If I thought of them at all, I thought of magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping as light reading in a doctor’s waiting room, an occasional source of recipes. I never thought of them as Progressive Era forces for social reform, alongside the movements for prohibition and suffrage.
Middle-class women around 1900 organized to protect home and family. They battled corruption that threatened health, safety, and sanitation. Women’s magazines pioneered investigative journalism to inform and promote these efforts.
Unscrupulous vendors peddled quack remedies promising to cure every ailment. In response, in 1892 the Ladies’ Home Journal became the first magazine to refuse medical advertising. It compelled Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to reveal its ingredients and eliminate the morphine. The editor published the ingredients of other patent medicines and hired a journalist-lawyer to investigate abuses. Other periodicals followed suit, building public pressure to regulate drugs.
No law required labeling the contents of packaged foods. Good Housekeeping published articles about hazardous food colorings and preservatives, such as formaldehyde in infant formula. It opened an experiment station in 1900 (later called the Good Housekeeping Institute) to test products and issue consumer alerts. The magazine campaigned for a national pure food law and advised readers how to add their voices.
Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Women’s magazines had been laying the groundwork for years.
Grateful to be fully vaccinated, some of us are relearning the art of unmasked, face-to-face conversation. I hope this shift won’t breathe new life into low-tech tools for muting one another.
For example, “You’re in denial” uses classic psychobabble to silence disagreement. If you answer, “No, I’m not,” you just proved the speaker’s point.
Another conversation-stopper is “Can’t you take a joke?” It shifts blame from one who says something offensive to the one who takes offense. Uneasy with threats to batter a spouse or kill an elected official? If you don’t want to be dismissed as humorless, better keep your mouth shut.
“I’m just saying” is a more recent addition to the toolkit. It supposedly takes the sting out of a remark by labeling it casual opinion or observation. Rather than an invitation to explore, it signals lack of interest in analysis or debate. You are free to respond, but your response will fall on deaf ears. You’re on mute.
“Vaccine” comes from vacca, Latin for “cow.” Edward Jenner proved in the 1790s that pus from relatively harmless cowpox blisters—common among dairymaids—protected humans against smallpox. Jenner’s vaccination built on a riskier traditional practice in Asia and Africa called inoculation (from inoculatus, “to graft or implant”). An Englishwoman and an African man introduced inoculation into Europe and North America respectively, almost exactly 300 years ago.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lost a brother to smallpox, and the disease scarred her face. Living in Constantinople while her husband was British ambassador, she watched old Turkish women scratch smallpox pus into healthy arms or legs. The resulting infection was usually mild instead of deadly or disfiguring. Back in England during an epidemic, she had her daughter inoculated publicly in April 1721. The practice spread.
That same April, smallpox came by ship to Boston, Massachusetts. An enslaved West African named Onesimus told his master, Cotton Mather, that he knew how to prevent the disease. The operation he described “had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it.” Bostonians resisted vehemently. More than half the city’s residents contracted smallpox in 1721-22; one in seven patients died. But of the 242 who were inoculated, all but six survived.
Jenner holds an important place in the development of vaccines. So should the traditional healers of Asia and Africa, and the white woman and the black man who brought their methods to the West.
One of my pandemic projects is to study introductory Spanish. Please don’t ask me to speak it. Videos and worksheets are limited tools for learning a language. But they help me understand the workings of an unfamiliar tongue, and of my mind.
Two distinct verbs translate as “to be.” (Spanish speakers, feel free to correct me.) Ser refers to inherent or fundamental characteristics. I am a woman, a writer, an American. Ser o no ser, “to be or not to be.” Estar is for a condition of the moment: I am tired, and my house is a mess.
Language shapes perception. How might I experience life’s ups and downs if I had to distinguish fleeting from lasting, each time I opened my mouth? Learning the difference when I first learned to talk might have given clearer meaning to my mother’s adage, “This too shall pass.”
"There is poetry as well as production on the farm.”
– Glenn Frank, University of Wisconsin President 1925-37
The Great Depression is raging, and you are at the University of Wisconsin hoping to meet America's first-ever university artist-in-residence. Where will you look? The Art Department? Good guess, but no. You may have more luck at the College of Agriculture, where Dean Chris Christensen collaborates with extension agents and a rural sociologist to enrich farm lives beyond the classroom.
The dean was inspired by the Wisconsin Idea that the university should bring knowledge directly to the citizens, and by folk schools he saw while studying in Denmark. “Christensen supposedly said that one of his goals upon becoming dean was to put some culture back in agriculture,” according to Wisconsin author Jerry Apps. “He embraced the Danes’ philosophy that rural people should have the opportunity to study art and poetry as well as learn how to improve their cattle and field crops.”
Kansas painter John Steuart Curry took the job in 1936, with a small studio on campus and few defined duties. He taught occasional noncredit short courses and traveled the state to encourage creative painting among farmers, blacksmiths, housewives, and one-room country schoolteachers. He organized a Rural Art Exhibit in Madison featuring thirty amateur painters during Farm and Home Week in 1940. The event took hold and grew from year to year.
Times changed. The Wisconsin Rural Art Program (WRAP) expanded to include cities, changed the “R” in its name to “Regional,” and moved into the university's Division of Continuing Studies. A victim of the same budget cuts that ended the Continuing Studies writing program, it is now run by the Association of Wisconsin Artists. An annual WRAP exhibit in Ag Hall (virtual this year) recalls its origins in the university’s agricultural college.
