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.

Inside Passengers: The Girl’s Own Paper looks inside the body

‘Inside Passengers; or, the Wonderful Adventures of Luke and Belinda’ was a 15-part series published in The Girls’ Own Paper in 1885-86, penned by ‘A London Physician’. Anticipating the plot of films such as Fantastic Voyage (1966) and its later comedy spin-off Innerspace (1987), the series follows brother and sister Luke and Belinda on a journey through their uncle’s body after they are shrunk by some gateaux evanouissants (vanishing cakes) bought from a seller of Eastern curiosities. Seeking out their uncle after this catastrophe, they manage to clamber onto the arm of his glasses but are accidentally swept into his mouth after falling into his moustache.

The shrinking motif immediately calls to mind Alice in Wonderland, published 20 years earlier, and no doubt the author had the book in mind as he plunged his characters not down a rabbit hole, but down the oesophagus. The series had a serious aim, however. Published in a periodical aimed at young female readers, it repeatedly emphasises that scientific knowledge is something of use to everyone. Belinda laments that ‘it is shameful that we girls are taught nothing about our ‘insides’’, and her brother Luke – who has just passed his final exam at the College of Surgeons – proves a perfect guide to the subject. Getting over their initial horror at their predicament surprisingly quickly, the two relish the opportunity to explore their uncle’s internal landscape. Beginning in the mouth, they progress to the ear, throat, and stomach, though no doubt for reasons of propriety they go only as far as the duodenum before turning back and making their exit through the pores of the skin.

Luke and Belinda explore the stomach.

Luke and Belinda explore the stomach.

The story is part adventure story, part biology lesson, with a bit of moralising thrown in. Luke – equipped with binoculars, electric lamp and a pick – leads them in their exploration of the body’s terrain and ‘like Robinson Crusoe … [begins] to regard his uncle as his own private property’. One of his first activities inside his uncle’s mouth is to chisel out some nuggets of a gold filling, reasoning that if they are restored to their normal size then a few millimetres of gold will increase in size to make them millionaires. Interspersed with this adventure narrative are short lessons on the body, delivered by Luke in a rather self-congratulatory fashion to his eager listener, Belinda. Both she and the reader learn about the Stenson’s duct delivering saliva to the mouth (a lesson interrupted by their uncle partaking of a cigar and transforming the mouth into a ‘smoking-carriage’); the taste buds; the larynx and vocal cords; the cochlea; and the villi of the intestinal lining. Some of these lessons include general health advice to the reader: on the importance of brushing teeth at night rather than in the morning, and chewing food thoroughly to aid digestion.

The text is accompanied throughout by some striking illustrations, several of them by Harry Furniss, who worked for Punch and would go on to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno. Many of these pictures present the body as a cavernous landscape with Luke, Belinda, and their friend Sutton (who has also eaten some of the vanishing cakes and is conveyed into the mouth on their uncle’s handkerchief) scaling walls or peering into yawning abysses. These are complemented by scientific illustrations, including a cross-section of the mouth and throat, and magnified villi. As Belinda and Luke examine the tongue, the description of its features again echoes the fantasy world of Alice: ‘mushrooms’ are the fungiform papillae (to ‘tell you at once’, explains Luke, ‘if your cup of tea is too hot’) and ‘cherry tarts’ the circumvallate papillae for tasting. The accompanying illustration helpfully melds this literary description with more scientific language, allowing the reader to visualise the features clearly.

The circumvallate papilla, or 'cherry tarts', of the tongue.

The circumvallate and fungiform papilla, or ‘cherry tarts’ and ‘mushrooms’, of the tongue.

The trio’s investigation of the interior body lasts for a full week, and getting around the issue of quite how the three survive in this environment are some novel technologies that Luke has handily purchased from a ‘scientific novelty shop’ shortly before their shrinking. They survive on ‘H.F.D. (hospital full diet) pills’, each containing ‘as much nourishment as there is in twelve ounces of bread, eight ounces of potatoes, six ounces of roast beef, and one pint of porter’, and a ‘C.C.W. (chemically combined water) flask’, which forms water from a combination of gases and holds the equivalent of 1,000 gallons. (I’m particularly taken with the ‘coffee tablet, containing the amount of coffee, sugar, and milk to make one cup’.) Keeping them dry amidst their uncle’s saliva and stomach juices is a ‘waterproof powder’, forming a film of gutta-percha over their clothes, and a ‘degravitator’ alters the weight of the gold Luke has mined from uncle’s tooth, allowing them to carry it with ease.

The technical elements of the story are nicely balanced out by Belinda’s romantic observations of the interior of the body. She describes the cilia – like ‘ripe corn waving backwards and forwards in the breeze’ – as ‘live velvet’ and christens the inside of the ear ‘the organ loft’. Though she welcomes her brother’s medical teaching, she finds his ‘rubbishing affectation’ a nuisance, substituting his medical terminology for her own down-to-earth descriptions that are more memorable for the reader. The story has a distinctly unsettling quality too, though, as the characters find themselves at the mercy of their uncle’s eating, drinking, and smoking habits (‘I’ve no fancy for being digested’, exclaims Belinda as they traverse the stomach). As tiny elements within the body, then, the characters highlight to the reader the importance of considering what they put into their bodies – not least when Belinda is nearly drowned in a ‘dreadful whirlpool’ of beer or choked by her uncle’s cigar smoke. It’s a wonderfully creative play upon the advancing sciences of microscopy and bacteriology, and a lovely example of how scientific teaching could be incorporated into fictional narrative for a young audience. I only wish I knew who’d written it; I’ve no idea who ‘A London Physician’ was, so if any readers have then please do let me know in the comments section!

