Pre-Printed Diaries and Almanacs: An Aid to Managing the Diseases of Modern Life?

Hannah Wills, our new Research Assistant, introduces her work on Victorian diaries.  

In the Victorian period, individuals complained of the quickening pace of life, of a greater ‘velocity in thought and action’ than had ever been experienced before.[1] I’m interested in exploring the practical tools that were available to manage this phenomenon, in terms of personal information management on paper. One available solution was the pre-printed diary or planner, marketed as a useful receptacle for everything from financial transactions to social engagements, from the day’s weather to daily food intake. An advert in the Spectator for 23 December 1848 described two such commercial publications, Letts’s Diary, or Bills-Due Book, and Letts’s Indispensable Almanack, both produced by the highly successful Letts stationary company, founded in 1796 by John Letts. As the advert for Letts’s almanac promised, such products were invaluable in ‘enabling Everybody to secure to himself a faithful Record of the Past, the Present, and the Future’.

The origins of British pre-printed diaries can be traced back to mid-eighteenth-century almanacs and pocket diaries of a similar nature. These diaries and almanacs had a range of contents, including selections of useful reference information, usually at the front, including weights and measures, conversion charts and notable public holidays, alongside entertaining anecdotes, brain-teasing puzzles and dated blank spaces for the writing of diary entries. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of printed diaries available for purchase, containing much of the same content.[2] One edition of Letts’s diary, published for the year 1874, began with a reference section that included the dates of the law and university terms, a list of the names and ages of the sovereigns of Europe and a table for calculating the interest on sums of money at different percentages. The rest of the diary was arranged with blank spaces for the insertion of dated diary entries, with two days set out per page.[3]

(Advert for Letts’s diaries from The Lancet, 7 Jan. 1871, Advertiser. Image credit: Google Books)

Pre-printed diaries and almanacs were marketed at a variety of individuals and professions in the nineteenth century. In a catalogue of their works for the year 1856, Letts, Son & Co. described a range of published editions of their popular diary. These included pocket versions, described as being of use to ‘Physicians’ and ‘Tourists’, as well as cheaper editions, more suited to ‘Mechanics, Warehousemen, &c’. Alongside those suited to particular professions, versions were also advertised ‘For Private Use, of Noblemen, Gentlemen, and Ladies’. Each edition was numbered, with different editions containing different reference information and a different arrangement of days printed on each page. A ‘new form for the pocket’, produced by Letts and marketed specifically at physicians, contained sections for recording daily appointments, births and vaccinations.

(The arrangement of the diary pages varied in different editions of the diary, as advertised in Letts’s catalogue. A Catalogue of Other Works, Published, Sold, or Manufactured by Letts, Son & Co. 1855. Image credit: Google Books)

Letts’s advertising positioned its products as practical aids for the management of time, as one solution to the problem of an increase in the pace of modern life. Musing on the general benefits of keeping a diary, Letts’s catalogue suggested to all diarists that ‘Before you lie down to sleep, or before you leave your dressing room in the morning… Read over the Entries of the Past Day to provide against any omission, and then those of to morrow (if there be any) to arrange your time in the most advantageous manner’.

Within the diaries themselves, one finds allusions to other modern ailments, including worry and mental strain. In addition to the reference sections at the beginning, and the middle pages used for recording daily activities, some diaries and planners contained adverts for other products. Letts’s number 42 diary for the year 1874 featured several full pages of adverts, some for items associated with stationary and the act of writing, including ‘Letts’s Patent Perpetual Inkstand’, Joseph Gillott’s ‘celebrated Steel Pens’, and a range of leather portmanteaus, expanding bags and cases, sold by John Pound & Co. Several medical adverts were also featured, including one for ‘Lamplough’s Pyretic Saline’, a patent medicine that promised to cure ‘Nervous Headache in a few minutes’. Just below was an advert for F. Walters & Co., ‘Manufacturers of Abdominal Supports For Ladies before and after Confinement’, and a range of ‘Artificial Legs, Arms, and Eyes’.

In the nineteenth century, patent medicines were often advertised in planners and almanacs. Many patent medicine companies designed and produced their own yearly planners, distributed for free, that featured adverts for their products alongside a reference calendar for the year.[4] It is possible that commercial stationers and patent medicine companies saw a connection between the desire to record one’s daily activities and engagements, and the desire to manage one’s health. It is striking that printed diaries and almanacs, tools for managing the pace of Victorian life, were also used to advertise medical products, some of which were aimed at combatting the diseases of modern life.

[1] James Crichton Browne, ‘The History and Progress of Psychological Medicine: An Inaugural Address’. Royal Medicine Society, Edinburgh, 1860. p. 9.

[2] Rebecca Steinitz, “Social Spaces for the Self: Organising Experience in the Nineteenth-Century British Printed Diary.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 16, no. 2 (2001): 161-74.  Hazel Tubman, “The First Pre-Printed Diaries: Origins, Development and Uses of an Information Genre, 1700-1850.” PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 2016.

