Category Archives: public health

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.

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.

An unwelcome post-Christmas diet

Many of us will start the new year pledging to eat (and drink?) a bit less after the indulgences of Christmas. We should spare a thought for Britons in January 1940 when, after the first Christmas of the Second World War, food rationing was introduced on January 8th

Ration book

Wartime ration book with supplements (Science Museum)

Originally restricted to favourites such as bacon, butter and sugar, other products were added to the list as the war dragged on. Issued nationally in October 1939, ration books became an indispensable – if increasingly loathed – feature of Home Front life.

But for many of those queuing up that January for their weekly 4 ounces of bacon (or 12 ounces of sugar!) the experience was not totally new. The Christmas and New Year period of 1917-1918 had also seen the introduction of targeted food rationing. In both wars, attacks on merchant shipping by German U-Boats played a key part in creating food shortages. But while in the earlier conflict Britain avoided compulsory rationing until the final year, in the Second World War it came in very early.

Food tins

Tins of powdered milk and egg sent from the U.S during the Lend-Lease arrangement (Science Museum)

Citizens had already been encouraged to improve food productivity through the Dig for Victory! campaign. They would also be tempted with new foodstuffs – such as whale meat. But there were limits to this self-sufficiency. As such, food formed a significant part of the Lend-Lease arrangements made with the U.S and Canada from 1941.

Despite the privations of rationing, it’s generally accepted that the nation’s health improved under it – particularly amongst the poorest sections of society. 

The end of sweet rationing

Children celebrate the end of sweet rationing, East London, 1953 (Science & Society / Science Museum)

Still, few mourned its passing - when eventually it came. Rationing was actually stricter in post-war Britain. For a time even bread and potatoes were controlled, neither of which had been rationed in wartime. Food ration books could only finally be torn up with the end of meat rationing in July 1954.

The return of ‘King Cholera’

The cholera outbreak in Haiti is spreading rapidly and seems certain to result in many tens of thousands of cases. So far, more than 1,400 people have died since the first cases were confirmed in October. This ongoing situation is a tragic modern-day reminder of the deadly power of this disease – a disease which in Britain is historically associated with the overcrowded slums and poor sanitation of Victorian towns and cities.

An undertaker

An undertaker awaits an upturn in business - caricature from 1854 (Science Museum)

Cholera provided a deadly backdrop to life in Victorian Britain and it was responsible for the deaths of many thousands over the century – mainly during the four major epidemics of 1832-3, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866. While it killed far less than some other diseases of the period, such as influenza and tuberculosis, the rapid onset of symptoms and their violent, transformative impact on the body meant that it was feared more than most.

Medicine chest

Victorian medicine chest for cholera, containing both opium and laudanum (Science Museum)

Left untreated, the disease was nearly always fatal. It wasn’t known how it was transmitted and there was little in the way of effective treatment available during the British outbreaks of the 1800s. Not that there weren’t claims to the contrary made by some practitioners and makers of quack medicines.Their treatments varied from purging, bleeding and administering strong opiate drugs, to homeopathy and use of charms and amulets. One thing that could have helped – the rapid rehydration of the body – was not part of such offerings. 

Three amulets

Amulets carried to ward off cholera, European, 19th century (Science Museum)

Today, cholera is relatively easy to treat and outbreaks are preventable through following basic levels of hygiene. There is also an effective vaccine. But new cases must be treated quickly as it can be fatal within hours of the first symptoms. Haiti – a desperately poor country still reeling from January’s earthquake – is proving that cholera can still find environments to thrive in, even in the 21st century.

Collecting the uncollectable?

There are some stories you read in the press that you immediately react to as a curator. For me recently it was reading about the first UK Service of Dedication for lives lost to eating disorders that took place at Southwark Cathedral.

Sensing an acquisition in sight, I contacted b-eat - a UK charity for people with eating disorders – to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service.

Recent acquisition. Order of Service from Southwark Cathedral dedicated to lives lost to eating disorders (Credit: Science Museum).

Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are such prevalent mental health problems – affecting 1.6 million people in the UK alone – yet such experiences are barely documented through material culture at all.

