Author Archives: Stewart Emmens, Curator of Community Health

The return of the ‘Green Peril’

Anti-absinthe poster

L'Absinthe c'est la Mort (Absinthe is death), 1905. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

After nearly a century’s banishment, one of the most notorious of all alcoholic drinks is set to return to its… er… spiritual homeland, France. Distinctively green and extremely powerful, sales of absinthe have been banned there since 1915.

Absinthe poster

Poster for Absinthe Robette, by Henri Privat-Livemont, 1896. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

Its geographical origins may lie in Switzerland, but absinthe is forever associated with the bohemian and artistic circles of Paris of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not that it was a peculiarly French habit. With its main ingredients of fennel, anise and the herb wormwood, it was imbibed across much of Europe and the United States. Initially considered a drink of the aristocracy, ‘absinthe fever’ rapidly spread to all social classes during the second half of the 19th century.

Iced water dispenser

Dispenser for holding iced water to mix with absinthe, France late 1800s (Science Museum)

Nicknamed ‘the green fairy’, ‘the atrocious sorceress’ and ‘our lady of forgetting’, absinthe developed a fearsome reputation for mental and physical ruination. As such, it eventually became a public health cause celebre, its particular demonisation fuelled by virulent campaigning by temperance groups. They saw it as a easy target, whose abolition might be a first step towards the wider banning of alcoholic products.

Anti-absinthe postcard

Le peril vert (the green peril), postcard c.1910 (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

While its negative social effects and alleged hallucinogenic properties may have been overstated by those opposing its availability, it is a very strong drink. Alcohol levels are over 80% in some brands – twice the strength of whisky. 

And, at the height of its popularity, inferior versions started to appear which found a market among the more desperate drinkers. Just as gin became culturally linked with degradation and death in 18th century London, so absinthe did in the eyes of many Parisians by the end of the next. 

In France, the First World War proved to be a final tipping point in the campaign against the ‘green peril’. Portrayed as a threat to national efficiency at a time many thousands of Frenchmen were fighting on the Western Front, it was prohibited during 1915. Similar bans were applied in other countries around the same time.

Poster announcing ban

Proclamation banning absinthe, 1915. (© David Nathan-Maister / Science & Society)

The ban was effectively lifted by EU regulations in 1988, but in France it could only be sold if it was not actually labelled with the name absinthe! The recent vote in the French Senate looks set to remove this anomaly so the nation can once more order a glass of the controversial drink Oscar Wilde considered “as poetical as anything in the world”.

You Dirty Rats…

Dead rats

Rats killed at Paddington Station, London, 9 November 1921 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

The recent pronouncements by Scott Springer – Borough President of Manhattan – about the rat problem in New York received international attention. While they may have been motivated as much by politics as public health concerns, they once again highlighted our fractious relationship with these particular rodent.

Few animals have attained such universal levels of loathing, although more than one friend of mine has enjoyed keeping pet rats – ‘Dave’ being one still remembered with great fondness. But even the most committed animal lovers tend to physically cringe should a wild one scuttle past in the street.

Rat trap

Iron gin rat trap, England, c.1800s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Pets aside, our interactions with rats tend to have pretty negative outcomes for one or other party. They are linked with disease, known as stealers and spoilers of stored food and generally associated with gutters, sewers and other nasty places, and we are pretty merciless in our actions.

Each year, we poison, trap and otherwise despatch many millions of these highly fertile beasts. We’ve even developed poisons that effectively mummify the rats to reduce the odour from the carnage – though one wonders what horrors await future generations of roofers and renovators.

Rodent housing unit

Lab rat housing unit, England, 1990-1999 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The benefits we have derived through decades of laboratory research on rats have done little to endear them to us.

The spreading of diseases such as plague, typhus and leptospirosis could be seen as the rats’ revenge, but in reality they tend to play the role of unknowing, if highly proficient, vectors of sickness. They also succumb to many of the diseases they are associated with sharing with us.

X-Ray of rat

Ex-rat X-ray, 1896 (National Media Museum / Science & Society)

While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever learn to love or live happily with rats – the likes of ‘Dave’ notwithstanding of course – perhaps they are due a certain respect. Despite all we have done to them, they just keep coming back for more…

Spitting the target

We spend most of our daily lives surrounded by things. Many of which we barely notice. They’re always just there. Lampposts, telephones, pens, kettles, books… They may change in appearance, but certain stuff always seems to keep hanging around. Until, those times you realise that you can’t recall the last time you actually saw one of these ubiquitous items. Typewriters anyone?

I’m fascinated by how objects make that transition from commonplace and everyday to banishment, and the ranks of the ‘disappeared’. Fashions change and technological advances are a big factor, but sometimes other forces are at play. 

Examples of these lost objects are often revealed in old photographs.

