Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Most Romantic of Victorian Diseases - Consumption

You can't read a Victorian novel without running into one of the most famous of diseases of the period - consumption. There's a reason that it pops up in everything from Wuthering Heights to Little Women, to David Copperfield. During the 1800s 1 in 4 deaths in the UK, and 1 in 5 in the US and in France were from this wasting disease. So what exactly was consumption?

Consumption is the old fashioned term for tuberculosis, although it could be used for cancer as well, as it meant any disease that caused the sufferer to slowly waste away. While tuberculosis has been around for centuries, the crowded conditions of the cities during and post the industrial revolution led to it becoming more common place. The disease can be spread through contaminated milk and food and by the infected coughing on others. With so many people crowded together and living in unsanitary conditions, it's no surprise that infection increased at a rapid rate. It wasn't just the poor either who suffered from it, but the rich and middle class, as they were often exposed to contaminated food as well, and would catch it if they were helping to care for other diseased family members.

Treatment for consumption varied, though the poor were encouraged to go to consumption houses, which were also work houses in an effort to quarantine them. Not surprisingly they avoided them if they could, and most that went never came out of them alive.
The rich and middle class were sent to sanitariums where they actually received medical care. With little knowledge of the disease though, the death rate was still 50% for those who contracted TB. (Interestingly only 5 - 10 percent of those exposed will actually develop the disease.)
A common method of treatment was to expose the patient to what was considered "pure air". Dr.John Crogan opened up a sanatorium in a cave (1838-1845) believing the air to be better there. Unfortunately his patients died and the cave sanatorium was closed.
Later it was thought that fresh mountain air was better, as there would be less pressure above sea level, making it easier for a patient to breath.

In 1882 Robert Koch was the first to identify the tuberculosis bacterium, and received a Nobel prize for it in 1905. As it was then recognized that some of the infections came from contaminated milk, this also helped lead to pasteurization. In 1906 Albert Calmette, and Camille Guerin developed the BCG vaccine to prevent TB, although it was not used on humans until 1921. With the use of vaccines, antibiotics and pasteurization, infection rates in the 20th century rapidly declined.

Consumption was a popular subject in Victorian literature and art due to it's prevalence, and was strangely considered a romantic disease. People afflicted with it were said to be more sensitive and it was often considered an artist's disease. The poet William Blake even expressed a wish to die of it. It was also thought to be a "good death" due to it's slow nature as one would have time to prepare. Consumptive women were even thought attractive and healthy women would sometimes make themselves paler with powders to achieve a consumptive look.
Though it was mostly eradicated in the Western world it has made a comeback, with some variations being resistant to antibiotics. My mother got it as a child in the early 1950s and was sent to a sanitarium in Switzerland for the fresh mountain air. It sounds like something from a novel, though my mother assures me it was not as exciting as that. Luckily of course she survived thanks to modern medicine.

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Victorian Winter Wear for Ladies

While spring has spring in other parts of the world, the winter has dragged on here into April. In fact today is one of the first days above 0 Celsius, and I am hoping the tide has finally turned for the season. In fact it was confirmed by Environment Canada that it was the coldest winter in Winnipeg since 1898!
This got me thinking about Victorian winter wear and how those that lived here back then survived such harshness without indoor heating, puffy parkas and coffee shops.

First off, they wore a lot more layers then we do now. In fact with all the layers of undergarments, and petticoats plus a wool dress overtop, a women could be wearing over 30 pounds of clothing! Still to survive harsh weather, good outdoor clothing would be needed. There were a few different options for a lady, though I suspect the first two were more suited to less harsh climates.

The Cape
Capes could be anywhere from hip length to just above the hem line. They were sleeveless, and the same length all around. Some were hooded or had slits in the sides so a lady could use her arms if needed (I'm not sure why one would want to be without the use of their arms, but maybe Victorian ladies were not as industrious?). They could be made of lightweight fabric for warmer weather, or made out of heavy wool or fur for the cold.

The Cloak
I'm not entirely sure what the clear difference between a cloak and a cape is, but apparently cloaks were shorter at the front to allow use of ones arms, and to show off the front of your fashionable dress.

The Coat
This obviously is the more sensible choice for extreme winters, and for being able to use ones limbs. Victorian coats tended to be close fitting at top, and wider at the bottom to hug the dress line, and were usually just slightly above the hem in length.

Another common cold weather item was the shawl. Useful for layering and for sitting warming by the fire, but not terribly practical by themselves in January. They were a handy item for cooler summer nights and a stylish accessory.

The Muff
This was the most impractical but fashionable of winter items. A fur muff was a symbol of status and elegance. While it does look cozy, it again makes the assumption that a lady did not need use of her hands. I can see why these went out of style for practical reasons. They look great, but it's hard to hold your morning coffee while wearing one.

I hope spring is in full force in your parts, but for now I will have to wait a little longer, as this was the scene when it snowed again earlier this week.

What Victorian winter fashions are you fond of?

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