A. Planning and Activities

1. Arrange for a trip to a local historical cemetery. Photograph or make rubbings of  old gravestones.  Notice
how many are for children.

2. Try to find someone who is an expert on local medicinal herbs in your area. DO NOT TRY any herbs without
an expert.

3. Root beer was originally made from the roots of a tree called sassafras. Although some root beer uses
artificial flavor, it still tastes like sassafras.  Here is a link to a cool site about brewing root beer at home http:
//biology.clc.uc.edu/fankhauser/Cheese/ROOTBEER_Jn0.htm    I HAVE NOT TRIED THIS.  We purchased a
"Brew it Yourself" root beer kit, and it was pretty good.  NOTE: Brewing your own root beer uses sugar and
yeast and yields a
very mildly alcoholic beverage that is delicious.  If left in a warm place too long, it can turn
into a not-so-mildly-alcoholic beverage. (The smell will alert you.)  It's worlds of fun to do, though.   

4. If you are concerned about the root beer, you can make your own sassafras tea.  Dig up a small sassafras
tree, cut off some roots, wash them well, cut into pieces and then boil them for some time until to your taste. I
remember my grandparents making this for me once; I wasn't impressed.

B. Vocabulary

diphtheria               smallpox                                                
measles                  yellow fever  ("yellow jack")
typhoid                    tuberculosis (TB or Consumption)
pneumonia             appendicitis            
penicillin                  vaccination                       
teetotaller                patent medicines                               
malaria                    scarlet fever         
narcotics                 mumps
antibiotics               laudanum
quinsy                     quack
dysentery                sepsis
rabies (hydrophobia)

C1- Elementary Reading

Today if you are sick, your mother probably gives you some medicine.  If you are very sick, she will take you to
the doctor or even the hospital.  A long time ago, some people lived where there were no doctors. There were
no nurses.  There were no hospitals.  There were very few medicines.

Mothers and sisters usually took care of sick people.  They might use plants from the woods or from their
garden. Often they did not know what made a person get sick, and they didn't always know what made a person
get well.  They did the best they could.

C2- Personal Cleanliness & Sickness
If you had lived in the 19th century..

1. You would not have been surrounded by the scented products that you experience everyday. Things might
not "smell" as nice, but you would be used to it and probably not notice.

2. Many homes might not have running water.  Running hot water would be considered a luxury in many areas.

3. Taking a bath required a great deal of work. You or a servant would have had to carry and/or heat water,
and then empty the tub.

4. The water you drank might not be very clean.  You might not even know that the water was contaminated.


1. You would not know what caused many illnesses. No one knew about bacteria or viruses.

2. Bleeding and blistering (using
mustard compresses) were common treatments.  

Sepsis was not well understood; many people die from infections after surgery, injury or childbirth.

Anesthesia is not available until the 1840s, and even then it is not always safe or effective.

Penicillin is not available until the early 1930s.

6. There is no  commercially available
aspirin until the late 19th century.  (People did use willow bark before

7. Many people still rely on

8. Narcotics are considered over-the-counter medicines; you can buy opium in any drugstore.

9. Many “medicines” are alcoholic or contain narcotics. Again, there is no Food and Drug Administration to
regulate medicines.

10. It is possible that half of your children, yourself or your siblings will die before they reach adulthood. Life
expectancy is about 40 years old.

11. Most children will experience measles, convulsions during teething, mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever,
and smallpox.  Many will not survive.

12. Tuberculosis is a major killer. It is sometimes called "consumption" because it seems to consume the

13. Yearly epidemics of y
ellow fever (typhoid, smallpox, cholera) kill thousands. Polio does not become a
major problem until the 20th century.  

14. While there were a few
undertakers and funeral homes, many people died at their houses. The family
prepared the body for burial, dressed it in clothing or in a
shroud, and sometimes even made the coffin and
dug the grave.

14. When a family-member died, members of the family frequently wore black clothing
(mourning) if they could
afford it. For the upper-middle-class there was a strict code of what colors of clothing and what activities could
be attended and when.  Mourning for widows was the most strict, lasting a year, although some women- like
Queen Victoria of England- wore mourning for the rest of their lives.

C3: Advanced Reading. Read C2 above and information below.

Common Diseases

Life in the 19th century was much more precarious than it is today. Many of the diseases that were common
then are rarely seen today. Some of the most common ailments that we read about are s
mallpox, chicken
pox, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, mumps, yellow fever, malaria (fever and ague), typhus,
typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis (consumption)
. In addition to these illnesses were sicknesses and
problems that are still common:
pneumonia, appendicitis, accidents, and infections.


