A Look at 19th Century Diseases

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While 19th century medicinal remedies promised a cure for dyspepsia, arthritis and even ornery moods, more serious maladies were taking their toll on New York City’s population. Newspapers, diaries and letters from the Colonial and Early American eras reported disease outbreaks in the city and other urban communities. News of frightening and often fatal diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, cholera, smallpox, typhus and influenza was responsible for widespread panic. Over the years, 19th century medical experts held a variety of interesting theories about the spread of these diseases, and doctors and citizens alike practiced an array of techniques to try to prevent and treat them.

Bad Air: Early Beliefs About the Spread of Disease

Before anyone figured out that germs were responsible for transmissible disease, the theory of disease origin focused on miasmas and zymoses. A miasma was a foul-smelling, polluted or poisonous air emitting from rotting organic matter. Zymoses were diseases believed to develop from fermented organic waste. People of the 19th century associated disease with warm summer air, rotting garbage and decay. Any sort of pollution was suspect. Some believed that yellow fever was due to burials contaminating ground water. Although diseases like malaria and yellow fever were actually carried by mosquitoes, circumstantial evidence supported the miasma theory at the time. Epidemics were worst during the summer when the air was warm and the mosquito population was at its peak, but no one pointed a finger at the flying bugs until 1880.

cholera, archaeological firm

Local Containment and Treatment Efforts

When outbreaks occurred, local newspapers published an estimate of how many people were infected; this often caused wealthy residents to flee to their rural homes in fear. The infected poor were treated in seclusion, and those who died were buried in separate areas. Treatments for serious diseases were far less pleasant than today’s antibiotics. Repeated bloodletting using scalpels, needles, live leeches or flesh-punching scarificator machines was a common practice. Hot or cold water soaks and irrigation of various body cavities was also popular. Alcohol-based herbal remedies, much like our bitters and elixir concoctions, served as pain relievers and depressants. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that heroin and other opiates were made available for pain management.

New York Cleans It Up

Eventually, the medical profession’s obsession with dirty, smelly air led to an interest in the process of decay and the discovery of disease-causing microorganisms. Germ theory gained acceptance throughout the mid-1800s, but even before it was fully embraced, clean-up efforts were already helping to prevent disease; experts just didn’t know the true reason they were working. By the end of the century, most cities had developed sanitation departments to control water contamination and waste. In 1881, the New York City Department of Sanitation got its start as the Department of Street Cleaning. Coastal areas like the South Street Seaport area were used as dumping grounds for residential and commercial waste. New York’s citizens eventually petitioned the legislature to clean up the accumulated garbage. They weren’t aware of the tiny pathogens lurking in the waste, but they were on the right track.

An Overview of Our Historic Pub Crawl and Tasting Event

historic pub crawl

Our July 19th Historic Pub Crawl with the NYC Historic Districts Council was a success! Prior to the tour, we enjoyed snacks, conversation and a group tasting of our Stomach Bitters and Elixir of Long Life; it was the perfect way to boost the authenticity of the experience before embarking on our shared journey into the past. For those who didn’t get to join us, here is a brief rundown of our afternoon exploring New York City’s early pubs.

Merchants House Museum Garden

We started our pub crawl at the stunning 19th century home of the Tredwell family. Here, we proudly shared the products of our brewing experiment. The stomach bitters recipe we used was a recreation of Hostetter’s Bitters, which contained a blend of grain alcohol and various botanical substances including orange peel, cinnamon, coriander and cardamom. We hope the pleasant-smelling brew cured our guests of their “dyspepsia, constitutional decay and nervous prostration,” as per the advertising claims of the Hostetter Company’s original product.

historic brew tasting

brew tasting

McSorley’s Old Ale House

Our first stop was a pub that has been part of the landscape for more than 150 years. Established in 1854, McSorley’s Old Ale House operated from the first floor of a five-story rental building. Many changes to the facade have been made over the years, but the building’s entrance doors and bar entrance are original. McSorley’s hit a few bumps on the road to modern life. The bar didn’t allow women until 1970 when they were sued by the National Organization of Women. It was also forced to disturb one of its treasured features. A lighting fixture above the bar is adorned with wishbones that were believed to have been placed by young men departing for battle in World War I. Since they hadn’t been touched for ages they were encased in dust and the Health Department insisted that McSorley’s clean them.

mcsorley's old ale house, historic pub crawl

Pete’s Tavern

After a brief interlude to enjoy historic sites on Third Avenue, we ventured to Pete’s Tavern. The highly decorative five-story brick building was originally used as a hotel. It became Pete’s Tavern in the 1920s after being purchased by Peter de Belles. The interior of Pete’s Tavern still has an impressive number of its original 19th and early 20th century details such as its tin ceiling, 40-foot rosewood bar and mirrored back bar. According to rumors, Pete’s was disguised as a flower shop during Prohibition.

historic pub crawl, pete's tavern

Old Town Bar

Our final stop was on East 18th Street at the Old Town Bar and Restaurant. The beautiful three-story vernacular building features a detailed cast-iron storefront beneath its brick facade. Impressive features like arched beveled glass windows with prism glass transoms grace the exterior. Inside, guests can marvel at the pub’s original tin ceiling, dumbwaiter and 55-foot marble and mahogany bar. In 2010, the Old Town Bar hosted a 100th anniversary celebration for its Hinsdale men’s room urinals.