Image: John Steuart Curry, “View of Madison with Rainbow,” 1937, courtesy of Kiechel Fine Art, Lincoln, Nebraska
It’s been years since I heard “motherhood and apple pie” to describe an unquestioned good. Nowadays motherhood gets tangled in gender roles and reproductive rights, while apple pie might imply gluten or migrant labor. What do we say instead? Or is there no longer a good on which we can all agree?
In his Ethics of Rhetoric (1953), English professor Richard M. Weaver coined the phrase “God terms” for vague yet powerful expressions of cultural values. Science, democracy, and progress in the 1950s carried an authority that didn’t invite analysis or debate. Their modern successors include natural, diverse, and inclusive. Negative equivalents are “devil terms” like radical and un-American.
Calls for freedom and justice can motivate constructive action or whip crowds into a frenzy. Who could oppose them? Or integrity, or liberation? Undefined God terms are useful for binding groups and stirring emotion. Just don’t confuse them with reasoned argument.
Is it my job to make sure I don’t infect you? Or is it your responsibility to avoid getting infected? Conflict between the two views is firmly rooted in American tradition, especially the settling of the West. For all the differences between coronavirus transmission and cattle trampling a neighbor’s crop, the issue is much the same.
Who is liable when my cows get into your corn? American fence law varies by state. Many require me to fence in my livestock to keep them off your property. Others with a high ratio of land to people, such as Wyoming and Texas, let cattle graze freely over vast areas. If you don’t want them on your fields or lawn, you need to fence them out.
“Personal responsibility” holds more than one meaning. In the fence-out culture of the open range, it is about self-reliance. Whether and how to protect your property, your family, and your health is up to you. In the fence-in culture of market-gardening, cities, and suburbs, it is about interdependence. Urbanites rub shoulders daily. We rely on shared water and sewage disposal. We each have a part to play in protecting the health and safety of all.
Neither fence-in nor fence-out law is a moral absolute. Tracing cultural values to context won’t resolve differences over pet leash ordinances, guns, or face masks. But it might ease our indignation enough for conversation to begin.
The men at the corner of High Street and Pleasant were black from head to toe. My mother said they were miners who had just left work. One day they disappeared. Mother said they were still there; they just looked like everyone else. With newly installed showers at the mines, the men could clean and change clothes before heading for home.
On the wooded slopes across the river from my childhood home, tipples carried coal to railroad cars for transport. The men who dug it earned union wages for dangerous work deep underground. They got quality health care at United Mine Workers hospitals and clinics.
In 1949, mining in West Virginia extracted 122,913,540 tons of coal and employed 121,121 people. During my 1950s childhood, automation in the deep mines cut into jobs. Strip mining heightened unemployment in the 1960s and 1970s. Slicing tops off mountains for easy access is highly mechanized, and explosives are cheaper than people. Employment and union membership plummeted. By 2004, the industry extracted 153,631,633 tons statewide with only 16,037 workers.
Mountaintop removal not only slashed jobs by 90 percent but also destroyed forests and animal habitat. Erosion, flooding, and contaminated drinking water followed. Given adequate resources, the state that led the nation in Covid vaccinations can model rural recovery. Isolated communities need access to broadband, local health services, and jobs that can’t be outsourced. Healing may begin, in part, with restoring the wooded mountaintops of my childhood memories.
“Beware the Ides of March,” a soothsayer warned Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s portrayal of the dictator’s murder. According to ancient biographer Plutarch:
A certain seer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the senate-house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: “Well, the Ides of March are come,” and the seer said to him softly: “Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.”
In the Roman calendar, Idus referred to a specific day mid-month: the 15th of March, May, July, or October, and otherwise the 13th. For reasons unknown, perhaps even to the Romans, Idus was always plural. Shakespeare made Ides plural in English, too. It’s the same word if treated as singular; no related “ide” exists. In practice the grammar is messy. What rule explains why “The Ides are looming” sounds fine, but “The Ides of March were Saint Nicholas’s birthday” would work better with the singular was?
The fated date turned out badly for the dictator who overthrew the Roman Republic. The Ides of March brought other misfortunes over the centuries, including WHO’s global health alert for SARS in 2003. This morning, after months of troubles, March 15 has arrived with no new disaster I’m aware of. So far.
Karen Maitland’s medieval Company of Liars (Delacorte Press, 2008), which I read last month, is a welcome addition to my short list of historical novels on epidemics. I found the book haunting, thought-provoking, and hard to put down.
In the summer of 1348, when the plague first arrives in England from abroad, strangers thrown together by happenstance hit the road to escape infection. Like us in early 2020, they can only guess how far or how fast the contagion might spread. They meet locked doors and gates where they might have found welcome in healthier times. As they flee, they entertain each other with misleading stories of their lives. Which will catch up with them first, the pestilence or their lies?
The plague journey intrigues me because I think of epidemics as fixing people in place. The fictional storytellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1353) hunker down in a villa outside Florence to avoid the plague. Residents of the infected village in Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, set in 1666, agree to stay put so as not to infect others. Some of us during Covid are in quarantine or under lockdown orders.
Do shutdowns have a contrary effect of setting some people in motion? If so, I wonder who today’s pandemic travelers would be. Families roaming and sleeping in their vans? Students removed from closed dorms? Overflow from homeless shelters limited by social distancing? Is it possible to wall some in for safety without walling others out?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.