Post by Graveyardbride on Apr 2, 2018 23:02:20 GMT -5
Killers in Victorian and Edwardian Homes
The late Victorians and Edwardians lived through a domestic revolution. Theirs was a bold and exciting age of innovation, groundbreaking discoveries and dramatic scientific changes, many of which altered life in the home in profound ways – including some that were unforeseen and deadly. Much of their ingenuity was a response to the challenges of living in the newly booming cities – in 100 years, the urban population of Britain had leapt from two million in 1800 to 20 million at the turn of the 20th century. By 1850, London was the largest city in the world and such enormous concentrations of people posed new problems when it came to feeding, watering and housing the masses. In addition, the newly enriched middle classes – whose incomes had risen as mass production caused the cost of necessities to drop significantly – had more money to spend on luxuries than ever before and those they purchased were designed to transform their homes into comfortable, fashionable havens of domesticity. Yet, many of the products they bought and the inventive technological solutions they created were hazardous to their health and brought hidden killers into the hearts of their homes.
Deadly bread. When basic staples such as bread were produced cheaply and in large quantities for the new city dwellers, Victorian manufacturers seized upon the opportunity to maximize profit by exchanging basic ingredients for cheaper substitutes that would add weight and bulk. Bread was adulterated with plaster of Paris, bean flour, chalk or alum. Alum is an aluminum-based compound, which is used today in detergent, but back then, it was utilized to create whiter and heavier bread. Not only did such adulteration lead to malnutrition, but alum caused stomach problems, including constipation and chronic diarrhea and was often fatal in children.
Murderous milk. Bread was not the only food that was altered – tests on 20,000 milk samples in 1882 revealed that a fifth had been adulterated – but much of this was accomplished not by manufacturers, but by householders themselves. Boric acid was believed to “purify” milk, removing the foul taste of milk that had soured. Mrs. Beeton informed consumers this was “quite a harmless addition,” but she was wrong. Small amounts of boric acid can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, but it was what boric acid concealed that was particularly dangerous. Before pasteurization, milk very often contained bovine tuberculosis, which flourished in the bacteria-friendly environment created by the substance. Bovine TB damages the internal organs and bones of the spine, leading to severe spinal deformities. It is estimated that up to half-a-million children died from bovine TB during the late Victorian era.
Killer staircases. As houses were built rapidly, one area of design that was often overlooked was the staircase, especially the back staircase used by servants. Often too narrow and steep, with irregular steps, these staircases could be deadly. A servant carrying a tray or other heavy item, or a maid wearing a long skirt and petticoats, could easily take a fatal tumble.
Perilous bathrooms. The bathroom as we know it is a Victorian invention, but in the beginning, it could be a dangerous place. In addition to horrific cases of scalding in the bath, there were reports of lavatories spontaneously exploding. This was possible because of inflammable gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide emanating from human waste, building up in the sewers and leaking into the house, where they could theoretically be ignited by the flame of a candle or lamp. Changes to toilets – beginning in the late 18th century and continuing into the Victorian era – eliminated the problem.
Hazardous gaslights. During the late Victorian period, gas lighting and central heating were introduced and in the beginning, both were dangerous because the systems lacked stopcocks and release valves. Reports of exploding stoves and people suffocating as they slept were common. Additionally, there were two types of gas used in Victorian homes, “coal” and natural gas. Coal gas included a lethal combination of hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and sulphur and not only is this an inflammable composition, those in homes and business establishments with poor ventilation risked carbon monoxide suffocation.
To make bad matters worse, as the demand for gas increased and supplies expanded into homes, the industry became more cutthroat. There was no regulation and firms cut corners and attempted to sabotage the competition. Consumers frequently complained of low pressure as a result of numerous fractures and poor joints due to poor workmanship, accidents and sabotage. Of much greater concern, however, were reports of fires, explosions and suffocations. Some have surmised that the Victorian lady’s propensity for fainting was just as likely to be the result of a lack of oxygen as an overly-tight corset. Add electric lighting to the problems associated with gas lighting and heating and the dangers were multiplied.
Lethal electricity. The advent of electricity was extraordinary. Initially, people didn’t know how to use it and warning signs advised them not to approach the electric socket with a match. In the early 20th century, electric companies sought to interest consumers in electric products beyond lighting. Some of these inventions were seriously flawed. For example, the electric tablecloth into which lamps could be directly plugged could turn deadly if someone spilled their beverage – but the real danger came from consumers who attempted to operate too many appliances from a single socket, tried to fix problems themselves and from uninsulated wires. Old newspapers are full of reports of people accidentally electrocuting themselves.
