Research Notes – The Great War (10) Keeping House In 1914

My current work in progress is a historical novel partially set during World War One. To write the story accurately, I’ve been reading about all things war related. This is not really about The Great War, but it is about the time period. As with the details of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic and other events that would impact the lives of my historical characters, I want to make sure I write everything authentically. That includes the way they would have worked, eaten, dressed and housed themselves.

My central character in the 1910’s timeline, Gladys Henry, is a young woman who, although would have been considered fairly middle class –her father is a clerk at the bank in their town in the west of England– has had to take on a job when the family falls on hard times. Her father becomes too ill to work and of course, without work there is no pay. In those days, the options for women to work were limited. Without some sort of training in a profession like teaching or nursing, women would likely have to find work as domestic help. This is the case with Gladys. She spends her days as a maid in the services of a wealthy family in the town, cleaning the manor house in which they live.

Now, this all probably sounds very Downton Abby, but I absolutely refuse to rely on another work of fiction as a source for information. (Besides, I really wasn’t a fan after they killed off Matthew. Ugh.) Anyway, in my internet search, I came across an article titled “Home Duties” from a periodical of the time which describes the tasks involved in keeping house in those days.

In cleaning the bedrooms for example, windows would be opened wide, no matter the season. Curtains or draperies would be taken from their rods and shaken out, carpets would be rolled up and removed to the outdoors to have the dust beaten out. The now bare windows would be washed as would all the mirrors. Upholstered furniture would be brushed and leather furniture wiped down with damp, flannel cloths.

Sheets would be stripped from the beds and taken to the laundry where they would be washed and scrubbed by hand and then hung on lines to dry, after-which they would be ironed by a fire-heated iron. The rest of the bedding: blankets, quilts, coverlets, etc. would also be shaken out and left to air on the outside clotheslines. As you can imagine, the weather would have a huge impact on the housekeepers’ ability to perform these duties!

When furniture needed to be polished, a home made polishing agent was concocted. I found this recipe for one in the article:

  • Half pint of cold water
  • One ounce of Castille soap cut into slices and dissolved in the water
  • Half pint of turpentine
  • One ounce white wax, one ounce bee’s wax, dissolved in the turpentine
  • Mix the water solution and the turpentine solution together
  • Add one to two tablespoons menthylated spirits and shake vigorously.

When all was cleaned, dried and removed of wrinkles, everything would be put back in place, and if the rooms would not be in use till guests once again visited, everything would be covered with dust sheets.

Whew…. makes me grateful for my Shark vacuum and my Maytag washing machine. This might seem like research ovrkill, and in truth not all of that will make it into the story. However, just knowing how they performed their duties helps keep mistakes from creeping in. For example, erroneously describing the use of a commercial product which may not have existed in those days. It’s the small things that can make or break a story sometimes. I just wish I had a couple of Victorian ladies to beta read this book for me!

Research Notes – The Great War (8) Patient Zero: The Spanish Flu

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. Some of the older material I’m reposting in order to better organize it. This post from 2016, is especially important as the Spanish Flu will play a central role in the historical timeline. I hope you find it interesting and don’t mind me recycling! ~ Meg

The mysterious virus that emerged in 1917-1918 and reached pandemic proportions has a murky origin story. Smaller outbreaks had been occurring in the years leading up to 1918 but the flu wasn’t as severe in nature or as long in duration. People were getting over it within a few days to a week at most. The earliest and most authoritative report of the Spanish Flu comes from Haskell County, Kansas, USA. So why on earth was it called “Spanish” flu? More about that in a bit.

Fort Riley in Haskell County had been set up fifty years earlier to be a cavalry barracks during the Indian Wars. The fort was surrounded by rich farmland and sat near the confluence of two rivers. In the spring of 1917, when the USA decided to declare war on Germany, Fort Riley was hastily converted to a training facility. A large army encampment –Camp Funston–was constructed within the sprawling military reserve lands, to hold and prepare some 56,000 troops to go ‘over there.’

On March 4, 1918, Camp Funston’s cook, Albert Gitchell reported sick with a sore throat, fever and headache. He would have been up before dawn to prepare breakfast but after a restless night without sleep, he felt so unwell by morning that he reported to the camp’s infirmary. Gitchell is thought to be the great flu epidemic’s patient zero.

One after the other, men began reporting with similar symptoms. They were placed in isolation wards and the medic in charge informed his boss, chief medical officer, Colonel Edward Schreiner. By noon, 107 cases had reported and the fear of epidemic became real. By the end of the week, 522 cases had reported and by month’s end 1100 men had become incapacitated. Colonel Shreiner requisitioned a hangar to house the overflow from the overcrowded base hospital.

It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary flu. While most did recover, 48 men had died. The symptoms were alarming. The violent cough, projectile nose bleeds and the deathly blue discoloration of the face were not symptoms of the classic seasonal flu outbreaks. The medical staff realized they had something more deadly on their hands.

