Monday, October 3, 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Trip to the Water Cure

I just got back from my first water cure.
The Greenbrier Resort is a period film brought to life

Okay, so maybe it wasn't really a water cure of yore, but the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, began as a resort for people seeking the healing power of the sulphur water that bubbled up from its mountainous ground. People first began coming in 1778, and the visitors only increased in the 19th century as people drank and bathed in hopes of curing everything from headaches to arthritis. All of this water bubbles up from a green-domed, white-columned spring house to the side of the main resort. On top is a statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health and medicine. The spa still uses water from the spring house, though, most people probably think of it as spa rather than a medical facility these days.

Presidents came to the Greenbrier. Lawyers, bankers, and others hoping to escape the summer heat came, too. The construction of the large main hotel in 1858 made the White Sulphur Springs not only a place of healing but also the place to be seen for social elites. That seemed about right. Hydropathic institutes attracted many people who were just looking for a break from the city. They tended to be built in beautiful places (West Virginia is gorgeous) and to offer outdoor activities to relax and rejuvenate.

I was there to attend the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, a multiday extravaganza of great food and great food talk. I met some fantastic and talented people many of who (and many of them are already) are sure to be famous. I'll be sure to remember that I knew them when.

Today, a visit is like a step back in time--and for me, a step into another social class. Famed decorator Dorothy Draper redid the place in outsize florals, massive colored stripes, and bright colors after World War II (I should have taken more pictures. Heidi Swanson of 101Cookbooks took some nice ones). Everything you could ever need is taken care of as employees swirl around you in the lobby and at every meal. Afternoon tea brought live piano music and a well-dressed couple dancing in the lobby before tea sandwiches and cookies were brought out on silver trays carried high above the heads of the servers. It was a little like stepping into the "Be Our Guest" number from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
Wow, look at the wallpaper. Our curtains were the same pattern and even the ceiling was wallpapered.

It's also probably the closest you can get to the hydropathic experience of the past. A well-appointed resort attracting people from all over the country to take in the fresh air, exercise, and of course, as much of that healing water as you could handle.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Taste Lost and Found

One Memorial Day weekend, I lost my sense of smell.  Bad colds sometimes do that to you. But this was different. Two weeks later, my cold was gone but it had apparently delivered a knockout punch to my nose.

A ten-beer sampler at a local microbrewery tasted like ten variations of faintly flavored water. Ice cream was cold but nothing more.

A month later.  Still nothing.

There’s no good time to lose your sense of smell, but summer is the worst. I’d waited all year for the short window that yields tender stalks of my favorite vegetable, asparagus. Juicy corn and chin-dripping tomatoes awaited me finally, after months of what I refer to each year as our “orange period:” dinners consisting of sweet potatoes, squash, rutabagas, and carrots, the upper Midwestern winter staples, in dozens of iterations.

For me, summer is a smorgasbord of flavor and variety. Our weekly CSA box brims with vegetables that appear, like a Broadway star, for but a few weeks only. But without my nose, it became the year without summer.

Anosmia is the medical name for loss of smell. It affects millions of Americans, some temporarily and others permanently.

Taste is dependent on smell. When food is chewed, odors travel to the back of the mouth where a properly functioning olfactory system translates them into flavor. A malfunction can cause taste to remain intact—that is, the mouth can distinguish temperature, texture, and among sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. What’s missing is flavor—the sense that lets you savor the chocolaty undertones of your stout beer and the tang of tomato salsa. Sometimes the smell and taste loss can be restored if it is linked to a specific problem like diabetes. But if the loss resulted from olfactory-nerve damage from a head trauma or, in my case, a viral infection, there is no reliable cure, save for time and hope that the nerves will regenerate.

Slowly, my sense of smell came back. An overall blandness yielded to subtle shades of salty and sour. By early fall, eating had become almost fun again.  

But not everything was right. The rewiring of my olfactory nerves had a faulty connection.
Washing my hair with some orange-scented shampoo one morning, I felt nauseated by the smell. Citrus, but particularly oranges, had become disgusting in my newly reordered brain. After months of not smelling them at all, oranges came rushing back at me with a vengeance.

I avoided them at first. It’s easy to do when you live in Wisconsin and try to eat locally. But orange-scented products and orange wedges in drinks and garnishes appear in a surprising number of places and had me running for the door.  

I thought maybe I could retrain myself to like oranges. I'd "trained" myself to eat other things by introducing them regularly into my meals, like raw tomatoes. I drank small sips of orange juice for a week, screwing up my face in disgust with each swallow and shoving the glass across the table to my husband to finish. I ate orange wedges and garnishes, choking them down one bite at a time and chasing them with water to drown out what had insensibly become a horrible flavor.

And it actually worked. Almost a year later, I could drink a small glass of orange juice and eat an orange wedge without feeling nauseous. I still don’t order orange juice for breakfast and I can’t remember the last time I ate a whole orange, but I know that I can now. And maybe someday, I will.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Camping for Real

I just went camping for the first time. Have I mentioned I'm 31 years old?

