm) to impetigo and eczema. As dermatology developed more fully as a specialism in the last quarter of the century – with the establishment of the British Journal of Dermatology in 1888, for example – there was increasing interest in the epidemiology of such conditions. Doctors repeatedly drew attention to the shaving brush as a vehicle of infection. Unlike metal implements such as scissors and razors, shaving brushes were not regularly sterilized and were often used on several customers in succession, swirled around in a common soap bowl of lukewarm water.

To reduce the risk of infection ‘the principles of the operating-room [were] extended to the barber’s shop’, echoing the barber’s older role as surgeon. Metal combs – easily sterilized – began to replace bone and celluloid; styptic pencils (to staunch bleeding from small cuts) were done away with; powder puffs were discarded in favour of cotton wool; and paper towels recommended in place of cloth. By the early years of the twentieth century, the barber’s trade had a much more ‘scientific’ air about it than it had fifty years previously. The Progressive Barber provided short biology lessons to the reader, listing conditions of the skin that signified serious disease, and setting out detailed instructions for the making-up of antiseptic solutions – the barber had become a sort of public health inspector and chemist rolled into one. The manual concluded its advice with a stern warning that signified this vision of the trade as one that was au fait with modern hygienic developments: ‘Condemned Relics of the Old-Time Barber Shop’.


For much more on the history of barber’s, and the relationship between hair and health, I recommend popping over to Dr Alun Withey’s blog.

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.

‘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 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

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.

Captivating respiration: the ‘Breathing Napoleon’

I’ve always felt uncomfortable around waxworks and dummies. As a child, I dreaded those occasions when our weekend museum visit would take us to Cleckheaton’s Red House Museum, the drawing room of which was set out so that the visitor had to walk down a central aisle surrounded on all sides by reclining dummies in period costume. They seemed poised to stand up at any moment, ready to dismiss the interlopers trooping through their house, and I always walked quickly past them, avoiding the eyes that I was sure would be trained upon me.

In retrospect, it could have been a much more troubling experience. As I was researching something on the British Newspaper Archive this week, I came across the ‘Breathing Napoleon’ – a travelling exhibit of the 1830s hailing from across the Channel. This effigy of the French leader reclined on a couch dressed in his uniform, his sword by his side; the flesh, when pressed, was said to ‘yield as living flesh would’ and the limbs could be moved into any position desired. Most strikingly, the figure’s chest moved in imitation of the act of respiration.


An advert for the Breathing Napoleon’s appearance at Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak.’ For a shilling (half price for children), one could watch ‘the chest heave … and [observe] the continual, gentle, but regular undulation consequent upon breathing’. The Waterford Chronicle noted that it was ‘difficult at first sight to get rid of the idea that you are actually looking upon a living being’, but the Kentish Chronicle was less convinced: ‘The attitude in which the artist has placed this figure is not judiciously selected, it is too stiff, too like death.’

It’s striking that the Breathing Napoleon was described as both a work of art (as above) and as an anatomical exhibit. Indeed, The Spectator related that the primary purpose of the figure was to showcase a new material imitating human flesh (variously referred to as ‘Sarcomus’ or ‘Sarkomos’) from which the model was made. These two functions were not mutually exclusive, however; such exhibits were capable of being enjoyed as  educational objects as well as novelties. For an extra shilling, one could make ‘a closer examination of the body’, an opportunity that The Spectator particularly recommended to medical visitors who may like to assess the accuracy of the model.

Breathing automata were not a new contrivance – the Jaquet-Droz musician (above) is a famous example – but the Breathing Napoleon particularly captured the imagination as a kind of physical encapsulation of  revolutionary spirit, as well as a demonstration of technical or artistic prowess (though it would be interesting to know more about differing responses to the model in Britain and in France). In 2013, a Moscow exhibit of a ‘Breathing Lenin’ attracted attention (you can see a video of it in action here). Apart from its rather unsettling, uncanny nature – Lenin is posed as he is in his Red Square Mausoleum, making the act of respiration even more incongruous than that of the reclining Napoleon – the ‘breathing’ of the figure seems to open up a rich interpretative space. Slight as the movement may be, imbuing a model of Napoleon or Lenin with the act of respiration may – albeit rather unsubtly – carry with it much more than an instructive or entertaining message. This signifying power of respiration – and the uncanniness of the not alive and yet breathing body – is just one of the things that I’ll be investigating in more detail soon, as I start work on my main project within Diseases of Modern Life on air technologies and air therapies in the nineteenth century.

