Think It's Cold Today? At Least the River's Still Flowing


Meanwhile, on dry land, cold weather was way less fun.

"The coldest weather of the winter began last night," begins a report from 1894, dramatically headlined "Bitter Blast."

The snow fell with frozen flakes and it cut the face of the hurrying pedestrian. It was accompanied by a wind that crept under even the very warmest ulster. It penetrated to the core the frames of the poor. There was suffering in St. Louis last night, suffering that makes the heart ache and suffering that charity can not relieve...

(The same article reported that cold "stirred the bowels of compassion" of the mayor at the time, Cyrus Walbridge, who told the chief of police to "be kind to the poor." Walbridge, incidentally, showed up to work with "his oriental mustache...a mass of ice.")

On the night of February 11, 1899, an enterprising reporter decided to do a firsthand investigation of the effects of cold on the impoverished by spending "the coldest night of the year with the poorest family in St. Louis," the Downeys of 2251 O'Fallon Street in north city. The temperature was 16 below zero, the tenth coldest in recorded St. Louis weather history.

downeys_opt.jpg
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Downeys, "drawn from life."

The eight Downeys occupied two drafty rooms and kept warm by gathering around the coal fire, tended by Mr. Downey, a former teamster currently unemployed due to an accident. They conserved coal by letting the fire go out at 9 p.m. and then huddling in bed, covered by "an old overcoat, the shawl and a piece of carpet." Their food budget for the week was $1.35. The reporter kindly went out and bought provisions for another day, along with coffee and oranges. The Downeys, he reported, were very cheerful and unaware that they lived in such misery. (There was no follow-up to report what became of them.)

Such optimism was not unusual for the P-D. During cold snaps, there was usually an interview with some doctor expounding on the medical benefits of cold weather. A specimen from 1904 claimed that "in a moderately cold winter day, one's body takes in one-seventh more oxygen than in warm weather." One Dr. Pierce ("an authority on diseases prevalent among women young and old") advised young people not to spend so much time indoors huddled around the stove or other heat source, breathing in old, sour air. "They become tender and sensitive," he claimed, "and are almost certain to catch cold."

And besides, cold, fresh air was so good for the complexion!

(Fresh air, incidentally, was also good for hens: It made them lay more eggs.)

But even the P-D could not find a positive angle in its report from 1882 of a jury forced to deliberate in the basement of the Old Courthouse in "a miserable, tomb-like apartment suggestive of a cell for refractory convicts. There was little light and less heat. The steam pipes do not run below the floor of the rotunda and the main offices. In this damp, cold, disagreeable hole, the jury remained for two hours."

The shittiness of the deliberation room finally stirred the bowels of compassion of the judge, who dismissed the jury for the night, and the P-D, which turned the article into a stirring call for better accommodations for jurors and what appears to be an attack on Mayor William Ewing for not taking better care of the courthouse in the first place. Y'all, somebody could fall down those stairs and sue the city! You can't get a sentimental human interest story out of that.

h/t Steve Smith


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2 comments
Kwhip
Kwhip

I want to know that woman's entire life story, Aimee. That photo is rad.

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