Despite growing up in the Northwest, prime camping area, I never went camping as a kid (I also never skied, but that's a different, though, I think related story). Sure, I went to Girl Scout Camp for several summers but we slept in our sleeping bags in cabins. Cabins with no real windows or doors but still, under a roof, on a mattress (a gross one), on a bed frame. One night each session, we'd haul our mattresses outside and sleep in the middle of a grassy field, but I don't think that qualifies as camping. As an adult, I slept outside in a borrowed tent after a concert once. And while biking across Iowa two years ago, we slept in a tent on fairgrounds and parks, surrounded by 10,000 of our closest friends (literally).

So a tent wasn't completely unknown to me but still... the real camping experience, the ones you see on TV, had never happened until this weekend when we hiked a short ways on the Ice Age Trail and found a beautiful spot to set up our tent above the Wisconsin River.

While it seems strange now that I'd never really camped before, little more than 100 years ago, I was perfectly normal. Camping is a new phenomenon in the scheme of things. Getting away to nature was not something many people wanted to do because some had probably only recently escaped a more rustic existence for the city, while others were still living there.

The conservation movement that gained currency in the late 19th century with people like Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir celebrated nature as an escape and worked to preserve tracts of land from development. They celebrated the virtues of being outdoors and helped to introduce people to the idea of leaving their modern conveniences (and urban squalor) for time spent in nature. Manuals for outdoor skills and camping began appearing with increasing infrequency in the 1890s, many geared at white boys for whom many feared that modern life was making them soft. Summer camp also provided a place for middle and upper class schoolchildren to go in the summer as the idea of a break from school unconnected to farm chores was still a new idea. Camps for girls were slower to develop, in part because girls often had home chores still to do and some fear about the dangers of sending women off to the woods.

Many of these first campsites (not unlike today) provided a simulation of nature. The environment was planned and organized to provide everything people needed so the transition from city to pastoral relaxation wasn't too jarring.

As cars became more common, people began taking family camping trips, setting up tent alongside the car. Not everyone was so pleased to have people indiscriminately camping along every roadway so cities and towns began building more campgrounds, and towns began advertising themselves as car camping destinations.

The triumph of camping has become so complete, in just a century or so, that it can seem strange to meet someone who has never been camping. Well, it's not me any longer.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Women Doctors and Healers

Nearly all of the medical sects that emerged in the 19th century gave unprecedented professional and leadership opportunities to women. Women had long been responsible for their family's health, growing medicinal plants in kitchen gardens, tending to the sick, and serving as midwives for family and neighbors. Home healing was part of her domestic responsibilities: caring and tending being largely female character traits.

But for the most part, women couldn't be doctors. That was a role for men who could enroll in medical schools or apprentice with trained doctors. For various reasons, it wasn't deemed suitable for women, and women were mostly kept out of mainstream medicine until the 20th century.

Medical reformers had a different view of women, though. Most not only welcomed female practitioners, they allowed them to attend their medical schools and training programs. Women became leaders of alternative medicine associations and opened their own private medical offices. Mary Gove Nichols opened her own water cure, and Lydia Folger Fowler, only the second woman to graduate with a medical degree in the United States, had a private medical office in New York City.

Hydropathy, or the water cure, took a particularly liberating view of women. Contemporary medical theory viewed being female as a disease in of itself. Women were irrational and ruled by their wombs. The natural processes of a woman's life--menstruation, pregnancy--were seen as diseases that needed to be controlled, usually by men. To be female was to be a problem in need of a solution. Hydropaths took a different path, choosing not to medicalize women. They instead viewed women's life events as natural and normal, and argued that hydropathy gave women control over their bodies; something they rarely had in any part of their lives. This was an empowering and radical idea that attracted a large number of women eager to exert control over their own bodies and their own lives.
Hydropath Mary Gove Nichols

Homeopathy, osteopathy, Thomsonism, and phrenology were among the many others that welcomed women into their fields. And doing so, allowed their movements to grow exponentially.

Many women wouldn't talk about health issues with a male doctor. Women in alternative medicine discussed topics and introduced health concepts that many women would never have learned about otherwise. These women doctors gave lectures on women's and children's health, and wrote books geared specifically toward women. At water cures, women were needed to serve as attendants and doctors to female visitors.

This more open attitude toward women was, in part, a reflection of the times. Middle class reformers of all kinds worked to make the world a better, cleaner, safer, free-er, happier place in the 19th century. Women played a particularly active role in reform efforts, as they were one way that women could be politically active and still maintain their womanly "virtue." Many of the same people that were attracted to abolition and woman's rights were also attracted to medical reform. The lines between all these reformers blurred and overlapped in innumerable ways, so it wasn't too surprising that women would become such prominent players in alternative medicine.

Perhaps it's just more surprising, and disappointing, that it took so long for mainstream medicine to come around.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mark Twain's head reading

Everyone had their head examined in the 19th century. Phrenologists read the heads of common people and famous people, from President Ulysses S. Grant and poet Walt Whitman to nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton. Even Mark Twain, who was never quite sure what to make of phrenology. 

Visiting London in 1873, Mark Twain saw an advertisement for the services of a fellow American who had hung his shingle on Fleet Street. Inspired and not a little skeptical, Twain appeared under a fictitious name in the offices of Lorenzo Niles Fowler, “practical phrenologist.”