Hotel room

'Smoke Room' at the Midland Hotel, Bradford, c. late 19th century (NRM / Science & Society)

I recently noticed this photograph on our image database. An unremarkable late Victorian interior, my eye was drawn to a round object on the floor. Zoom into the scene and that dogbowl-like object is revealed to be a metal spittoon.  


Spot the spittoon (NRM / Science & Society)

Such receptacles were once common to many public areas in Britain – although their presence was comparatively low key compared to America. There, with chewing tobacco a popular habit, spitting in public remained more socially acceptable. Photographs from the 19th and early 20th century can reveal spittoons in many US social settings, from the office to the bank , the courtroom to the barbershop

Increasingly regarded as a vulgar practice, spittoons became the only really acceptable outlet for public saliva. They discouraged random spitting and partly contained a major public health hazard – once sputum was linked to the transmission of tuberculosis in the 1880s.  

Ceramic spittoon

Spittoons came in a wide range of designs! (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But the days of these once omnipresent trip hazards were numbered. In many countries, health officials increasingly discouraged or banned their provision, while encouraging the use of personal spittoons. And while they remained more commonplace in US, the 1918 Flu pandemic, the popularity of cigarettes and changing social mores all contributed to the decline there too. 

Enamel sign

Enamel railway sign, c.1920s (NRM/ Science & Society)

Not that this is a total, global vanishing. For example, public spittoons can still be found in China, while in India, the many gutkha chewers use spittoons – albeit most of them improvised. But unless they’re hosting a wine tasting, the days of encountering a spittoon in a grand hotel in Bradford have long gone.

Revealing our ancestors’ lives

One way or another we are a nation obsessed with history – be it through the books we read, the TV we watch, our hobbies or the historic houses we visit. 

Here at the Science Museum, we’re actively pursuing closer engagements with people who ‘do history for fun’.  One area of this public history that I’m especially interested in is family history. 

The internet has revolutionised access to genealogical data – once the preserve of those able to spend days trawling through paper records. Beyond the raw data of births and deaths, objects can provide much colour, context and sometimes strong emotional connections to lives long gone – themes that I have touched on in previous posts.

Workers in clothing department

Working lives - women garment workers in 1925 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

Our object collections, images and paper archives – and those of our sister museums at York and Bradford – can provide evocative insights into our ancestors’ lives, helping us imagine lost environments and shedding light onto professions, workplaces and everyday routines. 

File-cutters tools

Tools of the trade - late 1800s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These crude tools would once have been very familiar to the many workers who hand cut metal files – one of the most hazardous trades of the 19th century. Despite mechanisation, Victorian Britain’s industrial wealth relied on a huge population of manual workers, often labouring in terrible conditions.

Trolley vacuum cleaner

A familiar object in an unfamiliar form (Science Museum / Science & Society)

More upper class ancestors – or those in domestic service – may have appreciated this cutting edge technology. This trolley vacuum cleaner dates from 1906. These novel devices were so popular that society hostesses would hold parties to demonstrate their new gadget.

'Good night' angel

'Good night' angel - 19th century (National Media Museum / Science & Society)

And finally, just because there was no TV, radio or web didn’t mean our ancestors lacked entertainment. This slightly risqué glass projection slide would have signalled the end of a magic lantern show. Now lost to time, our collections can allow us glimpses of this once common leisure pursuit as well as of many other facets of our ancestor’s lives.

The world of… spoons!

Back in January, I posted about some unusual variations of one of our favourite pieces of cutlery – the fork. I guess it was inevitable that I’d be tempted to move on, delving further into obscure corners of our collections. 

While trying to avoid ‘me and my spoon’ type territory, let’s take a random peek into… the world of spoons.

Soapstone spoon

Spoon from Ancient Egypt (Science Museum, Science & Society)

Made of soapstone, this small spoon is in the form of a diving girl sporting either a typical Ancient Egyptian braided hairstyle or a short headdress. It could date from as early as 1575 BCE. Described as an ointment spoon, it was possibly used for scooping up and measuring out drugs or cosmetics.        

Bronze spoons

Bronze 'gold-takers' spoons (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Precious materials were also carried by these spoons. Made of bronze, they were used alongside an ancient set of measuring scales, dating from as early as the 1400s. They were carried by local Ashanti gold traders, in Ghana – formerly known by its appropriate colonial name, The Gold Coast.

Spoon handle

One of the engraved silver spoon handles (Science Museum)

My third example is a pair of silver spoons, notable for their inscriptions rather than their appearance. Made in London in 1740, they were engraved the following year to commemorate two individuals, perhaps siblings, known only by their initials ‘G M’ and ‘I M’ who had survived smallpox. They were presented by the similarly cryptic ‘E P’. 

Smallpox was a deadly disease. Pre-dating Edward Jenner’s vaccine by several decades, these grateful survivors were most likely left with numerous – and permanent – reminders of their near miss.

