Nasty coughs in the nineteenth century

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s quite amazing how many people died of chest and lung related complaints in the late nineteenth century.

Not surprising really.

I grew up in Stirling, in Scotland, which was at first glance a quiet middle class sort of place. Today it’s all nice and clean and touristy, but when I was a child people had coal fires, and indeed the town was surrounded by coal mines – I can even remember seeing men coming up from a shift below ground.

Later, in my teens, when I took to hillwalking in the Ochil hills above the town, I can remember the developing pall of smoke on a winter’s afternoon when people lit their fires.

No wonder people died of what are now preventable diseases.

This is confirmed by a New Zealand project looking at the remains and burial records of early settlers in the South Island also shows the prevalance of respiratory diseases, doubtless accentuated by living in damp conditions and breathing in smoke from open fires.

So it’s no surprise that patent medicines like Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound and Baxter’s Lung preserver were popular – probably most of the population would have had a persistent cough over winter.

At least the horehound balsam may have done some good, it’s been used for treating respiratory ailments since Roman times

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rural Oculists in late nineteenth century Victoria

As I’m sure you are all well aware, I’ve been working as a volunteer documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy for the National Trust.

A few months ago, I came across a shoe box containing some boxes of old spectacle frames and spectacle lenses, making it clear that one of the Dow’s pharmacists had doubled up as a oculist.


Which of course makes perfect sense. The pharmacist was of course a trained professional, used to measuring and working with instruments, and given the essentially iterative nature of sight tests would have been able to make up wireframe spectacles to suit from his stock of lenses.

However, until I came across the work of Gemma Almond  yesterday on the take up of spectacles in the late nineteenth century

spectacles 2019-09-13 103338

did it click how much of a nineteenth century phenomenon this was.

Increased literacy, increased access to print material (and nineteenth century newspapers did use pretty small fonts) and of course poor indoor lighting probably meant that more people felt the need for reading glasses, even in what was a rural agricultural community by the 1890’s, the gold having run out a few years previously.

So, just as we see with dentistry, the local pharmacist provided access to optical services. And I would guess, just like dentistry, if you needed more than an eye test and a set of reading glasses, it would mean a trip to the nearest town to see an opthalmologist.

What I don’t (yet) know is how common the phenomenon of the local pharmacist doubling up as an oculist was in country Australia …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Pennies on dead people’s eyes

Yesterday, I tweeted a link to a report from Haaretz on the excavation of Napoleonic era graves on Nelson’s island in Aboukir bay off of Alexandria.

It’s a good read, but there was one thing that struck me as slightly strange.

The report mentioned that one of the bodies had been found with Maltese copper coins on its eyesockets. Puzzlingly, this was ascribed to neo-classicism.

Well, no.

Certainly, Greeks in the classic period would put a coin in the mouth of the deceased to pay the ferryman – a habit that came from the Greeks not having invented pockets, and so they often kept their loose change in their mouths, but what they didn’t do was put coins on the eyes of the dead.

In Ireland and the west of Scotland – basically the Gaelic speaking areas, it was the custom to lay the deceased out for a wake prior to burial. The deceased was either in a winding sheet, or dressed in clothes – coffins were expensive, and while one might have been hired to carry the dead person to the grave, people were not always buried in one.

Now it became the habit to put pennies on the eyes of the deceased to keep the eyes closed and to stop them springing open to muscular contraction – something that if it happened in the midst of a wake must have been deeply disturbing to all concerned.

The pennies on the eyes of the dead thing is not just a Celtic thing – apparently in Hungary, there was similar belief except that there was a superstition that silver coins should be used, otherwise one could see one’s own death foretold in the dead person’s eyes.

(Nowadays morticians often glue the eyelids shut with superglue prior to a viewing of the body.)

But if you research this slightly morbid topic on Google you realise that somewhere in the early twentieth century, penny to pay the ferryman has become conflated with the pennies to keep the eyes shut – perhaps as people increasingly no longer personally prepared the dead for burial…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ceramic medicine pots

Sometime ago I wrote about the paucity of decorative ceramic medicine pots in Australia.