Reading the Victorian Press

Reading Victorian periodicals is one of the most important aspects of our work on the “Diseases of Modern Life” project. Each of the project members is responsible for researching two thematic strands as well as our own book projects. In my case the strands are “Diseases of the Professions” and “Diseases of Finance and Speculation”; Jennifer is looking at “Addiction” and “Climate and Health”, while Melissa covers “Education and Over-pressure” and “Nervous Diseases and Phobias”. The range of periodicals we examine is quite broad, from popular magazines such as Belgravia, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and Leisure Hour to more specialized publications like the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, the Sanitary Record and the Medical Times and Gazette. My own list of periodicals-to-read also includes a good number of technical publications such as The Electrician, association journals like The Postal Clerk’s Herald as well as medical journals published in British India (the Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, the Indian Annals of Medical Science, etc.) which so far have not received the scholarly attention they deserve.

Needless to say, nineteenth-century periodicals are a treasure trove of information for historians. My recent survey of Leisure Hour provided fascinating insight into various aspects of the working lives of Victorian clerks, from the manual skills and work ethics they were required to possess to the stress of promotion and overwork and even the hassle of commuting by omnibus. The drudgery and mental strain of clerical work are familiar themes of Victorian writing. Take the example of the General Post Office located in St Martin’s-le-Grand, where letters, newspapers and other postal matter were sorted and stamped by “active, earnest-looking, time-begrudging beings”, who laboured incessantly under the supervision of taskmasters and that ubiquitous marker of the modern temporal order, a “large, clear-faced clock”. The drive towards efficiency and speed was visible not only in the orderly design of the office, where men sat at “long rows of tables, desks and shelves”, but also in the rigid differentiation of tasks and the seemingly uninterrupted flow of work. Manual dexterity, rapidity, concentration, precision and endurance were only some of the many qualities demanded of a postal clerk:

This task [stamping the letters] is confided to a nimble-fingered gentleman, who seems inclined to back himself against any steam-engine under the roof, past, present, or to come. Placing a number of letters before him in an upright position, with the postage head in the upper right corner, he strokes them down gently but rapidly, one by one, under his right hand, which holds the stamping die, and comes down with unerring precision and bewildering rapidity full upon the label. A hundred heads are damaged in a minute by this skilful operator … and the only partial break that occurs in his labour is when a letter either wants a head, or contains it in the lower left hand, instead of the upper right-hand corner. Dipping the die on to the ink-brush or stamping a paper at intervals, that stands at his side, to keep a rough record in twenties or fifties of the letters passing through the office for that night’s mail, are eccentric diversions of the head-blotting duty, performed almost too quickly to strike the eye.

The Post Office, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Post Office, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons)

The amount of postal matter handled by the Post Office was enormous. Alone in 1858, an impressive 523 million letters, 71 million newspapers and 7.25 million book packets were delivered in the United Kingdom. That printed matter circulated extensively is amply demonstrated by such figures. But who were the readers of this vast empire of the printed word? (And empire it was, both literally and figuratively, if we consider the range of circulation of some of these publications: in 1872, the Madras Monthly Journal of Medical Science subscribed to The Lancet, the Dublin Journal, the Medical Press and Circular, the British Medical Journal, the Edinburgh Medical Journal and the Pharmaceutical Journal, not to mention a few other Indian and French publications).

While Victorian periodicals offer numerous insights into the production stage of newspapers and periodicals, familiarizing contemporary readers and eager historians with the nature of editorial duties, the adventures of war correspondents like William Howard Russell and the health hazards to which compositors were exposed, it is less often that we get to find out what happened to these publications in the stages of circulation and consumption. The readers are, more often than not, an elusive entity that reaches us through the paratext of a long-forgotten newspaper, the occasional correspondence and lists of subscribers published in the press or through the mediating power of the Victorian literary imagination. It is thus that we find out that a copy of the Asiatic Mirror and Commercial Advertiser published in Calcutta and dated 7 March 1798 was “[f?]or Ralph Luke Esq Longford Shropshire” or  that the daily routine of a counting-house clerk included “read[ing] his letters at breakfast … and look[ing] at the newspaper for a little while after dinner” (Mark Rutherford, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, 1889). Also, that Amy Reardon was attracted to “solid periodicals” which targeted the “educated, but not strictly studious, persons, and which form[ed] the reservoir of conversation for society above the sphere of turf and west-endism” (George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891).