Fatal refrigerators. Domestic refrigerators began to enter the home during the Edwardian era. They were tremendously useful because they kept food from spoiling and owning such a marvelous appliance became fashionable. Unfortunately, their initial designs were fatally flawed: they leaked toxic gases such as ammonia, methyl chloride and sulphur dioxide, which damaged the respiratory system and could lead to death.
Death by wallpaper. The introduction of oil and gas lamps, and the abolition of window taxes in Britain, ensured for the first time that the Victorian middle classes could decorate their walls in the same manner as the upper classes. There was a high demand for wallpapers in Scheele’s Green, a brilliant, long-lasting green created from copper arsenite and accordingly, unbeknownst to many consumers, potentially poisonous. The Times estimated that Victorian British homes contained 100 square miles of arsenic-rich wallpaper.
Combustible celluloid. An oft-forgotten British inventor is Alexander Parkes, who invented the moldable material that we now call plastic. He christened it “parkesine,” but it quickly became known by its American name, “celluloid.” Such early plastics were highly desirable because they allowed everything from brooches and hair combs to billiard balls – previously available in expensive ivory only – to be manufactured cheaply. It was even used to make collars and cuffs that could be easily cleaned. Unfortunately, celluloid is also highly inflammable and as it degrades, can self-ignite and explode upon impact – not ideal for a billiard ball.
Fatal mistakes. Victorians linked cleanliness to morality and respectability and the idea it was next to Godliness was deeply ingrained. The new science of microbes only intensified the Victorian preoccupation with tackling germs, which they now knew could lurk out of sight. Chemical cleaning products used to eradicate dirt and disease were widely advertised and highly effective, but their toxic ingredients, such as carbolic acid, were contained in bottles and packages that were indistinguishable from other household products. People often confused boxes of caustic acid with those of other products, such as baking powder, with disastrous results. In September 1888, the Aberdeen Evening Express reported that 13 people had been poisoned by carbolic acid in a single incident and five of them died. It was not until 1902 that the Pharmacy Act make it illegal for containers of dangerous chemicals to be similar in shape and size to those of ordinary products.
The wonder material. Edwardian engineers thought they’d discovered a wonder material – a mineral that was non-flammable, cheap and clean. It was used for just about everything in the early 20th century home, including hair-dryers, floor tiles, toys, oven gloves, gutters, insulation and clothing. However, the wonder material – asbestos – was, as we now know, deadly. Asbestos fibers can enter the lungs with devastating effects. No one knows the number of deaths that have resulted from asbestos and it remains a lethal health hazard to this day.
Risky radium. A magical new element was discovered in the Edwardian era – a source of energy and brightness that delighted and fascinated consumers – called radium. It was used, like asbestos, in all manner of products, such as cigarettes, condoms, makeup, suppositories, toothpaste and even chocolate. Above all, there was a demand for glow-in-the-dark watch faces, which were painted by the “radium girls.” Yet, as we now well know, radium is a source of radiation poisoning and if ingested, it can lead to anemia, bone fractures, necrosis of the jaw and leukemia.
Bottles of Death. One of the most shocking hidden killers in the Victorian era was the newly-developed baby’s feeding bottle. A curved glass bottle with attached rubber tubing and teat provided the perfect incubators for all manner of life-threatening bacteria – and Mrs. Beeton advised new mothers they needn’t wash the teat for the two or three weeks it lasted. So the porous tubing and teat gave the flourishing bacteria direct access into the bodies of the most vulnerable babes. These artificial teats were the subject of the Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman episode, “Malpractice,” in which Dr. Quinn is sued following the death of a baby.
Toxic toys. Victorian children loved brightly-colored toys and their parents purchased them, unaware the paint that gave them their pleasing appearance contained deadly lead. Children have a habit of putting toys and other items into their mouths and lead paint was sweet, but a single flake was enough to poison a child. Lead attacks the nervous system and even mild lead poisoning can cause encephalopathy and retard a child’s development.
Corsets to die for. Victorian women’s corsets could exert enormous amounts of pressure on the inner organs and distort the liver, constrict the lungs and even displace the uterus. In addition to rendering basic exercise uncomfortable or impossible, they predisposed women to more serious conditions such as pneumonia and prolapse of the uterus, and many women continued to wear them during pregnancy with unhappy results.
Sources: BBC News Magazine, December 16, 2013; Country Life, August 23, 2011; Suzannah Lipscomb, History Extra, April 2013; Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton; and Jonathan Taylor, “Lighting in the Victorian Home,” The Building Conservation Directory.