Polio vaccine poster

Vaccination awareness poster, c1960s (Science Museum, Science & Society)

Fortunately, another once widespread disease polio, looks like it will soon join smallpox in being eradicated through human intervention. This leads to my final spoon, which is a bit of a cheat.  Today, children are likely to have their polio vaccine squeezed directly into their mouths from a plastic vial or via an injection. But, I remember a far more pleasant experience. One day at school, they gave us all a sugar cube. 

Because as Mary Poppins continues to tell us, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down… in a most delightful way”.

A cup of tea, some cakes and a biscuit please…

Many objects in our collections weren’t really meant to survive the long-term. Food stuffs are such an example. While food packaging is commonly found in museum collections, food itself is rarer. And if uneaten during their pre-museum life, these objects remain vulnerable. Destructive pests like the Biscuit beetle are so named for a reason.

Within our stores are a number of foody objects, collected for a variety of reasons and which have so far eluded the appetites of both the two-legged and the six-legged.

Tea brick

Concentrated goodness from China, early 20th century (Science Museum)

This ‘brick’, for example, is not decorative masonry but a slab of compressed tea. A lump could be chipped off when you fancied a brew. Finely ground then forced into block moulds, tea bricks were a convenient form for trading. Once common in Central and Eastern Asia, they were often used as currency.

Cakes and newspaper cutting

Cakes and related newspaper cutting, mid 19th century (Science Museum)

These curious little cakes above are from much nearer home. Produced in the Kent village of Biddenden, they commemorate conjoined twins Maria and Eliza Chulkhurst, the ‘Biddenden Maids’.  There are doubts about when exactly they lived, but they were certainly well known ‘curiosities’ in their lifetimes. They were also philanthropists whose legacy included the Easter-time distribution of food to the local poor. These gifts eventually included the cakes stamped with their likeness which remain popular tourist souvenirs today.

Ship's biscuit

'Hard tack', baked in England c1875 (Science Museum)

This biscuit was also a souvenir – but one with unfortunate associations. It belonged to a member of an ill-fated Arctic Expedition of 1875, commanded by George Nares. The venture was cut short by scurvy, from which several crewmen died. Such biscuits (aka ‘hard tack’) are symbolic of the impoverished ship’s diet that precipitated the illness. And yet, ironically, this expedition had a good supply of lime juice, but it had been rendered useless by distilling it in copper vessels, thereby destroying the vitamin C.

The biscuit is stamped with a ‘D’, perhaps indicating it was from the lead ship HMS Discovery. While our records say the biscuit once belonged to a ‘ship’s carpenter’. A crew list indicates the likely suspects who pocketed this unappetising snack – one that even the biscuit beetles have so far declined.

Objects with a story to tell?

I’ve previously posted of how our feelings about objects can be influenced by associated stories or by knowing who once owned them. Such links can provoke powerful responses, but perhaps none stronger than when objects have personal links to us. This is why family heirlooms are so treasured – they allow you to make a connection, to hold the same thing that a long dead ancestor once held.

Gold mourning ring

What's the story behind this ring? (Science Museum)

At the Science Museum we like to consider that, potentially, every object can tell an ancestor’s story. And of course, our collections are littered with objects associated with named and identified individuals. But others offer tantalising clues that, with further research, could reveal some intriguing stories.

One of many such is the small, well-worn gold ring picture shown above – which featured in one of the Christmas posts. This was made to mourn the passing of one Augusta Bruce. Somebody thought enough of her to wear this memento mori. But as yet, we don’t know who Augusta was or even when she died. Her story is one yet to be revealed.

Surgical instrument set

Surgical instrument set, 1812 (Science Museum)

Similarly, this surgical instrument set carries the following inscription on it’s wooden lid:

    Brass plate

The dates place it in Napoleonic times, but the set hardly looks battle-scarred. Was it presented to Ward for his services in the Peninsular War? Hopefully, in time we can reveal its story – but then we have many thousands of objects with stories to reveal.

Silver Medal

Dr Houlston's silver medal (Science Museum)

One final object. A medal awarded by The Royal Humane Society to a Dr Houlston who “restored” a Mr W Young on 22nd August 1781. Such medals were often given to individuals who saved lives, especially when reviving those who had apparently drowned. 

Houlston strongly advocated a tobacco enema in such situations, so chances are he employed its supposed restorative powers on this occasion. Perhaps smoking really can be good for your health sometimes. A bracing little chapter in Mr Young’s hopefully long life? Though perhaps not one he regaled his grandchildren with.

A Royal Execution – Part 2

My post on January 21st marked the anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI. Clearly, January was a bad month for European monarchs historically, as the 30th marks the anniversary (the 362nd!) of the be-heading of another flamboyant ruler – Charles I of England – in 1649.

