This collection of over 500 titles represents an outstanding survey of known and lesser known medical authors, practices and treatments from the late 17th century to the early decades of the 20th century – 300 years when the home was the site of most medical treatments and household members the practitioners. The Geffrye Museum explores the history of home, but the unremitting concern of householders with their health and their voracious collecting of books and manuals with which to doctor themselves and their families at home is a topic that, until now, hasn’t been represented in the museum’s collections.
17th and 18th century Londoners were exceptionally susceptible to waves of deadly epidemics, including smallpox and fevers, and a mass of books promising information, prevention and cure flooded the market from the late 17th century. Readers were keen to glean as much information from as many sources as possible. A 1757 review in The Critical Review: or, Annals of Literature, of one of the titles in the collection, A Compendium of the Practice of Physic (1757) by German surgeon Laurence Heister, whose work was translated from the Latin by Edmund Barker, himself a doctor, praised Heister’s work as ‘one of the best books of the sort in any language’. It lamented however that Barker had failed to translate all the medicines and remedies, which would have ‘done the public a considerable service, for it is a matter of regret for almost every reader that the German prescriptions are for the most part unknown to us’.
Most of this collection dates from the mid-19th century, which saw a growing movement to produce and popularise health advice – particularly advice targeted at mothers of young children and babies. Many of the books in the collection speak to this concern – including the four editions of The Wife’s Handbook: How a woman should order herself during pregnancy, in the lying-in room, and after delivery, with hints on management of the baby, and on other matters of importance, necessary to be known by married women (1886-1903). This pamphlet is specifically directed at the wives of working men, and informs them how to recognise the signs of pregnancy (from which, as the author writes, ‘from the first marriage-night no woman under forty-five years of age may consider herself safe’), describes labour and offers advice on how to raise and feed young children.
Other 19th century health concerns and crazes are well represented, including homeopathy, mesmerism, electrotherapy, phrenology and hydropathy. The collection includes four editions of John Smedley’s Practical Hydropathy (1868-c.1880) and his wife Caroline’s Ladies’ Manual of Practical Hydropathy (1868-c.1885). The Smedleys were self-taught hydropathy enthusiasts and bestselling authors - Practical Hydropathy sold 85,000 editions between 1858 and 1872. As well as advertising their own hydro in Matlock, their works included strict regimens for how to maintain health and cure illnesses at home by following prescriptive bathing practices – putting down mackintosh sheets and foot-stamping and splashing in shallow baths at home or being wrapped in hot and cold wet sheets.
As well as health, much of the advice in this collection is aimed at the marital relationship. One of the most significant elements is a group of 28 editions of Aristotle’s Master-Piece, dating from 1684 to c.1910--neither by Aristotle, nor a masterpiece as has been pithily observed, but an enduringly popular work. In all its variants it is a text essentially concerned with reproduction or ‘generation’ and the reproductive health of women. Sex, the marital relationship and birth are all identified as crucially domestic concerns and it positions itself as a text designed to instruct rather than inflame. It has however often had a more suspect reputation – one bookseller, William Holmes, whilst appearing at the Old Bailey in 1836 to testify to the theft of some of his stock, was obliged to defend it with the rather dubious statement that, ‘I do not think it more indecent than any other medical book’.