Feb. 6th, 2011

beboots: (Civil war lithograph)
 As I think I mentioned in my last post, I've been doing a lot of research for my thesis, lately. A lot of it has involved microform. I just wanted to share a few amusing things with you from what I've dug up in the United States Sanitary Commission Records. 

One of the neatest handwritten documents I ran across was a letter written in 1864 entitled "Quarantine", all on the subject of how to improve health and sanitary conditions in New Orleans, which, I believe, was under the control of the Union at that point in time (and hence why the Sanitary Commission cared). 

I've been taking careful note of all of the hints as to the reasoning behind their recommendations. Remember, these are the pre-germ theory days, so the reigning motivation for doing any kind of cleanup work is to get rid of miasma: essentially, disease causing bad smells. 

As a side note, I've also been reading Florence Nightingale's highly influential Notes on Nursing: what it is, and what it is not. She is highly well-respected for her sanitary impulse and drastically improving conditions for British soldiers during the Crimean War (1854- 1856). She's known as one of the first "modern" nurses (who actually knew what she was doing), is praised in glowing terms, etc.,etc. But remember, she wasn't after germs. She was after miasma. Here is an excerpt from her book, in her own words:

"The very first canon of nursing, the first and last thing upon which a nurse's attention must be fixed, the first essential to the patient, without which all the rest you can do for him is as nothing, with which I had almost said you may leave all the rest alone, is this: TO KEEP THE AIR HE BREATHES AS PURE AS THE EXTERNAL AIR." (emphasis hers)

Yes, you read that correctly. If nothing else, you HAVE to make sure that the miasma doesn't get at them. Feeding, watering, scrubbing, etc., are all secondary to fresh air. She explains why: 

"A room remains uninhabited; the fire place is carefully fastened up with a board; the windows are never opened; probably the shutters are kept always shut; perhaps some kind of stores are kept in the room; no breath of fresh air can by possibility enter into that room, nor any ray of sun. The air is as stagnant, musty, and corrupt as it can by possibility be made. It is quite ripe to breed small-pox, scarlet fever, diptheria, or anything else you please."

Again, a lack of fresh air causes disease. Also, note, that until the line about "no breath of fresh air"... it reads like someone has been hiding out from a zombie apocalypse. 

Continuing along that vein, that list of recommendations for New Orleans, alongside things such as dissing the quality of milk available in the city and disdaining the current drainage system for sewage then in place, also recommends against having cemeteries near crowded residential areas. The author talks about the risk of "putrescence", and how such stinks will inevitably cause the whole city to fall ill. But I absolutely loved this line, because to me it really felt like the prologue to some sort of period zombie novel:

"It is quite impossible to seal a tomb[...] hermetically, so that nothing offensive shall escape."

(source: here)


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