Voice of the People: Daily Life in the Antebellum Rural Delaware County New York Area


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Introduction | Letters, Diaries, etc

Health/Sickness/Mortality: Introduction

1847 illustration of sick and healthy childrenLetters written between family members presented on this web site have numerous mentions of sickness and death. By today's standards, medicine was rather rudimentary during the antebellum period. The physicians did the best they could, but many scientific discoveries that would lead to improved medical treatments were still on the horizon.  Class, gender, race, and geographic location influenced the availability of medical treatment.  No hospitals had been built in the area yet. It is unlikely that sick people would have had the physical stamina to travel via horseback or stagecoach to a large city hospital.  It was not yet understood that microorganisms caused the outbreaks of  infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever that sometimes swept through entire villages leaving many people dead. (Koch's postulates, which were designed to establish the relationship between a microbe and a disease, were published in 1890). Although most Americans did not associate infectious diseases with poor sanitation, people in the cities often fled to the country during epidemics. Since people did not understand the real cause of the epidemics, they came up with their own reasons: exposure to hot weather, eating cold fruit, violent passions of the mind, the wrath of God. Since so few effective drugs existed, entrepreneurs came up with their own concoctions and marketed them with glowing ads in newspapers. Some medicines contained opium or morphine. Sick people had little to lose by trying them. It was thought that cleansing the body of bad blood would aid in the recovery from disease; leeches were therefore used to draw blood from the patient.  Infections in limbs were often cured by amputation. Anesthesia wasn't developed until the 1840's; before then, alcohol or opium were the main drugs available to numb the patients.  Although the overall life expectancy was much lower than today due to the high mortality rate from infectious diseases, childbirth, and accidents, if people managed to survive the aforementioned, they had a good chance of living to the Biblical three score and ten years.  It seems the Grim Reaper was always near.

Physicians often made their own medicines in this era: read some recipes for pills from 1826. Mr. and Mrs. Sanford Ferguson received a letter describing the death of their brother during an 1832 cholera epidemic in New York City Samuel Law of Meredith, NY relates the illness and death of his wife Sally in his 1840 diary. An advertisement for Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills from 1847 sounds like a modern infomercial. In October of 1853 Eliza Mead of Walton, NY traveled to Richfield Springs, NY hoping the water would cure a mysterious malady. Ebenezer Lindsley of Downsville NY provides a poignant account of the sickness, decline, and death of his wife Mary from smallpox over a 5 day period in 1857. An advertisement for Clark's Female Pills from 1856 warns (or advertises?) that the pills are sure to cause miscarriage if taken during the first three months of pregnancy.

Proceed to Letters, Diaries, etc for additional documents.

Illustration, Sickness and Health adapted from Godey's Ladies Book, January 1847, Volume 34, p. 1

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