[3] Letts’s Diary or Bills Due Book, and an Almanack for 1874. London: Letts, Son & Co., 1873.

[4] Louise Hill Curth, “Medical Advertising in the Popular Press: Almanacs and the Growth of Proprietary Medicines.” Pharmacy in History 50, no. 1 (2008): 3-16.


Diseases in the News: The Heavy Burden of a Modern Age

On 10th September 2016, the Diseases of Modern Life project was featured in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw. This is the original article, and a translation is provided below:

moderne-tijd-1moderne-tijd-2DISEASES OF PROSPERITY We think we can barely keep up with progress. It’s nothing compared to what the Victorians had to deal with during the Industrial Revolution. They too had burn-outs, but they knew better how to cope with it.

The Heavy Burden of a Modern Era

The renowned British physician Sir James Crichton Browne was, in 1860, concerned about the increased speed of thinking and acting that the modern age demanded. “Over the course of one month, our brains must process more information than our grandfathers had to in a few years of their lives,” he observed in a speech to the British Medical Society. This, he warned, would cause great stress to the brain.

“How extraordinary,” thought literary historian Sally Shuttleworth to herself when she first read this speech. Incredible to her was the resemblance to our own time, when we are frequently being warned that a constant stream of external stimuli is deteriorating our ability to concentrate, and that we are overloading our brains with constant multi-tasking, tweeting, and typing.

The advent of the internet, self-driving cars, smart phones and robots are challenges of our own time, but how did our ancestors respond when they were faced with a dizzying array of inventions, such as the telegraph, the railway, the steam engine, and electricity?

Professor Shuttleworth, a slender woman in a sleeveless floral dress, wanted to find out. This question lead to a unique five-year research project at Oxford University on the various diseases that were attributed to the advent of the modernity in the Victorian age (roughly the second half of the nineteenth century, a time which saw the peak of the Industrial Revolution).

Railway Spine

From nervous weakness and stress to railway spine (damage to the back during a jolting train ride), bronchitis, and sleeplessness, it seemed that novelty and progress was making people ill, weak and burned out.

With a team of three researchers, Shuttleworth is studying how the Victorians reacted to the unprecedented technological and social progress of the nineteenth century in order to learn about the problems we face in our own century. On they keep a blog about their research, which is financed by the European Research Council until early 2019.

Shuttleworth describes just how profound these changes were. Earlier, for example, to travel from the northern countryside of England to London would take days, but suddenly you could travel by train and within three hours and stand in the middle of a noisy, rapidly expanding metropolis. And thanks to the transatlantic telegraph cable, businessmen could send messages to America and get a response within the same day, whereas before letters had to be carried across the ocean by boat.

The research team is analysing more than 200 novels and hundreds of articles from magazines and newspapers in order to understand what all these changes did to the body and mind, and how the medical world reacted to it all. They are, of course, re-reading canonical works of writers such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot, they are also considering ‘many texts that would not be considered literary landmarks but that nonetheless give indications of what people of the time were afraid of’, says Shuttleworth.

In gothic tales such as Uncle Silas and Willing to Die by Sheridan Le Fanu, for example, the stethoscope appears as a frightening new invention. ‘The idea that a doctor could hear sounds in the body and interpret them as an announcement of death spread fear’, says Melissa Dickson, a literary historian and one of the researchers in the team. The stethoscope was even referred to as a heraldic trumpet and an augur of death in a poem of 1847.

Dickson is looking into the ways in which Victorians experienced sound. It was a time when the science of acoustics was being developed and expanded, and sounds were being analysed as waves and vibrations. Sound became something physical, something that could be measured. Furthermore, there was more noise in the street than there used to be, due to the advent of machines like steam engines, and a thriving urban life. Many people suffered from this, says Dickson, and it contributed to the idea that the human brain and body were being pushed out of sync with the stimuli of modern times.

There were even diseases in the Victorian era explicitly attributed to the busyness of life. The American neurologist George Beard, for example, famously wrote about neurasthenia, a form of nervous weakness, a fatigue that he claimed originated from extreme mental effort and overstimulation. This led to concentration problems, dizziness, headaches, anxiety, and sleeping problems.


Beard wrote, somewhat dramatically, that to be neurasthenic was to be modern. This was especially true of young women. Dickson says it was almost a kind of fashion to suffer from such a disease, and that the wealthier members of society were said to frequently take to the seaside when life in the city became too much for them. Neurasthenia also gave rise to the development of a range of potions, many of which were often extremely alcoholic, designed to calm the nerves.

