Friday, September 27, 2013

Diphtheria Epidemic

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

"Diphtheria prevails to no little extent in Geneva, although there have been but few fatal cases." This brief notice in the October 4, 1878 Geneva Gazette marks the first mention of what would come to be one of the worst epidemics in the community's history. By April 1879 at least 75 people, mostly children, lost their lives. Over 400 of the village's residents fell ill with the disease between September and March 1879. Whole families became sick, and a few parents lost all of their children to the disease. Some people had relatively mild cases, but others had the particularly frightening "membraneous" type, in which a thick gray substance formed over the throat causing the victim to gasp and choke when breathing.
Window in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church tower dedicated to the ten members of the Sunday School class who died in the diphtheria epidemic.
Most Americans today have no experience with this disease, which has been largely eliminated in the west due to vaccination. Symptoms include a sore throat, fever, chills and swollen glands. The illness itself is not deadly, but the diphtheria bacteria can produce a deadly toxin that causes heart damage, nerve damage, paralysis, and lung infection. It is one of many ailments that is particularly devastating to children, but can kill anyone, even those who have had it before.
Aside from dealing with the fear that normally accompanies a disease epidemic, Genevans in 1878 also had no understanding of the cause of diphtheria, nor any real defense against it. The scientific revolution in medicine was just beginning in Europe, and medicine was not yet synonymous with science. Particularly in the United States, there were almost no standards for medical education, nor were there standards for diagnosing disease. Any sore throat could be labeled diphtheria, particularly by an inexperienced doctor. Doctors were free to follow any treatments they believed worked, and they relied on personal observation and experience, rather than evidence, to diagnose and treat illness. As a result, theories of disease causation and treatment varied from the reasonable to the ridiculous.

Some believed open drains, dirt roads and streets strewn with manure caused the 1878 diphtheria epidemic. Castle Street, c. 1870s.
One popular theory circulating in the late 19th-century posited that sewage and filth caused disease. "Filth" could refer to human and animal excrement, trash, swampy land, or rotting plant or vegetable matter. Recognition that water supplies were connected to the spread of diseases like typhoid and cholera led people to conclude that many other ailments resulted from water and air contaminants. One headline in the Geneva Gazette during the epidemic read "Malarial Disease and Its Remedy." The article went on to decry that "Geneva is deplorably defective in sewerage. Without it many people have been accustomed to drain into several little open streams which have their outlets into the lake and canal." The newspapers were full of letters and editorials on the danger of open drains and piles of dead leaves, and the need for a sanitary sewer and safe water system. A sewer system might have prevented waterborne diseases, but would have done nothing to stop the spread of diphtheria, which is transmitted by airborne secretions or contaminated items, like utensils or clothing.

The boards leading from South Main Street’s sidewalks allowed pedestrians to step over the filth in the gutters.

There was some recognition that the disease could be passed from one person to another, but there was no quarantine in effect. By late October, the village Board of Health made several regulations to try to control the spread of the disease, declaring that "The body of every person who has died of diphtheria or scarlet fever, shall be immediately enclosed in an air-tight coffin..." and "No person shall enter any house where there is a case of diphtheria or scarlet fever, unless invited for the purpose of assistance...and no visit shall be made after death..." It did not help that many victims had mild infections, and people assumed the mild form was not as communicable as the "malignant" form. In all likelihood, this difference in severity was not due to the infection itself, but whether or not the diphtheria bacteria had produced its deadly toxin.
Druggist E. Maynard in a mid-November article advocated "the unceasing use of disinfectants in the sick-room and in every room adjoining, and every vessel, slop-jar, etc., etc. that shall contain any secretion of the sick." He went on to recommend burying all clothing or bed clothes that came in contact with discharges from the patient's mouth and washing clothes in carbolic acid. These precautions probably did help prevent transmission of the disease. On the other hand, the next article advocated gargling with kerosene oil as a cure. Many people recognized their helplessness in the face of this disease, "confess[ing] that when [diphtheria] advances to a certain stage, poisoning the blood in the arteries and veins, a cure is impossible."

List of Deaths, Geneva Gazette, November 29, 1878
Among the dead were dry goods merchant George Seelye and his only two children. His wife survived. Civil War veteran Dr. Calvin H. Carpenter, while treating patients with the disease, watched it take his own 11-year old son before he himself fell ill. The doctor's brother then died of it. Three other village doctors also saw their children die. African-American Charles Gates lost his 6-year old daughter Lena May. Machinist Mathew Easterbrook died at 54 years old. Several Hobart students fell ill and the college closed for two weeks. One went home to Syracuse to die there. A sales agent for the Geneva Courier who had just moved from Bellona fled back there with his children, only to watch them both die.
Matthew Easterbrook.