Part of the problem is that there might not be any objects to collect. Can we document mental health experiences (depression for example) when they seemingly aren’t embodied in objects or expressed through stuff?

Why collect objects to represent such illnesses anyway?

With an anthropological hat on, documenting experiences and reactions to eating disorders reveals a lot about us as a society –  the significance of food and health, perceptions of beauty, and how our bodies respond to stress.

Historically, how societies have treated self-starvation is fascinating. Apollonia Schreier, a German woman, was credited with almost mystical abilities after refusing food for 11 months.

Engraving of Apollonia Schreier by Paullus Lentillus after her alleged fast of 11 months, at Galz, near Berne, 1604. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Of course we can’t treat such experiences as ‘Anorexia’ – the condition didn’t medically exist until the late nineteenth century. But by documenting historical and contemporary experiences through material culture, we can perhaps understand a little better why we treat illnesses today as we do.

A relatively recent mental health phenomenon? As this Lancet case report shows, doctors began to diagnose cases of self-starvation as Anorexia Nervosa towards the end of the nineteenth century. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Perhaps not all human experiences can be told through objects. Yet, I’d argue that material culture has a unique ability to connect you to stories and experiences even at a glance – so I think it’s worth a bit of lateral thinking.

Anyway, here’s a few other objects we could collect on the topic: size zero clothing, the personal effects of an individual who’s experienced an eating disorder (perhaps their weighing scale or diary for instance), self-help manuals, health education material etc. Other thoughts, suggestions or insights most welcome.

Preparing for the worst

Seventy years ago, the bombing Blitz on Britain was into its second week.

London remained the main target and amongst landmarks damaged on the night of September 18th 1940 were the world famous Lambeth Walk and the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street. While across the city, around 200 civilians were killed and 550 injured.

Bomb damage 1940

Bomb damage in central London, 1940 (Science Musuem / Science & Society)

Such daily figures were typical in a month that left nearly 6,000 Londoners dead. But although the numbers were horrific, they were a fraction of those planned for in the pre-War period. Things were expected to be much, much worse.

In 1938, renowned British scientist J.B.S. Haldane predicted up to 100,000 deaths in an opening raid on the capital, while the Royal Air Force expected 20,000 casualties daily once German bombing begun. Plans were made to set aside 750,000 hospital beds and stockpile up to a million coffins.

Gas drill 1934

London schoolchildren being taught how to use gas masks, November 1934 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The use of poisonous gas was also anticipated. Civilian gas drills had become increasingly common as war loomed and by 1940 around 38 million masks had been issued to the population – from babies to centenarians. 

Baby's gas mask

Baby's gas mask, c1939 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As well as gas masks, our museum stores hold other reminders of this expected threat. For example, the small kit shown below was to familiarise Air Raid Wardens with the tell-tale odours of different gases. 

Poison gas ID kit

Poison gas identification kit issued during the Second World War (Science Museum)

As it was, the predicted civilian casualty figures for wartime Britain were wildly inaccurate. But then sustained, widespread aerial bombing of urban areas was – up until then – both an unknown quantity and a terrifying prospect. As post-war Prime Minister Harold Macmillan later remarked, “We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today”.

For your convenience?

Street sign for urinal ('urinoir')

Sign indicating a public urinal ('urinoir') in Bruges, Belgium (Stewart Emmens 2010)

In Britain, closure of public toilets has become a cause célèbre in recent years. Such facilities first appeared in numbers following the Public Health Act of 1848. But many of these older sites and their modern counterparts – regularly vandalised and expensive to maintain – have closed their doors. Yet while these often substantial buildings still survive, albeit boarded up or changed in use, most of the old simple public urinals have long gone. 

This is less true in other parts of Europe. Despite the removal of many open urinals (aka ‘pissoirs’), they can still be found.  During my recent holiday in Belgium, referred to previously, these humble structures were occasionally sighted.

Street urinal ('urinoir')

Old street urinal in Bruges, Belgium (Stewart Emmens 2010)

This is the street ‘urinoir’ in Bruges indicated by the sign at the top of this post. Like most earlier public toilets they were built for the use of men only, but unlike traditional facilities provided in Britain, privacy is limited.

