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Chances are, a person needs to visit a doctor sometime during the year. Usually it’s for a routine checkup, prescription renewals or minor ailment remedy, all things that the doctor’s visit can handily address. Go back in time, however, and we’re faced with some medical adventures that aren’t just wacky, they’re downright quackery. This week’s family history blog post looks at Victorian Era Medicine. Buckle up – you’re in for a wild ride.
Victorian Era: The Context
England’s Victorian Era was named (obviously) for the time period under Queen Victoria’s reign. It comprised the years 1837-1901. The Victorian Era is known for its high moral standards (at least for outward appearances), modest dress, the telephone, gas lighting, burgeoning rail transport, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, brass bands, circus, and proliferation of photography for the masses. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, led the Great Exhibition of 1851 inside an enormous glass structure (the Crystal Palace) that showcased the best of industry, including textiles and machinery (for example, silk printing and wheat milling). Sadly, the Victorian Era was also a time of slums, abject poverty, lack of health and safety standards plus appalling child labor. Jack the Ripper roamed dark alleyways and con men worked the docks and factories. While the upper classes were content with their fancy Christmas dinners, trinket-stuffed homes and lace-trimmed greeting cards, industrialization caused great misery to those who toiled away on the front lines.
Victorian Era pharmacies, known as “chemists”, pioneered the one-stop-shop for time-starved customers. Owners soon realized that they could upsell customers with greeting cards, soaps, cosmetics and small household maintenance items such as furniture polish. Foodstuffs were also sold; beef broth concentrate was popular as were custards and spicy sauces. Primarily, however, the customer’s main reason for visiting the chemist was to obtain a sure-fire cure to an indelicate, obscure, or even common malady. While modesty and decorum prevailed, the actual advice and ingredients were a completely different story.
Victorian Era Medical Advancements
Medicine advanced during the Victorian Era, especially in microbiology (germ theory) and antiseptics. Chloroform led to painless dentistry. A new plethora of lozenges, powders, tinctures, tonics and pills arrived on the scene. Newly discovered X-rays were all the rage. Striding into a chemist’s shop meant facing a huge array of lotions, potions and promises of eternal youth. Customer confidence was earned when the pharmacist stood in front of towering shelves jam-packed with cork-stoppered bottles containing many a murky ingredient. Much disappointment was earned when these so called remedies and magical elixirs were put into practical use. A large number of them were better suited to a ghoulish cave’s cauldron as opposed to a respectable medical establishment.
Customer confidence was earned when the pharmacist stood in front of towering shelves jam-packed with cork-stoppered bottles containing many a murky ingredient.
Drink Up … It’s Supposed To Do You Good
Research this topic for a few hours and one soon develops an unbelievable list of ingredients Victorians were ingesting in hopes of improving their health, beauty and/or lives in general. Here are some of the most outrageous examples, supposed cures that made their victims feel queasy, cheated or both:
• Love potions – floral-scented elixirs guaranteed to attract the object of one’s affection yet were likely little more than flavored water, herbs and wishful thinking
• Varnish, pearl, silver or gold coated pills, depending upon one’s wallet
• Morphine to soothe crying babies and teething toddlers
• Cocaine to treat coughs and colds plus for babies’ colic medicine
• Laudanum (contains opium) for trouble sleeping, dysentery, pain and general ‘issues’
• Arsenic for a clean complexion (it was marketed as a safe soap and lotion headline ingredient). This was a particularly bad poison, used in wallpaper and fabric dyeing as well.
• Insufferable general tonics claiming to cure everything from overall malaise to gout, when their contents were often not more than turpentine and coloring. These tonics were suspiciously like some veterinary products on the market too.
It wasn’t considered polite to mention sensitive medical ailments in Victorian society, and that’s perhaps why purveyors of cure-all, mysterious tonics were so successful. One also wonders how much product success was attributed to sheer verbal conning of the customer: “Oh yes, ma’am, your skin looks so much younger with our new arsenic lotion applied.”
Let's add a hasty footnote to all this: we mustn’t forget that it was only last century when we were told that smoking was good for our health because of its relaxing qualities. In the 1920s through 1970s, footwear customers could use a fluoroscope to see how their feet looked inside shoes; the disadvantages of using X-rays in this manner eventually got the machine mothballed for good! Science eventually prevailed, just as it did to correct Victorian treatment fallacies. A population can only proceed with the science available at the moment in question. We can look back upon these Victorian Era mistakes and shake our heads, however, as the saying goes, we only know what we know.
Eastoe, J., “Victorian Pharmacy”, Pavillion/Anova Books, London, 2010.
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