Monday, April 30, 2012

To laugh at the stench, and the reaper on the Thames

While working "diligently" on my paper on sanitation infrastructure in the 19th century, I have perused the cartoon archives of Punch.

As a quick background, for those of you who don't know (or can't guess), London in the 19th century was pretty nasty. Personal cesspools were pretty much the norm, until concerns about public health in the middle of the century caused people to decide that they should dump it into the Thames instead, which, subsequently, became a giant cesspool. This 1849 cartoon, "The Water John Drinks," depicts concerns about the quality of drinking water. Sad to say, this comic really didn't exaggerate anything. This delightfully morbid cartoon from 1858 shown above (use the link to see a far better quality version) refers to an event known as "The Great Stink," in which a hot, hot London summer turned the Thames"ripe." (The shit of thousands. Heat of summer...Try not to think too hard about it.) The odor was so horrific that cloths with soaked in chloride of lime were hung in the windows of the House of Parliament. Keep in mind, too, at this time and place, people believed that foul odors caused disease--so you can imagine the panic and disgust. Check out this cartoon, where London (depicted as a virtuous woman) recoils from the horrifying disease children borne by the Thames. This caused the MPs to act in a big hurry, passing the languishing and contentious legislation to address London's sanitation issues within two weeks. This was the spark that caused people to actually move--not the proof that cholera was waterborne (that John Snow brought to bear in 1855), not Edwin Chadwick's 1842 report on the poor sanitary conditions of the poor--in other words, not science or rational argument. It was a stench. A horrible, horrible stench.

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