Blue Glass, Phrenology & Blood Food: 19th Century Health Crazes

As researchers rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, the pandemic has spawned a bevy of supposed miracle cures. People desperate for any glimmer of hope rush  to try the magic elixirs and when they fail to produce the anticipated result, the users abandon them and move on to the next new thing. It has always been thus.

In early 1877, when Lavinia Goodell was weighing various options for the treatment of her ovarian tumor and her mother’s dementia was making life in the Goodell household increasingly difficult, Lavinia turned to a health craze that was sweeping the nation: blue glass.

The blue glass frenzy was started by a former Civil War general from Philadelphia, Augustus Pleasanton. He believed that the blue color of the sky somehow helped organisms to thrive. He experimented by growing grapes in a building with blue paned glass and was convinced the grapes were superior to those grown under clear glass. He moved on to raising pigs and cows under blue glass. In 1877 he published a book – printed with blue ink on blue paper – titled “The Influence of the Blue Ray of the Sunlight and of the Blue Colour of the Sky, in Developing Animal and Vegetable Life; in Arresting Disease, and in Restoring Health in Acute And Chronic Disorders to Human and Domestic Animals.”

The book included testimonials from satisfied blue glass users who claimed their maladies had been cured, and soon blue glass treatment became all the rage. On February 23, 1877, Lavinia wrote in her diary, “Called at Dr. Chittendon’s (the Goodell family’s physician) and learned about blue glass.” Four days later she reported, “I got blue glass today and tried it on Mother and myself.” And the following week she noted, “In afternoon I sat awhile in the blue glass and then went to temperance meeting,” Lavinia did not mention blue glass again. In mid-May 1877 Dr. Chittendon and two colleagues drained “16 1/2 pounds of villainous dark stuff” from her tumor and in early July Lavinia was forced to admit her mother to the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane (now Mendota Mental Health Institute) in Madison, so apparently the blue glass treatment did not have the desired effect on either patient.

The blue glass craze was not Lavinia’s first foray into unorthodox health fads. Lavinia had been a sickly child and suffered from various health problems throughout her life. When she was in her early twenties she tried a fad called the “blood food” diet. Lavinia’s mother wrote to her elder daughter, Maria Frost:

Saturday Lavinia and Emma Jocelyn went over to Cooper Institute to consult Dr. Bronson, who by touching his fingers over their heads could tell them what the matter was with them, and what kind of “blood food” they needed to cure them. He asks no questions. He told them better what the matter was than they could have told him. They had six bottles of the blood food put up for five dollars. Three apiece. It is a liquid. He said Lavinia wanted more iron and more sulphur and more phosphorous in her system. He told her she had the catarrh; that her breathing was not as it should be. If it cures her, perhaps I shall try his “blood food.”

And in the summer of 1865, Lavinia visited a phrenologist. After the visit, Lavinia asked her ever-practical father what he thought of the diagnosis she had received. William Goodell’s viewpoint was apparent from his acerbic reply:

I think the operator was lucky at last, in some of his statements, or conjectures, whichever it might be. The advice to you about health is well deserving your attention & was timely. It needed but a glance at your form, size & face (without manipulating your cranium) to see that you needed such advice. As to phrenological fortune telling or whatever it may be called, I place no very great reliance on it…. I do not believe that the rule “By their fruits shall ye know Him” may be safely set aside by the rule “By their bumps may ye know them.” Were I selecting a clerk, a partner, or a companion, I should rely very little upon phrenological charts or certificates. What a person is is to be learned by his doings and in no other way assuredly…. I suspect the phrenological operators derive more real knowledge of their subjects from their air, deportment, manner & expressions of countenance, including physiognomy than they do by the bumps on the head.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diary (February 23 and 27, 1877; March 4, 1877; May 19, 1877; July 2, 1877); Letter from Clarissa Goodell to Maria Frost (February 25, 1861);  Letter from William Goodell to Lavinia Goodell (August 25, 1865);;

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