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A Dry Black Veil

November 3, 2009

by Brian Dilon
from Cabinet

Das-Zodiakallicht-Namibia_FBy the last decades of the nineteenth century, an obscuring perplex of ideas regarding dust hung above the inhabitants of the European city like overlapping clouds, variously threatening or inspiring with the weight of knowledge, quantity of filth, or degree of infection they contained. London, especially—having only lately escaped a mid-century cholera season that had devastated parts of the inner city—seemed to exist in a miasmic haze of dirt, disease, and curiously aestheticized industrial pollution. As early as 1661, in th e pages of his Fumifugium: Or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, the diarist and polymath John Evelyn had complained that citizens breathed “nothing but an impure and thick Mist, accompanied by a fuliginous and filthy vapour,” which concoction scoured their lungs and disordered the entire body, so that coughs, catarrhs, and consumption raged more in London alone than in the whole of the rest of the world. The poison fug was partly attributable to domestic fires, but Evelyn blames brewers, dyers, lime-burners, and salt- and soap-boilers for the most noxious emanations:

Whilst these are belching forth from their sooty jaws, the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Aetna, the Court of Vulcan, Stromboli, or the Suburbs of Hell, than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the imperial seat of our incomparable Monarch. For when in all other places the Aer is most Serene and Pure, it is here Ecclipsed with such a Cloud of Sulphure, as the Sun itself, which gives day to all the World besides, is hardly able to penetrate and impart it here; and the weary Traveller, at many Miles distance, sooner smells, than sees the City to which h e repairs.1

Read the essay here

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