Public health in the late 19th century: Food, water, toiletries and even wallpaper could be killers
From the Archives: Alongside ‘foul fish’ and ‘diseased meat’, adulterated foodstuffs were a common source of illness in 1859
Collecting peat: A woman and her children near Killarney, Co Kerry, circa 1890: Photograph: Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Ireland in 2019 may not be disease- free, but we can be thankful that outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, and diphtheria are relegated to history. These, however, were not the only public health concerns of the 19th century found in our archives.
Food, toiletries, and even wallpaper, could sicken, or kill you!
Alongside “foul fish” and “diseased meat”, adulterated foodstuffs were a common source of illness in 1859: “Luscious tea, manufactured out of sloe leaves; butter re-made and re-salted half a dozen times; milk, a vile abomination of creamy calves’ brains; coffee more than half beans, and the rest baked liver; . . . arsenite of copper instead of pickle; sand for sugar . . . Where on earth will it end, or what is a human creature to swallow with safety, when even the doctor’s physic is adulterated?”
According to one Leader writer: “Cayenne is Palmerized with red lead . . . Bread is adulterated with plaster of Paris, bone-dust, white clay, alum, sulphate of copper . . . Can we wonder that the strong man breaks down, the feeble man becomes more feeble still, and the children wax pale and sickly, when the food which should give nourishment conveys into the frame an admixture of slow poison!’
Other food-related risks are also happily in the past. A letter in 1888 reported: “thirty people near Carrigallen, County Leitrim, are under treatment . . . having partaken of the flesh of a large pig bitten by a rabid dog. One whole family were reported dead . . . They had all been in acute hydrophobia – Mr Steward for six days; his paroxysms were frequent and violent.’
Drinking wasn’t safe either. Though wines and beers might contain unsavoury ingredients, they were often a safer choice than water. A Dublin Waterworks Commission meeting in 1860 heard that: “Out of 24,000 houses within the city, 10,000 were unsupplied with water.”
That water – conveyed in lead pipes – wasn’t necessarily clean. One report found that in addition to “spongillae”: “the quantity of organic matter in the water was very considerable . . . and that there was a large quantity of fresh water algae. The pipes were encrusted with these growths, and there was a large quantity of maggots.” Rev Spratt gave evidence that the bad water supplied to the poor “was one of the causes why so much drunkenness prevailed in the city; he deprecated the system of fountains as leading to immorality; he had often seen filthy impurities in the canals”; and “he could not himself, except compelled by necessity, use the pipe water”. Another commission meeting was told that: “effervescing lemonade made with the pipe water of Dublin, no matter how carefully filtered, will become foul, in a few days”.
Easy availability of poisons was responsible for both illness, and deaths. Arsenic was even found in fly papers, products such as Dr MacKenzie’s Toilet Soap – which promised “White hands and beautiful skin” – and depilatory preparations for removing superfluous hair. A home recipe for a depilatory in 1877 instructed: “Mix two ounces of quick lime with half an ounce of orpiment or realgar (sulphuret of arsenic); boil that mixture in one pound of strong alkaline lye, then try its strength by dipping a feather into it, and when the flue falls off, the rusma (as it is called) is quite strong enough . . . A soap is sometimes made with lard and the above ingredients.”
A letter to the editor in June 1859 warned of: “the extreme danger arising from green paper hangings” (The pigment in green dye was usually copper arsenite). The writer had examined the wallpapers and carpet dust of a sick gentleman, at the request of a physician: “In each of the papers I found a great quantity of arsenic, and even the dust contained a very large proportion of that fearful poison.”
Tax officials in London also became ill that year when their offices were decorated with green paper. Victorian employers were not required to safeguard the health of their employees. And a government report in 1864 highlighted many other dangers, including exposure to mercury in mirror silvering, and high mortality rates in lead industries.
Bad smells were regarded as a harbinger of disease – the now obsolete miasmatic theory. In 1865 Dr Malpother, professor of hygiene, Royal College of Surgeons, reported: “Miasmatic diseases having prevailed in the neighbourhood, my attention was drawn to the state of an open sewer which carries the sewage of a large district in Cullenswood and Rathmines, and which for about 150 yards is uncovered between the junction of Upper Leeson Street and Donnybrook Road. It contains abundantly decomposing sewage, and emits a most sickening odour. I am strongly of the opinion that it promotes these diseases, and if cholera, typhoid fever, or diarrhoea became epidemic it would spread their ravages to an alarming extent.”
A public meeting convened by a number of doctors that same year discussed: “the best means of abating the nuisance of the obnoxious and poisonous effluvia” from Dublin’s chemical and manure works. A subsequent Leader about Dublin’s air pollution pronounced: “Seven tall chimneys pour forth in volumes rolling pillars of smoke and round the tall chimneys are evolved gases of every description, which unite in the air, and forming a horrible combination steal under doors and windows, and half suffocate people in their beds . . . Even the most innocent of them, on combination with others change their nature and become poisonous. If the breathing be affected and men gasp and pant for purer air, if all things seem to emit a diabolical odour, it is of no satisfaction to them to be told that the gases will not kill them at once.”
Overcrowded cemeteries provoked further ill health. Petitions were heard in 1865 to close a graveyard at St Finbarr’s, Cork. Whenever an internment was made, “several other bodies had to be displaced, some even in a half decomposed stage, and coffins had to be placed near the surface. Bad smells pervade the grounds . . . Very many cases of fever had been admitted into hospital from the neighbourhood . . . a large quantity of nitrates and organic matters in the water of a neighbouring well indicated that the products of decomposition percolated extensively into the surrounding soil.”
The editor made an addendum to this article, directing the attention of the authorities to the “scandalous condition of two grave-yards in the vicinity of Dublin – Killester and Artane; “so little care is taken to inter the remains of children in the grave-yard of Artane that dogs have been known to carry away portions of the half-decomposed bodies.”