History from
the Bottom Up

What’s My Line?

Ballet feet 2nd position 1 450x233 Whats My Line?

By Richwales (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was in New York last week, walking along Third Avenue, I noticed two twenty-something women in front of me. It was immediately evident what they did for a living. As I passed them I turned and said, “You’re both ballerinas, right? You walk in second position.” They both laughed and nodded.

Nowadays you don’t generally know what someone does for a living based on how she walks or dresses, unless it’s a firefighter in uniform, or a police officer, or perhaps a doctor in scrubs. But in times past, for the 97% of people who made up the “laboring classes,” everyone knew what you did based either upon the clothes you wore or the afflictions from which you suffered—or both.

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Mechanic (Lewis Hine, Lib of Congress)

Jack London’s 1903 book The People of the Abyss is a first-hand account of what life was like in the working class slum known as the East End, in London. He bought the clothes of an unemployed American sailor at a second-hand clothing shop. He then spent several months living in workhouses, slums, and hop picking. It’s a fascinating (albeit wrenching) book.

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Jack London, in his second-hand clothing

In his book Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain, Anthony S. Wohl discusses a number of “industrial diseases” as having been accepted as an inevitable part of working life. Miners had asthma. Matchmakers had phossy jaw. Lead workers had palsy. You recognized the tailors by their concave chests and stooped shoulders, the potters by their paralyzed wrists, the copper workers by the greenish tint of their hair, teeth, and skin, and the hatters by their unsteady gait and trembling hands. (264-5)

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Breaker boys

Hopping in Kent  Hop picking in Yalding Kent England UK 1944 D22167 450x447 Whats My Line?

Hop pickers, 1944

It’s a different time, now, of course, and mass-production of clothing makes it much more difficult to tell who does what for a living. Still, whenever I’m in a big city, I enjoy trying to guess.


Anthony S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. All images except top one LOC.

WNPR This Thursday!

I think today’s interview went pretty well. Rose George is awesome. I started out super duper nervous, and my first few utterances didn’t make a ton of grammatical sense, but after a few minutes it wasn’t quite so terrifying  and ended up being a really fun conversation. Here’s a link to the podcast, and a couple of pictures I didn’t know they were going to take. (Someone snapped that shot of me thirteen seconds before we went on the air and I hadn’t even put my headphones on yet.)


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Death By Apple

I stumbled across a strange, sad little anecdote the other day as I was researching something on another topic. It was a picture of a little girl in a fashionable dress, and the author casually mentioned that the child died a few days after the picture was taken. The cause of her death was a stomach ache after eating green apples.

That struck me as so odd that I did a quick search. I was astonished—a search of death from green apples in the historic newspapers database from 1790 to the present database yielded 800 stories.

Here are just a few:

From 1817:

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Garden of Deadly Delights

Yesterday I drove to Ithaca, New York, where I met up with Mary Smith, Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine maintains a poisonous plants garden, which makes sense, if you think about it. Veterinary students need to learn to recognize plants that poison livestock. Professor Smith took a couple of hours out of her Sunday afternoon to give me a personal tour of the Poisonous Plants garden, and then as an added bonus, walked me around the Weeds garden and then the “Crops of the World” garden. She is hugely knowledgeable about plants and poisons.

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Let Them Eat Jiggly Soup

Back in the early nineteenth century, with populations in cities swelling, feeding the poor cheaply in poorhouses and public hospitals became a growing concern.

In her fascinating book, Gulp, Mary Roach describes the efforts of a French chemist named Jean d’Arcet, Jr., who in 1817 came up with a method for extracting gelatin from bones. I’m not sure why this was such a complicated undertaking—anyone who has ever boiled up a turkey carcass after the Thanksgiving meal would see that the resulting broth, if allowed to cool, gets … Read more

Fetching Names

In case you’ve recently acquired a new dog, and are wondering what to name it, look no further than the early fifteenth-century manuscript called The Master of Game. Appended at the end is a list of suitable names for your hunting dog. Here are some suggestions:
Another medieval manuscript suggests Huiiau, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, and Blessiau, which would invite the inevitable snide rejoinder “But I didn’t sneeze.” … Read more

Links and Connections

For today’s post, I’m punting you to two different websites. The first is Melissa Stewart’s, where yesterday she posted a lovely review of Bugged. Here’s the link.

Having Melissa put her stamp of approval on one’s book is (practically) tantamount to getting on Oprah. She is a fantastic writer, and she knows children’s nonfiction books like no one else. Here’s the cover of her recent book, Feathers: Not Just for Flying:

And here’s Melissa’s latest  book, Perfect Pairs, glowingly reviewed by Elizabeth Bird of the NYPL. It’ s about pairing fiction and nonfiction books … Read more

Beauty Tips

Library of Congress LC-USZ62-102221

I got sidetracked in my research again. But you, Dear Reader, will be the beneficiary, because I stumbled upon a book from 1910, written by one Margaret Mixter, entitled Health and Beauty Hints, that is filled with sensible advice. Take fitness. Turns out we’ve been going about it all wrong. What, according to Ms. Mixter, is the best exercise to develop “a round, pretty figure?” Why, housework.

Yes, that’s right. Put away your running shoes. Roll up your yoga … Read more



This past weekend I traveled to Toronto. I went there for two reasons: to see the exhibit called “Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century” at the Bata Shoe Museum, and to meet my friend Y.S. Lee.I first heard about Ying’s books on Twitter several years ago, and after reading them, loved them so much I fan-girl friended her on Facebook. We’ve been e-friends ever since, but had never met in person. We toured the … Read more

Baby Carriers

In the first part of the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to dress babies in long petticoats to protect them from drafts. Voluminous clothing might also help keep a child from slipping out of its mother’s or nursemaid’s arms. According to Elizabeth Ewing in her History of Children’s Costume, the first modern baby carriage in America was introduced in 1848 by Charles Burton, but it was soon banned for being a nuisance to pedestrians. He had more success opening a factory … Read more

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