Phrenology wasn’t new to him. It had captured the imagination of millions of Americans and made everyone a little head conscious. Twain remembered the itinerant phrenologists from his years in Hannibal, Missouri, giving demonstrations and offering advice.

Entering, Twain “found Fowler on duty, amidst the impressive symbols of his trade…all about the room stood marble-white busts, hairless, every inch of the skull occupied by a shallow bump, and every bump labeled with its imposing name, in black letters.”

Twain paid Fowler for a reading. It’s not clear whether he attempted to disguise his physical appearance or if he at least chose to wear something other than his trademark white suit. Either way, Fowler gave no indication that he recognized Twain.

The reading was fairly typical, a balanced stew of mostly generic, positive traits, save for one spot particularly galling to the famed humorist. “[H]e found a cavity, in one place; a cavity where a bump would have been in anyone else’s skull,” recalled Twain. “He startled me by saying that that cavity represented the total absence of the sense of humor!”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Polka Till You Puke

Polka is the law in Wisconsin. Or so they tell you in Pulaski, home of Polka Days, a weekend celebration of the Wisconsin state dance near Green Bay. It draws a serious polka crowd, both young and old, as well as some of the country's most popular polka bands.
Polka pride is evident on the many funny t-shirts worn by attendees

Polka began as a Czech peasant dance in the early 19th century. It spread to ballrooms in Prague and then Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. The French loved to polka and their enthusiasm for the dance helped increase its popularity. Polka soon spread to England and then to the United States where Polish-Americans adopted it as their national dance in the early 20th century. The name 'polka' is derived from the Czech phrase for 'half-step' in reference to the dance pattern of lightly stepping from one foot to the other.

Polka emerged at roughly the same time as its signature instruments: the accordion and concertina. These squeeze boxes became the 19th century's most popular mechanical musical innovation because one person could play the part of an entire musical ensemble, playing melodies and harmonies with one hand and chords and bass in the other hand. These instruments became prized possessions that many immigrants brought with them to the United States.

A variety of polka styles developed in different sections of the country, particularly the Midwest. The styles became associated with particular ethnic groups, such as Polish, Slovenian, and Dutchman, based on the ethnic heritage of the musicians or composers.

Radio brought polka to an even wider audience in the 20th century. After World War II, polka joined, for a brief time, popular culture, in large measure due to the accordion stylings of Frankie Yankovic of Cleveland, Ohio. Rock 'n roll eclipsed polka in the 1960s but polka has remained popular in many communities throughout the Midwest.

Polka is clearly still big in Pulaski judging from the huge, cheering, and dancing crowds. It's an impressive sight--two tents with wood dance floors packed with people, polka-ing with abandon, and not a little skill.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Sometimes I think it might be fun to start recording everything I hear while walking around town or waiting in line at the store. At the farmer's market this morning, I heard a man tell his friends: "I think I slept on my kidney wrong. It's really sore this morning." I'm pretty sure that's not possible.

Sleep is a common prescription for good health today. Getting enough of it, that is. In the 19th century, many alternative health movements promoted things we now think of as common sense: eating a heathy diet, drinking water, getting fresh air, and exercising. But few health reformers actively promote sleep. It seems that sleep wasn't the same issue that it is today. Scientists and doctors speculated on what sleep was for and what happened while you slept (especially what you were dreaming) but didn't seem to worry so much about the amount of sleep people were getting.

In part, this may be due to technology. Electricity wasn't widespread until the 20th century so working late into the night or before dawn wasn't an issue in many cases. There were certainly many other things to keep people up at night, however, from lice and other bed bugs to stinky chamber pots.

Or maybe it was, as historian Roger Ekirch suggests, that sleeping through the night wasn't expected. He proposes that interrupted sleep was the norm and that it's only now that we equate a good night's rest with uninterrupted sleep. He says--and many others seem to agree--that artificial lighting has changed us. Harvard chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler has compared artificial lighting to a drug in its physiological effects. Among other things, it alters our levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our circadian clock. In the past, we may have slept in segments, sleeping for a few hours, waking and doing something, and sleeping some more.

It's certainly always been possible to sleep in an awkward position and wake up with sore muscles. I'm just not sure that extends to body organs.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Defining Home and Region

Where's home? Is it where you live now or where you're from? And if you've moved, when does your new place transition to "home?"

I'm staring down nearly nine years in Madison, Wisconsin, this summer. I came for school but stayed for... work and friends and then love. And even though I've never felt more connected to a place than I do Madison, I still feel surprise when people refer to me as a "Wisconsinite" or a "Madisonian." Obviously, I've made the cut in their minds but for some reason I'm not sure I've made it in mine. What I think of as my "formative years" happened somewhere else even if I'm not all that different from the people in my new home.

My husband and I have been talking about the Midwest as a region a lot lately. Where is it? What is it? Who considers themselves part of it, Midwesterners, and who doesn't? Midwest Living magazine includes Oklahoma in the Midwest but I'd venture to say that many people in Wisconsin wouldn't consider Oklahoma Midwestern (no offense to those Oklahomans who do). And what about Ohio? It kind of is and isn't, straddling the line between the Midwest and the East but firmly in the eastern time zone.

I was born in the Midwest and live there again now so does that make me a Midwesterner? Even though I spent two-thirds of my life in the Northwest?

