I’m not a candidate for time travel. Yet I do think about it, especially when reading about a topic of particular interest, or a topic dealing with unusual aspects of the human condition, or perhaps a time period about which I know little.
It would be helpful 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’s certainly interesting to think about.
I recently posted a question in an online discussion group about Arkansas history, asking subscribers to consider the vast changes that have occurred over the past 150 years. A modern visitor to Arkansas in 1872 would have faced great challenges in all aspects of life, including travel, meals, education, health, recreation, and earning a living.
If I were to travel back in time to Arkansas, I would plan the trip for the winter. I don’t do well in hot, humid weather, and mosquitoes have always made summers here doubly oppressive. I think of all those European immigrants who came to Arkansas on the promise of cheap land and a pleasant climate.
A Prussian who visited Napoleon’s town 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 that fitted over- above a bed: “You are looking for your bed while waiting for the mosquito curtains to protect you from this scourge of the country, after opening the doors and windows so that the cool night air can blow into the room.
“But, alas, there is a downside to the benefit of the mosquito net: while it keeps the hungry bloodsucker away, it also prevents the cooling breeze from reaching the weary traveler. [sic]; he rolls uncomfortably from side to side in the enclosed, heated space, but perhaps he finally falls into a half-sleep.”
Kitty Clay Sloan, a Paragould reporter who is an avid student of Arkansas history, pointed to the many improvements and discoveries in the field of medicine. “Every time I have a sinus infection,” Sloan recently noted, “and mourn that I’m near death, I’m grateful for the antibiotics that will probably save me.”
Sloan could have gone on to point out that Arkansas of 1872 – like the nation as a whole – had a problem with venereal disease, and over time Hot Springs became a treatment center. Even after the U.S. Army temporarily stopped sending syphilitic soldiers to Hot Springs in the mid-1890s, dozens of private physicians in the city specialized in treating people with DV, although current treatment to mercury could be worse than the disease. Mercury seemed to help heal open wounds, but nothing else, hence the saying “one night with Venus and one life with Mercury”.
Historian Elliott Bowen, who in 2020 published a well-received book, “In Search of Sexual Health”, wrote that “for half a century, much of America’s fight against sexually transmitted diseases was took place in Hot Springs”.
Julienne Crawford, curator at the Arkansas State Archives, answered my question about time travel with a thoughtful, annotated statement addressing topics such as the large number of black lawmakers serving in the Legislative Assembly of 1872. As Blake Wintory 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 transportation revolution. The Reconstruction government, elected in 1868, issued bonds to promote the building of railways. Ultimately, over $5 million in state railroad bonds were issued and 662 miles of track were laid, although 249 miles were built without public support.
The miles built without state aid were intended for the Cairo & Fulton Railroad Co., which refused $3 million in state aid, instead issuing $8 million of its own bonds. In 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 now Texarkana in January 1874. The railroad bridge over the Red River was completed three months later.
A visit to Arkansas 150 years ago would remind us of how rural Arkansas was until recently. However, the cities grew considerably during the reconstruction. Nowhere was this more evident than Fort Smith, a town with a frontier image that became the seat of the federal court in western Arkansas in 1872. Despite the arrival of incorruptible Judge Isaac C. Parker, Fort Smith was not known for his piety.
In March 1872, the Weekly New Era newspaper reported that “Fort Smith has five newspapers, and as we are informed by a town official, 16 whiskey shops, 15 gambling houses and 30 brothels. Rather cosmopolitan, it !” Fort Smith gained rail transportation in 1874 with the completion of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, and the town’s population grew from 2,227 in 1870 to 11,311 in 1890.
If I were to travel back in time to 1872, I would take a lot of money to hire help. Men and women worked hard — physically hard — in those days. While the Arkansans made extensive use of steam, labor-saving electricity was still more than half a century in the future for most of them.
An old adage described 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 faced by most women in Arkansas was washing and ironing clothes.
Before the electric washing machine became widespread after World War II, most women in Arkansas with families devoted an entire day of hard labor each week doing laundry. Ironing could add another long day to the process of keeping a family in clean clothes.
Keep in mind that cleanliness is a fairly relative concept. In 1872, most Arkansans did not bathe often. A time traveler’s nose should become less sensitive, especially when it comes to animal waste. Horses and mules left copious excrement whether they were in a field or hitched to a team in town. After a rain, the dust and manure, thoroughly mixed by the passing wagons, became a smelly mess.
In January 1880, the editor of the Arkansas Gazette complained of dirty streets after a rain: “The main street yesterday, after sunrise, looked like a long pond, stinking and steaming. The ladies came forward, making sudden little gasps at every crossing.”
Tom Dillard is a historian and archivist. E-mail: [email protected]