Then in December new cases slowed. From 10-15 deaths a week, losses fell to two or three, then one or two a month. People had no explanation and turned to religion for consolation. Said one mother, "I was distracted when my Bessie went but now I am calm. Bessie and Gracie are together, and safe, safe from every danger."
The village began to examine the cost and methods of creating a sanitary water and sewer system, but the cost was high and many did not think it worthwhile. Over the next decade village voters rejected plans to fund a sewer system multiple times. The community continued to use Castle Creek as an open drain and deposited sewage in Seneca Lake. It would be more than twenty years until the city created a sewer system--about the same time the diphtheria bacteria was identified and an anti-toxin and vaccine were developed, finally preventing the countless deaths caused by the disease.

For more information - 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Neither shall there by any more pain

By Alice Askins, Site Manager at Rose Hill

New York February 24, 1851  
My Dear Margaret
. . . Caroline is now doing very well & has one of the prettiest little girls I ever saw. . . [she] had a better time than usual[,] she took the Ether & did not know when the child was born.”  
Mary Saidler Swan to her daughter-in-law, Margaret Swan

The quest to eliminate pain goes back at least to 3,000 years BCE.  Early cultures used various preparations, including alcohol, opium, and cannabis to relieve pain.  The first documented use of general anesthesia during surgery was performed by the Japanese doctor Hanaoka Seishu.  Trained in both Chinese herbal medicine and Western surgical techniques, Dr. Hanaoka worked for years to develop a compound of plant extracts that would numb pain and cause temporary unconsciousness.  His first recorded operation using his formula took place in October 1804, when he performed a partial mastectomy for breast cancer on a woman named Kan Aiya.  Because the government of Japan kept the country isolated from the rest of the world, Dr. Hanaoka’s achievements were not known in the larger world during his lifetime.   By the time the isolation ended in 1854, different techniques for general anesthesia had already been independently developed in America and Europe.

Dr. Hanaoka Seishu

By the late 1830s, Western doctors and scientists had experimented with such compounds as nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform.  The interest at that time was in the altered consciousness the compounds caused.  Traveling lecturers would hold public gatherings called “ether frolics,” where members of the audience inhaled ether or nitrous oxide to demonstrate their mind-altering qualities and entertain the onlookers.  Several men who participated in these events later used these substances as medical anesthesia.

Dr. Crawford Long practiced in Jefferson, Georgia.  As a student the University of Pennsylvania, he attended ether frolics.  Long noted that some participants experienced bumps and bruises, but afterward had no memory of the injuries.  In March 1842, he gave ether to James Venable, in order to remove a tumor from the man's neck.  In December 1845, Long first used ether as an anesthetic during childbirth.  The patient’s name seems not to have been recorded.  Because Dr. Long wanted to test ether in many patients over time, before publishing his findings, he did not at first receive credit for his pioneering work.  There was, in fact, considerable controversy about who first used ether for anesthesia, but now Dr. Long’s work is being recognized.

Dr. Crawford Long
We do know the names of two women who became well-known for using anesthesia in childbirth.  Frances “Fanny” Appleton Longfellow, wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, bore six children.  When her third child was born on April 7, 1847, Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep administered ether to her.  She later wrote,

I did it for the good of women everywhere as no woman should have to suffer that much pain. I am very sorry you all thought me so rash and naughty in trying the ether. Henry's faith gave me courage and I had heard such a thing had succeeded in abroad where the surgeons extend this great blessing more boldly and universally than our timid doctors.... This is certainly the greatest blessing of this age.

Fanny Longfellow with her sons
Emma Darwin, the wife of naturalist Charles Darwin, also tried anesthesia.  Darwin gave chloroform to his wife for the last two of her eight births. The first time she used chloroform was also in 1847, and for the next (and final) birth she is said to have screamed, “Get me the chloroform.”

Historians debate whether conservative clergymen objected to obstetric anesthesia on Biblical grounds.  In Scotland,  Sir James Young Simpson, who advocated chloroform and painless delivery, faced objections from certain Calvinists, who cited Genesis 3:16:   "Unto the woman he said, 'I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.'”  Opponents interpreted this passage to mean that God wanted women to suffer in childbirth.  It seems, though, that religious opposition to anesthesia was from a vocal minority.  There were also many doctors who were understandably cautious about anesthesia, because it could present dangers to mother and child.