All of these things--home and region--are really choices we each make about where we choose to identify some part of ourselves. For some, not choosing can be a regional identity, too: rootlessness. And maybe that's my choice right now.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Homeopathy, Alive and Well

Homeopathy is alive and well in its birthplace. On a recent trip to Germany, I was surprised to see so many homeopathic pharmacies and doctors' offices. But maybe I shouldn't have been since Germany (and Austria) seems to have given rise to so many alternative medical theories: hydropathy, phrenology, homeopathy, to name a few. 

One of many homeopathic apothecaries

Premade homeopathic remedies for sale in a store window in Lubeck

The area we visited, northwest Germany, seemed filled with all kinds of "alternative" doctors. There were chiropractors, herbalists, naturopaths, and homeopaths around every corner, a concentration I might expect to find in certain areas of the United States that have a hippie-ish reputation like San Francisco, Austin, and Berkeley. We saw them in Hamburg, Lubeck, and Luneborg, cities of very different sizes and characters. Perhaps the German medical system takes a more broadminded view than mainstream American medicine toward their alternative cousins, and perhaps the German people do, too. Seeing so many of these places, I could almost imagine being in the 19th century United States when such a range of medical options was prominent.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Every Dairy State Needs a Queen

June in Wisconsin means June Dairy Month. That's right, "America's Dairyland" has a special month devoted to dairy. It's perfectly reasonable to think this unnecessary since isn't every month about dairy in a state that has chosen to label itself as such? Well, no, apparently it's not enough. We need to have dairy farm breakfasts all over the state, to put cows up by the state capitol, and to have the opportunity to meet Alice in Dairyland, Wisconsin's dairy royalty.
Alice in Dairyland peddles cheese

I recently recorded an essay for "Wisconsin Life" about Alice, linking these agricultural queens to fertility goddesses of yore (thankfully, I didn't actually use the word "yore" in my story). Sure, she began as a kind of beauty queen but the role has evolved into more of a marketing job. You can't just represent dairy anymore--you actually have to work for it.

Talking about Alice at work, a coworker wondered why there's no male dairy royalty. Perhaps Albert in Dairyland? I wouldn't want to unseat Alice from her absolute reign so perhaps he could be a consort ala Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh?

Genealogy Heist

I shoved a handful of tattered papers and black and white photos in a plastic box. Opening another drawer, I found another stack of papers that I quickly removed and added to my haul. My husband worked the drawers on the other side of the room, quickly and silently unrolling and uncovering treasures lost to time, disinterest, and forgetfulness.

This wasn’t a bank or museum heist. It was a genealogy rescue mission.

It all began innocently enough. I married a man obsessed with his genealogy. We were both soon busily tracing our family’s story, hunting for hints of who we are and where we came from.

I had never known much about my family. Asked to create family trees in elementary school, I managed to produce saplings while my classmates came with sprawling oaks.

Tell me about your grandparents, I’d ask my dad. “I don’t know anything about them. We barely saw them growing up,” he’d say. They were Polish, I knew that, and spoke little, if any English, in their small town south of Chicago. Most of the time, my dad remembered their names.  Sometimes, he forgot that, too.

My mom wasn’t much better. She’d point to an old water-stained photograph in a faded gold frame that used to hang in my grandparents’ garage and now hangs in her dining room and say, “That’s Petronella Wilhelmina Verhoven.” Who’s that? I’d ask. A relative, she’d say, before quickly adding, “but it might not be her and I don’t know how we are related to her.” My mom just liked the photo, whoever she was. Sometimes I would stare into her forlorn eyes under a floppy cap, trying to see a resemblance. Was that my nose, my forehead?

My mom had a habit of finding old photos and proclaiming them relatives. We had an old 1890s velvet album in the living room filled with late 19th and early 20th century studio portraits of baby boys and girls in frilly white gowns reclining on tufted chairs and young women encased in corsets and bustles. The best one to my childhood eyes was of a circus company that included a dog-faced girl, a fat lady, and two tiny Tom Thumb-like people on chairs on front. Who wouldn’t want to be related to them?
So I had little to start with when I began my research, but I made headway quickly thanks to the wonders of the internet. I discovered for the first time that I was fairly equal parts Polish, German, Norwegian, and Swedish. I’ve even managed to find some of the towns where many of my great-greats came from in Europe.

My parents even proved to be helpful in their own way. Once, I found an article in a small Indiana newspaper describing a bicycle accident my great-grandfather Stanley Janik got in when he was 74 years old. It turns out my dad knew more than he had let on all these years about his Polish grandparents. “Oh yeah, that was a big deal. He had to have his leg amputated,” he said when I told him about it.

But despite these kernels of information, my parents were tightfisted with any photos and documents that might aid my research. I’d ask them for any birth certificates or marriage certificates they might have, even their own, and received only vague promises to look. I’m pretty sure I only got my own birth certificate because I needed it to get married. It wasn’t that my parents were interested in genealogy themselves or even knew what they had squirreled away. My offers to scan everything and store it in archival boxes for protection were met with hard stares and vague promises to scan everything and send it to me.

Which is what led us to thievery. Visiting my parents one weekend, my husband and I took advantage of their absence to take as many photos and documents as we could and ship them to our home in Wisconsin. I knew my parents would probably never notice they were gone.  Even so, I felt a little guilty.

