Great Book Scare – 140 Years Ago

It sounds a bit like something just before Halloween but instead was truly a major event not just in 1879 but lasting well into the 1880s and 1890s. Your ancestors, especially if they lived in a larger town or city may have been directly affected. If their hometown had a public library and your ancestors liked to read the borrowed books, they may have been affected.

What happened 140 years ago once medical doctors and scientists began to see the relationship of germs to the spread of diseases, people also looked at objects handled by the general public. Certainly one very common item was the sharing of public library books.

Handled by people (staff and visitors) to the library and by those who checked out books to take home for a couple of weeks. People began to have frantic panic attacks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that contaminated books—particularly ones lent out from libraries—could spread deadly diseases. There were many major epidemics such as tuberculosis, smallpox and scarlet fever which were taking a deadly toll in urban areas.

Besides the fear of the germs on the book pages, there was fear of inhaling book dust and what illnesses that could create. This growing fear of handling books was spreading throughout the United States and in Great Britain. Some laws in the 1870s – 1880s were passed prohibiting lending “bedding clothing rags or other things” that had been exposed to infection from a sick person.

Those laws were expanding in the early 1900s making explicit reference to the dangers of spreading disease via book lending, and those suspected of having an infectious disease were forbidden to borrow, lend or return library books, with fines issued to offenders. Individual states in America passed their own various laws. Libraries were expected to disinfect books suspected of carrying diseases. Numerous methods were used for disinfecting books such as using steam. Other locations wanted infected books burned.

Over the decades from the 1880s into the 1930s, there were still fears of books from libraries that would come in waves whenever there was an epidemic. But slowly the fear of books was in decline as science and medicine learned more how diseases did spread.

So if you had an ancestor who worked in a library or liked books from the library, their life may have been a bit difficult at these times. It is these interesting and many times unknown historical aspects of our ancestors’ lives that gives a great appreciation of the times they lived.

Photos: Reading books in a library; 1873-an old water tank used as a library in Chicago; and staff in a library.

Related Blogs:

Souvenir Books

Public Libraries

Ancestral Illnesses and Diseases

< Return To Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.