There was a third woman who used anesthesia for childbirth, and she was famous before the issue arose.   Queen Victoria’s eighth child was born in 1853, with his mother under an accurate and controlled dose of chloroform.  She reported, "Dr. Snow gave that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure.”  Her example broke down barriers against the practice.  In fact, though, as Dr.  Simpson said,

Medical men may oppose for a time the superinduction of anaesthesia in parturition, but they will oppose it in vain; for certainly our patients themselves will force use of it upon the profession. The whole question is, even now, one merely of time.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children, 1857

Caroline Post Swan (Margaret Swan’s sister-in-law) tried “the ether” in 1851, before even Queen Victoria.  We might consider her a pioneer as well.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Doing Research

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

In June, I wrote about writing exhibits. I probably should have written this blog first, about researching for exhibits. However, it came to mind this month as I’m teaching Public History: The Theory and Practice of Making History Relevant at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Teaching something that you’ve done automatically for many years forces you stop and think about the activity more closely.

Kerry Lippincott, our director, asked me to develop a display on Prohibition in Geneva for November’s Geneva Night Out. It’s a pretty general subject with a definite deadline. We agreed this would be a good project for college students to work on. I wrote up an assignment and gave them a list of suggested topics. Each student will do a short product on a specific part of “Prohibition in Geneva.”

Almost immediately, I began hearing, “I can’t find anything on my topic.” I think some students see assignments as tests or as artificial exercises – “the professor knows the answers, I’m just going through the motions to get a grade.” I tell my class, “This is not a drill. This is how my job goes – we pick a topic, we’re not entirely sure what we’ll find on it.”

Some basic tenets of doing research are:

·        If you’re unfamiliar with a subject, start with general information and work toward specifics. Wikipedia and online research is fine for starters.
·        Think about the challenges of the subject. Was it illegal or a cultural taboo? If so, people probably didn’t write about it, take photographs, or leave us other historical evidence
·        Think about language. People develop code words and slang for things, like illegal drinking or drug use, that can’t be discussed openly. Language changes; slang for drinking or intoxication may have been different in the 1920s, so you need to know what to look for.
·        People may be more open about illegal activities decades after the fact. Newspapers in the 1920s may not have much information, but articles from the 1960s or later – long after Prohibition was repealed – may have first-person stories about bootlegging in Geneva.
·        There are no dead ends. If you’ve truly looked everywhere and tried different search terms, then absence of information means something. Why wasn’t something in the newspaper? Was it so taken for granted that it wasn’t newsworthy? (Aside from huge events, newspapers don’t consciously record history – they sell papers). Was it taboo? Did the publisher/ owner of the paper disagree with something and didn’t want to report it? You shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but come up with more research questions to figure out the absence.
·        Finally, document everything, including the not-dead-ends. It is easy to forget what research you’ve done, particularly on big projects, so leave yourself a paper trail. In the case of academic assignments, an extensive paper trail may prove to your professor that you really did look everywhere.

“Prohibition in Geneva” will open November 1 for Geneva Night Out, 5-8 pm.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Crafts Then and Now: Godey's Ladies Book

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

Many of my friends are artists and “crafters”, people who create beautiful jewelry, furniture, clothing, housewares, musical instruments and more with their hands.  Through knowing these talented folks a bit of their interests have rubbed off on me and over the years I have tried my hand at a wide variety of crafts including macramé, embroidery, crochet, sketching, sewing and beadwork to name a few.  I find learning new crafts exciting and fun.  Apparently so did women in the 19th century.

In the Historical Society Library and Archives we have copies of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine dating from 1858 to 1870 and Peterson’s magazine from 1863 to 1877.  They show many examples of handwork for women. Godey’s had a section called “Work Department” and other areas called Novelties, Embroidery and Fashions.  Each of these sections of the magazine had ideas, patterns or suggestions of items to be stitched, altered, crocheted, tatted, embroidered or created by hand.  The archive also has a copy of Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home which devotes an entire chapter to “Home Decoration”.  Many of the projects in these publications are suggested as a way to make something useful expending as little money as possible.  This seems to have been a common thread in many ladies publications of the 19th Century.  

It appears that in the past, women of financially stable families were encouraged to do handwork.  In the Historical Society collection we have several samplers by different individuals testifying to proficiency with a needle.  Information gathered from Geneva newspapers, such as the Geneva Gazette of November 1, 1809, which gives notice of a school for girls opening in the instructor’s home that will be for the purpose of “the instruction of Females, in the various branches of usful [sic] and ornamental education-”.  A similar newspaper notice in the Gazette from August 31, 1814 announces, “Geneva Academy, The public are informed that this Academy is now open for the reception of Students.  The Trustees have employed Mr. Ransom Hubbel, as Principal; Mr. Moses Young, and Mrs. S. Mizner as Assistants- all of them experienced and weil [sic] recommended Teachers.  The various branches of Classical and Common Literature, together with plain, and fine Needlework, Painting, Drawing, &c. are taught in this institution, on reasonable terms.  .....”  and one in 1823 that states, “Advertisement for Mrs. Plumb's Female Boarding School- Teaching feminine arts. Includes costs.”  Women were often considered too delicate to acquire an education in mathematics, science or languages like Greek or Latin.  They were guided toward music, art, painting, drawing and sketching, literature and needlework.  In part because of this, magazines like Godey’s became popular since they came with patterns, instructions and pictures as well as stories and advice.

