Health and wellness fads of the era often evoked popular moral and religious sentiments. Celibacy was promoted by both religious ministers and diet proponents as good for the health, with rare exceptions made for married couples. The hygiene problems of city life – lots of people without running water all living together in very close quarters before the invention of most vaccines – led to high rates of disease. Lack of refrigeration also made it difficult for city dwellers to get fruits and vegetables.
When the majority of Americans lived on farms, they did a variety of hard labor jobs and ate relatively healthy foods, including the staple of high fiber dark grain bread. As more and more moved to the cities, the average American’s consumption of fiber went down, and associated bowel complaints went up. The zealous celibacy and fiber proponent Sylvester Graham invented graham crackers as a portable, high-fiber bread snack that could be easily transported and had a long shelf life. He specifically advocated it to his religious followers, Grahamites, as a good way to quell sexual urges.
Another grain entrepreneur with sexual hangups of the era was John Harvey Kellogg. He advocated vegetarianism, enemas, and exercise for a healthy and virtuous life. He and his brother William invented corn flakes as a vegetable based breakfast alternative to fried meat with eggs. Kellogg adopted many of his beliefs while a member of the Seventh Day Adventist faith, serving as physician in chief of their sanitarium, and continued to promote vegetarianism after being disfellowshipped for heretical beliefs.
Sanitariums and asylums were at their peak during the Victorian reformist era, as undesirable people were shut away out of sight and out of mind. Women in particular were at risk of being labeled hysterical or otherwise insane and losing all their rights as a result. Suffragists and other women protesters were held in such places following arrest due to the lack of women’s prison facilities. When they went on hunger strikes, they were force fed.
Medical care of the era was in general brutal. Dentists had to use foot pedals to power their drills as they used them, causing more wiggle factor than anyone could ever want in a dentist. Surgeons most often had to perform without general anesthesia, so a certain callousness toward the patient was considered a necessary quality in a doctor. Germ theory wasn’t properly understood yet and latex gloves weren’t yet invented, so a doctor might go from performing surgery on one patient to examining another without so much as washing their hands in between.
At the beginning of the Victorian era, pain relief in childbirth was unheard of. The pain was considered by (male) religious leaders to be part of Eve’s curse, a sin which all women inherited and should thus be punished for. Queen Victoria herself changed the western world forever by insisting on chloroform for the birth of her third child and her subsequent labors. The physician she hired for his willingness to medicate her became her royal physician and later delivered her grandchildren, after medicating their mother.
Indeed, pain relief was one of the only things the Victorian era had going for it, medically speaking. Tinctures of opium and cocaine were sold everywhere, without need for prescription or ID or being an adult to buy it. Marketed as colic medicine for babies, menstrual relief for women, and vitality and vigor supplements for men, hardcore drugs were incredibly easy to score in our great-great-grandparents’ day.
Coming soon – reform and labor movements!