‘Sweet oblivious antidotes’? Lady perfume drinkers of the late 19th century

In the early 1890s several writers suggested that a new fashion was taking hold among the urban women of Europe and America: drinking Eau de Cologne. Stories appeared in both medical journals and popular newspapers of women ingesting perfume in various ways – from the delicate act of swallowing ‘a dose of cologne dropped on loaf sugar’ to the unrestrained swigging of whole bottles of 4711. Mirroring recent anxieties about middle-class drinking habits, doctors and journalists emphasised that these cologne drinkers were usually well-to-do, wealthy, and respectable members of the community, sometimes even members of London ‘Society’.

A 19th-century bottle of 4711 Eau de Cologne. Image: Farina Archiv.

A 19th-century bottle of 4711 Eau de Cologne. Image: Farina Archiv.

Strange as the practice seemed, for the woman who wished to drink, perfume was a practical choice at a time when it was less acceptable for her to enter a pub and order herself a brandy. Perfume was a substance that women could legitimately – even ostentatiously – have in their possession. The bottle of Eau de Cologne that stood on the dressing table would excite no attention, unless – as in Recollections of a Country Doctor (1885) – it began to empty alarmingly quickly. The country doctor of the title, Dr Meredith, asks his lady patient what has happened to the new bottle of cologne he had seen on her dressing table the previous afternoon. The patient blames her maid, claiming she spilt it on the carpet, but the doctor presses on: “If that eau-de-cologne has been spilt on the table it must have left a mark on the polish … Why keep up this sort of humbug? Why not tell me you have drunk it?”

Eau de Cologne could be transported beyond the bedroom or house, allowing a lady to – as Lewis Barnett Fretz put it in ‘The Modern Duality’ – ‘carry her bar about with her’. The relationship between fashion and ‘perfume tippling’ is made clear to Fretz by Kate Carter of New York, who is well acquainted with the habits of Society ladies:

‘If you are observant, you will see any lady take her little ‘nip’ any afternoon at a matinee, or concert, or lecture. She opens her reticule, or, if too up-to-date for a bag, you will notice her frequent recurrence to the great pocket of her sealskin. From this she takes what you suppose to be a sugar plum or a cough lozenge. If you look closely you will find that it is a square of white sugar … My lady is about to take a perfume ‘ball’ right here in the presence of the audience and amid the glare of the incandescent lights. Another dive into the pocket and she brings forth a handsome, finely-cut crystal smelling bottle. … [S]he drops some of its contents on that square of sugar, and before you can say ‘Jack Robinson’ has popped it into her mouth, downed it like a Kentucky thoroughbred.’

Perfume could also cover up the very habit it was feeding, liberally doused over the drinker to hide the fact of their ingestion of the substance. In this way, it functioned like other cosmetics that could conceal the signs of a drinking habit. Miss Howard, in Richard Pryce’s novel An Evil Spirit (1887), is mystified by the radiant appearance of an acquaintance who she has long suspected of alcoholism:

‘But presently Miss Howard made a discovery. … [She] distinctly saw the firm tracing of crayon noir. Suspicion suggested another, and very soon Miss Howard had discovered that the soft bloom on the cheeks never varied. This then was art!’

