This story now
IN History & Culture ON 07 Jul, 2015
The Victorian and Edwardian Eras went through a domestic revolution and the lives of the middle-class people were affected the most. The population exponentially increased from 2 million in 1800 to 20 million by the end of 20th century. The Middle class was earning more and more, and so their living standards were getting luxurious with every passing day. But a lot of these attempts to make their homes into comfortable and fashionable havens of domesticity came with deadly hazards. And some of them even proved to be domestic assassins.
Poor Victorians had no clue they were inviting hidden killers to their homes!
Between the 1800's and the 20th century, the Middle class was introduced to bread as a basic staple. And thus to maximize their profits, the local bread manufacturers started adulterating bread dough with alum, plaster of Paris, bean flour or chalk to increase the bulk and weight of the bread loaves. Aluminum-based compound Alum was added to the bread dough for making the bread desirably white and bulkier. And as expected, these adulteration acts started affecting the health of the local people and became the main reason behind diseases such as alum produced bowel problems, malnutrition, constipation or chronic diarrhea, which was worst in case of children.
The sanitation designs weren't the same in the Victorian Era as they are today. Though it was the Victorian Era when bathrooms were first introduced to the world, but their history hasn't been very pleasant lie today's. Apart from the painful cases of blistering in bath, sometimes the lavatories also exploded due to the flammable gases methane and hydrogen sulphide, which emanated from the human waste. In those days, proper exit pipes weren't installed in the sewer tanks which resulted in the reverse flow of the inflammable gases from tanks to the bathrooms itself. These gases were so concentrated, even the naked flame of a candle could lead to explosion. Improvements in this field were made in the late 1800's.
When it came to milk adulteration, the householders are to put to blame. In a test conducted in 1882, 5 of every 20000 samples of milk were found to be adulterated with Boracic acid. Addition of Boracic acid to milk removed its sour taste and the smell as well. Isabella Beeton, one of the best known and best selling cookery writers of the Victorian Era, popularly known as Mrs. Beeton, also suggested that Boracic acid was "quite a harmless addition". She was eventually proven wrong. Even small amounts of its addition resulted in nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea to the milk-consumers. But the worst consequence was that Boracic acid provided an apt and bacteria-friendly environment to Bovine TB, a bacterium and causative agent which causes tuberculosis in cattle and can be transferred to humans too. It damages the bones of the spine leading to severe spinal deformities and causes harm to internal organs. It was the disease which was the reason behind the death of about half a million children in the Victorian period.
Domestic fridges were a huge asset as well as an object of wealth in the Edwardian Era. They were in almost every wealthy family's kitchen then. But soon their flaws were noticed, which were fatal in many cases. Gases like ammonia, methyl chloride and sulphur dioxide which were used for cooling purpose in the refrigerators, used to leak due to weak piping and joints and damaged the respiratory system. In worst cases, it could lead to death.
In the early 20th century, electricity companies introduced many electrical appliances which had serious flaws.The warning signs advised people not to approach the electric sockets with a match, but people generally ignored the warnings and were injured. Appliances like the electric tablecloth into which lamps could be directly plugged didn't go well with a water spillage and lead to shocks. The real danger came from consumers trying to fix problems themselves, run many appliances from one socket, putting more than allowed load on a single socket and repairing appliances with un-insulated wires themselves.
Victorians deeply believed in the concept of 'Cleanliness after Godliness' and were very much into cleanliness and hygiene. They were pretty much interested in anti-germs and disinfectants; anything that would keep germs and diseases away from them. But the drug industry was not as careful as it needed to be with the packaging of disinfectants. Toxic compounds such as carbolic acids were packed in normal bottles like those containing household items. People often were mistaken between bottles of caustic soda and baking soda and would buy the wrong product. In September 1888, a local newspaper of Scotland 'Aberdeen Evening Express' reported that 13 people had been poisoned by carbolic acid in one incident out of which 5 died due to consumption of the acid mistakenly. The Pharmacy Act of 1902 made it compulsory for drug manufacturing companies to store their products and medicines in separate packaging from those of household stuff.
Following the rapid population growth and urbanisation in the Victorian Era, houses were constructed at a rapid pace and servant quarters were made in the most haphazard way. The basic architectural needs were bluntly neglected in these servant quarters. The most dangerous element of architecture was the staircase, which was either too narrow or too steep and of irregular dimensions, completely ignoring the basic needs of the future residents. To make things worse, the servants had to wear long skirts and carry heavy trays while climbing those stairs.
Radium gained popularity at a peppy rate among the Victorians Edwardians in the era. It became another asbestos: used in all sorts of products, such as makeup, condoms, cigarettes, suppositories, toothpaste and even chocolate. There was a big craze for glow-in-the-dark watch faces, which were painted by the "radium girls". Back then, common people didn't know that Radium is a source of radiation poisoning and if ingested, could lead to diseases like leukaemia, anaemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw.
Parkesine (today's plastic) invented by an oft-forgotten British inventor Alexander Parkes, received an overnight success as it decreased the cost of hair combs, billiard balls, brooches, etc., which were earlier made with expensive ivory. Parkesine was also used to make easily-washable collars and cuffs. But the disadvantage of Parkesine was that it was highly flammable, and turned more hazardous as it degraded. After some time, it used to become self-ignitable and explode on collision. Absolutely a bad material for billiard balls.
Asbestos was the wonder material which found its use in domestic equipment like hair-dryers, oven gloves, floor tiles, toys, gutters, insulation, and even clothing. It was the material which revolutionized the 20th century and its dangerous outcomes were yet not known to the world. Asbestos has hazardous effects on lungs and the total number of deaths in the Victorian Era due to asbestos fibers are still not known.