Tag Archives: food

Life before we knew about germs …

How did we get from Miasma Theory to Germ Theory in the 19th century?

The way we see the world, and ourselves in it, can completely change when new scientific theories/ideas come along. While this can be scary in the eyes of some people, for others it provides better ways of living, and exciting new opportunities to make money. Some examples of big ideas in science which have changed the world include:

germs

Scanning electron microscope image of Vibrio Cholerae. This is the bacterium (germ) that causes cholera, a big killer on the 19th century Victorian goldfields. Reproduced from Wikipedia Commons.

In this blogpost, we will explore the scientific idea that microscopic germs exist, and how this idea radically changed the way we treat disease and deal with human waste. We are interested in this topic at Sovereign Hill Education because the 19th century gold rushes in Victoria were happening at the same time Germ Theory became popular. It changed the way Ballarat’s doctors did their work, and is the reason sewage pipes (that Ballaratians still use today) were installed under our city.

What is Miasma Theory?

Miasma = from the Ancient Greek word for ‘pollution’.

For thousands of years, people (and their doctors) in many places around the world believed that diseases, especially epidemics (like the Black Plague), were caused by ‘bad air’ which was commonly called miasma in English-speaking countries. It was thought that breathing-in or being too physically close to bad air from rotting organic matter (like a compost heap or pile of dog poo) could cause the four liquids found in your body (blood, phlegm [like snot], yellow bile, and black bile) to get out of balance. People believed that the weather and seasons could also affect these liquids and cause sickness (click here to learn more about a related idea called Humorism). Miasma was thought to cause all kinds of diseases, from diarrhoea to chicken pox, from the flu to obesity!

 

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A representation by Robert Seymour of the cholera epidemic of the 19th century depicts the spread of the disease in the form of deadly air (miasma). Reproduced from Wikipedia Commons.

Staying away from rotting and smelly things is smart because they can cause disease, so those miasma believers were on the right track, but it’s not the smell of these things that actually makes people sick.

In the past, when doctors treated sick people based on this theory, treatments often involved draining some of their blood. We now know that such treatments could be more dangerous than the sicknesses they were treating – for example, in 1799 it is likely that George Washington was accidentally bled to death by his doctor while being treated for a throat infection!

What is Germ Theory?

Germ = Late Middle English word (from an Old French word, originally from Latin) germen, which means ‘seed, sprout’.

While the compound microscope (from the Ancient Greek forsmall’ [mikros] and ‘to see’ [skopein]) was invented in the 1600s, it wasn’t until the 1800s that people realised they could actually see (through Lister’s improved microscope design) that germs – also known as microorganisms – existed, and could cause disease in people, animals and plants. A number of people had already tried to replace Miasma Theory with Germ Theory, but it took the work of scientists like Louis Pasteur and John Snow in the 1850s to popularise the idea that germs caused most diseases. Support for Miasma Theory didn’t completely disappear until the 1880s because, like any new scientific idea, it took a while to catch on. And unsurprisingly, people found it hard to believe in something they couldn’t see, until the technology came along to help them see it!vid

 

The first doctor on record (named Ignaz Semmelweis) to suggest that doctors should wash their hands between patients to avoid spreading disease was completely ignored by other doctors … He eventually died in an lunatic asylum from a disease he could have avoided if only his doctor had washed his hands!! There are many scientific ideas through history which people laughed at, or ignored, which turned out to be true. You can explore some of the most fascinating ones here.

How did these changes to the way we understand disease change our lives?

butcher

S.T.Gill’s Butcher’s Shamble, 1852, shows the unclean conditions in which meat was bought and sold before the popularisation of Germ Theory and the invention of electricity (to enable refrigeration)

By the time Germ Theory became popular, the Victorian gold rushes were well underway. In other parts of the world, the Industrial Revolution was creating factories around which cities were growing. Such hives of human activity like a mining centre or industrial city pushed people closer together than they had probably ever lived before in all of human history – and of course this meant diseases could spread more easily than ever from person to person. Knowledge of Germ Theory and the medicines it made possible over the next 100 years helped cure many diseases, but most importantly it helped to create more sanitary conditions, which meant people started living in cleaner houses and communities. For the first time, we started washing our hands thoroughly after going to the toilet, sterilising surgical equipment and removing and treating our sewage to make sure it didn’t end up in our drinking water. During this time, we began vaccinating children to help them avoid the most deadly diseases of childhood such as smallpox, and cleaning our teeth and bodies through the popularisation of soaps and toiletry products

In Ballarat, all of these Germ Theory changes reduced the death rate, particularly among children, and helped our city continue to grow. It affected the way we built the city and organised the infrastructure, like sewage treatment plants, hospitals, street gutters, and reservoirs (to collect and hold drinking water). Without Germ Theory, our lives would be just as brutal and short as those of our ancestors who lived during the rule of Miasma Theory.