In An Evil Spirit and other contemporary literature, the well-to-do woman who drinks confirms established stereotypes of feminine behaviour: women are skilled in the art of subterfuge and use the substances at their disposal (make-up, perfume) to mask their true nature. Several doctors noted how drinking encouraged women’s ‘natural’ proclivity to dishonesty, as they lied to those around them and tried to hide their habit from view. A large part of this was likely due to the shame that came with a drinking habit, as even medical conceptions of addictive behaviour at this time carried in them a degree of moral judgement. This shame also complicates the historical study of the cologne drinker: she is a rather elusive figure, popping up only occasionally in doctors’ anecdotes or as a sensational figure in the press, making it difficult to place her squarely in the realm of either fact or fiction.

A French Eau de Cologne bottle, 1780-1850. Image: Wellcome Images.

A French Eau de Cologne bottle, 1780-1850. Image: Wellcome Images.

The Victorian perfume tippler might seem like an amusing character (and the very word ‘tippling’ suggested a more innocuous activity than the ‘drinking bout’ typically attributed to men), but doctors writing on the topic emphasised that the practice was far from trivial. To many, the resort to substances like Eau de Cologne was a sign that a woman had a long-standing drink habit, with her quaffing of perfume proof of the desperation to obtain alcohol in any form. W.C. McIntosh, writing in 1866, listed some of the substances that were ‘gulped down’ when a person was deprived of their usual alcohol or drug of choice: ‘red lavender, lavender-water, eau de cologne, creosote, vinegar, [and] vitriol’. The late 19th century was a period when the range of potential intoxicants – socially acceptable or otherwise – was increasing. The contents of journals like the Quarterly Journal of Inebriety testify to doctors’ anxieties about dealing with these new substances – everything from cocaine to camphor, from morphine to medicated wine.

Tackling the abuse of substances like Eau de Cologne was difficult, however – one could hardly remove all potentially intoxicating products from sale. The resort to substances not designed for human consumption is a problem that doctors continue to face in the 21st century – such as the drinking of hairspray in ‘dry’ rural Alaska. Although these modern-day drinkers may look a lot different to our 19th-century perfume tipplers, a common theme that unites them is the lack of legal or socially-sanctioned access to alcohol – a situation leading to the regular consumption of potentially dangerous alternatives.


Advert for a scent bottle from Chemist and Druggist, February 1890.

Advert for a scent bottle from Chemist and Druggist, February 1890.

Would you like to hear more?

I’ll be talking about the drinking habits of 19th-century women as part of Oxford Open Doors 2015, with Melissa Dickson from the Diseases of Modern Life team also joining me to talk about metals, magnets, and hysteria. You can find us at St Anne’s College from 3.15 on Sunday 13 September – we hope to see you there!

New Directions in Drinking Studies, a conference at the University of Leicester

L0007439 Cruikshank: The drunkard's children Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Son and daughter in gin-shop. Engraving The drunkard's children George Cruikshank Published: 1848 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Last weekend the Drinking Studies Network held its second major conference, ‘New Directions in Drinking Studies’ at the University of Leicester. The Network brings together scholars from a range of fields to explore drink from perspectives ranging from the sociological to the literary. Far from being simply a euphemism for spending the weekend ‘studying’ in the pub, the weekend offered a full programme of papers that touched on everything from Welsh craft cider to champagne, middle-class domestic drinking to teen ‘pre-loading’, and Roman taverns to British village pubs.

A recurrent theme throughout the conference was how closely alcohol is tied to national identity and notions of ‘tradition’. The Welsh cider producers interviewed by Emma-Jayne Abbots all had specific ideas about what constituted an ‘authentic’ cider, and this often extended beyond simple ingredients to encompass broader working practices: the role of manual labour in the process, for example, might be looked upon very differently than the use of automated machinery. The role of technologies in drinking cultures was also evident in papers addressing earlier periods and other countries. The traditional Mexican drink of pulque (made from the agave plant), discussed by Deborah Toner, had a short shelf life so that it was easily usurped in the 20th century by tequila, replacing pulque as the ‘national drink’ of Mexico.