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Another Taste of Yesterday

We enjoyed this pub crawl so much that we’ll be participating in another on September 6th, complete with California pop beer. Check back soon for more details!


The Brewing of Old Medicinal Remedies

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Late 19th century doctors and chemists offered “medicinal remedies” such as Stomach Bitters or other alcohol-based blends to make troublesome health problems disappear in blissful inebriation. When we found old bottles that used to hold the concoctions, we were inspired to relive the past. It’s almost time to share our experiment.

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As promised, we’ve been working hard to recreate the cure-all recipes, so you can experience them for yourself during the tasting portion of our July 19th Historic Pub Crawl with the Historic Districts Council.

archaeological firm nyMixing and brewing the remedies involves several steps. In modern times, such tasks would be accomplished in a huge laboratory by automated machines, but that wasn’t an option in the 1900s. The old-fashioned way is much more fun. We enjoyed indulging our senses with the various botanical aromas and textures.

To be fair to the doctors of yesterday, we should mention that popular 19th century brews contained a number of herbs and organic substances that are still used today in natural medicine. Some have even proven their effectiveness well enough to enter the world of mainstream pharmaceuticals.

ny archaeologist As pictured on the plate (above), our Stomach Bitters brew includes gentian, cardamom, cinchona, coriander, anise and cinnamon. The small bowl contains fragrant orange peel. Gentian provides the bitter taste that is the namesake of this brew. Cinchona, which is obtained from the bark of a cinchona evergreen tree, is a natural source of quinine. Historically, quinine served as an effective treatment for malaria. When included in bitters, it was often intended to relieve muscular spasms and headaches. Many people would find the other listed spices familiar; they’re used today in a variety of foods and beverages such as chai and black licorice candy.

ny archaeological firm

The spicy concoction is intended to work by stimulating enzymes and working with the fluids in the gastrointestinal system to help digest foods efficiently, and treat or prevent symptoms like

bloating, constipation, heartburn and gas. Bitters were often marketed as a cure for dyspepsia, an official-sounding catch-all term used to describe various types of stomach or intestinal discomfort.

We can’t guarantee our Stomach Bitters or our other old remedies will cure your gas or make you live longer, but we know you’ll enjoy the experience of authentic sensory time-travel.

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The work of our talented amateur chemists was conducted under the watchful eye of Salem, our Chrysalis mascot, who shares a home with our own Alyssa Loorya.

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Chrysalis Archaeology and the Historic Districts Council Join for a Historic Pub Crawl

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Are you thirsty for a taste of the past? Later this month, Chrysalis is teaming up with the NYC Historic Districts Council for a fun-filled historic pub crawl to explore New York City’s earliest and most famous watering holes. Join us to see the old sawdust floors, neon signs and dumb waiters of three familiar and beloved neighborhood pubs. Their walls have seen decades of social and architectural history and progress, and they’ve survived to tell their stories to every visitor. If that’s not enough excitement, you’ll also get to participate in our ambitious brewing experiment that we’ve been planning for weeks.

pub crawl, historic districts council, ny archaeology

Our Experimental Historic Brewing Adventure

Could there be a better way to start a tour of historic pubs than to actually have a taste of near-mystical snake oil potions and beverages enjoyed by patrons of the past? We found the recipes and tracked down the ingredients. If you’re curious, you can find them listed here. We’re entering the realm of historic apothecary madness and letting everyone share in the fun. As promised in our previous post, we’ll be recreating and testing the supposedly medicinal and unquestionably alcoholic remedies of yesterday including “Stomach Bitters” and “Elixir of Long Life.” The project was inspired by fascinating medicine bottles we recently found at a Bowery archaeological site. While we don’t guarantee longevity or relief of dyspepsia, we think everyone will enjoy the opportunity to experience the taste in context along with great snacks and even better conversations.

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We’re Adding a new Recipe to the Brew Party

If we can get all the ingredients together in time, we plan to add a third enticing recipe to our historic menu. It’s a product of the late 1800s called California Pop Beer. Inspired by C. C. Haley & Co. “Celebrated California Pop Beer” bottles found in New York and Newark, it’s sure to be an interesting brew.

The pub crawl event will be held on Saturday, July 19th at 1:00 p.m. To sign up for this historical sensory adventure, call (212) 614-9107, send an email to bharmon@hdc.org, or purchase tickets here:  http://hdc.org/featured/historic-pub-crawl

We look forward to pouring you a drink!

The City Hall Park Project Has Received a Lucy G. Moses Project Award

Sometimes it’s an odd concept to think about archaeology and preservation going hand in hand.  After all, archaeology “destroys” what it excavates while preservation hopes to preserve objects and/or structures in place. But the two are not mutually exclusive. This year, the team that worked on the New York City – City Hall Rehabilitation Project was awarded the 2014 Moses Preservation Award for the City Hall Project. Chrysalis is honored to have been a member of the team working on this project.

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It’s Quite an Honor!

The Moses Preservation Awards represent the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s highest honors given for exceptional preservation efforts. Their namesake is Lucy G. Moses, a loyal New Yorker whose generosity supported and improved the city for more than 50 years.
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