Links and References

TEDed on the development of Germ Theory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9LC-3ZKiok

Wikipedia on Miasma Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miasma_theory

Wikipedia on Germ Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory_of_disease

History of the microscope: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microscope

Learn about the job of a nightman – the human pooperscooper: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2017/11/07/bad-19th-century-jobs-the-nightman/

Life expectancy has improved radically in the last 150 years in Australia: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2016/11/30/how-to-cook-a-gold-rush-feast/

Life before plastic

parkesine

An example of 19th century nitrocellulose jewellery – if you rubbed it, it could explode! From Wikipedia Commons.

Many visiting students are shocked to learn that plastic didn’t exist in 19th century Australia. The Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750, encouraged the creation of many products which could be mass-produced in the newly-invented factories. Some plastic-like products – like fake ivory jewellery – were being produced as early as the 1860s, but the nitrocellulose from which they were made was extremely dangerous. Wikipedia says ‘When dry, nitrocellulose is explosive and can be ignited with heat, spark, or friction’! Therefore, the development of modern plastics (largely made from the fossil fuel crude oil) is a 20th century story. So how did people survive without plastic in the 1800s?

At Sovereign Hill, we have numerous garbage and recycling bins so our visitors can dispose of their rubbish responsibly, but these didn’t really exist in 19th century Ballarat. Before cheap plastics and paper (paper was expensive before we began making it entirely from wood pulp in factories), people rarely produced household waste. Items were reused and often re-purposed, and when they eventually fell apart, they would be disposed of in the fireplace or in the garden where most would biodegrade. Let’s describe a typical (European) family home’s production of waste over a normal goldrush day here in Ballarat to compare and contrast it to a family’s waste output today.

The family wakes at dawn (clocks were made of metal and were therefore expensive, so most people were woken by the sun). Their bedsheets were mass-produced in Manchester, England, from cotton shipped from the United States of America, and their woollen blankets were made in Bradford, England, from wool shipped from Victoria. If they were wealthy, they might also own a hand-made possum-skin rug, bought from the Wadawurrung people – these were sold on the Ballarat diggings for the equivalent of $4000-$5000 in today’s money! All of these items were made to last, and once they had reached the end of lives as sheets and blankets, they would be made into clothes or nappies (most 21st century nappies are made of plastic), used to stuff pillows, or as cleaning rags.

manchester from kersal moor by edward goodall c.1850

An industrial city indeed, full of cotton-spinning factories. Manchester from Kersal Moor, by Edward Goodall, c.1850. From Wikipedia Commons.

The house would be warmed by lighting a fire in the fireplace. This is also where the family meal would be prepared. Today, our energy is produced hundreds of kilometres away, by burning fossil fuels like coal or harnessing the energy of wind through turbines. Their fire fuel – wood – would be cut down from a nearby forest. Even the ash from the fire found other uses in 19th century Australia; ash could be used to make soap, polish metals, keep snails off the lettuce, fertilise the garden, or be used in the outhouse (also known as a ‘dunny’)!

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Clarke Bros. Grocers at Sovereign Hill – sometimes we have to wrap food in plastic for safety reasons, even though it isn’t historically accurate.