But it somehow didn’t seem so bad when I considered that these things belonged to me, too. This was my family and my history, the place where I come from and the people that made my life possible. I wasn’t just stealing; I was reclaiming my history and honoring the lives of my ancestors by choosing to remember them rather than purchasing members of other people’s families.

Maybe it’s just an excuse, a concocted justification for my actions, but all I know is that it sure feels good to finally have a family tree with spreading limbs rather than a stunted sapling.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Medical Poetry

A few months ago, I published my first poem. Co-authored, I should say, with my creative husband. It was a medical poem, and it was published not in some literary magazine but in the journal Neurology. That's right, a medical journal with a humanities section.

Medical poetry has a long history, it turns out (and I'm not talking about the poetic musings of patients on their illnesses and suffering, though that probably has an even longer history). In the 19th century, a botanical medical movement known as Thomsonianism, after its founder Samuel Thomson, created a vast library of medical poetry related to their beliefs. Unlike most 19th century poetry which was penned by women, the majority of Thomsonian poems were composed by men for medical purposes rather than for any moral or ethical objectives. Some poems provided medical instruction, teaching people how to monitor sickness and to administer medicines.

Samuel Thomson himself, the movement's founder, wrote many poems decrying the professionalization of medicine and the pretensions of the university educated. Thomson believed that every man could be his own physician and sought to demystify medicine by making it easy to understand and use. He advocated for natural remedies made of plants, roots, and barks, rather than the mineral and chemical-based medicines used by regular doctors. Disease for Thomson was caused by a lack of heat that needed to be restored through scrubbing and warming agents. Thomson's poems reflected his democratic leanings, carrying anti-elitist messages and simplified explanations of his medical system.

Thomson and his followers wrote poems that stretched from the epic to the patriotic, satirical, and romantic. Most contained some element of ridicule aimed at regular doctors, gaining friends and followers through wit and calculated reason.

Here's an 1840 poem written by Thomson that captures the significance of heat and the numbered system in his course of remedies.

If you desire a length of days,
Then follow Wisdom's pleasant ways:
Beware you shun the tempting lures
Of poisonous bait and death.
Health is a blessing all must prize,
True wealth in it, tho' hidden lies,
We must beware of quack'ry's cries,
Or else resign our breath.
Our nature's may be understood,--
The wise, the blest, the truly good,
Have all combined to ease life's load
Of poisons, kin to earth.

Shall laws make inroads on our peace?
Shall crafty Doctors never cease?
Shall stern oppression mar our ease?
Oh, no! we've rights by birth.
Is heat the friend of life in man?--
Then Thomson's is the wisest plan
To lengthen out life's feeble span,
And walk in nature's truth.
If numbers, one to six be used,
Nor natural sent'nels be abused;
Then health with you shall ne'er be loos'd,
While heat you hold enough.

I'm not sure our poem was witty or as mission-driven as the Thomsonian works. But it's still nice to know that poetry has long had a place at the bedside.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Showing Laura Ingalls Wilder Around

I really loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was growing up.  I used to imagine that she came to visit the late 20th century and I was charged with showing her around. Why she would want or even need to be shown my particular slice of the century--the outskirts of Redmond, the height of gentrifying Northwestern suburbia, with your tour guide, a book-aholic only-child with an already well-developed affinity for public broadcasting and history books (my grandma always said I was "born old," like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. It only reinforces the point that I knew that reference even as a 10 year old)--was unimportant. All that mattered was that I loved Laura's life and her story so I liked to imagine what would happen if she was dropped into my world like I was in hers through her stories.
Laura! Welcome to Redmond!

First stop, television. Then the car. If we were lucky, I might have been able to convince my dad to drive us to the airport. "Remember all those long weeks in your wagon moving to a new place?" I'd say.  I played "Oregon Trail." I knew the dangers of wagon travel: people were always falling out and drowning, or getting bit by snakes. "We have flying wagons now. You'd be on the banks of Plum Creek in no time."

I also imagined myself in her world. The dugout house in Minnesota held particular appeal. I couldn't believe people could actually live in a hillside with walls made of dirt. I once tried to dig my own house in the side of a mound of topsoil my parents got to build flower beds. Let's just say it didn't quite work out.

I had a very vivid historical imagination.

In grad school, I met a woman from Japan who chose the University of Wisconsin history program, in part, because of its relative nearness to Pepin, Wisconsin, aka Little House in the Big Woods. She told me that people in Japan loved Laura and they especially loved the 1970s and 1980s television show. When she told her parents she had chosen Wisconsin for school, the only thing they knew about Wisconsin was that Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived here. A good enough reason as any for choosing a school, right? Once, my friend even dressed up as Laura and went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder festival in Pepin. She was concerned that she might look foolish--a Japanese woman in her 30s wearing braids and a bonnet--but instead she found people who loved Laura just as much as she did.

There's just something about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wendy McClure has even written a book about the enduring appeal of Laura called  The Wilder Life.