While there were a few female doctors (one of the most well-known being Mary E. Walker), most physicians
were men. Not all doctors attended medical school; some learned their business from an older doctor. In rural
areas, doctors might be hard to find, and poor rural people often suffered long before calling in a doctor
because of the cost. Even so, many patients paid their doctor with chickens, vegetables, eggs or other goods.
Many doctors had offices, sometimes in their homes, but often they made house-calls.

Midwives, sometimes called granny women or grannies, were women who assisted during childbirth.
Throughout history, the birthing chamber was a place for women. Even after doctors became available,
midwives continued to practice in remote and rural areas.  Women who could afford it, however, often liked the
prestige of having a doctor present at the birth, although doctors in most of the 19th century knew little more
about cleanliness than the midwives.


Hospitals in the early 19th century were often seen as places of last resort: places for the poor to go to die.
Respectable people stayed at their homes when sick or dying, where they were cared for by their mothers,
sisters or daughters. Many women knew at least a little about the practical care of the sick, and women’s
magazines published recipes for

Public Nursing

While women often nursed their relatives, public nursing was not usually a career considered suitable for a
respectable young woman. In England, Florence Nightingale pioneered the profession of nursing.  During the
Crimean War, she proved that simple cleanliness could save many lives.   Women entered nursing in the U.S.
during the American Civil War, and public nursing gradually became a respectable profession for women.

Herbal & Quack Medicines

With the primitive nature of medicine, hospitals and nursing, it is no wonder that many people turned to natural
and alternative medicine. In some cases there was no other alternative. Most country women knew at least a
few herbal remedies, and men kept recipes for veterinary medicines.

In addition to herbal remedies, quack doctors, local stores, and (later) the large catalog houses sold
. While some of these medicines may have been beneficial, many of these cure-alls were little more
than alcohol and flavoring.

Narcotics, such as laudanum, were easy to buy. Before the pure food and drug laws,  any “patent” medicines
contained narcotics or alcohol, and many people became addicted.  Even baby “soothing syrups” contained


Another factor in 19th century sufferings and poverty was ignorance.  Many Americans knew nothing about the
basic laws of nutrition and health. In the early 20th century the Southern U.S. saw the outbreak of a horrible
disease called
Pellegra.  No one knew what caused it for many years. Finally a doctor determined that it was
caused by a new method of processing corn meal; a method that robbed the meal of vital nutrients.


Various groups had different death-customs. In some areas, it was the custom to stop the clocks in the house
when a family member died.  Sometimes the mirrors were covered with crepe fabric.  Some families hung
mourning wreaths on the door, and funerals might be very elaborate.  

Women often had the job of preparing the dead for burial. Women family members washed the body, dressed it
in clothing or a shroud, and readied it for burial. Coins were sometimes put over the eyes to keep them shut
during the funeral (Muscle reflexes might make the eyes open,  or the corpse even sit up.  This was almost
guaranteed to shake up the most solemn occasion.) Sometimes a cloth was tied from under the jaw over the
head to keep the mouth closed.  Some groups "waked" the body for one to three nights to ensure that the
person was "really" dead.  Before the days of embalming, it was usually clear after three days that the person
was ready for burial.

Children and the unmarried might be buried in white coffins, while gray and black were used for older people.   
Glass-sided funeral
hearses, pulled by horses wearing appropriately-colored feather plumes, were used by
those who could afford them. At wealthy funerals, the family might distribute gloves or other items to the
mourners, and the family servants might even wear mourning.  Plain people might make do with a simply pine
box carried to the cemetery in a friend's wagon.

1) What are some medicines that we have today that people in the 19th century did not have?
2) What are some natural herbs that people used as medicines?
3) What are patent medicines?
4) What was the Pure Food and Drug Law?
5) Tell a little about the history of nursing.
6) Name some common 19th century diseases.
Table of Contents
1. Getting Started
2. Folks is Folks: People & Society
3. Gettin' There is Half the Fun: Travel & Transportation
4. Home Sweet Home: Architecture & Household Technology
5. Hog N' Hominy: Foodstuffs
6. Man may Work from Sun to Sun
7. The Glass of Fashion: Clothing and Textiles
8. Cleanliness is next to Godliness
9. Sickness & Health
10. Readin', Writin', and Rithmetic: Education and
11. That  Ol' Time Religion
12. Play Purties, Chivaries and Quilting Bees: Children, Toys
and Leisure