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  • Writer's pictureJane Rubin

Consumption

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

For me, consumption usually refers to how much I eat, or overeat, on a given day. I have tried all the gimmicks known in Diet Land and have settled on the most universal self-control methods - guilt and shame. But more about that another time.


Lately, I’ve been consumed with consumption. Having grown up in the 50’s and 60’s, the symbol for tuberculosis was still a visible vestige of the past. But, now that I think about it, I can’t recall when I last noticed it.


My historical novel, (I’m considering titling) Beneath the Gilded, Mathilda’s Story, takes place in New York City during the second half of the 19th century. Even in upper class gilded homes, life was filthy compared to 21st century standards.


In lower Manhattan, where most of the poor lived, there were still outhouses and the streets were full of manure. Indoor plumbing had not yet been installed in many apartments, so tenants acquired water from a common source spigot generally located in the rear of the apartment building - where the outhouses were located. Fortunately, there was an independent water line connected to an aqueduct somewhere in the northern part of the city. Sewerage was dumped in the East River.

will Lincoln

Population outbreaks of diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis and diphtheria were common and extraordinarily frightening to the population. Misconceptions about the disease, its spread and cures were primarily based on superstition while a few scientists on both sides of the pond worked furiously on better scientific understanding. The average life span of 50 years was a result of those contagious diseases, which in large part had their roots in filth, contaminated water, poor nutrition and hygiene, together with a shockingly high infant mortality rate. The average New Yorker did not live long enough to seriously worry about a stroke, heart disease or cancer.


Less than 150 years later, with knowledge, aggressive public health campaigns and antibiotics, we no longer think much about those diseases. We have shifted our concerns to diseases of the old - something very few had the luxury of experiencing back then. It occurs to me, that our great and grand parents who lived passed 50, were among the few who had the good fortune of slipping through the insidious disease needle.


As I study, and indeed my research has evoked memories of college, not only do I dream of life back then, but I construct my plot and the emotional impact these diseases had on people - hopefully, reflecting my genuine emotion. In my novel, I am working hard to make it feel as real to you as it feels to me. That is my goal.


By the way, the photo above is a picture of Will Lincoln, son of the President, who died of typhus at 11 while living in the abject filth of Washington DC (I must pause to laugh here, sorry). Buttons were manufactured with his image - hold that thought. It will be the topic of my next blog.


Anyone else writing out there? I would love to commiserate!

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