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Farm, Field and Fireside: Health and Hygiene

A guide to health and wellness topics in the Farm, Field and Fireside collection of farm periodicals. Supplements the main Farm, Field and Fireside guide.

Overview: Disease in America

 "Since physicians were often inaccessible to country folk, readers of the farm papers, particularly mothers, were vitally            interested in home remedies and 'health reform.' Articles on diet, hygiene, exercise, and the like, as well as 'cures' for every conceivable ailment were published".1

This shift in "diagnostic terms" makes it similarly difficult to search the farm periodicals for information on disease, since we have no reliable method of naming the sicknesses people suffered. A first step is to identify the most common diseases. For example, in 1900, the most common causes of death in the United States were:

  1. Major cardio-vascular-renal diseases (345.2 people per 100,000)
  2. Influenza and pneumonia (202.2 people per 100,000)
  3. Tuberculosis (194.4 people per 100,000)
  4. Gastritis, duodenitis, enteritis, and colitis (142.7 people per 100,000).2

These statistics represent the nation as a whole, and don't reflect the significant differences between rural and urban habitats, much less regional differences. For statistics that fill out the above picture, consult the following sources:

Billings, John S. "Table 9: Number of Deaths in the Rural Portion of Registration States, by Age and Sex, with Specification of Cause, for the Census Year Ended May 31, 1890." Report on Vital and Social Statistics in the United States at the 11th Census. Part 3: Statistics of Deaths. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1894. 561-569.
"Registration States" were states whose registration of deaths was deemed complete enough to compile. For this census, the Registration States were: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.
See also "Table 5: Deaths in Each State and Territory From Each Specified Disease and Class of Diseases", pp. 26-425.
H. Misc. Doc. No. 340, pt. 29. 52d Cong., 1st Sess. (1898).
Number of deaths per 1,000 deaths from known causes [Map]. Serial Set No. 3037, Sess. Vol. No. 50. [Map dated January 1, 1892.]
Map covers deaths from tuberculosis, diptheria, cancer, whooping cough, scarlet fever, malarial fever, croup, pneumonia, diarrheal diseases, typhoid fever, measles, heart disease, and dropsy.
Linder, Forrest E., and Rober D. Grove. "Crude Death Rates for Each Cause: Death-Registration States, 1900-1940." Vital Statistics Rates in the United States: 1900-1940. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1947. 210-238.
For more historical statistics on disease, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Farm, Field and Fireside

If you don't yet have a specific research interest, consider beginning with keyword searches for some of these common "diseases":

Colds, sore throat, headache, chilblains, toothache, earache, burns and scalds, rheumatism, convulsions, croup, measles, "scarlet fever", mumps, dysentery, diptheria, ague, "whooping cough", worms, constipation, piles, "bad breath", heartburn, lumbago, biliousness, "St. Anthony's Fire", cramps, indigestion, vomiting, eczema, dandruff, goiter, dropsy, catarrh, pleurisy, dyspepsia, sciatica, neuralgia, "St. Vitus' Dance", chorea, "kidney disease", cancer.

These searches will tend to return a lot of advertisements. You can exclude advertisements by limiting your search to "articles".

Farm animals might suffer from many of the same diseases, so in some cases you'll have to sift out the articles dealing with humans.

Influenza and Pneumonia

"Country people are certainly as susceptible to contagious disease as their urban cousins and, indeed, the isolation enjoyed by back country dwellers makes them an ideal target for infection since it limits their opportunities to develop antiboties. But the same isolation makes accurate record keeping of rural people an almost impossible task."3

In covering influenza, the farm periodicals included the usual advertisements and articles on preventing and treating the illness, but they also documented the disease's influence on the daily lives of rural Americans. You'll find, for example, letters from children who had suffered from the disease, or from those who found themselves with a windfall "five weeks vacation on account of the influenza" (see "Saved from the Wastebasket" in Prairie Farmer). Or you'll find advertisements in which meat packers explain to their farmers that the influenza epidemic has caused the demand for meat to drop by 25% (Why It Is Impossible for the Meat Packer to Fix the Prices on Meat or Livestock). Influenza might have seemed a more news-worthy disease, because it tended to strike swiftly and in devastating epidemics,4 unlike tuberculosis, which was a constant threat--even if, in the long term, a deadlier one.

In Farm, Field and Fireside

Other terms for influenza: grip, grippe, flu.

Try searching also by symptoms. For example, search for pneumonia, but also try searches like: "inflammation of the lungs", or cough AND fever.

Identify pandemics to facilitate browsing by date. For example: Influenza Pandemics: 1889-1890 (arrived in North America December, 1889); 1918-1919 (United States especially hard hit between September and November 1918); and 1920.

Other Sources

Rogers, Sam L. Special Tables of Mortality from Influenza and Pneumonia: Indiana, Kansas, and Philadelphia: September 1 to December 31, 1918. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1920.
H. Doc. No. 436. 66th Cong., 2d Sess. (1919).
Chronological map of the influenza epidemic of 1918. Serial Set No. 7680, Sess. Vol. No.9.


In the nineteenth century tuberculosis killed more people in the United States than any other disease,5 and continued to be a serious public health problem well into the twentieth.6 Very little was known about the disease until 1882, and misconceptions persisted for decades after.7 These factors coupled with th relative scarcity of professional healthcare providers in rural areas8 created an information vacuum, which farm periodicals in part filled with with everything from serious advice to advertisements for quack remedies.

In Farm, Field and Fireside

Other terms: consumption, TB, "great white plague".

Related illnesses: scrofula, "king's evil", tubercles, sputum, phthisis, lupus.

Treatments: creosote, carbolic acid, gold, iodoform, arsenic, menthol, "Koch's lymph", sanatoriums (spelling variant: sanitariums).9

Other terms: lungers, and "health seekers" were names for tuberculosis sufferers who believed they could find relief by moving to mild, dry climates in the Southwest.

Other Sources

H. Misc. Doc. No. 42, pt. 12. 47th Cong., 2d Sess. (1886).
Map of the United States showing the distribution of deaths from consumption as compared with total deaths from known causes [Department of the Interior, 10th Census of the United States, Sheet No. 12]. Serial Set No. 2141, Sess. Vol. No. 13. [Map dated March 3, 1883].
H. Misc. Doc. No. 340, pt. 28, v. 1. 52d Cong., 1st Sess. (1896).
Map of the United States, showing the relative proportion of deaths from consumption in different grand groups per 1,000 deaths, from known causes. [11th Census of the United States. Map No. 19. Vital and Social Statistics, Part I]. Serial Set No. 3033, Sess. Vol. No. 50. [Map dated 1890].
See also: Map No. 20: Map of the United States, showing the relative proportion of deaths due to consumption in different state groups per 1,000 deaths, from known causes from the same report.

Further Reading

Ackerknecht, Erwin H. "Diseases in the Middle West." Essays in the History of Medicine: In Honor of David J. Davis, M.D., Ph.D. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1965. 168-181.