Despite all the love for Laura, I'm probably the only one who saw herself as Laura's tour guide to the future.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hydropathy in the Family

I drink a lot of water every day. And I walk a lot, everywhere in fact, many, many, many miles a day. So when I first started reading about hydropathy, I could easily see myself fitting right in with the hydropaths. They instructed patients to drink at least 12 glasses of water (actually "tumblers") a day and to walk as far as possible between treatments. One guy, James Wilson, took the advice to drink a lot of water a little overboard--he drank more than thirty glasses before breakfast while staying at the original hydropathy institute in Grafenberg, Germany. When he started his own water cure in England, he gave everyone glasses so they could follow his lead.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one with hydropathic sympathies in the family. On a recent trip to visit my parents, I discovered that my great-grandmother graduated from the Kellberg Institute for Hygiene, Massage, and Medical Gymnastics in Chicago with a specialty in water-therapeutics. She was a 20th century hydropath! No wonder I love all this medical history!

Medical gymnastics is what we would think of as just exercising today. It was the use of physical exercise as a therapy to restore or stay healthy. The medical and health benefits of exercising don't need to be justified today, but until the 20th century, many people were not sure that exercise wasn't harmful, especially to women.

From my very limited initial research, it appears that the Kellberg Institute was founded by Swedish immigrants (my great-grandmother was also a Swedish immigrant to Chicago). This makes sense as the Swedes had been particularly interested in the use of gymnastics for health since the early 19th century. They used gymnastics to improve the physical fitness of the general public in schools, in the military and as a medical healing process. 
Medical gymnastics in action

Per Henrik Ling developed the Swedish gymnastic system in the early 19th century. He was a fencing master, and with his son Hjalmer, he developed a program of functional physical gymnastics training. They founded the Central Gymnastic Institute in Stockholm in 1813 to provide training for teachers and members of the military. Ling's Swedish gymnastics programs had four parts: medical, aesthetic, military and pedagogic. Training involved the correct performance of prescribed gymnastic movements under the watchful eye of a trainer.

Other European countries followed Sweden's lead and instituted gymnastics programs to aid physical healing and to promote health from the early 19th century onward. This was likely the program taught at the Kellberg Institute to graduates like my great-grandmother.  

By the 20th century, hydropathy in its original form had virtually disappeared, morphed into an overall system of hygiene and exercise that would be quite recognizable as the keys to good health today: exercise, a sensible diet, plenty of sleep, and lots of water. 

Monday, April 4, 2011


The 2010 documentary "How to Start Your Own Country" explores what happens when people decide to declare their little piece of the earth (or in the case of The Principality of Sealand, a platform six miles off the coast of Britain) an independent country. The film raises fascinating questions about what makes a country a country, a question you may have never thought to ask (I hadn't). What's perhaps most surprising is that even the United Nations doesn't have a clear idea of what constitutes a legitimate country--they can't even say for certain how many countries there are in the world: who considers what legitimate is highly variable it turns out. The Czech Republic, for example, doesn't recognize Lichtenstein as a country and yet Lichtenstein is a member of the U.N. so does that make it a country or not?

The film made me think of my longstanding interest in utopias. Most utopias are communities, not countries. I wonder why someone chooses a community rather than a country to make the world anew? Sure, it's easier to start a utopian community. You don't have to print new money or establish any of the other public services and supports like a telephone system, post office, or financial system. But it's also harder to subvert the existing social, cultural, and economic order, which many utopias, especially in the 19th century sought to do. It's hard to break free of something you are dependent on, which must be part of the great appeal of micronations.

I was pleased to learn that Wisconsin has a micronation. It's called Talossa and it's located in Milwaukee. This isn't Wisconsin's first micronation, though.

In 1847, a breakaway Mormon leader named James Strang established a kingdom with himself as ruler (of course) on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. This was in the years before the Latter Day Saints had moved to Utah. After the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1844, Strang produced a document (that he forged) claiming that he had been selected by Smith to be his successor. The community split on the question of who to follow: Strang or Brigham Young. The majority followed Young but a group took Strang's word for it and followed him to Wisconsin. They first founded a colony called Voree near Burlington, Wisconsin, and later established a kingdom on Beaver Island. It was there, on July 8, 1850, that Strang had himself crowned king, the only man in American history to have achieved that title. 

Attacks and in-fighting doomed Strang's kingdom, however, and Strang himself was assassinated in 1856. The community soon broke up, ending an early chapter in Wisconsin micronation history. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Food & Think

I had the great pleasure of having one of my pieces featured on the Smithsonian's fantastic food blog Food & Think on Monday. It's funny how a prompt-- in this case "the most memorable meal of your life"-- can bring back memories in a flush of sights, sounds, and smells. And just thinking about my meal made the whole month I spent in England come back in more vivid detail that it might have had someone just asked me to tell them about the time I spent in London 11 years ago.

Something I didn't include in this piece was my memory of one weekend dinner in the Zebra Club. The thuggish Eastern European chef must have had the night off so dinner that night was both made and served by the regular waiter, whose name I wish I could remember. I do remember that he was from Serbia and that he bore a slight resemblance to Mr. Bean. He took our order--pasta or meat, as usual--and then headed back into the kitchen.

From my place at the table, I could see through the round window to the stove.  Through that portal I saw the Mr. Bean-waiter ignite something that resulted in tremendous flames--they were literally 18 inches high and looked like they could easily singe his eyebrows off. Did I mention I ordered pasta?