Urinal next to church

Urinal alongside a church in Langemark, Belgium (Stewart Emmens, 2010)

Similarly, this is the ‘W.C’ next to the church in the Belgian town of Langemark. I must admit when approaching it, in need, I assumed the door was round the back. There was no door… just the other side of the wall. I’m not sure where this leaves desperate female churchgoers.  

While I’ll put my expectations of an enclosed room down to cultural conditioning, things in Britain have and are changing. A bit.

Portable urinal

Portable 'four man' urinal unit in Bruges, Belgium (Stewart Emmens, 2010)

This final example is also from Bruges. But it could be from London’s West End or other British streets where such portable open urinals are laid on for late night crowds. Coupled with more elaborate offerings like the Urilift, they are a partial replacement for the lost facilities. But, as with an earlier generation of public urinals, they are for the convenience of men only.

Back from holiday, slightly flushed

I’m recently back from a short break on the Kennet & Avon canal. Travelling at three miles per hour through some of southern England’s most picturesque scenery was the perfect complement to a hectic urban life…

Dundas aqueduct, Kennet & Avon canal (David Rooney)

Just one thing, though. Idyllic though my holiday was, I was greatly relieved to return home to a flushing lavatory connected to a sewer, not a small tank of chemicals

Model water closet, c.1900 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The nineteenth century, with its explosion of urban living and ever-increasing housing density, led to a great movement for the widespread supply of clean water and the provision of effective sewerage in every home.

Civil engineering dealt with the big stuff – pipelines, pumping stations and vast networks of sewers. People like Joseph Bazalgette are now well-known for their work in building Victorian London’s sewer system.

Our health curator, Stewart Emmens, has discussed this at length in his sewage blogpost and his hygiene blogpost, and our Making the Modern World website expands the story.

Joseph Bazalgette (Science Museum / Science & Society)

No less important was the new breed of sanitary engineer which grew up, designing the types of lavatories, basins and pipework that are so common today as to be almost invisible, although in the early days training in its operation was needed:

Hygiene demonstration cabinet, 1895 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But please don’t get me wrong. I’m just as appreciative of the engineers who enabled my rented canal boat to be fitted with that chemical toilet I mentioned. I shudder to think what the alternatives might have been…

When good doctors turn bad

Three corrupt doctors

18th century caricature showing three corrupt doctors (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The Greek authorities recently named and shamed a number of tax-avoiding doctors. A move that is perhaps more revealing of blame-shifting than an indication that the profession is morally suspect. Not that doctors are always the saints we’d like them to be. Just because they’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath, doesn’t mean they’re going to stick to it.

Buried within our vast and varied medical collections are a number of objects associated with good doctors that turned (very) bad.

Dr Neill Cream objects

Photographs and letters relating to Dr Neill Cream (Science Museum)

Dr Neill Cream appears quite the dapper Victorian gentleman doctor. Born 160 years ago, on May 27, he was trained at prestigious medical schools in London and Edinburgh. But his charm and appearance belied his true character – a backstreet abortionist drawn to London’s sordid underbelly. Nicknamed the ‘Lambeth Poisoner’, he was hanged for a series of murders. His alleged cry of “I am Jack…” as the rope went taut would tantalize generations of Ripper enthusiasts. The letter, sent to his fiancée from prison, contains declarations of innocence – and a plea for an alibi.

Dr William Palmer's cigar case

Dr William Palmer's cigar case and cigar (Science Museum)

An even more infamous doctor once owned this cigar case – complete with unsmoked cigar. Dr William Palmer, aka the ‘Prince of Poisoners’, was one of the 19th century’s most notorious characters. Better suited to a life of drink and gambling than healing, Palmer was convicted of a single murder after a sensational trial. However, it is believed he poisoned many more – including his own children and other relatives. He was hanged in front of a crowd of some 30,000 in 1856, but lives on in the enduring pub refrain of ‘what’s your poison?’, believed to be inspired by his exploits.

Compared to Cream and Palmer, those Greek doctors seem paragons of virtue.