‘Tradition’ might be a badge of honour or distinction, then, but several papers demonstrated that some ‘traditional’ drinks have also been viewed in a more negative sense. Andrew Primmer and Daniel Plata presented a fascinating history of chicha, a Colombian drink derived from maize. In the early 20th century chicha struggled to hold its own as the German Bavaria Brewery muscled in on its territory. Newspapers and public information posters began to warn drinkers against chicha, aligning the drink with crime and ill health. One brand of beer was explicit in presenting itself to consumers as a better alternative, its name literally translating as ‘No More Chicha’.

Consumers, of course, were at the centre of much of the weekend’s discussions, and alcohol’s potential for harm was examined across various periods and countries. There were obvious historical parallels between the middle-class drinking ‘subcultures’ of today, discussed by Lyn Brierly-Jones, and my own work investigating late 19th-century concerns for the lady ‘secret drinker’, with both figures provoking lively comment in the press. Perhaps what was most striking when looking at the conference papers as a whole was that, though ideas and perceptions of alcohol are very much shaped by the social and cultural context within which drinks are (or are not) consumed, the same concerns recur repeatedly: that alcohol might be consumed secretly, disrupt working practices, or harm the national health. Such concerns are often magnified in times of stress, as Stella Moss described in her paper on women workers during WWI. Moves to restrict women from entering pubs during certain hours reflected anxieties about wartime production, but also about the absence of husbands (away at the Front) as a ‘moralising influence’.

Alcohol, then, is very much bound up with our personal identity. This might be a simple matter of the drink one chooses (the more ‘ladylike’ glass of wine during a sophisticated night out, for example, as Carol Emslie et al touched upon), but can also be extended to encompass whole nations (the appeal to patriotism in the marketing of AB-InBev’s Siberian Crown lager, discussed by Graham Roberts). It is a means of exploring those identities, but also – in its ability to transform the consumer both mentally and physically – a means of cultivating multiple identities, or even, perhaps, of ‘recovering’ an authentic self. Perhaps it is this that makes alcohol so enduringly fascinating and worrying in equal measure.

You can follow the work of the Drinking Studies Network via their website and on Twitter.

(Fashionable) diseases of modern life


On 8 May three quarters of the Diseases of Modern Life team – Melissa Dickson, Sally Shuttleworth, and Jennifer Wallis – visited Newcastle University to meet with the Fashionable Diseases team and take part in a workshop. A joint project at the universities of Newcastle and Northumbria, Fashionable Diseases explores how, in the eighteenth century, ‘certain diseases could be construed as endowing a sick person with some social or cultural cachet’. Though focusing on different centuries, many of the themes investigated by the ‘Fashionable team’ (a much more flattering moniker than our own, ‘the Disease ladies’…) intersect with those of the DoML project – such as travel for health, nervousness, and addictive behaviours.

Sally Shuttleworth opened the workshop with a discussion of ‘Fears and Phobias in Victorian Culture’, tracking changing patterns in the diagnosis of nervous disorders in the nineteenth century. Looking at ‘excessive’ states of fear including pteronophobia (a fear of feathers) and ‘cat fear’ (rather self explanatory), Professor Shuttleworth explored the intersection of cultural, literary, and medical discourses of fear at this time, asking if phobias might be considered ‘fashionable diseases’. Next, Melissa Dickson looked at the female headache as a social and cultural – as well as medical – phenomenon, and how this vague, unprovable condition might have been a ‘disease of convenience’ for women eager to escape social engagements. Finally, Jennifer Wallis explored the peculiar risks of the London Season, particularly over-indulgence in alcohol at a time of popular concern with the apparent increase in respectable ‘lady tipplers’, with tippling or ‘nipping’ itself a symptom of fast living in the metropolis and the subsequent need to stimulate a flagging system. The following discussion raised a number of interesting points, including one that both projects were grappling with – the difficulty of defining and using the term ‘modernity’ in our analyses. We’re looking forward to exploring this more closely in the future, but in the meantime you can hear all three talks from the workshop here.

You can keep up to date with the work of the Fashionable Diseases team via their website and blog, and on Twitter.