Tom Dillard: Time travel might not be as much fun as one might think

I am not a candidate for time travel. Still, I think of it, especially when reading about a topic of special interest, or a subject dealing with unusual aspects of the human condition, or maybe a time period about which I know little.

It would be useful to experience the past, but only in small bites. Arkansas in the past is not necessarily a place one would want to visit, much less live. But it is certainly interesting to think about.

I recently posted a question in an online Arkansas history discussion group, asking subscribers to consider the vast changes which have occurred during the past 150 years. A modern visitor to Arkansas in 1872 would have faced great challenges in every aspect of life, including travel, dining, education, health, leisure and making a living.

If I were to travel to the past in Arkansas, I would schedule the trip for winter. I don't do well in hot and humid weather, and mosquitoes have always made summers here doubly oppressive. I think of all those European immigrants who came to Arkansas after being promised cheap land and a pleasant climate.

A Prussian who visited the town of Napoleon at the mouth of the Arkansas River in June 1853 left a vivid description of trying to sleep under a "mosquito bar," a mesh-covered frame which fitted over a bed: "You seek your bed expecting that the mosquito curtains will afford you protection from this plague of the country, having opened doors and windows that the cool night air may blow through the room.

"But, alas, there is a drawback to the advantage of the mosquito net: While it keeps off the hungry bloodsucker, it also prevents the refreshing breeze from reaching the weary wayfayer [sic]; he rolls uneasily from side to side in the close, heated space, but perhaps drops at last into a half doze."

Kitty Clay Sloan, a Paragould journalist who is a keen student of Arkansas history, pointed to the many improvements and discoveries in the field of medicine. "Every time I get a sinus infection," Sloan recently noted, "and am whining that I am on death's door, I am thankful for the antibiotics that will likely save me."

Sloan could have gone on to point out that 1872 Arkansas -- like the nation as a whole -- had a problem with venereal diseases, and over time, Hot Springs became a center of treatment. Even after the U.S. military temporarily stopped referring syphilitic soldiers to Hot Springs in the mid-1890s, dozens of private physicians in the city specialized in treating VD sufferers, though the prevailing treatment with mercury could be worse than the disease. Mercury did seem to help heal open sores, but little else, hence the saying "a night with Venus and a lifetime with Mercury."

Historian Elliott Bowen, who in 2020 published a well-received book, "In Search of Sexual Health," wrote that "for a half century, much of the United States' struggle with sexually transmitted illness ran through Hot Springs."

Julienne Crawford, a curator at the Arkansas State Archives, responded to my time-travel query with a thoughtful and annotated statement addressing topics such as the large number of Black legislators serving in the 1872 Legislature. As Blake Wintory has calculated, at least 87 Black legislators served in the General Assembly between 1868 and 1893.

Crawford also noted that Arkansas in 1872 was on the cusp of a revolution in transportation. The Reconstruction government, elected in 1868, issued bonds to promote railroad construction. Ultimately, more than $5 million in state railroad bonds were issued, and 662 miles of track were laid -- although 249 miles of that were built without public support.

The miles built without state aid were for the Cairo & Fulton Railroad Co., which declined $3 million in state aid, instead issuing $8 million of its own bonds. By June 1871, tracks were laid from St. Louis to Jackson Springs, now known as Jacksonville. The first C&F train arrived in Little Rock from St. Louis. The line reached what is today Texarkana in January 1874. The railroad bridge across the Red River was completed three months later.

A visit to Arkansas 150 years ago would remind us how rural Arkansas has been until recently. Still, towns grew considerably during Reconstruction. Nowhere was that more evident than Fort Smith, a city with a frontier image which became the seat of the federal court in western Arkansas in 1872. Despite the arrival of the incorruptible Judge Isaac C. Parker, Fort Smith was not noted for its piety.

In March 1872, the Weekly New Era newspaper reported that "Fort Smith has five newspapers, and as we are informed by a city official, 16 whisky shops, 15 gambling houses and 30 houses of prostitution. Rather cosmopolitan, this!" Fort Smith gained rail transportation in 1874 with the completion of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, and the city population grew from 2,227 in 1870 to 11,311 in 1890.

If I were to time-travel back to 1872, I would take plenty of cash to hire help. Men and women worked hard -- physically hard -- at that time. While Arkansans made extensive use of steam power, labor-saving electricity was still more than a half-century in the future for most of them.

An old saying caught the plight of women in 19th-century Arkansas: "A man works from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done." An example of the drudgery facing most Arkansas women was washing and ironing clothes.

Before the electric washing machine came into widespread use after World War II, most Arkansas women with families devoted a whole day of hard labor each week to doing the laundry. Ironing could add another long day to the process of keeping a family in clean clothes.

We should keep in mind that cleanliness is quite a relative concept. In 1872, most Arkansans did not bathe often. The nose of a time traveler would have to grow less sensitive, especially in relationship to animal waste. Horses and mules left copious droppings whether they were in a field or tied to a hitching post in town. After a rain, the dust and manure, well mixed by passing wagons, would become a smelly mess.

In January 1880, the Arkansas Gazette editor complained about the filthy streets following a rain: "Main Street yesterday, after the sun came out, resembled a long pond, reeking and steaming. Ladies slopped along, making sudden little exclamations at each crossing."

Tom Dillard is a historian and archivist. Email: [email protected].

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