Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Nature was full of poisonous plants and animals in the 18th century, just as today. In addition to these natural dangers, artificial hazards arose when humans, to a more significant extent, even before industrialisation, started to mine or extract coal, lead, arsenic and asbestos – aspects which early observers noted to be a disadvantage for people, animals and the environment. From a textile perspective, during the 1740s to 1790s, these issues foremost focused on the dyeing of cloth and yarn, finding new functional raw materials, washing becoming black dotted outdoors and ship sails being brittle. This essay looks closer at such observations by Carl Linnaeus, his apostles and other naturalists in their network – in Sweden, England, the North American colonies and Japan. However, judging by the researched travel journals etc., originating in the naturalists’ observations in more than 50 countries, it may still be regarded as unusual to mention air pollution or the risks of mineral extractions in any form.
Several of the seventeen Linnaeus Apostles visited for periods or even stayed for years in the metropolis of London. But without a doubt, Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) was the former Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) student who was most observant about how unhealthy the intense coal burning seemed to be for the inhabitants and even included lists of herbs and trees which did not tolerate the coal smoke. On 13th March 1748 in London, the inconvenience of coal smoke for linen shirts was noted among many enlightening details of health disadvantages and environmental effects. Even if it in the mid-18th century appears to have been negatively affecting the immediate geographical area only:
Overall, the environmental issue in London (the largest city in Europe with almost 750,000 inhabitants) must have troubled Pehr Kalm, according to his meticulously kept personal accounts. He had obviously not encountered air pollution to such a degree before, which was so intertwined in people's everyday lives. Even when leaving England by ship via Dover, he continued to be occupied with the effects of coal smoke – this time focusing on the ship sails woven of hemp or linen. On 8th August 1748, he noted:
Alum was a relatively harmless metal salt to handle, whereas many other substances used in the textile dyeing processes at the time were highly poisonous. Those included, for instance, anything from copper oxide and iron sulphate to such genuine risks to health as lead and arsenic. Not only did such toxic substances pose a direct danger for the dyers, but the yarns were also extremely sensitive to the slightest overdose of any of them. The result was often a very brittle thread, particularly the yarn dyed black after being steeped in an iron mordant. Many other less hazardous substances were also used as additives in order to reinforce and improve the colours, mainly salt, potash, urine, oak apples and quicklime, all of which Carl Linnaeus described during his provincial tours in Sweden. Many of those minerals, on a scale from moderately hazardous to highly poisonous, also appear frequently in contemporary dye-books as indispensable ingredients for textile dyeing. In most cases, however, the home dyeing was comparably less of a health hazard, using predominantly mordants such as alum, mud and urine, as chemicals were expensive to obtain.
During the same Västergötland Journey in 1746, Linnaeus visited the Höjentorp estate. There was, among other things, a sizeable sheep-breeding farm, described on 26th June as: ‘The water by the dam or little lake nearest to Höjentorp was so sharp that it turned the clothes washed therein not only yellowish but also so brittle that they shortly afterwards fell apart.’ On the other hand, it was not mentioned why the water had been so polluted by toxins. It might have been the vast tobacco plantations in the area that caused the poor water quality or possibly the activities of the sheep farm, which were the polluters as chemical substances were used when washing the wool and skins. After each provincial tour in 1741, 1746 and 1749, Linnaeus spent most of his time at Uppsala. Thanks to his professorial title, he was now able to devote himself wholeheartedly to botany and continuously published his observations and conclusions, something he kept up ceaselessly during his entire life. These three tours were financed by the parliament as they were considered politically significant for ascertaining the best development potential for the country’s mercantile economy, to help the start-up of more manufacturing, for instance, which could result in improved conditions for the country as well as for its inhabitants. He also purchased a small manor house at Hammarby in the 1750s, where the family could enjoy a healthier environment in the summer, seeing as towns at that time were crowded, dirty and particularly unhealthy in the warm season.
It may be noted that the use of asbestos – as a textile raw material – seems to have been very rare despite the desire of the period in many countries to make use of everything that could benefit the economy. However, Pehr Kalm mentioned asbestos more than once during his stay in Philadelphia between 1748 and 1750. On 11th November 1748, he included the following in his journal on the subject and the purse illustrated above from one of his discussions with Benjamin Franklin:
Pehr Kalm must have considered the item of importance due to that about a year later, on 17th November 1749, he mentioned the same purse a second time:
Before his voyage to Philadelphia and the North American colonies, Kalm visited Sir Hans Sloane's extensive collection in Chelsea, London, on several occasions from the 28th of April to the 26th of May 1748. From Sloane’s famous collection – a gentleman by now in his late eighties – the young Kalm listed a large number of “curious pieces”, natural history items and books. Even if Kalm did not mention this particular purse, the object had been kept in Sloane’s care since the mid-1720s.
A later student of Carl Linnaeus made another notation about asbestos for textile use – the apostle Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) – who travelled in Europe, southernmost Africa, Southeast Asia and Southeast Asia and Japan for nine years in the 1770s. His visit to Jedo/Edo [Tokyo] on 23rd May 1776 included the following observation:
Despite these observations and a reference to the ‘Royal Academy at Upsala” together with the preserved 18th century purse, it has not been possible to trace any more textiles from this period made of asbestos. Judging by the sparse interest in the mineral, it may be assumed that it gave little gain in proportion to the effort in the pre-industrial period, whilst many countries intended to increase the domestic economy in all ways possible. Or was there already at this time a suspicion of the health hazards with asbestos – and people, due to that, avoided too close contact with the material, particularly for clothing or other personal objects?
Lorens Wolter Rothof was not regarded as one of Carl Linnaeus’ apostles. Still, he was among the hundreds of young students participating in his botanical excursions in Uppsala during the 1740s. From the perspective of asbestos, in 1762, Rothof published a housekeeping dictionary structured alphabetically from A-Ö. This was an extensive volume, counting 742 pages (see sources). Almost a hundred subject names were related to natural dyes, textile raw materials, a wide selection of fabrics, laundry, sail cloths, etc., including ‘Asbestos’ illustrated above. In the process of spinning, he noted in translation:
In conclusion. Even if Thunberg was born almost 30 years after Kalm and 20 years after Rothof, they were all three former students of Carl Linnaeus, and he too had a connection to Sir Hans Sloane. On his homeward journey, during his time in London (Dec. 1778), Thunberg visited The British Museum, among many places, where he, from a historical point of view, studied the collections and mentioned in his journal: ‘These were now almost a hundred years old, and had been bought up by Sir Hans Sloane, after the Author’s death.’ Thunberg, Kalm, Franklin and also Linnaeus had a connection to Sloane. In his younger years in 1736, Linnaeus stayed in London and, at that time, visited Sloane’s cabinet of curiosities and natural history. It is also notable that observers during this pre-industrial period had limited interest and experience of toxic gases and environmental aspects concerning personal health, clothes etc. The seventeen Linnaeus Apostles’ travel journals, stretching over 5,500 pages, never or rarely included any such words as environmental, toxic, toxins, pollution or pollute. The air outdoors, with a few exceptions in a high-density populated city like London, was still pristine and free from human impact in most visited places on all continents in the 18th century.