A breakfast would be prepared using food grown in the garden, or bought at the local grocer’s (the supermarket wasn’t invented for another 70 years!). Most store-bought food would be sold wrapped in paper (often wax paper), or perhaps even weighed and placed immediately into the family’s cooking pot (made of local iron from Lal Lal) or bucket (often made of cheap leather at this time). Only (relatively expensive) preserves like jam or mustard would be sold in glass jars or ceramic (clay) pots. After the meal, food scraps would be used again in cooking (bones for making broth/soup) or fed to the family chickens/pigs/goats/dog. The wax paper would be reused to wrap other foods until it disintegrated (the invention of Tuppaware was nearly 100 years off) and it would then be thrown in the fire. Jars or ceramic pots would be saved for another household purpose. The plates used to eat such a meal would have most likely been made in Staffordshire, England from nearby natural clays, and then shipped (by wind/steam power) to Australia. Drinking water was collected from local rivers and groundwater pumps.

If children were lucky enough to be sent to school, there they would learn the ‘3 R’s’ (reading, writing, and arithmetic) using slate boards and graphite pencils (which would last many generations of students) in the younger years, and after Grade 4 would begin using paper, ink, and dip pens (but only if they passed the Grade 3 writing test – paper was too expensive to make inky mistakes on!). For most children except the very wealthy, 19th century toys were typically handmade from wood or animal bones (which are all biodegradable materials, unlike plastic). As school uniforms were yet to be invented, children simply wore their normal clothes to school.

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Clothes waste in the 21st century – a big problem because much of it will never biodegrade. From Wikipedia Commons.

While cloth for making things like sheets and clothing was getting cheaper in price thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most people – including children – merely owned two to three outfits at any one time. The wardrobe only became common in houses in the 20th century when ready-to-wear clothing became fashionable and was being produced very cheaply. Therefore, in the 19th century your clothing was cared for, and carefully patched and refitted, until the fabric disintegrated. Clothing was most commonly made of cotton (or sometimes other biodegradable natural fibres like wool or silk), whereas today lots of the clothing in your wardrobe is made of plastic.

While the children were at school, and wives/mothers busied themselves with 19th century housewifery, men would be at work. Most men in Ballarat worked in the goldmining industry, or in another industry that supported mining, such as a candleworks or foundry. These types of workplaces produced some waste (but nothing in comparison to most industries today!), and while some was biodegradable, some industrial waste from the 19th century is still causing pollution to Ballarat’s soil and waterways today (like arsenic from mining). The safety clothes men wore (if any!) were made from thick leather and would often last their entire working lives.

At lunch time, family members would return home for a hot meal prepared by the woman of the house. If the wife/mother had found the time to visit the grocer, baker, or butcher (all selling food produced locally – refrigeration wasn’t invented yet, so only dry food like flour, lentils and herbs could travel vast distances), she may have fresh food to serve the family. Otherwise, people ate preserved foods like salted meat, stewed fruits or re-hydrated beans. Fizzy drinks were invented in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that mass-produced glass and good sealing techniques made these beverages widely available. Dinner would be similar to lunch, and any leftovers would be saved for the next meal.

At night, candles made from animal fat (called tallow) would be lit if the family could afford it. Soap was also made from animal fat at this time. Again, today your candles and soaps are most commonly made of petrochemicals (taken from crude oil, the same as plastic).

PreCutProduce

A typical sight at the supermarket today – food wrapped in plastic. From Wikipedia Commons.

So, no plastic for covering or storing food, no plastic for toys, no clothes made from plastic, and no plastic safety wear at work. No drinks in plastic bottles, no plastic bags to carry the groceries, and no plastic pens and rulers etc. for school. This meant there was no need for weekly bin collections – because there were no bins! Life certainly was different in the 1850s.

Links and References

What is plastic?: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic

The history of waste management: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_waste_management

An ABC Catalyst episode on the arsenic in Ballarat’s soil: http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/2843289.htm

A 4-part vlog on life as an 1850s woman produced by Sovereign Hill: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/students/video/woman-of-the-hill/

A great documentary series about the history of the rooms of our houses (and many of the items you can find in them): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrn42rvTlpk

How to cook a gold rush feast

Supermarkets, refrigeration, and the food pyramid were invented a long time after the Victorian gold rushes of the 1850s. During this time in history, most food on the goldfields was either grown fresh in your garden, imported in a dried state (like rice, flour and lentils), or pickled/preserved (like jams, stewed fruit and tinned anchovies). Some bush foods were hunted down by miners or supplied to them by Aboriginal people, but most new arrivals to the diggings had to work hard for their dinner. The rich could afford healthier diets than the poor, but life expectancy (the average length of time that people live in a particular country) was quite low in comparison to Australia today. Poor nutrition, dangerous work and deadly diseases worked together to make life on the diggings relatively short and harsh.

