Have a drink with: Your Local Mountebank
Healthcare! Fireworks! Toads!
Ask him about: What ails you
We’re all getting a lot of weird healthcare advice lately, and I admit that it’s hard to stomach the idea that our country, which vanquished polio and smallpox with scientific elbow grease, is entertaining the medical expertise of a presidential toady who thinks endometriosis happens when you have a demon boyfriend. But history has long tolerated – and even encouraged – the side hustle of non-traditional medical practitioners, and we continue to use some of their lingo even today.
Have a drink with: The 1919 Anti-Mask League
NO BARS, okay? NO.
Ask them about: Coughing in large groups
Since COVID-19 became a public health emergency in March, different cities and states have responded with protective measures, many of them including a recommendation or a requirement to wear a mask when in proximity to other people. These mandates have drawn protest from opponents, many of whom feel that masks are unnecessary, ineffective or a violation of individual rights. We can take a lesson from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, during which relaxed mask requirements may well have contributed to a resurgence of the virus in the San Francisco area after an initially successful lockdown period.
During the 1918-1919 flu, many Americans were big fans of masks – Red Cross workers made sure they were making and distributing tons, the Levi Strauss company went from making jeans to mask production, and as Atlas Obscura has pointed out, some people even masked their pets. But the flu roared back after an initial lull in illness, and a portion of Bay Area residents were not at all eager to mask back up. In language that could well have come from modern news reports, anti-maskers complained about masks being useless, about “political doctors,” and about “an infringement of our personal liberty.” In January 1919, a crowd of more than four thousand people gathered at a local rink to protest the passage of the city’s mask ordinance.
Have a drink of: ANYTHING BUT BLEACH.
Disinfectants are not medicine.
Ask about: No. Don’t. Just DON’T.
I can’t believe I have to say this, much less marshal the historical evidence to prove it, but, please: don’t drink bleach. Don’t inhale bleach. Don’t inject bleach. DON’T USE BLEACH TO DO ANYTHING BUT CLEAN UP AROUND THE HOUSE.
For more on the dark history of what has happened every time people have tried to do this in the past (and, oh yes, they most certainly have) – click through to my essay at Medium.
Have a drink with: William Banting
Keto, paleo, intermittent fasting? Nope: BANTING.
Ask him about: before and after pics
When the Paleo diet became popular in the early oughts and the ketogenic diet more recently supplanted it as a nutritional craze, keen-eyed historians noticed something familiar about these diets’ recommendations to hork down all the meat you can get your mitts on, guilt-free: specifically, that it wasn’t especially new. Was this all that different, they wondered, from the low-carb, high-fat diet Dr. Robert Atkins had first published in 1972? Was this just a forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress?
To which I say: of course not. It’s a HUNDRED-and-forty-some-odd-year-old diet fad in a new dress. I’m over at Narratively today with more about William Banting, the Victorian royal undertaker who, yes, popularized low-carb dieting.
Click over to Narratively for the full story.
Have a drink with: Single Ladies (Halloween Edition)
Burning hair, apples, chicken guts, lead poisoning.
Ask her about: Do you know the Heimlich maneuver?
For most of American history, Halloween was not a holiday for children. Quite the opposite: to the extent Halloween was celebrated at all, by the 19th century it was known as an occasion for creepy seances or playful mischief-making by the adolescent set, where “playful” is mostly a euphemism for “requiring the assistance of the fire department.” (So intense was the prankster habit that one local fire chief sighed that, while he had no problem with teens celebrating the holiday with some reasonable pranking, “when droves of youngsters march through the streets pelting citizens and houses with vegetables he will make somebody answer for it.”)
People at the turn of the century would have had no concept of Halloween as the sort of holiday with small children playing charming dress-up, adults playing unnecessarily sexualized dress-up (seriously: WHY?), and everybody just doing it all for the Snickers bars.
They were too busy looking for their future spouse in the basement mirror.
Have a drink with: The Store Detective
Enemy of deviant feminist candy thieves!
Ask her about: hiding a football field’s worth of fabric in your skirt
The modern department store came into its own in the 19th century, as retailers jumped feet-first into the growing Barnumesque sense of spectacle suddenly required to get a consumer’s attention (and their disposable income) in a mass-media society. In an effort to court customers, and to change what it even meant to “need” something, 19th century department stores went all-out in terms of decor and attraction: one Chicago store contained a “reproduction of a gold mine in active operation,” and a New York store had live lizards on hand to add some extra flair to a display, meaning that eventually “the police had to interfere to disperse the crowds.” Other stores offered enticements – free ice cream, a complimentary tea salon, cooking classes.
Much as people joke today about the porn industry being the inevitable first-to-market as far as any technology is concerned, department stores were that innovator in the 19th century. If you wanted to see huge plate glass windows, elevators and escalators, or grand displays of electric lighting, department stores were the place to go – and they were remarkable in that they were specific retail spaces in ways none had been before. Window shopping, for the first time, became a thing.
Stealing also became a thing.
Have a drink with: The Yale Medical School Class of 1824
Did you bring a shovel?
Ask them about: Buying your own school supplies
On a cold January morning almost 200 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, someone came knocking on Jonathan Knight’s door. This itself was not necessarily unusual, as Knight had his thumb in many of the town’s proverbial pies: in addition to serving as a local doctor, he was also a professor at the young Medical Institution of Yale College. What was unusual, for the pre-breakfast slot on a Monday morning, was that the caller was a lawyer named General Kimberly, and that he was deeply concerned that some of the school’s medical students had apparently and emphatically not spent their Sunday at church.
Have a drink with: Dr. James Barry
Poodle enthusiast, dandy, ace physician
Ask them about: trans soldiers
On July 26, President Trump announced a ban on transgender military service, citing the unsubstantiated likelihood that trans soldiers would subject the military to increased medical costs and an unacceptable degree of “disruption.” LGBT rights groups have since filed suit.
For proof that military accomplishment and gender fluidity readily walk hand in hand, we can look to James Barry, a 19th century military surgeon in the British Army who, unbeknownst to nearly everyone in his life, had been born Margaret Ann Bulkeley.
Have a drink of: homemade 19th century cold medicine
Ask your doctor if it’s right for you!
Side effects may include: vomiting, euphoria, dysphoria, poetry, death.
Getting the sniffles now that winter is upon us? For a fun holiday project, make like it’s the Victorian era and mix up some DIY cough syrup, as directed by the January 1842 issue of the New-York Visitor and Lady’s Album (basically: antebellum Cosmo, with more engravings and fewer sex tips):
Three pops of this each day, and your cough will be gone in no time! Withdrawal symptoms may take a while.