Allergies in the Past

Allergic reactions are on the increase in all parts of the developed world – asthma, hay-fever and food allergies are all more common than they used to be, although no-one has a definitive answer as to why this is. Increased use of antibiotics, the more processed nature of the food we eat, the general changes occurring in our natural environment – these are all put forward as potentially playing their part in making our immune system more sensitive to allergies.

Despite the higher visibility of allergies, such as the new nut-free policies developed in schools, there’s still a sense among some people that this is all a lot of old nonsense, that there weren’t allergies in the old days, and it’s the same thing as people self-diagnosing intolerances to various foodstuffs. As the mother of a little girl with alarming allergies to egg and mustard, people not taking the consequences of exposure to allergens seriously is terrifying. Going out to eat is a minefield – ask most serving staff about which food contains mustard in their menu and I guarantee they will tell you that they don’t have mustard in their food, unless something is specifically described as such – a ham and mustard sandwich, for example. Whereas, if you check their allergy information (if they indeed have it), you’ll find egg and mustard everywhere in the dressings and the flavourings.

This talk of allergies barely existing in the past got me thinking. It may be more common now, but I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t always there, in some way. By chance, I saw a newspaper article in the British Newspaper Archive which mentioned “nettle rash” and I almost passed over it, thinking it referred to an actual rash caused by stinging nettles. But it goes on to clarify that it refers to “some kind of food that disagrees with the sufferer” – so what would be called hives or uticaria now. “Opening medicine” is advised to be given, which I now know is another name for laxatives. Makes sense – it seems like everything could be cured by laxatives if you look at old adverts. But I can see the logic here in that the aim is to expel the offending foodstuff from the body as fast as you can.

The Sunderland Echo, 7th August 1934

The Sunderland Echo, 7th August 1934

“Nettle rash is often very alarming” this article says, and allergic reactions like this are scary to see. “This affection is almost invariably due to mistakes in diet, such as giving a child unripe fruit,” it says, which isn’t a cause of an allergic reaction that I’ve heard before. It sounds like the causes of the reaction were still very misunderstood.

Dundee People's Journal, 7th April 1917

Dundee People’s Journal, 7th April 1917

It is curious how certain articles of diet affect different individuals; food which is freely partaken of by all the members of the family results in a nettle-rash for only one member.” This 1913 article identifies fish and shellfish as one of the possible causes, which is true – both are allergens that need to be listed by law on food ingredients lists now. The reality of living with severe allergies at a time when this wasn’t properly understood or widely known sounds stressful – “Experience is the only guide…..no one can help you, you must look after yourself.”

Coventry Herald, 5th December 1913

Coventry Herald, 5th December 1913

A soothing lotion for the nettle rash here – lead lotion. Terrifying.

Coventry Herald, 5th December 1913

Coventry Herald, 5th December 1913

This 1930 article mixes together food allergy and contact dermatitis resulting from skin contact with various materials. They can be related (I have heard that an allergy to latex can accompany an allergy to kiwi fruit) but not always.

Gloucester Citizen, 8th Juky 1930

Gloucester Citizen, 8th July 1930

This article is a bit strange. It finally gets onto the correct cause – food allergies such as shellfish and strawberries, but only after a moralising digression that also blames indigestion, over-feeding, lack of cleanliness and the taking of drink such as claret cup – “this latter leads many a young girl to drink and ruin. It is so nicely flavoured; so cooling (?) they think, that a mere sip cannot do any harm. In that mere sip they too often sign away their future happiness or their very souls.”  Or it could be strawberries.

Taunton Courier, 24th July 1907

Taunton Courier, 24th July 1907

In the last resort “a complete change of air will effect an immediate cure” this isn’t prescribed much these days, is it? From reading old books, it seems like people were constantly moving to boarding houses on the coast for a change of air to improve their health. If you’re undergoing an allergic reaction, quickly arrange a holiday.

Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3rd April 1930

Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3rd April 1930

This is spot on, and from 1899 too. “Poisoning by eggs” is a “curious personal idiosyncrasy.” This is a good description of egg allergy, which can result in severe symptoms even by the smallest amount consumed, “even when the egg is disguised in other food” and only a tiny amount of food containing egg on the skin can produce swelling. This is what I recognise from my daughter’s egg allergy.

Whitby Gazette, 29th December 1899

Whitby Gazette, 29th December 1899

This article makes clear that anything could potentially be an allergen to an individual person. “There are certain people to whom practically anything is poisonous.”

Framlingham Weekly News, 13th June 1925

Framlingham Weekly News, 13th June 1925

It’s a relief really, reading these articles from another age, and realising that allergies still existed then. It’s a pretty exhausting way to live, checking absolutely every ingredient list on everything, spending a long time going through the allergy folder in a restaurant and even then sometimes suffering a sudden attack which could have been caused by cross-contamination. But what a relief that at least it’s a lot easier now, now the law’s on our side, and there’s more awareness and information available.

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