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Clips of Time: The Sick Room

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

The services of doctors became increasingly more available during the 19th and 20th centuries as more medical schools were being founded across the world. Though more doctors were available, the demand often outnumbered the doctors available. Most of the time, even if there was a doctor in the area, families would treat their sick at home with traditional home remedies. Most local or country doctors would have been lenient about payment, but their services were expensive to the farming family, who typically only got paid once a year. The typical 19th century farming family probably would have only called upon the doctor in the case of a complicated birth or serious injury.

The sick room became increasingly popular in the Victorian Era as a way to manage illness at home. The sick room, ideally, was a room where a family could sequester a loved one for the duration of their illness. The woman of the house would tend to the needs of their sick family member in place of the doctor. Unfortunately, most families would not have a spare room to designate the sick room, so it would just have been a bed or a corner of a room where someone sick convalesced.

The sick room emerged in the Victorian Era because of an influx of contagious diseases across the world. Though the diseases were not new, the rise of the industrial revolution helped disease spread even quicker than before. The industrial revolution encouraged more people to move to large cities for jobs in factories. This allowed for the transportation and spread of diseases. People were also more mobile so disease could now travel even quicker with trains and steamships. Unfortunately, medicine took a while to catch up to the other advancements of the era.

As sick rooms became a necessity for most families, doctors, nurses, and other institutions began to publish literature on how to properly manage a sick room. Books, pamphlets, and even newspaper articles could be found on the “do’s and don’ts” of the sick room. These tips did not just cover medical advice but included advice on how to manage mental health, though not described as such. Much care went into the set up of the sick room in order to keep the patient in high spirits.

The Roanoke-Chowan Times published an article entitled “Some Don’ts For The Sick Room” in January of 1912. This article was written by Dr. B.K. Hays and was reprinted from The Progressive Farmer, which was an agricultural periodical. This excerpt from the article describes some things not to do while managing the sick room.

“Don't close up the windows and doors. Let the patient have plenty of fresh air. You may not feel the need of this because you have been out of doors and filled your lungs with air. The patient cannot get out. He is dependent upon the air of the room. Let it be as pure and fresh as that outside. If the patient is cold, add more covering or apply artificial heat, but never convert a sick room into a closed furnace. In every sick room there should be at hand a thermometer which should not register above seventy.”

During World War II, the sick room reemerged as doctors and nurses were away serving on the front-lines. Though most dangerous diseases were being controlled by public health practices and vaccinations, it was not uncommon for children to become sick with so-called “childhood” diseases. Measles, mumps, rubella (also known as German measles) and whooping cough were just a few that parents would have to care for at home. To help provide guidance to parents, organizations produced pamphlets to inform them on how to properly care for their families. On display at the museum there is one such pamphlet. This pamphlet was published in the 1940’s by the North Carolina Extension Office and was entitled “Home Care of the Sick.”

In this pamphlet, there are many instructions on how to set up the most efficient sick room. This pamphlet even describes the medicines one should have in the home medicine cabinet.

Though no longer referred to as a sick room, many households continue to care for minor illnesses like the common cold by resting at home. Just like sick room literature from a century ago, there are still recommendations for how to care for our sick loved ones at home. The CDC has done just this by creating guidelines on caring for someone with COVID-19 at home. Though recommendations and medical practices have changed, one thing stays the same. We all just want to do what is best for the people we love.

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