life-expectancy

Australians now live much longer lives than they did during the 19th century thanks to improved diets and medicine. This graph shows how life expectancy has increased for both men and women between 1884 and 2009. Reproduced with permission of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

butchers-shambles-by-st-gill

S. T. Gill’s sketch of a ‘Butcher’s Shamble’ from 1869 demonstrates life before refrigeration and modern hygiene.

Most miners in 1850s Ballarat happily ate damper (campfire bread) and mutton (old sheep – ‘lamb’ means young sheep), as such a meat-heavy diet was only affordable to the rich back in Europe at this time. However, this diet isn’t very nutritious. It lacks important vitamins and minerals that the body needs, which can be found in fruit, vegetables and nuts. While such a limited diet will keep you alive, it can make your body – brains, bones, organs – age must faster than people who eat a broader range of foods. A diet of damper and mutton could make you more likely to get sick, and you would stay sicker for longer. However, the goldfields butcher wasn’t too worried about the nutrition of his customers – butchers were often the richest people on the diggings!

The reason sheep were so common on the diggings was because of Victoria’s earlier history of colonisation. The first European settlers/invaders, who arrived from 1835 onwards, were here on the grassy plains of Victoria to farm sheep. By 1851, the year the Australian gold rushes began, there were over 6 million sheep being farmed across the state (according to the National Wool Museum). The sheep farmers (often called ‘squatters’) realised that instead of boiling down their old sheep for tallow (fat for making soap/candles), they could sell them as food to the thousands of hungry miners. News of cheap meat on the Victorian goldfields attracted thousands of people to the diggings (Blainey, G. Black Kettle and Full Moon, Penguin Books Australia, 2003, p.197). Luckily, by the 1860s, the gold rushes had also attracted many Chinese miners, who used their farming experience to grow productive market gardens full of nutritious vegetables which would have improved the general health of many Victorians at this time.

alloo

S. T. Gill’s ‘John Alloo’s Chinese Restaurant’ sketch from 1855 demonstrates the many contributions the Chinese made to diggers’ diet during the Ballarat gold rush. Reproduced with permission of the Gold Museum, Ballarat.

If a man had brought his mother/wife/daughter with him to the diggings, he was bound to have a better diet than a single man. Many goldrush women in the 1850s came to Ballarat very well prepared, as they brought bags of seeds and small animals with them to ensure the family didn’t starve (Isaacs, J. Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback, Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1990, p.100).

Cooks didn’t use many utensils when creating meals over a camp fire, but a simple mixing bowl, knife and camp oven (also known as a Dutch oven) were all one needed for baking bread, roasting a leg of lamb, or making stews/soups. Next time you go camping, you could try cooking like a goldrush miner!

Here are some of our favourite 1850s goldrush recipes which you could try at home or school:

dampereggsp-soup2e-soup2dumplings

Links and References

Sovereign Hill’s other blogposts about goldrush food: https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/03/19/what-was-eaten-on-the-goldfields/

https://sovereignhilledblog.com/2013/04/15/what-was-eaten-on-the-goldfields-part-2/#more-1069

SBS Gold on goldrush food: http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=66

Goldrush food: http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00116b.htm

A great video about 19th century British diets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5dr8WSPhzw

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), maybe the most famous cookbook of all time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs_Beeton%27s_Book_of_Household_Management

The British Library on food of the 1800s: http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/texts/cook/1800s2/18002.html

19th century menus: https://19thct.com/2012/08/11/a-menu-from-the-early-19th-century/

The most dangerous jobs in the 19th century: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glfVNlwv8bQ

Life for women on the early Ballarat goldfield: http://education.sovereignhill.com.au/media/uploads/SovHill-women-notes-ss1.pdf

Another webpage about the lives of goldrush women: http://www.egold.net.au/biogs/EG00115b.htm

Changing mealtimes and their names in history: http://backinmytime.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/a-bit-about-meals.html

Fantastic BBC food in history documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7FRQjdSHWk

Blainey, G. Black Kettle and Full Moon, Penguin Books Australia, 2003.

Isaacs, J. Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback, Lansdowne Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1990.