Twenty minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen with our bowls of rubbery pasta. Everything looked normal: or as bad as what had become "usual" by this point in the trip.

I never discovered what the flames were about. We tried asking but he seemed confused by the question. Perhaps he had hoped no one had seen. He wanted to keep those flames to himself.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bloomers and the Water Cure

Amelia Bloomer is a name that many people who study women's history even a little bit tend to know. She's the namesake of "bloomers," a style of dress that became popular among women's rights advocates and dress reformers in the 19th century. Bloomer, the woman, didn't invent the costume, but she was an early and ardent advocate of them and as a result, gave her name to the style. Bloomers consisted of a loosely fitting coat or dress that reached below the knees and a pair of billowing pants similar to Turkish trousers (picture MC Hammer or the Disney-fied Aladdin) gathered at the ankles.

Although widely associated with women's rights, bloomers were actually one of the treatment outfits for those taking a water cure. Hydropathy, as the water-cure system, was known was a popular form of medical therapy in the United States from the 1820s to the 1860s. The basic idea was that cold water was pure and clean and could therefore cure just about any disease. People "took" water in any number of ways but the most common was a wet sheet that would be wrapped around a patient for several hours until he or she sweated. An alternative to the sheet was a wet dress, which was introduced at a hydropathic institute and later became the model of the bloomer costume. Women who took the water cure often sometimes cut their hair short for easy drying and felt themselves free from the prevailing and restrictive women's fashion.

The wet dress was introduced to the fashion world by Elizabeth Smith who displayed her fashion to women's rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Amelia Bloomer discovered it when Stanton came for a visit and she soon began writing about it enthusiastically in her magazine, The Lily. Articles on the bloomer trend were soon picked up by other publications and it came to be dubbed "bloomers" for Bloomer's advocacy of it for women. Bloomer herself along with other wearers of bloomers suffered merciless ridicule for their fashion choice.

The bloomers adoption by the women's rights movement also damaged its reputation among hydropaths. Bloomers came to be associated with female radicalism and its followers were suspected of free love and of a desire to be free of all feminine graces.

Amelia Bloomer mostly abandoned the bloomer in 1859 but she continued to fight for women's rights and for more sensible, less restrictive clothing for women for the rest of her life.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hair of the Dog

Having a morning drink after a night of too much drinking is one cure for a hangover. Although it's unlikely that "hair of the dog" works, the idea of treating yourself with what caused the problem in the first place is a homeopathic idea.

One of the primary tenets of homeopathy is that like cures like. The right treatment for an illness is the treatment that produces the same symptoms in a healthy person. So if you have a headache, whatever herb or drug causes a similar headache in a normal person is the right treatment. This idea forms the foundation of homeopathy.

Homeopathy was an extremely popular medical movement in the 19th century, rivaling orthodox medicine for supremacy. A big part of its appeal was its simplicity--you could buy a homeopathy kit that would help you match symptoms to treatment--and the minimal pain inflicted by its therapies.

At the time, many doctors and patients believed that a drug needed to cause a lot of pain to be effective. How else were you to know that it was working if you weren't bleeding or passing out? Homeopathists proposed an alternative: that drugs don't have to hurt to work. Homeopathists treated patients with very small doses of medicine diluted at least 30 (and often many more) times. While many critics derided the use of small doses, claiming that they could never treat anyone, homeopathists at least knew that they were causing no more harm. The same could certainly not be said of regular doctors and their regimen of bleeding, puking, blistering, and sweating.

Homeopathy also claimed some successes in treating people during cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1849, leading many regular doctors to defect to homeopathy. Cholera sufferers got small doses of camphor and were urged to seek out clean air and water. While homeopathy may have done little to cure these people, they also didn't cause more pain to people already suffering as bleeding, blistering, and sweating likely did.

Homeopathy fell out of mainstream favor in the 20th century, but some of its ideas live on in things like "hair of the dog." Homeopathists didn't invent or even endorse the idea of treating a hangover with alcohol, but the idea of like curing like is imbedded in that urban myth. Homeopathy also changed our view of what medicine is supposed to feel like. Today, we look for drugs with few side effects, not the painful, visible signs of treatment from the past.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wisconsin's Hardy Early Settlers

I just recorded an audio piece for WPR's Wisconsin Life series on the state's settlers and why they stayed in such a cold place. Take a listen.

That's some deep snow. Hurley, Wisconsin, 1899.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Get your head examined

Today, when you tell someone to "get his or her head examined," you are usually implying that they are crazy. But the phrase had real currency in the 19th century. People really did get their heads examined--but not to find out they were crazy.

The phrase actually comes from the antebellum phrenology fad when people--all kinds of people, from president James Garfield to Walt Whitman--got their heads "read."Phrenologists could read your character, including what you are good at and what weren't, by looking at the bumps on your head. Supposedly, Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and Ulysses S. Grant even picked their careers based on a head reading. Forget What Color is Your Parachute? In the 19th century, it was What Bumps are on My Brain?

Phrenology offered physical "proof" of your internal self. That was part of its appeal in an age when everyone was driven to "know thyself."Your whole self could be understood by the landscape of your scalp, a powerful idea with incredible potential for making the world work better.

