Tuesday, November 26, 2013

1820-1900: Hay Fever Holiday

Dr. John Bostock, the same man who first defined hay-fever, may also have been one of the first to leave his home and participate in what later became known as a Hay Fever Holiday.  (1, page 26-27)

He often "retired to the sea-side, in order to obtain some alleviation to his sufferings," writes William Abbotts Smith, a 19th century physician.  "And numerous instances have come to my knowledge in which the patients, including persons in all classes of society, had been prevented, annually, for years, during more or less of the summer months, from attending to their usual avocations."

It probably happened at first by chance, that hay fever sufferers realized their symptoms only occurred at certain times of the year, or when they were exposed to certain things, such as hay.  It was probably also by chance hay fever sufferers observed their symptoms did not occur when they were on vacation.

By the 1970s it was common for a physician to recommend to his hay-fever suffering patients to leave during the hay fever season to an area of the United States that offered air that was free from irritants.  And physicians had this down to such a science that they knew precisely in what regions hay fever was more prevalent.

They also had it down to a science the idea places to get away from hay fever triggers.  One such region was at high altitudes, like mountainous regions such as Denver, or the prairies of Nebraska, or the White Mountains of new Hampshire.

Yet high altitudes weren't the only places for a hay fever vacation.  Places such as towns along the shores of Lake Michigan, such as Mackinac island and Petoski, were places where hay fever vacations became an important source of income for local merchants.  Resorts were set up specifically for hay fever sufferers, resorts that may have been barren in the off season.

Unfortunately for the lay hay fever sufferer, hay fever vacations were expensive.  So this meant that getting away from hay fever triggers was left only to the wealthy. Fortunately, however, it was observed that most who suffered from the disease were wealthy citizens, such as physicians.

This resulted in many theories about hay fever.  One was that it was a modern disease that only occurred in persons who grew up away from hay fields and farms associated with urban life.  People who grow up in cities and towns are not exposed to such things as hay and grass, and develop sensitivities to them.

Another theory is that hay fever is a disease of the educated.  Another theory is that hay fever is a nervous disease caused by stress of city life.  It was caused by the stress of obtaining an education, the stress of making tough decisions, and stress of making money.  It was a disease of the aristocracy.

According to historian Gregg Mitman, 'hay fever holidays enjoyed by America's well-to-do were part of an expanding nineteenth-century tourist trade.  Leisure had become both a popular pastime and a marketable commodity after the Civil War.  And... hay fever began as an illness that only the wealthy could afford to treat." (2, page 12)

Hay fever holidays became a major tourist trade, and this was significant for the economies of these areas.  Petoski was amid the towns in Michigan, like my home town of Manistee, where lumberjacks migrated to because of all the white pines in the area.

Manistee was so prosperous due to the lumbering era that it was one of a few places to become a city before being designated a village.  It grew that fast.  It was such a prosperous region that by the turn of the 20th century Manistee had the third most millionaires per capita than any other place in the United States.

Yet the lumbering boom ended in the 1920s because all the trees had been cut down and none replaced.  Manistee's economy was stalled, while the economy of Petoski continued to boom mainly because of the new market created there for hay fever vacations.

There was really never any evidence that hay fever vacations did any good, although there were many physicians, many wealthy businessmen, many famous authors and poets who continued to do it throughout most of their adult lives.

It was such a popular idea that even up until the 1990s relocation was still prescribed by physicians of asthma and hay fever sufferers.  I'm sure that even to this day there are people who relocate specifically to ward off the evil allergies.

If you really want to get a good picture of the hay fever holiday, I highly recommend you purchase Gregg Mitman's book.  And just for the record, I will in no way benefit from this endorsement other than knowing that I've recommended to my fellow asthma and allergy sufferers a great book about the history of our ailment.

  1. Smith, William, Abbots, ""On Hay-Fever, Hay-Asthma, or Summer Catarrh," 1867, London, Henry Renshaw, pages 17-24.  The quotations are from Smith's descriptions of Phoebus's ideas. 
  2. Mitman, Gregg, "Breathing Space: how Allergies Shape our lives and landscapes," 2007, New Haven and London, Yale University Press

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