These pots, usually with a nicely printed lid are quite common overseas, but seem to be less common in Australia, and at the time of my initial post I hypothesized that the pots were manufactured and printed overseas, and the expense of importing them made it not worth the effort.

So, just as bottles were valuable and attracted a deposit 

C19 bottle of Whale Oil and 4d deposit label on rear

we might guess that the same applied to ceramic pots.

And that was just a hypothesis until yesterday when I was cataloguing a plain ceramic medicine pot from Duerdin and Sainsbury, a wholesale druggist in Melbourne, who were around from at least the 1860’s until they merged into DHA – Drug Houses of Australia – in 1930.

The pot is quite unremarkable and a little battered


as with all such items an exact date is difficult but stylistically the paper label looks to be late nineteenth rather than early twentieth century


but the real find is a deposit sticker on the base of the pot


which means that Duerdin and Sainsbury considered the pot relatively valuable, and what’s more wanted the pot back for reuse – and 4d was a reasonable sum – using the RBA’s pre decimal inflation calculator, 4d in 1901 comes out at a little over $2.50 today

Annotation 2019-08-01 095521

and closer to $3.50 if it dated from the 1860’s – so, given we don’t know the exact date of the pot, we can wave our hands and say that the 4d deposit was worth around $3 in today’s money – not massive, but certainly enough to make you think twice about throwing the empty item away …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

And it’s not just magnetic media …

Now I know I’ve been banging on about the loss of knowledge as regards analogue magnetic media – audio and video tape – but yesterday I was reminded that it’s not just knowing about magnetic media that’s important.

Yesterday when I was cataloguing some unused films at the project:


Now, the shop closed in 1968, a couple of years after decimalisation, but the film stock is older –  the latest film has an expiry date in the late sixties – March 1969 – but a lot has earlier expiry dates – mostly the mid sixties but some, in an obscure size, the mid fifties of the last century.

I guess, that as the owners never threw anything away they just kept the stale film stock on the shelves in case someone was desperate enough to buy it.

Now, from my teenage years well into the nineteen nineties I was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, developing and printing my own pictures – even had my own home lab at one stage, and consequently I thought I would be reasonably familiar with the material – Kodachrome, Tri-X, EktaChrome and Ilford FP4 and HP5 – all as 35mm film of course, and consequently should be fairly straightforward to document.

Well, how the mighty are fallen.

Well there’s a small amount of 35mm film, but most of it was in earlier formats 120, 127 and even 616, but no 126 film, which was strange it was first released in 1963, but at least all the formats that I found had been documented.

But it was a different story with the film types. While some that were still in use in the 1990’s, such as Kodak Tri-X and Ektachrome were documented it was a different story for the earlier types Kodak Verichrome, Ilford HPS, FP3, Sellochrome are sparsely documented if at all.

I suspect that the reason is that while amateur and professional photographers produced reasonable documentation on the films they used from the beginning of the web- say the mid nineties – until film stopped being a mainstream medium a decade or so later, they never documented what they never used, never bothered scanning spec sheets etc.

There is some information out there on photographic chat boards about what these few people mad enough to still do wet film processing did to successfully process and recover images from old exposed unprocessed films, but that’s as far as it goes – a lot of the basic information is simply missing – or if it’s still around is sitting dustily and ignored in some photographic society archive.

Now, in the scale of things, it’s nothing big, but just suppose we found a bag of unprocessed film cassettes containing images related to the early American or Soviet space missions, or old roll film with pictures taken during the heroic ages of archaeology and anthropology – how good a job could we do of recovering the images ?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The dimming of the late 20th century

I’ve recently blogged about digitising analogue tape cassettes, and reading old 9 track tapes, both of which covered the problem of getting data back from old media.

The equipment goes, people retire, and suddenly the data’s inaccessible. It’s inaccessible because not only does the hardware cease to work, the people with the expertise get old and retire.

It’s not a new problem – it’s been known about for at least 10 years, but it’s an increasing problem.

For example, when I started at York in the mid 1980’s we had a room with various computers in it, all of which had different disk formats – even if they looked the same you couldn’t read a 3.5” Mac disk on an Apricot, or a PC. and much the same could be said for 5.25” floppy disks – some were single sided, some double sided, and some had decidedly weird sector maps.

