The term consumption, particularly in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, means something very different today than what it meant in the 19th century. For residents of New England, consumption meant tuberculosis, a wasting lung-related disease that was often fatal. How did tuberculosis shape the culture of New England in the early 19th century? That was the topic of our most recent NERFC scholar, Mary Fuhrer.
The years between 1800 and 1850 can be described as an era of self-mastery, where new economic realities, new industrial processes, and the self-made man were fueling social and economic development. Yet in this era of progress, particularly between 1820-1840, young people were dying in large numbers. About one-third were suffering a lingering death, one that could take as long as five years and which often lead to a religious conversion. Others lived for 20 to 30 years as “invalids”. The malady these people suffered from was consumption.
What really caught my attention from her brown-bag presentation was Mary’s explanation of how different social classes explained the cause of the disease. The wealthy blamed it on heredity, as an issue of one’s constitution, and so took trips to warm climates for a “cure.” For literary types (think Emerson or Thoreau), the culprit was the stress of modern life and their own genius. They sought refuge in nature. The middle class saw the cause as over-stimulation from an urban life, including heavy studying, and working in an office. For people living in rural areas, the causes were spiritual and often related to vampirism, as described in this book in our Waterman Research Center.
I have read untold numbers of diaries and letters over the years as I process manuscript collections in which people are described as being invalids or having a “lung complaint” more times than I can count. But I never realized that these entries or letters were referring to tuberculosis. I will be looking at writings from the 19th century in a whole new light now. I really enjoy having our NERFC scholars visit to share with us their knowledge and help us look at our own collections in new ways.