This New York City “Stench Map” was the Cutting Edge in Fighting Cholera in the Steam Era

In a World Before Germs…

During my visit to the London Museum of Water and Steam, I learned a lot about the misunderstandings that people during the steam era had when it came to disease transmission. It wasn’t until a study conducted by John Snow in 1854 that people understood that a bacterial infection could come from contaminated water. Instead, many people prescribed to the “miasma theory,” which hypothesized that pollution (ie bad smells) were the cause of infection. The map above is from the 1870s. It shows an effort to chart the potential for illness based on the bad smells in different neighborhoods. I borrowed it from an article on, and you can read the full text here.


But before they were busy charting stenches, this notice from the 1830s warned people away from fruit and booze. There is a nod to avoiding cold water, but in this case they didn’t even know that boiling water could kill the infection. Instead, they thought if your insides were colder than your outside, you were susceptible to all manners of illnesses.

Yet another reason that I love to learn about the steam era, but I am very happy to be living in this century! If you are interested in the history of the 19th century, come on over to my author page and subscribe. Starting this summer, I am going to post about American history in the 1870s to coincide with the release of my new series of books, Mistress of None.

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