Memories of Yesteryear: Illness and death
by Alexander W. Delk
Oct 14, 2012 | 943 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Editor’s note: Alexander W. Delk, 90, is a retired school teacher/administrator, who served 57 years in education. He is retired from the Illinois public schools and for the past 21 years has taught public speaking at Cleveland State Community College. He is a frequent speaker for local groups, Gideon’s International, the United Club and at his churches. He may be reached at 472-2664.

This entry will deal with my memories of common illnesses and death during the 1920s and the 1930s and the practices and customs of that time.

One must keep in mind that modern medical practices and even death and funeral customs have changed greatly since those times of yesteryear.

Modern medicine has wiped out or controlled illnesses and conditions that in those days were often life threatening or that resulted in death. Let us look at some of the ways that such were treated in those distant yesteryears.

Most expectant mothers had little or no prenatal care. Often this resulted in the loss of the infant and occasionally the mother. Whatever care was given during those months was given by the local general practitioner, a doctor with limited training in such matters.

It was common for infants to be stillborn or to die in early infancy because of lack of prenatal care, or care as a tiny infant.

Babies were almost all born at home until around the early 1940s. The doctor or a midwife would deliver the infant. doctors made house calls in those days and would be summoned when the mother-to-be went into labor. If he was not available an older woman in the community, called a midwife, would come to the scene. Often there was inadequate sanitation and so infections often occurred. The baby would be delivered and the mother ordered to bed for a week or so.

Many contagious diseases were the common thing for children of that era. Chicken pox was one illness that almost all children had at one time or another. Measles was another very common one. Mumps, whooping cough, and sometimes scarlet fever all made their rounds through the school and the family.

Vaccinations and inoculations had developed by the late 1920s, so the county school nurse would come around to the schools and vaccinate/inoculate students. The smallpox vaccination was a one-time injection in the upper left arm which resulted in a scabby sore that left a scar, thus protecting the person from what once was a deadly scourge. The typhoid fever inoculation was a series of three shots in the upper left arm that left the arm swollen and feverish for a few days. The diphtheria shot was, as I remember, a one-time shot. There were no preventative shots for some of the common childhood diseases — mumps, whooping cough, and perhaps others.

One of the most dreaded diseases of the time was polio, or as it was known then, “infantile paralysis.” This disease often reached epidemic proportions and affected adults as well as children. It often raged in communities almost unabated up until the Salk vaccine came about in the 1950s. Most older people remember that our esteemed president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a victim of polio long before becoming president, and used a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Pneumonia was a common childhood and adult disease — one that claimed many lives from time to time. I remember that it would be said that if one lived beyond the ninth day (whatever its significance was) that they would likely recover. Then, in the late 1930s, penicillin was discovered. It often was the life-saver for people with pneumonia. While the disease is still around, it is not the hopeless disease it was back in those days.

It was not uncommon for a household to be quarantined back then. This meant there was a contagious disease present and no one should leave the house or let outsiders go in until the person recovered and was no longer considered contagious.

Veneral diseases were dealt with very differently then than now. While such diseases existed, they were treated with a “hush-hush” and not openly discussed. One who contracted such disease was obviously promiscuous in the eyes of most adults. I remember when I learned such diseases existed that I came home from high school and mentioned it to my grandparents. They were shocked that such matters were discussed in school and said something to the effect that “those are some things we just don’t talk about.” Subject closed — no more discussion.

Life expectancy in those days of yesterday was much shorter than today. People in their 60s were “old” and by their 70s were “very old.” While some lived to their 80s and even a few to their 90s, these were far less common than today.

Elderly people who became ill were cared for in the home and ordinarily were not placed in some type of care facility. Nursing homes, so common today, were almost nonexistent in those times. Even older people with dementia were cared for at home. The term “Alzheimer’s” did not exist in those days. Dementia was often known of as “hardening of the arteries.” Severe mental illness for a patient, young or older, often resulted in that person being committed to a mental hospital, called an “asylum.”

Neighbors and friends usually came to the home of a critically ill person to help the family at such a difficult time. The hospital was often the last resort, the person often wishing to die at home.

Death eventually comes to all, so let us look at some ways it was handled in those days of yesteryear. While many of today’s practices were common then, many changes have come.

Funeral homes were found in most towns, as is the case today. The funeral home was called when the person passed away. In some cases the body would be taken to the funeral home and in others kept at the residence. A wreath of flowers would be placed at the front door, signifying to passersby that a death had occurred. The body was not always embalmed, though sometimes that did take place.

The body was commonly returned to the home for viewing. There would often be a steady stream of friends and relatives in and out of the home until the time of the funeral. Much food would be cooked and brought to the house. “Visiting hours,” as set by funeral homes today, did not exist back then.

Usually several people would be there to “sit up” throughout the night. These people would simply sit in the room where the casket was placed, visit and talk throughout the night. Funerals were usually no more than two days after the death, especially if the body was not embalmed.

One interesting note on houses of that time. In many of the large, older homes the front door was purposely made wider than most of the other doors. The reason was that door would be wide enough to accommodate a casket being brought in and out.

Funerals were morely commonly held in either the church or the home. Most funeral homes had a larger room and some funerals were held there, but more commonly the church or home was used. It was not unusual for school to let out early so that students could attend a community funeral.

Graves were hand dug in those days. A group of community men would gather at the cemetery with shovels and picks and dig the grave. Usually they would meet in the early morning for the task and work for hours to have it ready for an afternoon burial. Since weather is no respecter of death, often the grave-digging had to be done in inclement weather, possibly under a tent of some sort.

Metal vaults were not common until perhaps the 1940s. I remember that my grandfather was buried in a concrete vault, the first that I had ever seen. Prior to vaults, a wooden box, usually hand made, was placed in the freshly dug grave and the casket placed in it. A wooden lid was placed over the box and the grave filled in by men with shovels. The family sat by and watched as the grave was filled.

It was very common for graves to “sink” over a period of time. The wooden cover had rotted and the grave sunk on the casket, eventually all to decompose with time. The grave would be filled again and brought to ground level.

Mausoleums were very uncommon, though some of the larger city cemeteries had them. Grave markers were made of either marble or granite. Often some sentimental message would be found on older markers.

Most people in that time were buried in either a family cemetery or in a church cemetery. A few would be buried in a larger city cemetery if one was not too far away. Family cemeteries, located here and there on farms, were common then, though few people today use them. Church cemeteries were to be found behind or adjacent to many churches, particularly rural ones.

Customs and times change, and so it is with health care and funerals.