Charles I pendant

Pendant with a portrait of Charles I (Science Museum)

The battered little heart-shaped jet pendant amulet above commemorates this particular royal execution. It would have been worn as a piece of mourning jewellery and, like other memento mori, a reminder of death and the transience of one’s own life. But in featuring an image of Charles I the wearer was also making a political statement in perpetuating the memory of the king and the royalist cause. Such pieces, in a range of designs and materials, began to be produced and worn by loyal supporters from around the time of his death on into the Restoration period.

Reverse side of Charles I pendant

Reverse side of Charles I pendant (Science Museum)

But take a closer look at the back of the pendent and there seems to be a clear error. Atop a crudely engraved skull is the date “JANUARY : THE : 30 : 1648 :” – which is a whole year too early.

This discrepancy can be easily explained. In England, prior to 1752, while January 1st was considered by many to be ‘New Year’s Day’, the start of the civil or legal year was actually… March 25th.  As such, under this ‘Old Style’ of dating, his January execution date was recorded as having taken place in 1648. However, following the formal adoption of the ‘New Style’ of dating through an Act of Parliament, the date is now generally referred to as 1649.

A Royal Execution

My colleague Katie recently posted about the upcoming royal wedding. But of course, public events involving royalty have not always been so benign.

On January 21st 1793, ‘citizen’ Louis Capet – formerly Louis XVI of France – was taken by carriage to the Place de la Concorde (re-named Place de la Révolution at the time). Here, in front of a crowd of many thousands, the ex-king was beheaded. 

Medal depicting Louis XVI

Medal depicting King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, German, 1793 (Science Museum)

Although death at the hands of your people is about as low as it gets for a monarch, at least his departure was relatively swift. For just 9 months earlier the guillotine had been introduced to France. Previously, a king would probably have had his head removed with either a sword or axe – a messy business, even in experienced hands.

The development of this more reliable piece of execution technology had been instigated by Joseph Ignace Guillotin and fellow doctor, Antoine Louis. Not that it was the first automated method of decapitation. The Halifax Gibbet being one machine that preceded the guillotine by several centuries.

Guillotine blade

Guillotine blade, France, 1794 (Science Museum)

Ironically, given the guillotine’s role in the Reign of Terror that began in earnest later in 1793, Guillotin had seen it as a humane alternative to less reliable methods. As a fast-acting execution machine that wouldn’t fail and a step along the way to the end of the death penalty - a sentence that Guillotin actually opposed. As it was, the guillotine remained France’s official method of execution until capital punishment was abolished in 1981

Commemorative medal

Reverse of medal shown above, commemorating the executions of Louis XVI and his queen, German, 1793 (Science Museum)

Nine months after Louis, his wife Marie Antoinette, by then referred to simply as the ‘Widow Capet’ arrived at the Place de la Révolution in an open cart. In front of another large crowd, she too fell victim to ‘le rasoir national’ – France’s very efficient ‘national razor’.

The world of… forks!

At lunchtime today, I was faced with one of those trivial, yet rather frustrating aspects of convenience food. 

Shunning those tasty looking crisps in favour of a healthy leaf salad, I queued and then paid – only to find that the post-checkout cutlery bin contained nothing but very small plastic spoons. Not a fork in sight. 

But before I get all Jeremy Clarkson, once back at the Museum a good old metal one was unearthed and the minor salad-based trauma was over. Still wish I’d gone for the crisps though…

Of course, this lunch-saving fork wasn’t actually part of our collections. And yet, there are actually quite a few that are. Especially in the more eclectic corners of the medical collections. Here’s a selection of some our more unusual… forks!

Grindall's combined knife and fork

Vice-Admiral Grindall's combined knife and fork, c1795-1820 (Science Museum)

This first one’s a bit of a cheat really. It’s a combined knife and fork developed for Sir Richard Grindall (1751-1820), a Vice-Admiral in the British Navy. 

Grindall lost his arm in a military action in 1795 and subsequently used this type of combined cutlery. Curiously, his more famous seafaring contemporary Admiral Nelson used a similar device after losing his arm a couple of years after Grindall. Designs of his so-called Nelson knife are still available today.

Artificial arm

Artificial arm with fork attachment, early 20th century (Science Museum)

Our second fork builds on this theme. When attached to the palm of this artificial arm it can be used in the conventional way and then removed at the end of the meal.

Group of forks

Group of forks, c1775-1825 (Science Museum)

Take a close look at this final group of forks. The design seems to wilfully compromise its very purpose as the prongs are almost too short to be of use. But they are poignant reminders of a hidden past.

These unusual forks were provided at mealtimes for inmates of a ‘lunatic asylum’ at the turn of the 19th century. The intention being that any potential harm to self, or others, would be limited by the shortness of the prongs.