Not everyone thought phrenology was a great idea, though. Lots of people thought it was a crazy idea, which is likely where the phrase "getting your head examined" got it's uncomplimentary overtones.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cold Climates

When it's 0 degrees outside, do you ever wonder why your ancestors decided to stick this out rather than move somewhere warmer? Why stay in the upper Midwest or New England when California, the Carolinas, or New Orleans beckoned?

In Wisconsin, the reasons people came and stayed had a lot to do with the kinds of people they were. Many of the state's first immigrants came from cold places originally (Norway, Germany, Finland, Canada) so a cold winter was nothing they didn't already know.

Warmer climates were also more susceptible to devastating outbreaks of disease, particularly yellow fever and malaria. Mosquitoes, the main carriers of these diseases, couldn't survive our cold winters so the outbreaks were never as severe or as long-lasting here as there.

Wisconsin also looked like home to many immigrants. Something about the lay of the hills and fields reminded many of them of Norway, Germany, or Switzerland. Sure, they'd been on a boat for a while and maybe the time away and the deliriousness of travel had twisted their memories, making anything seem inviting after time spent crammed on the lower decks of a ship, but countless letters home described a new place that recalled a beloved homeland. Norwegians wrote glowing letters about the area just west of Madison near Blue Mounds, Mt. Horeb, and the town of Vermont. The Swiss loved the green hills of today's Green County.

It also helped that many of the warmer places were not yet part of the United States in the 19th century or at least not yet as secure from potential Spanish takeover or other threats. Arizona didn't become a state until 1912. Texas wasn't sure it didn't want to be an independent republic until the mid-19th century. Things were more settled in the north for the most part.

So thank your ancestors for settling somewhere cold. They may have kept your bloodline safe from yellow fever and found an easier new start in a place that seemed a lot like home.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Nuptial Head Reading

In 1844, Lydia Folger married Lorenzo Niles Fowler in Nantucket. Fowler was, with his brother Orson Squire, the foremost proponents of phrenology in the United States, so it should probably come as no surprise that some head reading occurred at the ceremony. Lorenzo read the bumps on the head of Lydia's uncle Walter, declaring, so the story goes, that his ego was nearly as large as his genius.

I ran across this story on the website of the Nantucket Historical Society while looking up more about Lydia Folger Fowler. Lydia was a remarkable woman. The second woman to graduate from medical school in the United States (and the first American-born--Elizabeth Blackwell was English), she lectured extensively on health, anatomy, physiology, and hygiene in addition to practicing medicine. She wrote books and taught courses to women.

In her lectures to women, Lydia praised their roles as mothers but also urged them to think about the other years of their lives, those not tied to child bearing and raising. She told them that an educated mother made the best mother. She constantly emphasized how important it was for individuals to study, practice, and perfect themselves. This was especially important for mothers, Lydia said, who had a responsibility to more than merely caretakers of their children and husbands.

Lydia's story is little known, in part, because of her gender but also because of her marriage to one of the famous Fowler brothers. She was also the cousin of a much more famous woman: Lucretia Mott, the famed Quaker woman's rights advocate.  But she made important contributions to the history of women and medicine. And who could forget a wedding that involved head bump reading?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Domesticity

When you dive into the past, especially the history of women, you won't go far before you run smack into the idea of domesticity. Domesticity belonged to women--the word encapsulated both what duties women had and the ideal of womanhood in the 19th century. Women were to be pious, pure, domestic, and submissive. A woman's place was in the home, taking part in tasks and chores that maintained and fulfilled her piety and purity. Housework was one such "uplifting" task.

The idea of domesticity arose in the early 19th century when the growth of new industries, businesses and professions created a new class of Americans: the middle class. This new middle class did not have to make what it needed to survive. Men produced goods and performed services outside the home while women and children stayed home. A man going off to work out in the rough public world served to create the view that a man alone could support his family. Women were far too delicate to be out in the world. They needed to stay home and make the home a refuge for men from the unstable, immoral business world.
Even as more women moved out of the home and into the workplace in the 20th century, many of the ideas of domesticity and the equation of women with domestic work remained.

All of this was on my mind recently when I read a piece by Steph Larsen on Grist about the links between the DIY lifestyle (sewing and preserving food for instance) of today and domesticity of the past. Larsen recounts chaffing at her mom's declaration of how domestic she'd become after she serves them a meal made up of foods she'd grown, harvested, preserved, and cooked. Many of my female friends preserve and cook for their families.  And I occasionally feel the same sense of unease that Larsen recounts as I happily make dinner for my husband many evenings and pack his lunch in the morning. Am I betraying my feminist forebearers? Or is somehow the fact that this is a choice rather than something women must do make it okay?

My desire to cook comes from a place of real enjoyment. As a kid, my mom hated to cook and so we ate many meals out in restaurants or from a box in the freezer. To my mom, cooking was drudgery. I feel the opposite but not because I feel any pressure to put food on the table. Cooking for me is a reprieve. One of the few things I do in my life that yields immediate results. Writing means waiting months if not years to see your efforts in its final form. Cooking and food are also, for me, a way of supporting local farmers and combatting an agricultural system I think is broken.

So while domesticity continues to include a body of home tasks associated with women and women alone, maybe the doors on the cage are more open now.