Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Franco-Americans And Public Health In A Gilded Age

I have written and spoken much about the poor public health situation in the Franco-American community at Brunswick, Maine during the Gilded Age. I have speculated that such problems were by no means confined to Brunswick and that further research would bear out this conjecture.

The Second Annual Report of the State Board of Health of the State of Maine for the year 1886 provides further information on the public health situation in the state's Franco-American centers in this period. Doctor Onésime Paré of Brunswick, the only Franco-American physician cited in this lengthy report, provides the State Board of Health with precise details about the health crisis in his town that occurred in that year corroborated by other doctors who visited the town. The priest at Saint John's Church in Brunswick provided to the Board of Health the names of the Franco-American children who died of infectious diseases.

No, It Wasn't Just Brunswick 
The 1886 Annual Report finds similarly depressing details elsewhere. For example, Dr. C.W. Bailey of Westbrook reports: 
“The diarrhoeal diseases of children have been very prevalent. These cases have been principally among the French population, and insanitary (sic) conditions, with overcrowding of families, seemed to enter largely into the causation. Much is needed to improve the sanitary condition of this village. Some of the things that need to be remedied are insufficient drainage, bad arrangements of water closets and privies. We have a water supply drawn from the river directly above the village, and but a few miles farther up there are large manufactories where all the wastes and excreta are dropped into the river, and still farther up a large powder manufactory with all its accompaniments of acids, saltpetre, soda and soot. It seems to me that this must render the water unfit for cooking purposes.” (p 120)
It was overcrowding, along with pollution of the drinking water by sewage, that were also at the root of the two main killers in 1880s Brunswick: Diphtheria and Typhoid. The brief description of conditions among the “French population” in Westbrook is quite similar to the more extensive account of conditions in Brunswick’s “French Quarter” that Dr. Paré provides in this same report.

Elsewhere in this 1886 Report, Dr. S.J. Bassford of Biddeford states:

“Whooping cough has been quite prevalent and a number of deaths have resulted from it among the French children, but none, I think, among Americans.

For the improvement of our city I would suggest better drainage, closing certain wells and the introduction of water into tenements. We have a good water supply lately introduced and already much has been done towards improvement. Two cases of typhoid fever, I feel sure, were caused by drinking water taken from polluted wells. The water was analyzed, condemned, and the wells were closed.”
(pp 72f)

As in Brunswick, per Dr. Bassford’s report, we find some diseases confined to “the French children” with no apparent effect “among Americans.”

Doctor Frederick Bacon, also from Biddeford, reports: “The diarrheal diseases have been somewhat prevalent among the French children. I have thought that one cause of these diseases has been due to bad drainage.” (p 73)

Moving northward to Winthrop, a brief account by Dr. A.P. Snow observes:
“There has not been a great prevalence of the diarrhoeal diseases of children. Two deaths from this cause resulted in the French population, where there was a want of cleanliness about the premises. The general sanitary condition of this town is good.” (p 135)
Doctor Snow, then, makes a distinction between the conditions among "the French population" and the "general sanitary condition" in the rest of the town. The findings of Dr. Daniel Driscoll, also practicing in Winthrop, differ somewhat from Dr. Snow’s account: 
“The diarrhoeal diseases have been moderately prevalent, most of the cases having been among the Canadian population from eating unripe fruit and from bad sanitary surroundings.” (p 134)
I propose that the “want of cleanliness” and “bad sanitary surroundings” the good doctors note were due to the generally poor circumstances in which the Franco-Americans were housed. The “want of cleanliness” in Winthrop was most likely due to the same causes that we see in Brunswick: people housed in a situation in which it would be illegal to quarter an animal today.

The following observations by Dr. A.M. Foster, practicing medicine in the Franco-American town of Lewiston, illustrate the nature of the “want of cleanliness” among the "foreign population" caused by the inadequate infrastructures of 1886: 
“A vast number of the houses in this city are not connected with the city sewers and have the old filthy privies, in many instances complete nuisances. Sufficient care is not taken to properly dispose of the city garbage. It is dumped in close proximity to a quarter where a large part of the foreign population reside.” (p 98)
Moving the Farm to the City
From Waterville, another major Franco-American center in Maine, Dr. S.H. Holmes reports the following: 
“Cases of the diarrhoeal diseases of children have been frequent. There is quite a large French population, and with them the well is often within twenty feet of hog-pens and cow-stalls, thus assuring the pollution of the water. I think this the cause of a large prevalence of summer complaint.” (p 131)
According to a July 1886 story in the Brunswick Telegraph newspaper, the tenement houses in that town had no yards, and the houses were built “in close contact,” but somehow pigs, cows and other animals were kept in pens near the houses, with the sink spouts and privies also nearby.
Tenements in Brunswick,
late 19th or early 20th c, 

As in Brunswick, the "large French population" of Waterville kept farm animals near the wells. Recall that the French-Canadians who came to New England were from a rural milieu. I offer that what little wealth they carried with them into the industrial towns of New England was in the form of farm animals. Life in the tenements did not have enough room for both them and their livestock.

Taken together, these findings suggest that Brunswick’s housing and public health issues in this era were not unique to that community. It appears that unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in the Franco-American housing were more the rule than the exception in the Maine mill towns of the Gilded Age.

Before our deniers and apologists swing into action, let’s own that non-Franco communities in Maine in 1886 had their share of health problems as well. Child mortality in those days tended to take a higher toll for all nationalities and classes than it does today – at least for those of us who live a First World lifestyle. And yet the calling out of poor conditions among the“French population” in the mill towns is consistent throughout the 1886 Report. I invite anyone to read the report and judge for themselves.

Further, it is evident that the 19th century doctors didn’t know the causes of some of the diseases they treat. It is crystal clear, however, that they knew well the hazards of the conditions in which the Franco-Americans were living. And they flag them as exceptionally bad even by 1886 standards. 

It appears that mill owners throughout the State employed a large army of laborers from Québec with no idea where to put them. Where the housing was mill owned and/or operated, the local managers of the mills weren’t too finicky about creating livable conditions for their employees, least of all for the children.

And the lack of housing and sanitary regulations in this period allowed them to get away with it for as long as they could. Thankfully, Boards of Health and caring physicians were on duty to record, at least, the malfeasance they saw in their communities. 

Thanks to James Myall for drawing my attention to the Annual Report discussed in this post. The page numbers cited above refer to this report.


  1. Precursor of today's Flint Michigan.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Al. I gave an interview to a blogger for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News who made that very comparison. Here's the article:

    2. David, do you know any more about the conditions up river in Rumford? I ask only because (in my research) the mill's founder in Rumford, Hugh Chisholm, invested huge amounts of capital to house his workers, build recreation centers, etc. and I wonder if this is a bit of propaganda and if the millworkers there suffered too. Naturally, the only writings I've uncovered so far were written by fans of Chisholm. Anyway, I wonder if you came across anything re Rumford that runs contrary to the Chisholm as savior narrative, and if so, could you point me the way?

    3. I don't have any information specific to Rumford along these lines. I'm sure you've already done this, but if there are local vital records (many towns kept records prior to 1892 when state vital records begin but not all have survived) I'd start there and look into child mortality and outbreaks of diseases like diphtheria, typhoid or TB. If you have not done so already I'd also look at the Maine State Board of Health Reports some of them from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are available online. I recall that around the WWI era there were water quality concerns in Rumford. There may be other information in there. Good luck!

  2. Do you have any information on Old Town, Penobscot Cty? Thanks for all the information.