Some of the items promoted in magazines were as fun and interesting to create then as it now.  In the Godey’s Ladies book of February 1864, vol. LXVIII there is a pattern for a beaded watch pocket.  I had the privilege of working with Native American beadwork collections housed at the Rochester Museum & Science Center and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and one of the pieces I saw was a beaded watch pocket.  In the 19th century many Native Americans made beadwork pieces to sell to tourists and the items were popular enough that patterns were printed in women’s magazines so American women could try their hand at them.  Of course this opens room for a discussion as to which came first, Native American bead goods that encouraged women to imitate their product, or a desire for a certain type of product on the part of tourists that caused the indigenous people to create items that catered to that taste?  I don’t know the answer, but I do know that both Native American women, many times from Iroquoian language based groups, did some beautiful beadwork purses, pockets, pincushions, card cases and more, as did other women who had the leisure time to do this type of handwork.  The colors, patterns and varieties are varied and lovely.

What types of items did women create in the 1800s?  We have examples of clothing, embroidery, samplers, feather wreathes, hair jewelry, and hand painted items in the Geneva Historical Society collection.  Some crafts like drawing, painting and crochet continue to be of interest through time.  Other ideas, such as hair wreaths, are seldom created anymore. 

All the women I grew up with did handwork.  My grandmother was capable of looking at a crocheted doily on a neighbor’s table and reproducing it without instructions.  She also did embroidery that was just beautiful. My mother was a very capable sketch artist as well as good at sewing clothes, embroidery, wood carving and crochet.  My sister is good at all those things plus makes incredibly decorated walking sticks.  I also have male friends who have made musical instruments, their own chainmail shirts, carved with chain saws, and made furniture. Crafts and art are an equal opportunity form of expression.

Perhaps you have a favorite hobby?  You may want to look in old books and magazines to find new/old patterns to embroider or crochet; new techniques to try with painting or even a new/old hobby such as stenciling.  There are many satisfying and intriguing historic crafts just waiting to be rediscovered.  I hope this piques your interest enough to investigate your talents.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pierce and Bickford

By Kerry Lippincott, Executive Director

There are many subjects that I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about, but architecture is not one of them.  Like art, I like what I like.  However, while working for the Chemung County Historical Society in Elmira I couldn't help but learn a thing or two about the architectural firm of Pierce and Bickford. The firm built a variety of structures in and around Elmira, including Elmira City Hall, F.M. Howell and Co. building, Hedding Methodist Church and several private homes.  To my surprise, I've discovered that Pierce and Bickford have a connection to Geneva.  In the early 1890s, they built and designed the YMCA building (76-86 Castle Street) and the Smith Opera House.

YMCA Building

Born in Dundee, Joesph H. Pierce (1855-1932) came to Elimira to study under the architect Eugene B. Gregory.  Within a year Pierce was working for William H. Hayes (the first graduate of Cornell's architecture program).  Between 1883 and 1890, Pierce had a partnership with engineer Otis Dockstader.  Though the firm of Pierce and Dockstader constructed a variety of buildings, they specialized in residential homes and churches.  In 1890 Hiriam H. Bickford (1863-1928) joined the firm as a draftsman.  Little is actually known about Bickford.  Born in Vermont, Bickford worked for several firms in the Northeast before coming to Elmira.

In 1891 Piece and Bickford formed their own firm.  Based out of Elmira, they would design and construct schools, churches, private homes, apartment houses, commerical buildings, hospitals, public buildings and other structures in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  In all Pierce and Bickford built several hundred buildings and designed the renovations of many more.   A number of Pierce and Bickford's buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.  These include Dundee Methodist Church, First Baptist Church in Painted Post, Elmira Heights Village Hall, Fire Station No. 4 in Elmira, and the Clifton Springs Sanitarium (the Spa Apartments).

After Bickford's death in 1928 his son Robert (who had served as a draftsman at the firm for several years) became Pierce's partner.

For more information about Pierce and Bickford, read Architects of Standing: Pierce & Bickford Elmira, NY, 1890-1932 by Roger G. Reed.

Smith Opera House