The British writer H.G. Wells, as a founding father of science fiction, wrote a lovely story about this phenomenon, called ‘The New Accelerator’, which was about the inventor of an elixir intended to bring the nervous system back into sync with the pace of modern life. As you might expect in a story, this doesn’t quite go according to plan, but, Dickson says, the notion that life was moving too quickly and was too busy was deeply rooted in this cultural moment.

We can learn a lot from the Victorians, says project leader Shuttleworth. She is very lauding of the British doctor Benjamin Ward Richardson who wrote books about every thinkable aspect of life in the industrial era. Nowadays, we so often think in disciplinary categories and labels, but people like Richardson studied problems from multiple disciplines and perspectives. In his book The Diseases of Modern Life, after which the research project is named, he linked the question of public health to subjects such as work, urban planning, industrialisation, and art.

Richardson was actively opposed to air pollution, and the exploitation of workers in nineteenth-century factors. He said that green cities where people might relax in parks were necessary, which tells you how ahead of his time he was, says Shuttleworth, who is pleading for a holistic approach like that of Richardson to be applied in our own time.

She also thinks it’s striking how seriously the wealthy took the concept of burnout in the nineteenth century. ‘It was generally accepted that if you were stressed, you had to travel to a seaside resort in France for several months’, says Shuttleworth, but ‘now people with burnout are dismissed as being weak. Maybe we have to really consider how the Victorians coped with that’.

But most of all, the researcher hopes that her project will lead to an awareness that the problems we face in the digital age are not as unique as people think. Shuttleworth says, ‘Don’t be too anxious’.

Busy Children

In the Victorian era, there was also much attention paid to stressed children. Around 1860, the British government decided to finance schools in a new way. The wages of teachers became dependent on exam results in a school system that was already infamous for being repressive. There was now even more pressure on the students and the teachers to perform.

The British doctor Sir James Crichton Browne wrote an essay in 1883 in which he voiced his concerns: ‘The pressure on the children is too great. They become over-pressured and they experience exam stress’. The writer Charles Kingsley had referred to this in his children’s book The Water Babies in 1862. In one scene, Tom the chimney sweep visits an island where all the children have been transformed into turnips. They have giant heads which threaten to explode from studying so much and never being allowed to play.

Historian Sally Shuttleworth notes the parallel to the present time: ‘We too are worried about our youngsters and the great pressure they experience to perform at school’. Shuttleworth discovers that the Victorians did everything they could in their time to reform the school system. In Britain, in the 1880s, a petition was launched and signed by politicians, doctors, teachers, writers, and influential people from the business world. We have to change our education system, our children need peace and quiet, they said, and so it happened.

Our thanks for this translation, which was provided by Brecht De Man, a PhD candidate at QMUL working on the perception and semantics of sound.


Medicine and Modernity Conference Report

Punch Image

On 10th and 11th September, the Diseases of Modern Life team held its main conference, ‘Medicine and Modernity in the Long Nineteenth Century’ at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Over the weekend, we explored phenomena of stress, overload, overpressure, and other disorders associated with the problems of modernity in the nineteenth century. Discussion, both online and offline, was extremely rich and we had over three hundred conference tweets throughout the two days. A storify summary of the event is available here.

Our first keynote speaker, Professor Christopher Hamlin, delivered a lecture entitled ‘What is your Complaint? Health as Moral Economy in the Long Nineteenth Century’, in which he spoke persuasively about the different states, perspectives, and currencies of health which operate outside of, or at times even in conflict with, those medical histories and diseases that are largely defined by doctors. Professor Hamlin’s address is available here:

Our second keynote was delivered by Professor Laura Otis and entitled ‘What’s at Stake in Judging the Health and Pathology of Emotions?’ In her presentation, Professor Otis asked under what circumstances emotions – or lack of emotions – might be considered pathological, and she offered a reading of Dickens’s Miss Havisham as a woman paralysed by anger, who demonstrates the widespread damage that one angry person can do. Professor Otis’s address is available here:

One delegate remarked during a coffee break that he had at first been uncertain about the parameters of our conference, as in many ways our call for papers might apply equally to the nineteenth century and to the twenty-first.  And this was certainly a frequent refrain in many of our panels. As parallels were continually drawn to  present day stresses and strains, questions were raised about how much has in fact changed and what we might learn from our studies of the past. Many of our speakers responded to this challenge by tracing productive discussions across the fields of literature, science, and medicine, or by providing rich comparative perspectives from international viewpoints, drawing on sources from Finland to France, Germany, America, Japan, India, South Africa, and the South Pacific to reveal connections between physiological, psychological and social health, or disease. What emerged through this work was a far more integrative and holistic approach to notions of disease, one that disrupted the frequent compartmentalization of psychiatric, environmental, emotional, and literary histories in present practice in order to offer new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity.

Over the coming weeks, we will be featuring a selection of our speakers’ papers in the form of blog posts on the website, in order to continue the rich discussions started at the conference. We hope you enjoy them.

The Diseases of Modern Life Team