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!”