Today, a glance at the tools of a new country. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The Republic of Texas
seceded from Mexico and became a separate nation in
1836. And a wild, unsettled nation it was! Ellen
Murry, at the Star of the Republic Museum at
Washington on the Brazos, writes about the early
technologies of this rough land.
First of all, early Texans were intimate with
untimely death as we've never been. Mourning and
memorializing death was a large social activity.
Almost morbid attention was paid to the crafts of
preparing, displaying, transporting, and burying
With death so commonplace, women sustained life by
marrying in their mid to latter teens and by
raising lots of children. Normally, six or seven
kids survived after murderous infant mortality.
Texas frontier women -- often managing with their
husbands gone for long periods -- did the
child-raising, educating, and civilizing.
These settlers had little access to any developed
medical technology. They fought illness by trying
to rid the body of whatever ailed it. They embraced
the medieval idea of curing by blood-letting,
emetics, and laxatives. "Puke and purge" was a
saying that began and ended most medical treatment
on the Texas frontier.
People did recognize that unsifted whole-wheat
flour was good for the digestion. A major apostle
of that notion was Sylvester Graham -- promoter of
the Graham cracker. He also suggested that it
reduced alcoholism and damped the bothersome sex
Bathing was also a form of medical treatment. It
had little other place in everyday life. In 1840 a
writer denounced the bathtub as ... an epicurean
innovation from England, designed to corrupt the
democratic simplicity of the Republic.
Early Texans washed their hands and faces before
meals, but it was normal to go a year or more
Tobacco, especially chewing tobacco, was an early
Texas fixation. Children were taught to use the
stuff. Cuspidors were universal items of furniture.
A visitor to the Texas Congress observed,
The way the members were chewing Tobacco and
squirting was a sin to see.
And an Austin church posted the notice,
Ye chewers of the noxious weedThe Republic of Texas lasted less than a
decade. Any way you hold them up to the light, the
people who formed it were tough, independent,
adaptive, and idiosyncratic. We get to know them when
we look at their daily means -- their rough-hewn
technologies. There was nothing ordinary about people
who used these elementary tools to carve freedom --
and the good life we live -- out of a harsh, and
seemingly infinite, land.
Which grows in earth's most cursed sod,
Be pleased to clean your filthy mouths
Outside the House of God.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Murry, E.N., Notes on the Republic.
Washington, TX: Star of the Republic Museum, 1991.
Kalman, B. Early Health & Medicine.
Crabtree Publishing Company, New York: 1983/1991.
For more on the Star of the Republic Museum see the
From Notes on the
Republic, by permission
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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