Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Purity Movement: A conveniently forgotten bit of history




May Fair Wells, who figures in my ebook Milk and Water. She was a Southerne Belle who expected her servants to do all the housework, except sewing. She liked that. She lived in Westmount, a rich suburb that sent its sewage downstream to the poorer areas.

Yesterday, I audited a Johns Hopkins course about the History of  Public Health and the professor explained that the Urban Hygienist movement of the Victorian Era issued out of Jeremy Bentham and the idea of Utilitarianism.

Ironically, it was in Paris where medicine men first figured out the epidemiology of urban diseases like typhoid.

But, apparently, they didn't feel that the governments should get involved with 'cleaning things up' as this would interfere with individual rights.

It was in Great Britain, in Manchester and such cities, were the urban hygienist movement  got rolling, because it was understood that healthy workers made good workers (and good soldiers).

Individual rights came second to the general good with these English.

Utilitarianism.

Kind of ironic, really, if you think about it.

I listened lately to a BBC Radio Four Play on the subject, about Kittie Wilkinson, a working class social activist in Liverpool. I also downloaded an ebook about her.

In Montreal, a city both French and English, the issues around tainted water supply and sanitation ushered in the modern welfare state, at least according to some scholars.

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Using primary sources allows students to learn history from the inside out.

So does genealogical research.

A few years ago, I purchased and read the book The Age of Light, Soap, Water by Mariane Valverde, but there was little in this controversial tome that  I didn't already know.

I had been researching the background to the Nicholson Family Letters for my books Threshold Girl and Diary of a Confirmed Spinster, books that take place in the 1910 era.

In 1904 and 1909, I learned, there were typhoid epidemics in Montreal.

 Norman Nicholson, the family patriarch, who had contracted typhoid in 1896, wrote in one letter that he was afraid to drink the water anywhere, including up in the Bush in La Tuque where he was working..

Once bitten, twice shy.

Macdonald College, in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, where Flora Nicholson studied to be a teacher in 1911/12, had put in a well in 1909/1910.

Before that, for three years, the college had been using river water to serve the needs of the students - and the Macdonald College Farm adjacent to the college.

Ste. Anne de Bellevue is 30 miles away from where Montreal dumped its sewage in the early 1900's, but there were fears (real or imagined) about the quality of the water even out there at the Western tip of the island.

Herbert Ames,Social Activist and City Counsellor,  the Privy Man, who wrote the landmark 'The City Below the Hill,' revealing how many Urban Montrealers still used outdoor toilets in 1897.

But, in that era, with Protestants like the Nicholsons, the concept of cleanliness got mixed up with the concept of godliness.

That's why I open Threshold Girl with this quote from a 1911 issue of Food and Cookery Magazine.

"Give us a healthy home, where the homely virtues prevail, where the family basks in purity and peace."

The Nicholsons were a lively and devoted family  who loved their fine brick Richmond, Quebec house, Tighsolas, but their sturdy closets held skeletons too.

When I wrote Milk and Water, about by French Canadian ancestors in 1927 Montreal, I discovered even more about the place where ideas about hygiene and values intersect.

(It's a very complicated - and often ugly- place.)

1927 was the year of another typhoid epidemic in the City, caused by tainted milk this time.

It was also a year of many scandals, one of which was the Montreal Water and Power Purchase, where a rich industrialist, Lorne Webster, flipped said company in a few days for a $4,000,000 profit.

The City of Montreal bought the private company in 1927 to control the water supply to their newly annexed suburbs.

My grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, was made a scapegoat  for this fiasco and he was forced to retire in 1930.

Jules was a 42 year old veteran of City Hall, who had started out as a messenger boy in the Sanitation Department in the 1880's. If he had only left behind a diary. What tales it would have told.


The Art Deco Facade of the Public Bath on Amherst opened in 1927. Montreal had 16 such baths in the era.

Milk and Water explores the different values of French Canadians and English Canadians in 1927, the era of American Prohibition.

One key  area where values diverged was, indeed, with this Hygienist movement.

French Canadians were wary of the movement for reasons centered around class, ethnicity and religion.

My grandfather was on the City Clean Up Committee and he is quoted in the newspaper as saying "You can't force people to be clean."

Sir Ames, also on the Committee, certainly disagreed.