Our solution at the time was to connect all the various machines to the university VAX cluster, and transfer files as binary items using the Kermit file transfer program, Kermit having the advantage of being truly multiplatform and error correcting, so that what was sent was the same as received.

We usually then converted word processor document to a standard format such as Wordstar, using a specialist software conversion tool such as word for word. (Word for word is long gone but many of its conversion filters live on in Libre Office. AbiWord also supports a range of exotic conversion filters such as TeX.)

Nowadays, we probably couldn’t provide such a service. The machines are either dead or in the case of York,  donated to the Jim Austin computer collection, and we may no longer be able to read the media, or identify which machine wrote it – after all one 3.5” disk looks very much like another.

However, it’s also the death of expertiese. I am retired and what’s more live 20,000km away, and most  of my colleagues who had anything to do with file conversion and equally retired and equally scattered if not quite so far away.

And this constitutes a problem. We’re getting older, perhaps forgetful, and not close to the hardware, and I’m sure there’s valuable data out there sitting on someone’s shelf in a box of old floppies  …

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Nineteenth century lunacy in the Cape Colony

A few months ago, I wrote about lunacy in the Victorian goldfields in the nineteenth century, or rather I didn’t, but I did pose the question about the treatment of the wandering disturbed who inevitably would have been attracted to the goldfields and who possibly eked out a living begging and doing odd jobs on the fringes of goldfields society.

I recently came across a South African book – Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Late 19th Century – which I bought for its title alone, thinking that it would deal with the wandering lunatics that would have equally been attracted to the goldfields and diamond mines of late nineteenth century South Africa.

The book didn’t turn out to be that – rather more an account based on nineteenth century colonial records on the treatment and management of the mentally ill in the Cape Colony, something that appears to have been done with some compassion, despite either the lack of facilities or real knowledge of mental illness.

Prior to the mid nineteenth century, the mentally ill were either cared for by their families, or else rejected and left to wander the countryside. Only if they were violent psychopaths were they confined, and then more society’s protection than their own good.

All colonial societies faced the problem of those who arrived, became mentally ill, and having no family to care for them, became a problem for society, and hence the establishment of asylums to care for these unfortunate individuals.

In fact the colonial administration tried, where possible to track down family members who might be willing to bear the costs of treatment, as well as passing laws to discourage the mentally ill being dumped in the colony – the fear being that ‘mad cousin Charles’ would be sent out to the colony to get them out of the way,

What emerges though is a vivid picture of the treatment of the mentally ill, and one aspect that I had not really thought of – the difficulty of transport of the mentally ill in a developing colony – such as the tale of a disturbed woman confined for her own safety in ‘a brick shed in the wilds of Pondoland’, miles from any railhead.

Presumably the shed was used as the only secure accomadation available, and even then the local magistrate was concerned that her repeated attempts to dig her way out of the earth floored building would lead to a wall collapsing and injuring her.

Likewise, there were the cases of women, mainly Russian Jews, fleeing persecution in their native company, who were stressed and traumatised by the experience of losing everything and being at risk of rape and exploitation while fleeing, and who, when pregnant or when they gave birth suffered episodes of extreme anguish.

We learn of these cases of course, precisely because these women were refugees, with little or no immediate family to turn to, and therefore were subject to discussion by the Colonial authorities.

And while there were attempts to recover costs, there was also a degree of reciprocity amongst the various settler polities in Southern Africa, including were, in the case both Rhodesia and the German colony of South West Africa facilities to care for the disturbed were less developed (or in the case of Rhodesia in the early days, non existent) that it was better that individuals be treated in South Africa.

Treatment of course, at this time essentially being confining disturbed individuals somewhere separate from the rest of society, and at the same time providing a relatively stress free environment in the hope that the individual might in time recover.

There were no anti psychotic drugs, or punitive treatments such as electroconvulsive shock at this time, so other than attempts to calm disturbed individuals through the use of opiates, treatment usually consisted of rest and what might now be called occupational therapy through gardening and handicrafts.

So, an interesting book, even if it covered a different aspect of the topic than I expected …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment