Monday, 13 July 2015

In Guelph and in poor health

Postcards are generally noted for their sunny views and sunny messages. Messages on postcards are often confined to mundane expressions about good health, such as "we are all fine" and "hope this post card finds you well." However, that is not always the case. Sometimes, postcards convey messages about ill health, from simply feeling poorly to reports of fatalities. It is interesting to look through the messages found on postcards for these unusual but sometimes telling glimpses into how people experienced illness in the Edwardian era. In this posting, I will share a few messages relating to illness from my collection. For the sake of focus and space, I will restrict the messages to physical illness—thus excluding psychological problems like home sickness—and set aside injuries such as work related accidents (where the distinction is clear).

First of all, illness is often mentioned simply in order to explain or excuse people's manner of writing. A simple example would be the following from a postcard postmarked in 1908:

Was ill on Sunday and have been too busy to write since. Am all right now. G.
Sending a postcard saying that you cannot write may sound like an oxymoron. However, in the Edwardian era, it was usually the case that only a full letter counted as "writing". A mere postcard with a line or two did not qualify. Here, the postcard mentions an illness to excuse the fact that "G" has not written when that might have been expected. Nothing serious.

Besides excusing one's own want of letter writing, postcards describing illness could be used to prompt letters from others. I have the sense that such prompting is partly behind the following message addressed to Master L. Frayer of Galt on 11 April 1907:

Apr. 11/09 // My Dear Lauren // Are you ever going to write to me again[?] have been looking for a letter the last few days. If P. comes up on S. tell him to bring me Mrs. (??) have not been so well the last few days but hope to be well soon. Love ??
Postcards were frequently used to scold tardy letter writers, and the mention of illness might be a kind of passive-aggressive measure to help ensure an appropriate response. After all, every sick person wanted letters of sympathy and well-wishes.

Winter was a particularly bad time for the flu. Postcards mailed in January, February, or March that mention illness often relate to the flu. In my collection, the French term "la grippe" is often used to designate the flu, as in this message from a postcard mailed on 26 January 1906:

... These are real spring days surely, but so much La Grippe am afraid to say I’ve escaped so far, but hope it continues. I believe in preventatives and so far it’s alright. I suppose you’re not looking for anything more or have you been in style[?] I believe you were too. Hope your throat is O.K. by now. ... Jean.
In the era before vaccinations, the annual flu was a risk that was hard to avoid, apart from the use of "preventatives", to which we will return.

Some postcards mention chronic conditions, such as asthma. Here is one example, sent to Mrs. Henry Sanders of Detroit on 25 September 1907, which mentions asthma in conjunction with a number of other ailments:

Guelph, Sept. 25, 1911 // Dear Cousin. // A few lines to let you know we are still living. But Richard is layed [sic] up with the asthma. Hope yours are all well. Did you hear Uncle George burried [sic] his youngest son Eddie and his wife is laying very low[;] waiting for her to go off at anytime. She may be dead by now. I have not wrote to your mother yet but will try & soon write to her. Mother is very poorly. How is Bertha do you hear & her baby. good by with love & best wishes from your loving cousin Bertha. I got your card & book all O.K. Write soon.
Some families seemed to get more than their fair share of troubles!

As a chronic condition, asthma could be quite limiting, as noted in this post card sent to Miss E. M. Wade of Smithville, Ontario:

Dear Eleanor :- Maude & Rob went to Toronto fair to-day so I am taking care of the children. we have just been down town for ice cream. we were going to Riverside Park, but it started to sprinkle so we had to come in. Robert is just so wheezy as can be. It is awful to be so susceptible to cold. ...
The term asthma is not used, but it seems to apply to poor, young Robert.

Serious illnesses seem to have been regarded with more resignation than might be the case today. For example, a half-dozen cases of mumps today is a major concern (and properly so). Old postcards reporting incidents of such diseases of childhood seem to treat it rather matter-of-factly. For example, this line was addressed to "Master Herbert Nelson" of Sarnia in 1909:

How is that “measley” boy coming up? Your Old Aunt.
Herbert was about 10 years old at the time and measles would have been a common ailment for a boy that age. Certainly, his aunt seems unfazed at the news.

Infectious diseases became more ominous during the First World War. Large camps full of soldiers in crowded quarters made for an elevated risk of outbreaks. For example, smallpox and diphtheria were on the rise in Ontario (Globe; 8 Jan. 1915) with a serious smallpox outbreak occurring in the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford. As a result, recruits in central and western Ontario were ordered vaccinated against those illnesses (Globe; 20 Jan. 1915). Perhaps this outbreak explains the following postcard message from Agnes Stewart to Miss Annie McCaig of Sarnia (2 Feb. 1915):

My dear Annie, Did you know that I had come here [Guelph General] as resident nurse? Your Aunt & I are good friends and she wishes to thank you for your letter & all the news you gave her. She did not know about the smallpox. She is well & hopes you will write again to her. Kind regards. Agnes Stewart // Glad you all getting well. Take care of yourself.
It sounds like Annie may have had a case, although a minor one.

Undoubtedly, the gravest epidemic of the period was the Spanish flu. Its origin is contested but the concentration of soldiers in Europe and North America helped it to spread rapidly around the globe. It is estimated to have infected 500 million people and killed at least 50 million, making it one of the deadliest disasters in human history. Some 50,000 Canadians are thought to have died of it. The flu continued to circulate well into the 1920s and was known for striking down people who were otherwise quite healthy, often devastating families. One report of the flu in Wellington County is given in a lengthy postcard (in tiny writing) from "Edith" in Erin to her cousin Susan, Mrs. H. H. Harding, of Guelph on 29 March 1920:

Dear Cousin.. Your card received O.K. Glad to hear from you. But sorry to hear you all have been sick with the flu. But oh how thankful you should be that yous [sic] have come through it safely when so many have died lately. There’s a young boy up the lane died this week, and young married women up at Orangeville I used to go to school with died and left 4 little children - the oldest 6 and baby 8 months[.] she was only 23-years old herself. ...
There must have been many more such sad stories related in the postcards of that time.

Some illnesses were more mysterious and seemingly arbitrary. Postcard descriptions convey a sense of helplessness, as in this example addressed to Miss Bessie Reid of Mobeetie Texas on 1 September 1910:

Guelph Sep 1st // Dear Children // John is sitting up today is feeling pretty well but cannot rise his legs yet at all nor his hands hope he will get better of that love from Mama
Here is a similar example, addressed to Mrs. D. C. Parsons of Davenport, Iowa on 19 November 1910:
Saturday, Mother still keeps growing weaker. face enlarging & discharging very rapidly. Little Sadie is not expected to live with Brain Fever. - has had the fever about 3 days. - E. Jaap
The term "brain fever" is a Victorian one that could refer to any number of illnesses, thought to have been brought on by some severe, emotional distress. Brain fever tended to be a life-threatening ailment.

In the face of these various threats to health, Guelphites of the day responded in various ways, including the use of "preventatives", as mentioned earlier. Some of these prophylactics seem to have been folk remedies, as suggested in this message from a card sent to Mrs. J. N. Babson of Cleveland on 14 November 1906:

... The cold is about all gone - took a proper dose of “onion” yesterday fore-noon - concluded my experimental dose had been insufficient. Met E. Crowe - she says K. is better. L.
L. does not say what a "dose of onion" would be but it sounds like a household cure. Onions are still held to have curative powers.

In her book, How to be a Victorian (pp. 270ff), Ruth Goodman notes that people of the era were the objects of a barrage of drug advertising. Such ads promised good health if only the reader would keep a stock of patent medicines on hand, perhaps taking them regularly or, at least, at the first sign of discomfort. Each advertised physic was said to be able to mitigate or cure a wide variety of ailments. For example, consider the text from an ad for Dr. Wood's Norway Pine Syrup that mixes fear, hyperbole, and neuroticism in its appeal to potential customers (Globe, 31 March 1906):

More terrible than war!

More terrible than war, famine, or pestilence is that awful destroyer, that hydra-headed monster, Consumption, that annually sweeps away more of earth's inhabitants than any other single disease known to man.
"It is only a cold, a trifling cough," say the careless, as the irritation upon the delicate mucous membrane causes them to hack away with an irritable tickling of the throat. When the irritation settles on the mucous surface of the throat, a cough is the result. To prevent Bronchitis of Consumption of the Lungs, do not neglect a cough however slight as the irritation spreading throughout the delicate lining of the sensitive air passages soon leads to fatal results. If on the first appearance of a cough or cold you would take a few doses of Dr. Wood's Norway Pine Syrup you would save yourself a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Dr. Wood's Norway Pine Syrup contains all the life-giving properties of the pine trees of Norway, and for Asthma, Croup, Whooping Cough and all Throat and Lung affections it is a specific. Be sure when you ask for Dr. Wood's Norway Pine Syrup to get it. Don't be humbugged into taking something else. Price 25 cents.
Miss Lena Johnston, Toledo, Ont., writes: "I have used Dr. Wood's Norway Pine Syrup for throat troubles after taking numerous other remedies, and I must say that nothing can take the place of it. I would not be without a bottle of it in the house."
Is it a coincidence that "Pine Syrup" is being sold by a man whose name is "Dr. Wood"? The leading tuberculosis researcher of the day, Robert Koch of Germany, had tried and failed to find an effective treatment for tuberculosis ("consumption"), so it seems all the more like that "Dr. Wood" is a pseudonym and his specific a "humbug".

The ad makes broad claims for the power of this specific, without saying much about the nature of the "life-giving properties of the pine trees of Norway." The contents of such specifics, tonics, and the like were not regulated and could contain a variety of powerful drugs (Goodman 2013, p. 282):

Morphine, opium, cocaine, laudanum, heroin, chloroform, ether, aspirin and cannabis were all purchasable, without any form of medical supervision, and for a very few pence.
As a result, Goodman observes, addiction to these medicines was all too common. Although people sometimes fell ill and even died from these addictions, addiction was not recorded as a cause of death at the time. Thus, anyone, even children, reported to have "wasted away", "died in his sleep" or perished from a "brain fever" may have suffered from a drug overdose.

Scepticism about these tonics had prompted some official investigation. Specifically, governments of the era were concerned with "adulteration", that is, the inclusion of fraudulent ingredients in drugs (or foods). For example, a preliminary investigation by the US Inland Revenue Department found that many over-the-counter drugs contained very little active ingredient and a great deal of alcohol, up to 40% (Globe, 28 Feb. 1906):

These preparations contain so small an amount, if any, of effective drugs or medicines, and so large an amount of alcohol as to make their use as intoxicants not uncommon.
Being so potent, the medicines would have an obvious and immediate impact and at least give the taker the impression that they were taking some effective action to treat themselves. With so much alcohol in common medicines, the Inland Revenue investigators suggested that druggists should require a liquor license to sell them.

Illnesses that did not simply go away or yield to the confections of druggists might result in a visit to the doctor. Once prohibitively expensive for most, visits to a doctor had become more affordable for the Edwardian middle class in Guelph. In that light, there were times when a doctor's attention was definitely what was required, as in the case mentioned in this postcard by "Fred", which was never addressed or sent:

The Dr. lanced my face four or five days ago. it was as big as a tea cup. I think it must be from the poison ivy. I was some sick. all kinds of pain and sick feeling and weak. I could hardly walk. I hope I will be able to come in the Freight. It will be some experience. Coming with the cattle. we might only bring the sixteen cattle we have already bought. I haven’t shaved for a week. I will have some whiskers when I come home. Eddie has had a bad cold. We got lots of warm clothes for him before he starts. Fred
I imagine that Fred's face must have hurt for a while after that experience!

Of course, some ailments demanded a trip to one of Guelph's hospitals. Hospitals and nursing facilities were a point of pride in the Royal City, and were depicted frequently in postcards of the Edwardian era. Many postcard messages also speak of stays in hospital. With some good fortune, the hospital was a place where sick people could recuperate from their illnesses, as mentioned in this postcard to Mrs. H. C. Schumm of Baden, Ontario on 18 June 1912:

G. General Hospital // Dear Alice // I have been perched up on pillows to-day but am down flat again. Come to see me soon as you can. this is my first writing. I am tired so good bye. With love, Luella
Another postcard dated 23 June notes that Luella had left the hospital for Hespeler, so I assume that she had recovered by that time.

Luella gives the General Hospital as her address. Also, the card depicts the hospital itself, as shown below.

The card was published around 1910 by the Illustrated Post Card Co., Montreal. It was evidently taken in the spring before the foliage could completely obscure the building. It may be that the hospital kept a stock of such cards on hand for the use of patients and assisted in getting them into the mail.

The old General Hospital was located roughly where the Medical Health Centre on 75 Delhi St. currently sits (just down the road from the current hospital), which you can see in the Google Street View image below.

The hospital is where operations for various ailments might be performed, as mentioned in this postcard from Lena Martin to Miss Martha Polzen of Berlin (now Kitchener) on 13 June 1910:

Guelph. June 12th/10 // Thought I would let you know that Katie is at the General Hospital at Guelph from an operation for appendiscitis [sic] a week ago. is doing nicely but may have to undergone [sic] another operation soon for internial [sic] trouble. With love, Lena Martin per Katie Bachert
Wasn't it nice of Katie to write this postcard on Lena's behalf? The operation was probably performed in the east wing (right in the postcard), named the Victoria Jubilee Wing after the Queen's Jubilee when its construction began in 1887 (Golden Jubilee: School for Nurses, 1938). That wing contained the first proper operating theatre in the hospital. Happily for Katie, the appendectomy operation had been well advanced by 1910. Before about 1885, most sufferers of appendicitis were expected to die of infection.

Of course, not all operations were expected to succeed, as reported matter-of-factly in this postcard by Susie sent to Mrs. Noah Sunley of Chilliwack on 16 August 1912:

Thur evening Aug 16th // Dear Mother:— I hope you are enjoying yourself. We are all well at present. We throw in with the haying and started harvest. G. Swan went through a very serious operation Tues. Very little hopes for him. We will write a letter in a few days. Dont’ forget to write again as we do enjoy your letters. hoping all is well. Bye Bye. Your daughter, Susie.
With a few exceptions, surgery remained the treatment of last resort for those who were unwell in Guelph.

The messages conveyed in postcards tend to be brief and quotidian. Mentions of health are often confined to "we are well" and "hope you are fine." For such reasons, postcard messages are often overlooked in favour of their pictures. Yet, postcard messages can serve to illustrate the life experiences of their writers, and postcards on the experience of illness seem to bear this out. In messages like the ones above, we get a glimpse through a proverbial keyhole of what it meant when you were not well in the Royal City of about 100 years ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment