The Liverpool Virus, 1913

I’ve recently discovered the thrills of the “ephemera” section of Ebay. Not least, the word “ephemera” itself which is now vying for the position of my favourite word, alongside “nebula”.

I was looking for old playing cards, and am now the proud owner of some gloriously grotesque Edwardian Happy Family sets. But I was enthralled by the other random and delicate stuff that has survived, almost by accident.

I now have all manner of old bits and pieces, including Liverpool pharmacy receipts from 1913 – the days when names were taken and logged on the paperwork, all the better to know who’d suspiciously been purchasing arsenic after a case of poisoning. They included this receipt for “The Liverpool Virus” rat poison:

Which feels rather like crucial evidence at the start of either an Agatha Christie, or a zombie film.

But the thing I really like about the ephemera is that they are a handy jumping off point into history. A little tangible clue to inspire a bit of history-surfing.

I’ve discovered resources I didn’t know of, like the joys of the Old Bailey’s archive of court case transcripts. I’ve found out about the ship SS Homeric from a letter written on board to a friend in 1932. Leatherhead bus routes in the 1920s from an old bus leaflet. And I’ve been perusing the British Medical Journal archives on account of an outbreak of severe enteritis caused by this “Liverpool Virus” rat poison in 1908. It turns out despite the manufacturer’s claims that it was safe for humans, it very likely contained some form of salmonella.

Advert for The Liverpool Virus

Advert for The Liverpool Virus

I’m especially fascinated by the pharmaceuticals of the Victorian and Edwardian era – the hard drugs you could buy over the counter, and the potentially dangerous snake oils that promised to fix you up and paint the garden gate while they were at it (and I’m speaking as someone who was rather severely quizzed by a doctor last week as to why I even owned a bottle of Piriton).

Some more information is on this blog (another bonus, discovering so many of the informative blogs people are writing out there):

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