“Ah, the good old days. May they never return!” This old saying has ample meaning when we consider conditions in Bangor (and other cities) a century ago as reflected in the newspapers. I’ll start with the merely irritating and move along to the purely disgusting.
The Bangor area was blessed back then with a few small mills, such as Eastern Manufacturing Co. in South Brewer and Morse & Co. out the Kenduskeag, employing hundreds of people. They were summoned to work in the morning by loud steam whistles. One of the ivory tower inhabitants at the Bangor Daily News worked on a different schedule, however. He resented being awakened early in the morning by the “toot and scream of the mill whistles” after an evening spent penning editorials or quite possibly enjoying strong drink at his private club or in one of the illegal saloons located near the newspaper’s headquarters on Exchange Street. He be-came so upset on Nov. 2, 1908, that he decried “Those Morning Whistles” in the newspaper’s lead editorial.
“Nobody with his senses about him can contend for a moment … that a public hullabaloo is needful to wake the workers up. The hours of work required in every mill on the river is known to every employee who has worked in a mill for a week. … Any man who is worth his salt knows enough to be at his post when the machinery starts,” argued the editorial writer. His solution? A worker could buy an alarm clock for $1.50, “and if he has not the dollar and a half, he can get the clock for only one book — $100 worth — of trading stamps.”
About a year later, in the midst of one of the Queen City’s periodic typhoid outbreaks, the Bangor Daily Commercial reminded readers of a far more serious drawback to living a century ago — the lack of proper sanitation in handling perishable goods such as meat. You could see it every day on the meat carts rumbling along Bangor’s dirt streets, argued an unnamed “businessman” quoted at length in a newspaper story on Nov. 17, 1909.
“Every day we see carts going through the streets carrying meats entirely uncovered and open to the dust and filth [euphemism for horse droppings] of the streets. At night these carts are sometimes pushed into old stables, where numberless flies and other germ carrying insects stay, and are taken out in the morning, most of the time without being washed, and then used to carry food to the people in such an unsanitary condition,” said the observer. “ For the sake of saving a few cents on a pound of meat, many fathers are jeopardizing the health of their children by getting meat that has been exposed to the dust and germ laden atmosphere of the street and carried around in carts that are seldom washed and more seldom covered. … Most people never think of such matters, … but it has been my experience that meat has caused more typhoid than any other cause.”
The subject of dust (which always implied “filth” as well) arose again in the dry days just before Christmas of that year. The street department had received numerous complaints from downtown merchants about the “dust nuisance” bothering holiday shoppers. They asked that the streets be sprinkled as in warm weather. City of-ficials responded that it was too cold. Water would turn the downtown into a skating rink. The ice and dirt ground up by the heavy traffic would make matters worse.
The only solution, which given today’s environmental sensibilities sounds like no solution at all, was to sprinkle the streets with “crude petroleum, which effectively lays the dust.” Bangor did not have the proper equipment, however. An order would soon be placed before the City Council to study the matter of buying a petro-leum sprinkler, said the “Around City Hall” column on Dec. 21.
In this same column, the subject of expectorating in public — also called “promiscuous spitting” — once again raised its ugly head. It was illegal under both state law and city ordinance. A very few practitioners of the vile habit had already been arrested and fined — the first for spitting on the floor of The Nickle, the city’s first movie theater. The issue was far more than a matter of propriety. It was a health concern. The complaint came in a letter to Mayor John F. Woodman from the Bangor Anti-Tuberculosis Association. The group called for enforcement.
“The medical authorities tell us that one person in consumption [TB] in a somewhat advanced stage may spit upwards of one million tuberculosis disease germs in 24 hours, and these germs will live in dry dust a long time,” the group reported. “When thus deposited in spittle on our sidewalks, the germs are picked up by our shoes and [long] skirts and carried into houses and thus become, in the opinion of the doctors, one of the commonest ways of carrying the disease.
“Now it is hardly necessary for us to say that the custom of spitting on the sidewalks in the business streets of our city is very common … and there are some places where teamsters and loafers stand and squirt tobacco juice upon which hundreds of men and women walk everyday.” The “no spitting” signs were inadequate. The police needed to tell people to stop and arrest a few if necessary, the reformers urged politely.
These were just some of life’s crudities — some quite dangerous — that would gradually be lacquered over as streets were paved, meat wagons replaced, diseases cured and skirts shortened. Most people stopped spitting in the street as well.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.