So why the “Spanish Flu” you might ask, when the origin was likely from the other side of the ocean? The flu was in fact, erupting all over Europe during the spring of 1918. However, the nations involved in the turmoil were reluctant to give publicity to the flu outbreak so as not to panic or further demoralize the already battered and war weary civilian population.

The sobriquet “Spanish” Flu became popular when the outbreak hit Madrid, Spain. Theaters, schools and tram service was curtailed to stop the spread of the disease. Most notably though was the contraction of the flu by King Alfonso XIII and members of his government. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister were both afflicted along with a third of the population of Spain. As a noncombatant country, the Spanish had no concerns about a ‘civilian scare’ and thus both foreign and domestic correspondents reported freely on the pandemic in that nation. Thus the virulent flu became known as “Spanish.”

Source material: Living With Enza – The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, by Mark Honigsbaum

Research Notes – The Great War (7) Chemical Weapons to Chemotherapy

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

The Great War introduced the concept of total war to the world, where the entire economies and civilian populations of the combatant nations would be mobilized in the effort for victory. This mindset of total war lowered the barriers to using any means necessary, no matter how gruesome, to achieve the desired outcome. Therefore, despite The Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases in 1899 and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare banning the use of chemical weapons, gases were deployed as early as 1914 in The Great War.

The French were the first to use gas in battle, deploying tear gas in grenades which were completely ineffective, the amounts of gas being so low as to be undetectable. The first large-scale use of lethal gas began in 1915, most notably on April 22 when the Germans fired artillery shells filled with chlorine gas into positions held by French Colonial troops in the region north of Ypres, Belgium. The German soldiers, wary of the gas themselves, failed to exploit this new deadly weapon before French and Canadian troops reformed the line broken by the scattering Colonials.

Chlorine gas continued to be used by the German Army throughout 1915, provoking the allies to respond by using it in kind, which quickly led to an escalation in the use of even more lethal substances. Phosgene gas was formulated by a group of French chemists and first used by France on the battlefield later in 1915. Phosgene was colorless and had an odor like moldy hay which made it difficult to detect. One drawback, if you can call it that, was that often the symptoms from phosgene poisoning weren’t manifested until 24 hours after contamination. Thusly, the troops on the field weren’t immediately incapacitated by the gas and were able to carry on fighting. It would only be the next day that these apparently fit troops would be sickened by their exposure. Phosgene was never as well known as the notorious ‘mustard gas’ but it was the cause of 85% of the 100,000 deaths attributed to chemical weapons during The Great War.

Mustard gas was introduced in 1917 by Germany prior to the Third Battle of Ypres. Mustard gas is the most well known of all the gases used in the war even though it wasn’t an effective immediate killing agent except in high doses. Rather, it may have taken up to six weeks for the victim to die. And it was a slow, horrible death. It blistered the skin, made the eyes sore, produced vomiting, caused internal and external bleeding and stripped the mucous membranes from the bronchial tubes, making breathing difficult and extremely painful. Delivered in artillery shells, the gas precipitated to the ground as an oily substance and settled in the soil, remaining active for days and weeks, even months if weather conditions were right. Because mustard gas was absorbed through the skin, gas masks, which had become standard issue equipment to all front line troops, were useless against an attack.

By the end of the war, all combatant armies had begun to use these deadly chemical weapons, constituting war crimes on all sides of the conflict.

Nevertheless, there is a rather amazing twist in this dark tale of war.

As The Second World War broke out, among the same group of belligerents as the first war, new fears about chemical attacks motivated urgent research into potential antidotes to these deadly agents. Doctors at Yale University Hospital began to study the medical records of soldiers who had been exposed to mustard gas during The Great War and they made an interesting connection that could be used to fight a different kind of battle.

Doctors Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman discovered that soldiers exposed to mustard gas had fewer white blood cells in their total blood count than normal. These immune cells, if mutated could develop into the cancers: leukemia and lymphoma. They proposed the idea that if mustard gas could destroy normal white blood cells, perhaps it could destroy the cancerous ones as well. An experimental drug was formulated from the components found in mustard gas and animal trials commenced with successful results. There was hope in the war against cancer.

The first human volunteer for this experimental treatment was desperate. His jaw was deformed by a massive tumor, the swollen, cancerous lymph nodes in his arm pits were so large he was unable to cross his arms across his chest. He was given the new drug developed from mustard gas and with each treatment, began to see improvement. Unfortunately for this patient, the treatment was too late for this advanced stage of cancer. Nevertheless, the results were hopeful and exciting and the age of chemotherapy had begun. And so it was that a deadly agent of war was transformed into a life saving agent in the war against cancer.

Header Image:  Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor). Otto Dix, 1924