But visual evidence of readers and especially of their reading environments is hard to come by, which is why discoveries like the images below are particularly exciting for the 21st-century historian. More so because they testify to the ability of the Victorian printing press to forge communities of readers not only across territorial boundaries, but also across temporal ones. My office (and indeed, my home) is a far cry from the affluent-looking homes of some of the Leisure Hour readers and my access to periodicals is often mediated by technologies the Victorians could have only imagined, but it is intruiging to think that, a century and a half apart, we are actually sharing the experience of reading the same paper.

Portraits from a series of “Newspaper Reading Types” published in 1893 by the English Illustrated Magazine.

The Morning Advertiser

Reader of the Morning Advertiser (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

The Times

Reader of The Times (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

English Illustrated Magazine 1893Reader of Tit-Bits (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

By the turn of the century, photography takes the reader into the (rather affluent) homes of some of the Leisure Hour subscribers. These images seem to have been selected from among entries submitted to a photography competition.

Leisure Hour 1901

Leisure Hour 1901“Homes of Our Readers” (Leisure Hour, 1901)


Amelia Bonea

The (rather graphic) reminiscences of a medical student

Reading the work of nineteenth-century doctors, it is striking that many tried their hand at fiction as well as penning medical articles and books. Surgeon William Gilbert, for example, published a number of novels that drew upon his medical experiences, including Shirley Hall Asylum (1863), which related the stories of patients in a private asylum. A series of articles in the New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, ‘Reminiscences of a Medical Student’, published between 1841 and 1844, affords another interesting example. ‘Reminiscences’ was written by Robert Douglas, a young Scottish naval surgeon, with each instalment of the series offering a self-contained story (occasionally these stretched across two pieces). Douglas died at just 24, but left behind an impressive body of writing. His pieces for the New Monthly Magazine were collected into one volume, The Adventures of a Medical Student (presumably ‘Adventures’ were more marketable than simple ‘Reminiscences’), after his death.

Although fictional, Douglas’s series offers tantalising glimpses into the nineteenth-century medical student’s world: the horror upon first observing an amputation (‘The Widow’s Child’); the array of macabre equipment carted about in students’ pockets, from lancet-cases to ‘the bones of a hand of a skeleton, wrapped up in a piece of brown paper’ (‘The Adventures of a Night’); and the inevitable pranks of the profession (‘An Excursion with Bob Whyte’).

L0039195 The interior of a dissecting room:

Often, Douglas’s tales take a rather Gothic turn. His accounts of operations are vividly rendered, and in describing the interior of anatomy theatres and dissection rooms the reader almost feels that they can smell the chemicals, the metallic tinge of spilled blood. In ‘A Story of Galvanism’ we hear the story of a ‘science mad’ practitioner of the early nineteenth century, who is obsessed with the idea that electricity is the basis of all life. His experiments on frogs caught in fields, or rabbits bought from the market, both excite and frustrate him; finally, he is able to secure the hanged body of a criminal for experimentation. Dr. X—, as he is nicknamed, announces to the assembled lecture theatre that he will, with a battery apparatus of his own invention, ‘restor[e] [the body] to pulsation, respiration, and motion’. The spectacle that ensues is shocking:

‘…of the gentlemen who [saw it], several rose abruptly, and fled up the stairs, and out of the theatre; one vomited, and another fainted away …

Heaven keep me from ever beholding such a sight again! Its neck was thrust forward, its long gray hair stood on end, its brow was contorted into innumerable wrinkles, the eyelids were drawn forcibly back, the eyeballs with their dead glazed pupils protruding in a hideous stare, its nostrils were widely dilated, while a horrible greenish foam oozed out at the corners of its working lips. I could not remove my eyes from it for one fraction of a second. Never, before or since, has my whole soul been absorbed by such a feeling of unutterable horror!

A moment and it suddenly raised its right arm, and pointed convulsively with its forefinger to Johns, who sat beside me; whilst its ghastly, lifeless eyes glared in the same direction, and every fibre of its face was twitched with a most diabolic, gibbering grin.’

In this tale and several others, Douglas seems to betray both a fascination and uneasiness with the medical profession, dwelling on the ‘horrible’ and ‘ghastly’ details of dissection, amputation, and trepanation. As a reviewer of Adventures of a Medical Student noted in 1848, ‘the surgeon’s saw, poison, and other melo-dramatic climaxes of the same character, are brought forth in gigantic capitals’. His pieces were not mere sensation fiction, however, often containing a clear moral for the reader. ‘[U]nder the cloak of telling wonderful stories,’ the reviewer went on, ‘the author shielded a heart and head alive to the most profound and interesting principles of our nature’. Certainly Douglas’s accounts of the operating theatre, though often wallowing in the gory details, were also thoughtful, expressing profound sympathy with the (albeit fictional) patients on the table and – in one case – their helpless watching relatives. Douglas’s ‘reminiscences’ offer an intriguing portrait of the medical student that goes some way to balancing out their questionable reputation in the eyes of contemporaries: not simply callous pranksters too much given to drinking (though he does admit that that forms some part of the experience), but individuals keenly aware of the gravity of the path they had chosen in life.

V0010932 A foppish medical student smoking a cigarette; denoting a ca